The Enlightenment Experience of Astronaut Edgar Mitchell: Highlights from “The Way of the Explorer”

Few astronauts have talked as in depth about the spiritual impact of being in outer space as Edgar Mitchell. In various media, Mitchell has discussed how his consciousness shifted dramatically during the Apollo 14 mission to the moon in 1971.


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Mitchell went on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in 1973 and continued to explore what he came to call his “savikalpa samadhi” experience. Following are excerpts from his 1996 book, The Way of the Explorer, where he discusses in stunning and poetic detail his samadhi experience and the process of trying to understand, integrate and expand upon it. As the book progresses, he also discusses his journey in bridging the gap between his Christian religious upbringing and the more scientific orientation he adopted later in life.
(Page numbers refer to the hardcover version of the book.)

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It wasn’t until after we had made rendezvous with our friend (fellow astronaut) Stu Roosa in the Kittyhawk command module and were hurtling earthward at several miles per second, that I had time to relax in the weightlessness and contemplate that blue jewel-like home planet suspended in the velvety blackness from which we had come. What I saw out the window was all I had ever known, all I had ever loved and hated, longed for, all that I once thought had ever been and ever would be. It was all there suspended in the cosmos and that fragile little sphere. I experienced a grand epiphany accompanied by exhilaration, an event I would later refer to in terms that could not be more foreign to my upbringing in West Texas, and later, New Mexico. From that moment on, my life was irrevocably altered.

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What I experienced during that three day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness. I actually felt what has been described as an ecstasy of unity. It occurred to me that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft itself were manufactured long ago in the furnace of one of the ancient stars that burned in the heavens about me. And there was the sense that our presence as space travelers, and the existence of the universe itself, was not accidental but there was an intelligent process at work. I perceived the universe as in some way conscious. The thought was so large it seemed at the time inexpressible, and to a large degree it still is. Perhaps all I have gained is a greater sense of understanding and perhaps a more articulate means of expressing it. But even in the midst of epiphany I did not attach mystical or otherworldly origin to the phenomenon. Rather, I thought it curious and exciting that the brain could spontaneously reorganize information to produce such a fantastically strange experience.

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Billions of years ago the molecules of my body, of (the other astronautsí) bodies, of this spacecraft, of the world I had come from and was now returning to, were manufactured in the furnace of an ancient generation of stars like those surrounding us. This suddenly meant something. It was now poignant, personal. Our presence here, outside the domain of the home planet, was not rooted in an accident of nature or in the capricious political whim of a technological civilization. It was rather an extension of the same universal process that evolved our molecules. And what I felt was an extraordinary personal connectedness with it. I experienced what has been described as an ecstasy of unity. I not only saw the connectedness, I felt it and experienced it sentiently. I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. The restraints and boundaries of flesh and bone fell away. I realized that this was a biological response of my brain attempting to recognize and give meaning to information about the wonderful and awesome processes that I was privileged to view from this vantage point. Although I am now more capable of articulating what I felt then, words somehow always fall short. I am convinced that it always has been and always will be an ineffable experience.

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You don’t have to journey to the moon to experience it. In the vague chaos of everyday life, ideas come to you in the middle of the night, in the shower, in dreams. Sometimes they are pulled together, made whole, irrespective of the original sequence of their sources. They’re life’s little everyday epiphanies. Sometimes they can alter and shape a life forever.

During the weeks and months that followed the moon shot, I read literature on the nature of religious experiences, as well as the very limited scientific offering outside religious and mystical writing that dealt with the nature of human consciousness. I also met with renowned psychics and highly intuitive men and women to discuss what it was they experienced during moments similar to what I experienced. After a few weeks into this work, I knew I was on to something, although I still didn’t know precisely what. At times I felt as though I was on the precipice of solving a grand mystery.

Intuitive insights, ESP, and epiphanies, I knew, are just different means of perceiving information. As an engineer, I understood information is simply a pattern of energy. Consequently, it was evident that epiphany and metanoia (i.e. spiritual transformation) are natural phenomena. I also came to realize they are common to religious mystics and agnostics alike when considered in terms of information and how it is managed by an evolved organism (humans.) It occurred to me that the ways of managing information in this manner could be similar to the way energy and momentum are managed in nature. If the means could be revealed, the significance couldn’t be overstated: we would then comprehend what brought such an ephemeral yet life-changing sense of understanding. Clearly this should have been, I felt, the domain of scientific inquiry, yet there didn’t appear to be any serious effort being made to answer such questions.

Mystics refer to such events as “religious experiences.” Scientists scarcely address the subject, eschewing subjective events altogether. Somehow nothing I read seemed to capture the essence of what I wanted to know, and I realized that it would be necessary to form a new structure of thought for myself. At the same time, I wanted it to be consistent with the methods of science and still not ignore experiences reported by mystic traditions throughout the millennia. Yet I couldn’t tacitly assume that either religious or scientific approaches to such events would necessarily corner the right answers.

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Epiphany, I became certain, is a latent event in every individual. It is, to a large degree, what has allowed humankind to evolve in their thinking, as it brings about a sudden synthesis between existing ideas. Whereas mystics have believed the more startling insights to be a supernatural phenomenon, I was reasonably sure they were entirely natural, even normal — perhaps emergent characteristics of ongoing evolution. Everyone experiences that potent, ethereal sense of ah-ha! and for a brief moment, they glimpse the larger structure of a problem in their life, resolve a conflict in the thinking, or glimpse the grand pattern of the universe itself. The idea of epiphany can be viewed as an abrupt organization, or reorganization, of information in a way that produces new insight at the level of conscious awareness. And that’s what occurred, I believe, on that fateful journey from the moon. I grew quite sure of this. Yet I couldn’t honestly describe it as a “religious” experience.

It is quite a different matter to suggest an evolutionary product (the brain) spontaneously reorganizes its information to produce a new insight at the level of conscious awareness than to assume that what one suddenly comprehends is the word of God. The latter, of course, is the more popular and calming view of such events, in a society steeped in traditional religious and cultural beliefs. All I wanted to know was why and how it happens. I wanted a more secular, scientific answer.

ÖThese spontaneous events brought not only a more expansive viewpoint, a sense of inner peace and well-being, but an unshakable feeling of immortality accompanied by joy as wellÖ The ecstasy I experienced was somehow a natural response of my body to the overwhelming sense of unity. I saw how my experience was irrevocably connected with the movement and formation of planets, stars and galaxies ñ the ineluctable result of the explosion of an infinitely hot and dense dot at the center of the universe billions of years ago.

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From meager funds I commissioned a study by a qualified research team to dig up some facts on esoteric practices in various world cultures, and they came across some interesting discoveries that seemed to describe the essence of the epiphany. What the ancients, who wrote in the Sanskrit of India, described as a classic savikalpa samadhi was essentially what I believe I experienced. In Eastern thinking, this phenomenon is a moment in which an individual still recognizes the separateness of all things yet understands that the separateness is but an illusion. An essential unity is the benchmark reality, which is what the individual suddenly comes to comprehend.

I recalled so vividly the separateness of the stars and planetary bodies on the way home from the moon, but simultaneously I knew that I was an intimate part of the same process. This is the most salient recollection of the experience and, in a sense, defines quite precisely what I felt.

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An epiphany, therefore, if it results in a change in thinking, is a joyous experience. It is essentially the healing of a duality, which is what I experienced in the heavens. Or at least that’s what I came to believe. Not only was there a sense of unity and wholeness with the cosmos, but a duality, a schism between my early religious upbringing and my later scientific training, was suddenly and quietly reconciled to a meaningful degree. It was this new level of understanding that produced a potent sense of visceral knowing, the kind of understanding that you feel throughout your body as well as know with your mind. I also saw how the same process was at work in less dramatic ways in everyday life. Even the ordinary process of learning, as the brain synthesizes new information, is a related phenomenon. One need not go to the moon nor climb a mountain in order to experience epiphanies and metanoias. We all experience them in small, everyday ways… It is nature’s way of evolving our understanding…

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Perhaps the most thorough and detailed mapping of inner experience comes from the Buddhist and Hindu mystics. The Tibetan Buddhist monks in particular have approached the subject with scholarly intent and precision for centuries. The most exalted state of awareness is described in the mystical literature as the nirvakalpa samadhi, a name derived from the ancient Sanskrit. This is a state of awareness in which there is only Self; there are no thoughts or objects in the mind. Indeed Self is expanded and merged into the entire field of mind so that pure awareness is all that appears to exist. The state is accompanied by an ecstasy that seems to permeate every cell of one’s body and results in a feeling of certainty about the eternal nature of Self. Beyond this simple description, the state is ineffable, which is to say the description falls short and doesn’t assist others in attaining it (although it does help one recognize the experience when and if it occurs.) The state must be experienced to capture its complete essence, however.

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In Christian literature the phrase “the peace that passes all understanding” is often used to imply the ineffable character of the inner experience. The theological meaning often given to this samadhi state is that of “union with the godhead,” or, to use Paul Tillich’s phrase, “union with the ground of our being.” I would suggest, however, that the meaning assigned is not inherent in the experience, but rather is the result of attempting to describe the experience in accordance with one’s theological beliefs. We do not “see” God in such an experience. Nor do we experience union with God — unless we are already predisposed to expect that this is what the experience means.

My own efforts to experiment with this state over a number of years led to the conclusion that a lifetime of ascetic discipline was not the only path by which one could naturally experience these altered states of awareness. By combining modest changes in diet, routine meditation, and breathing exercises, along with the search for detachment from the pace of daily modern life, I found I could experience successively greater involvement of my entire brain/body with the samadhi experience and achieve increased awareness of the effect of participation of the entire body in the experience. The mind is devoid of thought and images, yet acutely aware and alert. Each cell of the body contributes intense sensations of pleasure and well-being, the sum total providing an enveloping aura of bliss or ecstasy. Although the presence of the Self as the observer is implied, there is actually no notice of Self during the experience. Awareness is so flooded with the sensations of joy, universal connectedness, security, and well-being that Self goes unnoticed. It dissolves into the experience.

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The samadhi states provide unequivocal feelings of ecstasy, peace, and a sense of the eternal that are vividly conjured even when not in the samadhi. The ancients interpreted these feelings as proof that the Creator assured eternal existence. But we can’t be sure of the sources of these feelings. Are they but a shadowy memory from the security of the womb, or are they more profound? There’s reason to believe they are an informational echo of the ground-state of being, the state of awareness of the primordial unstructured universe where nothing exists but potential.

The perception that all is Self in the ground-state is also widely interpreted as the perception of All That Is. The subjective experiences of ecstasy are probably primordial templates repeated throughout all levels of space/time organization. Why else would we have them? The sensation of eternity is taken as assurance by all sentient beings who experience samadhi that consciousnesses is an eternal phenomenon. The sensation of ecstasy may indeed be a memory from the womb, but even so, I would suggest that it is likely that both ecstasy and the eternal sense are produced by the awareness of every cell of the bodyís being coherently resonant with the timeless ground-state of being. After all, “feeling,” or internal sensations, is just information to which the organism attaches meaning, in this case a pleasurable one. But this sensation is all-consuming and affects the entire body…

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This coherence, which has a possible mechanism in quantum physics called a Bose-Einstien condensate, could allow the entire structure of the organism to function as a coherent whole and to experience intense ecstasy and a feeling of security all at once. The experience of the samadhi states for the mystic serves the same purpose that the discovery of background radiation from the Big Bang serves for cosmologists; proof of the existence of the universe, its origin and nature. It confirms theory. In both cases, however, the experience just provides information to which the mind assigns meaning.

If we postulate that the experience of the nirvakalpa samadhi state is the experience of resonance with the ground-state of all matter, this would tie the Great Chain of Being back to its roots in the quantum potential of matter. The modern term for this energy field is called zero-point energy or vacuum energy. Vacuum energy is the presumed energy field that is in continuous dynamic exchange with matter that contains the form and existence of matter at the quantum level. To be aware of the zero-point is tantamount to being aware only of awareness itself.

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Energy, we know, is the foundation of all matter; information is the foundation of knowing. Both were present at the moment of creation. It is likely that just as energy produced the physical structure that we recognize as waves and particles in our macroworld, the seeds of consciousness were also present to produce awareness and intentionality. I suggest that these fundamental attributes of nature are dyadically coupled in our universe. They find their basis in the very ground of existence, the zero-point field that exists outside space and time. The descriptions that we give to both existence and knowing are defined only in the physical universe and have meaning only within the universe and within our minds. The zero-point field has no characteristics other than energy, but energy with the seeds of learning; awareness and intentionality. It has no temporal or spatial signposts; locality and nonlocality emerge from the same point. All points and all matter in the physical universe have their origin in and owe their existence to the zero-point field. It is ubiquitous, yet nowhere, simultaneously, providing the quantum potential for all physical structure and the basic structure for awareness and volition to exist. In a dyadic model of reality, existence and knowing are coupled, as are awareness and intention, and many other attributes of natureís processes… They are inextricably related.

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Were it physically possible to place a sentient observer at the zero-point, looking at the macroworld from beyond space-time, the observer should perceive the exchanges of energy in the underlying structure in electrodynamic balanced and in resonance with the Self and experience the connectedness of all things. Those who explore the samadhi states report precisely the same phenomenon as scintillating points of light when they experience The All That Is.

My own experiences in the meditative state confirm these accounts. But is this possible? Are our sensory mechanisms sensitive enough to detect these tiny exchanges of energy? (Yes)… Nature indeed possesses the means.

I would suggest that noticing quantum exchanges while in deep meditation is precisely what the ascetic disciplines have been doing for centuries. The zero-point field resonates with each point in the universe but is outside space-time; it can only be described as infinite and eternal. When one shifts one’s point of view from the samadhi to the existential state where existence and location in space-time is the more prominent reality, then the zero-point field appears to exist at each point in the macroscale universe. One can observe from the zero point or from the macroscale world, but not both simultaneously. In other words, by merely internally shifting one’s point of view, one moves from the nonlocal god-viewpoint to the local human-viewpoint, yet need go nowhere. One’s experience depends entirely upon the point of view that awareness chooses to experience within the spectrum of consciousness.

It is almost certain that science will find further refinements to the descriptions of zero-point properties and how to better use quantum concepts to map the experiences of conscious awareness. Nonlocal resonance with any part of the space-time universe should be attainable by shifting one’s point of focus to the zero-point, for it resonates with all matter.

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The lives of individuals who have experienced samadhi, out of body events, or near-death experiences are never again the same. The mystical literature, and now the popular literature, is full of such accounts. The desire to live life to its fullest, to acquire more knowledge, to abandon the economic treadmill, are all typical reactions to these experiences in altered states of consciousness. The previous fear of death is typically quelled. If the individual generally remains thereafter in the existential state of awareness, the deep internal feeling of eternity is quite profound and unshakable. But for those who haven’t had such experiences, there’s usually a greater anxiety and doubt concerning what happens next after this life, even if they profess belief in traditional religion.

Most of us live our lives in the ego state, that level of consciousness where the eternal is lost. The ego can also be defined as that portrait of ourselves we present to others, and sometimes to ourselves, which we believe defines who we are. The external presentation is usually just a mask or caricature of the larger subjective reality underneath. When we think of an afterlife, itís this limiting internal sense of self-identity we hope survives. We want to be the same person in the next life as we are in this one. This is who we believe we really are; this is the picture we believe speaks of us. However, those who have healed, or transcended, the ego dualism are certain that whatever form it takes, survival is assured. The precise mechanism is an object of passing curiosity, but not of fundamental importance; there is a trust in the process, whatever the process is. In the dyadic model both energy and experience (information) are not lost, they are merely transformed into new form.

Death is merely the way nature renews itself and allows the creativity of the evolutionary process to proceed. In a dyadic model, even subatomic particles may be said to “die” as they give up their packet of energy and individual existence to transform into other forms of matter, as they routinely do.

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Within a dyadic model, the source of all esoteric experience is resonance of the body with the zero-point field, that is to say, with nature itself. The more completely and coherently the body is in resonance, the more expansive the perceived reality. Total resonance and coherence result in the nirvakalpa samadhi wherein awareness is merged with the field and the sense of Self expands totally throughout the field. The experience is sufficient to alleviate all fear and create a sense of joy and purpose — and the recognition that cruelty only harms the collective Self.

Initiates who experience the “rising of the kundalini” for the first time invariably report an extraordinary sensation. For a brief moment they sense they are about to die before bursting through to the explosively expanded awareness of the samadhi and ecstasy that naturally follows. This is truly the dark night of the soul followed by the dawn. In confronting death, all fear is released and kinship with All-That-Is is established. I find it extraordinary that natural process allows for this experience. The most reasonable explanation for it is that the structure of life experiences that make up the ego-self, in a way, “dies” as transcendence is achieved. Then each cell of the body finds coherent resonance with the ground-state of being and collectively reveals a greater truth.

The most celebrated mystics of all time, from Lao-tzu to Gautama Buddha to Jesus and Mohammed, speak of inner experience in markedly similar ways. The fact that their cosmologies were only metaphor doesn’t detract from the power of personal experience. Nor should the fact that for centuries followers have construed each metaphor literally keep us from exploring the esoteric experience anew.

When you enter one of the great cathedrals of the world, what strikes you is the extraordinary ambience. It is one of peace, tranquility, awe; the atmosphere is overwhelmingly palpable. This, I would suggest, is the manifestation of ubiquitous resonance. This is a kind of communication with worshipers through the centuries who brought forth their highest aspirations, hopes, and beliefs in meditation and prayer, the edifice maintaining the resonance of the information they imparted with their thoughts. This is their spiritual legacy.

For years now, the mystical idea of connectedness and oneness has seemed to me inextricably linked to the concept of the universe as arising from an unlimited field of energy, without time, omnipresent, resonating with and reflecting each action in the manifest world. I also think of it as possessing the seeds of awareness and volition. Except for anthropic form and omniscience, the field is a reasonable approximation of the way our distant ancestors imagine deity to be. In this way we have created the gods in our own image.

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The significance of the zero-point field and its relationship to spiritual experience burst into my awareness, strangely enough, late one night in 1985 high above the plains of Texas. I was returning to Florida from a meeting in California, and outside the small oval cabin window, the night was moonless and filled with stars. As I relaxed in the darkness, my mind lost in the heavens swaddling the plane, I was reminded of experiences years ago in Kittyhawk. A strange familiarity washed over me. I again experienced the same sense of connectedness, again felt a part of the processes around me. And the heavenly bodies possessed scintillating halos. Then it dawned on me: stars don’t have halos, nor do they twinkle in deep space or at thirty thousand feet. I knew my mind was playing tricks. But at the same time, something suddenly made sense. As I sat there surrounded by the heavens, I experienced a kind of intellectual synthesis. It was as though I was creating a mental picture of this impalpable energy field that causes matter to correlate nonlocally. In this relaxed state, questions and answers seem to drift together into a new pattern.

The mystical experience originates in perceptions that seemingly have no external physical source. This is the likely the result of coherence in the brain, quieting the noise so that perception of nonlocal resonance reaches the threshold of conscious awareness. In the nirvakalpa samadhi, most of the brain and body is likely in the ground-state of resonance with the zero-point field. The result is pure awareness and loss of the sense of Self.

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All I can suggest to the mystic and the theologian is that our gods have been too small. They fill the universe. And to the scientist, all I can say is that the gods do exist. They are the eternal, connected, and aware Self experienced by all intelligent beings.

The Way of the Explorer by Edgar Mitchell is published by G.P. Putnam press.

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