According to historian of religions Mircea Eliade, the most ancient form of religious experience is found in the practices of Shamanism. Employing what Eliade called “archaic techniques of ecstasy,” shamans enter into trance states, claim to travel out of their bodies, and exercise the power gained by their extraordinary experiences to heal the body, mind, and spirit.27 In local, small-scale indigenous religions all over the world, the shaman has represented the standard for defining the nature of religious experience.
As anthropologist Felicitas Goodman28 has argued, however, shamanic techniques produced not only the most ancient, but also the most persistent and enduring type of religious experience, the trance. Through a variety of techniques—meditation, prayer, chanting, singing, dancing, and so on—religions have induced and cultivated the experience of trance. According to Goodman, trance states represent the common denominator underlying all religious experience. In Goodman’s terms, all religions, whether they know it or not, induce experiences of trance.
Although the Church of Scientology employs specific “techniques of ecstasy,” those procedures and processes that are referred to as its “religious technology,” the church has consistently insisted that the religious experience supported by these practices should not be misconstrued as trance. Furthermore, contrary to the discredited claims of anti-cult propaganda, these techniques bear no relation to processes of hypnosis or “brainwashing.”29 Instead, the religious techniques used in the Church of Scientology are directed towards experiencing a greater clarity of spiritual awareness.
For Scientology, religious experience is basically a matter of achieving understanding. The nature of understanding is represented as a triangle—the ARC triangle—comprising three component parts: Affinity, Reality, and Communication.
For Scientology, religious experience is basically a matter of achieving understanding. The nature of understanding is represented as a triangle—the ARC triangle—comprising three component parts: Affinity, Reality, and Communication. As the first corner of this triangle, Affinity signifies the degree of closeness, affection, or love that is experienced in relation to another person. The second corner, Reality, indicates an interpersonal agreement about what appears to be the case in any situation. At the third corner, Communication defines the interchange of ideas. As the most important part of this ARC triangle, clear communication can provide the basis for creating interpersonal affinity and mutual agreement about reality. However, since all three aspects of understanding are interrelated, the ARC triangle is described as growing as understanding increases. As a formula for understanding the nature of understanding, the ARC triangle operates as a measure of expanding awareness.
Religious experience in Scientology progresses through a series of graded levels. Having achieved the necessary “releases” from the conditioning of the reactive mind, a person can attain the experiential state of being Clear. According to the Church of Scientology, the “full glory of the state of Clear has no comparable description in any writings existing in our culture.”30 Like mystical experience in general, therefore, the experience of being Clear might be described as ineffable, as a state of consciousness that is beyond words. However, also like mystical experience, that state of consciousness is characterized by a heightened awareness in which new knowledge and insight are gained.
Beyond the state of Clear, Scientology provides techniques for achieving even higher levels of spiritual freedom and ability. As an Operating Thetan, a person experiencing these higher levels is said to become a “Knowing and willing cause over Life, Thought, Matter, Energy, Space, and Time.”31 Extraordinary abilities are claimed for the Operating Thetan. Like a shaman, for example, an Operating Thetan is supposed to be able to experience conscious awareness independent of the physical body. At these higher levels, however, the major ability recovered by an Operating Thetan is the experience of eternity. Through that experience, the person attains knowledge of immortality and freedom from the cycle of birth and death. The spiritual knowledge, freedom, and power represented by the Operating Thetan is the ultimate goal of the religion of Scientology. Essentially, these abilities represent the culmination of a religious quest for spiritual salvation and immortality.