It is interesting to note that quite often ‘peak’ psychological and physical experiences that do not conform to the parameters of ‘normal’, or ‘everyday’ mundane existence are assumed to be ‘religious’ in nature, when in fact virtually any one can access such an experience participating in any activity. This not only includes activities such as fasting, reduced sleep, vegetarianism and severe discipline or arduous activities (which are also found within religious systems), but might also include sitting in a comfortable chair, sat in the shade (on a hot day), or sheltering during a rain storm as examples, with no particular preparation or direction of mind. A business person who lives a life dedicated to greed and power might one day experience a sudden and profound sense of ‘discontinuity’ with everything he or she has personally recognised as worthwhile up until that moment. Sports and military people engaging in extreme physical and psychological conditioning exercises, or indeed those touched by the destruction of modern warfare also often talk of an experience that appears to ‘transcend’ the physicality of the situation. Buddhists (and other mediators) take a different tack and try to access this experience by engaging in what might be described as the practice of radical non-engagement with the political, social and cultural norms of the physical world. It has also been the case that those engaged in the practice of conventional religions have often abandoned that path after experiencing a peak of intensity that does not fit-in with whatever their original faith was. Even scientists, whilst wedded to the observation and measurement of physical processes have also talked of a type of logical knowledge that is fully material on the one hand, whilst projecting the experiencer far out into the universe on the other. These observations tend to shift transcendental episodes away from an exclusive emphasis upon religion, and into the mainstream of human experience. Another area that has gained some insight into transcendental experience is that of the recreational use of entheogens or psychedelic drugs, and other substances that assist the alteration of human perception, although in this case the experience is artificially induced, rather than naturally occurring. During labour and childbirth, it is true to say that virtually every woman experiences a transcendental modification of perception and outlook – as if the evolutionary process has furnished each woman with this natural capacity to withstand the traumas often associated with childbirth. Intense fear might well be another trigger which propels the experiencer into a mind-set with altered perception that is better suited (or ‘adapted’) to face whatever is about to happen.
This means that what is often interpreted as religious or drug-induced in nature is actually ‘natural’ and a product of human evolution. The problem has arisen when religions have become political and their previously transcendental teachings corrupted into methods of political oppression and control of the masses. In such a scenario, it has not been historically unknown for religious authorities to outlaw or downplay peak experiences that tend to have the effect of ‘freeing’ individuals and groups from the strictures of religiously contrived, political tyranny! When transcendental experiences are distorted in this manner, they tend to lose their evolutionary relevance within the general population, and when they do occur, those experiencing altered or enhanced perception are viewed as heretics or perhaps even insane. This is a ridiculous situation as it harms the natural outpouring of evolutionary adaptations which have developed to serve humanity in its battle for survival. Such experiences have nothing to do with religion (although since ancient times religions have acknowledged the presence and relevance of such experiences), and many great scientific breakthroughs have often happened due to leaps of imagination and intuitive insights within the minds of great thinkers. Although many peak experiences involve great feats of physical strength and endurance, this is not always the case.
Some peak experiences are entirely psychological in nature, expansive and buoyant in feeling, and accompanied by a sense of floating or flying (irrespective of the fact that the experiencer is simultaneously aware of being physically still). Although brain activity can be measured as synaptic firing, the experience of conscious ‘expansion’ and/or ‘flying’ has no bearing upon physical reality and cannot therefore, be measured. Nevertheless, this experience remains concrete for the experiencer, even though logic dictates that nothing tangible has happened, and yet it is often the case that the inner configuration of the experiencer has been changed (either temporarily or permanently) often for the better. State of mind often shifts out of negative states, and emotionally is often diverted into compassion and loving kindness towards all living creatures. Others often report that after such a peak experience, an individual becomes a much happier character that others like to be around. From a scientific perspective, it certainly seems strange that something that has no physicality can still have such an effect upon the material world, but this certainly seems to be the case from an evolutionary perspective. On the other hand, the mind emerges from the brain (which is the current scientific thought), but when the mind is experiencing ‘peak’ transcendence, it seems as if consciousness is coming into the brain (from somewhere else) and being experienced as ‘mind’. Although not proven (or accepted) by science today, this certainly seems to be the case from within the experience of these expansive and uplifting evolutionary episodes. Perhaps the evolutionary purpose of this model which presents the brain as an aerial that ‘receives’ consciousness from a universal reservoir is that of granting an individual or group the comfort of feeling that they are not alone. This could well have been an adaption for those experiencing hardship, illness, injury and certain death, and could well explain the birth of theistic religion. As matters stand, I am of the opinion that these peak experiences still have a very profound usage for human evolution, if only a more rational approach could be applied to their experience from all sides of the argument.