The Desert, Sleep, and the Mystical Experience

For millennia mystics have gone to the desert to become one with the absolute.

Posted Sep 25, 2014

Dust storm in a nearly featureless desert landscape

I am looking out into a beautiful New England afternoon with bright sun sparkling through a verdant canopy of trees. It’s early fall but I still don’t see any change in the color of the leaves. That will be coming soon. As I take in this scene of green growth I think back to the bleak but beautiful desert. I recently returned from a two-week desert camping trip. I make this trek to the high desert of the American west about every two years in order to both experience a totally different environment than that of the North East and to escape the ever present electronic environment – there are no power outlets for computers and no cell towers for smart phones in the high desert. This most recent trip and the experiences I had left me thinking a lot about the interaction of desolate environments, physical discomfort and the occurrence of powerful psychological states such as those described in the various mystical traditions. And, of course, one of the physical discomforts that was most clear in my mind was that of significant sleep loss.

Throughout history people in search of enlightenment have traveled into the desert and experienced its harsh reality. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. The first Christian mystics, the Desert Fathers, lived in small, isolated desert communities in North Africa during the second and third centuries C.E. where they pursued mystical union with God. The desert was a setting ideal for bringing about non-ordinary states of consciousness because of the isolation and harshness of the environment. Later generations of mystics made use of practices such as sleep deprivation, fasting and even self-flagellation that create physically and psychologically challenging states, much like those that would be encountered in the desert.

I have several friends who have traveled to the desert on vision quests. Vision quests are a rite of passage in Native American cultures. They often involve significant periods without sleep. Two friends stand out as having had transformative vision quest experiences. Both described the intense effects of isolation, extreme heat and sleeplessness. These experiences involved alterations of consciousness with visions of spirits and otherworldly places. While scientific psychologists tend to interpret these experiences as the result of brain changes that happen due to dehydration, sensory deprivation and sleep loss, tthey are experienced as a reality by the people who have them that is not easily explained away. One of my friends felt that she was dying alone in the desert during her vision quest and encountered helpful spirits while the other returned with his hair having somehow turned white. It brought to mind the change that Moses underwent in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic movie “The Ten Commandments”.

The Native American vision quest can involve fasting, remaining awake for long periods of time, attending a sweat lodge and using psychedelic medicines. Non-Native American people are now using similar techniques to help induce an otherworldly state and may post videos of their mystical desert experience. In native cultures there is a culturally sanctioned leader, the Medicine Man, who helps the person who has had the vision quest interpret and make sense of the experience. Many people who pursue vision quests have no such assistance and interpret the experience on their own.

In the philosophy of religion, the mystical experience is often conceptualized as either the profound experiential realization of non-duality, or as union with the “wholly other” – the absolute, or God. It is a concept that has arisen in many religious and philosophical traditions and is sought after to this day. Some examples are Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufism in Islam and Tantra in Buddhism and Hinduism. The mystical state is a profound experience and its occurance can be facilitated by a number of practices such as meditation, sensory deprivation, dance, visualization, extreme pain (think, for example, of the flagellants of the Middle Ages), sexulaity, use of psychedelic drugs and sleep loss.

Research has shown that the typical effects of acute sleep loss include decreased alertness, reduced performance, memory difficulties and cognitive impairment. In some cases sleep loss may even produce hallucinations. Sleep loss clearly affects mental functioning and reduces higher-level critical thought. This is significant because higher-level critical thinking may limit our ability to experience unusual states of consciousness. Anything that reduces normal mental functioning may increase the likelihood of having a non-ordinary state of consciousness which may be interpreted as a mystical experience. Military studies of soldiers functioning in the high desert under conditions of intense sleep deprivation have shown that there is a slow but steady decrease in the effective cognitive functioning of troops that leads to disorganization and confusion. Interestingly, the ability to do simple tasks such as aiming a weapon are relatively preserved while more complex cognitive tasks such as determining correctly what to shoot at are not. This, unfortunately, in combat situations can lead to horrific “friendly fire” mistakes.

There can be a strong interaction between the use of substances and sleep loss. The Erowid drug information site, used by both professionals and the lay public for quick information on various drugs and altered states, has reports of experiences associated with sleep deprivation. As these self-reports make clear, the effects of sleep loss can contribute to strange and even mystical-like experiences.

The altered states associated with sleep loss most often result in hallucinations that are “dreamy” or illusory – similar to dreams or psychedelic drug experiences rather than the proper hallucinations produced by deliriant drugs (anticholinergic drugs such as atropine and scopolamine found in belladonna the deadly nightshade). For an interesting description of an experience with these types of drugs and this type of true hallucination see Oliver Sacks’ book on hallucinations (Sacks, 2012, chapter 6 “Altered States”.).

While in the desert, I camped in a tent and used a bike extensively for transportation. The dust, heat, absence of landmarks, potential for dehydration and lack of sleep that are part of desert camping caused me to have several experiences of disorientation. As you can see from the photo above, the desert can be a blank and featureless place where it is hard to determine what direction you are moving in, especially in a prolonged dust storm. When disoriented it can be difficult to find your way or understand exactly what actions you should take. I was generally well prepared but on several occasions ran short on water during excursions away from camp and had the disorienting experience of trying to find my way back with few landmarks to guide me. During these times of disorientation I also had intense emotional experiences revolving around existential issues. The blank environment, harsh conditions, and intense fatigue led me to an overwhelming awareness of being a finite and temporary being. This was especially true when viewing the stars that filled the sky at night, a breath-taking sight that we never experience in the light polluted cities of the east coast.

The desert environment and the attendant mental states created an awareness of the interconnectedness of everything, something like the realization of non-duality described by the mystics. The experiences I had did not rise to the level of a full mystical experience, but they were profound, undoubtedly enhanced by sleep loss, and are something of value that I will seek to experience again. To look up at the starkly brilliant desert night sky and know that we fragile humans are indeed one with the cosmos, is a powerful thing.

Sacks, O., (2012). Hallucinations. New York: Vintage Books.

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