TECHNIQUES OF INCUBATION
Cultures that value mystical experiences and whose worldviews are informed and verified by them are referred to as polyphasic (Laughlin 1997:479). Supported within a living cycle of meaning, these cultures incubate and institutionalize ASC’s through their mythopoetic expressions such as ritual, story-telling, art, music, contemplation, meditation, and prayer. Procedures that elicit ASC’s are referred to as neurophysiological drivers and unlike the spontaneous ME varieties already mentioned, drivers in the ritual context are intentionally placed with the purpose of invoking and maintaining some control over the ASC, such that resulting experiences authenticate and enliven that culture’s worldview. It is through the vehicle of ritual that polyphasic societies regulate what Timothy Leary (Leary, Metzner and Dass 1966) referred to as “set” (the individual’s conditioning, expectations and state of mind through enculturation and ceremonial preparation) and “setting” (the environmental factors accompanying ritual such as locale, ritual specialists, participants and drivers). Although Leary was referring to psychoactive drug use, the importance of these factors in mediating any ASC through the regulation of “set” and “setting” are paramount irrespective of the driver being used. Since ME are absorption experiences that quell the ego, and anxiety is the main factor thwarting absorption, the management of “set” and “setting” can mitigate anxiety, increase calm and positive affect, and in some cases, retune the nervous system.
Gellhorn and Kiely’s model of autonomic nervous system (ANS) tuning is helpful in elucidating the cross-cultural similarities of reported ME phenomenology, particularly those arising in contexts that appear to be at opposite ends of the ritual spectrum such as the extravertive and introvertive types. Neural tuning occurs when the balance of the sympathetic (ergotropic) and parasympathetic (trophotropic) activity of the ANS shifts resulting from continued stimulation of the one system, initiating an activation response in the other (see Gellhorn 1969, 1970; Gellhorn and Kiely 1972). The parasympathetic system is responsible for maintaining the body’s homeostasis by regulating digestion, sleep, restoration and calm through processes such as muscle relaxation and a decrease in heart rate. In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system is associated with our “flight” or “fight” response and is characterized by an increase in heart rate, contraction of the muscles and the release of adrenaline. Under normal circumstances these systems are antagonistic to each other, meaning that stimulation of the one will inhibit activation of the other.
It is the baseline equilibrium of these two systems that is conducive to conditioning (tuning) and it is the resetting (retuning) of this balance through the ritual manipulation of drivers that is the fundamental basis of ritualized healing techniques (d’Aquili and Newberg 1999:24-25). In the first stage of neural retuning, mild stimulation of one system results in its increased reactivity while in tandem, the non-stimulated system begins to be obstructed. D’Aquili and Newberg break this stage down into 2 categories: the hyperquiescent and the hyperarousal states. In the former, parasympathetic system stimulation, such as meditation or chanting, induces a heightened state of relaxation which is often experienced as tranquility or what Buddhists coin Upacara Samadhi, or access concentration (ibid:25). In contrast, arousal of the sympathetic—the hyperarousal state—induces feelings of excitation and intense sensations of energy flow through drivers such as dancing, the infliction of pain, prolonged heat exposure or extreme physical exertion such as long-distance running. In the second stage of tuning, persistent exposure to the stimulus beyond a certain threshold continues to increase reactivity while prompting total inhibition of the other system. Any provocation that would normally elicit a response in the non-activated system, will instead invoke a response in the system being stimulated thus causing a reversal effect. In the case of continued parasympathetic stimulation with sympathetic spill-over (the hyperquiescent state with eruption of the arousal system), the experience of tranquility from parasympathetic arousal is accompanied by an energy surge resulting from the spill-over (ibid 25-26). In the reverse case (the hyperarousal state with eruption of the quiescent system), the spill-over effect transitions into a state of calm. In the third stage of retuning, maximal stimulation of either system produces a spillover effect, resulting in the simultaneous discharge of both systems. During this third stage of retuning, entrainment and re-entrainment of the neural network takes place as a new level of ANS balance is achieved. This stage of retuning can account for the commonalities reported in ME induced from drivers that bombard the senses (ergotropic tuning) versus drivers involving sense withdrawal and isolation (trophotropic tuning). It is this maximal stimulation of both systems that is associated with “the most intense forms of mystical experience and may lie at the heart of compelling spiritual experiences, meditative states, near death experiences and other types of human experiential phenomena” (Newberg and d’Aquili 2000:256). Specifically, it is this process that underlies the dismantling of boundaries between objects, the sense of the eternal now, and dissolution of the separation between self and other (d’Aquili and Newberg 1999: 26).
Barbara Lex suggests that the efforts paid to ritual procedure and performance are necessary to stimulate the appropriate neurophysiological centers thus shifting the trophotropic-ergotropic balance (1979). This also includes ritual preparations that facilitate one’s susceptibility to ASC induction, as well as mentally, physically and emotionally prepare an individual for the ritual, reduce ego defense, and support openness to alterations of consciousness. Fasting, dietary prescriptions or restrictions, sleep deprivation, and purification practices are common examples of ritual preparation aimed at priming the body for ASC induction, as well as enhance the overall ASC experience when combined with other drivers. Many of these and other driving mechanisms will be addressed in the examples that follow.
Rave and Electronic Dance Music (EDM) Culture
Societies that lack a culturally patterned cycle of meaning and that systematically disregard the value of ASC’s, leave the spiritually inclined to their own devices while being exemplars of the everyday ego-centered materialist consciousness. In these environments, hybridized expressions of spirituality appropriated or cross-pollinated from other traditions or revitalized from the past often emerge. These movements prioritize direct experience through the presence of numerous drivers, and as Sylvan notes, the appeal is the sacrifice of doctrine “in favor of breadth and intensity of transmission” (2002:220). Modern rave and what later evolved into electronic dance music (EDM) culture is a case in point; one of the authors (Takahashi) has conducted extensive fieldwork in the rave and post-rave EDM music cultures and has personally encountered mystical experiences at these events.
The initial commentaries on rave concentrated on drug use and harm reduction, or adopted the postmodern perspective that deemed raves hedonistic, escapist and void of meaning. These armchair approaches were not informed by fieldwork or participant observation, and it wasn’t until scholars started attending events with an awareness of the emic (first person) perspective, that the spiritual, transformational, and healing potentials of rave became apparent (Hutson 1999, 2000; Malbon 1999; Sylvan 2002; St John 2004; Takahashi and Olaveson 2003). These studies identified raves as liminal spaces containing aspects of ritual that in many ways parallel shamanism and rites of passage (Redfield 2017:67). While there was and continues to be a reluctance in framing rave and EDM as formal rituals, they are good examples of what Ronald Grimes refers to as syncretic ritualizing. This refers to practices that contain ritual elements, but leave room for experimentation, creativity and fluidity (Olaveson 2004:86-87).
The earliest manifestation of what is now referred to as EDM, can be traced to the underground rave scene that surfaced in England in the late 1980’s. These parties were characterized by “one-off” illegal venues held in secret locations such as abandoned warehouses. The music was electronic and rhythmically repetitive, and it was here that the elevated “God-like” status of the DJ (disc jockey) can be first traced. The once hidden and faceless DJ was the main attraction for rave events and participants often referred to the DJ as a “technoshaman,” recognizing his crucial role in shaping and directing ASC’s and taking dancers on a journey. The proficiency in intuitively “reading” and responding to the crowd, the active role of the dancers, and the ability to form a temporary bond with the participants were and still are key ingredients to the overall experience. Rave dancers faced the DJ (still the case in EDM) highlighting the symbiotic nature between DJ’s and dancers which Takahashi has argued elsewhere is very similar to the relationship established by drummers and dancers in possession trance ritual (see Takahashi 2000b, 2005c, 2018). The reverence for the technoshaman was reflected by the DJ booth being the focal point of the event, often set up like an altar pregnant with symbols both ancient and borrowed such as Hindu and Buddhist deities, yantras, and other sacred symbols.
The main motivation for attending these events was and continues to be centered around the music, personal transformation, and connecting with others in a non-sexual way. “Picking-up” was frowned upon as the intent was to create a safe space where dancers were free to express themselves without having to worry about judgement and trying to attract someone. MDMA (the drug 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, otherwise called “Molly,” “ecstasy” or “E”) was favored over alcohol as the drug was conducive to making individuals more open, loving and connected as compared to the aggression associated with alcohol. “Cuddle-puddles” also promoted cozy and safe areas for sociality and bonding; usually in quieter spaces away from the music, it was here that ravers would exchange friendship bracelets, share their experiences, and enjoy platonic and respectful physical contact such as massaging and cuddling. These practices reflected the attempt to create a utopian society through PLUR (Peace Love Unity Respect), the principle ethos of rave.
With the motivation being direct experience, raves and current EDM events are driver-heavy. Sleep deprivation, prolonged dancing, repetitive rhythmic and photic stimulation, heat exposure, fasting, and MDMA work in concert to initiate ANS tuning through the vehicle of hyperarousal state induction with eruption of the quiescent system. This process is further enhanced by the DJ’s manipulation of what is known in EDM as the “build-up” and the “drop.” The build-up stretches the listener to a point where the drop (the return of the bass) is the only thing that can emotionally satisfy the dancer. During this kind of anticipation, the brain activates the dopamine reward system resulting in a state that many describe as euphoria (Blood and Zatorre 2001). A skilled DJ will not only know when to place these moments within a track, but at the macro level will also construct a set whose overall structure progressively builds tension to a pinnacle that is then gradually resolved as the night progresses, thus taking the dancers on a journey. Tension building is enhanced with increases in pitch, volume and tempo, along with lasers, pyrotechnics, and fractal imagery that are timed with the music to maximize the effects of the “build-up” to result in a more impactful “drop.” Many of these techniques are known universal triggers for trance induction cross-culturally (Rouget 1985) The effects of this kind of musical manipulation is evident in the following raver’s account:
The music was reaching a crescendo, rising higher and higher, building until the
entire house was screaming and jumping up and down in a frenzy and the body was
merely a receiver for the music. Suddenly, the music stops for a split-second, and
then BAM! It’s back harder and faster than ever, now freeing the minds and the
spirits of the dancers in an ecstatic explosion of joy. It was like a hive-mind having
an organism (cited in Takahashi 2004a:160)
By the millennium, rave became an aboveground global movement that included pricier tickets held in legal profit-oriented club venues. In conjunction with the move from illegal spaces to clubs, PLUR, the opposition to conventional consumerist society, the term “rave,” and the subcultural accoutrements (glow-sticks, baby soothers, friendship bracelets, “kiddy” back packs) were eventually replaced with mainstream commercialized EDM. This new genre of electronic music shares the same driving techniques as rave, but the move from turn-tables to digital technology has honed the efficacy of these techniques through automation, reducing the margin for human error, as well as enabling more sophisticated methods for building tension and intensifying the drop. EDM provides a temporary sanctuary from everyday ego-centered materialist consciousness and the collective crisis of isolation and alienation by allowing people to connect and experience oneness at a deep level, without necessarily subscribing to a belief system. Lacking doctrine and ritual specialists to mediate and integrate the experience, the ASC’s of a mystical nature that have been reported are wide-ranging, inconsistent and idiosyncratic. However, qualitative studies among those who have reported transpersonal experiences at EDM events have revealed common features of ME such as absorption by the music, feelings of surrender, distortions in time and space, states amounting to AUB, physical sensations in the body, feeling embodied by the music, ego-dissolution, and a sense of the numinous and ineffable (see Takahashi and Olaveson 2003; Takahashi 2005 and Redfield 2017). Participants will often try to mediate control over the idiosyncratic nature of the experiences through their attention to set and setting.
In the Hindu Tantric tradition, akin to Buddhist Tantra, the focus is on technique rather than philosophy. These methods are geared toward the experience of union between Shakti (female principle) and Shiva (male principle) as a vehicle to attain samadhi or Cosmic Consciousness. This key principle of duality in unity is depicted in the lingam and the yoni which can be found in most Hindu temples. The yoni represents the female sex organ and is depicted as a stone base that contains a stone phallus representing the male sex organ. Union can be attained in a variety of ways from devotional practices to Shakti and Shiva, methods to awaken one’s own dormant Shakti energy, referred to as Kundalini, to the actual sexual union of a male and female. The West has tended to fixate on the latter which is only one aspect of Tantra referred to as Neo-Tantrism or “the left-hand path”. This differentiates the morally questionable “left-hand path” of sexual union referred to as Vamachara, from the “right-hand path” known as “pure Tantra” or Dakshina (Abhayananda 1996:180). As an initiatory tradition, teachings are passed down orally from teacher to disciple. For this reason, the techniques are shrouded in secrecy only being imparted when the guru feels the student is ready. The written texts are intentionally presented in an ambiguous manner with a secret form of symbolism referred to as “twilight language.” Due to the secretive nature of the teachings and scandalous associations of the “left-hand path” the texts are replete with double-meaning to conceal the teachings from the non-initiated (Kesson 2002).
The Kundalini Shakti rests in a dormant state at the base of the spine. When the Kundalini energy is wakened, it ascends the spine passing through each of the seven chakras where it finally ascends to the seventh chakra to unite with Shiva. One of the most well-known Tantric texts is the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra that dates back over 5000 years. Translated as “technique of going beyond consciousness” it is structured as a dialogue between and Shiva and his female consort Shakti. Shakti poses the questions and Shiva provides answers that focus not on the why but on the how. Contained within the work is 112 different meditation techniques that will support a spiritual seeker to transcend the paradox of duality to experience union. Only three of the 112 meditations are sexual, however the objective is the attainment of mystical love rather than romantic love or lust. Since love is the closest approximation one can experience of non-duality and the divine, in Tantra love becomes the vehicle through which to impart knowledge (Osho 2010:7). One of the three sutras that reference sex, sutra 48 describes the following technique: “At the start of sexual union keep attentive on the fire in the beginning and so continuing avoid the embers in the end.” If love is lacking, sex becomes rushed and the nature of the union is exploitative; by slowing down and not focusing on the final release, the act becomes about the other and less about relieving one’s own needs (ibid:545). The idea is to treat the sex act as a meditation where the lovers merge to become one and without orgasm, the energy is contained and dispersed throughout the body rather than remaining concentrated at the genitals. The idea is to direct the energy away from the genitals, so it can spread throughout the entire body which is often expressed as shaking. This is addressed in sutra 49 that states: “When in such embrace your senses are shaken as leaves, enter this shaking.” It is through the vibration of the cells that male and female merge into a union that transcends the physical body and the mind, and instead creates a union of two energetic bodies that unite to become one (ibid 549).
Tantric texts are often sexually graphic in nature as a method of screening out the spiritually undeveloped who direct their attentions on the literal meaning of the texts (Long 2016:160). The union of sexual organs may not always be literal but metaphorical, pertaining to the relationship between mind and pure consciousness that can only be understood by those who see beyond the illusion of the material world (ibid). Tantra is thus not about denying the senses as a way of transcending them, but rather Tantra views desires as energies that can be redirected toward liberation. The objective is to go beyond the physical union of male and female, to the cosmic union of Self or pure consciousness (Purusha) with the female creative force (Prakriti) (Basu 2016:40). It is here that the seeker can face difficulties discerning the difference between harnessing the desire from senses as a source for liberation, versus simply indulging in the desire and getting attached to the power and pleasure that accompanies it (ibid:162).
Those persons who are not capable of love, such as extreme narcissists and psychopaths, may feel horny, but their arousal is always associated with the “will to power” (desire for control; see Stone 2009). Jung showed that power over another and love are antithetical. As he put it, “Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other” (Jung 1991: 87). In other words, the twisted psyche of a psychopath has a snowball’s chance in a microwave of experiencing ecstatic absolute unitary being (AUB; D’Aquili and Newberg 1999).
With the rise of the internet and social media, this trend has only been amplified with the Millennial generation (also known as “Generation Me”) who were the first to be socialized in a digital age where self-promotion and narcissism are increasingly becoming cultural norms. The term “selfie” was named the word of the year in 2013 by the Oxford English Dictionary, and for the Millennials, taking “selfies” and posting them online is a central part of their daily activities. While these digital natives are hyper-connected with numerous social networking “friends”, “fans” and “followers”, their motivation for using social media is less about taking an interest in others, but more about using these media for a captive audience where they can portray their idealized image of themselves (Wickel 2015). Not surprisingly the Millennials score higher on narcissistic personality traits compared to their generational predecessors (Delic et al. 2011; Bergman et al. 2011; Twenge et al. 2008; Twenge and Foster 2010). These platforms allow the ordinary person to have a taste of “stardom” by recording every routine aspect of their lives through social media. It is socially acceptable to take “selfies,” touch them up with filters, and then keep track of the number of “likes” “comments” and “shares” to bolster ones’ sense of approval and self-importance. In a survey of college student use of social media, 97.8% of respondents reported that one’s popularity can be determined by the number of “likes” a person receives on a profile picture, and 90.2% of the participants reported that receiving “likes” and comments from their friends was the sole incentive for posting pictures online (Wickel 2015).
Some of the consequences of this trend is a decline in such intrinsic values as empathy, concern for others, and volunteerism, in favor of such extrinsic values as wealth, notoriety, materialism and self-image (Twenge 2013; Konrath et al. 2010). Thus, while social media can reinforce one’s perception of popularity, the preoccupation and addictive nature of social media can also compromise the ability to sustain or form meaningful relationships (Basset et al. 2016). Self-absorption is also negatively correlated with empathy; it is not surprising that empathy among Millennials is 48% lower than previous generations. The inability to empathize has severe physiological consequences on the capacity to form meaningful relationships; empathy is positively correlated with oxytocin production, the hormone responsible for bonding. Barraza and Zak found that empathy was associated with a 47% increase in oxytocin from baseline levels and that empathy is positively correlated with such altruistic behaviors as generosity (2009).
Indeed, certain modern social rituals seem to be designed to do just that, often incorporating the use of psychotropic drugs to attain the requisite level of social distance dissolving loving-kindness. For instance, MDMA falls under the unique class of psychoactive substances known as empathogens. When ingested, it induces feelings of connectedness, empathy, and oneness. During the height of the rave scene, ecstasy (a pressed pill combining MDMA and speed) and Molly (pure MDMA in powder form) were the substances of choice that complimented the movement’s ethos of PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity and Respect), and simultaneously became emblematic of the movement itself. These substances continue to have a strong presence in the post-rave EDM communities that were to later emerge. Participants describe the experience as a drug induced heart opener that can be felt emotionally, energetically and physically. A popular polydrug combination among the more spiritually oriented dance communities involves taking MDMA with magic mushrooms or LSD. In this process referred to as “candy-flipping,” the MDMA is taken first to reduce anxiety and induce feelings of well-being, love and a sense of connectedness. Once this state is achieved, the LSD or magic mushrooms are then ingested. This is one way in which individuals control for “set” and minimize the unpredictable and often terrifying aspects of ego-dissolution associated with a psychedelic experience.
One of the ways MDMA mitigates the impact of unsettling stimuli is by enhancing recognition and sensitivity to positive mental states, while impairing sensitivity to negative ones. Under the effects of MDMA, individuals are less likely to accurately identify negative emotional states based on facial recognition cues, but accuracy in identifying positive facial stimuli is enhanced (Hysek et al. 2012, 2014; Kirkpatrick et al. 2014; Bedi et al. 2010). Similar findings have also been found with respect to MDMA and emotional responses in recalling autobiographical memories. In a study that examined functional MRI responses to subjects’ recollection of their best and worst memories, it was found that favorite memories were rated as more vivid, positive and emotionally intense compared to the placebo group, and recollection of worst memories were rated less negatively by comparison (Carhart-Harris et al. 2014). A similar positive emotional bias mediated by MDMA has also been shown in simulated social situations of rejection. MDMA has been shown to decrease feelings of rejection based on self-reports of mood and self-esteem (Frye et al. 2014).
MDMA increases the release of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine and blocks the reuptake of these neurotransmitters which accounts for the euphoria and increased energy associated with MDMA use. The underlying mechanism of MDMA’s prosocial effects have been linked to oxytocin release stimulated by MDMA through 5-HT1A receptors (Thompson et al. 2007; Dumont et al. 2008). It is well to note that the role of the hormone oxytocin is significant in activating systems involved in positive affect, bonding, child birth and child-caring. Oxytocin is manufactured in the hypothalamus and stored in the pituitary. When released into the bloodstream the chemical will activate cells in the nucleus accumbens. Barraza and Zak (2009) have shown that increased oxytocin is correlated with both an increase in felt empathy toward strangers, and generosity. With the rampant narcissism and sense of alienation faced by upcoming generations in technocratic societies, it is not surprising that millions of youth are attracted to a chemically induced version of the universal solvent.
The Pineal Gland, DMT and the Third Eye
There is much fascination, mystery and controversy surrounding the pineal gland which many historical and present-day cultures refer to as the “third eye.” The root origin derives from the Latin word pinea which means “pinecone,” due to its close resemblance in appearance. French philosopher Rene Descartes referred to the pineal gland as the “seat of the soul” and both Eastern and Western mystical traditions have attached significance to the “third eye” as a portal into the realm of the divine. Unlike other structures in the brain that are paired between the hemispheres, the pineal gland sits alone in the middle brain and is responsive to light. Over the past 40 years, research on the mammalian pineal has resulted in a better understanding of its mechanism of action and morphology (Barerk et al. 2013), however its physiological role particularly in humans continues to remain a mystery (Macchi and Bruce 2004: 189). Most pineal research has focused on the effects of melatonin, one of the main products secreted and synthesized by the gland. Melatonin is known to regulate circadian rhythms, lower the core body temperature, reduce the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, plays a role in modulating the immune system, and reduces the likelihood of psychiatric disorders such as depression (ibid:184-187). The pineal gland is also a regulator of hormones with hypothalamic and pituitary hormones being present.
Although the research at this point is speculative, the most titillating aspect that has captured the popular imagination is the pineal glands’ association with spirituality as the “third eye.” While there is little evidence to support these claims, the pineal gland has generated attention from conspiracy theorists who assert that fluoride added to our water, and exposure to EMF rays and other chemicals, are intentional attempts on the part of the power elite to calcify the pineal gland, disrupt its functioning, and disempower the masses by withholding the secrets of the third eye. Curiously, the gland becomes detectable at forty-nine days, which also coincides with the timing of sex assignment in the developing fetus. Forty-nine days is also a significant number in the Buddhist beliefs around reincarnation; it is said to take up to forty-nine days for the soul of the recently deceased to reincarnate (Strassman 2001:81). It is the synchronicity of these three events that inspired the clinical research of Rick Strassman who suggests that N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an endogenous psychedelic common in the tissues of plants and animals, may be manufactured and released by the pineal gland during exceptional circumstances such as Near Death Experiences (NDE’s) (2001:2008). Interest in DMT has also been inspired by the wave of cultural tourism that has flooded South America with spiritual seekers ingesting ayahuasca—a shamanistic psychedelic brew whose active ingredient contains DMT—for personal healing and spiritual growth. There are also numerous underground psychedelic communities that administer the drug in ritualized urban settings, providing DMT access that doesn’t require travelling to Peru.
Referring to DMT as a “spirit molecule,” Strassman suggests that higher quantities of DMT may be released when the body is undergoing hyperarousal, trauma or engaged in a deep meditative state; the psychedelic effect of DMT is believed to ease the terror of ego dissolution associated with absorption states, or such major life transitions as birth and death (ibid). DMT is also believed to be the chemical agent behind a variety of ASC’s including mystical experiences, dream consciousness, alien abduction encounters, hallucinations, shamanic states of consciousness, meditation and sexual ecstasy (Miller 2013: 215-217, Strassman 2001:72-73, Serapinas et al. 2012:74). In humans, DMT has been detected in small quantities in the blood, urine, spinal fluid, brain, and the lungs, though these amounts are not enough to produce a psychedelic effect (Strassman 2008:21). DMT is unique in that it crosses the blood brain barrier and unlike other psychedelics in the tryptamine family (LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline), DMT does not build a tolerance in the brain suggesting its important role in mediating consciousness (Miller, 2013:217; Germann 2015). According to Strassman, the pineal gland is the most active organ at the time of death where DMT operates as “brain-food”: “our brain seeks it out, pulls it in, and readily digests it” (Strassman 2001:55, 82).
Strassman suggests that the classic phenomenological profile of NDE may be attributed to the release of endogenous DMT that is released by the pineal gland to mitigate psychological trauma (2001:220). After administering intravenous DMT to sixty volunteers, common themes reported by subjects were noted, many of which share the qualities of NDE and other ASC. These include: a separation of consciousness from the body, intense visual effects, a sense of timelessness and the “eternal now,” with most volunteers describing the session as ecstatic and euphoric (2008:53-54). Based on the self-reports, Strassman outlines three general categories of DMT encounters: (1) Personal: the experience is concentrated on awareness around personal issues both conscious and unconscious (2) Transpersonal: this refers to encounters that go beyond the individual’s personal life experience of which mystical and NDE’s are included. (3): Invisible worlds: the experience of other realities, beings, and parallel worlds.
With DMT being a controlled substance, clinical work in this field has been restricted and the methodological limitations of administering DMT on human subjects in a laboratory setting has made much of the results inconclusive (see Szara 2007 for a review of DMT research over the last 50 years). With little control over set and setting, clinical evidence is lacking given that NDE’s occur spontaneously and cannot be simulated in a research setting; regardless of the stimuli, the subjects are still cognizant that the experiment is not life-threatening (2001:221). There is evidence on the defensive role of DMT at the human cellular level; in hypoxic environments, DMT has been shown to prevent and lessen cellular stress as well as facilitate tissue regeneration and immunity (Szabo et al. 2016; Frecska et al. 2013). While the pineal gland carries enzymes and building blocks for producing DMT, the substance has yet to be found in the human gland. To some extent Strassman’s research was vindicated in 2013 with his lab being the first to verify the presence of DMT in the rat pineal gland (Barker et al. 2012). However, the question still remains, if DMT is present and manufactured in the human gland, and if so, is the amount enough to produce a mystical experience?
Meditation Practices on the Third Eye
Whether DMT is involved or not, many cultures place significance on the third eye and concentrate meditation practices specifically to that area. In Hinduism, the Ajna chakra (the 6th chakra) represents the ‘third eye’ and with diet, yoga, breathing practices and meditation, the third eye can be activated resulting in intuition and insight. In many contemplative traditions, the third eye is a concentration point in meditation. In the Korean martial art tradition Sinmoo Hapkido, specific meditation and breathing practices are believed to waken the third eye and alter the perception of time (Bradley 2010:24). In martial arts, altering the perception of time can give a student a competitive edge over his or her opponent. Making time appear faster is advantageous in offensive moves by making the strikes look extremely rapid while slowing down the perception of time is valuable for defensive moves (ibid: 24). One breathing practice in this tradition involves holding the breath, clenching the jaw while chanting a vibration that resonates in the bones, tissue, jaw and skull. The vibration stimulates the middle brain, specifically the pineal gland. The meditation technique involves counting backwards from 100 out loud while visualizing the numbers in the third eye. Sensory deprivation and darkness are other technologies used in contemplative traditions to awaken the third eye. It is believed that disengaging the optic nerve through darkness heightens third eye awareness as a withdrawal of the senses facilitates the awakening of the inner world. The Tibetan Buddhist practice the Bardo Retreat is an advanced meditation that is conducted in total darkness for forty-nine days. During this time the Tibetan Book of the Dead is revealed to the practitioner as a preparation for death, and a reinforcement of the key concept of impermanence.