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Self-transcendence is a determining feature of all mystical experience. In the context of theistic mysticism, the self is to be transcended since it is considered to block the mystic from the divine influx, and to be a barrier to the goal of union with the divine. "No-one hears [God's] word and doctrine unless he has abandoned self," wrote the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (Kelly p. 220). And, according to the Hasidic master Dov Baer of Mezritch, "One must think of oneself as nothing and forget oneself totally. . . . If one thinks of oneself as something, . . . then God cannot clothe Himself in him, for God is infinite" (Matt p. 86). In the nontheistic teaching of Buddhism, belief in the substantiality and permanence of self is considered the root of delusion and the primary obstacle to achieving Nirvana. In Buddhagosa's poetic formulation:

  • For there is ill but none to feel it;
  • For there is action but no doer;
  • And there is peace, but no-one to enjoy it;
  • A way there is, but no-one goes it. (Pérez-Ramon p. 11)

In Vedanta, similar principles apply, although the terminology can be confusing. The everyday sense of self, the personal self or I, is regarded as illusory. The individual mind is merely an appearance, a portal to the true self, atman, the ultimate source and divine essence. The spiritual goal is achieved by transcending I and recognizing the self as the true witnessesthat which eternally observes and knows via the individual human senses and mind.

Scientific approaches

The experience of losing the individual bounds of self is also a hallmark of altered states outside the religious context, for example, in cases of neuropathology, drug-induced states, and trance. Scientific approaches have frequently assumed that a common explanatory cause may bridge differences of context. Thus, for example, the loosening of self-experience observed in some cases of temporal lobe epilepsy has led to the view that self-transcendence in religious contexts may be attributable to similar disturbances in these regions of the brain. In his 1987 book Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs, neuropsychologist Michael Persinger argues that micro-seizures in the right temporal lobe trigger "God experiences," as he calls them; Persinger has demonstrated that similar experiences may be induced by artificially stimulating these brain regions. Eugene D'Aquili and Andrew Newberg propose that the experience of self-transcendence follows a loss of input to the left parietal lobe, which, they argue, normally maintains the self-other divide.

These neurological views have been complemented by biological theories based on the evolutionary value of experiences of self-transcendence. It has been repeatedly observed that such experiences have a profoundly uplifting effect on mood. As the Psalmist writes, "From the straits I called to the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in an expansive place" (Ps. 118:5). The biological argument holds that such positive shifts in mood aid survival value. Accordingly, self-transcendent experiences have adaptive value and the genes responsible for brain systems likely to engender them have been selected into the gene pool.

These biological and neurological approaches may be criticized for their reductionist slant, which fails to credit the claims of mystics and others that self-transcendence brings about a "higher" state. "Higher" in this context implies, first, access to a richer source of knowledge and, second, contactor even unionwith a realm distinct in metaphysical terms from the worldly reality.

The approach of cognitive psychology offers an understanding of the gnostic element here, for the self-system may be seen to limit the mental representation of knowledge. Thoughts and perceptions that enter consciousness are predicated on extensive preconscious processing of information, which is characterized by the absence of any reference to self. This preconscious processing includes a considerably wider breadth of information than that which finally enters consciousness. Becoming conscious is effectively a process of limiting the possibilities of meaning that were opened up preconsciously. The passage of information from preconscious to conscious is characterized both by this limitation of diverse meanings and by the integration of content with the cognitive representation of self. In this sense, the self can be understood as a limiting factor in the organization of the mind. The relevance of this to issues of self-transcendence lies in the suggestion that mystical practices curtailing the sense of self effectively prolong the preconscious stage. The mystic becomes aware of preconscious information processing, which appears "richer" than normal consciousness on account of the wider realm of meaning it supports.

This cognitive view of self as a kind of master referencing system for the mental representation of information accords with the mystics' own testimony. "On the knowing and feeling of self hangs the knowing and feeling of all creatures," states the Cloud of Unknowing, a sixth-century Christian contemplative text (Underhill p. 179). It is, of course, the "knowing and feeling of self" that the text urges the contemplative to transcend.


Cognitive science, as we have seen, can suggest a basis for the "higher" knowledge claimed via self-transcendence: The mental representation of self habitually locks the person into conventional ways of perceiving and thinking, and its dissolution opens the way to fresh and creative contact with ideas and objects. What, however, of the second meaning of "higher" noted earlier, namely contact with a metaphysically separate realm? This aspect of self-transcendence stretches the bounds of science since science is classically tied to our spatiotemporal realm. Nevertheless, an increasing number of psychologists argue that a broader view of science that will incorporate subjective experience within its remit is needed, especially because no current scientific procedures are able to disclose the ontology of consciousness. Along such lines, the reality of higher realms may be demonstrable through the kind of hypothesis-testing that is central to all science. Are there any real effects reported by those who follow practices promoting self-transcendence, as taught in the major mystical traditions? If, as most studies suggest, the answer is "yes," then serious consideration needs to be given to the higher sphere that practitioners claim to experience. As William James famously noted, "that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself" (p. 491).

See also Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Aspects; Mysticism; Neurosciences; Psychology; Psychology of Religion; Self; Soul


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brian l. lancaster