What should we do with our visions of heaven and hell?

10 posts


I don't normally read Scientific American, but I thought this was interesting.


Ix Arcturus

I think heaven and hell are the same thing. It's hell to be in the presence of God if you are not willing to surrender yourself to him, heaven if you are willing to let go of everything. My first experience of God involved this overwhelming sense of entrapment and annihilation. I was not willing to surrender myself to God. And you have to surrender yourself completely . You don't get to hold on to anything. Eckhart said that in order for God to get in, the creature must get out. The creature is everything you thought you knew about yourself. That all gets flushed down the toilet. Once the creature was out, I was prepared to have a true mystical experience, which happened a few months afterwards and was overwhelmingly positive.

This is more or less the popular Orthodox conception of heaven/hell as represented in, e.g., the famous 'River of Fire' speech that every convert has read at least once.


Huxley has a good description of this in the Doors of Perception. Here is the way he reacted to an everyday object while under the influence of mescaline:

"Confronted by a chair which looked like the Last Judgment--or, to be more accurate, by a Last Judgment which, after a long time and with considerable difficulty, I recognized as a chair--I found myself all at once on the brink of panic. This, I suddenly felt, was going too far. Too far, even though the going was into intenser beauty, deeper significance. The fear, as I analyze it in retrospect, was of being overwhelmed, of disintegrating under a pressure of reality greater than a mind, accustomed to living most of the time in a cosy world of symbols, could possibly bear. The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the Mysterium tremendum . In theological language, this fear is due to the incompatibility between man's egotism and the divine purity, between man's self-aggravated separateness and the infinity of God. Following Boehme and William Law, we may say that, by unregenerate souls, the divine Light at its full blaze can be apprehended only as a burning, purgatorial fire."
The author's points seem rather muddled: my interpretation is that he is a physicalist who grudgingly concedes that mystical experiences are rooted in neurochemical processes, over the objection of his lingering doubts, but instead postulates that certain mystical experiences are the product of some inscrutable mental process beyond the comprehension of science, conveniently allowing him to preserve his materialist worldview while simultaneously allowing him to attach some degree of "mystical other-worldiness" to certain experiences.

My objection is that this is a rather artificial distinction because even mundane brain processes involving higher consciousness are mostly inscrutable to modern science. This is not proper grounds for calling into doubt that mystical experiences are not fundamentally distinct from more commonplace neurochemical processes. Why can't he concede that mystical experiences no more embody "reality’s profound weirdness and improbability" than does a mass of protein jello composing an article in Scientific American?

Yes, he should abandon materialism. The idea that mystical experiences are rooted in neurochemical processes is an absurdity.

President Camacho
The one time I had an experience genuinely like this was while tripping on mushrooms in the park behind the Art Museum, staring at this view near the river approaching sunset:


Although... I forget exactly what it was that had me entranced. Perhaps it does not matter? So long as the experience takes place and is internalized?

"Perhaps one of the reasons mysticism has come to be considered other-worldly in the sense of being an escape from social responsibilities lies not in the nature of mystical consciousness itself, but rather in the poor methods that have been used by men to gain such experience. The medieval monk in his darkened cell and the hermit in the deep recesses of his cave, for example, used not psychedelic substances, but the tools of sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, meditative disciplines, and fasting to elicit biochemical changes and unlock the door to unconscious levels of mind. The Hindu yogin uses similar methods in addition to autohypnosis and breath control, the latter increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood and triggering unconscious levels of mind (see Meduna, 1950). Altered forms of consciousness often occur unexpectedly and spontaneously when one is undergoing great mental stress and is exhausted physically. It would appear logical to suggest that whenever altered forms of consciousness occur, whether they are anticipated or come as a complete surprise, underlying biochemical activity may be involved. Thus the Hindu yogin practicing breath control or the Christian monk spending long hours in solitary prayer may be seen to be influencing body chemistry in the same direction as the modern man who ingests a psychedelic drug. In all seriousness, one may ask if the yogin or monk has much time for social action when perhaps a major portion of his life is spent in withdrawal from the world. Furthermore, such ascetic practices are poor means of unlocking the unconscious and may be similar to the ingestion of extremely small doses of the psychedelics. One thus enters aesthetic realms of experience more often than mystical consciousness itself. It is granted that other nonmystical forms of experience that may be considered 'religious' are also known to occur, with and without the assistance of drugs. There is reason to think that other-worldliness may be a result, not of going too deep into the unconscious mind, but rather of not going deep enough. It seems significant that persons who have experienced mystical consciousness generally feel thrown back into the very heart of life in this world and feel also that they have been given the inner strength to cope with suffering and struggle in society. It would seem better for a person to have a drug-facilitated experience of mystical consciousness, enjoy the enriched life that may follow, and serve other persons during the greater part of his life than to live a life that may be inauthentic and withdrawn until old age, when such an experience may occur by means of ascetic practices.

"Some persons concerned with religion are disturbed by drug-facilitated mystical experiences because of the apparent ease of production, implying that they are 'unearned' and therefore 'undeserved.' Perhaps the Puritanical and Calvinistic element of our Western culture, especially in the United States where most of the controversy about psychedelic drugs has centered, may be a factor in this uneasiness. Although a drug-facilitated experience might seem unearned when compared with the rigorous discipline that many mystics describe as necessary, the available evidence suggests that careful preparation and expectation play an important part, not only in determining the type of experience attained, but in determining the extent of later fruits for life. By no means is positive mystical experience with the psychedelic drugs automatic. It would seem that this specific 'drug effect' is a delicate combination of psychological set and setting in which drug itself is only the trigger or facilitating agent. Rather than a psychedelic experience being an easy way to achieve growth, many subjects report that the subjective sense of work done during the drug session entails as much suffering and exhaustion as would be encountered in several years of living. But perhaps the hardest work comes after the experience when insights must be integrated. Unless such an experience is integrated into the on-going life of a person, only a memory remains rather than the growth of an unfolding process of renewal that may be awakened by the mystical experience. If the person has a religious framework and discipline within which to work, the integrative process is encouraged and stimulated. In this respect, Huston Smith's (I964, p. 165) distinction between 'religious experiences' and 'religious lives' is especially noteworthy. Many persons may not need the drug-facilitated mystical experience, but there are others who would never become aware of the undeveloped potentials within themselves or become inspired to work in this direction without such experience. 'Gratuitous grace' is an appropriate theological term in this connection, for the psychedelic mystical experience can lead to a profound sense of inspiration, reverential awe and humility, perhaps correlated with the feeling that the experience is essentially a gift from a transcendent source, a gift that can never be earned or deserved by any man."

Implications of LSD and Experimental Mysticism by Walter N. Pahnke & William A. Richards. Journal of Religion & Health, Vol. 5, 1966, pp. 175-208.