Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 9

Meditation, religious and mystical experiences: a review

Michele Cossellu
xcosmi@hotmail.com
Abstract
This paper reviews and discusses the topics of meditation, religious and mystical experiences
in relation to consciousness and its various states. The analysis of these phenomena is based
on the definition of consciousness, its normal and altered states, and the first part of this essay
is dedicated to explaining these concepts. The second part surveys some meditative and
mystical/religious experiences and discusses their interpretation as altered states in terms of
their phenomenology and neurology. A further section reviews the neural correlates of an
altered state, while in the discussion, the importance of it for a theory of mind is evaluated.
Meditation practices and mystical experiences are especially relevant to the study of
consciousness when they result in peak-experiences such as unitary consciousness. The
observation of neurological correlates of these experiences, which amount to a profoundly
altered cognitive structure about the self and world, it is argued, may require the revision of
the paradigm of the normal state of consciousness, in order to account for the peculiar
phenomenology of these states.

Introduction
The notion of consciousness has had a long historical evolution, dependent upon the
philosophical paradigm adopted, and expresses the phenomenological character of human
experience (the notion of what it feels like to experience or be conscious). 1 The
characterization of consciousness remains however notoriously arduous, from both the
phenomenological /subjective and neurobiological/objective points of view.
Modern theories of mind, such as that of neuroscientist Antti Revonsuo, consider
consciousness as a background condition of the mindbrain that merely enables phenomenal
consciousness.2 This definition hinges on Revonsuos distinction between consciousness as a
state and its temporary content. For phenomenal content is intended the subjective experience
of impressions, or qualia and is sometimes likened to a stream and a field, which constitute its
temporal and spatial aspects. The spatial dimension can be divided into a center and periphery,
following the experience of change in terms of intensity, clarity, detail and organization of

1 See Thomas Nagel, What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4, (1974),
pp. 435-45.

2 Antti Revonsuo, (2009). Consciousness, The Science of Subjectivity. Taylor and Francis, p. 72.
its content.3 The process that separates the center from the background, for Revonsuo, is the
spotlight of selective attention.4
While the periphery can be considered as cognitively undifferentiated, phenomena in the
center of focus can be subject to more specialized processes which are the reflective,
introspective and self-aware functions.5 The most complex cognitive function is arguably self-
awareness, which represents the ability to contextualize experience in a spatial/temporal
framework, and to relate external objects to the physical body.6
The cognitive processing of experience is functional to the definition of the normal state of
consciousness (NSC) which requires the perception of an embodied self in a world, with
thoughts and images inside its head and with a first-persons perspective to the surrounding
world.7 This coherent structure of knowledge about the world and the self is considered, at
least in the modern Western scientific paradigm, the ordinary, non-delusionary state.
Altered states of consciousness (ASC) conversely, are defined as changes in phenomenal
content or overall pattern of experience, with the temporary alteration of the NSC so that the
persons experience is remarkably different from the normal state. 8 ASC may thus include
abnormal thinking, alteration of the sense of time, different perception of one's body, loss of
control, etc., resulting in experiences and beliefs deviating from the normal. In the next
sections, the alterations of consciousness through meditative, religious and mystical
experiences will be examined.

Meditation, religious and mystical experiences as ASC


Meditation could be defined, according to psychologist Deane Shapiro as a family of
techniques which have in common a conscious attempt to focus attention in a nonanalytical
way and an attempt not to dwell on discursive, ruminating thought.9

3 Revonsuo, Consciousnes., p. 74

4 Ibid. p. 75.

5 Ibid. pp. 80-8.

6 Ibid. p. 86.

7 Ibid. p. 71.

8 Ibid, p. 231.
Neuroscientist David Fontana divides practices into two major types, the ideational (object-
oriented) and non-ideational, although finding them often overlapping. Further, he recognizes
three phases common to most techniques, namely concentration, tranquility and insight; these
stages represent roughly a preliminary effort to focus on a phenomenon (breath, images),
followed by a stabilization into an unperturbed state, to which a stage of possible insight into
ones self-nature may arise.10
Among the different forms of meditation practiced in the West, the most popular nowadays
are arguably those mindfulness-oriented. These practices privilege an undifferentiated
awareness of sense-impressions; they have been object of interest of researchers in medical
fields for their stress-reduction potential, which are linked, according to Shapiro, to an
increased ability of individuals of self-regulation.11 Attention and stress-control improvements
are likewise the findings of the recent research of Tang and colleagues (2007), who find
mindfulness approaches more suitable than other forms of object-oriented practice (e.g.
mantra and koan-based Zen meditations), to let the practitioner enter a meditative state.12
All such forms of meditation do not seem to directly relate to ASC, if not for the latter stage,
which Fontana connects to mystical insight, which he defines as the condition in which one
remains aware of oneself as presence.13 This content-less awareness, Fontana maintains, is
by some traditions said to be the minds true state; in this sense it might be related to
Revonsuos notion of consciousness as a background condition deprived of content or
transparent.14

9 Shapiro, Deane (1992) A Preliminary Study of Long-Term Meditators: Goals, Effects, Religious
orientation, Cognitions. I: The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 24, No, 1.

10 David Fontana (2007) Meditation, in M. Welmans, & S. Schneider (Eds.), The Blackwell
Companion to Consciousness, p. 157-159.

11 Shapiro A Preliminary Study, p. 28.

12 Tang, Y. Y., Yinghua, W., Wang, J., Yaxin, F., Feng, S., Lu, Q., et al (2007). Short term meditation
training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences,
104(43), 1715217156.

13 Fontana, Meditation, p. 158.

14 Ibid., p. 156.David Fontana, (2007). Mystical experience. In M. Welmans, & S. Schneider (Eds.), The
Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, pp. 163-172.
Another important form of meditation are tantric practices, which induce psychophysiological
modifications through e.g. breathing exercises, which seem more suitable to produce ASC
during peak experiences. These experiences, as argued by Maslow, who popularized the
term, may further function as triggers for the experience of different cognitive patterns; this
may allow the reinterpretation of post-peak, ordinary consciousness, in the light of a different
cognitive model.15 The occurrence of such experiences perhaps justifies a theoretical link
between meditation and so-called mysticism.

Religious experience and mysticism


The concept of religious experience firstly appeared in William Jamess classic The varieties
of religious experiences, where he related different phenomena such as conversions, visions or
apophatic revelations to the subjective life, and understood them as a fundamental aspect of
religion in general.16 While some historical theories intended these experiences theistically, as
an encounter with a power external to consciousness, modern approaches such as James tend
to psychologize these phenomena, considering them intrinsic to the mind.
As discussed by psychologist Susan Blackmore, certain types of extraordinary experiences,
such as out-of-body and near-death experiences, are presently theorized as altered states of the
subjective consciousness.17 The former are interpreted as changes in body image and model of
reality following stimulation of the brains temporo-parietal junction. The latter as
hallucinatory events triggered by neurochemical changes, such as endorphin release, due to
physical and psychological shocks.
One of the most impactful type of non-ordinary experiences is arguably the feeling of unity
with a divine power, described transculturally in spiritual literature and associated with
blissful feelings, profound changes in thought and behavior and existential knowledge about
the cosmos. This state, according to neuroscientist Hannah Roggenkamp and colleagues
amounts to an absolute sense of unity without thought, without words, without sensation, and
not even being sensed to inhere in a subject. 18 This experience they term absolute unitary

15 Abraham Maslow (1964), Religions, values and peak-experiences Columbus, Ohio: Ohio state
university press.

16 William James (2004 [1902]). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Taylor & Francis,
pp. 294-6.

17 Susan Blackmore, (2005). Consciousness: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press, p. 109.
being and claim to be able to study, together with other states of consciousness, using various
brain-imaging techniques.

Neurological correlates of ASC


Various techniques have been used since 1950s to analyze the functioning of the brain,
starting with EEG and, since the 1990s, with more complex visualization methods such as
PET, SPECT, and fMRI.19 These techniques are used to study the neuro(bio)logical correlates
of subjective experiences. The promise of studies of ASC is that they will reveal mechanisms
of functioning of the brain in normal states, and advance the knowledge of consciousness in
general.
The observation of brain changes is researched mostly through meditation experiments; early
experiments with EEG measured brainwave pattern alterations which showed changes toward
high-amplitude delta and theta rhythms.20 Modern techniques allow the observation of
physical and chemical changes in deeper anatomical structures of the brain, which appear
during meditation. These changes operate through several complex interactions between e.g
the thalamus, the posterior superior parietal lobe (PSPL), limbic system and autonomic
nervous system.21
Perhaps the most interesting ASC attained by advanced meditation practitioners is the
experience of timelessness, non-localization and contentless consciousness, which Fontana
associates to loss of ego and experience of nonduality.22 From the neurological perspective,
according to Roggenkamp et al., similar effects result from the inhibition of inputs
(deafferentation) of the PSPL.23 This region appears related to the function of orienting
objects in three-dimensional space so that its deafferentation results in the incapacity to
discriminate between self and the world, and in an experience of pure space. 24 This finding

18 Roggenkamp, H., Waldman, M. R., Newberg, A. B. (2009). Religious experience: Psychology and
neurology. In W. P. Banks. (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Consciousness, Vol 2, p. 276.

19 For acronyms and an introduction to these techniques see Ibid, p. 275.

20 Fontana, Meditation, p. 159.

21 Roggenkamp et al., Religious experience, p. 278.

22 Fontana, Meditation, p. 168.

23 Roggenkamp et al., Religious experience, pp. 279-80.


relates back to Revonsuos understanding of self-awareness as the establishment of a
spatial/temporal framework which allows to relate external objects to the physical body.
These data seem therefore to support the view that a relationship exists between mental states
and brain physiology, to the extent of approaching the physiological understanding of a core
mystical experience.

Discussion
The existence of relationship between mental events and neurophysiological observations
seems an ascertained fact, although the nature of this relationship remains debated. Some
modern dual-aspect theories of mind conceive it in terms of its simultaneous manifesting as
mental and physical properties. The problem of qualifying subjective mental states through
physical properties in brains, however, is that it raises the wider philosophic issue of reduction
between domains, in this case the phenomenological to the physical.
Roggenkamp and colleagues report methodological issues with brain imaging, regarding the
exact correspondence between measurements and the subjective state being measured. 25
However, even in case of an established correspondence, this would not demonstrate a causal
nexus, nor represent an explanation of the so-called hard problem of consciousness.
A second theoretical problem is the definition of the NSC, which entails a culture-specific
epistemology on what constitutes truth and knowledge; in the modern western paradigm this
corresponds often to physicalism (definable as the condition of all phenomena being
ultimately reducible to matter, or physical entities), plus a deflationary view of the self (as an
organizational perspective).26 In this regard, it seems that one of the most interesting facts
emerging from cognitive studies on ASC is the connection between the absolute unitary
being altered state with the rejection of the embodied-self paradigm, which seems to result in
the possibility of reframing mystical experiences within the domain of natural science. This,
on the other hand, should not lead to consider physicalist explanations of perception as
superior to others, such as phenomenalism; it may instead require a new scientific paradigm
about the relation between consciousness and world, integrating multiple levels of analysis
and perspectives.

24 Ibid., p. 274

25 Ibid., p. 276

26 See e.g. Robert Van Gulick, (2016) Consciousness, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Another important conclusion that can be drawn from ASC, relevant to the field of
phenomenology, is that the concept of intentionality may be revised in order to account for the
possibility of a state of pure consciousness.

Conclusion
This essay reviewed the phenomena of meditation, religious and mystical experiences from
the perspective of altered states of consciousness. The modern view of consciousness was
presented, together with the definitions of altered and normal states of consciousness.
Theories on meditation, religious and mystical experiences and their relations to ASC were
reviewed. A one most important altered state reported in literature was identified as the
experience of unitary being or nonduality. Some neurological correlates of this experience
were described and this experience was related to a major cognitive paradigm change.
Modern theories of mind, it is argued, might need reworking to incorporate these phenomena,
that seem to destabilize traditional categories such as self and world and what is conceived as
the NSC. At the same time, continental phenomenology might need undergoing a revision of
the concept of intentionality, to account for the experience of pure consciousness.

References
Blackmore, Susan (2005). Consciousness: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press.

Fontana David (2007). Meditation, in M. Welmans, & S. Schneider (Eds.), The Blackwell
Companion to Consciousness.

Fontana, David (2007). Mystical experience. In M. Welmans, & S. Schneider (Eds.), The
Blackwell Companion to Consciousness.

James, William (2004 [1902]). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Taylor &
Francis, pp. 294-6.

Maslow, Abraham (1964). Religions, values and peak-experiences Columbus, Ohio: Ohio
state university press.

Nagel, Thomas (1974). What is it like to be a bat?. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No.
4, pp. 435-45.

Revonsuo, Antti, (2009). Consciousness, The Science of Subjectivity. Taylor and Francis.

Roggenkamp, H., Waldman, M. R., Newberg, A. B. (2009). Religious experience:


Psychology and neurology. In W. P. Banks. (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Consciousness, Vol 2.
Shapiro, Deane (1992). A Preliminary Study of Long-Term Meditators: Goals, Effects,
Religious orientation, Cognitions. I: The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 24, No,
1.

Tang, Y. Y., Yinghua, W., Wang, J., Yaxin, F., Feng, S., Lu, Q., et al (2007). Short term
meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of National Academy
of Sciences, 104(43), 1715217156.

Van Gulick, Robert (2016). Consciousness, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,


Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/consciousness/>