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The Experimental Induction of Religious-Type Experiences by Jean Houston and Robert E. L. Masters

Of all the hard facts of science, I know of none more solid and fundamental than the fact that if you inhibit thought (and persevere) you come at length to a region of consciousness below or behind thought, and different from ordinary thought in its nature and character—a consciousness of quasi-universal quality, and a realization of an altogether vaster self than that to which we are accustomed.

And since the ordinary consciousness, with which we are concerned in ordinary life, is before all things founded on the little local self, and is in fact self-conscious in the little local sense, it follows that to pass out of that is to die to the ordinary self and the ordinary world.

It is to die in the ordinary sense, but in another sense, it is to wake up and find that the “I,” one’s real, most intimate self, pervades the universe and all other beings —that the mountains and the sea and the stars are a part of one’s body and that one’s soul is in touch with the souls of all creatures. . . .

So great, so splendid is this experience, that it may be said that all minor questions and doubts fall away in face of it; and certain it is that in thousands and thousands of cases the fact of its having come even once to a man has completely revolutionized his subsequent life and outlook on the world.

The foregoing statement, made over half a century ago by the poet-scientist Edward Carpenter, seems very timely today —because, of course, it is timeless. It describes a reality of the human psyche that does not change with events and environments as do the forms of our madnesses and our lesser aberrations. The experience is real and essentially unchanging; and, as he observes, it can be psychotherapeutic, growth-promoting, radically transformative of human personality.

What Carpenter intends by “inhibiting thought” is one, but not the only, means to achieve similar awarenesses with similar results.

In recent years, as everyone now knows, it has been discovered that psychedelic drugs can facilitate religious-type experiences which have a therapeutic effect; and, indeed, that psychedelic psychotherapy tends to be most effective precisely when religious-type experiences of some profundity do occur. This conclusion stems not just out of our research but out of the experience of a large number of investigators and psychotherapists who have worked with the LSD-type drugs throughout the world. For example, Dr. Ruth Fox, the medical director of the National Council on Alcohol, stated with reference to LSD therapy of chronic alcoholics:

“In this transcendental (drug-state) experience there may be a recognition of ‘cosmic consciousness.’ Not every patient experiences this complete feeling of ‘being at one with the universe.’ It seems that the closer one comes to it, however, the more effective and lasting is the change in personality.” To this it should be added that the therapeutic and transformative religious-type experiences take various forms, of which “being at one with the universe” is only one, but a frequent, example.

In view of the foregoing, it should be evident why work with psychedelic drugs has had the following effects, among others: It has made viable once more a previously near-moribund psychology of religious experience; and it has excited great interest in the therapeutic and self-actualizing potentials of religious-type experiences and the states of consciousness in which they happen in their most potent forms. . . .

Like many other LSD researchers, we did not set out to investigate religious or mystical experiences. But we very soon found ourselves obliged to undertake serious and extensive studies in the psychology of religious experience. We had to do this if we hoped to understand what was happening with subjects whose reports of profound mystical union with God did not seem to be adequately explained by such notions as somatopsychic depersonalization or ego dissolution, both labels that have within conventional psychiatry the function of describing severe psychopathology. Some of the claims of encounter with God, Ground of Being, Ultimate Reality, seemed to be accompanied by profound and beneficent personality changes. This does not usually occur as a product of a transient psychosis; but it has been reported throughout history in cases of religious experience.

In a possible LSD session that proceeds, in eight hours or so, through the principal drug-state levels of consciousness, the subject may experience, first of all, a great variety of sensory awarenesses unlike anything that he has known before.

This appears to have a deconditioning function, freeing the subject from the confines of his usual categories and contexts.

After that, the walls of the unconscious may be breached, psychodynamic processes magnified and revealed, and important insights be achieved. Next, the life-historical materials might emerge in symbolic and allegorical terms, seen with the eyes closed as eidetic images. The same sequence of materials also may be experienced at the same time in other sensory-image modes with a total involvement in dramatic sequences leading to symbolic resolution of personal conflicts and other problems. Finally, the person “descends” to that level of awareness apprehended as Essence, Noumenon, Ground of Being. It is on this level that there occur the profound and sometimes transformative experiences of encounter or mystical union with God—experiences adjudged by some leading authorities, such as the late W. T. Stace, to be phenomenologically indistinguishable from religious and mystical experiences traditionally accepted as authentic. When such experience results in a drastic and positive change in behavior, including an enrichment of the spiritual life, we have further evidence of a classical sort for authenticity.

This paper will not be concerned primarily with psychedelic drugs or those religious-type experiences occurring in the drug-state. There now is an extensive literature devoted to that subject, including our own book, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, especially the concluding chapters.

And it should, therefore, be of greater interest to report on some new non-drug research which we have been conducting and continue to conduct at our laboratory in New York City.
However, for the benefit of those still unfamiliar with the drug-state experiences one case will be described here briefly.

The Experimental Induction of Religious-Type Experiences by Jean Houston and Robert E. L. Masters 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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