Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness

OvO, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
OvO, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Dependence upon religiously interpreted state of consciousness (RISC) is dangerous and can be used to justify fanaticism and psychosis. Dreams, trances, and near death experiences are commonplace in human experience and often are interpreted as prophesies and new revelations says religious scholar Alan F. Segal.

In Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West Segal thoroughly examines in his chapter Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness new revelations, altered-states of awareness, and near death experiences.

Let us peek into Segal’s expose´ of Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness.

Altered states of consciousness (ASC) or religiously altered states of consciousness (RASC), and religiously interpreted states of consciousness (RISC),  all refer to the same phenomena in different guises.

  • RASC stress that an altered state of consciousness is claimed by the adept;
  • RISC recognizes this claim but does not specify that any actual altered state needs to be achieved,
    • only that the behavior is considered to be consonant with RASC, thus the behavior is being interpreted religiously.
    • RISC is an analytic term, giving recognition to the difficulty in measuring exactly what ecstasy or trance is. p 323

The native understanding of the phenomenon in Jewish culture is not so much “rapture” as explicitly “ecstasy” in its technical sense (ek + stasis, meaning “standing outside”), as the narrator states his soul has fled. p 331

There is RISC in meditation, mindfulness, and yoga training and practices–that is, we find practitioners claiming ecstasy or nirvana, raising conscious awareness above “self”, transcending ordinary mind or ego, and sensing being “outside” of self. These altered states of awareness from meditation could be interpreted as ecstatic or psychotic, depending upon the person experiencing. [See my infographic of Depersonalization and Derealization]

The difference between deafferentation [the elimination or interruption of sensory nerve impulses] and disinhibition [temporary loss of inhibition] and a detailed mystical ascent to heaven is the long mystical training of the adepts who learn both techniques for achieving the physical states and the culture’s social and cultural lore about what the state means. p 336

Not surprisingly, we have seen that every group in society normally searches for a transcendent justification for its religious position, lifestyle, and political position. p 697

In contemporary Western society we find that meditation, mindfulness, and yoga are frequently used to justify an individual’s and group’s quest to transcend, to stand “outside” of, ordinary states of human awareness–to self-realize and to experience religiously interpreted states of consciousness (RISC). Nothing wrong with notions of transcendence, but when we try to validate RISC as infallible (exempt from error) these notions can be dangerous.

Dangers of believing in RISC

It is fanatical and dangerous, concludes Segal, to depend upon the validity of religiously interpreted states of consciousness (RISC).

Can we really privilege our ecstatic experience…? Granting that seductive premise is essentially arrogating to ourselves the same legitimacy we want to deny Osama bin Laden.

To believe in the validity of all such experiences is surely dangerous. It can justify fanaticism and psychosis. Science should seek understanding, not infallibility. p 711

Conclusions

Religiously interpreted state of consciousness (RISC), altered states of consciousness (ASC) or religiously altered states of consciousness (RASC) all refer to the same phenomena in different guises, says Alan F. Segal, religious scholar and author of Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West, in his chapter on Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness.

Trance or ecstatic (ek + stasis, meaning “standing outside”) states implies that human ego, mind, or self has fled ordinary conscious awareness or that the soul has fled from the body. Every group in society normally searches for a transcendent justification for its religious position, lifestyle, and political position, reminds Segal. Relying upon religiously interpreted states of consciousness (RISC) for validity can be dangerous and could be used to justify fanaticism and psychosis. Fallible humans ought to seek understanding first, not infallibility.

7 comments

  1. saijanai

    You might find this TM/Maharishi Mahesh Yogi lecture from 1971 on Yoga to be of interest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4j7Nlc4MpIk

    The point being that Being or samadhi is beyond interpretation, and yet people insist on interpreting it, even so.

    One of the most famous interpretations is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Maharishi’s lecture above provides a meta-perspective on Yoga and so on. This isn’t a religious interpretation, per se, but merely a perspective that provides reconciliation of all the other perspectives that people put forth. Insomuch as a specific altered state of consciousness might be Yoga-related, then one can see that interpretations are inherently limited, as Maharishi brings out above.

  2. SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: I’m reminded, by your statement that “Being or samadhi is beyond interpretation”, of something I heard about “ineffability“.

    Those who espouse ineffability give importance/value for this “interpretation”. Like beauty and justice, subjective experiences are no less important for being unverifiable or ineffable.

    Glad to hear you feel good from TM and that you interpret your experiences as valuable.

    I’m suspicious of human interpretations masquerading as infallible truths. It doesn’t matter to me whether those “ineffable” truths are described/interpreted by Maharishi or Einstein. To claim otherwise seems to me to require special pleading, for an exception to be made, which the religious are especially adept at–filling in gaps with interpretations and “special” revelations.

    Thanks

  3. saijanai

    Well, Maharishi’s interpretation of samadhi is that it is beyond description inherently.

    The physiological theory of why this might be the case is that the physiological apparatus that supports internal discourse of any kind (aka “qualia”) has shut down.

    Dunno if samadhi exists, or if the proposed physiological explanation is valid, but if the latter is correct, samadhi is inherently “”ineffable” and you can call it special pleading all day long and your description would be like calling gravity “special pleading.”

  4. SkepticMeditations

    Except, saijanai, gravity is a theory that has been proven mathematically and in laboratories. Your attempt at comparison is invalid.

    Maharishi’s claims about samadhi are vague interpretations and speculations of subjective phenomenon. Maharishi gives no coherent theory nor mechanism that can be validated mathematically, in a lab, or using natural laws that we understand govern our universe.

    Gullible devotees claim that their gurus and intuitions are the “special” explanations–that they are beyond critical thinking, defy reason, and logical interpretation.

    When gurus and devotees claim they have access to universal, infallible truths–rather than admit all they have is human interpretations of subjective phenomena–then they overreach.

  5. saijanai

    Except, saijanai, gravity is a theory that has been proven mathematically and in laboratories. Your attempt at comparison is invalid.
    You’re failing to acknowledge that there IS evidence (never proof) of a consistent physiological state correlated with self-reports of samadhi. My point is that the proposed mechanism by which such a state occurs, IF VALID, would explain why such a state is fundamentally “ineffable”: the physiological mechanisms by which we can explain or describe anything at all, have been repressed or suspended for the duration of the state.
    Now, it is entirely possible that the proposed mechanism is invalid, but my point was (and is): IF the proposed mechanism is correct, then it explains why samadhi is ineffable: by our current understanding of how the brain works, we couldn’t’ possible describe samadhi as an internal state. In that case (the case that would exist IF THE PROPOSED MECHANISM PROVES TO BE VALID), you insistence that there is “special pleading” that it is ineffable is like calling some other demonstrated physical phenomenon (such as gravity) “special pleading.”

    Maharishi’s claims about samadhi are vague interpretations and speculations of subjective phenomenon. Maharishi gives no coherent theory nor mechanism that can be validated mathematically, in a lab, or using natural laws that we understand govern our universe.
    Not completely vague, and in fact, Maharishi’s own theory, that the breath suspension associated with samadhi was driven by reductions in oxygen consumption, was falsified 30+ years ago when the first detailed physiological studies of pure consciousness were published. In the same paper that falisified his theory, it was proposed that the breath suspension was caused by a temporary reduction in CO2 sensitivity.

    Gullible devotees claim that their gurus and intuitions are the “special” explanations–that they are beyond critical thinking, defy reason, and logical interpretation.
    At least in teh context of the explanation for the breath suspension associated with pure consciousness, this assertion is false: Maharishi’s theory was wrong. One of his “gullible devotees” showed this in a scientific paper published in the early 1980’s. Maharishi’s response was basically:
    huh. cool.

    A similar thing occurred in the context of Yogic Flying. Maharishi believed that even the “hopping like a frog” stage still involved some abrogation of gravity, if only for the instant that it took for people to go up into the air. When an independent sports physiologist was hired and showed that there was no evidence of anything other than muscle power involved, Maharishi’s response was:
    I guess “hopping like a frog” means “hopping LIKE a frog” (the term is found in the Shiva Samhita and is used by Yogananada in his book, as we discussed earlier).

    At this point, during their first public demonstration of Yogic Flying in New Dehli, India, the TM organization explicitly said that it was the force of the muscles pushing against the ground that caused the person to hop into the air but continued to insist that the second state -floating- would soon happen.

    Now there are plenty of places where Maharishi’s claims are not falsifiable, or if they are, the TM organization carefully refrains from conducting the kind of experiment that would falsify them, but in the specific case of samadhi (AKA “pure consciousness”), the TM researchers have been reasonably above board about how their findings falsified one of Maharishi’s most prominent theories (perhaps THE most prominent as it was the first).

  6. SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: Have you had a chance to read the new book by Dr Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, The Buddha Pill? The books examines TM studies, frog hopping, and much clinical research from TM through to current, including the mindfulness meditation movement. I think you’d find the book interesting, even if you may not agree with some conclusions. Many of the book’s points we’ve touched upon here on this blog. I read the Buddha Pill book and am in the process of writing some posts to share on the blog. Stay tuned.

    Thanks for your comments. I see your formatting in your last post.

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