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Altered Consciousness in Religion

Antoon Geels

Mysticism can be regarded as an integral element of religion. It includes

both a way of life and a “direct consciousness of the presence of God”
(McGinn, 1992, p. xvi). Broadly defined thus, one can encounter mystical
dimensions within all religions of the world. Taoism, Zen, and other types
of Buddhism, as well as Hindu traditions like Kashmir Shaivism, Vaish-
navism, and Advaita Vedanta, are basically mystical in the sense that they
all strive for transcendence from this world of multiplicity. In the case of
Theravada Buddhism, we would have to exchange the concept of God
with “the ground of being” or similar expressions [see Shear, this volume].
Other traditions within world religion also have a firm mystical tradition.
In the Islamic world, Sufism is still among the popular expressions of
Islam, all the way from Morocco in the West to Indonesia in the East
(Ernst, 1998). Within Judaism, we can observe an increasing interest in
the Kabbalah, the Jewish expression of mysticism (e.g., Dan, 2002;
Laenen, 2001). As far as Christianity is concerned, it is probably no exag-
geration to state that there is a renewed interest in the great mystics of this
tradition (Fanning, 2001). Thus, mysticism has been studied from a vari-
ety of perspectives. Let me take a very brief look at just a few of them, lim-
ited to viewpoints that are relevant to the psychology of religion.
Some psychologists, speaking from a Freudian perspective, appear to
be convinced of the reductionistic view that mystical experience is nothing
but “a regression to early nursing experience” (Prince & Savage, 1972,
p. 127), a sort of flashback to an original chaos that existed long before
the differentiation between the self and the outside world, and long before
language development; a regression to a time when the only way of relat-
ing to the world consisted of “sucking on the breast” (Prince, 1980,
p. 340). Followers of Jung seem to agree with the regression hypothesis,
but according to them, mystical experience can be described as “regression
to the earlier pre-infantile level of the collective unconscious which is the
matrix of man” (Owens, 1972, p. 142). Others, however, defend the posi-
tion that this kind of experience has an adaptive dimension and has a
256 Altering Consciousness

potential for personality transformation. One of the possible consequences

of such an experience is that the individual concerned thereby creates
order in a life situation of crisis (Fingarette, 1963; Parsons, 1999).
Quite another approach, again often reductionistic, comes from biol-
ogy. There is a tendency to reduce mysticism to nothing but effects of spe-
cific brain activity, with the argumentation running like: “God exists, yes,
but only in the brain.” Recently, several scholars emphatically stated that
mystical experience and other types of religious behavior are deeply
rooted in the biology of the brain (Joseph, 2002; Newberg & d’Aquili,
2001). There is an ongoing discussion between representatives of neuro-
science and religion, giving rise to a new subject—neurotheology. A fun-
damental question, however, is “what we may legitimately deduce from
the truth claims of religious experience from knowledge of its biological
correlates” (Wulff, 1997, p. 112).
Psychological approaches include that of Ralph W. Hood Jr., who has
made a great impact on the scientific study of mystical experience. One
of his methods was to construct the Religious Experience Episodes Mea-
sure (REEM) based on literary reports as presented in The Varieties of Reli-
gious Experience, the classical study of William James. The narratives cover
a variety of religious experiences, including conversion experiences,
visions, and experiences of divine guidance. Informants are then asked
to what extent their experiences match the 15 short accounts presented
in the instrument (Hood, 1970; see also Holm, 1982). Other examples of
a psychological approach include the issue of personality traits such as
hypnotizability, absorption, and self-transcendence (Cardeña & Terhune,
2008), the relation between near-death experiences and mystical states of
consciousness (Greyson, 2000), and that between “deep hypnosis” and
mystical experiences (Cardeña, 2005). Also relevant are psychological
studies of meditation, including the work of the American psychiatrist
Arthur J. Deikman (1971, 1976), who proposed that meditation entails a
shift from an active to a receptive and deautomatized mode of conscious-
ness [see Mishara & Schwartz, Volume 2].
Other scholars, especially those writing during the early years of the
research into mysticism, have taken a great deal of trouble in order to distin-
guish different types of mystical experience. In his classical comparative
study of the Indian mystic Shankara (8th century) and the German
Meister Eckhart (1260–1328), Rudolph Otto (1926/1971) differentiated
between the “soul-mysticism” of Eastern spirituality and the “God-
mysticism” of the Western theistic traditions. The tripartite distinction of
Ronald C. Zaehner is well known. Motivated by the provocative book of
Aldous Huxley (1945)—who suggested that hallucinogenic drugs are
Altered Consciousness in Religion 257

shortcuts to the experience of divine presence—Zaehner (1957) did his

utmost to show that Huxley’s experience should be regarded as an
expression of “nature mysticism.” This type should be distinguished
from both monistic mysticism and, most emphatically, from theistic mys-
ticism, which Zaehner happened to regard as true (1957, p. xvi). Others
have severely criticized these types of distinctions. Zaehner appears to
have mixed up problems of classification with theological judgments
(Smart, 1978, p. 13). Steven T. Katz, referring to Otto and Zaehner, does
not mince matters. They all “manifest strong biases [ . . . ] which color
their investigations from the outset and which significantly diminish
the value of their results” (1978, p. 1f ).
When mentioning Huxley and Zaehner, experimental studies focusing
on the relation between drugs and mysticism also come to mind. Is there
some truth in the statement of Lord Byron’s Don Juan that “the best of life
is intoxication”? Can hallucinogenic drugs give rise to mystical experi-
ence? While some proponents of the biological perspective would say that
modern medicine provides us with excellent pills that will erase God from
our brain, advocates of the experimental approach (e.g. Pahnke, 1963)
seem to suggest the opposite: Take a pill and experience “artificial para-
dise,” an expression taken from the French author Baudelaire (see also
Geels, 2003b).

Definitions and Dimensions of Mysticism

Scholarly approaches to the study of mysticism are too numerous to
mention. In any academic investigation, however, it is customary to define
the object of study. When we study classical definitions of mysticism, it is
striking that many scholars usually define mystical experience (e.g., Clark,
1958; Leuba, 1925; Pratt, 1920); these three classical studies state that the
mystical experience is not related to perception and regard it as a nonra-
tional, intuitive experience. This can be regarded as an obscurum per obscu-
rum procedure—in the definition of the problematic object, new obscure
concepts are introduced, putting a veil, so to speak, over the area.
It is important to note that the experiential dimension, although
heavily emphasized, is not the only one, for good reasons. After all, the
concept of mysticism covers more than just the special types of experien-
ces reported by mystics. The concept seems to be just as general as the
word religion and equally difficult to define. For that reason, we could
apply the five dimensions of religion suggested by Glock and Stark
(1965) to the area of mysticism. In the vast field of religious mysticism,
258 Altering Consciousness

one can therefore study (1) the experiential dimension, (2) the consequen-
ces of the mystical experience in the life of the individual, (3) different rit-
uals or mystical exercises, (4) the intellectual aspect, that is, how the
mystic interprets his or her experience, and, finally (5) the ideological
dimension, that is, the religious tradition to which the mystic possibly
belongs. We will now have a closer look at these five dimensions, with
an emphasis on the experiential dimension.
Mystical experience is the core of mysticism, at least from a psychologi-
cal perspective. It has an enormous motivational potential, for example by
changing people’s lives or by being the incentive for the mystic to continue
on the long and arduous path of spiritual transformation. A fundamental
question, often debated in scholarly studies of mysticism, is whether so-
called revelatory experiences, visions, and voices, should be included in
the study of mysticism. The classical study of Walter Stace excludes them
from the category of mystical experiences because they “have the character
of sensuous imagery,” whereas mystical experiences are nonsensuous
(Stace, 1960, p. 49; see also Wainwright, 1981, p. 1ff ). Another reason,
according to Stace, is that mystics themselves regard them as less impor-
tant or even as an obstacle to spiritual maturity. However, neglecting
visions for this reason would be just as inappropriate as if a psychologist
neglected dreams for the dubious reason that the client regards them as
trivial or meaningless (see Moore, 1978, p. 119f ).
This prevalent attitude is the probable explanation of why there are so
few psychological studies of religious visions, which appear to be more
common among women than men. One of the major studies in this field
is the monumental work of the Swedish scholar Ernst Arbman (1963,
1968, 1970), which definitely places religious visions in the study of mys-
ticism. He even goes as far as to state: “Mysticism may be said to be tanta-
mount to visionary-ecstatic religious practice or religiosity” (1963,
p. 547). In this chapter, visions and voices will be included. The examples
presented below do not appear within a Christian context, but the history
of Christianity is rife with visionary experience (e.g., Christian, 1981; Din-
zelbacher, 1981; Zimdars-Swartz, 1991).
Religious visions belong to the category of kataphatic experiences, usu-
ally expressed in the language of personal relations. A second category is
called apophatic experiences, expressed for example in the impersonal lan-
guage of infinity. The two categories are not mutually exclusive. The
abstract or impersonal God of Jewish mysticism, called Eyn Sof (“without
end”) or Ayin (“nothingness”) is apophatic, while the outflow from this
abstract principle, the 10 Sephirot, is described in kataphatic terms
(“Wisdom,” “Understanding,” “Love,” etc.). The great Muslim mystic Ibn
Altered Consciousness in Religion 259

al-Arabi had numerous visions, at least according to his biographer

(Addas, 1993). The Essence of God (dhat), however, is beyond all psycho-
logical content and can only be expressed in negations. This abstract God
discloses himself through his attributes (sifat) and his works (af‘al). Attrib-
utes such as Life, Being, Desire, Power, Speech, Generosity, and Justice are
just a few of the 99 “most beautiful” divine names, immanent in creation.
The Power of God, for example, “is reflected passively in everything He
has made and actively in suns, volcanoes, seas, bees, human beings, and
other creatures” (Chittick, 1989, 8f.). Examples can easily be multiplied.
We can now present a definition of mystical experience based on a
study of Robert S. Ellwood (1980, p. 29), but with several additions, here
marked in italics:

(1) Mystical experience is experience in a religious or a profane context (2)

that is immediately or subsequently interpreted by the experiencer as an
encounter with a higher or ultimate divine reality (3) in a direct, according
to the person, nonrational way (4) that engenders a deep sense of unity
and of living during the experience on a level of being other than the ordi-
nary. (5) This experience is accompanied by far-reaching consequences in the
individual’s life.

There are many examples of experiences that could be regarded as mysti-

cal in a profane context (Laski, 1961; Maslow, 1964). The direct, nonra-
tional encounter with a higher reality underlines the fact that most
people report that the experience comes suddenly and that they were both
surprised and overwhelmed by it. The dimension of unity appears to be
one of the most common characteristics of the mystical experience of the
apophatic type. According to Walter T. Stace, this is “the one basic, essen-
tial, nuclear characteristic, from which most of the others inevitably fol-
low” (1960, p. 110). Although the experience itself may last only
minutes, life may never be the same again. After these transforming
minutes, the mystic usually reevaluates his or her life, dividing it into a
“before” and an “after.”
We are now touching upon the second dimension of mysticism, the
consequential one. The sense of the presence of God or the ground of being
leaves no person unaffected. A visionary experience of, for example, light
or of Jesus or the Virgin Mary may lead to a radical change in life. In my
studies of visions in contemporary Sweden (Geels, 1996, 2003a), some
of the informants finished their secular jobs and started a spiritual career.
Some of them studied theology and became priests in the Swedish church.
Quite another type of consequence is the fact that an overwhelming vision
260 Altering Consciousness

creates order in chaos. Some of my informants were on the verge of com-

mitting suicide (Geels, 2008) [see Lukoff, Volume 2].
The third dimension of mysticism, of special relevance to the psycholo-
gist of religion, is related to behavior: the ritual dimension. Here the refer-
ence is to different techniques used in order to reach beyond the world
of multiplicity. In the great mystical traditions, there exists a variety of
techniques: isolation, meditation, contemplation, different types of prayer,
mystical weeping, and techniques of visualization. Through contemplative
devotion, attention (kavvanah), and meditative prayer, the Jewish mystic
approaches the divine; Teresa of Avila describes the seven stages of prayer
in her Interior Castle. A special type of repetitive prayer occurs not only in
the Greek Orthodox tradition (the Jesus prayer) but also in Pure Land
Buddhism in Japan, as well as in mystical Islam, where dervishes monoto-
nously repeat the prayer La ilaha illa llah (“there is no god but God”) and
other divine names.
The fourth dimension is the intellectual one, the cognitive processing of
the mystic as presented in his or her texts. An apparent paradox is the fact
that although most mystics declare that the experience is ineffable, they
nevertheless devote considerable time to its description and systematic
Intellectual processing is closely related to the ideological dimension, or
the tradition to which the mystic belongs such as branches of the Jewish
Kabbalah, the Sufi tradition, Zen, Vedanta, and so forth. These traditions
not only influence the experiences itself, they also color the descriptions
presented by the mystics. What kind of relation does the mystic have to
the religious tradition that he or she belongs to? Within their religious tra-
ditions, mystics not infrequently are regarded as radicals, drawing on the
profound consequences of their personal, intense, transforming experien-
ces. In some cases this leads to serious disputes with representatives of
orthodoxy. The martyrdom of al-Hallaj in Islam, executed in Baghdad
(922) for his extravagant utterances, is well known. He was far from the
only mystic who was accused of heresy, especially during the period up
to al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), when Sufism reached consolidation with the
orthodox Muslim faith. Jewish Kabbalists have always been regarded with
a certain suspicion, and Chassidim have been condemned on several occa-
sions (Scholem, 1954/1971, 1974). In the context of Christianity, the
German Meister Eckhart and the Dutch Jan van Ruusbroec had to defend
themselves for uttering certain phrases that were seriously suspected of
being pantheistic. A number of Eckhart’s statements were condemned in
a bull in 1329, a year after his death. Cases like those mentioned above
were probably in the mind of W. R. Inge, who in one of his last studies
Altered Consciousness in Religion 261

on mysticism, after nearly half a century of research, wrote that “institu-

tionalism and mysticism have always been uneasy bedfellows” (1947/
1969, p. 21). We should not forget, however, that most mystics within
the great religions of the world do their utmost to be loyal and faithful
interpreters of their own tradition.

Paradigms in the Scientific Study of Mystical Experience

During the last decades, there has been a vehement debate on the
nature of the mystical experience. The different viewpoints have been
labeled as constructivism and its counterpart as decontextualism, deconstruc-
tivism, or postconstructivism (Forman, 1998b, p. 6). A third paradigm,
called perennialism, dominated research during the greater part of the
20th century.
The dominant perspective in the earlier scientific study of mysticism,
ranging from William James (1902) to Walter T. Stace (1960), can be des-
ignated as perennialism. The perennial point of view is that the mystical
experience has some transcultural, homogenous “core characteristics,”
which afterward are shaped into a culturally defined conceptual frame-
work (e.g., Huxley, 1944; James, 1902; Maréchal, 1927; Pratt, 1920;
Stace, 1960; Underhill, 1911). This was the dominant view during the
first half of the 20th century. Some perennialists went even further by
defending the position that there exist important doctrinal similarities
between different interpretations of the experience (e.g., Otto, 1932).
During the decades following the influential work of Stace, perennial-
ism has been criticized for lack of literary criticism of primary texts and
unproved assumptions about the similarities of the mystical experience.
The strongest attack, however, came from an influential new perspective
within the humanities and social sciences: constructivism. According to
this new paradigm, all experiences, including religious, artistic, and mys-
tical experiences, are constructed by the beliefs and linguistic back-
grounds that the subject brings to them. The strongest weapon carrier of
this view is Steven T. Katz, who is convinced that “there are no pure (i.e.
unmediated) experiences” (Katz, 1983, p. 4). In order to defend his posi-
tion, Katz attracted a considerable number of philosophers, all sharing this
basic constructivist view. So far, four volumes have been edited by Katz
(1978, 1983, 1992, 2000).
A growing number of scholars put forward their alternative view in
several other volumes. The first of them is called The Problem of Pure Con-
sciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy (1990), edited by Robert K. C.
262 Altering Consciousness

Forman, the foremost proponent of the alternative called deconstructi-

vism. Just like his colleague, Forman gathered a great number of scholars,
most of them philosophers of religion, who supported him. In his intro-
ductory essay, Forman convincingly criticizes the constructivist approach,
stating that “the history of mysticism is rife with cases in which expec-
tations, models, previously acquired concepts, and so on, were deeply
and radically disconfirmed” (Forman 1990: 19f ).
Forman presents a number of arguments, all refuting what he calls the
conservative stand of constructivism. First, there are examples of
“untrained and uninitiated” neophytes who have mystical experiences,
which only in the course of time, months, or years later, were religiously
interpreted. Forman mentions published reports of Richard M. Bucke
(1901) and the more recent book of Bernadette Roberts (1982). In another
study, he refers to interviews with a Zen Master who mentioned that he
had his first mystical experiences 5 years before he took up Zen Buddhism
or meditation of any kind. “His experience led him to explore Zen, not the
other way around,” as the constructivist would have it (Forman, 1998b,
p. 6). In addition to these cases, Forman presents interview data, collected
by himself, and examples of classical mystics, who most often report being
surprised over their experiences (1990, p. 19f). Constructivism, Forman
concludes, cannot account for the existence of reports of so-called “pure
consciousness events” (PCEs), defined as “wakeful contentless conscious-
ness,” the existence of which has been established “beyond a reasonable
doubt” (1990, p. 21).
The position of Forman and others really reminds us of the older per-
ennialist view, the idea that there is a common core in all mysticism. For-
man gives this view a psychophysiological twist by suggesting a “perennial
psychology,” a common structure—consciousness itself—that is not cre-
ated by culture but “comes with the machinery of being human.” We all
have an innate capacity to get in touch with this nonconceptual dimen-
sion. The title of his second edited volume, The Innate Capacity, points at
this human aspect. “In consciousness itself and in the way it encounters
the world intentionally, we may have something that transcends cultures
and eras” (Forman, 1998b, p. 27f) Instead of emphasizing common
denominators in mystical philosophy, Forman strikes a blow for similar
psychological processes, uniting an 8th-century Korean with a 14th-
century Dominican friar (Forman probably refers to Meister Eckhart, of
whom he has written an insightful study, published 1991) and contempo-
rary meditators.
From a psychological point of view, the paradigms mentioned above
are not incompatible. The constructivist approach is a truism. A human’s
Altered Consciousness in Religion 263

view of reality, the Weltanschauung, is socially constructed and charged

with personal, subjective meaning (e.g., Gergen & Gergen, 2003). Forman
and his colleagues do not deny constructivism; they rather regard it as an
insufficient way of studying the variety of mystical experience. The present
author has devoted 5 years to studying the concept mors mystica, mystical
death, in the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Geels,
1998, 1999, 2000, 2003a). The idea that you must “die before you die” is,
to the best of my knowledge, one of the most important common denom-
inators in the great mystical traditions of the world. In other words, tradi-
tions such as the Kabbalah, Sufism, Christian mysticism, and different
branches of Buddhism and Hinduism all describe the long and arduous
road to whatever they regard as their goal. The greater holy war, so many
Sufis state, is the war against your own self. The weapons used in this
struggle are the different spiritual exercises, especially repetitive prayer.
The Sufis and other mystics do describe how we should deconstruct our
empirical world in order to unveil a spiritual reality. These texts, however,
are social constructions. A simple example of the mutual relation between
construction and deconstruction is the well-known Buddhist concept
Nibbana, which means extinction. Extinction of what? The answer is clear:
of all psychological processes. After an experience of Nibbana, expressed
differently, of course, in other traditions, the mystic returns to a empirical
world, which is then reconstructed in accordance with the spiritual reality
just experienced.
Forman and some his colleagues talk about a “forgetting model,”
another way of expressing the process leading to mystical death (1998a,
p. 7; see also Franklin, 1998, p. 236f.). What is needed is a model of per-
sonality enabling us to understand different types of mystical experience,
including visions and voices. Such a model should combine cognitive psy-
chology with depth psychology. From the horizon of cognitive psychol-
ogy, such an eclectic approach has been suggested by Ulric Neisser
(1967; see also Geels, 2006). The heuristic value of such an approach,
counting as it does with dynamic, associative ways of handling emotion-
ally charged information, should enable us to understand new or unex-
pected features in reports of religious experience, whether it be Old
Testament prophets combining, in their visions, contemporary icono-
graphic elements with verbal data, or Christian mystics like John of the
Cross, using sensuous, erotic imagery in his poetry while simultaneously
stating that the mystical adept has to reach beyond the senses.
The conclusion of all this is that the constructivist point of view is
insufficient to analyze mystical experience. Humans construct most but
not all of the time. It is the task of the psychologist of religion to describe
264 Altering Consciousness

those processes that lead to new and unexpected constructions of a world

that, most of the time, can be consensually shared with other human
beings. The model should also account for the possible negative effects
of using spiritual exercises in mystical traditions.

A Model of Personality and the Varieties of Mystical Experience

This model focuses on perceptual-cognitive processes without neglect-
ing psychological functions that belong to depth psychology. It will be
presented as succinctly as possible. The model will then be applied to
the analysis of visions and the “pure consciousness event.” Following A.
Rothstein (1981), and in connection with developments in object relations
theory, M. Epstein (1988) distinguishes between the representational and
functional aspects of the ego. With the help of the former, the individual
constructs a differentiated view of himself and the outside world. Here
we encounter again the constructivist perspective, impossible to neglect.
This subsystem can be further divided into object- and self-
representations. The functional system consists of adaptive, defensive,
mediating, and synthetic functions.
The adaptive function is responsible for adaptation to reality. It has at
its disposal a number of abilities or dispositions that are inherited, for
example perception, memory, intelligence, and language. The defensive
function of the ego also in one way serves our adaptation to the environ-
ment, more particularly to our psychological environment. In contrast to
the former function, however, the ego’s defense mechanisms are not
inherited but are acquired under the influence of the socio-cultural milieu.
The mediating function corresponds to the classical psychoanalytical view
of the ego, acting as a mediator between the id and the super ego, or
between the id and the environment.
An interesting function is the synthetic one, which is an “organ for equi-
librium” that strives for balance in a constantly shifting psyche. The syn-
thetic function “assimilates alien elements (both from within and from
without), and it mediates between opposing elements and even reconciles
opposites and sets mental productivity in train” (Nunberg, 1961, p. 122).
The most important synthetic functions, according to Nunberg, can be
summarized with the following concepts: assimilation, simplification,
generalization, and unification. Nunberg emphasizes, however, that the
synthetic function can use any psychic process in order to achieve its goal:
equilibrium, order, and balance (p. 125). Even “hierarchies of values” can
have a synthetic function. Religion can have an integrating or synthetic
function (see Hartmann, 1958, p. 75ff.).
Altered Consciousness in Religion 265

The other large substructure in this ego-psychological model of

humans is the representational system, or the process of relating to and rep-
resenting objects. An object can be a thing, a person, or a happening. This
theory belongs to the great landmarks of psychoanalysis during the ’60s,
’70s, and ’80s. It is my impression that the distinction between the ego’s
functional and representational systems no longer is a point of great con-
troversy (Epstein, 1988; Hartmann, 1958; Jacobson, 1964; Rizzuto,
1979; Rothstein, 1981; Sandler & Rosenblatt, 1962; Schafer, 1968).
According to Rothstein, the two systems are related to each other in an
important way. He mentions, for example, that this relation facilitates
our understanding of “intrasystemic conflicts” (Rothstein, 1981, p. 440).
Inner representations are closely related to memory, with the help of
which we code, process, and store information, which can be retrieved
in useful forms in specific situations. The end of this process is called a
representation. This means that a representation cannot be regarded as
an isolated happening. In the words of Rizzuto: “it is the result of the syn-
thetic function of the ego organizing a multitude of memorial experiences.
The final synthetic result of that most active process is a highly significant
representation for the needs of a particular moment” (Rizzuto, 1979,
p. 56). She mentions here another example of the relation between the
functional and representational systems. The representational system con-
sists of self- and object representations “in ever changing states of integra-
tion” (Rothstein, 1981, p. 440). The basic task of this system is to make us
“psychologically viable people in the real world.” In other words, it serves
the overall need of adaptation.
During the course of development, a self- or I representation will
be developed within this inner representational world. This means that,
in this model, the I is not identical with the ego. The I is rather one compo-
nent in a composite structure. The I is described as “the self-representation
as agent.” The I is developed from the ego’s continuous sensation of itself
(Epstein, 1988, p. 64; Rothstein, 1981, p. 440). Development means
increased differentiation and integration [see Granqvist, Reijman, &
Cardeña, Volume 2]. During this process, the I is differently constructed
in relation to other substructures of the ego. This implies that there is
not one single I but multiple self-representations, actualized in different
This model of personality can be related to Hans-Carl Leuner’s concept
of “autosymbolic representation of intrapsychic conflicts” (Leuner, 1977,
1978). According to him, this psychological process is often activated in
situations of extreme emotional stress. From a psychoanalytical perspec-
tive, it belongs to the category of primary process activity, characterized
266 Altering Consciousness

for instance by a free flow of imagery and thoughts (Leuner, 1977, p. 74f.;
see also Loewald, 1978). It can be used by the ego’s synthetic function,
striving for homeostasis.
Now, let us see if this model sheds more light on the analysis of vision-
ary experiences. The first story belongs to my study of about 100 persons
who reported visionary and auditory experiences. In addition, I will
present a few examples of historical cases, firmly established within
the great religions of the world (for additional examples, see Geels,

Case Study I: Encounter with Jesus on the Top of a Bridge

The Norwegian Reidar Amundsen is an excellent illustration of a life
in utter chaos instantaneously transformed into a life of order after an
overwhelming visionary and auditory experience of Jesus. He was born
in Norway in 1930, the seventh child of a family living in poverty and
starvation. Life was becoming more difficult for everybody when the
Germans occupied the country during the Second World War. Reidar
spent some time in a concentration camp just outside Oslo, stole a
bicycle when the war ended, and was sentenced to 1 year in prison and
a 10-year loss of civil rights. During his time in prison, he learned how
to crack safes and came in touch with drugs. A short time after his release
from prison, he blew his first safe. The years went by and Reidar went in
and out of jail. During many occasions, he thought that “there must be a
better life to live.”
During the ’60s Reidar became a heroin addict. In 1965, when he was
in prison, a group of young Christians visited the place on Christmas Eve.
They sang and played music to the prisoners. To the surprise of most peo-
ple, Reidar wished to talk with somebody in the group of youngsters. One
of them read from the Bible about the sinner who received a second
chance in life. The message appealed to Reidar. “I did not become a
decided Christian that Christmas Eve, but something changed inside me.”
A few years later, Reidar moved to Sweden. Eventually he settled down
in Gothenburg in an area where many buildings were scheduled to be
demolished, in the middle of dope nests. When he met an old friend from
prison—his name was Jalle—he felt some consolation. Jalle had been
saved inside jail. He told Reidar: “Do you know that Jesus loves you? He
can save you too.”
During the summer of 1970, he reached the absolute bottom of his life.
“The craving for heroin burnt in my body. I had blood in my urine and
Altered Consciousness in Religion 267

faeces, and when I vomited there was blood.” He finally came to a doctor,
who gave him 1 more month to live. Why do you drug addicts always
come too late? the doctor wondered. Reidar then decided to inject a final
dose of heroin and climbed up on the highest bridge in Gothenburg, ready
to jump. How long had he been standing there? Hundreds of cars stopped
in order to see what was going on. A police officer tried to talk to him,
using a megaphone, while simultaneously trying to reach for Reidar. At
this desperate moment he both heard and saw Jesus:

In front of me I saw the outline of a face. Was I hallucinating again? But the
outline became clearer. I did not see clear features, but I saw that there was
a crown of thorns on top of the head and that the hair was curly and shining
gold. It sort of radiated light from it, and I saw two hands, the palms of
which were wounded, stretched out to me. And I heard a voice, so soft
and fatherly loving, as I have never heard before. “Reidar, Reidar,” I heard.
“You have tried everything in life. You have lost everything. There is noth-
ing more left. The only thing you look forward to is to take your life. If
you decide to do that, you will be lost eternally and there will be no
memory of you. But you have forgotten to count with me. Put what is left
of your life in my hands and I will heal and save you.”

Reidar does not know how he managed to climb down from the
bridge. From that moment on, his life became organized. About 18 months
later he married, and had two children. Reidar still visits prisons, but now
as a pastor, preaching the gospel of Jesus.
Bearing the model of personality in mind, a few general remarks on the
psychology of visionary experience can be given. The acute crisis prior to
the vision activates the synthetic function, which uses autosymbolic repre-
sentations as a psychological process that is most suited for its goal: homeo-
stasis, equilibrium. The result is a religious vision, establishing order in a
chaotic system. In other words, religious visions can be understood as auto-
symbolic representations of intrapsychic conflicts, a dynamic process
“chosen” by the synthetic function in order to establish homeostasis. It is
striking that the content of the informants’ visions fit so well into their situa-
tions of disorder. The religious visions immediately establish order in chaos.
The vision not only shapes the crisis, it solves it as well. Religious visions, or
object representations like Jesus, Muhammad, the Goddess Kali, or Angels,
are symbolic representations of order instead of chaos.1

A similar model has been proposed by Arieti (1976), who suggested a creative integration
of primary and secondary thinking, leading to a “magic synthesis” in what he calls the
tertiary process.
268 Altering Consciousness

In the case of Reidar, we can observe a childhood characterized by

loneliness and an often-absent father. His longing for peace and harmony
attracted him to the small group of young Christians, full of energy.
Shortly prior to the vision, he met his old prison friend Jalle, who told
him about the forgiving Christ. It is therefore not surprising that it is
Christ that Reidar encounters in a vision. Christ spoke to him in a soft
and fatherly voice, most probably related to the absent father. The vision
and its auditory feature is naturally also related to his need of peace and
harmony in his life. This harmony was established in a few transforming
and integrating seconds, when the synthetic function used autosymbolic
representations as a means to obtain homeostasis.

Case Study II: Encounter with Jesus in the Dormitory—Gertrud of Helfta (1256–1301)
In Germany, southwest of Magdeburg, stood a Benedictine convent in
a little place called Helfta. The convent was founded in 1229 and is known
for having been the residence of several of the most important female mys-
tics in Germany. One of them was Gertrud, later known as Gertrud the
Great of Helfta. One of her main occupations was writing, especially on
mystical themes, both in Latin and German.
We know very little about Gertrud’s early life (see Marnau, 1993). It is
highly conceivable that she was placed in the convent when her parents died
when she was 5 years old. In the convent, she received an excellent educa-
tion. The nuns studied not only great church fathers such as Augustine but
also important contemporary authors such as the Victorines and Cistercian
In her autobiographical writings, we find some information about
Gertrud’s conversion and spiritual experiences. Just like many other
mystics, she divided her life into a “before” and an “after,” referring to her
conversion. In Gertrud’s case, this means that her routine life in a Christian
convent now was altered into a totally God-centered life. Gertrud was
25 years old when she had a visionary encounter with Jesus in a youthful
figure, “about 16 years of age, handsome and gracious.”2 The time and place
of her vision are important. She was in the dormitory, “as dusk was falling.”
Gertrud had been worried for about a month. An older nun had just
entered the room, and Gertrud bowed her head in veneration and respect,
as is the custom. When she looked up again, she saw the youthful figure.
“Courteously and in a gentle voice,” he spoke to her. “Why are you so sad?
The following account is based on Gertrud of Helfta, The Herald of Divine Love, book II,
translated by M. Winkworth (1993, pp. 94ff).
Altered Consciousness in Religion 269

Is it because you have no one to confide in that you are sorrowful?”

Despite the fact that Gertrud was located in the dormitory, it appeared to
her that she was in the Choir, “in the corner where I usually say my tepid
prayers.” Then she heard these words: “I will save you. I will deliver you.
Do not fear.” And then Gertrud saw his hands, “tender and fine,” holding
her hand, “as though to plight a troth.” Then the young Jesus added:
“With my enemies you have licked the dust (cf. Ps. 72:9) and sucked
honey among thorns. Come back to me now, and I will inebriate you with
the torrent of my divine pleasure (Ps. 35:9).” In the passage following
these words, the bridal mysticism of her writings is even more pro-

As he was saying this, I looked and saw, between him and me, that is to say,
on his right and on my left, a hedge of such length that I could not see the
end of it, either ahead or behind. The top of this hedge was bristling with
such large thorns that there seemed no way to get back to the youth. As I
hesitated, burning with desire and almost fainting, suddenly he seized me
and, lifting me up with the greatest ease, placed me beside him. But on
the hand with which he had just given me his promise I recognized those
bright jewels, his wounds, which have canceled all our debts. (Col. 2:14)

From now on she received numerous revelations. It is interesting to note

that despite the cataphatic character of the vision described above,
Gertrud now and then uses a type of language that clearly connects with
the apophatic tradition. Writing about the necessity of following Christ,
the soul can be led deeper into mystical union. Gertrud then formulates
some phrases that have the clear mark of apophatic language, using con-
cepts like the abyss and mystical death:

Let me be submerged in the abyss of the sea of your most merciful good-
ness. Let me perish in the deluge of your living love, as a drop of the sea
dies in the depth of its fullness. Let me die, let me die, in the outpouring
of your immense mercy, as dies the spark of flame in the irresistible force
of the flood.3

Gertrud became known as a humble and wise woman, often visited for
spiritual guidance. Her spirituality centers around the concept of love,
God’s love to mankind—He loved us first—and, as a result of this gift,

Gertrud of Helfta, Documenta spiritualum exercitionum, 4, quoted in McGinn (1998,
p. 274).
270 Altering Consciousness

our love to God. But her writings are focused on the second person of the
Trinity. God is love and Jesus is Gertrud’s spouse. Influenced by the Song
of Songs, the Book of Esther, and the language of human love, Gertrud
describes her spiritual experiences, sometimes in unvarnished erotic lan-
guage. The bridegroom prefers to be alone with his bride, in the nuptial
chamber, where they can “delight one another with the charm of intimate
converse and tender embraces” (in Marnau, 1993: 32f; see also 28ff ).
In her later writings, Gertrud did not ascribe her spiritual experiences
such great importance. The more positive, tangible, cataphatic character
of her descriptions altered into a more abstract, apophatic language. Could
it be that one no longer is aware of one’s beloved in the kiss of embrace?
Instead of using such tangible words, Gertrud prefers to speak about a
sense of intimate, inspiring presence, a presence also to be experienced
in events of everyday life—in different religious acts, in the sacraments,
and in particular in holy communion (see Marnau, 1993, p. 40ff ).
Bridal mysticism belongs to the marks of medieval spirituality. Jesus as
a young man appeared to her in a troublesome life situation, but she does
not mention the nature of her trouble. We will have to assume that she
was a child of her time, influenced by what has been called the “new mys-
ticism” (McGinn, 1998). It involved lively visualizations of the life of Jesus,
especially the Passion. Considering these circumstances, it comes as no
surprise that Gertrud’s trouble found a solution in a vision of Jesus.
According to the proposed model of interpretation, the vision can be
described as an autosymbolic representation of her need of consolation.
The content of the vision is clearly related to the spirituality of her time:
bridal mysticism and visualization as a main spiritual exercise.

Case Study III: A Trained Experience and Concluding Remarks

The model can also be applied to other types of religious experience.
The examples of visions, both contemporary and historical, illustrate spon-
taneous experiences, striking the visionary with surprise and wonder. How
about trained experiences during, for example, meditation? Let me present
a case that I know of well. It concerns a friend and colleague of mine, we
can call him Frank, who during a period of his life devoted himself to
Zen meditation. One day, when he already had quite a bit of experience,
he was shocked by getting in touch with a terrible anger he did not know
he possessed. He was about to break down all the furniture in the room.
“What was the object of your anger?” I asked him. He then told me a story
I partly knew. It was about a bad and long lasting relation to another
Altered Consciousness in Religion 271

colleague, working in the same field. The two scholars worked with two
totally different approaches. They could not communicate.
Our theoretical model can shed more light on the experience of anger.
The one-pointedness of meditative practice, focusing for example on one’s
breathing, means that the adaptive functions of the ego structure are partly
shut down or inhibited. This means two things. First, the mediating func-
tions weaken, they cannot adequately regulate the balance between the
unconscious id and the superego. Second, this in turn means a weakening
of defences. In such a state, the green light has been given for the constant
pressure of the unconscious id towards the ego.4 Metaphorically speaking,
when the defensive forces are absent, and when there is no one in the
observation tower (the adaptive functions), and the negotiators rest (the
mediating functions), then foreign powers (unconscious needs) can
invade the landscape. In the case of Frank, it concerns a strong emotion,
suppressed for years. Other emotions can, of course, also be actualized.
In addition, meditative practice can also lead to creative solutions. A state
of receptivity allows for other cognitive processes to break through, for
example associative processes, so needed in creativity.
Now, does this model also have a heuristic value when it comes to the
so-called pure consciousness event? Yes, I think so. These experiences do
occur spontaneously, as Robert K. C. Forman has shown in his books. In
such cases, they are retrospectively interpreted. In most cases, however,
they are reported by so-called classical mystics in the great mystical tradi-
tions. We again touch upon the concept of mystical death. A definition of
this state of consciousness has been given by the Swedish scholar Ernst
Arbman, who laid the foundations for a cross-cultural study of mystical
death,5 quoting primarily Christian mystics. Arbman defines mystical
death as:

the deep absorption in the object of belief which completely wipes out the
mystic’s waking consciousness or mental life, the whole of his normal
human self, but at the same time makes him go through an incomprehen-
sible inner transformation corresponding to his highest religious and ethi-
cal strivings and ideals.

Here I am using the word ego in the classical psychoanalytical sense, as a component in
Freud’s structural model of personality. It is not to be equalled with the ego structure,
which comprises all functions and representations of the personality.
See e.g. Arbman 1968, pp. 37ff, 133–189, and 379ff. Unfortunately, the monumental
work of Arbman in three volumes did not receive the international attention it deserves.
272 Altering Consciousness

Arbman not only describes what Forman depicts as the pure con-
sciousness event, he also mentions the other side of the picture: the trans-
formed self, “perfect man” (Sufism) or “the true human being” (Meister
Eckhart), or whatever that state has been called in the mystical traditions.
However, Arbman did not present a psychological interpretation of mysti-
cal death. With the aid of the organismic model of the ego structure, as
presented above, we can explain it. Mystics in different traditions do
describe mystical death and spiritual transformation as the goals of the
mystical life. In order to reach these goals, they use a whole range of spiri-
tual exercises or techniques. These techniques usually aim at a narrowing
of the field of awareness through meditation, prayer, isolation, or a combi-
nation of them. In terms of our model, these techniques lead to an
inhibition not only of the ego’s adaptive functions but also of its defensive
and mediating functions. This is a process of extinction or annihilation,
resulting also in the inhibition of our inner representations and the expe-
rience of the I as an active agent. Most of us are aware of the fact that
we do things best when we are not aware of doing them. The mystic
describes a similar process, but more radical, and in a religious context.
But the experience of “no-self” (Roberts, 1982) does not mean that
the whole ego-structure has been inhibited. The experience of nothing
(Meister Eckhart uses the medieval German word niht) is also a something
(medieval German iht). From a scholarly perspective, Stace (1960) men-
tioned the vacuum-plenum paradox. This concept agrees with Eckhart’s
distinction between iht and niht, or Saint John of the Cross’s speech about
nada (nothing, a contentless state) and todo (everything, the transformed
If we return to the paradigms as described above, the conclusion is
that Forman’s position can be fruitfully combined with the constructivist
view as defended by Katz. Humans construct most of the time, but
during exercises in for example relaxation or meditation, religiously
motivated or not, we do our best to deconstruct. When we are successful
and reach the goal of our strivings, the “ground” or perhaps “counter-
point” of our personality, we will eventually return to the world of phe-
nomena—and reconstruct. The world will then not be the same. Even
though Zen Buddhists can say things like “before enlightenment I chop
wood and fetch water; after enlightenment I chop wood and fetch
water,” underlining the continuity of spiritual development, they also
mean to say that the enlightened person “touches the dead trees and lo!
They come into bloom.”
Altered Consciousness in Religion 273

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