As a science reporter and blogger in the digital age, I keep my antennae up for research trends and look for patterns that capture the zeitgeist of this era and reflect our collective unconscious. One noteworthy parallelism I observed this month is between two research papers that address religion, spirituality, and life satisfaction from different angles—but reach similar conclusions.
The first paper, “Oneness Beliefs and Their Effect on Life Satisfaction," was written by Laura Marie Edinger-Schons of the University of Mannheim in Germany and published April 11 in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
The second paper (that in my opinion complements Edinger-Schons “oneness beliefs = greater life satisfaction” hypothesis) is by researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, “Survey of Subjective "God Encounter Experiences": Comparisons Among Naturally Occurring Experiences and Those Occasioned by the Classic Psychedelics Psilocybin, LSD, Ayahuasca, or DMT,” and was published April 23 in PLOS ONE.
The chronological timeline of these two April 2019 papers from peer-reviewed journals and my reportage on their empirical findings has evolved over the past two weeks. On April 13, I wrote a post about Edinger-Schons work, “Does ‘Flow’ Open Our Minds to Believing in ‘Oneness’?"
My initial post on this topic framed her findings on increased oneness beliefs being linked to greater life satisfaction through the lens of flow. In her paper, Edinger-Schons speculates that losing oneself in an ego-dissolving state of flow may be a secular way for each of us to nourish stronger “oneness beliefs” over time, regardless of someone’s religion. I concur. (See, "What Driving Forces Help Us Go From 'Flow' to Superfluidity?")
After digesting the Edinger-Schons paper, I realized that the triad of (1) manifesting a state of flow/superfluidity regularly through sports, (2) experiencing sublime awe in nature, and (3) a mystical psilocybin trip during adolescence had cemented my lifelong oneness beliefs. Over Easter Weekend, I wrote a post, “Psilocybin, Sublime Awe, and Flow Made “Oneness" My Religion,” that unpacked the genesis of my lifelong oneness beliefs based on these three interconnected factors. I published that post on April 20.
Serendipitously, my faith in Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity and “meaningful coincidences” was corroborated on April 23, when, out-of-the-blue, I received an email blast from the Johns Hopkins University newsroom, “Experiences of ‘Ultimate Reality’ or ‘God’ Confer Lasting Benefits to Mental Health." In a woo-woo, Twilight Zone kind of way, reading this study (Griffiths et al., 2019) about the long-term psychological benefits of having "ultimate reality" or so-called "God encounter experiences" (with or without psychedelics) gave me goosebumps because it provided evidence-based affirmation of so many things I’d tried to articulate a few days earlier based solely on my anecdotal, autobiographical experiences.
The new research by Roland Griffiths and colleagues at Johns Hopkins reaffirms the universal ability of one mystical psychedelic trip or having a profound "God encounter" without drugs to improve life satisfaction and psychological well-being for an indefinite amount of time.
Interestingly, Griffiths and colleagues found that over 66 percent of people who self-identified as atheists before having an “ultimate reality” or “God of your understanding” experience (with or without the use of psychedelics) no longer considered themselves atheists after having some type of “God encounter experience.”
"Experiences that people describe as encounters with God or a representative of God have been reported for thousands of years, and they likely form the basis of many of the world's religions," lead researcher Roland Griffiths, who is a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement. "And although modern Western medicine doesn't typically consider 'spiritual' or 'religious' experiences as one of the tools in the arsenal against sickness, our findings suggest that these encounters often lead to improvements in mental health."
Griffiths and his Johns Hopkins co-authors explain the design and terminology of their "Survey of Subjective 'God Encounter Experiences'" in the paper's introduction:
"The present study was undertaken to advance our understanding of both naturally occurring and psychedelic-occasioned religious experiences that are interpreted as an encounter with God (e.g., the God of your understanding), Higher Power, Ultimate Reality, or an Aspect or Emissary of God (e.g., an angel). [Nota bene: To simplify the writing of the present report, the term "God encounter experience" will be used as a label to refer to all four descriptive variants of these experiences. We have chosen to capitalize the word "God" to be consistent with the survey instructions and question wording.]
Most participants reported vivid memories of the encounter experience, which frequently involved communication with something having the attributes of being conscious, benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal, and all-knowing."
Taken together, my interpretation of the latest empirical evidence on “Oneness Beliefs” and the four categories under the umbrella of “God Encounter Experiences” is that all of this terminology is using different words to describe the same phenomenon.
In my opinion, the main takeaway of these two April 2019 research papers by Edinger-Schons and Griffiths et al. is that psychedelic substances and flow states are both tools we can use to nourish our belief and connectedness to something much bigger than "I" or "me"—while simultaneously counteracting the global epidemic of "us" against "them" divisiveness that is often driven by religion.
There is an important caveat: Mystical psychedelic experiences can be extremely difficult. In a sub-section of their paper titled "God encounter experiences are not infrequently psychologically challenging" Griffiths et al. write:
"That such experiences may be both attractive and extremely difficult is consistent with the classic description of the dual nature of encounters with the "Holy" both as "mysterium tremendum" (referring to its awfulness and absolute overpoweringness) and "mysterium fascinans" (referring to its fascinating and attractive nature) by the theologian Rudolf Otto . Likewise, that psychedelic experiences can involve both positive emotion including transcendence as well as highly distressing feelings such as fear and insanity have been well-documented [29,49,50]."
As Edinger-Schons (2019) posits, flow is a universally accessible, drug-free way to open our eyes to the power of "oneness" and our human commonality in ways that transcend religious differences. Psychedelic substances can also facilitate this process, but come with many more risks and, in my opinion, are not a sustainable way to tap into a sense of connectedness on a daily basis—even when taken in "microdose" quantities. (See, "Psychedelic Microdosing: Study Finds Benefits and Drawbacks" and "This Is Your Brain on Microdoses of Psilocybin.")
For their recent study, the Johns Hopkins researchers conducted international online surveys that asked a total of 4,285 people around the globe to recall their most memorable encounter with a “higher power,” “ultimate reality,” “God of their understanding,” or “an aspect or representative of God, such as an angel.” They also asked survey respondents how they felt this experience had changed their lives.
There were two different 50-minute surveys. One survey was filled out by participants who had used psychedelics in the past; the other “non-drug” survey was for respondents who hadn’t ever tried psilocybin, ayahuasca, LSD, or DMT.
A total of 3,476 people responded to the psychedelics survey and 809 responded to the non-drug survey. Those who reported having a “God encounter" experience on psychedelics tended to prefer the term “ultimate reality" experience. Below is a bullet point list of other findings from this study provided in the Johns Hopkins press release:
- About 75 percent of respondents in both the non-drug and psychedelics groups rated their “God encounter” experience as among the most meaningful and spiritually significant in their lifetime, and both groups attributed to it positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning.
- Independent of psychedelics use, more than two-thirds of those who said they were atheists before the experience no longer identified as such afterward.
- Most participants, in both the non-drug and psychedelics groups, reported vivid memories of the encounter experience, which frequently involved communication with some entity having the attributes of consciousness (approximately 70 percent), benevolence (approximately 75 percent), intelligence (approximately 80 percent), sacredness (approximately 75 percent) and eternal existence (approximately 70 percent).
- Although both groups reported a decreased fear of death, 70 percent of participants in the psychedelics group reported this change, compared with 57 percent among non-drug respondents.
- In both groups, about 15 percent of the respondents said their experience was the most psychologically challenging of their lives.
- In the non-drug group, participants were most likely to choose “God” or “an emissary of God” (59 percent) as the best descriptor of their encounter, while the psychedelics group were most likely (55 percent) to choose “ultimate reality.”
Reading the final bullet point on this list is a reminder of the innumerable minefields surrounding the word “God.” Back in October of 1959, Carl Jung got into some hot water when he was asked during a "Face to Face" interview on the BBC with John Freeman, “Do you now believe in God?” After a thoughtful pause, Jung famously responded, “It’s difficult to answer. I know. I don’t need to believe. I know.” Below is a YouTube clip of this legendary interview:
C.G. Jung's “I know. I don’t need to believe. I know.” response to whether or not he believed in God ruffled a lot of feathers in the religious community.
As someone who has had “God encounter" experiences both with and without psychedelics and under both secular and religious circumstances, I understand what Jung is trying to say on an intellectual and intuitive level. Once you've had any type of "conversion experience" that opens your eyes to the existence of Something (with a capital "S") mystical and understand "oneness" as the interconnectedness of everything—you “KNOW” that there is some type of "God-like" existence in the universe.
Unfortunately, the semantics of finding appropriate language to describe these agnostic or religious “God” experiences often opens up a controversial can of worms. C.G. Jung addressed the backlash from referencing "God" the way he did during the BBC interview in a lengthy November 16, 1959 letter to a pastor named Valentine Brooke. In an excerpt from this letter published in The New God-Image: A Study of Jung's Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image, (p. 136 ) Jung writes:
“When I say that I don’t need to believe in God because I “know,” I mean I know the existence of God-images in general and in particular. I know it is a matter of universal experience and, in so far as I am no exception, I know that I have such experience, which I call God. So I say: "I know Him.” But why should you call this something “God”? I would ask: “Why not?” It has always been called "God." An excellent and very suitable name indeed. Respice finem! I know what I want, but am doubtful and hesitant whether the Something is of the same opinion or not. Hoping I have succeeded in elucidating the puzzle. Sincerely yours, C.G. Jung"
Since temps immémorial, people from diverse worldwide cultures have described having profound mystical and religious "God" experiences while under the influence of psychedelic substances such as psilocybin-containing “magic mushrooms” or the Amazonian brew known as ayahuasca. There is growing evidence that these deeply meaningful encounters with "God" or an "ultimate reality” have healing properties that can last a lifetime after one “conversion” experience.
That being said, as a public health advocate: I do not condone the recreational use of psychedelic drugs. If you are considering trying any psychedelic substance, please make sure you're in a safe place with a trustworthy support network and that you know exactly how many milligrams you're consuming in relation to a "hallucinogenic dose" vs. "microdose" of that drug in relation to your body weight and how much food is in your stomach.
Although I had one mystical experience on psilocybin as an adolescent that hardwired my “oneness beliefs” and concepts of an “ultimate reality" in ways that I am eternally grateful to have encountered; I also had one terrifying “bad trip” that left some psychological scars and PTSD. Having one colossally bad trip (after ingesting a mega-dose of 5+ grams of dried magic mushrooms on an empty stomach) makes it impossible for me to even consider ever experimenting with psychedelic substances again.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever had a bad trip, but it feels like all the tumblers in your brain are turning and re-configuring; unlocking doors that should stay shut, closing windows that should stay open, all the while re-etching the blueprints of your psyche and the foundation of your soul. Psilocybin fuses your synapses into new configurations, permanently rearranging the architecture of your mind.” —Christopher Bergland in The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, 2007
Based on my life experience with accidentally ingesting way too many grams of psilocybin when I was still in high school, I agree that drug-based experiences with "Something Holy" can trigger both "mysterium tremendum" and "mysterium fascinans." (See: "Psilocybin May 'Reset' Brain Circuitry of Depressed Patients" and "The Neuroscience of LSD Unlocks the Doors of Self-Perception.")
You may be asking: "Based on the potential risks of ingesting psychedelic substances, is it worth it?" I cannot answer that question for you, but would recommend reading a highly informative April 25 post, "Your Questions About Psychedelics, Answered," by fellow blogger Tom Shroder, author of Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal.
Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz, Alan K. Davis, Matthew W. Johnson, Robert Jesse. "Survey of Subjective "God Encounter Experiences": Comparisons among Naturally Occurring Experiences and Those Occasioned by the Classic Psychedelics Psilocybin, LSD, Ayahuasca, or DMT." PLOS ONE (First published: April 23, 2019) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0214377
Laura Marie Edinger-Schons. "Oneness Beliefs and Their Effect on Life Satisfaction." Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (First published: April 11, 2019) DOI: 10.1037/rel0000259