A Psychological Approach to the Experience of Spirituality
By Helen Mason
This was originally a large poster prepared for the 2008 SEQ Conference. It was not written as a comprehensive article, but rather intended to open up matters for discussion.
The experience of spirituality is a moment of enlightenment when a person feels connected and at one with the rest of creation.
However successful a person is in the material world and in the eyes of others, there can still be dissatisfaction. There is a need for a deeper form of well-being than can be found in ego driven success or failure. Spiritual experiences or moments of ‘self’ transcendence, or transcendence from the ego, have been found to provide this.
The ego is the emotional self formed by experiences. It determines a person’s behaviour. Transcendence from the ego can occur when a person becomes totally absorbed in something they care deeply about and they cease to be aware of emotionally charged concerns. This state of mind may be due to an unexpected encounter or to a variety of meditative practices. Infants, indeed all people, strongly seek states of interpersonal connectedness. It has a profound effect on the body, brain, behavior and experience in the moment and over time.
Teaching and Practices
Self Realisation: A.H.Almaas is an author and spiritual teacher who uses psychological methods and insights to gain understanding of the personality and the ego. He integrates a variety of approaches in his teaching, including Sufism, Buddhism and psychology. Almaas’ studies of the psychological development of human beings led him to claim the ego is not something we are born with. Instead, there is the ‘Essential Self’, a self which is not conscious of individuation and separation. During infancy the developing ego casts a veil over the Essential Self and it is progressively submerged into the unconscious mind. There it remains, but it can emerge in creativity and as a source of enlightenment in everyday life.
Zen: The Japanese arts have been under the influence of Zen teachings for centuries. Archery in Japan is not understood as a sport but as a religious ritual, in which the archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in the bull’s eye which confronts him. The Zen Buddhist says “‘It’ takes aim and hits. ‘It’ takes the place of the ego, availing itself of a facility and dexterity the ego only acquires through conscious effort.” Perfection in the art of swordsmanship is attained when the swordsman thinks no more of the opponent and his sword or of his own sword and how to wield it. Even the thought of emptiness is no longer there.
Christianity: A Roman Catholic priest and teacher, Ron Rolheiser, describes ‘experiencing the presence of God’: it goes beyond feeling and imagination and it is felt as emptiness, nothingness, absence and non existence. He argues that this is because God is coming into our lives in such a way that we cannot manipulate the experience through the ego. This purifies our experience of God because, he says, only when all our lights are off can we grasp divine light in its purity, only when we are completely empty of ourselves inside an experience, when our hearts are pumping dry, can God touch us in a way that makes it impossible for us to inject ourselves into the experience, so that we are worshiping God, not ourselves’.
Meditation: Meditation is for many a spiritual experience, although its practice today is not restricted to religious disciplines. Sarah Napthali, author of Meditation for Mothers, felt the need, especially for her children’s sake, to become a more virtuous person. She pillaged wisdom from the main Buddhist traditions in order to make Buddhism relevant in the life of an Australian mother. ‘A life free from desire’ is one of four ‘Noble Truths’ taught in Buddhism. This means we should free ourselves from attachments; but there is one attachment which causes all the others: our belief in a solid, separate and consistent self, an ego. Our ego turns us into life-long slaves, propping up our fragile selfimage, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. “With our minds, we create the world”. Buddhism teaches that meditation is the best tool for transforming our minds.
Positive Psychology: The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified a “higher” state of consciousness which he calls flow. Flow is experienced when one is fully immersed in whatever one is doing. It can be achieved during any activity which demands high concentration and demands our highest skills, whether work related or recreational. In this state, the person loses the sense of time and self. No emotions are experienced at the time, but there is subsequently a feeling of energy and exhilaration associated with performing at one’s peak. To achieve Flow, there must be clear goals and these need to be attainable and align appropriately with the person’s skills set and abilities. The activity should be intrinsically rewarding.
Neuropsychology: Neuropsychologists have attempted to measure spiritual states using brain imaging technology. This technology enabled the blood flow of experienced Tibetan Buddhist meditators to be measured during meditation. The images showed increased blood flow to the frontal lobes, indicating increased activity in a part of the brain involved in focusing attention and concentration. The frequencies and amplitude of different brainwaves within the brain can be measured with the electroencephalograph. Each type of brainwave indicates a different mental state. Tests using electroencephalographic measures indicated an overall slowing subsequent to meditation, with theta and alpha activation related to proficiency of practice.
Theta relates to the subconscious mind, and the state between wakefulness and sleep. Theta waves are seen in connection with creativity, intuition, daydreaming and fantasizing and are strong during internal focus, meditation, prayer and spiritual awareness.
Alpha rhythms are commonly seen when a person is relaxed but alert, and while they are not actively processing information. The alpha rhythm appears to bridge the conscious to the subconscious. Creative persons show alpha when listening and when coming to a solution for creative problems. High alpha frequencies enable a person to centre their mind so they can move quickly and efficiently to accomplish tasks, and these frequencies are associated with healing and the mind/ body connection. Low alpha frequencies are associated with meditation when there is no action, and with mind/body integration and balance.
We review these reports of spiritual experiences (from a range of disciplines and religions) with the aim of identifying the defining characteristics of the experience. From these examples we can identify three themes. First, the spiritual experience appears to involve concentration of the mind on a limited field of attention. Second, during this experience, there is a lack of consciousness of the self as a separate entity, and thirdly; the experience involves peak performance and enlightenment. Finally, neuropsychological evidence suggests that spiritual experiences can be differentiated from other conscious states.
HYPOTHESES The Problem with Atheism Harris, Sam; Talk given to the Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D.C. on September 28th, 2007
Why is connection with others so critical? Tronick, Edward. Harvard Medical School, Child Development Unit, Boston, MA, US. Source: Emotional development: Recent research advances. Nadel, Jacqueline (Ed); Muir, Darwin (Ed); pp. 293-315. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, 2005. xvii, 457 pp.
TEACHING AND PRACTISES Self Realisation: On Redeeming the Secular Life Sedgley, Ralph; SoFiA Bulletin May, 2006 Source: Almaas, AH 1986 Essence The Diamond Approach to Inner Realization
Zen: Zen in the Art of Archery Herrigel, Eugen. Translated from the German by R.F.C. Hull. Foreword by Dr. D.T. Suzuki. pp. 91,101. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953
Christianity: Mother Teresa’s Faith Rolheiser, Ron; 9th Sept 2007. President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.
Meditation: Buddhism for Mothers, A calm approach to caring for yourself and your children Napthali, Sarah. Facing page, pp. 14,15 Allen&Unwin Published 2003
Positive Psychology: Authentic Happiness, Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment Seligman, Martin E.P., Ph.D. pp 216. Random House, Australia, 2002 Flow (Psychology), From Wikipedia
SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE Neuropsychology: Cerebral Blood Flow During Meditative Prayer: Preliminary Findings And Methodological Issues. Newberg, Andrew; Pourdehnad, Michael; Alavi, Abass; Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol 97(2), Oct 2003. pp. 625-630. [Journal Article]
The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during the complex cognitive task of meditation: A preliminary SPECT study. Newberg, Andrew; Alavi, Abass; Baime, Michael; Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Vol 106(2), Apr 2001. pp. 113-122. [Journal Article]
Meditation States and Traits: EEG, ERP and Neuroimaging Studies: B.Rael Cahn, University of California, San Diego and University of Zurich, Hospital of Psychiatry. John Polich, The Scripps Research Institute. PP 1
Brainwaves and EEG: The language of the brain. From the Crossroads Institute, a clinic and research centre.