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It was the great taboo. Miller leaned forward in his chair. It was late July , a blindingly hot day in Albuquerque. A lanky, bearded, rugged fifty-something, Miller looked more like a forest ranger than a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico. And yet, Miller has attained a sort of cult status among social scientists at universities like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

He was brave enough to tackle the supernatural mysteries of the psyche. My own view is that psychologists and other scientists have been ignoring the spiritual at their peril, since half of all Americans claim to have had some sort of spiritual experience. Psychology is the study of humans, after all, and at some point psychologists should probably accommodate these peculiarly human beliefs.

More than 90 percent of Americans believe in God. Compare that with the scientists: recent polls suggest that only 40 percent of scientists overall and 7 percent of the elite scientists in the National Academy of Sciences believe in God. Why should they study what they consider a delusion? Miller and his family were preparing for a yearlong sabbatical in Australia. All of the family but one. One day, Miller trekked off to visit her, only to find that she refused to see him.

There was something different about this voice I was hearing. I went and sat in the back row like I always do, waiting for it to be over. But in the sense of being a different, compassionate, empathic person with a sense of reality bigger than the material world—yes, that came that day and has been there ever since. If this had been a one-off, Miller might have let it slide away. But for some time, he had been hearing about these epiphanies from clients in his clinical work at the university. He noticed that some of his patients underwent sudden spiritual experiences, and when they emerged on the other side, they had been transformed: no longer alcoholic, no longer suicidal, they were people who treated life as a gift.

Miller decided to pursue the question, and to find his subjects, he persuaded a journalist at the Albuquerque Journal to write a story about his work. At the end, the article noted that Miller was eager to talk with anyone who had undergone a dramatic psychological change or spiritual epiphany. Miller recalled the mother whose teenaged daughter had once again slipped out in the middle of the night. She was paralyzed with anxiety, but this time she surrendered her sickening fear to God. I felt at peace. I felt reassured. I felt loved, too, like there was a union; I was a part of something that was a loving, peaceful thing, something a lot bigger than me.

Instantly she found herself transported out of her body. And then I just felt so at peace.

It was very, very, very calming, because I knew something really important. I knew I was no longer limited by the physical I was able to transcend the physical, to see beyond the physical limitation. I have never feared death since then, nor have I ever experienced depression, which was a major change for me. My favorite story involved a scientist whose alcoholism landed him in a treatment program. As the man, an agnostic, lay on his bed one afternoon, he decided to play a thought game: If there were a God, what would God look like?

I could feel my skin bulging outward, and I started to gasp for breath. I felt an ecstasy that was—the only way I can describe it is that it was just like a sexual climax, except that there was nothing physical to it and it was better than sexual climax, infinitely better.

I was not in control. Something was doing this to me. When it left me, I just wept. I was just stunned. I wanted to gather my own stories and run them through the filter of my own close questioning. And I suspect because I had experienced a little of the mystical myself, I wanted some reassurance.

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Over a three-month period, I interviewed more than two dozen people who testified that they briefly brushed against the fringes of another, nonmaterial, dimension, and were transformed by the contact. But in the main, I felt a little deflated.

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Why were they chosen to enjoy this overpowering event, and not me? Of course, most people in the United States have never felt themselves dissolve into union with God. But according to surveys, 23 fully half of Americans claim to have experienced a life-altering spiritual event that they could circle on the calendar in red ink. It appears that spiritual experience as opposed to belief in the tenets of a religion like Catholicism or Islam occurs as often today as it did a century ago.

Even the twentieth century, with its Freuds and B. On the theory that the extreme cases paint the spiritual realm more vividly than moderate ones, I did not seek out people like me, who had experienced God in a brief religious shiver. Rather, I sought out people who had traveled to a different spiritual continent and back, and were willing to tell their stories.

Finding a mystic, it turns out, is pretty simple. They are everywhere. Many do not broadcast their experiences, worried that they might be considered odd. I located some of my mystics by asking friends, or by calling up people I had interviewed while on the religion beat at National Public Radio. Then I stumbled onto a mother lode of mystics: I called up Cassi Vieten at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a group that studies the intersection of science and spirituality.

IONS had just conducted a survey of people who had undergone a dramatic spiritual transformation. Cassi sent an e-mail to four hundred of them, describing my interest in their stories and giving them my e-mail address. Within a week, more than eighty people had sent me long essays about their experiences, which were often—literally—incredible.

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Since I could neither confirm nor debunk their stories, I asked myself two threshold questions to determine whom to include in my research. First, is this someone I would want to join my friends and me for dinner—that is, is he or she educated, reasonable, accustomed to appearing in public fully dressed? And second, did this person wonder about his sanity after his epiphany?


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The answer to this question had to be yes, as that would indicate he or she had not lost touch with reality. First, the moment itself is weirder and more real than everyday reality. Second, it gives the person radical new insights about the nature of reality and the nature of God the noetic quality. And third, those insights appear to rewire the person and his approach to life. I met Arjun Patel during a tropical storm in Miami, on December 6, Soon a crisply dressed man in his mid-thirties burst through the doors, splattering raindrops in an arc around him.

We sat down in a sterile examination room. I gazed at Arjun, dressed in a button-down blue shirt, fresh and unwrinkled beneath his gray-and-blue-striped tie. He had beautiful olive skin, a near-shaven head, and a goatee, and he radiated a serenity that surely calms his patients in their final days. Raised in a Hindu home, Arjun had experimented with meditation in his teens.

But in his freshman year at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he and a friend decided to meditate every afternoon at five p. He remembered the scene with cinematic precision. He and his friend were sitting cross-legged in their tiny dorm room on Wednesday evening in February , and as the long shadows of twilight crept across the room, Arjun closed his eyes and slowed into a rhythmic breathing. It was dark, and there was this little pinpoint of light that just kept moving closer, relentlessly closer.


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I thought, What is this? So this light was off in the distance and it kept getting closer and closer, and there was almost a sound that came with it, like a roar. I felt very, very weightless, very light and easy. My breathing was very shallow, and I think I was exhaling really hard, and I was rocking back and forth. I could tell I was smiling from ear to ear.

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At some point, as the light got closer, there were two eyes looking back at me. They were stylized eyes. And when it got up to where I was, the eyes blinked. And it was like. Everything just sort of collapsed, and there was nothing left but light. Arjun slept little over the next two weeks. He listened to music and kept to himself.

And he felt a surreal unity with all things. It was alive, the grass was alive, and it was beautiful. There was no self-reference point. When I met him, Arjun was meditating twice daily, and considered that moment the most important of his life.