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Human Evolution and the Shift in Consciousness
Author's page : https://www.stevenmtaylor.com/essays/mystical-science/
Mystical Science: Beyond the Limits of Science
Many people believe that the powers of science are unlimited. Science is a process of uncovering the mechanisms by which nature works, and eventually, after enough experimentation and investigation, every mystery will be understood. The darkness of ignorance will have been completely illuminated by the light of reason, and we will possess the truth about life and the universe.
Some observers even believe that we’re quite close to reaching this point now. If scientific progress continues at the same rate as the last few decades, so this argument goes, it can only be a matter of a few more decades (or even less) before all the mysteries in the universe are solved. After all, haven’t most of the biggest mysteries already been solved? As long ago as 1971 the biologist Bentley Glass wrote, ‘We are like the explorers of a great continent, who have penetrated to its margins in most points of the compass and have mapped the major mountain chains and rivers. There are still innumerable details to fill in, but the endless horizons no longer exist.’ We already know how the universe began (with a Big Bang), how life evolved (through genetic mutations and natural selection), and how living beings inherit their parents’ characteristics (through DNA), and we’re surely quite close to answering the remaining ‘big questions’ as well. Neuroscience will soon be able to tell us exactly what causes consciousness, biologists will soon be able to tells us how life originated, and physicists will finally tell us what the fundamental reality of the universe is.
But whether science actually has progressed as far as some scientists like to think is very debatable. There is a powerful scientific orthodoxy which promotes ideas as truths before they are substantiated properly, and even while there’s still doubt about them. Take the Neo-Darwinist theory of evolution for example, which many people accept as an established truth.
The basic assumption of Neo-Darwinism is that evolution proceeds through random genetic mutations, which are then acted on by natural selection. However, experiments with bacteria suggest that genetic mutations may not be not purely random. When starving bacteria are in the presence of sugar they can’t eat, for example, they ‘mutate’ at levels far higher than chance in order to generate the enzymes they need to digest it.
Similarly, the field of epigenetics appears to contradict the idea that genetic changes occur only through random mutations. Epigenetics shows that, if environmental factors cause changes to our genes during our lives, these changes can be passed down to our children, and to other future generations. This is very close to the Lamarckian view of the ‘inheritability of acquired characteristics’, which was thought to have long been superseded by Neo-Darwinism.
The concept of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ also casts doubt on Neo-Darwinism. Fossil evidence shows that evolution works through stops and starts, with periods of stasis for millions of years and then sudden bursts of change – which can be as short as 1,000 years – which give rise to new species. This doesn’t make sense if mutations are random, since if they were they would occur fairly evenly, and there would be no reason why some periods would see more change than others. (It’s interesting to note that the arch Neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins vehemently refutes the significance of punctuated equilibrium, which he says is merely ‘an interesting wrinkle on the Neo-Darwinist theory’ – no doubt because he realizes that it throws his own theories into question.)
Other Unanswered Questions
Almost 50 years ago a young graduate student called Stanley Miller managed to synthesize amino acids – the basic building blocks of life – from a chemical simulation of the earth’s atmosphere. After this many scientists believed that the problem of the ‘origin of life’ would soon be solved. But five decades of research of have brought no further advances to Miller’s experiment. The ‘self-replicating molecule’ which biologists have been feverishly searching for has been strangely elusive. In fact some scientists – like Francis Crick – find the odds against life come into being on this planet by accident so overwhelming that they’ve developed the concept of ‘Panspermia’, which suggests that the earth was ‘fertilized’ from interstellar space. However, as other scientists have pointed out, the odds against this are perhaps even greater than the odds against life starting on this planet.
This also applies to the ‘big question’ of developmental biology : how does a single fertilized cell develop into a complex multi-cellular lifeform? After their success in ‘breaking the genetic code’ in the 1960s, some of the world’s leading molecular biologists turned their attention to this problem, believing that it would only take them a decade or two to come up with a basic answer. They expected to find that development was somehow ‘encoded’ into DNA, but soon realized that this wasn’t the case, and that other unknown ‘formative’ influences must be at work. But again, after decades of research, biologists have been unable to pinpoint what these are.
In a similar way, many neuroscientists were once confident that the ‘problem of consciousness’ would soon be solved. They believed that brain-scanning technologies would enable us to see how billions of the brain’s neurons work together to produce consciousness. But again, it’s slowly becoming apparent that the reality is much stranger and more complex than this simple mechanistic view suggests. Originally neuroscientists thought that consciousness would be located in a specific area of the brain, then tentatively suggested that in some way it seems to emanate from the brain as a whole. However, as yet no one has come up with any explanation of this. Decades of intensive research have effectively drawn a blank.
Some philosophers have suggested that it may not be possible to explain consciousness in terms of the brain at all. How can the ‘soggy grey matter’ of the brain can give rise to conscious experience? As the philosopher Colin McGinn puts it, this would be tantamount to turning water into wine. An alternative view, put forward by another philosopher, David Chalmers, is that consciousness may not be produced by the brain, but is a fundamental force of the universe, like gravity, which permeates everything. (This is close to my own view, that consciousness is everywhere and in everything, and the function of the brain is to ‘pick up’ consciousness, like a radio receiver, and then to ‘channel’ into our individual organism.)
The Need for Understanding
It’s worth considering for a moment where the need for complete understanding of the universe – as expressed by some scientists – comes from. After all, why should it really be necessary for us to understand everything about the life and the universe? Will our lives really be different – better or happier – in any way just because we happen to know the answers to all questions?
The quest for knowledge is often seen as a noble enterprise. Our ‘reason’ makes us superior to other animals, and through exercising it we can dispel the darkness of ignorance and superstition which our ‘primitive’ ancestors lived in. But, if we look a little deeper, the ‘nobility’ of this quest begins to look very questionable. Three or four centuries ago, exploring and colonizing the world was seen as a noble enterprise too. Europe’s ruling classes were consumed by a desire to explore unknown territories, to bring home treasure from them and to spread their ‘advanced’ civilization and religion to their heathen populations. This enterprise was more or less completed a century or so ago, when European governments ‘ruled’ most of the world’s population, and explorers had covered almost every inch of the earth’s surface.
Of course, now we know that there wasn’t anything ‘noble’ about this at all. What this enterprise really was, of course, was a desire for dominance over the world itself and its peoples. It was rooted in the over-developed egos of European males, and the thirst for power and for material gain which the over-developed ego generates.
And it’s possible to look at science in the same way. Let me say at this point that I have nothing against science in itself – in fact, I love science. I am awed by the discoveries which have been made about the universe, the natural world around us and about the human body. To me, science is a way of uncovering the wonders of reality. And no one can deny that scientific advances have made a massive contribution to the well-being of the hunan race. Medical advances have eased the suffering and increased the lifespans of billions of people, and modern technology has made the world a smaller and more interconnected place. And there are certainly some scientists who are motivated by a genuine sense of curiosity and wonder, and a desire to bring benefits to mankind.
However, I feel that, for some scientists, the quest to understand the universe has almost supplanted the colonial enterprise. Science has become a new channel for the desire for control and dominance. In this sense, it may be no accident that most scientists are European (or Euro-American) males. Like the ‘colonial’ enterprise, the scientific enterprise is largely rooted in an unhealthy desire for dominion over nature, an egotistical impulse for power and control. And this desire for control and dominion seems to be a characteristically male trait.
In fact, this is implicit in the way some scientists view nature. They see it as something ‘out there’, foreign and apart from the consciousness which is observing it. And when something is ‘other’ to us, it’s often perceived as an enemy to subdue and conquer.
The Limitations of Consciousness
But what’s most debatable of all, in my opinion, is whether this ‘complete explanation for everything’ is at all feasible. In fact, I don’t believe it’s possible for science to answer any of the ‘big questions’ we’ve looked at.
The problem, as I see it, is that most scientists aren’t aware of the limitations of human consciousness. There’s an underlying assumption that the ordinary human consciousness with which we perceive reality is absolute and objective, and that the world as we see it is the world as it is. Our consciousness is like a perfect spotlight which illuminates the world clearly and truthfully, and which illuminates everything. And this is, of course, why it’s possible for us to understand and explain everything – because we are aware of all reality there is to be aware of, and there is nothing potentially outside the ‘range’ of our consciousness spotlight.
This assumption is completely unwarranted. One way of looking at evolution is to see it as a process by which living beings become progressively more complex physically, and at the same time, progressively more conscious of reality. From amoebae to invertebrates to insects to birds to animals to apes and to human beings, the ‘consciousness spotlight’ has become more and more powerful. Whereas amoebae have a tiny flicker of consciousness which enables them to react to changes in their environment, human beings have a powerful ‘consciousness spotlight’ which gives us a wide-ranging and precise awareness of the world around us, a significant degree of ‘conceptual awareness’ (which enables us to be aware of death, and of the future and the past) and also a degree of self-awareness, so that we’re not just conscious but actually aware of ourselves being conscious. It’s true that there are some ‘higher’ animals – like dolphins or chimpanzees – who seem to be aware of death and of themselves to a degree, but this awareness doesn’t seem to be as intense as ours.
But just because our awareness is more intense and wide-ranging than other animals’, it doesn’t mean that we’re conscious to an absolute degree. This would be tantamount to suggesting that present day human beings are the culmination of the whole evolutionary process, which is obviously ridiculous. In fact, assuming evolution continues, it’s inevitable that at some point in the future living beings will come into existence who are more complex and more conscious than us, in the same way that we’re more complex and conscious than sheep or cows. These beings will be more intensely aware of their surroundings than we are, and perhaps be more aware of themselves than we are. They will certainly be aware of phenomena which we’re ignorant of because they lie beyond the limits of our awareness.
If our consciousness is limited, there’s no reason why we should expect to understand and explain everything. In the same way that a sheep or a cow probably aren’t aware of the future or the past, or of their own mortality, there must be some realities which are beyond the limits of our consciousness. In the same way that the inhabitants of a two-dimensional Flatland will be able see the effects of a three-dimensional reality (without understand the concept of three dimensions), we might very well perceive some of the effects of these phenomena. We might puzzle over them and try to understand them, but won’t be able to explain them properly, because we’re not aware of the phenomena themselves.
And as I see it, this is the position of modern science. Scientists will never be able to solve the ‘big questions’ because the answers to them – if there are any – lie beyond the limits of our normal consciousness. Trying to understand how the universe started, how life began, how an embryo develops or how consciousness is produced can only lead (as they are doing) to cul-de-sacs and confusion, because these questions can’t be explained in terms of the restricted view of the world which our normal consciousness gives us. They obviously involve factors or phenomena which our limited consciousness doesn’t allow us to be aware of.
In fact we can almost grasp this when we ask ourselves some of the ‘Big Questions’. Questions like ‘Does the universe have an end? If it does, what comes after it?’ or ‘What was before the Big Bang?’ These questions defy common sense, like the koans of Zen Buddhism. In fact there is one field of science, Quantum Physics, which seems to consist solely of koan-like riddles which can’t be answered. How can a photon of light be a particle and a wave at the same time? How do electrons seem to ‘know’ what other electrons are doing? Why are experiments always affected by the expectations of the person who is doing the experiment? It’s obvious that the answers to these ‘koans’ – if there are any – must be beyond the normal range of our ‘consciousness spotlight’.
Expanding the Range of Consciousness
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that, as Goethe’s Faust concluded, ‘we can know nothing’, and that the ‘Quest for Truth’ is a futile exercise. In fact the idea that our knowledge is limited by our consciousness suggests a different way of increasing our knowledge: by extending the range of our consciousness.
This is the approach which Eastern philosophy has always taken. Whereas Western science and philosophy has always assumed that truth is here, and can be found if we look and think hard enough, Eastern philosophy has always known that there are vistas of reality beyond our normal consciousness. We can gain access to these by following spiritual practices which refine and intensify our consciousness. After all, the whole point of the Zen koans is that they can be solved, but not by using reason alone. The purpose of them is confuse and ‘paralyse’ the intellect, and so help to engender a fuller or higher state of consciousness – at which the solution to the koan suddenly becomes clear.
Many western scientists and philosophers are like people who live in a room and are sure that there is nothing outside it – in fact the idea that there might be something outside it doesn’t even occur to them. They think they can find ‘truth’ by examining the room, by finding out what it’s made of and how everything in it works, and cataloguing all the details they find. The only problem is that they keep coming upon strange things which don’t seem to be explainable in terms of the room itself. There might be strange air movements, for example, or light whose source they can’t find.
From a Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist perspective, however, it’s taken for granted that the room is not all there is, that there is a wider and truer reality outside it. The philosopher-mystic realizes that absolute truth can’t be found in the room at all, and that there’s no point looking for it there. It can only be found outside it – and so he spends his time trying to find a way out of the room, or trying to dismantle its walls, so that he can gain access to the wider reality beyond them.
This is what we could call ‘mystical science’ – a quest for truth which is based on expanding consciousness. And if we really want to answer to ‘big questions’ this is the approach that we should take too. We need a different kind of science – one which isn’t based on the supposed objective vision of an observer, but which focuses on expanding the vision of the observer, so that he or she can see more. Instead of new technologies which allow us to examine the shadow reality of samsara more and more deeply, we need spiritual ‘technologies’ which intensify our consciousness and so give us access to more ‘truth’.
These ‘technologies’ have already been developed, of course – for example, the transformational paths of Buddhism, Tantra, Vedanta or Sufism. There have also been many great ‘mystical scientists’ throughout history, like Meister Eckhart (Tolle), Ramakrishna or Ramana Maharishi. Their intensified consciousness meant that they were aware of realities which are hidden to us – including many of the answers to the ‘big questions’. The Ananda Sutram, for example, by one of the most remarkable Indian mystic-philosophers of 20th century, P.R. Sarkar, provides a complete explanation of ‘life, the universe and everything’ from the standpoint of expanded consciousness.
From the standpoint of normal consciousness, these explanations may seem meaningless and even ridiculous. They’re bound to, since we’re like sheep trying to comprehend a new theory of ‘the future and the past and death’ which a sheep philosopher-mystic has put forward. The only way we can understand is to use spiritual technologies to expand our consciousness and become mystical scientists ourselves.
Author's page : https://www.stevenmtaylor.com/academic-articles/temporary-permanent-awakening-primary-secondary-shift/
Temporary and Permanent Awakening: The Primary and Secondary Shift
Originally published in The Journal of Tranpersonal Research, 2014
This paper explores the distinction between temporary ‘awakening experiences’ and permanent transformational experiences, leading to an ongoing and stable state of ‘awakening.’ It is suggested that, in permanent transformational experiences, a new, stable and permanent ‘selfsystem’ is established, whereas in temporary awakening experiences the normal ‘self-system’ remains intact, even if temporarily disabled. Two types of transformational experiences are identified: a ‘secondary shift’, in which a person’s values and perspective are transformed, and a ‘primary shift’, in which a person’s whole ‘self-system’ is replaced, leading to a sense of new identity (and which includes the characteristics of the ‘secondary shift’ too, since the new identity brings new values and perspectives). The first is associated with temporary awakening experiences, the second with permanent awakening. This distinction may contribute to the debate on whether psychedelic drugs can contribute to spiritual awakening. It is suggested that they may produce a ‘secondary shift’, although not a primary shift. The concept of a latent ‘higher-functioning selfsystem’ may help to distinguish states of ‘spiritual crisis’ from states of psychosis.
Keywords: awakening experiences, transformation, primary shift, secondary shift, turmoil, psychedelics
Temporary and Permanent Awakening in Spiritual Traditions
Many spiritual traditions make a distinction between temporary spiritual experiences and a permanent, ongoing experience of ‘wakefulness’ or liberation. In the Hindu Vedanta tradition, this is the distinction between nirvikalpa or savikalpa samadhi (usually seen as temporary) and sahaja samadhi (usually seen as a stable, ongoing and permanent state of samadhi) (Feuerstein, 1990). In Sufism, there is a similar distinction between fana and baqa (Spencer, 1963); likewise in Zen Buddhism, kensho and satori are comparable terms (Suzuki, 1956). In the Christian spiritual tradition, there is a similar distinction between mystical experiences, and mysticism as a permanent state, as in the state of ‘deification’ or ‘theosis’ (Underhill, 1960). Maslow (1970) made a similar distinction between the ‘peak experience’ and the ‘plateau’ experience, or between ‘peak experiences’ and the ‘self-actualised’ state.
What is the basis of this distinction between temporary ‘awakening’ experiences and experiences of permanent spiritual awakening? In a study of 161 temporary awakening experiences conducted by this author (Taylor, 2012b), the ‘temporary’ nature of the experiences was emphasised in descriptions of them ‘lasting’ a certain amount of time, and possessing a certain intensity which faded away, bringing a return to a ‘normal’ state of mind. For example, one person commented, ‘I was conscious of not wanting the feeling to go away. But unfortunately it didn’t last long’ (Taylor, 2012b, p.7).
Nevertheless, despite being essentially temporary, the experiences were reported as having long term effects. Although they did not bring a fundamental, deep-rooted shift of identity – or a permanent state of oneness or heightened awareness of the phenomenal world- many individuals described them as bringing a shift in perspective and attitude to life, and a change of values. For example, they were reported as bringing a new sense of optimism, trust, comfort or confidence (Taylor, 2012b). One person had an intense awakening experience following a period of intense psychological turmoil, during which she ‘felt the most intense love and peace and knew that all was well’ (Taylor, 2011, p.4). The experience probably only lasted for a few minutes, but in its aftermath she found that the feeling of dread had disappeared from her stomach, and she felt able to cope again. ‘I looked around and thought about all the good things in my life and the future. I felt more positive and resilient’ (ibid.). Another person simply reported that the experience made her realise ‘how easy it would be to be happy’ (Taylor, 2010, p.7)
For some, the memory of the awakening experience – and the knowledge that this dimension of meaning and harmony existed – had a comforting and reassuring effect. One person reported that her awakening experience ‘Only lasted a few minutes but I remember a sense of calmness and stillness and it soothes me now’ (Taylor, 2010, p.10). (The poet Wordsworth vividly described this soothing after effect of awakening experiences on several occasions. For example, in Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, he describes his awareness that this ‘serene and blessed mood’ of the present will provide ‘life and food/For future years.'[Wordsworth, 2013].)
One of the most common after effects of awakening experiences is to create a desire to ‘return’ to this dimension of meaning and harmony, which often leads to an interest in spiritual traditions and practices. For example, in another awakening experience apparently triggered by psychological turmoil, a young woman experienced ‘a moment of enlightenment’ in which ‘all my “problems” and my suffering suddenly seemed meaningless, ridiculous, simply a misunderstanding of my true nature and everything around me. There was a feeling of acceptance and oneness’ (Taylor, 2011, p.8). This experience awakened a life-long interest in selfdevelopment. ‘In some ways’, the woman reported, ‘I have spent the last 25 years since exploring what it meant and how I could perhaps go back there’ (ibid.).
Similarly, one person reported how she had ‘spent my life searching for the feeling again because I know it’s there’ (Taylor, 2011, p.7). Another person described how, following her awakening experience, she felt drawn to books about spirituality, began to read about Buddhism, and learned to meditate (Taylor, 2011). While as a final example, a man who had a powerful awakening experience 40 years ago -without having any similar experiences- reported that this ‘tiny glimpse of my potential as a human being has had a huge impact on my life and work’ (Taylor, 2010, p.41).
The last quote recalls William James description of the ‘noetic’ quality of mystical experiences:
[Mystical experiences] are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance…as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time (James, 1985, p.380).
I suggest that this transformation of perspective and of values following temporary awakening experiences be termed a ‘secondary shift’, or ‘secondary transformational experience.’ The transformation may lead to significant cognitive and affective changes, with different values (e.g. less materialistic, more altruistic), different beliefs (e.g. belief in life after death) and a different attitude (e.g. more optimistic, more trusting). In turn, these may lead to significant lifestyle changes, such as new interests, new relationships and a new career. However, the ‘shift’ is still secondary in the sense that the individual’s previous ‘self-system’ and previous sense of identity remain intact. Since the individual’s ‘ego-boundaries’ remain essentially intact, he/she does not experience the intense connection or oneness or the intensified perception of the phenomenal world which awakening experiences frequently feature (Taylor, 2005; 2009; 2010; 2012b). These individuals experience themselves as the same continuous ‘ego-self’ as before, although they may possess a different ‘cognitive map’ of reality.
Temporary awakening experiences can be seen as a temporary ‘installation’ of a different, ‘higherfunctioning’ self-system’, which does not become established. Although temporarily disabled, the individual’s normal self-system is still intact as a structure, and so re-establishes itself.
The Primary Shift
It is tempting to describe this normal ‘selfsystem’ as a kind of psychic ‘mould’, which exists as a potential even when the system itself temporarily dissolves, so that it is able to re-form. In temporary awakening experiences, the structure is only in abeyance, with the mould still intact. But when permanent transformation occurs- in the form of a ‘primary shift’- not only the structure, but the ‘psychic mould’ itself dissolves away. It is replaced by a new psychological structure, or ‘self-system’, so that the individual does experience a new sense of identity. This shift is therefore more deep-rooted and fundamental. The person may feel that they have been ‘re-born’, even that the only real connection with their previous identity was that they are associated with the same body and name. At the same time, this transformation includes the characteristics of the ‘secondary shift’ described above. The new ‘self-system’ generates significant cognitive and affective changes, with different values, beliefs and attitudes. These typically occur to a more intense degree than a ‘secondary shift’ occurring alone (Taylor, 2011, 2012a, 2013).
This ‘primary shift’ can be seen as equivalent to the ‘awakening’. ‘liberation’ or ‘enlightenment’ described by various spiritual traditions -sahaja samadhi (in the Hindu Vedanta tradition), baqa (in Sufism), satori (in Zen Buddhism) and ‘deification’ or ‘theosis’ (in the Christian mystical tradition)1 .
In a recent study (Taylor, 2013), 25 individuals who believed they had undergone ‘permanent spiritual awakening’ were investigated. This study found that the ‘primary shift’ was most likely to occur in a sudden and dramatic form, rather than gradually. Of the 25 participants, 12 reported a sudden and dramatic awakening, with no previous knowledge or experience of spirituality. 7 reported a sudden and dramatic awakening, with some gradual development preceding this and some previous temporary awakening experiences, while 6 participants reported a wholly gradual process of transformation.
Most of these cases of ‘spiritual awakening’ occurred following periods of intense psychological turmoil, associated with events such as bereavement, illness, divorce and episodes of psychosis and depression. Many participants felt that their transformational experiences were triggered by this turmoil. Of the 25 participants, 9 reported psychological turmoil as the only apparent factor, while for 14 other participants it was reported as an important contributory factor. For 9 of these 14, some form of spiritual practice was also reported as a factor. In other words, these participants were engaging in some form of spiritual practice (in most cases, meditation) while experiencing psychological turmoil. In five other cases, participants were undergoing some form of psychotherapy (e.g. counselling, Hokami therapy –a form of bodywork– or the AA recovery process). Only one person reported experiencing transformation purely as a result of spiritual practice, including the reading of spiritual texts and studying with a spiritual teacher (Taylor, 2013).
When this shift occurred suddenly and dramatically, it was often attended with difficulties. Particularly if the person did not have a conceptual framework to help them make sense of their transformation (e.g. background knowledge of spiritual traditions and practices) and a supportive network around them, they were liable to become confused and to suffer psychological disturbances (Taylor, 2013). However, in most cases, the state did appear to become integrated and stable, even if this process took several years. (ibid.) Conversely, gradual transformations tended to be less beset by difficulties, and to occur in a more integrated and stable way.
This distinction between sudden and gradual spiritual awakening is similar to the distinction Grof (2000) makes between spiritual emergency and spiritual emergence. Whereas spiritual emergencies are sudden and dramatic, and often very disruptive to the normal self-system, spiritual emergences are more gradual and less disturbing. As Lukoff, Lu, and Turner (1998) note, ‘In spiritual emergence…there is a gradual unfoldment of spiritual potential with minimal disruption… whereas in spiritual emergency there is significant abrupt disruption in psychological, social and occupational functioning’ (p. 38).
All 25 participants -both sudden and gradualreported a shift into a new psychological state, with a new sense of identity. One described this as ‘a shift in consciousness and in identity’ and noted that she felt so different that when she returned to her home town she was ‘fully expecting to walk into the room and for family and friends not to recognise me. I felt so different, like a completely different person to be honest. All my internal frames of reference have changed’ (Taylor, 2013). Another participant reported, ‘I’m in many ways a different person now, living a different life’, while another simply stated, ‘I feel like a different person’ (ibid.). In answer to the question, ‘Do you think the transformation is permanent?’, another participant stated, ‘It’s like saying, is birth permanent? There are some things that are done and can’t be undone’ (ibid.).
All participants believed that this new psychological state was permanent, or at least ongoing. They reported it as fairly stable, although with some fluctuations and difficulties. One participant stated, ‘I can tell you that it feels stable. It’s been about three years now and it feels stable’ (Taylor, 2013). A small number of participants were initially worried that the state would fade away, but were reassured by its stability. One reported, ‘I worried that one day I would wake up and it would hit me like a brick, but it is permanent and I feel like I am in a growing developing phase at the moment, its not over yet’ (ibid.). In some cases a significant amount of time had elapsed since the transformation, but these participants did not believe it had faded. Two participants had begun a process of gradual spiritual development more than 20 years ago, while another had experienced sudden transformation 21 years ago. For 7 others, it had been between 10-19 years since their transformational experience, or since the onset of their gradual development.
As the quote above suggests, although all participants felt they had undergone a permanent shift, some believed that the state was not finite, not the end point of their development. As another participant put it, ‘I think it’s kind of raised me up a level if you like. It’s really a building block for me to move from’ (Taylor, 2013).
This deep-rooted identity led to major psychological changes, and major lifestyle changes. The participants experienced new modes of cognition and perception, a new relationship to their surroundings and to other human beings (including increased authenticity and compassion) and new values (including a less materialistic attitude and increased altruism, in some cases leading to a change in career). A thematic analysis showed that the three most prevalent reported characteristics of their new states were wellbeing/positive affective states, an increased ‘presentness’ (including the ability to ‘do nothing’) and a sense that this state is ongoing and stable (and possibly permanent). All 25 participants reported these characteristics. While other major codes, mentioned by 20 or more of the participants, were ‘Reduced cognitive activity/Less identification with thoughts’ (which many participants reported as having a ‘quieter mind’ than before), a ‘Reduced/Disappearance of fear of death’ (including a sense that life will continue in some form following the apparent death of the body); ‘Decreased sense of group identity/need for belonging’; ‘Episodes of intense turmoil or trauma immediately preceding transformation’; and ‘Sense of Connection’ (Taylor, 2013).
The study found that this ‘primary shift’ into a new psychological structure was most likely to occur following periods of intense psychological turmoil or stress, leading to a dissolution of the person’s normal self-system. This was associated with many different types of turmoil and stress, but common types were bereavement, depression, serious illness, addiction and/or encounters with death.
For example, one participant of this study described gradual spiritual development for around 18 months, while performing a meditative practice. Following this, he experienced a sudden shift which he described as ‘a change into silence when the mind quieted. It was the first time I was really aware of a palpable silence. And a lot of the busy-ness of my mind and the seeking energy fell away’ (ibid.) The next day, when he woke up he ‘felt like I was looking at the world from a place that was behind thought.’ This was followed, ‘three or four months later’, by a final transformational shift in which ‘Everything I looked at seemed to have no separate existence from what I was – he absence of all those dividing lines both in space and time. Space was just the dividing line between me and the floor or me and the door. It was as if the sense of time fell away, all those divisions of the past, present and future’ (Taylor, 2013).
In another example, a participant described how she felt she underwent gradual development while suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, during which she was aware of a process of ‘humbling or deconstructing the ego.’ During this period, she had what she described as ‘peak moments that changed the baseline going forward’, including one powerful experience in which ‘I opened my eyes and the world looked different. It was alive. It was infinite aliveness. Everything was bright. Even the space between everything. The colours were incredible and the flowers looked happy. I looked down and I realised I was the sidewalk.’ Following this, in March 2008, as she put it, ‘I moved into a stable state’ after participating in a personal development workshop (Taylor, 2013).
In another study (Taylor, 2012a), cases of ‘spiritual awakening’ following intense psychological turmoil or trauma were specifically investigated. In these cases, individuals typically reached a point where they felt they were completely ‘broken’ or desolate, and had lost everything. Often at the very point of accepting or surrendering to their predicament -the point of ‘giving up’, ‘letting go’ or ‘handing over’ their problem- they would feel something ‘give way’ inside them, and feel that a new self had emerged inside them, with new awareness and knowledge (Taylor, 2011, 2012a). In this study, it was suggested that this process was related to the dissolution of psychological attachments. Psychological attachments can include hopes and ambitions, the sense of status or achievement, wealth and possessions, social roles, and other human beings upon whom the person is emotionally dependent. The dissolution of these attachments is usually the main reason why a person is in a state of turmoil, and filled with a sense of despair or loss. Psychological attachments can be seen as the ‘building blocks’ of a person’s sense of identity. When the building blocks are taken away, the structure itself collapses. And this dissolution or collapse appeared to allow a new higherfunctioning ‘self-system’ to emerge and become established as the individual’s new sense of identity (Taylor, 2011, 2012a).
One participant of this study described her ‘primary shift’ in detail as follows:
‘The way it feels is that I’ve permanently broken through to another state. I’ve moved up to another level of awareness which I know is going to stay with me. One day, a shift occurs, and a different picture suddenly emerges showing you who you really are –an eternal being, far more powerful and amazing than you ever thought possible. I knew without doubt that I’d witnessed the absolute truth and, having experienced it with such clarity, there’s no going back. It’s like the transformation a caterpillar goes through during the chrysalis stage before emerging as a butterfly…
Now I spend a lot of time in the present. In the past, when friends came round and told me about their problems, I’d get really involved, but now my awareness is somewhere else. When I’m with them, I can feel this white light inside me. I can open my heart and let it flow out. Nothing upsets me the way it used to. Nothing fazes me. I know how to make stressful situations pass, by not focusing any emotional energy on them.
Material things don’t interest me anymore. I used to like home comforts, but now I hate having things I don’t need. I feel more inclined to give things away. I have no need for them. Behaviour –our thoughts and deeds– are much more important than material goods. I love being alone –just being still, going inwards. It’s ongoing –the deeper I go the more I realise– and the more I realise the more amazing it all is…
I have much less of a sense of a separate self. After my experience any opinions I’d formed previously about God/religion or other philosophies became irrelevant –there’s only One and we’re joined with it regardless.
When I lost my daughter I felt I’d gone to hell and back but after glimpsing heaven my grieving ceased instantly. There is only love; there’s no real pain or suffering or death. It’s impossible. My daughter could never leave me, except in the movie I’d constructed first in my mind which then played out in the outer world. Time only exists inside our cocoon, outside of it, eternity. She was always me and I was her. I am everyone, everyone is me, nothing is separate’. (Taylor, 2011, p.55).
The ‘Secondary Shift’ and Psychedelic Awakening
The notion of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ shifts will perhaps contribute to the long-standing debate on whether psychedelic drugs can be of value to spiritual development. One aspect of this debate is whether drugs can induce genuinely ‘spiritual’ experiences. Religiously oriented scholars of mysticism have doubted that this is the case, reluctant to accept that the experiences can be induced ‘artificially’, without divine assistance (e.g. Zaehner, 1957, 1972; Happold, 1986). This is not the place to debate this particular issue, which I have discussed elsewhere. (In Taylor, 2005 and Taylor, 2010, it is suggested that, although psychedelics can, under certain circumstances, induce genuine temporary ‘awakening experiences,’ there are also significant differences between them and temporary awakening experiences induced more organically, such as those related to relaxation and concentration, or to an ‘intensification and stilling of life-energy’.) The second strand of this debate is whether psychedelics can produce genuine permanent ‘transformative’ experiences. Are they simply temporary ‘glimpses’ into a ‘higher’ dimension, which fade away and leave the individual exactly as they were before, or can they bring about genuine transformation, or even enlightenment?
I would suggest that psychedelics can be transformative in the sense of generating a ‘secondary shift’, but not in terms of generating a ‘primary’ one. It has been well attested that psychedelic experiences can cause a long-lasting shift in perspective, creating new concepts of reality and an openness to anomalous or spiritual concepts (Conway, 1989; Strassman, 2001). This was illustrated by Pankhe’s ‘Good Friday Experiment’, in which 10 members of a group of 20 theological students were given doses of psilocybin, and experienced intense ‘mystical’ feelings and perceptions, including several powerful mystical experiences, similar to those of the great Christian mystics. In a follow up study six months later, 8 out of the 10 students said that the experience had had a powerful long term effect, deepening their sense of their spiritual and enriching their lives. And remarkably, this was still the case after 25 years, when most of participants reflected that the experience had changed them permanently, giving them a deeper appreciation of life and nature, an increased sense of joy, a reduced fear of death and greater empathy for minorities and oppressed people (Doblin, 1991).
In 2006, a study into the effects of psilocybin found that 60 per cent of the volunteers described characteristics of mystical experiences, with just over a third describing it as the most important spiritual experience of their lives, as significant as the birth of their first child. A follow up study two months later found that most participants reported that their moods, attitudes and behaviour had become more positive, while psychological tests showed that they had a significantly higher level of well-being compared to other volunteers who were given a placebo at the same session (Griffiths et al. 2006).
There have been similar findings in relation to Ayahuasca. As McKenna wrote, under the right setting and circumstances ‘regular and long-term hoasca [Ayahuasca] use may result in profound, lasting, and positive behavioral and lifestyle changes’ (2004, p. 122). McKenna cites the example of an Ayahuasca group whose members had a history of maladaptive behaviors such as alcoholism, substance and domestic violence. Following the regular use of Ayahuasca, this maladaptive behaviour disappeared (McKenna, 2004). Winkelman (1995) used the term ‘psychointegrator’ for Ayahuasca and other related plants, to describe their positive psychological benefits.
Other long term positive effects of psychedelic experience which have been identified include mental improvements, reduction or elimination of allergies, cluster headache prevention, anxiety relief and enhanced quality of life (Fadiman & Kornfeld, 2013). LSD has also been shown to have similar effects to Ayahuasca in relation to alcoholism. Several 1960s studies found a high recovery rate in alcoholics after psychedelic therapy, with roughly around 50% becoming long term sober, or drinking much less (Hoffer, 1970).
The transformative effects of Ayahuasca were described by a student of mine. Although he had had experiences of lucid dreaming he was ‘not very interested in anything remotely spiritual.’ He had a successful career as a computer programmer, and described himself as very materialistically oriented: ‘I was motivated by the money, the possessions, and the status that came along with “success”. I was very antireligious and I had donated money to the National Secular Society to support their work. My car was a very expensive “look at me” sports car.’
However, after taking Ayahuasca, his vision of reality and his values were transformed. After believing that he ‘knew it all’ he became aware of how limited his normal perspective was. As he describes it:
‘I saw that the seemingly endless desire for more money, things, and success, was not the key to happiness. My motivation changed to “give something back” to the world that had been so good to me. I retrained as a counsellor and worked as a volunteer with cancer patients at my local hospital. I became interested in “spirituality” and the underlying message of religion, and I donated money to the Lucidity Institute to support their work. My car is now an ordinary and very practical seven-seater. These changes have proved to be long term and the date of the experience, the 28th of January 2005, is as important to me as my birthday.’
As this experience and the others reported above show, the ‘secondary shift’ generated by psychedelics can be very powerful and valuable. Just as described earlier, in relation to awakening experiences in general, they can provide a glimpse into a new, hitherto unsuspected dimension of harmony and meaning, and ideally generate an impulse to return to that dimension, and to investigate spiritual traditions and practices as a means of doing so. As Huxley wrote of psychedelic awakening experiences, ‘The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out’ (1988, p.64).
However, I believe it is unlikely –in fact, I am aware of no cases of this– that psychedelics can induce a ‘primary shift.’ That is, I have not come across cases of LSD, ayahuasca or any other ‘psychedelic’ substances generating a shift into a stable, permanent state of ‘enlightenment’, a permanent dissolution of the normal ‘self-system’ and its replacement with a latent ‘higherfunctioning’ self-system.
Of course, the ‘secondary’ shift generated by psychoactive substances could possibly lead to a gradual ‘primary shift’ too. As previously mentioned, the experience of this new dimension of harmony and meaning, and the desire to return to the experience, may generate an interest in spiritual traditions and practices, which may, in the long term, lead to gradual, cumulative spiritual development -and perhaps a gradual shift into a higher-functioning self-system.
The ‘building block’ metaphor used earlier -to describe how experiences of loss and turmoil can ‘dismantle’ the normal sense of self and lead to a ‘primary shift’ -can also be applied to the distinction between a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ transformative experience. If the ‘primary shift’ is akin to ‘moving out’ of your present building into new premises, the ‘secondary shift’ is akin to remaining in the same building, but making significant changes to it (e.g. renovating or decorating).
The ‘primary shift’ occurs when the individual assumes a new identity, when their previous ‘selfsystem’ dissolves, and a new higher-functioning ‘selfsystem’ establishes itself. This can happen both suddenly and dramatically, or gradually, as a result of a long period of spiritual practice or transformative lifeexperiences. The ‘primary shift’ is the radical transformation of being equivalent to enlightenment, moksha or theosis. The ‘secondary shift’ often follows temporary awakening experiences, including druginduced awakening experiences -a less deep-rooted and fundamental transformation, which does not feature a complete and distinct new sense of identity, but can possibly lead to a gradual ‘primary shift.’
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(1) The notion of a latent higher-functioning ‘selfsystem’ may be helpful in distinguishing between episodes of psychosis and episodes of ‘spiritual crisis’ or ‘spiritual emergency’ (see Clarke, 2010 and Lucas, 2011 for a wideranging discussion on this). ‘Spiritual crisis’ may involve symptoms similar to psychosis, including psychiatric disturbances, uncontrollable or confused thoughts, perceptual distortions, hallucinations. However, this does not mean that ‘spiritual opening’ is equivalent to psychosis, or conversely, that all cases of psychosis are also instances of ‘spiritual opening.’ There may be strong similarities based on the common incidence of a ‘break down’ of the self-system, with all of its psychological structures and functions impaired or disabled. But the essential difference between ‘spiritual crisis’ and psychosis per se may be that, in cases of the former, individuals possess a latent ‘higher-functioning self-structure’ which may become established to replace the normal ‘self integration -in some cases in my study (Taylor, 2013) it could take several years for the new higher-functioning self-system to become fully integrated and established. However, in cases of psychosis per se, there is no latent self-structure to replace the self-system which has dissolved. The ego dissolves into a vacuum, whereas in cases of spiritual crisis -which may involve similar psychiatric disturbances to psychosis- the ego can potentially be replaced.
*Steve Taylor PhD is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is the author of several books on psychology and spirituality including The Fall, Waking From Sleep and Back to Sanity. His academic publications include papers in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies. He is also the author of a volume of Spiritual Poetry, The Meaning.
About the author :
Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. For the last four years he has been included (this year at no. 62) in Mind, Body, Spirit magazine’s list of the ‘100 most spiritually influential living people.’ His books include Waking From Sleep, The Fall, Out of the Darkness, Back to Sanity, and his latest book The Calm Center.
His books have been published in 19 languages, while his articles and essays have been published in over 40 academic journals, magazines and newspapers, including Philosophy Now, Tikkun, The Daily Express, The Journal of Humanistic Psychology and others.
He regularly appears in the media in the UK, and has recently been featured on BBC Radio 5, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC World TV, and BBC World Service radio.
Eckhart Tolle has described his work as ‘an important contribution to the shift in consciousness which is happening on our planet at present.’ Steve’s book ‘The Calm Center’ was published through Eckhart’s own publishing imprint. This is also the case with his new book, The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening, which was published in March 2017.
Steve lives in Manchester, England, with his wife and three young children.
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