Mystic Experience and Two Modes of Consciousness
adapted from the work of Arthur J. Deikman, M.D.


Deikman, an academic medical researcher, proposes that mystic experience is a psychological phenomenon that largely has been ignored by contemporary scientists. This situation is understandable. Scientists have waged a long battle to obtain freedom from religious control, and mystical experiences are usually described within a religious idiom. It is natural that things mystical should be suspect and categorized as part of organized religion. In addition, the content and form of some types of mystical experience seem to give clear evidence of psychopathology. For this reason, the scientist may be tempted to dismiss all such reports as some type of hysteria or madness.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, to study the mystic experience requires participation on the part of the scientist so that he can stand outside of his customary mode of thought long enough to experience the different mode of consciousness involved in these phenomena. Such participant observation is not a part of the experimental model of contemporary science. Psychologists, in particular, have tended to model themselves after the eighteenth century physicist, who believed he could be "objective" in observing the world. He proposes that it is time to depart from this attitude, and concludes that the broad terrain of mystical phenomena contains within it lawful processes pertaining to a mode of consciousness as mature and vitally practical as the one to which we are accustomed.


Deikman identifies the basic characteristic of mystical experience as the intuitive perception that we are part of a universe that is a unified whole. As William James and others have remarked, such an experience is usually accompanied by feelings of reverence and awe; it is highly valued and is felt to be a more direct perception of reality than is possible ordinarily. Such an intuitive experience is called mystical because it is considered beyond the scope of language to convey.

Reports of mystical experiences encompass a wide area, from moments of joy and sensory enhancement not much different from ordinary consciousness, to states that are said to go beyond all images, ideas, and customary perceptual experiences. For descriptive purposes we can group these experiences into (1) untrained-sensate, (2) trained-sensate, and (3) trained-transcendent. "Untrained-sensate" applies to experiences occurring in persons not regularly engaged in meditation, prayer, or other spiritual exercises.

Apparently, anyone can have a sensate-mystical experience. Such states feature intense affective, perceptual, and/or congnitive phenonema that appear to be extensions of familiar psychological processes. Bucke, a physician, had a classical experience, occurring with no particular stimulus at all, arising from a state of quietude. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city, the next he knew that the light was withing himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe.

The "trained-sensate" category refers to the same phenomena occuring in religious persons who have deliberately sought "grace" and "enlightenment" by means of long practice in meditation and religious discipline. The untrained sensate and the trained-sensate states are phenomenologically indistinguishable, but the reports of trained mystics are usually expressed in the language of the religious system in which they are trained.

As one might expect, a mystical experience occuring as a result of training, with the support and direction of a formal social structure and ideology, tends to have a more significant psychological effect. However, there are also accounts of spontaneous conversion experiences that are noteworthy for their influence on a person's life. It is typical of all mystical experience that it more or less fades away, leaving only a memory or longing for that which was experienced. The transensate or "enlightment" experiences are said to have more permanent effects, but, even in those cases, training is continued for a long time until the person has "realized" the experience in his everyday life.

It would seem that mystical experiences form a progression when they occur as part of a specific spiritual discipline. Mystics such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, commentators such as Poulain, and Eastern mystic literature, in general, divide the phenomena and stages through which mystics progress into a preliminary experience of strong emotion and ideation (sensate) and a higher experience -- the ultimate goal -- that goes beyond affect or ideation. It is the latter experience, occuring almost always in association with long training, that characterizes the "trained-transcedent" group. Poulain describes the state as follows: "Then the spirit is transported high above all the faculties into a void of immense solitude whereof no mortal can adequately speak. It is the mysterious darkness wherein is concealed the limitless good. To such an extent are we admitted and absorbed into something that is one, simple, divine, and illimitable, that we seem no longer distinguishable from it. . . . In this unity, the feeling of multiplicity disappears. When, afterwards, these persons come to themselves again, they find themselves possessed of a distinct knowledge of things, more luminous and more perfect than of others. . . . This state is called the ineffable obscurity. . . . This obscurity is a light to which no created intelligence can arrive by its own nature." In "The Heart Sutra" what is apparently the same state is expressed as follows: "And no feeling, thought, impression, understanding, and no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, No form, sound, smell, taste, touch or thought. . . ."


Classical mystical texts from widely varying cultures and times seem to prescribe the same basic psychological techniques for attaining the same basic alteration in consciousness. Considerations of space preclude listing enough examples to convey this impression as vividly as it is justified, but, as an example, the instructions of Walter Hilton, a fourteenth century Roman Catholic canon, are similar to those of Patanjali, a yogi from about the sixth century.

This vast literature can be summarized as follows: If a person wishes to achieve a special state that goes beyond the usual feelings and perceptions of ordinary life, a state in which the person perceives God or his own basic essence, it is necessary that he practice (1) a form of contemplative meditation and (2) renunciation. Treating these instructions as technical psychological procedures, Deikman investigated contemplative meditation in a laboratory setting.


Contemplation is a nonanalytic apprehension of an object or idea -- nonanalytic because discursive thought is given up and with it the ordinary attempt psychologically to grasp or manipulate the object of atention. "Nondemanding attention" suggests the appropiate attitude. Ordinary thougth is considered an interference; it hinders the direct contact that yields essential knowledge through perception alone.

A group of normal subjects, unfamiliar with meditation, were instructed to contemplate a simple blue vase according to the following instructions which Deikman adapted from the yoga of Patanjali: "The purpose of the sessions is to learn about concentration. Your aim is to concentrate on the blue vase. By concentration I do not mean analyzing the different parts of the vase, or thinking a series of thoughts about the vase; but, rather, trying to see the vase as it exists in itself, without any connections to other things. Exclude all other thoughts or feelings or sounds or body sensations. Do not let them distract you, but keep them out so that you can concentrate all your attention, all your awareness on the vase itself. Let the perception of the vase fill your entire mind."

In the first series of experiments each subject performed the exercise for thirty minutes, during ten sessions spread over one month. Deikman interviewed each subject immediately following each session and then analyzed the transcripts of the tape-recorded interviews. The subjects' experience of the vase changed as follows: (1) there was an increase in the vividness and richness of the vase image (e.g., they described it as "luminous," "more vivid"); (2) the vase seemed to acquire a life of its own, to be animated; (3) there was a decrease in the subjects' sense of being separate from the vase, occuring especially in those subjects who continued longest in the experiment (e.g., "I really began to feel . . . almost as though the blue and I were merging or that the vase and I were. It was as though everything was sort of merging"); (4) a fusing of perceptual modes (e.g., "when the vase changes shape, I feel this in my body" and "I began to feel this light going back and forth").

These data are not easily explained by the usual concepts of projection or autohypnosis, sensory isolation, direct suggestion, or the influence of the demand expectations of the experimental situation. Deikman hypothesized that these changes were a consequence of "deautomatization," an undoing of the usual ways of perceiving and thinking due to the special way that attention was being used. In particular, he proposed that there seemed to be a deautomatization of the psychological structures that organize, limit, select, and interpret perceptual stimuli.


Deautomatization is a concept derived from Hartman's discussion of the automatization of motor behavior: "In well-established achievements they (motor apparatuses) function automatically: the integration of the somatic systems involved in the action is automatized, and so is the integration of the individual mental acts involved in it. With increasing exercise of the action its intermediate steps disappear from consciousness . . . not only motor behavior but perception and thinking, too, show automatization."

Gill and Brennan developed the concept: "De-automatization is an undoing of the automatizations of apparatuses -- both means and goal structures -- directed toward the environment. De-automatization is, as it were, a shake-up which can be followed by an advance or a retreat in the level of organization. . . . Some manipulation of the attention directed toward the functioning of an apparatus is necessary if it is to be de-automatized."

The technique of contemplative meditation constitutes just such a manipulation of attention as is required to produce deautomatization. The percept receives intense attention while the use of attention for abstract categorization and thought is explicitly prohibited. Attention is reinvested in perception. Since automatization normally accomplishes the transfer of attention from a percept of action to abstract thought activity, the meditation procedure exerts a force in the reverse direction. Cognition is inhibited in favor of perception, since the active intellectual style is replaced by a receptive perceptual mode. Automatization is a hierarchically organized developmental process, and one would expect a deautomatization to produce a shift towards a perceptual and cognitive experience, involving a mode developmentally preceding the more analytic abstract intellectual mode typical of present-day adult thought. The shift would be to a process lower in hierarchy, rather than a complete cessation of the particular function involved.

Heinz Werner studied the perceptual and cognitive function of children and members of primitive cultures. In discussing these studies, as well as the broader implications inherent in his studies of perceptual development, Werner stated: "The image . . . gradually changed in functional character. It becomes essentially subject to the exigencies of abstract thought. Once the image changes in function and becomes an instrument in reflective thought, its structure will also change. It is only through such structural change that the image can serve as an instrument of expression in abstract mental activity. This is why, of necessity, the sensuousness, fullness of detail, the color and vivacity of the image must fade."

He went on to describe the imagery and thought of primitive cultures and of children as (1) relatively more vivid and sensuous, (2) syncretic, (3) physiognomic and animated, (4) less differentiated with respect to the distinction between self and object and between objects, and (5) characterized by a lack of differentiation and a fusion of sense modalities. The phenomena that the subjects of my experiment reported fulfilled Werner's criteria completely, although the extent of the shift away from their normal consciousness was varied from one subject to the next. Their perceptual and cognitive changes were consistently in the direction of what Werner would describe as a more "primitive" organization.

Terms as "primitive" and "regressive" are placed in quotation marks for a particular reason. It is more accurate to say that the undoing of automatic perceptual and cognitive structures permits a gain in sensory intensity and richness at the expense of abstract categorization and differentiation. One might call the direction regressive in a developmental sense, but the actual experience is probably not within the psychological scope of any child. It is a deautomatization occurring in an adult mind, and the experience gains its richness from adult memories and functions now subject to a different mode of consciousness. Deikman's thesis is that scientific research has neglected the study of mystical experiences not only because of their association with organized religion, but because scientists have applied such terms as "regressive," "immature," and "childish" to an area of function that may be of value.


Poverty, chastity, isolation, and silence are traditional techniques used in pursuing the mystical path. As dramatic as such techniques may be, they tend to obscure the fact that the renunciation sought is much more basic than merely modifying external behavior. For example, Walter Hilton prescribes a renunciation of thought: "Therefore if you desire to discover your soul, withdraw your thoughts from outward and material things, forgetting if possible your own body and its five senses. . . ." St. John of the Cross calls for the banishment of memory: "Of all these forms and manners of knowledge the soul must strip and void itself, and it must strive to lose the imaginary apprehension of them, so that there may be left in it no kind of impression of knowledge, nor trace of aught so-ever, but rather the soul must remain barren and bare, as if these forms had never passed through it and in total oblivion and suspension. And this cannot happen unless the memory be annihilated as to all its forms, if it is to be united with God."

A seemingly simple, but perhaps equally subtle and difficult, statement of a contemporary Zen master is that renunciation "is not giving up things of this world, it is accepting that they go away." The statement also prepares the way for appreciating a shift in Deikman's research perspective. At the time of the original meditation experiments, he tended to understand renunciation as being a way to intensify the process of deautomatization by depriving perceptual and cognitive patterns of their usual stimulus nutriment, thereby helping to bring them into disuse and dysfunction. It seemed as if renunciation would increase motivation, for having abandoned the world the mystic has no other hope of sustenance than his goal of enlightenment.

However, Deikman then became a participant observer by undergoing meditation training under the auspices of the Zen Center of San Francisco. The meditation experience, coupled with visits to a Zen monastery, interviews with the Zen master, and reading of Buddhist literature, led him to view renunciation in a different way. In his revised view, renunciation can be understood as relating to a change in attitude. It is a shift from doing to allowing, from grasping the world to allowing the world to enter us. It is the meditative attitude carried into everyday life. Ordinarily, we tend to categorize renunciation as virtuous, attributing various moral or holy qualities to it. But Deikman's hypothesis is that the basic attitude or purpose of a human organism has a determining effect on its state of consciousness. From this revised point of view, renunciation is a practical, not a moral issue: Your state of consciousness fits your intention, and renunciation changes intention.


Deikman's proposal assumes that we think of a human being as an organism composed of components having both psychological and biological dimensions. These components have two basic modes of operation: an "action mode" and a "receptive mode." The action mode is a state organized to manipulate the environment. To carry out this purpose the striate muscle system is the dominant physiological agency. Base-line muscle tension is increased and the EEG usually features beta waves. Psychologically, we find focal attention, heightened boundary perception, object-based logic, and the dominance of formal characteristics over the sensory; shapes and meanings have a preference over colors and textures.

These attributes develop together. For example, as Piaget has shown, thinking develops in association with the manipulation and perception of objects, and object-oriented thought is associated with muscle activity, especially eye muscle activity. Thus we experience "effortful" thinking -- reflecting the involvement of our muscle system. Likewise we can understand the perceptual characteristics of the action mode as providing what is needed for success in acting on the world. For example, a clear sense of self-object difference is necessary to obtain food. Similarly, a variety of psychological and physiological processes are coordinated and developed together in multidimensional unity adapted to the requirements of the task; i.e., manipulating the environment.

In contrast, the receptive mode is a state whose purpose is receiving the environment, rather than manipulation. The sensory-perceptual system is usually the dominant agency rather than the muscle system. Base-line muscle tension tends to be decreased, compared to the tension found in the action mode, and the EEG tends to the slower frequencies of alpha and theta. Psychologically, attention is diffuse, boundary perception is decreased, paralogical thought processes are evident, and sensory qualities dominate over the formal. These functions are coordinated to maximize the intake of the environment. But as growth proceeds the receptive mode is gradually dominated, if not submerged, by a natural and culturally enforced emphasis on striving activity and the action mode that serves it. The receptive mode tends, more and more, to be an interlude between increasingly longer periods of action-mode organization. A consequence of this bias is that we come to regard the action mode as the normal one for adult life and to think of the unfamiliar receptive states as pathological.


The pervasiveness of the action mode is evident when we consider how our language reinforces it. We tend ordinarily to use language to analyze, discriminate, and divide the world into pieces or objects which we can then grasp -- psychologically and physically -- in order to act upon them. The richness and subtlety of our language for any particular area of our lives reflects the extent to which we apply the action mode to that sector. For example, most of us have only one word for snow; if we are skiers we may have several. The Eskimo has many words that discriminate the varieties of snow conditions which he must take into account to survive.

In some cases, the issue is not how many differences we have learned to detect but the mode of consciousness in which the experience takes place. "Love," for example, is represented for the average person by only one word. Yet, each of us probably has experienced many different varieties of that condition. We have not developed a rich vocabulary for love because it is experienced in the receptive mode; indeed, it requires the receptive mode for its occurrence. Similarly, color experience (rather than the use of color as a sign) requires the receptive mode, and colors have only a relatively few names compared to the vast variety of hues to which we are sensitive. This is true even for the artist to works with, manipulates, and makes color objects and therefore has an expanded color vocabulary, compared to most people.

Some extreme examples can illustrate these contrasting yet complementary modes. Imagine a cab driver in heavy traffic, struggling to get a passenger to the airport in time so that he may earn a large tip. S/he is intentionally engaged in maneuvering among the objects of his world and is focused on a future goal, trying as best he can to control what happens. S/he is not occupied with the color of the automobiles, the blueness of the sky, or the aesthetic qualities of the streets and buildings, but sees only openings or blockades of traffic, and notes only the colors of the stop lights. He sees the shapes and understands the meanings of the various objects flashing into his narrowed attentional field while at the same time part of their attention recalls alternate routes, and they scan their memory to remember the typical traffic flows. Their base-line muscle tension is high and his EEG would probably show a desynchronized, fast voltage pattern.

In contrast, consider a monk or nun who is sitting in contemplative meditation in a garden. At that moment, their organism is oriented toward taking in the environment, a function that is performed via the receptive mode. If they are deeply into that mode, their state of consciousness may feature a marked decrease in the distinction between themself and their environment to the extent that they merge with it or have a nonverbal (ineffable) perception of unity, or both. Sensory experience dominates their consciousness, their muscles tend towards relaxation, and their EEG is likely to show alpha and theta waves. In contrast to the cab driver, they are not concerned with the future but instead are letting whatever happens happen, while language and thinking are relinquished almost entirely.

During most of our lives what occurs is probably a mixture of the two modes or at least a fluctuation between them. For the majority of us, that fluctuation is heavily dominated by the action mode. However, it is not the presence or absence of physical activity per se that determines the mode. Rather, the underlying purpose or attitude seems to be crucial. For example, a monk working in a garden or lovers in embrace ideally would be given up to the receptive mode. However, if the monk or nun are worried about how soon they will gain enlightenment or experience mystical union, or if the lovers are preoccupied about how well they are performing, quite a different kind of experience will result.

Thus, we are not talking about activity versus passivity as usually conceived, or about the secondary and primary processes of psychoanalytic theory. There is some similarity between aspects of the receptive mode and the cognitive style associated with primary process. However, the bimodal model addresses itself to a functional orientation -- that of "taking in" versus "acting on" the environment. The receptive mode is not a 'regressive' ignoring of the world or a retreat from it -- although it can be employed for that purpose, but is a different way of engaging the world in pursuit of a different goal.


With this discussion in mind, we can understand renunciation as a strategy to establish the receptive mode as the dominant orientation and to intensify its effects. In most spiritual disciplines a psychosocial system has been developed for use in a monastery or ashram, where technical exercises, communal living, and ideology are integrated to bring about change. It is instructive to look closely at one example of such a system; we can consider life in a Zen monastery of the Soto Zen sect. The basic principles of its operation are similar to those of other spiritual disciplines. The Zen monastery teaches its students (monks or nuns) a state of acceptance and "nondiscrimination." This is accomplished by meditation, communal living, an ascetic way of life, and a supporting philosophy -- Buddhism. There are different forms of meditation prescribed but the purest form is called shikan-taza, or "just sitting." A person performing shikan-taza is not supposed to do anything except to be sitting; trying to meditate better than the day before or trying to achieve enlightenment represent incorrect attitudes. The basic instruction is acceptance, rather than doing. Even intrusive thoughts or fantasies while meditating are not struggled against, but are treated as distractions that one must be patient with until they go away. The monk is told that if he is truly sitting, he is enlightened -- to just sit, to just be, is enlightenment, itself.

The average person finds it very difficult to just sit and not do anything. When they try it, they begin to realize how rigorously they have been trained to be busy, to solve problems, to make objects, to look ahead, to strive toward a goal. The sitting meditation may be regarded as an experiment in which the student explores what it is like when he does not respond to the usual commands of pain, anxiety, boredom, or desires.

One effect of this meditation is to give the student the actual experience of having their ordinary sense of linear time change to something which might be described as timeless. For brief intervals, time can be felt to disappear -- and anxiety with it. Likewise, the feeling of a personal self (the core dimension of the action mode) tends to become less vivid and, in some instances, may disappear, too.

The philosophical instruction that is given in lectures or, indirectly, through the chanting of religious texts, presents a theory that the world is one of constant change, composed of a basic nothing that takes an endless variety of forms but whose essence cannot be analyzed. In particular, the usual concept of death is taught to be an illusion. In this way, the most powerful force that orients us towards the future -- the fear of death -- is diminished.

The social systems of the monastery also undercut the action mode by minimizing material rewards. No one accrues profits; one day is very similar to the next. The food stays the same, there are few status rewards, and, thus, there tends to be nothing very concrete to "look forward to."

In these ways, the monastic system strikes at the attempt to grasp, to cling to, to strive for, to reach ahead and possess. The psychological importance of this is readily apparent. If we examine the content of our thinking, we can see that most of our energies are devoted to prolonging or bringing back a particular pleasure that we have had, often at the expense of enjoying the pleasure available at the moment. Operating in the action mode with an orientation towards the future, we tend to lose what is available to us in the present; for example, a person taking a pleasant walk on a beautiful spring day may be unhappy because they anticipate the end of their vacation. In contrast, a monk or a yogi is taught to accept, to allow -- rather than to be concerned with seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. To the extent that they succeed in this reorientation, they establish the groundwork for a mode of consciousness that the mystical literature describes as timeless, nondualistic, nonverbal, and completely satisfying. In brief, Deikman proposed that a key to this is a mode of organismic being that he called "the receptive mode," one that is natural to us, but seldom employed to its full potential.


A lesson derived from Deikman's research is that the receptive mode is not the exclusive property of monks. Almost all of us make use of it (without being aware of it) to perform functions that we do not usually regard as esoteric or mysterious. To take a very mundane example: trying to remember a forgotten name by a direct, conscious effort may yield nothing. In such a situation we typically remark, "It will come to me in a minute" -- and it usually does. We stop struggling to remember and allow ourselves to be receptive. Only then does the name pop into awarness. Our shift in attitude -- a change in strategy -- permits a latent function to be exercised. Switching to the receptive mode permits the operation of capacities that are nonfunctional in the action mode.

The same principle is illustrated futher when we consider a more important use of the receptive mode: to solve more difficult problems by means of creative intuition. Typically, there is an initial stage of struggling with the problem. A sense of impasse develops and the struggle is given up. Sometime later, while completely occupied with a less important activity, or perhaps waking from sleep, the answer suddenly appears. Often, it is in a symbolic or spatial form and needs to be worked over to make it coherent and applicable. In terms of the modal model, the process begins with the use of the action mode during the preliminary or preparatory stage. When progress is blocked, a shift takes place to the receptive mode. In that mode, our capacity for creative synthesis is able to function and the intuitive leap to a new configuration takes place. Then, we shift back to the action mode in order to integrate the new formulation with our previous knowledge and to communicate it to others.

For most people, the receptive mode probably has its most important function in intimate relations. The capacity for a deep and satisfying experience with another is related to a person's ability to relinquish control, to allow the partner to move through physical and psychological boundaries, and to stay focused in the present. Futhermore, intimacy in persons who are thus able to "let go" is associated with heightened sensation, diffuse attention, and a decrease in the boundaries of the self (as in meditation); and in some cases, profound experiences occur that may be properly termed mystical. In contrast, persons who are unable to give up their customary mode of activity striving and control will continue to suffer a constriction of their experience; for them the pleasurable sensations, the release of tension, and feelings of closeness tend to be minimal or absent.


Mystics claim to have a direct, intuitive perception of reality, and that claim is a reasonable possibility. Studies in perception and developmental psychology indicate that typically we exercise a significant selection process over the array of stimuli with which we are presented. For efficiency's sake, we have to pay attention to some things and not to others, and we automatize that selection process to such an extent that it becomes difficult to recover our perceptual and cognitive options. For that reason, mystical disciplines make use of a variety of means to bring about a deautomatization so that a new, fresh perception can occur. Deikman hypothesized that when this deautomatization is combined with an increased capacity for receptive-mode function (as a result of "spiritual" training), the event traditionally referred to as "awakening to the awareness of one's true nature" takes place.

As in the case of creative intuition, descriptions of such "enlightenment" experiences indicate that they are sudden, involuntary, and present the "answer" in a flash. They tend to follow a long period of struggle and are often triggered by something of an irrelevant nature -- the same pattern noticed for creative intuition. Futhermore, accounts of enlightenment often stress that additional work was needed before the new knowledge was fully "realized." One might say that it had to be integrated through use of the action mode. Thus, Deikman proposed, mystical "enlightenment" or "awakening" may be the result of a radical use of the basic creative process with which we are already familiar.


Although our conscious experience may seem to be a mixture of these different mode components, in a certain basic sense the modes appear to be complementary. The term "complementarity" was introduced by Niels Bohr to account for the fact that two different conditions of observation could lead to conclusions that were conceptually incompatible. For example, in one set of experiments light behaved as if it were composed of discrete particles, while in another set of experiments light behaved as if it were a continuous wave. Bohr suggested that there was no intrinsic incompatibility between the two results because they were functions of different conditions of observation and no experiment could be devised that would demonstrate both aspects under a single condition. "Enlightenment" has been likened to an open hand. When you try to grasp it, you transform your open hand into a fist. The very attempt to possess it (the action mode) banishes the state because it is a function of the receptive mode. To put it in more modern terms, if you change your own organismic program from intake to manipulate, your functional characteristics will change at the same time.


Our ordinary and habitual mode of consciousness can be called the action mode, organized to manipulate the environment and featuring an acute consciousness of past and future time. Its basic reference point is the experience of a separate, personal self. In contrast, we have the capacity for a different organization -- the receptive mode -- oriented towards the present, in which the personal self as a preoccupying orientation fades away and the world tends to be experienced as more unified and satisfying. As the action mode is used for problem solving and manipulating the environment, the receptive mode is used for receiving, for providing nutrition and satisfaction.

Which mode is better? Deikman proposes that if we think in such terms, we are missing the point. His claim is that we gain nothing by restricting our functions to one mode or the other. Rather, we need the capacity to function in both modes, as may suit the occasion.

What stands in the way? Deikman points out that the first barrier is a cultural bias that tells us that "mystical states" are unreal, pathological, crazy, or regressive. Without knowing it, under the banner of the scientific method, our thinking has been constricted. He proposes that we have been indoctrinated to avoid looking closely at these realms, but that it is time to make the receptive mode, and the experience which it engenders, a legitimate option for ourselves and for science. If we do so, we will be able to see more clearly the psychodynamic barriers that limit this option: defenses aginst reliquishing conscious control, defenses against the unexpected and the unknown, defenses against the blurring and loss of boundaries defining the self. We will be able to discriminate those instances in which the pathological or regressive are indeed present, but we will not miss seeing and exploring those phenomena that are truly mature and life promoting.

Deikman speculates that our survival as a species may depend on being able to utilize our receptive-mode function so that we can experience the basis for humanitarian values. The action mode that pervades our civilization does not support selflessness; the receptive mode, ordinarily the specialty of mystics, does. From this point of view, mystics have been the guardians of a potentiality that has been ours and that it is now time for us to reclaim. We can integrate this realm with our present knowledge, making it less exotic and less alien. By doing so, we can explore and regain a functional capacity that we may now need for our very preservation.


  1. Why don't scientists study mystic experience?
  2. Why should they study mystic experience?
  3. What is the basic characteristic of mystic experience, and why is it called mystical?
  4. In what three kinds of settings or circumstances do mystic experiences occur, and what are the similarities and differences among the three?
  5. What two basic techniques for attaining mystic experience are described in traditional literature?
  6. What are the effects of the two basic techniques on perception?
  7. What do the terms automatization and deautomatization mean?
  8. What are the two modes of organization of human consciousness, and what are the physiological and psychological correlates of each of them?
  9. In terms of psychological and physiological factors, how does a monastic lifestyle contribute to mystic experience?
  10. Which of the two modes of organization of human consciousness is neglected among adults in modern culture, and what could be the benefits of cultivating the neglected mode?
For further reading, see Dr. Deikman's article 'I' = Awareness and his web site.

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