During a mystical experience, one's awareness of the external world is greatly reduced and the focus is centered on the interior and spiritual awareness of an ostensibly divine presence, interpreted as God in the monotheistic traditions. Such experiences can be felt by many to be confirmation of a supernatural reality. Yet it is worth emphasizing that not everyone will eschew a naturalistic view of the world following such experiences. In this article Sam Woolfe explores the idea of "secular ecstasy," an ecstatic experience of the "divine" without a belief in a mind-independent divinity—a meeting with a God who ceases to exist when the experience is finished. Woolfe argues that this marrying of a secular or atheistic worldview with mystical states is in no way contradictory, and that by respecting and integrating these aspects of secular ecstasy, an individual can deepen the sense of well-being felt in everyday life.
Published on the Secular Web
[ Modern Library ]
Among secular rationalists, the term spirituality is often criticized as being vague or meaningless at best, or pseudoscientific at worst. But secularists can acknowledge a rational middle ground between these two extremes. Building upon eminent psychologist Abraham Maslow's lesser-known concept of "self-transcendence" atop his more famous original hierarchy of needs (whose pinnacle is self-actualization), Sam Woolfe weaves concepts from humanistic psychology and the philosophy of psychedelics to advance a concept of spirituality grounded in the realization of our innate capacities within awe-inspiring experiences that situate us fully in the present moment and allow us to transcend our normal personal identity in ways that lead to meaningful improvements to our well-being and life satisfaction. A metaphysical naturalist can thus reasonably understand the process of transcending limitations for the sake of oneself and others as fundamental to leading an authentic spiritual life without any need to posit the existence of supernatural entities, forces, or realms.
Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy has great potential to resolve existential concerns underlying much psychological distress, having produced reduced death anxiety in terminally ill patients, the most meaningful experiences of patients' lives, and a greater sense of connection to nature, one's own emotions, and other people. In this essay Sam Woolfe concentrates on the potential of psychedelics to alleviate death anxiety since that existential concern has the most propensity to instill terror, as evidenced by (among other things) philosophical and theological systems constructed to nullify it. Why are patients able to overcome their fear of death during a psychedelic experience? While psychedelics can radically change people's metaphysical beliefs to include belief in an immaterial soul and supernatural realms and entities, they can also produce a heightened sense of spirituality that's grounded in the natural world alone by expanding a person's sense of connection to community, society, the planet, and the universe. Since this enlarged self is not completely annihilated by death even on naturalism, psychedelic experiences can open people up to seeing death as nothing to fear as a final Epicurean release from suffering.
[ Modern Library ]