Thomas B Roberts. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
The most important obligation of any science is that its descriptive and theoretical language embrace all the phenomena of its subject matter; the data from [altered states of consciousness] cannot be ignored if we are to have a comprehensive psychology. ~ Charles T. Tart, Altered States of Consciousness
When most people consider something to be a miracle, they mean it was caused by the direct intervention of God, and otherwise would have been impossible. The theocentric meaning, of course, depends on our definition of possible and impossible. What if we are wrong about what is normally possible? Multistate mindbody theory shows that our meanings of these words are flawed; thus, our understanding of miracles and other extraordinary events needs to be thought through anew. This chapter summarizes mindbody theory then uses its narrower field of entheogens to reconsider miracles and other inexplicable events such as epiphanies, sudden insights into spiritual issues and theology, and instances of inexplicably remarkable recovery from diseases. Multistate theory does not fully explain these events but gives us a theoretical platform on which to begin a new way to think about them.
From a multistate perspective, some inexplicable events seem, incorrectly, to be miracles; but some of them may more accurately be seen as results of capabilities that reside in mindbody states other than our usual, awake state. This is not to claim that all miracles are expressions of other mindbody states, but that religious scholars need to be clear about the relationships between miracles and mindbody states. This chapter probes that process. A full study of miracles would include their relationships to all mindbody states and all psychotechnologies for attaining these states, but this chapter narrows that by focusing on mystical experiences, and on entheogens as a mindbody psychotechnology for achieving them.
Can the mysterious ways God works include working through entheogens: psychoactive mushrooms, plants, and chemicals? To address this question, the first section of this chapter outlines the multistate paradigm and then points out that some so-called miracles and inexplicable events may be infrequent or rare simply because they occur in infrequent or rare mindbody states. The second section reviews selected literature on the relationship between entheogens and mystical experiences. That leads to the third section, which raises questions about the relationships between mystical experiences, especially those caused by entheogens, and miracles.
Then this chapter examines other so-called impossible events brought about by psychedelics and illustrates how scholars of religious studies might expand their field through experimentation. The chapter ends by raising a number of questions that point to further directions in the study of miracles, inexplicable events, and religious studies. Resting behind these idea lurks the questions, Do entheogens, used in a spiritual context, make it possible to study miracles experimentally? Do some so-called miracles and allegedly inexplicable events provide a foretaste of an emerging stage in human development?
What are we to make of entheogens and the questions they raise? In addition to informing the study of miracles and other exceptional phenomena, what may happen if they take their place along side other religious items and practices? A parallel reformation of religion has happened before. With the advent of movable type, the printing press five hundred years ago, Western religion transformed from a predominance of religious activities and behaviors to verbal religion which centers not on activities but on words—texts, creeds, beliefs, dogma, doctrine, theology—all cognitions and ideas. Does today’s rediscovery and invention of ways to produce direct religious experience presage as monumental a shift today from our text-based religion to the future’s experience-based religion? The particulars in this chapter fit within much broader contexts.
Multistate theory recognizes that humans produce and use many mindbody states, also called states of consciousness, in addition to our ordinary, awake mindbody state. Mindbody theory values these states for their possible usefulness and for developing a full map of our minds. Charles Tart, who initiated and organized the study of mindbody states with his 1969 book Altered States of Consciousness, caught the psychological importance of paying attention to all mindbody states. The same applies to miracles and to religious studies. To paraphrase Tart, “The most important obligation of [religious studies, including the study of miracles,] is that its descriptive and theoretical language embraces all the phenomena of its subject matter; the data from [mindbody studies] cannot be ignored if we are to have a comprehensive study of [spirituality]. The same standard of including all evidence applies just as appropriately for a complete study of any aspects of the paranormal world.
Thus, this chapter contributes to a more complete study of miracles and religious studies by selectively examining how the entheogen family of mindbody psychotechnologies enriches our understanding of miracles and raises questions for further inquiry. In this chapter, we narrow our attention to states brought about by entheogens used in a religious context. Context includes both their intentional spiritual and religious uses and times when the users’ motivations may not have been spiritual but when the results were. While this chapter examines entheogens, parallel studies might look at other ways of generating mindbody psychotechnologies and their intersections with miracles.
Starting with the recognition that our minds produce and use many states, the first of the three main ideas of multistate theory is mindbody state. A mindbody state is an overall pattern of combined mental and biological functioning at any one time. Being awake, sleeping, and dreaming are the examples people most easily recognize, but there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of these overall patterns. The number of these states and how to stipulate where one state becomes another is an unresolved theoretical issue and will probably remain one of the most difficult theoretical distinctions to make.
This chapter pays particular attention to a select group of states that is especially significant to religious studies, mystical states, which also go by many other names such as unitive consciousness, intense conversion states, blessedness, grace, ecstasy, to name a few. Thus, this chapter is not a full treatment of religion and mindbody states but takes some steps toward that goal of understanding the connection between the spiritual and the paranormal.
A handy way to think about mindbody states is by making an analogy to a computer. When we install new programs into our computer, we can do additional kinds of information processing. Analogously, mindbody states are biological information processing programs, and we do new kinds of biological information processing with them.
mindbody states: minds
The implications of this idea for studying miracles and inexplicable events are quite apparent. Because our ideas of what is possible and impossible are primarily based on what we can do with our usual awake mindbody state, are some of the things we call miracles really events or even skills based in other mindbody states? If so, then we can understand some so-called miracles by recognizing that they may be the expressions of other mindbody states than our standard conscious awake state. By learning to produce these states and to use their skills, can we perform actions that were impossible in our ordinary, awake state? Any study of miracles or inexplicable events that does not consider this may be mislabeling other-state events and skills as miracles, when in reality they are normal operations of alternative states. Are some of the so-called miracles described in other chapters of this set of books actually phenomena produced by paranormal mindbody states?
The ways of producing these states (mindbody programs) brings us to the second main idea of multistate theory. Psychotechnologies are methods or techniques of producing mindbody states. Common ones include going to sleep, becoming absorbed in a TV show or movie, drinking tea, coffee, or cola, drinking an alcoholic drink, staying up all night, jet lag, eating chocolate, lucid dreaming, extreme sports, and so forth. Others include contemplative prayer, fasting, restrictive diets, intensive martial arts training, Holotropic Breathwork and other breathing exercises, chanting, yoga, meditation, and many more. Although not often recognized as such, many spiritual disciplines are actually psychotechnologies. Here we discover a fruitful and well-trod path between spiritual development and mindbody techniques. Someday, will entheogens take their place alongside such other mindbody spiritual disciplines, such as Ignatian prayer regimens?
In this chapter we explore the entheogenic psychotechnologies of psychedelics, notably LSD and its near siblings. A fuller discussion would include the religious use of peyote, of psychoactive mushrooms, the Union du Vegetal’s use of ayahuasca, which was recently supported by the U.S. Supreme Court, ibogaine, San Pedro cactus, and similar divine entheogens to see what insights they bring to miracle studies.
The overarching or resident principle here assumes that all human abilities, experience, and behaviors take place within mindbody states and are expressions of their home states. Every ability, experience, and behavior is stronger in some states and weaker in others. Residence leads religious scholars and practitioners to ask, Which states strengthen which spiritual experiences and which weaken them? Residence provides a model for systematically exploring religious practices, beliefs, and experiences using the Central Multistate Research Question. How does any given experience vary from mindbody state to mindbody state? How do miracles vary from mindbody state to mindbody state? How do inexplicable events vary from mindbody state to mindbody state?
While this chapter uses multistate theory to focus on current unusual events and on entheogens, we should remember the larger context of long-term human evolution and development. With the ideas of multistate theory, mindbody states, psychotechnology, and residence, we have a group of interlocking concepts that leads us to reconsider most topics in religious studies and takes us beyond them to broader perspectives. Miracles and inexplicable events are important not only in themselves and for religion, but primarily because they are examples of a new range of mental and physical capacities and benefits that are emerging over the horizon of human development. A fuller repertoire of abilities and increased flexibility to one’s environment are adaptigenic for individuals, societies, and species.9 Among the questions we should ask ourselves are, How can humanity benefit from multistate abilities? Are the rare and unusual phenomena that these books on miracles and inexplicable events contain also hints about our human future?
Selected Entheogenic Literature
The multistate perspective in religious studies is not merely a collection of new ideas floating in the conceptual ether. Huston Smith’s Cleansing the Doors of Perception is probably the best-known book on entheogens, while the anthologies Entheogens and the Future of Religion and Psychoactive Sacramentals each present a variety of professional and lay perspectives. Religion and Psychoactive Sacramentals: An Entheogen Chrestomathy grounds entheogenic religious studies in an archive of bibliographic information of over 550 books, dissertations, and topical issues of journals. Are entheogen-elicited mystical experiences real? Relying on the principle of “causal indifference,” in his chapter “The Common Core Thesis in the Study of Mysticism,” Hood writes:
Most controversial is the possibility that entheogens (formerly called psychedelics) can facilitate mystical experiences. One cannot discount the reality of an experience as genuinely mystical because it was facilitated by a chemical or any other proximate cause. As James long ago noted, one cannot dismiss an experience because one can identify the physiological conditions that may accompany it…. Triggers may allow one to move beyond mediation to unmediated experience of reality, the lasting claims of mystics of all faith traditions. It may be said that entheogens are one such set of triggers.
“Chemical Input, Religious Output—Entheogens,” in McNamara’s trilogy Where God and Science Meet, uses multistate theory to reframe over 150 religion-related questions in theology, the sciences, humanities, and in church and polity. The same book contains “The Neuropharmacology of Religious Experience: Hallucinogens and the Experience of the Divine” and “The Common Core Thesis in the Study of Mysticism.” The former chapter describes some of the neurochemistry in the mysticism-miracles complex, and the latter (quoted from above) discusses links between mystical experiences and perennialism.
The Internet is a rich source of information on entheogens. Even after discounting the Web sites that use the word entheogen only as a synonym for psychedelic, a Web search for entheogen finds thousands of sites that consider religious and spiritual aspects of these compounds. This indicates an enormous and widespread interest in the religion-spirituality-entheogen complex and raises another question. Are these Web sites evidence that entheogen use is emerging as a new religious movement? Being Web-based rather than building-based, this network of users and Web sites interested in the religion-spirituality-entheogen complex uses a distributed method of organization instead of the usual organizational paraphernalia of buildings, meetings, hierarchies, leadership, clergy, and social structures. While few of these Web sites actually use the word miracle, they often describe transformative spiritual experiences that previously would have been labeled miracles.
Both Web literature and printed literature sample unresolved issues that entheogenic states present theologians. For example, if we do not know the origin of a mystical experience, does that make it a miracle? If we know a mystical experience was stimulated by an entheogen, does that disqualify it as a miracle? On the other hand, if a mystical experience comes about after years of contemplative prayer, we claim some understanding of why it occurred. Yet both taking an entheogen and practicing extensive prayer are at least partially determined by intentional human action rather than the grace of God. So are both disqualified as miracles? What if someone is suddenly and for no apparent reason struck with a mystical experience? Is it because God threw a mystical thunderbolt at the person? Does this qualify as a miracle?
Perhaps the strongest published grounding of entheogenic religious studies is Higher Wisdom and the works of Stanislav Grof, who may be the leading entheogenic theologian. Edited by Roger Walsh and Charles Grob, Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics is an anthology of interviews with 15 longtime leaders in psychedelic scholarship and clinical work. As its title indicates, recognizing Higher Wisdom as a record of “courageous explorers and amazing tales,” Zen Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield marks the book as “describing a critical chapter in the transformation of human consciousness.”
Probably the largest collection of entheogenic, miracle-like, inexplicable occurrences is in the works of Grof. His works provide an alternative foundation for exploring miracles, inexplicable events, and spiritual development. Before discussing Grof’s anomalous events, and extending religious studies to include experiments designed to study spiritual development, it is important to consider mystical experiences.
Do Mystical Experiences Qualify as Miracles?
It should not be necessary to supply any more proof that psychedelic drugs produce experiences that those who undergo them regard as religious in the fullest sense…. Every kind of typically religious emotion, symbol, and insight appears during psychedelic drug trips.
Simply put, the question entheogens present for the study of miracles, inexplicable events, and epiphanies is, under what conditions are these miracles? They can deepen meaningfulness in people’s lives, increase their understanding of religious ideas, provide a powerful and deep sense of sacredness, and transfer motivation from self-centeredness to social-centeredness, especially resulting in more socially responsible values. Does this qualify them as miracles?
First, what is a mystical experience? The characteristics that comprise mystical experiences are unity, transcendence of time and space, deeply felt positive mood, sense of sacredness, objectivity and reality, alleged ineffability, transience, and persisting positive changes in attitudes and behavior. These characteristics frequently appear in entheogenic mystical experiences and explicable events. Hood has operationalized these in a self-report Mysticism Scale. He also produced an update and revised version. He discusses the relevant characteristics in his “Common Core Thesis in the Study of Mysticism.” From an entheogenic angle, Hood’s chapter “The Facilitation of Religious Experience” summarizes the research on entheogens as of 1995:
If one surmises from the available empirical literature it would appear that somewhere between 35 and 50 percent of psychedelic participants report religious experience of a mystical or numinous nature, even without religious contexts. The figure may rise to as high as 90 percent, but only if one counts as religious experience any imagery of a religious nature, or any religious language used to describe the experience.
Hood notes, however, that this finding is not so different from nonpsychedelic findings: “one-third of the recreational (illegal) psychedelic users reported mystical experiences facilitated by drug use, matching exactly the proportion of the traditionally religious who had their mystical experiences facilitated by traditional religious activities such as prayer.” Does this mean that one-third of the population is predisposed to having mystical experiences? Does it mean that psychedelics are as effective as prayer and other traditional spiritual disciplines? Does it mean that psychedelic drug users come to resemble traditionally religious people? Are the psychedelic users from a population that was originally different from the traditionally religious to start with, or were they from a similar population?
Understanding: Noetic Sense of Knowledge, Unity, and Sacredness
Suppose a devoted person praying in church were to have an experience that resulted in the following. Would this qualify as a miracle? We see the traits of noetic sense of knowing and unity in Vaughan’s experience too:
The perennial philosophy and the esoteric teaching of all time suddenly made sense. I understood why spiritual seekers were instructed to look within, and the unconscious was revealed to be not just a useful concept, but an infinite reservoir of creative potential. I felt I had been afforded a glimpse into the nature of reality and the human potential within that reality, together with a direct experience of being myself, free of illusory identification and constrictions of consciousness. My understanding of mystical teaching, both Eastern and Western, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Sufi alike, took a quantum leap. I became aware of all great religions, and understood for the first time the meaning of ecstatic states.
Would this qualify as a miracle? If these insights had occurred while Vaughan was on a religious retreat or using an established or widely accepted religious practice such as Ignatian devotion, I think many people would say her experience qualifies as legitimate understanding; for others it qualifies as an inexplicable event, and for others perhaps even a miracle. What if these insights were identical except that she had eaten peyote or smoked marijuana before contemplative meditation? Would that disqualify the mindbody state and negate its insights? In fact, she had this experience as part of a then-legal program of LSD administration within a controlled medical experiment. Does this disqualify the results as a miracle, as inexplicable, or as valid spiritual insight?
Another instance of religious understanding comes from Huston Smith. In Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals, he describes insights from his first entheogen experience:
Two things struck me especially. First, the mescaline acted as a psychological prism. It was as if the layers of mind, most of whose contents our conscious mind screens out to smelt the remainder down into a single band we can cope with, were now revealed in their completeness, spread out as if by spectroscope into about five distinguishable layers. And the odd thing was that I could to some degree be aware of them all simultaneously, and could move back and forth among them, shifting my attention to now this one, now another one…. I was experiencing the metaphysical theory known as emanationism, in which, beginning with the clear, unbroken Light of the Void, the light then fractures into multiple forms and declines in intensity as it devolves through descending levels of reality…. Along with “psychological prism,” another phrase occurred to me: empirical metaphysics.
Both instances include reports of positive mood, unity, and especially noetic understanding. For both Vaughan and Smith some previously inexplicable ideas became explicable. Huston chose “Empirical Metaphysics” for the title of this chapter, and leads us to the claim, later in this chapter, that through entheogens, religious studies, including miracles and inexplicable events, can be broadened and deepened on the basis of experimental evidence.
How do powerful entheogenic mystical experiences influence people’s behavior, values, and orientation toward the spiritual life?
Sacredness, Meaningfulness, and Significance
There is a central human experience, which alters all other experiences … not just an experience among others, but rather the very heart of the human experience. It is the center that gives understanding to the whole. Once found, life is altered because the very root of human identity is deepened.
While Van Dusen was relying on anecdotal reports in 1961, in 2006 a study at Johns Hopkins Center for Behavioral Biology confirmed his claim with experimental evidence. In “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance,” the authors found that “thirty-three percent of the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as being the single most spiritually significant of his or her life, with an additional 38% rating it to be among the top five most spiritually significant experiences.”
If 71 percent of the attendees at a religious revival meeting had gone through such an experience, the preacher would be hailed as a miracle worker. Why not at a medical research institute? To be informed on this question and to meet the criterion of “best evidence,” people who want to consider this question should have these experiences themselves. Here is a path for religious studies and scholars of religion to explore when political censorship of entheogenic religion is removed. Caution: the path is not cozy armchair theorizing, but direct personal experience of the tremendum et fascinans.
Transcendence of Time and Space: Changing Beliefs—The Case of Joan
If people were to have a life-changing experience, one that reoriented their ways of understanding themselves spiritually, their worldview, and their theology, would this qualify as a miracle? The entheogenic literature is filled with such experiences. One example of changing beliefs comes from Grof’s work with terminal patients as reported in The Ultimate Journey. The purpose of the psychotherapy was not to treat the fundamental, underlying disease, but to reduce the fear of dying and contribute to the patients’ psychological well-being during their remaining days. Joan, a 44-year-old housewife, caring for six children, was active in the community as an adult and had a history of stress as a child. She was diagnosed with a malignant stomach cancer. During the preparation for the LSD sessions, she reviewed her life and her current relationship with her husband. She had three LSD sessions, and her written descriptions of them and her thoughts about them contain a rich store of spiritual events. Using single-state psychology, these events are hard to interpret, including encountering demons that she said “were products of my own mind” and a new view toward life, but they also include emotionally and spiritually enriching experiences:
The most important aspect of these experiences was their relevance for the understanding of death. I saw the magnificent unfolding of the cosmic design in all its infinite nuances and ramifications. Each individual represented a thread in the beautiful warp of life and was playing a specific role. All these roles were equally necessary for the central energy core of the universe; none of them was more important than the others. I saw that after death the life energy underwent a transformation and the roles were recast. I saw my role in this life to be a cancer patient and was able and willing to accept it. I envisioned and intuitively understood the dynamics of reincarnation.
Grof’s book When the Impossible Happens includes many similar apparent reincarnation cases.30 Are these merely ideas Joan generated to assuage her fear of death, or is Joan’s experience evidence for reincarnation, or of some other alternative model?
Values, Motivation, and Behavior: Positive Changes in Attitudes, Behavior, and Sacredness
Among the predictable characteristics of mystical experience are a sense of the sacredness of all life and a desire to establish a new, more harmonious relationship with nature and with other human beings. There is a corresponding renunciation of the various forms of self-seeking, including the ethos of manipulation and control. (Wulff, 1991)
A change of heart is often associated with miraculous experiences, and mystical experiences also exhibit this switch. Would experiencing a miracle make one more loving, more socially responsible, and more moral? Does this kind of motivation show up in people who have had entheogenic mystical experiences? Looking at both entheogenic and non-entheogenic ego-transcendent experiences, Walsh reports, “The thought of harming ‘others’ therefore makes no sense whatsoever. Rather, the natural expressions of these states are said to be love and compassion or agapé.” He goes on to spot this observation from religions both Eastern and Western, but, he cautions, these experiences are “under significant voluntary control only in contemplatives.” While clearly less in control in entheogenists?
This shift in values is apparently a natural product of mystical experiences of either sort, as reported in Quantum Change. In “Anatomy of Spiritual Change,” Miller and C’de Baca describe the shift in motivation that accompanies mystical experiences, quantum change, as they call it. Their sample was nonpsychedelic.
The Moment that Turns Your Values Upside Down
Men and women ranked their most highly valued personal characteristics before and after such a quantum change.
As measured by a shift in values, these might indicate a miracle or at least an epiphany, but would psychedelically stimulated mystical experiences show similar results? Some evidence that these shifts are associated with psychedelics exists in survey research that compares the values of psychedelic users with values of the users of other illegal drugs and with nonusers. In “Values and Beliefs of Psychedelic Users: A Cross-Cultural Study,” Learner and Lyvers found that psychedelic users scored higher on emotional empathy, in keeping with the compassion that results from enlightenment experiences. Furthermore, the life values of spirituality and concern for others were higher among psychedelic users than they had been before such use, according to their own self-report.
This study, of course, did not examine changes in values over time as the effects of drugs, so it does not show a possible shift that occurs following a mystical experience; nor does it rule out the self-report being a calculated justification for drug use rather than an objective report of real, sustained change of values or character. Moreover, the differences between the groups may have already been present prior to drug use. Did the three groups choose their drugs consistent with their already preexisting orientations to the world? It may become possible to examine the complex changes in ego-transcendent values and social responsibility inherent to spiritually or drug-incited mystical experiences. Such studies may give us clues as to why miracles that include self-transcendent states reorient people toward spiritual and social values.
Mystical experiences of whatever kind are generally recognized by religious persons and communities. The events above provoke the question of causal indifference regarding the quality of mystical experiences. Do entheogenic mystical experiences qualify as spiritual events?
Experiencing Paradoxicality: When the Impossible Happens
In contradiction to writings on the psychedelics which are occupied with experiences the mind can have, the common concern here is with evidence they afford as to what the mind is. … Judged both by the quantity of data encompassed and by the explanatory power of the hypotheses that make sense of this data, it is by far the most formidable evidence the psychedelics have thus far produced. The evidence to which we refer is that which has emerged through the work of Stanislav Grof.
This section is a summary of Grof’s 2006 work, When the Impossible Happens. Multistate theory proposes that when we shift from one mindbody program to another mindbody program, things that were impossible in our earlier state may be possible in the later state. When the Impossible Happens provides evidence that supports this idea. Psychedelic experiences seem to create states of perception otherwise considered impossible.
Grof’s works ground the study of inexplicable events and apparent miracles in clinical case histories and in the recovery of parts of our minds that can be discovered and described via mindbody psychotechnologies. He calls these states when used in a therapeutic context “holotropic,” that is, as moving toward wholeness. This wholeness is both moving toward mental health, and, echoing Tart’s idea that a complete psychology needs to include all states of consciousness, psychedelic exploration is holotropic in moving toward a more complete view of the human mind. Grof’s work partially answers the multistate question, How does the human mind vary from mindbody state to mindbody state?
While Grof’s collection of case studies is both secular and sacred, I will concentrate here on those that pertain to traditional religious concepts.
Healing Depression with a Sephardic Prayer: Cases
The first case used Holotropic Breathwork, not psychedelics. Gladys had suffered from attacks of intense anxiety for about four years. In her third session in a five-day-long Holotropic Breathwork workshop, her “screams became more articulate and started resembling words in an unknown language. At one point she sat up and began chanting a haunting repetitive sequence that sounded like some kind of prayer. This went on for quite some time.”
When she completed her chant, she lay down, quieted down, and entered a state of bliss. Furthermore, she had no idea of what language she used in her chant. It happened that another participant in the workshop, a man from Argentina, recognized the language as Ladino, a combination of Hebrew and medieval Spanish. Although Carlos had studied Sephardic as a personal religious interest, Gladys had no conscious knowledge of Ladino, was not Jewish, and knew neither Spanish nor Hebrew. Her depression disappeared, and having seen her several years later, Grof reports that this remission persisted: “It was one of the most powerful healings I have observed in my entire psychiatric career.”
What should we make of this kind of healing? Is it a coincidence, a miracle, a healing associated with a spiritual practice? If it had happened in a church, accompanied by glossolalia, people would be tempted to call it a mystical event. Grof cites this case as an example that there are healing mechanisms in our minds that are currently unknown to Western psychology, that is, they exist in paranormal mindbody states. While he admires Freud as an early explorer of the unconscious, Grof believes that “most of his theoretical concepts have not withstood the test of time and require substantial revisions.” Do our concepts of the mystical, and of miracle, require substantial revisions, too? When a more complete map of our minds is drawn, one that includes all mindbody states and their resident abilities, we will have to revise our ideas about what is possible and impossible. Thus, multistate theory informs most current thinking about miracles, mysticism, the paranormal, and inexplicable events.
Devil Possession and Exorcism?
In Gladys, we saw Holotropic Breathwork as the psychotechnology. In “Interview with the Devil: The Story of Flora,” we turn to LSD as the psychotechnology and what appears as a case of malevolent spirit possession and spiritual healing. Flora’s case occurred while Grof was at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center (MPRC). Flora had been in a locked ward for 10 months. After release from a penitentiary sentence for driving a getaway car at age 16, she became a drug addict. She felt guilt over her lesbian sexual orientation and often thought of violent suicide. While cleaning a gun, she accidentally wounded her girlfriend, and she was court-committed to the MPRC. “Probably the most agonizing of her complaints was a painful facial cramp, tic douloureux, for which a Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon had suggested a brain operation of severing intracranially her trigeminal nerve.” None of the drugs and psychotherapies with which she had been treated worked, so she was facing a lifetime transfer to the chronic ward.
During Flora’s third LSD session, her face painfully cramped into what Grof called a mask of evil.
She started talking in a deep, male voice, and everything about her was so different that I could not see much similarity between her present appearance and her former looks. Her eyes had an expression of indescribable malice reminiscent of the last scene from Rosemary’s Baby,which showed a close-up of the infant conceived by the devil. Her hands, which were now spastic and looked like claws, completed the picture. Then the energy that took control over her body and voice assumed a personified form and introduced itself as the Devil.
The evil spirit ordered Grof to stay away from Flora, claimed she was in his territory, and threatened Grof with “explicit blackmail” against him and his colleagues at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. In spite of feeling “considerable emotional stress” and “fear that had metaphysical dimensions,” Grof managed to envision Flora wrapped in a capsule of white light and as she had appeared previously. After two hours, “Flora’s hands relaxed and her face returned to its usual form.” She was radiant, felt wonderful, and had no recall of the possession. Lesser problems remained, but later she was released and took a job driving a taxi in Baltimore. In Grof’s words, “I have never in my fifty-some years of practicing psychiatry seen a more dramatic, lasting improvement than the one I witnessed in Flora’s case.” Grof remarks on the irony that the most dramatic therapeutic result he has ever witnessed “resembled more a medieval exorcism” than a therapeutic procedure grounded in modern science.
What are we to make of this, not only for the study of miracles and inexplicable paranormal experiences but also for theology and metaphysics? Is Flora’s experience an instance of going through a dark night of the soul in order to be reborn? Is the overall process a miracle or mystical spiritual event? Do miracles occur during intense spiritual efforts such as Grof’s envisioning the white light or intense prayer by other people at other times and places? If we conclude that Flora’s case is not a miracle but simply some kind of psychological healing perhaps accompanied by a drug (LSD), what criteria do we use to justify that conclusion? Is there any evidence that God did not directly (immediately) produce this process and its result? Is this a clue to as-yet undeveloped healing potentials of mystical experiences? Probably!
Phenomenologically, these and similar experiences are real, but what to make of them is the problem. This is a challenge not just to the study of miracles, but also to contemporary theology and other religious studies. We might add that if the events above had occurred in a religious setting, from the perspective of our usual, rational, awake mindbody state they would likely be understood as miraculous moments of mystical experience. Is it not the case that, when they take place in other settings, they are nonetheless acts of God and authentic mystical human experiences of healing and great benefit?
Entheogens as Divine Agents of Change
- Are some so-called miracles simply other mindbody state happenings?
- If God works through the laying on of hands, can he work through eating mushrooms or swallowing a chemical, or use of other synthetic or natural medications?
- Who has the knowledge to deny this possibility?
- Are people more receptive to the miraculous words and deeds of God while in psychedelic states?
- How do we have to refine our understanding of the concepts miracle and mystical to include events that happen in other mindbody states?
- Will people’s experiences, both entheogenic and secular, with psychedelics change the way they think about spiritual issues?
- Beyond discovering other mindbody states, describing them, and developing their resident abilities, can we invent new ones that, like new computer programs, will allow us to do new things with our minds?
- Can we use psychedelics to investigate these questions experimentally?
When one considers a religious quest that includes entheogens, these questions and others demand attention.
In the quotation that began this section, Huston Smith claimed that psychedelics provide formidable evidence about what the human mind is, and the examples in this section support his position. We do not have to rely on anecdotes and historical reports, however; the last question in the list above moves us to ways of testing Smith’s claim.
Studying Miracles Experimentally
The rejection of any source of evidence is always treason to the ultimate rationalism which urges forward science and philosophy alike. (White-head, 1929)
As scholars in religious studies reformulate their assumptions about the human mind and its multistate capacities, and as they consider these, a major expansion in religious studies will occur. Scholarship on miracles and inexplicable events can expand to add scientific, experimental evidence to the current knowledge base. The experiment showed that competent experimental research can be done. The Good Friday Experiment from 1962 is the classic model from 46 years ago. The 2006 Johns Hopkins psilocybin study shows how laboratory-based experimental entheogen studies have progressed since then, and the cases cited illustrate ongoing clinical research. The remaining questions can be informed by experiments.
Just as astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology moved from descriptive studies to experimental ones, so this may be the time for theology and religion to move forward into some areas of empirical science. As the secular parts of our culture depend upon a scientific, evidence-based world, it is possible that our culture’s sacred aspects can move from being primarily rationally and phenomenologically based to becoming experimental. It seems odd, at first, to think about studying mysticism empirically. But (1) if entheogen-stimulated experiences do qualify as authentic mystical spirituality, this is clearly possible. If they do not qualify, (2) we need to clearly differentiate these apparent mystical events from genuine ones. An empirical, phenomenological, and heuristic database and methodology will assist us in implementing that. Furthermore, if they do not qualify as miracles, then we still have them as inexplicable events that deserve investigation.
Can mere humans acquire the knowledge to decide when a human action or experience is miraculous or mystical? Does it make a difference what tools or channels God uses, working with and through us, to accomplish beneficial effects for his children on earth? Evangelicals who convert people often suppose it is not they who cause the conversion, but God working through them. Surely this applies to lesser everyday events as well. If God can work through us, or can accomplish spontaneous remissions of cancer without our agency, can God also work through mushrooms, illegal chemicals, as well as prescribed synthetic medications? They are all products of his grand created world. It was these questions that prompted the Chicago Theological Seminary to cosponsor a remarkable 1995 conference on entheogens and religion as reported in Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion.
The Miracle at Marsh Chapel: The Good Friday Experiment
In April 1962, Walter Pahnke, a physician and minister, administered psilocybin to 10 divinity students and nicotinic acid to 10 others in the basement of Marsh Chapel at Boston University during a Good Friday service. His hypothesis was that the psilocybin-treated subjects would have mystical experiences whose characteristics had been described in the literature on mysticism. They did. In a 25-year follow-up, Doblin found that the psilocybin subjects still “considered their original experience to have had genuinely mystical elements and to have made a uniquely valuable contribution to their spiritual lives.” Shortly after this “Miracle at Marsh Chapel,” as the news media called it, federal laws blocked further legal experimentation with psychedelics. For years the Good Friday experiment remained the gold standard of empirical, experimental entheogenic research.
The Hopkins Spiritual Significance Study
Updating the experimental design, outcome measures, and statistical procedures since the Good Friday experiment, in the summer of 2006, a study published by the Behavioral Biology Research Center of Johns Hopkins Medical Institute became the new gold standard for entheogen experiments. In a clinical setting modeled after the relaxed atmosphere of session rooms at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center 40 years previously, Roland Griffiths and his team administered either psilocybin or another compound to 36 hallucinogen-naïve subjects screened from 135 individuals. Using self-report instruments to measure altered states, mysticism, personality, spiritual transcendence, and similar outcomes, the investigators measured the results seven hours after the drugs were administered.
In a two-month follow-up, they remeasured their earlier results and included reports from both the subjects and from people who knew the subjects well. “Thirty-three percent of the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as being the single most spiritually significant experience of his or her life, with an additional 38 percent rating it to be among the top five most spiritually significant experiences.” Unfortunately, we do not have here the definition of spiritual experience utilized in the experiment.
The standard operating definition used in this multivolume work, Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal, is simple and straightforward, and likely the basic concept used in the Johns Hopkins study. In our definition, spirituality refers to the irrepressible and universal human quest for meaning. This spontaneous hunger is a longing for every aspect of life to have profound meaning, particularly in terms of our connectedness with the transcendent world we intuit but cannot comprehend.
Reducing Death Anxiety
In “The Use of Psilocybin in Patients with Advanced Cancer and Existential Anxiety,” Charles Grob, a psychiatrist, reports on work he and his team at UCLA-Harbor Medical Center are doing. Prior to one case study, “P,” a 58-year-old Japanese American woman, had a cancerous polyp removed from her colon. The removal, however, had not shown cancer-free margins. Her health maintenance organization refused additional treatment, and the cancer spread to her lungs, peritoneum, and lymph nodes. Following her psilocybin session in Grob’s study, she reported decreased anxiety, a sustained positive mood, and a desire to spend quality time with her husband and friends. Cox Films taped interviews with P. In them P expresses her gratitude for the psilocybin session, and the wish that in the future both patients and their families can participate in such sessions.
The Hopkins Spiritual Significance study and the UCLA death anxiety study exemplify a renewed wave of psychedelic experimental studies that meet legal, governmental, institutional, medical, and scientific standards. Current studies address clinical research in medicine and psychotherapy, including addiction and alcoholism, obsessive compulsive disorder, emotional disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, cluster headaches, depression, AIDS-related syndromes, and others. What is the outlook for parallel research in religion and spiritual studies? In “Psychological Healing and Growth” Walsh and Grob look toward the combined spiritual aspects of health and growth. House examines psychospiritual change, while Marsden and Lukoff distinguish psychedelic transpersonal healing from their shamanic and psychotherapeutic roots. Here are leads for religion’s future.
Summary and Outlook
To be complete, as Tart challenged, a scholarly field needs to “embrace all the phenomena of its subject matter.” Entheogens influence meaningfulness, perceptions, thinking, abilities, values, feelings, religious beliefs, and spiritual ideas; and they may participate in some apparent miracles and other inexplicable events. Thus, to be complete, religious studies, including the study of mysticism, miracles, and other inexplicable events, needs to study entheogens.
These are one family of psychotechnologies. Others within religious traditions include various kinds of meditation, prayer, chanting, martial arts, movement disciplines, and such spiritual regimens as Ignatian devotions, the Rules of St. Benedict and St. Francis, and the models of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Theresa of Lisieux. To fill in gaps in their disciplines, scholars of religious studies can move their disciplines forward by investigating how spiritual abilities and experiences lose or gain strength, appear anew or disappear, as one moves from one mindbody state to another.
We have attempted here to urge the process of using multistate theory as a way to think about events that otherwise seem impossible, by realizing they may be expressions of other mindbody states. Multistate theory can bring enriching questions to religious thought and spiritual practices.
Toward Wider Horizons
Among the most salient new cartography of the human mind is that which Grof presents in LSD Psychotherapy. In The Antipodes of the Mind, cognitive psychologist Benny Shanon identifies additional dimensions that need attention. He draws on research with the Brazilian psychoactive sacrament ayahuasca. Meanwhile, the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and Journal of Consciousness Studies are constantly pushing forward the frontiers of mindbody studies, both secular and sacred. Jeffrey Kripal, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, suggests we are moving toward a “fusion of Western and Asian esoteric traditions that turns to the potential of the human body as the most potent site of spiritual transformations and intellectual insight.” These traditions are sources of mindbody disciplines with histories of development going back millennia. Again, what Western religion and science consider miracles and inexplicable events are common reports in other traditions. In Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, Kripal presents Esalen Institute as a protective, innovative, and nourishing East-West research and development center where mindbody practices and ideas can grow and even hybridize with each other.
According to Kripal, the cofounder of Esalen and one of its constant guides, Michael Murphy, interprets these disciplines as early steps in a progression into the next stage in human evolution, a step toward evolutionary transcendence that Esalen Institute nourishes. This idea, borrowed from Dobzhansky and Ayala, proposes that long-term development started with the physical universe, Big Bang, chemicals, stars, galaxies, and so forth. These then transcended into life, which in turn transcended into consciousness. Murphy, says Kripal, foresees a third, transcendent period, a progressive jump “into a fourth domain, the domain of broadly conceived history of mysticism and the supernormal transformation of the human form.” From this perspective, some currently inexplicable events and what we call miracles may simply be early, misunderstood sightings of this fourth stage of advanced mindbody frontiers.
Just as today’s computer programmers write new programs, will future mindbody inventors design new mindbody states with new biological information-processing routines and new mental abilities? This possibility quite naturally asks,
Can we go beyond discovering, describing, and domesticating mindbody states as they now exist to designing new states with new spiritual potentials? This is a new kind of religious endeavor. (Roberts, 2006)
It is possible to address this question experimentally. Thanks to mindbody psychotechnologies including entheogens but not limited to them, religious studies can become experimental. Empirical!