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Mysticism and science – shall the twain never meet?

Photo by Swaran Singh

Spirituality and science are considered irreconcilable by many. The former is an intensely subjective, first-person experience; the latter is based on strict objectivity, empiricism, and replicability.

I, as a psychiatrist

For most of my adult life, I have considered myself a scientist.

Having experienced first-hand the horrors of religious violence, I grew up in India as a ‘devout atheist’. Scornful of organised religion, suspicious of Gurus, and mockingly condescending of personal accounts of a mystical nature.

My professional training as a psychiatrist further guarded me against taking the validity and veracity of subjective experience at face value. While the abnormal experiences such as hearing voices or seeing things (hallucinations) of schizophrenia are as real to a sufferer as sunrise is to me every morning, we don’t confer the status of ‘reality’ to such symptoms; psychotic disorders are fundamentally impairments of reality testing. Even if not psychotic, our mind plays tricks upon us.

We are all prone to misperceiving and misinterpreting data we receive through our mental apparatus. As the popular saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

For years, therefore, I did not share a personal experience that had occurred in a post-operative state when I was in my early twenties. I decided to share it with my son Arion one morning during the school run. From early childhood, Arion has been deeply interested in such matters, often discussing his Religious Education lessons at school, and asking intriguing questions about religion, life, the nature of reality, and God. Arion insisted that I write about my experience.

I did so, with considerable trepidation, and submitted it to the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases. I was surprised that it was sent for peer review, relieved by the reviewers’ comments, and delighted by its eventual publication, “Stairway to Heaven” in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. I had expected at best rejection and at worst ridicule. Several members of the public wrote to me, mostly to share their own experiences. Except for one disparaging email, most respondents were positive about the paper, and many said that they felt validated in their own experience.

Photo by Swaran Singh

I, as awareness

In the paper, I describe an experience of dream-like state while recovering from general anaesthesia for a major operation. I still recall the entire experience vividly. I was lucky to have shared it ‘live’ with my father who substantiated my account when I was fully conscious. I perceived something that in hindsight I can only describe as “the big bang” bringing the universe into existence. I felt a complete understanding of the cosmos as a dance between five entities: matter, energy, time, space, and life. Matter and energy were interchangeable, as were time and space; but each combination, along with total ‘life force’ existed as a constant. The experience ended as abruptly as it had begun. For months afterwards, I had an intense feeling of peace, purpose and meaning, despite being in considerable physical pain and discomfort.

Once I started reading about such experiences, I realised the commonality of phenomenology of such experiences across vast tracts of time, geography, and cultures. William James first described four qualities of such experiences:

a) ineffability: inadequacy of words to describe the quality of the experience;

b) noesis: significant knowledge received and perceived immediately and directly, with a sense of authority;

c) transiency: self-limiting nature of the states but which can be recalled from memory and may recur; and

d) passivity: individual having no sense of control over the experience. There is now a substantial literature on such phenomena, their genesis, and likely neurophysiological basis.

Aldous Huxley had a similar experience under the influence of mescaline, beautifully described in his book The Doors of Perception. While very fond of the writings of Huxley and the music of the Doors, for many years I considered my experience to be no different from a hallucinogenic ‘trip’. A year following the experience, I became consumed with working for children who had experienced religious violence. I forgot about the experience, or more accurately, other matters gained salience in my life, alongside my deepening disdain for all matters religious. Arriving in Britain in 1991, I was enthralled by this culture’s pervasive scientific materialism, which seemed self-evidently superior to the famed spirituality of India.

Photo by Swaran Singh

A wiser me

As I have got older, the intellectual certainties of my youth have crumbled one by one. The longer I practice psychiatry, the more neuroscience I learn, the more I contemplate the mental phenomenon and the wider I read about the area, the less dogmatic I become about materialism as the sole explanation of reality. I haven’t lost my cynicism about many contemporary Gurus with their glib assertions and DIY homilies. Human gullibility is fed by vulnerability and adversities, and our mind’s endless inventiveness in how it fools us has been widely studied. I have tried to stay true to the principles of science in my clinical and academic work, and have never discussed the experience, or allowed it to influence my judgement or practice as a psychiatrist. But in my own understanding, I am now open to the possibility of non-material dimensions to reality, and the inherent limitations of using the tools of the mind to fully understand the mind.

The commonality of such experiences cannot by itself be proof of their veracity. Distressing hallucinations and paranoid delusions don’t become ‘real’ just because so many people have them. After all, a distressed mind has only a few ways to signal its distress. It cannot blow out blue smoke from the ears; it can only reveal itself in errors of mental function. But unlike psychopathology of mental illness, mystical or spiritual experiences are not associated with dysfunction or functional impairment. Most people who report such experiences describe their impact as intensely positive and sometimes life changing.

The resurgent interest in the use of psychedelics in treating serious mental disorders offers a perfect opportunity to stop seeing the subjective as oppositional to science. Psychiatry is fundamentally the study of the subjective, and as doctors, we focus necessarily on disease and dysfunction. Perhaps exploring positive aspects of wellbeing, including those related to phenomena such as mindfulness, contemplation and, dare one say, spirituality, may help resolved ‘hard problems’ such as the mind-body relationship, consciousness, and the nature of reality itself.

Photo by Swaran Singh


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