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Distinguishing sources of religion by their experiential differences

Imagine we were wondering about religious experiences, specifically, purely mental ones. It’s rather hard to see how we could compare such experiences to say whether they were long or short, easy or difficult to attain, or of differing moral status (from the Devil or from God). But we’re not very sure about ordinary experiences like seeing colors either, and we compare those all the time; some sects in religions such as Buddhism have extremely elaborate hierarchies of mental experiences and will compare religious experiences frequently, even holding them up as the goal of religion. (Zen Buddhism, for example, has many terms and practices dedicated to nurturing, describing, and testing experiences such as ‘dharma combat’.)

The first question one wants to ask is how does a religion relate to the experiences it cultivates? Are they multiple paths to one general experience? Or are their disparate techniques & systems producing equally disparate experiences? Both seem equally plausible. Psychoactive drugs can produce an endless variety of distinct hallucinations or effects; DMT for example, so reliably produces one particular visual hallucination that they’ve been named ‘machine elves’. On the other hand, many apparently different mental techniques turn out to operate essentially the same way by cultivating visual imagery, fantasizing, self-absorption and self-hypnosis.

Worse, the religious experiences get reported in many different ways. Sometimes one is one with the universe, sometimes one no longer exists, sometimes one travels through the celestial spheres to meet Allah, sometimes… They most definitely do not seem to describe one or even a few distinct experiences.

Strip out the extraneous language? Remove all the claptrap about feeling Christ’s wounds or striking down the Buddha? Even if we assume that the entire cultural & religious context is not important and that a purely phenomenal kernel is in the reports from the mystics & devotees, how are we going to know where to cut? If we cut too broad and some hidden cultural assumptions slip in, then we will wind up with still differing descriptions and will conclude that there are multiple experiences and not just one. If we cut very narrow, we might inadvertently reduce our descriptions to basically ‘I felt different for a while, and then I came back’, and we will conclude there’s just one experience or state. We will determine in advance our conclusion by our method, which seems circular & unsatisfactory. So we will simply take the reports at face-value and not try to interpret them or fix them.

The multiple-experiences (ME) viewpoint is easily consistent with the reports. Different techniques lead to different experiences. The single-experience (SE) viewpoint is a little more difficult: there’s one experience, but it gets reported many ways because everyone has their own biases & preconceptions & mental frameworks, and these experiences almost by definition are very rare - seconds or minutes at most, and then one’s memories and especially one’s verbalizations are all that one really has.

The SE does have in its favor the general, extremely simplified, observation that Sufis tend to report Sufi experiences even when in different Sufi sects - some of which use dance and some use meditation etc. - and likewise Buddhists tend to report similar enlightenments even if they are in sects in entirely different divisions (such as Mahayana vs. Hinayana; crudely comparable to Catholicism/Protestantism vs Orthodox). Techniques and results can bear striking resemblances across entirely different religions: some Christian evangelical techniques and Buddhist techniques are similar and lead to similar results, with the interesting twist that in th evangelical sects those results are the final goal of truth but the Buddhists regard them as false, unwanted, and distractions from a further goal (see the appendix). If technique or attitude determined everything, one might expect every experience to be different, and no such patterns.

So maybe broadly similar techniques & attitudes will lead to the same experience. There aren’t an indefinite number of experiences, but merely multiple.

At this point, both seem to explain the reports equally well. How do we decide?

We can start with an appeal to Occam’s Razor. Both theories have to accept as a given the reality that there are a lot of complex religions out there, with very complex beliefs & practices - endless reams of theology & debate & rules. The theories differ on how many experiences there are; clearly it is simpler to postulate just 1 experience (SE) rather than 10 or 20 or 100 or however many would turn out to be needed by ME. Finally, the connection between the many practices/techniques and the experience(s) can be seen as additional complexity - if there is one experience, the connections are simple & predictable as they all lead to the same place, but if they are multiple, then the connections must match up, one practice/technique to one experience (disregarding overlap where one experience is reachable from multiple places).

The practices/techniques cancel out as equally in favor of both sides; the reports too are consistent with both sides; but unfortunately for ME, it really is more complex to postulate multiple experiences than SE’s single experience. Straightforwardly, then, Occam’s Razor will push us towards SE.

But hold on, the ME might say. We 2 theories do not really predict & explain all the same phenomena. Being more complex is only bad if the complexity does not do anything useful; Occam’s Razor specifically applies only when 2 theories are equal on all other grounds.

But, ME, how do you differ then? Here’s one way I see. SE says that reports differ only because the culture/religion differs; that is the sole factor. But ME says that culture/religion is only part of why the report differs and may not even matter - differing techniques can get you to the same place. But doesn’t this imply that a person in one culture/religion can take the techniques of some entirely other culture - and get some other experience? That is, if Buddhist techniques lead to Buddhist experiences, and Sufi techniques lead to Sufi experiences, then: ‘we will never see a Sufi using Sufi techniques to get a Buddhist experience’.

Ah, ME says, that’s right. But then how could you know this? How could you know the Sufi is reporting a Buddhist experience, since he will be couching it - as ever - in Sufi terms and concepts? You have already conceded that you cannot compare the ‘kernel’ of 2 reports, and that is precisely what you, the outside observer, would need to do here. This is a difference which makes no difference.

Very well, ME, but how about this: if ME is correct about techniques being the necessary & sufficient condition for a particular experience, and we grant that a person having an experience is at least able to know whether their experience is the same as or different from a previous experience, then shouldn’t this be true: ‘we will never see a Sufi using Buddhist techniques to get a Sufi experience’? This is a very falsifiable prediction, and one that intrepid believers may well have already falsified.

That’s the consequence of ME trying to escape Occam’s Razor: the only way to justify the complexity is to suggest different observations, but unfortunately for ME, the differing observations are not the ones that are hidden to observers behind the veil of language & mind. The differing observations are conducted by the person having the experience, and it seems very reasonable indeed to say that they are competent to judge this matter. As the movie line goes, ME, are you feeling lucky?

So that’s the dilemma: either ME is more complex than SE and so disfavored, or it has a clear path to disproof. SE looks like the better theory to me.


  • Wainwright, William J., ed. “Mysticism and Religious Experience.” Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 138-167.

  • Kimmel, Monica. “An Evaluation of Stephen T. Katz’s Arguments Against a Common Core in Mysticism and Mystical Experience.” Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Gothenburg, 2008.

  • Dible II, Randy T. “The Philosophy of Mysticism: Perennialism and Constructivism” TODO: URL link

  • Fabbri, Renaud. “Introduction to the Perennialist School”; Religio-Perennis, n. d. Web. 2009-10-5

  • Flew, Anthony, 1979, A Dictionary of Philosophy, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979.

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  • Forman, Robert K. C. “Of Deserts and Doors: Methodology of the Study of Mysticism.” Sophia. Vol. 32, No. 1. (1993): pp. 31-44.

  • Forman, Robert K. C. “Paramaartha and the Modern Constructivists on Mysticism: Epistemological Monomorphism versus Duomorphism.” Philosophy East and West. Vol. 39, No. 4 (1989): pp. 393-418.

  • Forman, Robert K. C. Ed. The Innate Capacity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

  • Forman, Robert K. C. Ed. The Problem of Pure Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990

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  • Guenon, Rene. The Metaphysical Principles of the Infinitesimal Calculus. New York: Sophia Perennis, 2003.

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  • Jackson, Roger R. “Matching Concepts: Deconstructive and Foundationalist Tendencies in Buddhist Thought.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 57, No. 3. (1989): pp. 561-589.

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  • Katz, Stephen T. Ed. Mysticism and Religious Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

  • Mahoney, Timothy A. “Contextualism, Decontextualism, and Perennialism: Suggestions for Expanding the Common Ground of the World’s Mystical Traditions.” Twentieth World Congress

  • Merrell-Wolff, Franklin Pathways Through to Space. New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1973.

  • Merrell-Wolff, Franklin The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object. New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1973.

  • Peirce, C. S. “The Architecture of Theories”. Buchler, Justus (Ed.), Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1955.

  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. New York: Dover, 1966.

  • Smart, Ninian. “Understanding Mystical Experience,” pp. 12, in Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, 1978.

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  • Stoeber, Michael. Theo-Monistic Mysticism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

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When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann2012; ch 6

The first step is learning what God’s voice sounds like when spoken within (reading your Bible so that you recognize the kinds of things God says and when he says them). The second is knowing how to go to a quiet place and still one’s own thoughts and emotions. The third is attending carefully in the mind, and to images and thoughts and dreams. The fourth is writing out the dialogue, so that it is clear, external, and remembered: real.3

The Beginner’s Guide to Hearing God presents a similar sequence. To hear God, find quiet places to listen-“over a period of time, I learned to get up out of bed (highly important-get out of the bed!) in the middle of the night”; read the Bible to direct the way to pay attention-“if we haven’t read our Bible, we should not act like we know where were are going”; actually pay attention-“I really didn’t know what to do with all this stuff-impressions, mental snapshots, hunches, knowledge, short thoughts and full phrases that were being released into my heart and mind”; and treat that inner life seriously, as if it matters: remember it, follow it, and store up the memories of the experience. And practice, the author says again and again. Focus internally. Bend the mind to imagine God, and imagine him so vividly that he springs to life outside the mind.4

In the 1970s three Trappist monks inspired by Merton-Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and William Meninger-distilled the practical points of The Cloud of Unknowing into a method that could be summarized on a page.19 They called it “centering prayer” because they thought that the cloud metaphor was too difficult. “Few of us have been in a cloud,” Pennington calmly comments.20 The word center came from Merton: “Monastic prayer begins not so much with ‘considerations’ as with a ‘return to the heart,’ finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God, who is the source of our being and of our life.” The three monks thought the phrase represented the movement both of the technique and of its imageless theology: “This place-which we make no attempt at pinpointing physically or imaginatively-is deep within, deep within our spirit. It is the place of encounter with the living Triune God.”21

The method begins with the technique that The Cloud’s author recommended as the last resort for those who could not focus. You choose one word-perhaps God, perhaps Abba, or love, or peace, or whatever else appeals to you. Then you use the word, as in The Cloud, to block out distraction, like the white noise of the fan that drowns out the street sounds as you work. Thus armed with your word, you sit; you focus on the word; and whenever you find yourself distracted by thoughts and feelings, no matter how good or noble, you gently bring your attention back to the word. The monks suggest that the minimum length of time for such a prayer is twenty minutes each day, and they suggest that you do two such sessions a day.22

Centering prayer is hard. Your mind jumps and frets and starts. You settle in to find God, and instead you construct the weekly shopping list and reach in your imagination for a pen. “Monkey mind,” the leader of my prayer group called it, borrowing the Buddhist term. Many people find it difficult just to be still for twenty minutes, to sit without scratching their arms or fiddling with their fingers. To be still and to halt thought is harder still. Your thoughts seem to gather force when you set out to try this method, as if they have been waiting, subdued, to ambush you. “Wandering thoughts surge about my soul like boiling water,” said Abba Isaac in the first written description of this mode of prayer.23 The author of The Cloud warns his readers that this will happen at first…The method works, if by works one means that those who become expert practitioners find that the practice changes them. At least, we know that the meditation practiced in Buddhism-until now the only spiritual practice that has been deeply studied as a practice by scientists-has clear physiological consequences. The neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili sought out expert meditators in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to enact their spiritual discipline within the brain-mapping device of a single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) machine. They found that in the peak state of a meditation of an expert meditator, the brain changes significantly. There is decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, an area that orients the self in relation to the world. Buddhist meditation is not centering prayer, but the formal similarity to what people do in centering prayer-shifting attention away from the senses and from thought-is sufficient to suggest that they might have the same kind of bodily impact. Even among nonexperts, meditation can decrease your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, alter your brain wave pattern, improve your immune function, and help you to sustain attention. These are, to borrow a famous phrase, the “relaxation response,” and at least for those who can respond to the practice, the effects are real.26…This style of prayer is also deeply controversial within evangelical circles, partly because in the end it just seems too much like Buddhism. The Trappist fathers carefully (and appropriately) placed centering prayer in the rich lineage of the Christian contemplative tradition that descends from the desert fathers. But the technique is essentially the same as in the many forms of Buddhism and Hinduism that independently discovered the practice of being still in thought. Merton understood himself to be bringing Eastern forms of prayer into the West; he thought the West needed the peace that they could bring. When Merton’s Contemplative Prayer was reissued in 1996, the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the introduction.

Zen Buddhism identifies versions of maya or vipallasa which appear during meditative practice as “makyo”; the issue of visions arises in Vipassana practice as well, eg. Bhikkhu Khantipalo, Buddhism Explained:

This obviously leads on to a further danger — that of pride, of which there are several forms. One such is the pride of the person who has seen manifestations of light during meditation, and supposes this to be the sign preceding mental absorption. Then there is the pride of one who touches on a mental absorption if only for an instant and as a result assumes that he has become a Noble One, and this can be a very powerful factor in convincing himself if not others. Quite ordinary people who take up meditation may beware of the common “holier-than-thou” attitudes: “I make an effort, whereas you . . .,” or, “I meditate every day, whereas you . . .” Pride is a great obstacle to any progress, and while it is only a Buddha or arahant who is entirely rid of it, everyone should have the mindfulness to check it.

Related to this is the danger for the person who always looks for so-called progress. He is sure that he is making “progress” because in meditation he sees lights, hears sounds, or feels strange sensations. He becomes more and more fascinated by these as time goes by, and gradually forgets that he started with the aspiration to find the way to Enlightenment. His “meditation” then degenerates into visions and strange happenings, leading him into the realms of occultism and magic. There is no surer way for a meditator to become entangled than this way. Fascinating though all such manifestations may be, they should be rigorously cut down by resorting to bare attention, never permitting discursive thought regarding them, and thus avoiding these distractions.

Among “visions” which one may see, whether they be internal (produced from one’s own mind) or external (produced by other beings), there may be for some meditators an experience of the fearful, such as the sight of one’s own body reduced to bones or inflated as a rotting corpse. If such an experience occurs, or others of a similar nature, one should withdraw the mind from the vision immediately, supposing that one has no teacher. Visions of the fearful variety which occur to some people may be very useful if rightly employed, but without a teacher’s guidance they should be avoided.

Samir Nath’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Buddhism analogizes makyo to a pseudo-nirvana described in Visuddhimagga; Meditation, Classic and Contemporary Perspectives by Deane H. Shapiro (pg337) schematizes parts of pseudo-nirvana:

Without any such further reflections, contemplation continues. A stage follows where the beginning and end of each successive object of contemplation is clearly perceived. With this clarity of perception there arise:

  1. the vision of a brilliant light or other form of illumination, which may last for just one moment or longer;

  2. rapturous feelings causing goose-flesh, tremor in the limbs, the sensation of levitation, and so on (as described above in the factors of the first jhana);

  3. a calm tranquility of mind and body, making them light, plastic, and easily wielded;

  4. devotional feelings and faith, which may take as their object the meditation teacher, the Buddha, his Teachings - including the method of insight itself - and the Sangha, accompanied by joyous confidence in the virtues of meditation and the desire to advise friends and relatives to practice it;

  5. vigorous and steady energy in contemplation, neither too lax nor too tense;

  6. sublime feelings of happiness suffusing the whole body, a wholly unprecedented bliss which seems never-ending and motivates the meditator to tell others of this extraordinary experience;

  7. quick and clear perception of the phenomena noticed: noticing is keen, strong and lucid, an the characteristics of impermanence, non-self, and unsatisfactoriness is understood quite clearly and at once;

  8. strong mindfulness in practicing insight so that all successive moments of phenomena present themselves effortlessly to noticing mind;

  9. equanimity toward all mental formulations: neutral feelings prevail toward the objects of insight, which proceeds of itself without effort;

  10. a subtle attachment to the lights and other factors listed here, and to pleasure in contemplation.

It is hard to read Luhrmann2012 and not think that many of these arisings characterize successful charismatic evangelicals, especially #1, #4, & #6.