This post is the first of three excerpts from my paper “The Experimental Art of Ego Dissolution,” which I presented as part of the Glaukopis Conference at Burning Man in 2008. I’m in the desert again right now, experiencing a little secular ecstasy of my own, so new posts will start up again after Labor Day.
The ecstatic state is a natural state of consciousness attainable by anyone possessing a normal range of conscious agility- that is to say, one who experiences the modes of deep sleep, dream-state, wakefulness, daydreaming, meditation, orgasm, hypervigilance, mental lethargy, intense emotions, and occasional hysteria and dissociation in fair measure and in a mostly integrated way. The ecstatic state may occur spontaneously or it may be induced through years of transformative studies. It is equally accessible to all, and therefore intrinsic to the human experience.
Ecstasy is a term I’ve chosen from a myriad of other similar descriptors such as “rapture,” “peak experience,” “satori,” etc. This state is marked by three aspects: A loss of the normal sense of ego, a sense of “one-ness” or unity, and a positive emotional component (often described as either joy or peace).
In speaking of the loss of the normal sense of ego- I use the term ego-dissolution where others may choose “ego-death.” My reason for this is that I believe ecstatic experiences occur on a continuum and the sensation is more often than not very temporary, with the ego returning to its normal waking state with little alteration after the completion of the experience- much like salt dissolved in water. Based on our limited neurological studies into this phenomenon, we’ve learned that part of the sensation of ego-dissolution is most likely related to a reduction of activity in the part of the brain known as the Posterior Superior Parietal Lobe (or PSPL). The Parietal Lobe is known for spatial recognition and sensory integration. The left hemispheric PSPL dictates the boundaries of one’s own body while the right hemispheric PSPL integrates sensory information to create the spatial matrix in which one’s body moves through the world. When activity in the PSPL is reduced or damaged, the boundaries between one’s body and the world fade and space becomes fluid and unified with no clear delineations between anything. The brain cannot make sense of shapes and boundaries, and it cannot even conceive of the idea of separation. The brain still receives the sensory input, but the contextualizing function is disabled- thereby losing discernment, value judgment, and categorization ability. So not only can it not determine “bigger or smaller,” “green or orange,” or “round or square” it also is unable to create the notion of “better or worse” “good or bad” “beautiful or ugly.” In the egoless state, every concept, belief, and object- including the self is seen as of equal value and composed of exactly the same “stuff.”
Another major brain structure that most likely plays a part in ecstasy is the Temporal Lobe. The Temporal Lobes’ major functions are the primary organization of visual and auditory sensory input, language recognition and memory. A marked decrease in function of the temporal lobes will further decrease the creation of context similar to the PSPL. Moreover, the temporal lobes’ functionality for the primary organization of sensory input means that exceptional activity may cause the normal boundaries of sensory organization to skew. For instance, the temporal lobes usually filter sensory input to the limbic system for emotional reaction. It can use sensory information such as “hot” “glowing” “red” to send a unified signal to the limbic system. Add to it the language and memory functions of the temporal lobe to get “fire” and the limbic system has all the info it needs to stimulate the danger-sensing “flight” response- or in the case of Burning Man the “dance around in fuzzy costumes” response. Also within the realm of the temporal lobe is the ability to draw conclusions based on references to our memory stores. With damage to our memory stores, new sensory input cannot be contextualized as similar or different to something experienced before. Not only are the heat and color of fire meaningless in this altered state- but without temporal lobe functioning, one doesn’t even have the memory of a fire to compare it to.
As the temporal lobe is also integral to language skills we see that either damage or abnormal functioning in the temporal lobes may explain the occasional accoutrements of ecstatic experience: glossalalia, auditory hallucinations, and the fact that ecstatic experiences often “defy words.” That is, they defy words, because our word-processing cortex is malfunctioning.
Part 2 on Thursday. . .