Beyond Oneness: Challenging the Dominant Narrative of Mystical Experience

oneness

For many of the influential philosophers and psychologists who have studied mystical experiences, the feeling of unity or oneness is an essential feature of these states. Thinkers have described the unitive experience in different ways: as the unification of opposites or the union of oneself with the outside world, the entire universe, ultimate reality, or the divine. This state of mystical union is not just something that the religious experience; it seems that this is a universal capacity we all have, including among the secular and atheistically minded.

The unitive experience tends to be accompanied by the experience of ego dissolution (also known as ‘ego death’). This is when one’s subjective sense of self dissolves, where the identity and memories relating to oneself drop away, often resulting in a newfound identity – identity with the cosmos. An individual may feel that he or she has become every atom in the universe or have the sense that they are a drop of experience merging into an infinite ocean of awareness. There is a feeling of being part of an interconnected, unified whole. And through this interconnection, intuitively felt to be fundamental, someone can be left with a lasting sense of connection to others and nature at large (known as nature-relatedness in the latter case).

The sense of unity is a common aspect of psychedelic mystical states, and researchers – through clinical trial data – have linked the degree of therapeutic efficacy of these compounds to how high participants score on questionnaires that measure mystical states – questionnaires that are based on the traditional conception that these experiences include the sense of oneness and the dissolution of the ego. The unitive experience and, in turn, ego dissolution experience, can be intense and overwhelming – and one may truly feel that one has died – but this experience is often accompanied by positive feelings such as joy, ecstasy, love, gratitude, and beauty. These feelings may be described as ‘pure’ or reaching an apogee – an unfathomable height or intensity – never before experienced. 

Due to the traditional concept of mystical experiences used in questionnaires in psychedelic research, as well as many impressive reports of unitive states found in psychedelic forums, the dominant narrative surrounding this level of experience (typically elicited by high doses) is that it should be unitive in nature. For example, the psychedelic researcher Charles Grob states in an article for Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness company, that:

Mystical experience is kind of a sense of unity, a sense of oneness, a sense of merging with the divine—a perception of a transcendent level that puts individuals in connection with a plane where they have transcended their personal identities and are connected to the greater universe. It’s kind of a profound unitive experience often associated with a sense of awe and reverence.

This dominant narrative can encourage people using psychedelics – whether clinically or otherwise – that a feeling of oneness is the goal to aim for, the crown jewel of the psychedelic experience, essential for healing, and anything short of that is a lesser experience. A similar narrative surrounds the experience of ego death – and both oneness and ego death can become almost like markers of psychedelic status, ways to feel that one has had a ‘successful’ or ‘proper’ experience. Indeed, in some cases, these subjective states may feed what I call the psychedelic ego: the paradoxical phenomenon whereby the dissolving of the ego through psychedelics leads to an inflated ego, based on the feeling of being enlightened, spiritually advanced, bold, and special. 

But an inflated ego or narcissism is just one potential downside of constructing and maintaining a dominant narrative about mystical experiences. Another downside is that people hoping to heal through psychedelics, who don’t then feel a sense of oneness, may feel the therapy has failed or that they did something wrong. Joseph Halcomb Adams, who studies the ethical issues involved in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, states in an interview with The Microdose:

there’s focus on what researchers call the mystical experience — it’s measured with a questionnaire and often is defined by experiencing a kind of oneness with the world, or ego dissolution. And mystical experiences are often seen as an indicator of therapeutic progress. Practitioners might talk to patients about it before they undergo treatment, and then people are like, “I’m going to have this experience and then I’ll get better.” 

But there are people who, due to their personal worldview or psychology, just don’t have that kind of experience. If you have these people focusing on one model of therapeutic progress — especially a model that relies on mystical oneness, which is contingent on a particular kind of religious worldview — then they might feel like, “Oh, no, something’s wrong with me.” But there could be different ways of getting at the same idea with different people. Maybe for other people that mystical experience looks like dyadic encounters with other beings, or angels. 

And if people come to believe that psychedelics must be experienced in this or that way, then individual case studies also take that form, and as they get reported widely, that becomes even more of the dominant narrative. When it gets reported widely enough, you get this big cultural feedback loop.

The point about dyadic encounters is interesting because this is, for many, what defines their mystical experience. In such encounters, one may find oneself in relation to an apparently discarnate entity, force, or presence – subjectively felt or interpreted multifariously as a spirit, angel, archetype, alien, creature, or god. But the encounter is dyadic and not unitive because one feels separate from the entity (which usually feels larger and more powerful than oneself). This entity, force, or presence may be inside, above, or surrounding oneself; it often seems to have a consciousness and intelligence of its own, and during the mystical state it will direct meaningful messages to the individual or provide positive feelings like warmth, care, compassion, and love to the nth degree and unconditionally. There may also be communication, a dialogue – a back-and-forth going on. 

These experiences can clearly be meaningful and transformative as entity encounters can lead people to abandon their atheism, and they are accompanied by persisting positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning. There are also philosophers who see not unity as defining mysticism but duality or dialogue. The Jewish existentialist philosopher Martin Buber is one prominent example. In his highly influential text I and Thou (see my review here), he argues that relation between oneself and another – the other being a person, a non-human animal, nature, or God – is fundamental, not unity. 

According to Buber’s philosophy of dialogue, ‘I-Thou’ or ‘I-You’ relationships, as he calls them, are pure encounters involving one whole unique entity with another; these are relations characterised by reciprocity, mutuality, and directness. And it is these meetings between beings – not the more common kinds of relationships of use and manipulation, which Buber terms ‘I-It’ relations – that are the source of true freedom, meaning, and joy. I-You relationships are mystical in the sense that they are, argues Buber, rare, fleeting, ineffable experiences, providing us with intimations of the divine (or the ‘Eternal You’, to use Buber’s term for God).

It seems perfectly valid to me to use a relationally or dialogically informed mysticism alongside – or sometimes instead of – one defined by oneness. For many people who use psychedelics, dyadic encounters may be just as meaningful, life-changing, and conducive to therapeutic benefits as the unitive experience. I don’t see any reason why oneness should be necessary for healing. Encountering an entity or presence that encourages changes to one’s beliefs and attitudes (regarding oneself, others, the planet, or the universe) can also lead to sustained increases in personal meaning, spirituality, purpose, connectedness, and positive states of mind. Consider this report in which the person describes their experience with ibogaine:

I had been an atheist who rejected the concept of anything spiritual. I simply misunderstood it. I had long quarreled with my father who died when I was 18 before I ever got a chance to relate to him or forgive him for anything. Then I found myself laying in bed, on one gram of ibogaine, out of my body.

I essentially became two separate entities: my body, who lay on the bed paralyzed as a passive observer and my spirit, who glowed in blue light sitting Indian-style above my physical presence. My father was in blue light and a conversation took place between us. A legitimate exchange of understanding, forgiveness and love.

Time and space had vanished as I lay there, silently crying. Tears streamed down my face in rivers as I lay frozen watching what is best described as a spiritual holograph of myself and my father connecting, helping me to understand the past and understand myself. It was the single most breathtaking moment in my life and I can’t forget it, can’t understate its significance and can’t adequately describe it.

Furthermore, the unitive experience may be culturally dependent, which is another reason we should be careful about making it the crux of psychedelic mystical states. As the philosopher of mind Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes writes in his book Modes of Sentience, “‘shared experiences’ may be contingent on culture – for instance, the unitive states experiences in the West often within frameworks from the East are seemingly lacking in the indigenous American psychedelic experience.” Holcomb also makes the point that “everybody has their own culture and worldview they bring to the experience that shapes and interprets it.”

This is why the concept of mystical experiences needs to be broadened. If we think of these states too narrowly, due to tradition and dominant cultural narratives, then people’s differing experiences may – by the culture, psychedelic therapist, or user herself – be thought of as disappointing and a kind of failing. Halcombe adds that a psychedelic guide needs:

to be very careful not to influence this person’s intimate, spiritual, existential experience. They need to be able to respect that person’s right to freedom of thought, consciousness, and religion. Every single participant needs to understand that, too — there’s so much interpretation involved during and after a psychedelic experience…A lot of the clinicians and investigators in this space come from a culture that might be characterized as hippie, Buddhist, or New Age. That could work great for someone who shares that outlook, but guides have a responsibility to consider the individual needs of participants based on their culture, worldview, and religion.

Thus, we need to move beyond oneness and accommodate the variety of mystical and personally significant experiences that people have when using psychedelics. Experiential diversity should be matched by conceptual diversity. This will ensure that no one’s experiences in psychedelic therapy become neglected, diminished, or distorted.

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