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“Mystical States and the Concept of Regression” by Raymond Price & Charles Savage

Many authorities on mysticism consider the mystical state to be a transitory elevation to a higher type of consciousness.

Bucke (1) considered this “higher level” to be a final step in man’s evolutionary development. First, there is simple consciousness as in animals and young children; next emerges self-consciousness as it exists in human adults; finally, there is the stage called “cosmic consciousness” reached by but a few men in the mystical state. Bucke predicted that increasing numbers would attain the state of cosmic consciousness. This point of view is difficult to reconcile with the observation that mystical states have much in common with certain psychotic states. For example, many psychotics describe states of ecstasy, of positive knowledge and of union with the “world soul” that are highly reminiscent of the subjective experiences of mystics.

One patient (2) wrote concerning the early stages of psychosis:

I was suddenly confronted by an overwhelming conviction that I had discovered the secrets of the universe, which were rapidly made plain with incredible lucidity.

The truths discovered seemed to be known immediately and directly with absolute certainty.

Similarly, the group of psychedelic drugs is alleged by some to produce model psychoses, but, by others, to produce mystical states. This puzzling situation is somewhat akin to that relating genius and mental illness.

It is an alternative hypothesis about the nature of the mystical experience that we wish to present. It is based upon a psychoanalytic model. The hypothesis is that mystical states represent regressions in the service of the ego. In presenting this hypothesis we will touch briefly upon the four following areas:

(1) the concept of regression, emphasizing its function in health;
(2) neurophysiological data relevant to regression;
(3) the subjective experience of early infancy; and
(4) several characteristic features of the mystical state in the light of the present hypothesis.

The Concept of Regression

In the simplest terms, regression means a return to an earlier level of functioning. Let us give some examples:

This first instance (3) describes the behavior of a two-year-old boy when he was taken to a hospital. He was a well-developed child with a good relation to his mother. For the first week the mother visited him daily; the second week she visited only twice and then did not return:

He became listless, often sat in a corner sucking and dreaming, at other times he was very aggressive. He almost completely stopped talking. He was dirty and wet continually. He sat in front of his plate eating very little, without pleasure, and started smearing his food over the table.

Comment is hardly necessary. We have a stress—abandonment in hospital—and a child of normal two-year development returns to behavior characteristic of a much younger child: (1) he stops talking, (2) eating habits deteriorate, (3) he sucks a good deal, and (4) there is a loss of bladder and bowel control. The picture is a familiar one to anyone with a family, observed to a lesser degree in the youngest child when a new baby enters the family circle. The next example is the account of an LSD experience (the result of a dose of 100 gamma given to a normal subject) recorded two days afterwards:

About one and a half hours after ingestion, the psychosis seemed to be at its height, and there was a great struggle to cling to reality. I had a coin and a pin in my wallet that had been given to me as good luck charms. I took these out and looked at them and they seemed to have a protective function as amulets. I seemed to be struggling against complete annihilation and nothingness.

During this period words seem to have lost their meaning. I asked constantly if there was such a thing as “a chair,” or as “truth” or “craziness.” I seemed to be crossing the river Styx on words ... At one point in the depth of the psychosis, I can’t remember just when, I half-purposefully conjured up a visual image of a woman I had recently seen in a photography exhibition. She was a very motherly woman suckling a child at her ample breast ... I replaced the woman in the picture with my own mother . . . her large nose, her fatness, and particularly the odor of her perspiration. I hallucinated her nipple in my mouth.

This again was a protection against annihilation and a comfort. By about four hours following ingestion, I was beginning to recover. I felt completely exhausted physically and emotionally and felt as though I had been swimming through uncharted seas; I flung myself exhausted on the bank. I was Lazarus back from the dead; I was a prisoner consigned to death and given a reprieve. A whole new crop of words had sprouted and I had a strong sense of having a new personality—tender, defenseless—just pulling myself out of the primeval slime and sunning myself on the bank.

In this example we have an anxiety-laden regression to the preverbal level. Other regressive features are (1) a return to magical modes of thinking, the use of the pin and the coin as protective amulets, (2) a return to hallucinatory thinking.

Unlike the child in the first example, this regression is largely subjective and of short duration. He does not, for example, lose bowel or bladder control, nor does he suck at his fingers or engage in other childlike behavior. Of particular interest here is the symbolism of death and rebirth. He speaks of crossing the river Styx, and when the effects are wearing off, he feels like Lazarus back from the dead, a whole new crop of words has sprung up and he has a strong sense of having a new personality—tender, defenseless, “just pulling myself out of the primeval slime and sunning myself on the bank.” Here, then, is a withdrawal and a return, a regression of at least some part of the self back to the age of one or two years, then the regression is terminated and there is a feeling of rebirth and a successful return to adulthood.

Our final example is a regression of a different type, or at least a regression that serves a different function. It is not escape from a painful reality with an undesirable outcome, nor is it drug-induced. Rather it is an example of regression in the service of the ego—a technique employed by the ego in problem solving. We quote from Henri Poincare’s (4) description of his discovery of certain mathematical equations:

For fifteen days I strove to prove that there could not be any functions like those I have since called Fuchsian functions. I was then very ignorant, every day I seated myself at the work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results.

One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions . . .

I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours.

and further:

. . . when, above, I made certain personal observations, I spoke of a night of excitement, when I worked in spite of myself. Such cases are frequent, and it is not necessary that the abnormal cerebral activity be caused by physical excitement as in that I mentioned. It seemed that, in such cases, that one is present at his own unconscious work, made partially perceptible to the over-excited consciousness, yet without having changed its nature.

Then we vaguely comprehend what distinguishes the two mechanisms or, if you wish, the working methods of the two egos.

In this example the higher conscious logical modes of thinking are given up and a more random trial-and-error kind of dream thinking takes over.

“Mystical States and the Concept of Regression” by Raymond Price & Charles Savage is an extract from The Highest State of Consciousness edited by John W. White, published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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