by DT Strain
Profound experience, often called ‘religious experience’, ‘mystical experience’, or ‘peak experience’, is an ecstatic or deeply moving experience in which we get the sense that we have in some manner touched or perceived the transcendent or sacred, although the full nature of the experience is typically difficult to put into words. While having a profound experience is not something that can be activated at will, these experiences can arise while meditating, in contemplation, during other rituals, listening to music, during an epiphany, in drugged or other mind-altering conditions, witnessing various things of beauty or impressiveness, or several other means.
Most people describe these experiences in greatly positive ways, and seek to have them again. Often, they can transform a person. They might alter how they look at something – or how they look at everything. Or, they might change a person’s disposition, goals, and values to some degree.
Many people make many claims about just what we are communing with when having profound experiences. We cannot know the truth of all of these claims, but there is a fascinating collection of observations about natural brain activity and these experiences. In any case, to mistake the psychological and neurological understandings of profound experience as some kind of dismissal of it, is to miss the point. As naturalists, we must ask at least two questions: (1) What is it of relevance that one is perceiving (if anything) in profound experience in the broadest sense, and (2) What role (if any) does profound experience play in our spiritual practice?
What is being perceived?
The first question is important to our practice because, if indeed profound experience is a wholly internal and subjective phenomena with little relation to any external reality or truth, then we can chalk it up to a fluke of brain chemistry and consider it of little importance to wisdom or True Happiness – being merely an entertainment.
Because so many supernaturalists claim religious experience to be a communion of some unknown means with powers of some improvable sort, many naturalists look at the scientific descriptions of the process and consider the matter ‘debunked’. Spiritual Naturalists, however, can take a third option. Here, profound experience is seen as a perception of an objective truth outside the mind of the experiencing person. Awareness of that natural but profound truth is seen as important in our spiritual walk. But what is that truth, and how is it perceived naturally?
To get some idea of what it is that might be the perceived subject of profound experience, it is helpful to consider someone in the opposite condition. Consider a person with absolutely no sense of the profound in life. They don’t know awe, or wonder, and may not even see value in it or seek it out. Everything to them is ‘ho hum’. They may recognize favorable or unfavorable events and things, and they may become happy or sad as a result, but there is a kind of ‘leveling out’ whereby the favorable things, be they something universal or simply something that benefits them personally, are on a similar level; the same for the unfavorable things. In this example, the person sees everything through a narrow scope as it pertains to them and their impressions personally. Everything is ‘equaled out’ in their experience. Their perception of the world in which they live is ‘low fidelity’.
But in reality our universe is one of grand, even unimaginable, valleys and peaks. In terms of scale, space, time, and causation Nature ranges incredibly. Layer upon layer of these kingdoms of scale and time emerge from one another and circle back on one another. There is a hierarchical relationship between the fundamental and the emergent; between the foundational and the derivative; between the universal and the incidental. The matters of one individual are dwarfed by matters of humanity, of life, and of the cosmos – and yet – those grand phenomena wash over our lives and affect us in profound ways, interjecting themselves and giving us the opportunity to glimpse them at times, even if imperfectly. That described in this paragraph, as far as any reasonable observations indicate, are true and objective facts about reality, independent from human perception or appreciation of them.
The ecstatic numinous experience of witnessing and appreciating these aspects is merely the natural human side effect of having, to some justifiable greater extent, perceived these realities deeply. We should expect to see a rise in the pulse of a human being stood on the edge of a tall precipice – and when we do not see any such signs we are reasonable to suspect the person to be unaware of their precarious position. Likewise, the absence of awe in an otherwise healthy human being, in the face of these described realities is an indication of blindness to them. Certainly, not every kind of experience will touch every person in the same way, but this hypothetical example of having no capacity whatsoever for profound experience is not merely the lack of ability to experience a pleasure – it is the lack of ability to perceive external objective facts of a very particular nature.
Is it really perception and knowledge?
Our next task is to ask whether this is, indeed a perception or – in other words – if this constitutes real knowledge of facts (knowledge being, belief which is not only true but also justified). Or, is it merely a random feeling that happens to fit the facts? To know whether this is a perception, we must have reasons to think there is a causal link between these grand aspects and relationships in the universe, and the experience of having ‘touched’ them.
On this we can look at the kind of situations that tend to generate profound experiences. When we do, we see that they indeed seem to be presentations that are, in some sense, about those grand aspects described, or that seem to embody some of those grand aspects. Further, when practitioners report the kinds of experiences that touched them, they will report those precise things. For example, the complexity and harmony in a piece of music can typically be an element which helped to generate a profound experience, and the listener will often report that it was this feature of the music which they found beautiful or moving. The feature closely correlates to the features of the cosmos outlined above. It is reasonable to suspect this served as a microcosm of the feature found throughout Nature, or a simpler symbolic representation of the concept. Further, by hearing the music, the listener’s attention was brought to the matter of intricacy and harmonies in all things. This is one particular example among a nearly infinite variety of possible triggers, but it seems likely the profound experience is not causally isolated from the various aspects of the universe which moved the experiencing person. This would mean the sensation of the profound experience is causally connected to the very phenomena that we find moving, making it a perception of some kind of objective external fact.
Important to note here is that the perception is not through some as yet unknown channel or means. We have, in all of these profound experiences, every reason to think that all data is being perceived naturally through the five senses. The difference would be in (a) the robust nature of the data, and (b) the wider attention to the data, and (c) the processing of the data in more subtle and holistic ways, reflecting it off of a host of other learned information to generate a synthesis of understanding on a deeper intuitive level. Here the person has perceived the precipice and appreciated its height, and appropriate elation ensues.
In profound experience, there is a sense that you’ve ‘broken the rules’ – that you’ve ‘seen beyond the veil’. In that respect it may seem analogous to Gnosis, or divine knowledge. However, this feeling and the awareness we come to in these cases, is entirely natural and does not result in knowledge we didn’t already have, though it may have been unprocessed. This is possible in a naturalistic sense because, normally, we perceive our environment in very concrete terms within limited dimensions of sensory input, categorization, and language. Yet, the profound experience allows us, for a brief moment (though of lasting impact), to perceive multiple ‘channels’ of information simultaneously, and to have a holistic perception of it at once, touching many parts of our minds, memories, thoughts, and feelings. And thus, this comprehension is more than the intellectual, but is on a deeper intuitive level. Such constitutes an awakening of some variety.
Why this perception is important
Even if profound experience is truly a perception of attributes of Nature that are external to the person having the experience, then Spiritual Naturalists must ask, “Why is it important to perceive these aspects of Nature and how does that fit into wise spiritual practice?”
First, the function or utility of this kind of perception is not the same as, for example, the perceptions needed to perform some specific task, like building a structure. We would not want to operate on a patient or construct a safety device based on information allegedly perceived through a profound experience. Such would be the wrong kind of perception of the wrong kind of data, for the wrong kind of task. Reason being that, while real external phenomena are being perceived in religious experiences, the complex nature of the perception, and its broad interplay across our memories and emotions invite a large number of complimentary data from our minds to be mixed into the perception. Each person’s perception is unique because we all bring our own ‘baggage’ to a profound experience. Our own ideas, assumptions, imaginings, memories, attitudes, and more are mixed into the experience. And, again, because the experience is ultimately based on input through the five natural senses, we cannot have achieved collection of data that would not otherwise directly be available to us (such as seeing the future or remote locations) – even if that complex mixture may sometimes make it seem we have. Many who do not appreciate this may therefore sometimes assign unprovable additional meanings or purposes to their experiences which we have no way to honestly know.
So, if this is not the proper use of perceptions from profound experience, then what is its use? Profound experience is especially useful in our spiritual walk for a few reasons. For one, it can help to engender a good sense of proportion in thinking about our place in the grand scope of Nature. This has an effect on our weighing of our individual problems, challenges, and achievements in the larger context of our surroundings and time. Much aggravation can be alleviated through that perspective. These kinds of experiences also create in us a sense of beauty in a way that more narrow, specific, and technical data cannot. That sense creates an appreciation and even love for these aspects of Nature. That positive disposition can be very useful in our task to align ourselves with Nature and come to acceptance of the world as it is. Lastly, a direct holistic perception of the interconnectedness of all things can create epiphanies related to our kinship with one another and other living things. This connection becomes more real and concrete to the experiencer, which helps to cultivate greater empathy and less egotism – both aspects of self transformation that are a core part of our practice.
The effects on our overall perspective are conducive to what we have determined are appropriate paths in our spiritual walk. Further, that perspective – because it touches on so many points of memory, thought, emotion, and sensation at once – becomes more deeply ingrained into our minds. This is therefore compatible with moving our conceptions from the purely intellectual to the intuitive form of understanding. Without the kinds of perceptions afforded through profound experience, a naturalist spiritual practice would be extremely difficult.
For all of these reasons, the conditions that are favorable to generating profound experience are incorporated into many rituals and practices.