As the mystics of any of the traditions will attest to, the manipulation of the conscious mind can produce effects that would be called mystical experiences. But these experiences certainly are not exclusive to those who are pious. Most practices of mysticism involve the manipulation of thought through physical actions and mental concentration in order to achieve blissful states of inner peace. Most religious practitioners of this kind of mysticism to would attribute these altered states of consciousness to the ethereal realm. Practices of Buddhist meditation are exercises in achieving states approaching Nirvana. Sufi dervishes practice rituals of physical asceticism in order to experience closeness to Allah. The whirling dervishes of the Sufis spin in around in circles attempting to achieve a kind of pre-mature death in order to achieve ecstatic states that they would attribute to a close approximation to God. Hindu ascetics will starve themselves and disown any worldly possessions and achieve states that we might call “happiness”.
Feelings of happiness and ecstasy are attributes of certain periods in our consciousness. We all have to admit that the thing that we call consciousness is extremely plastic, and can easily change to experience a plethora of alternate realities. On a daily basis we experience reality in totally different ways which are clearly caused by physical things. Many of us alter our reality with coffee every morning by making us more alert. What we consume for our meals have an effect of our mood and how our bodies feel. Some of us suffer from diseases like Schizophrenia which vastly alter the realities we experience. Consequently, some of us take pharmaceutical drugs to alter our altered behaviour. Anti-depressants have a clear effect on the way an individual views the world. Most of us spend a sizable chunk of the time we are alive in a state called sleep. It is a state of semi-consciousness where our bodies are at rest but our minds experience something different. The thing we call “me” drifts in and out of consciousness in a totally hallucinated realm. Time is often experienced differently as it is very difficult to discern when a dream begins or ends. Happenings that would seem bizarre in a waking state often seem commonplace in a dream. Dreams are demonstrably a physical occurrence in the brain, but it doesn't make dreaming any less worthwhile. Dreams can cause people to have inspirations and epiphanies regarding their physical life. They can be greatly entertaining and emotionally powerful. Could this not also be the case with practices of traditional mystical experiences? The fact that all forms of mysticism are practiced with physical actions shows that these experiences can be achievable without any kind of belief in dogmas or unproven superstitions. Some can even be experienced without any kind of mental concentration or physical asceticism. Psychoactive substances such as psilocybin, LSD and DMT have the ability produce incredibly unique experiences comparable to any religious mystical experiences.
Sam Harris is one of the few of the “new atheists” who speak highly of the practices of the eastern religions. In the book The End of Faith, Harris outlines why concentration of thought on the experience of consciousness, is monumental in achieving truly content states of mind. He compliments the eastern religions for having the wisdom of these practices. He suggests the use of these meditative tools for anyone religious or not, wanting to find inner peace and happiness. He regards mysticism as a rational enterprise but religion is not.
“A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behaviour, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it.”