This is a modified excerpt from an article I co-wrote for Synthesis, the full version of which you can find here.
Mystical experiences have been the cornerstone of religious and spiritual practices for millennia. From early Christian mysticism to Zen Buddhism, almost every religious path allows space for experiences that give a more direct connection to the more mysterious aspects of reality.
Broadly speaking, a mystical experience is anything that is hard to comprehend or describe with rational or simple language. Generally, it is short-lasting, feels immensely meaningful or profound, and shatters some of your preconceptions. You may encounter paradoxical or alien concepts firsthand, such as non-duality; a realization that nothing in the universe is truly separate, or impermanence; an awareness that pretty much everything is temporary.
Mystical experiences can occur spontaneously, and indeed people report them occurring at completely unexpected times – such as during sports (Parry et al, 2007), during or after sex (Wade, 2004), and as a result of interactions with wild animals (DeMares & Krycka, 1998).
In spontaneous mystical experiences, profound realisations can hit people without warning. Often, people will report the feeling as if being transported into another realm, where both perceptions and thoughts have an unusual clarity or brightness.
People often describe the spontaneous mystical experience as being life-changing: and this is especially true of those who encounter the mystical during near-death experiences (NDEs). Mystical experiences during NDEs often take the form of leaving the physical body, meeting deities, or reliving important parts of your life (Greyson, 1983).
Non-spontaneous mystical experiences can be induced by certain religious or secular practices (such as meditation or prayer), or the ingestion of substances like psychedelics.
Here’s one example of a typical report of a mystical experience, triggered by a disciplined meditation practice:
“I was enveloped in a love I could not put into words. This divine love was in everything and in me. At the core of my being, I was this love and so was everyone else. In this state of grace, there was no right or wrong, no good or bad, and no judgment whatsoever. Fear was non-existent. There was no death and I knew that we all live forever. Everyone I met was love. […] I became aware that a presence other than what I usually think of as myself was looking through my eyes. I had become one with this infinite awareness that simply sees without judgement. It is the very essence of life, eternal life. I wanted nothing, nor did I needed anything.”
– Retrieved from this link at the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation
Mystical experiences in religion
Although mystical experiences can be spontaneous, or the result of secular practice, a large portion of mystical experiences probably occur as the result of religious practice. Most religions have space for mystical experiences in their teachings; although to different degrees.
Most forms of modern-day Christianity, for example, have lost almost all aspects of mysticism – now, most of their focus is on ritual and biblical study. Yet in the earliest days of Christianity, the mystical experience was key. The bible describes early priests undertaking divination using psychoactive substances in holy buildings known as Tabernacles. These priests would then guide their congregation as a result of the epiphanies granted to them through these mystical experiences. For more on this, see this series of talks by biblical scholar Rev. Danny Nemu.
Christian mysticism further developed into a more structured discipline, with practitioners following a threefold path of mystical awakening (McColman, 2010). These three steps were purification (discipline of the body), illumination (discipline of the mind), and unification (developing the spirit). Throughout this threefold path, Christians were expected to come closer to mystical experiences, ultimately transforming them into a state more similar to God. This would likely be through the development of transcendent prayer practices and mystic contemplation, somewhat similar to meditation.
Mysticism began to decline as an aspect of Christianity once a strong hierarchy emerged in the church. The Protestant Reformations in the sixteenth century began the persecution and marginalization of mysticism in Christianity (especially Catholicism and Protestantism). This largely prevented mystics from having a say on the interpretation of scripture and the application of divine knowledge (McColman, 2010).
Modern Judaism, having the same roots in mysticism as Christianity, also has mystical elements to its teachings. The Kabbalah school is the most well-known form of Jewish mysticism currently. It considers the mystical experience a route to God, and encourages the fostering of a relationship to the infinite aspects of reality (Dan, 2005). Although much of Kabbalah is based in reading and interpreting texts and traditions, it also encourages mystical or transcendent experiences, and the union with God that these experiences can produce.
In Hinduism, the modern religious tradition (called Neo-Vedanta) emphasizes the mystical experience as a core part of religious practice. Whereas older traditions put more importance in the study of scripture, modern Hinduism tends to put this as a secondary concern, instead focussing on personal experiences of the mystical (Rambachan, 1991). Central to this is a cultivation of an awareness of the non-dual nature of reality, the paradoxical nature of the Supreme Being, and an appreciation for the deceptive nature of our everyday perceptions.
Although in Islam the core teachings state that a true appreciation of God can only be found in the afterlife, the Sufi branch suggests that a closeness to God can be achieved in life through mystical experiences. However, even in Sufism, the study of scripture has to precede any truly direct experiences of God. Mystics have to follow a strict path of scripture study and practices before they can fully appreciate the universality of God through mystical states. In an exciting contemporary development on this front, in mid-March 2014, Iran’s top religious leader, the Grand Ayatollah Rohani ruled the use of entheogenic drugs permissible (ḥalāl), for Muslims under traditional Islamic law, as long as they are taken with specialized supervision, and with a mystical mindset. (For more information, see this interview with the esoteric Islamic scholar Wahid Azal.) [Author’s note: thanks to Rosalind Stone for this information]
Buddhism, perhaps more than other modern religion, incorporates mystical experiences into its teachings. The awakening of the Buddha, which is the route of all teachings and scripture in Buddhism, was itself a mystical experience – perhaps the pinnacle of mystical experiences. Meditation practice is considered a component of fostering this mystical awareness.
Different schools of Buddhism emphasize meditation to varying degrees, although all consider that personal mystical and spiritual experiences are key to understanding the core tenets of the religion. Zen Buddhism, for example, takes meditation as its primary practice, and suggests that by “just sitting” (alongside some study of cryptic poetic scripture known as koans) the mystical experience is cultivated, allowing a direct glimpse of the core truths of Buddhism (Ford, 2018).
According to some religious scholars, there are many similarities in the way that mystical experiences are approached by the world’s religions. This has led to some to suggest that a “Perennial Philosophy” is at work here, where religions that share an interest in the mystical experience also express similar morals and principles. This concept is expressed in most depth in Aldous Huxley’s famous work The Perennial Philosophy from 1944.
Some examples of mystical experiences
Mystical experiences are characterised by being profoundly meaningful, often joyous, and produce great revelations about life. Here are some examples retrieved from the Near Death Experience Research Foundation:
“Right above me, […] there was a gigantic mass of luminous consciousness. Just as the Buddha described it. Huge. It was like an ocean but above, sort of upside down. A sea of pure consciousness, nothing but consciousness, just as Kabir had also described it. It started up and continued upwards, I did not see its end neither side wise nor upwards, I could only see its beginning above me. […] I felt as if a magnet attracted me very quickly towards the mass of luminous consciousness that I immediately recognized as God. Then I realized that ‘it’… was actually me! I was like a droplet of that gigantic mass of consciousness but in reality I was also that huge consciousness, the luminous consciousness. I, little drop of consciousness, now free from the illusion, returned to where I have always belonged: to the huge Ocean of Luminous Consciousness whom we call God. I saw myself, I felt myself, I existed as and I knew myself to be God.”
– Source, during meditation practice.
“I was sobbing, overcome by the sheer amount of love that swept through me and over me, and laughing at the same time. It was then that I asked God why there had been so much pain in my life, and where had he been while I was suffering and so afraid? He then told me to hold his hand while he showed me something. […] As God held my hand I could see great chunks of memories, many of which I had repressed, as they were so painful, come floating up in front of me.”
– Source, from a near-death experience.
“I was still chugging along on my [motorbike] at 10 – 15 km/hour when, seemingly for a fraction of a second, everything around me went completely black. The world as I had seen it up to then had totally disappeared. Then, suddenly, I emerged into a Sublime White Light, a new state of consciousness, a new state of being where everything was Perfect Light, Perfect Unity, Perfect Life. Human forms, nature, trees, plants, animals and stones were, in truth, Light. Their shapes were still there but were no longer living by themselves. They were a manifestation of Life and of the Eternal and Universal Light that animates all things.
Everything was now bathed in Perfect Light, Life, Harmony and Unity. And I gradually became aware of the fact that I, too, as a physical body, a human being, was a manifestation and expression of this Life and Infinite Light.
But I was also infinitely more than this mortal body, this little human personality. I was Soul or Divine fragment. I was also this Light, this infinite Life. I was the life of all Lives. I was the other human being, nature, the animal, the tree, the flower, the blade of grass, the grain of sand, the stone, the mountain, the ocean, the stars in the universe, the whole universe and much more besides. I was Infinite, Unlimited.”
– Source, the result of a spontaneous experience.
“I was aware of being combined with all the other thoughts or shapeless and infinite souls of every person or creature who has ever lived or died, or been, or is, those waiting to be born and those who have already lived and died. I was aware of suddenly having infinite knowledge. […] I was one with the Creator and with Creation itself. I was the Creator. We all were; those who haven’t come back still are. […] I was aware that my earthly body, my container or vessel of my soul had been shed, and I was so much more. I knew all things. I was God along with everyone else, and yet God was still there in superior existence, too: A universal power that was gentle and kind, humble and pure.”
– Source, from a near-death experience.