Why Mysticism Matters

Have you ever had a mystical experience?

Have you ever had a mystical experience? Wikipedia defines “mysticism” as “the knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, or levels of being, or aspects of reality, beyond normal human perception, including experience of and even communion with a supreme being.”


I had my first mystical experience when I was a 16-year-old secular atheist.  I was sitting up late one night having a conversation about nothing in particular with my mother when suddenly, a most unexpected event occurred: the “doors of perception” swung wide open and I found myself in a dramatically altered state of consciousness. Even though I could see the four walls of the room in which I was sitting, inwardly, my conscious experience was one of no boundaries whatsoever. I felt like I was swirling in an infinite ocean of my own and everyone else’s Being, the nature of which seemed to have no beginning and no end. The presence of ecstasy was overwhelming and even unbearable at times. In the profundity of this beginninglessness and endlessness, it became apparent that death was an illusion and that everything that exists and does not exist—the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown—is all inseparable from this one inconceivable mystery. The majesty and glory of those few moments are impossible to describe in words—it was like the whole universe suddenly became conscious of itself in me.

The transformative power of mystical experiences is that they can convey to us, in a way that our rational faculties can never grasp, that no matter what happens to our bodies and personalities in the world of time and space, mysteriously, at some other level, in another dimension of our own being, beyond the mind, everything is always okay.

The lightness of being that flows from the heart and mind of the mystic is very different than the sometimes disconcerting absolute self-confidence of the religious believer. The believer is convinced beyond any doubt of the incontrovertible nature of the apparently unique truth espoused by his or her particular mythic tradition—whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Of course, in all of these traditions, there are many extraordinary men and women who are transformed in the most important ways by the liberating power of their faith alone. But the mystic has seen beyond the truth of any particular tradition because she has directly experienced at least what seems like a depth-dimension of reality that transcends all personal, religious, political, and cultural differences—whether she is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. This is because she has access to a truly transcendent knowing of the substratum of reality that remains unseen and unfelt by most. Mystical certainty spontaneously arises from the lightness of being that is the emotional resonance of the deepest dimension of the self.

The path of the mystic is one of transcendence, of going beyond: beyond the mind, beyond time, beyond the whole world. When the mind is transcended, awareness of the passing of time fades away. And when time disappears, awareness of the world also disappears. All the greatest mystics from the world’s religious traditions have made the same unexpected and liberating discovery: when awareness of the world and everything in it, including ones own bodily shape and form, disappears, the most intimately felt sense of “I” still remains. Except now, “I” is all there is—beginningless, endless. When the historical Buddha awakened to this depth dimension, he called it “the Unborn,” “the Deathless,” or “the Uncreated.”

Before time and space, before the universe was born, you didn’t have any problems and the world was not in crisis. That is the reason why lightness of being is the emotional resonance not only of the deepest dimension of the self, but also of the deepest dimension of reality itself. If we can find access to that Unborn, Uncreated, timeless domain of our own being, then we can know here and now, just like the greatest mystics throughout the ages, that everything is always okay . . .

Why is that so important? Because in a world that’s more interconnected than it ever has been, when we’re only hearing the bad news more times a day than we may be able to bear, knowing that, deeply, everything’s always okay is more important than ever. It doesn’t mean we are living in denial of the very real and complex problems we are facing. But the ever-new and always-liberating truth of mystical insight spiritually empowers us so that we won’t become discouraged, even on really bad days. And most importantly, in a truly challenged world that needs our whole-hearted participation more than ever, being awake to our own infinite depths empowers us to fight the good fight with all the courage in the world. 

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Image Credit: Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock.com

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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