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Confessions of a Former Mystic

The universality of searching for the transcendental, and the different sources attributed by people of different perspectives as the cause of lofty experiences, yields no additional evidence in our world of a supernatural being that undergirds reality.

Starting in 1970, when I was 19, I began meditating and reading in quest of a “peak” experience. I began with Richard Maurice Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness. Bucke was a Canadian psychiatrist who believed that certain writers, by virtue of the sense of being at one with all of existence, conveyed in their works, bespoke the presence of this type of consciousness within themselves. Bucke’s greatest example was the 19th Century poet, and incidentally, friend of Ingersoll, Walt Whitman. Bucke felt that Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” betrayed such an expansive sense of wonderment at the magnificence of nature that this work must be indicative of Whitman’s having achieved such a level of consciousness.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I was a follower for a time of a self proclaimed enlightened person from Shrinigar, India. His name was Gopi Krishna. He claimed that when he was 37, he had a full “awakening” of the internal energy that underlies all evolution, what the yogis call the “kundalini.” He claimed to always be in a luminous state in which the energies of existence literally danced before him and bathed him constantly in a sense of light and well being. Gopi Krishna was also interesting in that he believed fully in evolution and believed that both religious experience and evolution had a biological basis. This was, to him, the kundalini energy. He believed that human evolution was the process of millions and millions of years of kundalini becoming more manifest in human beings. One of his books was even titled The Biological Basis of Religion.

In fact, though some Catholic mystics and others from Western traditions, have claimed to have reached these types of lofty states, the most prevalent claims to this type of state of enlightenment are usually form Eastern traditions. In addition to Bucke in the West, early 20th Century psychologist William James also wrote about mysticism in his Varieties of Religious Experience.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, another psychiatrist, Lee Sanella, wrote about the “kundalini” experience, which he accepted as valid, and wondered why people on more Western spiritual quests haven’t seemed to find this kind of experience the way those on Eastern paths have.

In August of 1981, after an arduous yoga practice session, I sat down to meditate and had a feeling of euphoric attunement with a great happiness. This sensation vanished after a few minutes and left me with a deep yearning to climb back up to the top of that mountain to re-experience that supremely satisfying sense of happiness. The let down after that mountain top experience was pretty depressing. The next few years were spent in search of an experiential version of a helicopter to fly me back up.

In 1979, I also became the student of Swami Vethathiri, from Madras, India. He taught that the kundalini energy existed and that humans can attain such peak experiences. However, he insisted that conscious survival of death was impossible because there can be no awareness without the life force energy working through a physical brain. His god was more the god of Spinoza.

The most joyous and tear-filled sky rocket to ecstasy is much more likely than not a chemical action in the body and brain. There is nothing in so-called mystical experience that provides any evidence of the supernatural. We are all hardwired for fantasy and for dreams. Lofty sensations of mystical experience is probably no more than a variant on this predisposition in the brain for peace, comfort, and security.

I still get goosebumps when I watch a beautiful sunset while listening to the music of Tangerine Dream. However, regardless of deeply I am “moved,” I could not be so moved without a body and brain. Everything in my consciousness, even the memory of that day back in August of 1981, will cease to exist, the moment I die.

It is overdue of us atheists to admit that many people have such lofty experiences and then to argue publicly for a naturalistic interpretation of them.