Mystical experiences

Mystical experiences tend to be experiences felt or experienced beyond the realms of ordinary consciousness. Occasionally they are referred to as states of altered consciousness (see Altered States of Consciousness). Such states may involve ineffable awareness of time, space, and physical reality. Mystical experiences often defy physical description, and can best be only hinted at.

Such experiences are universal and share common characteristics, despite the culture or religion in which they occur. They are invariably spiritual, yet they may not be religious; that is, they are not limited to monks or priests. However, all personal religious experiences are rooted in mystical states of consciousness, and all mystical experiences are part of religions.

Although mystical experiences are common in occurrence, they occur unbidden to a person perhaps once or twice in a lifetime, if at all. According to a survey in 1987 conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, 43 percent of adult Americans said they had some type of mystical experience. In British polls published in 1978 and 1979 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 56 percent of churchgoers claimed they had such an experience. Those within this group who had more experiences were older; better educated, and attended church more.

William James, psychologist and philosopher, identified four general characteristics of mystical experiences:

1. Ineffability, Mystical states are more like states of feeling than intellect, subtle shaded with fine nuances that are difficult to convey in their import and grandeur to another. Consequently, much mystical literature is filled with paradoxes and symbolism.

2. Noetic quality, Mystical experiences are states of knowledge, insight, awareness, revelation, and illumination beyond the grasp of the intellect. There is awareness of unity with the Absolute, of immorality of the soul, of great truths. Time and space are transcended.

3. Transiency, mystical experiences are fleeting in linear time, though they seem to be eternal. Most last a few seconds, some perhaps up to ten minutes. It is rare to sustain a mystical state for more than a half-hour, or perhaps one to two hours at best. Eastern adepts are able to sustain prolonged periods of samadhi, a mystical state of one-pointed concentration; and some reportedly are able to sustain the highest states of nirvana (satori in Zen) and even the rarely attained nirodh.

4. Passivity, The individual feels swept up and held by a superior power. This may be accompanied by a sensation of separation from bodily consciousness (similar to an out-of-body experience [OBE]), trance, or such phenomena as automatisms, mediumistic trance, healing powers, visions, and voices. Such phenomena are regarded in Eastern thought as states of pseudo-enlightenment, partway up to the real thing, but not quite there.

According to James and others mystical experiences vary in intensity. In their simplest form they appear to the individual as a sudden burst of intelligence or insight; similar to the way the significance of a maximum or formula becomes clear, to a person, which causes him to express an aha! James also classed deja vu as a simple mystical experience. Other insights have increased meaning such as the bursts of truths that are accompanied by dreamy states and reveries, and then there is the maximum state when the individual experiences the ecstasy of being in union with the Absolute, or God (see Mysticism).

As discussed in mysticism, the union with the Absolute may be sought either as monistic mysticism or theistic mysticism. In the fist category both unity and identity with God is sought, while in the latter only unity is sought. However, others have defined this maximum state of mysticism as being aware of the «cosmic consciousness,» or being aware of the consciousness of the cosmos and of the life and order of the universe.

Some mystical experiences, which are in the minority, occur spontaneously. They usually occur when the person is alone and in a relaxed mental state. Many things can produce mystical experiences such as dreams, words, phrases, music, art, sounds, smells, daydreaming, the play of light upon land and sea, nature, or a near-death experience (NDE).

Other techniques including hypnosis, autohypnosis, floatation tanks and sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, fasting, chanting, dancing, breath control, sexual rites, yoga, and meditation are used to produce mystical experiences. Most are caused for spiritual and/or religious reasons. Various cultures, religions and sects have their own similar and diverse reasons for wanting to attain mystical experiences.

As it is controversially argued that mystical experiences achieved through the use of alcohol and psychedelic drugs have no lasting value, it might also be argued that self-induced mystical experiences serve little purpose. It might be prudent to examine such instances on a case-to-case basis to determine both the cause and legitimacy of the experience. For example, one person might join in the use of a psychedelic drugs so he might experience seeing colors differently, which has a profound effect on him because he has experienced a difference sphere of vision that he does not forget. Another person may experience a similar experience but receives no profound effect because he feels the experience just places him in the same status as his peers.

The basis for determining the legitimacy or value of a mystical experience seems to be the after effect. Frequently this is seen by a change in the lifestyle of the person who had the mystical experience. After the experience the individual is filled with a sense of well-being, joy, and optimism. Such ecstasy, claim some Christian mystics, can reach such heights that it becomes almost unbearable when changing into torment and pain.

Common physiological changes in prolonged mystical states which are common experienced are decreased breathing, pulse, circulation, and brain waves; also the person loses awareness of the body. In such a state of rapture described by Christian mystics, the body seems to be on the verge of extinguishing. St. Teresa of Avila wrote in The Interior Castle that in the orison of union, the soul «is utterly dead to the things of the world, and lives solely in God…I do not know whether in this state she has enough life left to breathe. It seems to me she has not; or at least that if she does breathe, she is unaware of it.»

There appears to be similar descriptions of sensations expressed by both Eastern and Christian mystics. The rise of the powerful kundalini energy, which in yogic literature resides at the base of the spine and under certain conditions of spiritual discipline rises to the crown chakra, is reported cross-culturally. St. Theresa (1873-1897; not to be confused with St. Theresa of Avila) was reported to have sometimes experienced the heat, energy, spontaneous body movements and pain characteristic of the yogic kundalini awakening. The same phenomena is reported among the !Kung bushmen of Africa, and in Sufism, Taoism, Buddhism, and shamanism. In a nonreligious context, the kundalini awakening is called a «spiritual emergence» or «spiritual emergency.»

Such experiences are not limited to members on the Christian and Eastern religions. Members in neo-Pagan Witchcraft also report having similar experiences. High priestesses who participated in the Drawing Down the Moon ceremonies frequently that for days afterwards they still feel the presence of the Goddess.

Other Witches have reported similar experiences. Robert while walking home from a coven meeting looked up into the night sky. While looking into the cosmos he speculated upon the atomic theory. He thought of the atoms in the human body shaping a microcosm of the universe; and the atoms of the universe formed a macrocosm of the body. This for his was a mystical experience because it coincided with his Witchcraft beliefs, and he truly felt in unit with Nature.

In 1971, John, a graphic designer, was smashed up in a motorcycle accident. When regaining consciousness he found himself looking at a tree in a certain way. He later became a pagan and developed a «language» with trees (sort of a divinatory system). He also founded a Druidic order (see Druidism). What is most interesting is that there is a medical explanation for his initial reaction, or mystical experience of looking at the tree in a certain way; which is, «great pain can release the neurochemical response which may lie behind the phenomenology.» Whatever the explanation, the event so influenced John so to cause him to form the order.

There seems to be various explanations or reasons given for mystical experiences. Most appear to be related to a religious experience for the individual. The intensity of the experience seems to be measured by the way in which the individual’s life is affected. No matter whether the experience is great or small, the life seems to be altered or reshaped some way by it; and, perhaps this itself is the mystical quality. A.G.H.

Sources: 4, 400; 8, 183-186; 29, 384-387.