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Ancient Attempts at Inducing Spiritually Transformative Experiences

Gold Buddha Figurine Lot

1. Introduction to Spiritually Transformative Experiences

The American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences (ACISTE.org) defines spiritually transformative experiences (STEs) as “an experience [which] causes people to perceive themselves and the world profoundly differently: by expanding the individual’s identity, augmenting their sensitivities, and thereby altering their values, priorities and appreciation of the purpose of life. This may be triggered by surviving clinical death, or by otherwise sensing an enlarged reality. There are many types and many names for experiences that can share common features and be catalysts for spiritual transformation: near-death experiences (NDEs), near-death-like experiences (NDLEs), out-of-body experiences (OBEs), visions, spiritual emergencies, awakenings, kundalini, enlightenment, exceptional human experiences (EHEs), pre-birth memories, past-life experiences, nearing death awareness (NDAs), after-death communications (ADCs), empathic or shared near-death experiences, peak experiences, etc. STEs include or may be called numinous, noetic, transcendent, transpersonal, mystical, anomalous, religious, paranormal, parapsychological or ecstatic experiences.”

The Eternea website (Eternea.org) defines STEs as “a transcendent experience inexplicable by materialist science that is associated with characteristic changes in knowledge, behavior, and personality. A spiritually transformative experience usually happens when a profound event occurs that causes a fundamental shift in world-view. The result is a greatly expanded view of the harmony in nature and recognition of an interconnectedness of all things. The result is a dramatic shift in beliefs, values, priorities and a new appreciation of the purpose of life. There are many ways such an experience can be triggered … During an STE, experiences involve being out of one’s body and/or an immersion into a vastly expansive vivid and lucid reality. The aftermath of an STE often results in dramatic permanent and positive transformations in personality. STEs often create difficult challenges for the experiencer until the experience can be completely integrated into one’s life.”

The following article by Dr. Ken R. Vincent was first published in the journal De Numine (No.73) Autumn 2022, 12-14. It is published here by permission of Dr. Vincent and De Numine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ken R. Vincent holds a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado in 1973. He retired from teaching Psychology and the Psychology of Religious Experience at Houston Community College. He is a member of the Alister Hardy Society for the Study of Spiritual Experience and the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS). He is a founding Board Member of the Christian Universalist Association and the former Webmaster of The Universalist Herald website. Dr. Vincent is the author of several books on NDEs, STEs, and Universalism in World Religions including: The Magi: From Zoroaster to the Three Wise Men: A comparison of the religion of the Magi (Zoroastrianism) to Christianity and shows the parallels of Universal Restoration in both faiths; Visions of God from the Near-Death Experience: The wisdom of the prophets and sages of the world’s religions are superimposed upon the accounts of modern-day near-death experiencers to illustrate the similarities between them; The Golden Thread: God’s Promise of Universal Salvation: Documents the solid support for Universal Salvation in the Bible as well as research into NDEs and Mystical / Religious / Spiritual Experiences; and God Is With Us: What Near-Death and Other Spiritually Transformative Experiences Teach Us About God and Afterlife – An online book which examines spiritually transformative experiences in light of Universalist principles found in all the major world religions.

Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to: professorvincent@yahoo.com

2. The Egyptian Mysteries of Osiris and Isis: Ancient Attempts at Inducing Spiritually Transformative Experiences

By Dr. Ken R. Vincent

Jesus Christ

Mystery religions were common in the ancient world. The mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, Orpheus, and Mithra are a few, but it is generally conceded by scholars — ancient and modern — that the Egyptian mysteries were the first, and that subsequent mysteries were modeled on them.

For over 3,000 years, Osiris was the resurrection and the life for the ancient Egyptians. At the time of the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE) and in subsequent years, the mysteries were celebrated at the ancient burial ground at Abydos. The mysteries that were open to all consisted of a “Passion Play” that enacted the death of Osiris and his resurrection three days later. It was his wonderful wife Isis who brought his body back to life and had sex with him, thereby conceiving their child Horus. After this, Osiris was taken into the afterlife where he became ruler and judge of the dead. Osiris dies and is resurrected on the spring equinox, and his son Horus is born at the winter solstice.

The secret mysteries were an initiation that was open to only a few. In ancient Egypt, this was a sought-after high honor. In Roman times, Osiris’ wife Isis was more popular than her husband and was worshipped throughout the Roman Empire. From what we know, the initiation was similar for initiates of both Isis and Osiris mysteries. In temples throughout Egypt and in the Roman Empire that included a mystery chapel dedicated to Osiris or Isis, there was always a crypt where the secret mystery ceremonies were held. In Roman times, initiation into the mysteries of Isis or Osiris required money and time. While the pagan cult was banned by the Christian Emperor Theodosis in 391CE, the worship of Isis continued until the 6th Century in southern Egypt and even later in the Sudan.

All of the mysteries were secret, and only tidbits of information about them remain. Our best source of information comes from a Roman writer and spiritual seeker named Apuleius who wrote Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass.) Although the work is a fictional account, we know that Apuleius was an initiate into the mysteries of Isis, and virtually all scholars agree that the account is most likely autobiographical. Apuleius describes the initiation as consisting of: 1) abstaining from meat and alcohol for ten days, 2) Instruction by the high priest from the holy book as to the “secret words,” 3) a ritual bath, 4) meditating in the temple for ten days, 5) being clothed in a linen robe, 6) being placed in a tomb in the dark of night (which was most likely accompanied by a rattle or rhythmic drumming) and also being placed in a mild hypnotic trance and/or meditating. Almost all scholars agree that drugs were NOT used.

This is what Apuleius says about his experience:

“Here, then, and believe, for what I tell you is true. I drew nigh to the confines of death, I trod the threshold of Proserpine (Persephone), I was borne through all the elements and returned to earth again. I saw the sun gleaming with bright splendor at the dead of night. I approached the gods above, and the gods below, and worshiped them face-to-face. Behold, I have told you these things which, though thou hast heard them, thou must yet know naught.”

When we look at the description of his experience, it is clear that what Apuleius experienced was a near-death-like spiritual experience. Now let us look at this from the standpoint of 150 years of academic research into religious/spiritual experience. Although there is no evidence that the mysteries of Osiris and Isis were held in the great pyramid, the comparative religion scholar and spiritual seeker Paul Brunton did a quasi-replication of the mysteries (in the 1930’s) by spending a night in the king’s chamber of the great pyramid. In preparation for a night in the pyramid, he fasted for three days and meditated. During his night in the king’s chamber, he had an NDE-like mystical experience. It began with a negative quality of spirits questioning why he was there, but then turned positive when two ancient priests showed up in spirit form. The elder priest stayed with him and helped him have an out-of-body experience to show him that his soul could exist apart from his body. He was told that he was an “immortal child of God” and that humans must look inward.

Dr. Raymond Moody researched an ancient Greek oracle of the dead at Ephyra. Based on what he found, he constructed a psychomanteum in an attempt to replicate the ancient experience. Fifty-percent (50%) of subjects were able to conjure up their dead relatives using this technique. It should be noted that sometimes the hoped-for loved one was not the one who showed up! This technique has been replicated by subsequent researchers. The highest success rate reported to date is 63% (Hastings, 2012). While Dr. Moody makes no claim about the metaphysical status of these experiences, some individuals report learning information from the apparition that was previously unknown to them.

According to Dr. Marianne Rankin, research into spiritual experiences done by students and faculty at the Alister Hardy Religious Research Centre range from 33% to 65% in the U.K. (Hay, 1978; Pupynin & Brodbeck, 1998), 56.7% in China (Yao & Badham 2004), 45.9% in Turkey (Yaran, 2006), and 68.4% in India (Robinson & Ravikumar 2006).

Because the initiates into the ancient mysteries were spiritual seekers (and not members of the general population), the percentage of initiates having a spiritually transformative experience may have been higher, but it is unlikely that all of them had a genuine spiritual experience. So what about those who did not achieve a genuine mystical experience? They at least got a simulation when they were taken out of the dark crypt and greeted by individuals with bright torch lights, honored, and adorned with new robes. They were now, “in the club,” and they had learned the secret words that would insure a good afterlife. Many Roman tombs of the period had the motto of the faith of Isis inscribed: “Be of good courage.”

Now let us look at the “secret words.” Most scholars feel that the “secret words” of the initiation into the mysteries of Osiris or Isis were an abbreviation of the text known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It is important to realize that the Book of the Dead was not standardized, and its length varied considerably from elaborate scrolls to a few spells written on a sarcophagus. We do have the secret words for the mysteries of Orpheus that were discovered inscribed on thin gold foil and found in southern Italy in a tomb that was dated to around 400BCE. The initiate was taught that — when they approached afterlife – they would be thirsty. They were told NOT to drink of the spring by the white cypress (which is the water of forgetfulness and will cause them to forget their life and be reincarnated.) Rather, they are instructed to tell the guardians of the afterlife that, “I am a child of earth and starry heaven, but heaven is my home. I wish to drink from the lake of memory.” This will enable them to ascend to the realm of gods and heroes.

Knowing the “secret words” is common to most religions. Some years ago, I watched the televised portion of the execution of Saddam Hussein. His last words consisted of repeating the Moslem Confession of Faith over and over: “I confess that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

For Fundamentalist Christians, the “secret words” are John 3:16 and John 14:6. Many Liberal Christians delight in the secret words of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (which was discovered in the mid-20th Century).

For Hindu followers of Vishnu, the “secret words” are to die with his name on your lips or one of his incarnations, such as “Rama” or “Krishna.” This will take all your sins away!

For the followers of Pure Land Buddhism, by invoking the name of Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light) at death, you will be transported to the Pure Land of Bliss in the West.

For Tibetan Buddhists, the “secret words” in the Tibetan Book of the Dead must be recited by a relative or monk by your corpse which will enable you in the afterlife to choose those things which will give you a good re-birth.

Next, let us explore the “fruits” of initiation into the mysteries of Isis and Osiris. According to Plutarch (46-119CE) and Apuleius (124-170CE), the “fruits” were a temperate life, fair dealing, and a thirst for truth. Diodorus (90 – 30BCE) wrote that those who have participated in the mysteries have become more spiritual, more just, and better in every way.

In conclusion, we see that the initiates into the mysteries of Isis and Osiris gained, 1) a genuine mystical experience or, at the very least, a simulation, 2) admission “into the club,” and 3) knowledge of the “secret words” that would insure admission to a good afterlife.

3. References

Bowden, H. (2010) Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, Princeton University Press

Bruton, P. (1936/2015) A Search in Secret Egypt, North Atlantic Books

Hastings, A. (2012) Effects on Bereavement Using a Restricted Sensory Environment (Psychomanteum), Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, vol. 44, no. 1

Mojsov, B. (2005) Osiris, Death and Afterlife of a God, Blackwell Publishing

Moody, R. (1993) Reunions, Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones, Ballantine Books

Rankin, M. (2008) Religious & Spiritual Experience, Continuum Books

Spence, L. (1929/2005) The Mysteries of Egypt, Secret Rites and Traditions, Dover Publications

Vincent, K.R. (2019) God Is With Us: What Near-Death and Other Spiritually Transformative Experiences Teach Us About God and Afterlife, White Crow Books

Originally published in De Numine (No.73) Autumn 2022, 12-14 Reproduced with permission https://www.studyspiritualexperiences.org/de-numine.html