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Hallucinatory Experience & Religion Formation
Shawn Harte considers how hallucination might be mistaken for the supernatural.
When with a skeptical eye we scrutinize the supernatural mythology of the world’s religions, it can be easy to understand why David Hume viewed these beliefs as the products of “sick men’s dreams.” But it is premature to dismiss religion-forming experiences in this way. We resort too readily to skepticism, in order to relieve ourselves of the responsibility to investigate those things we do not know how to understand. Religions derive not from the supernatural; but nor do they derive from liars or madmen. Rather, I will assert here that religions are the result of honest and sane but misguided individuals who experienced two extraordinary but very natural phenomena: sleep paralysis, and the out-of-body experience.
Sleep paralysis is a condition in which R.E.M. atonia – the natural paralysis which prevents us acting out our dreams – prematurely initiates prior to falling asleep, or mistakenly remains active into wakefulness. It typically lasts seconds to minutes. Frequently accompanying this wakened period of immobility, and occasionally without the immobility, is dream imagery. This visual component of sleep paralysis is called a hypnagogic hallucination when it occurs just prior to falling asleep, and a hypnopompic hallucination when it occurs immediately upon awakening. These not-uncommon visions are essentially dreams superimposed onto waking reality – and accordingly, they convey the authority of reality to the experiencer.
The typical out-of-body experience may occur during periods of relaxation, or often as a culmination of sleep paralysis. It begins with the experiencer feeling vibrations or swaying motions throughout the body, which then become a sensation of weightlessness. One’s apparent locus of consciousness then seemingly departs the body; and the overwhelming convincingness of the event almost invariably leads to the fallacious assumption that the percipient is a free-floating soul separate from and independent of their physical body. This phenomenon results from the abnormal functioning of a brain region popularly designated the ‘orientation association area’, which fabricates the sense of where one’s body is located in physical space. Out-of-body experiences can be induced in the lab via transcranial magnetic stimulation of this area. Whereas ecstasy or terror may accompany sleep paralysis, out-of-body experiences are generally of an ineffably euphoric nature.
Accompanying both phenomena is usually a buzzing or ringing noise, due to spasming of the muscles that anchor the ear bones; frequently the perception of light, which is likely the experiential correlate of pineal gland activity; and occasionally a high pulse and feelings of heat (including profuse sweating).
Investigation and personal experience of sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences leave me confident that the latter are a more developed case of the former. Sleep paralysis hallucinations are dreams occurring while awake, whereas an out-of-body experience is the same thing with the enhanced feature of an externally-projected consciousness. Mediating this spectrum of phenomena is the abnormally high release of the endogenous hallucinogens dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and its methoxylated analogue (5-MeO-DMT). While nearly half of adults experience at least one bout of sleep paralysis in their lifetimes (and probably several forgotten from childhood), only about 15% are graced by the more intense out-of-body experience.
In this article I argue that the prophets, apostles and other founders of religions were naturally prone to sleep paralysis and out-of-body experience, or perhaps they learned to induce them. Additionally, I shall argue that the veracity of any religion can be readily determined by examining how such phenomena were interpreted: there’s the injudicious majority who did not believe that their experiences were bizarre hallucinations, and organized mythological religions based on the belief in often inflexible and intolerant dogma (most significantly, monotheisms); and those penetrating few who saw through the compelling but illusory nature of their experience, who innovated philosophical religions based on a contemplative experiential search for truth (mostly pantheisms or atheisms).
Please keep in mind the symptoms of sleep paralysis and out-of-body experience as we now explore their astonishingly salient intimations in some major religions.
In The Three Pillars of Zen (1967), Philip Kapleau cautions students of a phenomenon called makyo, or ‘hallucination’. “Very common are visual hallucinations,” he states, warning that one may see “a beast or demon or angel” while meditating (p.46). This unmistakably describes the hypnagogic (pre-sleep) imagery associated with sleep paralysis, to which meditators, balancing precariously on the limbus of unconsciousness, are especially predisposed. Kapleau concludes that makyo “are a mixture of the real and the unreal, not unlike ordinary dreams” (p.47). Two millennia ago in Egypt, the semi-mythical Hermes Trismegistus also referred to the experiencers of visions as “those who dream and yet are awake” (Corpus Hermeticum 13.4).
“One may experience the sensation of sinking or floating,” further warns the Zazen Yojinki. The symptoms of out-of-body experiences are also conspicuous in the reports of some of Kapleau’s students: “I felt as though I were all air and would levitate any second… My body felt weightless… the paralysis descended into my legs… I thought my body might begin to levitate” (pp.270, 281, 291). Aware of how easily the novice can mistake makyo for the enlightenment which lies beyond distracting hallucinations, Kapleau advises to “simply ignore them” (p.48).
The Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism initiates its lamas with the six doctrines of Naropa, which are systematic levels of experiential attainment each marked by a distinct symptom of sleep paralysis and out-of-body experience. The first stage is tummo or ‘heat practice’, indicated by hot flushes and perspiration. Stage four is characterized by the perception of osal or ‘light’; and during the fifth stage, phowa or the ‘ejection’ of consciousness from the body occurs. Because it precedes out-of-body experiences, meditating Daoists likewise welcome the luminosity, and the Corpus Hermeticum noted that this light “draws a man out of his body” (Corpus Hermeticum 10.6).
The Buddha divulged that he possessed control over visionary hallucinations (or iddhi powers in Pali), and that during meditation – while “sweat ran from [his] armpits” – he could “travel through the sky like a bird while seated cross-legged” (Vissudhimagga 12). Although he recognized these experiences as illusory and rejected the notion of an enduring soul in his doctrine of anatman, others less discerning were ensnared by the convincing realism of the phenomenon. For instance, the Japanese monk, Ippen, while meditating on Mount Kumano, experienced a makyo in which he heard ‘chiming bells’ while ascending to heaven. As a result he went on to found the Ji sect of Pure Land Buddhism, which promotes mantra-invocation as the primary means of gaining entrance into heaven after death. A Zen saying unapologetically captures the tension that ensued upon the emergence of this variety of Buddhism: “The fool desires to be reborn in the Pure Land; the sage makes pure his own mind.”
In connection with hallucinatory experiences – called siddhi in Sanskrit – Patanjali noted that meditators “can experience sensations of excessive heat” (Yoga Sutra 3.40). This hyperthermia that often accompanies sleep paralysis and out-of-body experience is known to the Hindu as tapas. According to Tantric yoga, this intense heat is generated as the kundalini energy ascends the spine. The San tribe of Namibia engage in a trance dance which also activates a heat that ascends the spine and consummates as an out-of-body experience. Unsurprisingly, Patanjali lists tapas – which manifests as perspiration – as not only a symptom of sleep paralysis experience, but also a cause (Yoga Sutra 4.1) This demystifies the vision-inducing capacity of the Native American sweat lodge and ‘hot room’ Bikram yoga; perhaps it even explains the ghostly apparition that visited René Descartes while in bed (which he suspected was caused by his excessively-heated room that night).
Along with warmth, in Tantrism mystical progress is associated with a high-pitched ringing noise as the kundalini energy ascends. Hindu scripture also describes the sound “which can be heard by the ear made competent by the guidance of a guru, the unbroken sound rushing like a river” (Vijnanabhairava 38). Tecumseh’s brother – known amongst the Shawnee as ‘the Prophet’ – similarly described the sounds he heard during his out-of-body experience as being like a ‘great waterfall’.
Patanjali also stated that with proper training “the knowledge to fly about in space can be achieved” (Yoga Sutra 3.42). The rishis of the Rig Veda stimulated out-of-body experiences by imbibing a psychedelic cocktail: “We have drunk the soma; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods; we fly freely in wide space,” they wrote.
Around 1,200 BCE, the Persian mystic Zoroaster had a series of vivid revelatory visions in which he was instructed and commissioned by Ahura Mazda, the ‘Wise Lord’ (Yasna 45.8, 43.9, 44.11, 49.6). These hallucinations (which he called ‘Ahura’s powers’) were experienced during – or induced by – meditative prayer (31.6), and were accompanied by hyperthermia and the perception of light (43.4, 33.9). Another of Ahura’s powers is apparently the giving of out-of-body experiences: “I shall fly my soul towards heaven by pure thought alone” (28.4).
Judaism & Christianity
Job summarizes the nature of divine revelation thus: “For God does speak… in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears and terrify them” (Job 33:14-16). This exact type of phantasm was experienced by the prophet Daniel: “visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed… Daniel said, ‘I have been seeing visions in the night’” (Daniel 7:1-2). Daniel further testifies that he “was the only one who saw the vision” (10:7) – if he was referring to regular dreams, it would be unnecessary to specify that he alone could see the imagery. (For more nocturnal Old Testament visions, see also Genesis 26:24, 46:2; 1 Samuel 3:3-4; 2 Chronicles 1:7, 7:12; 1 Kings 19:5-9; Daniel 4:4-13, 10:9; Zechariah 1:8.)
The Christian apostles Peter and Paul were also apparently repeatedly subject to sleep paralysis hallucinations: “Peter was sleeping… an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone…” “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision…” “Last night an angel of God… stood beside me and [spoke to me]” (Acts 12:6-7, 18:9, 27:23).
Ezekiel’s prophetic writings and John’s entire revelation are veritable out-of-body experience journals: when “the Spirit lifted [Ezekiel] up and took [him] away” or “the angel carried [John] away in the Spirit,” like Tecumseh’s brother and the Vijnanabhairava’s author, they both heard “the roar of rushing waters” (Revelation 17:3, 19:6, Ezekiel 3:12-14, 1:24).
Like Zoroaster and the Buddha, some apostles could meditatively induce sleep paralysis-type visions: “Peter went up on the roof to pray… he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened… and a voice [spoke]” (Acts 10:9-11; see also 10:30-31). Prayer was also Jesus’s preferred method for provoking divine visions, and the gospels document that he cherished lengthy, often overnight, sessions of contemplative privacy (Mark 1:35,Luke 6:12). His persistent mysticism regularly yielded hallucinations, and in one instance, in a flash of light Moses and Elijah appeared before him and two apostles and conversed with them (Luke 9:28-30). In another incident, reminiscent of the Buddha’s sweaty out-of-body experiences, on the Mount of Olives Jesus endures a definitive makyo: “An angel from heaven appeared to him… he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke22:39-44).
The foundation of the Mormon faith rests on a supernatural interpretation of a vision that occurred to Joseph Smith on the evening of 21st September 1823. In the prophet’s own words: “I betook myself to prayer… I discovered a light appearing in my room… when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air… [He said] that God had a work for me to do.” The Book of Mormon is replete with apparent accounts of sleep paralysis/out-of-body experience: see 1 Nephi 1:8, 1:16, 8:2, 8:36, 11:1, 14:30; 2 Nephi 4:23-25; Alma 29:16; Enos 1:4-5.
Muhammad’s visionary experience begins with a bedside visitation by two angels. Hadith (accounts of Muhammad’s life and sayings) reports that they “opened his chest and stirred their hands inside.” One occasional yet very disconcerting feature of sleep paralysis is a feeling like a squirrel frantically jumping around in one’s chest: as one of Kapleau’s students reports, “my heart begins to beat very fast” (p.128). This unusual event left Muhammad doubting his sanity and imploring God for wisdom. His request was granted when, while praying in a cave atop Mount Hira, light enveloped him as Gabriel appeared and dictated holy verses. Preceding these visionary revelations, like Ippen, he often heard “the ringing of a bell” – and as the angel spoke, Muhammad, like Jesus and the Buddha, would be saturated in beads of sweat, despite the chilly air.
Muhammad’s mysticism climaxes when he awakens to find the angel Gabriel standing by his bed. This evident hypnopompic hallucination becomes an out-of-body experience when the archangel takes him on the Isra’ or ‘Journey’ to Jerusalem, both of them mounting the winged horse Buraq to get there. From the Holy City Muhammad’s Mi’raj or ‘Ascent’ to Heaven begins. Reaching the seventh level, he discovers Paradise, denizened by countless (or perhaps 72?) virgins called hawra or ‘luminous ones’. Muhammad stands before Allah’s throne and receives details regarding ritual prayer, and then Buraq kindly returns him to his bed in Mecca.
The Sufis (Islamic mystics) are no strangers to hallucinatory experiences, and like Hermes, the Daoists, and the Kagyu Buddhists, they speak of the perception of nur or ‘light’ during meditation, preceding the operation of their karamat powers, such as visions and ‘levitation’. Bayazid al-Bistami was a master of these karamat: “As soon as I attained oneness, I flew through the air like a bird… I arrived at the throne of God.”
Just as they recognized the illusory nature of their own hallucinatory phenomena, much to the dismay of the orthodox, many Sufis also interpret Muhammad’s Ascent as illusory. “I have witnessed many wonders and miracles,” expresses an incredulous al-Bistami, “but I paid them no heed.”
Even for the few examples I’ve presented, the undeniable commonalities of experience issuing from disparate cultures allow two mutually-exclusive possible conclusions:
(1) These hallucinatory experiences, despite telling no coherent metaphysical tale, are indicative of a supernatural dimension inhabited by incorporeal entities who manifest and bestow revelations unto an elite few; or
(2) These enthralling experiences are the culturally-variant results of neurological anomalies, as erratic and as unreal as the imagination, yet erroneously taken as authoritative by the experiencer.
Naturally, many believers maintain the untenable position that the hallucinatory experiences of their religion’s prophets are privileged, somehow exempt from the naturalistic explanations they will happily apply to the heretical delusions of the other religions’ prophets. Exemplifying this propensity is a conversation I recently had with a Christian. He conveniently found no hypocrisy in accepting the supernatural accounts in the Bible upon which his own faith is predicated, while simultaneously proposing the ingestion of psychoactive ergot [a fungus] as a dismissal of Joseph Smith’s angelic visitation – as if believing that Moses and Elijah actually appeared to Jesus, Peter and John, is somehow less preposterous than believing that the angel Moroni appeared to Smith, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a horse. In another illustrative comparison, a fellow prison inmate was deemed delusional when he spoke of awakening nocturnally to the paralyzing presence of the luminescent Jesus; but when the apostle Peter had a nearly identical experience with angels in his prison cell two thousand years ago, his hypnopompic hallucinations were recorded as holy scripture! What distinguishes a madman from a prophet is evidently that the latter’s hallucinations are believed.
Interfaith disbelief is not the only kind that exists. Even within the same religion prophetic conflict arises. Intoxicated by the persuasiveness of their own makyo revelations, each prophet was inalterably certain that he was the legitimate conduit of God’s infallible word. And so, to explain why others’ prognostications contradicted his own, Jeremiah simply declared that those other prophets “are prophesying to you false visions… and the delusions of their own minds” (Jeremiah 14:14; see also Ezekiel 13:9; 2 Chronicles 18:20-22).
For those who have never experienced sleep paralysis or out-of-body experience, a realist interpretation of these phenomena remains alluring because it demonstrates the existence of a spiritual dimension, and thus the possibility of an afterlife. Many also find the hope that there is ‘something else’ out there beyond the monotony of life enticing. The lust for existential perpetuity and meaning, coupled with confirmation bias, leaves people averse to any information contrary to the opiating fantasy. These psychological predispositions also encourage us to forget that we may retain the wisdom ensconced within these traditions while simultaneously emancipating ourselves from the mythology that initially inspired the sagacity. Doing unto others as we would like done unto ourselves does not require belief in talking snakes.
The belief in a body-independent soul is an infantile state of metaphysical development that even many intellectuals fail to outgrow. For instance, in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2001), after inducing sleep paralysis and out-of-body experience in several volunteers by administering intravenous dimethyltryptamine, physician Rick Strassman proclaims his belief (which got him evicted from a Buddhist community) that this natural substance enables the user’s soul to cross over into other dimensions inhabited by intelligent beings – despite his earlier, more parsimonious (and correct) suggestion that “Maybe DMT was inducing a wakeful dream state” (p.200). In his translation of the Shiva Sutra, Roger Worthington – a professor of philosophy and a practitioner of Eastern religion for decades – also subscribes to the ‘interdimensional hypothesis’, when he states that upon achieving siddhi powers, the soul may disembody and is then “free to travel and make contact with other beings on less physical planes of existence” (p.81).
Disappointing as these views may be, they are unsurprising when we consider that even most academics are ignorant of sleep paralysis and out-of-body experience. Despite having unknowingly recounted multiple instances of both phenomena in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James remained oblivious to either. Or, speculating on the origins of religion in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins considers a little girl who was regularly visited by a purple man “who would manifest himself, sparkling out of the air, with a gentle tinkling sound” (p.391). Unaware of sleep paralysis, blind to the diagnostic features of apparition, light and sound, Dawkins ponders thus: “Is the imaginary-friend phenomenon a higher illusion, in a different category from ordinary childhood make-believe?” (p.390). Dawkins then suggests neuroscientist Michael Persinger’s temporal lobe epilepsy hypothesis, to which renowned skeptic Michael Shermer also defers in How We Believe. This hypothesis posits that religious experiences are the result of seizures (transient disturbances of cerebral function due to paroxysmal neuronal discharge: see Acts 9:3-4 for a possible example). Admittedly, epilepsy and sleep paralysis/out-of-body experience can exhibit overlapping symptoms, but the way they work are very distinct. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly half of humanity will sporadically experience sleep paralysis or out-of-body experience (and anyone can learn to induce them); but epilepsy occurs in only about one in two hundred people. In her exhaustive book Consciousness, psychologist Dr Susan Blackmore – a Zen Buddhist knowledgeable in sleep paralysis and out-of-body experience – makes the connection between sleep paralysis and ghosts, but only timidly proposes it for alien encounters, and fails to even hint at it for religion.
The causal link between sleep paralysis, out-of-body experience and religion formation may remain deceptively concealed until one not only experiences the phenomena and knows their underlying physiology, but additionally, delves through copious volumes of diverse religious literature specifically searching for possible accounts of such experiences. Despite having both sampled the scriptural records of these phenomena and been briefed on the basic science in this article, the catalytic role of hallucinatory experience in religion formation will remain intriguing but distantly theoretical until you yourself experience sleep paralysis hallucinations, and particularly the unmitigated rapture of an out-of-body experience. And so I invite you to exalt active investigation over passive agnosticism, research the induction methods for these mystical phenomena, and try them for yourself. For when you taste of their unspeakable blissful convincingness, I promise that you will nevermore deride the prophets, but rather envy them.
© Shawn Harte, 2012
Shawn Harte is an inmate on Death Row in Nevada. He views life as a hallucinatory experience.