Goodbye Summer 2011 image

Leaving God and Monastic Order

Monastic life was supposed to be an exalted path to self-realization, spiritual enlightenment, and God. But the pain of feeling “stuck” was greater than my fear of leaving the Order. I had to get out.

Reasons why I left the Order and left God was the focus of my conversation with Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

Our conversation was published on Patheos / Rational Doubt1 blog. With permission from Rational Doubt editor and cofounder of The Clergy Project2, Linda LaScola, my interview with Scott Jacobsen is reposted below.

Scott Jacobsen: You published the story of your personal transition from being part of a monastic order called the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order to not being a part of it. The story is on The Clergy Project website, dated May 27, 2015. You were known as Brahmachari Scott. Now, you’re just Scott (me, too). For those leaving monastic orders, what are important things to keep in mind?

“Scott” creator of Skeptic Meditations: It was a big deal to leave the Self-Realization Monastic Order (the Order or SRF) after 14 years. It was a pivotal decision in life. I joined the Order when I was 24, expecting to be a monk for the rest of my life. I took vows of loyalty, obedience and chastity. All, purportedly, for finding God and self-realization. My justification for being a monk was that purpose. But it was complex.

For reasons as complicated as life can become, I felt out of place. I realized the monastery was not for me. This wasn’t the end, though. In the most important ways, my journey unfolded when I chose to come back to the world.

Before leaving the Order, I spent months acclimating myself to the outside world. It was like dipping toes into cold water before the plunge.

Instead of attending the regularly scheduled monastic classes, I joined a local Toastmasters club. I practiced public speaking. Rather than turn my doubts and fears inward—as I did for decades, I visited an outside psychotherapist, and confided my hopes and fears to her. Before seeing that psychotherapist, I spent years weighing the pros and cons of staying in or leaving the Order. I built an underground support community of trusted current and former monastics, church members and biological family.

At the time, I had a motto:

I’m not moving away from anything. I’m moving towards something.

Something great, I hoped. I did not know, but I felt I was moving towards something great based on a vision. I was developing a plan for a new life. That energized me. The pain of feeling “stuck” was greater than my fear of leaving the Order. I was one of the lucky few. I escaped. When I say “escaped,” I mean physically and psychologically.

Many monks from the Order I lived with still live in the monastery. Many others left. However, some of those who left still psychologically stuck within the Order. The monastery is still with them. It is more important where one resides psychologically rather than physically, in my opinion, speaking now from over a decade of experience. Some people have the privilege to move. Several monks stayed in the Order who were instrumental in helping me become who I am today. For me, leaving the Order was about moving towards, rather than away, from something.

What are some expected difficulties—personal, familial, and professional—in transitioning out of a monastic order?

The difficulties included learning how to reintegrate into society. We had extremely limited access to the outside world. The monks were allowed to watch one movie a month, and even that was censored. The Monks’ Library contained only censored materials: books of saints and yogis, the LA Times newspaper and magazines like National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. Access to the internet, during my tenure, was blocked or filtered and our phone calls were monitored for ‘billing’ purposes. We were charged for long-distance calls, which discouraged outside contact. Censoring of our exposure to the world, we were told, was for our own spiritual development.

Life inside was like a cult.

Upon re-entry into the world, I felt woefully inadequate in practical matters of daily life.

To transition, I learned how to be an adult, and to be assertive, to negotiate and pay my bills. I had to reintegrate into society, rebuild my life, relationships, and start a career. When I left, I had no job, no home and no family to live with. I had to prove to myself that I could make my way in the world. Within two years of leaving, I enrolled in university and graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree while working for a corporation.

 

I was intrigued by your description of monastic life on The Clergy Project website:

…monks didn’t just sit all-day chanting, praying, and navel-gazing.

Monastery routine consisted of meditation, classes, recreation, 9-to-5 jobs: ministering to a worldwide religious congregation at the Self-Realization Fellowship churches, temples, meditation centers and groups, and spiritual retreats. Each monk received $40 per month cash allowance, room and board, paid medical care, and all-you-could-eat lacto-ovo vegetarian buffet.

You were working in rather extreme conditions. What was running through your mind? What is the insight gained since you left about monastic life, e.g. working conditions?

I was convinced by church doctrine and the spiritual mythologies. They stated that renunciation and self-sacrifice was an exalted path to God, self-realization and spiritual freedom. However, a few years after leaving, I was able to step back and take a stern look at the conditions of the Order.

In the monastery, I lived inside a closed, cult-like system. SRF is a Hindu-inspired meditation group.

The followers—consciously or unconsciously—buy into false premises taught by the church. Once one believes the false premises, it becomes easy to surrender to the work and spiritual routine for hours, days, weeks, months and years. You hand over control to teacher, guru, church or religion.

SRF puts a premium on meditation techniques as the highest way to spiritual development or self-realization.

Examples of some of the premises3 we believed:

  • You are unaware. Meditation is the way to unbroken awareness. If you are not fully aware, keep meditating.
  • You are one with God, but don’t know it. Meditation is the path to God. If you don’t know God, keep meditating.
  • You are asleep and don’t know it. Meditation is the way to wake spiritually. If you are asleep spiritually, keep meditating.

Now, I look back and regret having spent precious years in the pursuit of the Order’s false premises. But, better late than never, I outgrew them.

The Scientific American article was the linchpin to becoming an atheist within your social circle, friends and family. What seems to be the main reason for transitioning out of monastic life?

There’s so many reasons why I left.

Mostly, I needed to change and grow. The Order wasn’t about change or growth. Lord knows, I tried. Ultimately, the church and its leader were about perpetuating the “revealed” teachings of the teachers. I was lucky; I saw through the false premises of the church. I never regretted leaving it.

There are local agnostic, atheist, humanist, and freethinker organizations to provide support for people. How can friends and family give support?

Family and friends play a vital role in supporting people like me who leave extreme religions or cult-like groups.

My family accepted me. I can not think of anything special that family and friends can do that is different that what true friends and family do: laugh, care, and do things together. Naturally, different friends and family serve different needs for us. It was most helpful for me to connect with a variety of people from different cultures or worldviews. Having a good therapist helped, I did not become a burden for friends and loved ones with my issues.

You created Skeptic Meditations as well. It is a general resource on skepticism with a blog. How can people become involved with Skeptic Meditations?

I created Skeptic Meditations to critically examine the supernatural claims of yogis, mystics, and meditators, and to muse and critique my experiences inside the SRF/the Order.

Christians have many resources to question and doubt, if they choose. After coming out of the Order, which is a Hindu-inspired meditation group, I found precious few resources for people like me who had left Christianity and questioned Eastern religion, especially yoga meditation. Skeptic Meditations explores the hidden, sometimes darker, side of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.

Thank you for your time, Scott.

I’ve enjoyed your questions and chatting with you. Thank you.

After our interview was published, I asked Scott Jacobsen his reasons for founding In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

Jacobsen: Whether religious leave or irreligious find religion, I want individuals to have the freedom to choose the path for their own lives. Often, danger comes from restriction of belief, conscience, and movement of people caught in unhealthy communities, which are often religious or cultish, or outright cults”.

Scott D. Jacobsen, interviewer and founder of In-Sight, may be contacted at Scott.D.Jacobsen@gmail.com.

Question for readers: In your own life, in what unhealthy communities may you have been “stuck”? What did you do to leave, to learn and to grow after leaving the group for your better life?

Notes
1,2. Patheos / Rational Doubt is a blog where the public and non-believing and doubting [religious] clergy can interact. Contributors include founders of The Clergy Project, including Linda LaScola, and both “out” and “still-closeted” members of a private forum. Active or former clergy-persons who no longer believe in their faith in God, Higher Powers, or supernatural can learn more about The Clergy Project private forum.

3. Read my post Duped by Meditation? for an explanation of false premises peddled by many meditation teachers and groups.

re-interpreting mystical experience, image

Re-Interpreting Mystical Experience

What creates feelings of ecstasy and a sense of contact with universal oneness? What’s the link between these feelings and spiritual disciplines, meditation practices, and religious frameworks?

There is no question that mystical experience is a powerful and can be a valuable experience. But society tends to explain mystical experience as something mysterious, religious, or supernatural. Most people have neither sufficient knowledge nor the confidence in their own minds or bodies to question or understand mystical experiences. Nor are most people aware of the role of psychology and physiology in mystical experience.

In this post, I try to answer generally what is mystical experience. Then I describe two feelings common of mystical experience. Next, I describe the reported physiological (bodily) and psychological (emotional/mental) effects. And lastly, I list eight bodily and mental processes that can drastically alter our perceptions and that can produce mystical experience.

What is mystical experience?

Two feelings–ecstasy and a contact with universal sense of oneness–are common denominators of mystical experience.1 The reports of mystical experience often include effects that are both physiological and psychological.

Psychological effects that are reported can include visions, out-of-body sensations, or unconsciously expressed behaviors such as speaking in tongues, feelings of being possessed by a spirit, crying from happiness or feelings of extreme exhilaration or profound calmness. Consider this example:

But as I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, . . . the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed, it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love . . . it seemed to fan me, like immense wings.

No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, ‘I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.’ . . . yet I had no fear of death.2

Physiological changes in heart or breathing rate, or in body temperature and so on are often reported. Sometimes chemical or neurological imbalances in the brain can produce mystical experience. Consider for example:

Lucinda has temporal lobe epilepsy and says things like, “during the seizure, I experience God—I see the meaning of the universe, the true meaning of the universe, for the first time in my life. I understand my place in the cosmic scheme of things.”3

Body/brain alterations and mystical experience

Generally speaking, physiological and psychological changes (such as those reported in mystical experiences) can be expected whenever basic bodily or mental processes are altered drastically. Many effective alterations include4:

1) Drugs–mind-altering chemicals–man- or plant-made, such as psychedelics, alcohol, opiates, and anesthetics–directly affect body and brain processes and are perhaps the easiest route to unusual perception or mystical experience.

2) Alterations in breathing–holding the breath, slowing the breath, or deep, rapid breathing are ways of altering the oxygen/carbon balance in our blood and brains, often produce bodily and perceptual alterations.

3) Fasting–lack of nutrients, abstaining from certain foods, can alter our bodily and mental perceptions. Progressive starvation (nutritional deprivation) can lead to altered states of consciousness (including hallucinations or death).

4) Deprivations–frustration, repression, or extreme denial such as loss of sleep, fatigue, unexpressed sexual or intimate feelings, including self-inflicted pain or suffering, can break down physical and psychological stability and can produce mystical states.

5) Fever–delirium and hallucinations it is well known, can be produced by lengthy or high fever or body temperature.

6) Excitement, exertion–these conditions create changes in the breathing, heart rate, oxygen and blood balance in the body that can alter perceptions.

7) Combinations of the above–for example, combining fasting, loss of sleep, and extreme sexual abstinence (celibacy or chastity) can produce altered states of consciousness.

8) Random or unknown–seemingly for no known reason an altered state or mystical experience can be produced. However, not knowing reason doesn’t excuse interpretations that we then claim to “know” the reason is some god, spirit, or supernatural power.

Mystical experiences can be powerful and valuable.

It is possible for us to develop greater self-awareness and trust in our own capabilities without interpreting or concluding that mystical experience is:

1) Evidence of the supernatural or some god or spirit.

2) A hoax or delusion.

Through better understanding of drastically altering body/brain processes and what mystical experiences are–psychologically and physiologically–we can appreciate these powerful and valuable experiences. We need not dismiss or assume mystical experience is something mysterious, religious, or supernatural. By developing better self-awareness and self-trust we can avoid pitfalls of using interpreters of mystical experience–whether these interpretations are filtered through holy books, gurus and presumed enlightened masters or other second-hand, so-called authorities.

Notes
1 I’m indebted to Andrew Neher’s excellent book, Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination, p 106, for his simple and elegant explanation of these two common feelings.

2 The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, William James, The Project Gutenberg EBook, retrieved 23 Apr 2017 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/621/621-h/621-h.html

3 Read my post God in a Seizure: Epilepsy & Mysticism, http://skepticmeditations.com/2014/12/11/god-in-a-seizure-epilepsy-mysticism/

4 I’m indebted to Andrew Neher’s excellent book, Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination, p 19, for his list of things that can drastically alter body and brain processes.

Sleep Paralysis In Yoga Tradition

What is sleep paralysis? How is the experience interpreted in yoga tradition?

Every night we suffer from sleep paralysis. But we are not always aware of it. Sleep paralysis occurs while we are half awake and half asleep and we can’t move.

“Always when I’m going off to sleep. It’s pretty much the same”, Ted, a 35 year old British psychologist described his experiences of sleep paralysis. “My eyes are open and I get the sense something in the room is happening. Then a shape gathers. A presence. I can feel its weight. I have multisensory sensations. I feel like my body is floating. I can’t move it. I try to make a sound in my throat. I can’t. As I keep struggling to cry out, eventually scream out and that wakes me up and then I can move my body.”[1]

As I was thinking about writing this post, I kept hearing readers tell me, “You don’t know that sleep paralysis is similar to yoga meditation experiences. Who are you to speculate on the traditions and experiences of yogis, saints, and mystics?” I had my doubts about writing this post. While what I write may not adequately address all aspects of sleep paralysis and interpretations, I feel it is important anyway to write this article.

In between sleeping and waking, in this “threshold consciousness”, are a variety of mental phenomena that includes lucid dreaming, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis. I assert the sleep paralysis may be, in yoga tradition, what is interpreted as union with god, soul, or spirit. But more on that later. First, let’s return to what happens in our body during sleep paralysis.

What Happens During Sleep Paralysis?

While sleeping, your body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One REM and one NREM sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes. First is the NREM sleep cycle which takes as much as 75% of your overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, your body relaxes and rejuvenates itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. Your eyes move rapidly, dreams occur while the rest of your body remains very relaxed. During REM your muscles are “switched off”. If you become aware and interrupt before the REM cycle is finished, you may notice you cannot move or speak. This is sleep paralysis.[2]

In Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis Chris French, Professor and Psychologist at University of London, identified three psychological factors in the experience of sleep paralysis:

  1. Intruder — The person may sense a presence, hear voices or strange sounds, and see lights or visions. In a word–hallucinate.
  2. Incubus[3] — The experiencer may feel pressure, be unable to voluntarily control breathing, may panic creating a feeling of suffocation or difficulty breathing.
  3. Unusual body experiences — Sensations of floating, flying, or hovering, and out of body experiences. Proprioception, self-orientation within the body, is missing or out of order.

Sleep paralysis may evoke feelings of bliss or terror. The experience may be interpreted differently by different cultures or traditions. In Hinduism, Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. Whether the experience is terrible or joyful is irrelevant. It’s the tradition and the interpretation that frames it as either sleep paralysis or sacred yoga.

How is sleep paralysis experience interpreted by yoga meditation tradition?

Narada prostrating before Vishvamurti, Public Domain.
Narada prostrating before Vishvamurti, Public Domain.

Yoga Tradition and Sleep Paralysis Experience

Famed yogi-guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, taught his students a “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy:

“As you are falling asleep each night, keep your eyes half-open and focused at the point between the eyebrows; consciously enjoy in a relaxed nonchalant way the state at the border of joyous sleep as long as you can hold it without falling asleep, and you will learn to go into ecstasy at will. . . Try to remain in this state from five minutes to one hour, then you will know about yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God.”[4]

The practice of the yogi-guru’s technique (above) could result in what Western medicine and psychology says is sleep paralysis. Yogananda interprets sleep paralysis experience as “yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God”.

Another aspect of sleep paralysis which overlaps with yoga tradition is samadhi. Samadhi is by tradition the supreme goal of yoga (union or communion with God).

Let’s examine some similarities between so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis.

Similarities Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis

When compared with sleep paralysis we find many similarities between yoga samadhi experiences, which include:

  • Immobilized body, unable to move
  • Altered or heightened awareness
  • Heard voices, sounds
  • Saw shapes, visions
  • Sensed presence
  • Disabled physical senses
  • Labored breathing
  • Panicked to breathe, speak, or move
  • Felt terror[5] or bliss (depending on experiencer interpretation)
  • Sensed floating, levitating
  • Hovered, outside, or “above” the physical body

To be aware is to experience. No awareness, no experience. After awareness of experience comes interpretation.

For instance, you become aware you can feel or control your “breathing”. Terror sets in. You panic. You gasp for breath. Or, you feel detached from your physical body. You feel bliss or terror.

I had panicked during yoga meditation. My awareness just landed on “not breathing” after feeling “outside” my body. I panicked and gasped for air. Coming back to voluntary control of my body.

An American-born swami-monk lectured around the world about the blessings of yoga meditation. The first time he practiced his guru’s yoga meditation technique, he told audiences he panicked when he became aware he was “not breathing”. Gasping finally resulted in sucking air into his lungs. Immediately the swami said he was brought back into his body consciousness.

Personal experiences like these are anecdotes, not proof the phenomena are objectively real. Returning now to the anecdotes reported by yogis and experiences of sleep paralysis patients, let’s examine the differences.

Differences Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis

Differences between sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi, includes:

Sleep Paralysis Yoga samadhi
Very common. More than 3 million US cases per year.[6] Legendary, mythical claims and anecdotal stories not well-documented nor verified by independent researchers.
Reproduced, well-documented by independent researchers in various lab experiments. Not reproduced, not well-documented by independent research or lab experiments.
Mechanism fairly well-understood for how and why physical and psychological phenomena occurs during half awake, half asleep state. No “samadhi” or superconscious awareness has been clearly explained in a verifiable, credible way. No scientifically known mechanism for how and why a superconsciousness exists or is actually different from non-supernatural brain states, such as sleep paralysis.
Recorded durations of seconds or minutes. Said to last minutes, hours, days, years, or for eternity (when one reaches godhood or cosmic consciousness). No well-documented cases from independent researchers or experiments.

What can sleep paralysis teach us about yoga traditions?

When we compare sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi experiences we find many similarities. Not all phenomena related to so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis experiences are the same. Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy” seems to be yoga method to induce sleep paralysis. The ecstasy or experience that Yogananda and yoga tradition may interpret as supreme yoga–union or communion with God–physicians and psychologists may call sleep paralysis.

Have you experienced sleep paralysis? Yoga “samadhi”? What do you think of similarities or differences between the interpretations by yoga tradition?

Notes

1 Professor Chris French, Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis. Presentation at Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, Oct. 11, 2009. Accessed Aug. 30, 2016, https://vimeo.com/11459308.

2 “Sleep Paralysis”. WebMD, accesssed Aug. 30, 2016, http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-paralysis#1-3.

3 “Sleep Paralysis”. Rationalwiki, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis. In Medieval Europe demons called incubus were said to attack women and succubus to attack men, usually sexually. Different cultures interpret differently but usually mythologically the experiences of sleep paralysis, altered awareness, and yoga samadhi.

4  Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship Lesson 154. Yogananda refers to “conscious” sleep throughout his yoga lessons, “The soul may use its intuition together with life force released from bodily activities during the relaxation of sleep to project true visions on the screen of the subconscious. Visions may show events to come, as the soul can use its intuitive power to “photograph” future happenings. But a vision does not appear until sufficient energy has been relaxed from the heart and from the ordinary waking consciousness (as in sleep) to project it”, Lesson 73. And, “This detachment of the mind from body consciousness [during yoga meditation] is similar to that experienced in sleep, except that one remains consciously aware”, Summary Lesson.

5 “Visvarupa”. Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vishvarupa. Bliss and terror are bedfellows in Hindu mythology. Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu bible, Lord Krishna reveals to his chief-disciple, Arjuna, the Viśvarūpa experience. Arjuna is terrified by Viśvarūpa, said to the universal form of Hindu God(s).
6 “Sleep Paralysis”. Mayo Clinic and Google Search, accessed Aug. 30, 2016,  https://g.co/kgs/3Vw3IB.

Effects of Meditation: Normal or Supernatural?

Meditation is an example of how our experience changes as our understanding changes. Often meditation has been thought of as producing paranormal or supernatural experiences. As we learn more about the brain, psychology, and physiology in meditation, its effects are seen as normal or natural, though some experiences may seem extraordinary.

What are the effects of meditation on our senses and perceptions?

In this post we’ll explore the effects of meditation and discuss three psycho-physiological concepts—habituation, inhibition, and proprioception–and how understanding these three concepts can change our understanding of the effects of meditation from something supernatural to natural.

Let’s begin our discussion with how meditation is monotonous stimulation and involves habituation.

Monotonous stimulation and meditation

Our nervous system is designed to respond to stimulus change. After awhile we stop noticing continuous, unvarying stimulus. The diminished sensitivity of our senses to a constant stimulus is known as habituation.1 For example, when we first hang a new picture on our bedroom wall we are stimulated upon entering the room and notice the new picture. After a while though we don’t notice the picture at all. Habituation is when we cease to respond to stimulus after repeated exposures.

Most of meditation practice involves monotonous stimulation. Meditation involves habituation. The meditator sits in one pose, concentrates on or repeats one thought, mantra, visual image, breath, and so on. With habituation, with unvarying, monotonous stimulus over time our nervous system “habituates” and ceases to be aware of the stimulus. Excessive practice of meditation can produce a physical, mental, and emotional withdrawal from people or activity.

Sometimes with withdrawal, depersonalization-derealization occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or that you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both. [Read my post on Depersonalization and Derealization.]

Later we discuss how habituation relates to understanding meditation experiences. Next we explore inhibition and meditation.

Inhibition and meditation

The mental ability to tune out stimuli that are irrelevant to the physical or mental task at hand is called inhibition. Occasionally when concentrating intently on one task at hand you may have noticed you forget time, space, and may not even hear noises such as a doorbell or phone ring. Cognitive inhibition can be experienced wholly or partially, intentionally or unintentionally.2 Inhibition, in physiological psychology, refers to the suppression of neural electrical activity.3 Inhibitory neurons, inhibit or block the activity of other neurons. Inhibitory neurons, writes Andrew Neher in Paranormal and Transcendental Experience, in essence cancel our awareness of a stimulus.4

Meditation practice can produce habituation and inhibition. Adept meditators may, through inhibition and habituation, be unresponsive physically and psychologically to stimuli such as loud noises that normally would startle or cause involuntary reaction. A coveted by-product and goal of meditation practitioners is sensory withdrawal and deprivation.

Sufi dancing, photo by madmonk on Flickr
Sufi dancing, photo by madmonk on Flickr

Sensory withdrawal and deprivation

Sensory isolation, similar to sensory deprivation—such as floatation tanks, extreme fasting and sexual abstinence—can produce altered states of awareness and transcendental experiences. Short-term sessions of sensory deprivation may be relaxing and conducive to meditation. But extended sessions of sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, and depression.5

Meditation, like other religious rituals such as holy rolling (whirling dervishes), chanting, and prayer with repetitive and monotonous stimulation, can produce habituation, inhibition, and sensory withdrawal and can produce anxiety, hallucinations, and bizarre thoughts.

A simple experiment may demonstrate to you the effects of habituation and inhibition: Stare intently and unblinkingly at one still object for a few seconds or a minute. As your gaze remains fixed on a singular stationary object without moving your eyes you may produce the sensation of hovering outside your body or expanding into space outside of your body. Through non-blinking, non-moving of your eyeballs you can maintain an unvarying and monotonous stimulus and may feel an altered state of awareness. Your location of your mind and body in space—proprioception—has been altered.

Out of body, out of mind—proprioception and meditation.

Our perception of body location and movement in space relies on receptive sensations—proprioceptors—“in the inner ear and in the muscles, tendons and joints of the body”.6 The perception of stimuli related to one’s own body posture, position, equilibrium, and internal condition or sensation is proprioception.

Juliana Coutinho, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Juliana Coutinho, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

People who have proprioceptive disorders have difficulty knowing where their body is in space, difficulty understanding physical boundaries when interacting with other people or objects. When our proprioception is altered we may also lose our sense of gravity, feel a weightlessness or extreme heaviness of our body.

When one or more of our senses—even one eye or ear—is not functioning properly we lose our sense of balance and distance from objects and ourselves. We may bump into objects, lose our sense of direction in space, or may fall down or injure ourselves. When I used to wear contact lenses to correct my nearsightedness, occasionally I would get an eye infection, pink-eye. The contact lense would agitate my already irritated, infected pink-eye. I would then remove the lense from my infected eye and keep one lense in my other eye. Though I could see fair with one lense only, my ability to judge distance between my body and objects in space—my proprioception—was altered. Bumping my head in doorways or smashing into furniture was not uncommon when I only could see well out of one eye, when my proprioception was altered. Maybe observers thought I was drunk or a clutz?

Natural or supernatural effects of meditation?

During meditation, when the body is still and when habituation and inhibition are operating, proprioceptors sometimes stop signaling a sense of body and mind location. When that happens our awareness of body and mind changes. We may feel a sense of “self” expansion, levitation, or a “pure” consciousness detached from or hovering outside the body.7 You may have experienced this feeling when falling to sleep. Or, as you wake up and before your awareness or sensation has fully returned to your body.

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak when waking or falling asleep. The Mayo Clinic estimates there are more than 3 million US cases of sleep paralysis each year.8 Perhaps you have experienced sleep paralysis. I have. The experience can be terrifying. As I lay awake I panicked: paralyzed, unable to move, a lump of flesh in bed. Within moments though I was able to muster the will to move my limbs. What a relief to be able to move again.

Some people may interpret temporary paralysis, habituation, and proprioception imbalances as “out of body” experiences, astral projection, or altered states of awareness.

Meditation experiences as natural phenomenon

If our premises are that meditation is a “gateway” to supernatural or paranormal dimensions then that’s what we interpret or make our experiences mean. But, when we understand natural, ordinary sensations—such as habituation, inhibition, and proprioception—we are less prone to interpret these sensations as paranormal or supernatural.

Probably so-called samadhi, nirvana, or cosmic consciousness experiences are partially or wholly caused by a combination of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception imbalances.

The psycho-physiological concepts of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception don’t explain all the effects of meditation. Mystery not fully solved. However, by understanding these concepts we may better understand many meditation experiences as natural phenomenon. Through understanding habituation, inhibition, and proprioception we have alternative and plausible explanations for what many believe are paranormal and supernatural effects of meditation practices.

Notes

Top image credit, Ryan Somma, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
1 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
2 “Cognitive inhibition.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_inhibition.
3 “Inhibition.” Britannica. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/inhibition-psychology.
4 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
5 “Sensory deprivation.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_deprivation
6 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
7 Ibid.
8 “Sleep Paralysis.” Mayo Clinic and Google. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://g.co/kgs/z2HyyL.

Motivations of Meditation Practitioners

By examining certain types of meditation techniques it’s possible to gauge the motivations of its practitioners. Imagine, for example, that scientists or sages came up with the following devices or techniques. In each pair, which one do you think would be more popular?

a) A meditation device that helps you gain wealth, repairs broken relationships, and grants peace and wisdom.
b) A device that reminds you of each of your personal flaws.

a) A meditation device that projects the realistic illusion that your self, your life, is eternally peaceful and blissful.
b) A device that projects the realistic illusion that your self, your life, is a death march to oblivion and nothingness.

a) A special meditation device that you use that guarantees a happy ending regardless of what you think or how much you suffer.
b) A device you use that guarantees nothing regardless of what you think and how much you use it.

a) A special device that turns off external noises and static and turns on internal quiet and serenity.
b) A special device that amplifies noises and static and turns up internal disquiet and conflict.

These are all features of the same device—meditation technique or practice—but you will have no trouble picking which of each pair sells better. That’s because you already have a good sense of what people want, what they want to believe and what they prefer to avoid and ignore.

Our ability to predict a device’s popularity is based on an intuitive grasp of the human condition.1 The degree of consistence with human preference, more than the devices themselves, determines which devices succeed in the human marketplace.

To put it another way, designing successful products is the art of catering to human psyches—our wants, fears, and needs—and avoiding their opposites—our flaws, suffering, and internal insecurities.

Any wonder that meditation products have become so popular? Gurus and marketers know how to cater to our human condition by giving us devices that promise to overcome our fears, suffering, and grant us power.

Alex Martinez, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Alex Martinez, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A convertible sports car, for example, is marketed to us with the promise that the little red roadster will boost our self-esteem, impress others, and make us happy. Yet, we know the little red roadster could crash, injure or kill, and drain our pocket books. The other side to the device is seldom presented or sold.

Meditation devices are heavily promoted but seldom presented as coming with endless conflict with a restless monkey mind, petty thoughts, and occasional psychotic episodes.

Yes, some people may find meditation beneficial. Yet, there is no denying, as we have discovered on this website, there is a dark- and dangerous-side to meditation techniques and organizations. To emphasize only the upside of meditation devices—as most gurus and meditation groups do—is to pander to the human condition and prey on vulnerable and gullible believers. The way to counter this is to think critically and skeptically about the claims of meditation promoters and believers.

Notes
Image credit: Motivations (scrabble), Nichole Burrows, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
1 The inspiration for this post came from Kentaro Toyama’s Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, PublicAffairs, New York:NY, 2015.