Mystical Experiences and the Pathology Tradition
To a mystic, life is illusory.
Eastern philosophies like Zen and Tibetan Buddhism teach that life is a dream one can wake up from by becoming "enlightened". Perhaps, mystical experiences are the glimpses of enlightenment; the reminders that behind the mundane reality lies the unseen ultimate reality of spirit.
Although highly idiosyncratic, mystical experiences are a cross-cultural phenomenon. They occur all over the world - in Judaic, Christian, Muslim, Indian (yogic), Buddhist, Shamanic and other traditions, and they have universally recognizable features. That, along with 99.9% of our common DNA, speaks to the idea of oneness and basic universality of human experience.
Yet mystical states continue to be pathologized by Western psychiatry.
Over 90 percent of people believe in God, the Creator of the Universe,¹ yet experiencing God, which most mystical or religious states refer to, is a dangerous delusion that requires medication, hospitalization or both.
This, in a nutshell, is a state of mysticism in the modern world.
The paradox is: religious beliefs are an accepted cultural phenomenon, no matter how irrational, archaic or esoteric they may be, but religious experiences are generally regarded as a symptom of insanity.
The Roots of the Pathology Tradition
If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. (Szasz, 1973)
Mainstream psychiatry always equated mystical experiences with pathology. In Ken Wilber's words, the psychiatrist
“will find mystical phenomena of interest because they can demonstrate forms of behavior intermediate between normality and frank psychosis".
Similarly, to a psychoanalyst it represents an infantile regression into a more primitive state, crossing of childhood developmental pathologies with adult narcissistic tendencies.
The pathology tradition goes back to Sigmund Freud, whose approach to mystical experiences was that of a medical professional studying a peculiar aberration. In “Civilization and Its Discontents” he interprets “the oceanic feeling” (experience of oneness with the world) as an instance of the primary narcissistic union between mother and infant. With admirable candor he informs:
“I cannot discover this “oceanic” feeling in myself”, and then adds, possibly with a tear in his eye, “It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings”.
Even in religious communities mystical experiences are treated with suspicion or ridicule. In the best case scenario, they are cryptic messages from the "other side". In the worst case, they are seen as possession by evil spirits or curses. Furthermore, someone claiming to have a direct ineffable experience of God is often stigmatized simply because people tend to fear the unknown.
"Certain Cultural Contexts"
Contrary to what psychiatric and religious establishments would have you believe, many people report having had profound mystical experiences.
In a recent poll the respondents were asked to rate the statement, "I have had a profound religious experience or awakening that changed the direction of my life," on a scale from 0 to 5, with 5 for "applies completely". Forty-one percent of Americans - about 80 million people - said the statement completely applies to them.
“It is reassuring,” the report concludes, “to find that for many people, faith rests upon what would seem to be a firm foundation: personal experience of a transformational nature”.³
Not to mention mystical experiences of a less profound nature - the so-called "everyday mysticism," such as sudden flashes of intuition or knowledge ("Aha!" moments), dreams, lucid dreams or deja vu.
Even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) acknowledges the possibility that religious experiences are not entirely pathological.
Defining Features of Mystical Experiences
William James, the author of the classic "The Varieties of Religious Experience," stated that
“personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness” ("mystical" and "religious" are used interchangeably), and that “its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect”.
James described them as experience of unity with information formerly defined as ’non-self’ and distinguished four essential features:
1. ineffability (they cannot be transferred to others),
2. noetic quality (they are states of knowledge),
3. transiency (they can only be experienced for short periods of time),
4. passivity (states characterized by openness and humility).
The father of humanistic psychology Abraham Maslow considered mystical experiences to be part of the ’peak experiences’ and characterized them as unifying, ego-transcending and integrating. Other authors used characteristics such as: intense affective experience, time/space distortion, and a sense of holiness or sacredness.
Mysticism and Schizophrenia
Both mysticism and schizophrenia represent altered states of consciousness, which led to the idea that mystical “trans” states are similar to schizophrenic states. This position is supported by the multicultural studies and analysis of the schizophrenic imagery. However, there are some notable differences.
World-renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell says that the schizophrenic "drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight." While mysticism is characterized by meaningful inner and outer worlds and conscious goal of unity with the divine, schizophrenia most often features disorientation, isolation and escapism from the world.
In another context Campbell speaks of the shamanic cultures:
"The shaman is the person, male or female, who. . . has an overwhelming psychological experience that turns him totally inward. It's a kind of schizophrenic crack-up. The whole unconscious opens up, and the shaman falls into it. This shaman experience has been described many, many times. It occurs all the way from Siberia right through the Americas down to Tierra del Fuego" (Campbell, 1988).
In “Shamanic Explorations of the Sacred in Schizophrenia” Maureen Roberts elaborates on the differences between the shamanic (mystical) and schizophrenic experiences:
“The schizophrenic's reason and senses, like those of the shaman during initiation, are assaulted by concrete revelations of the heights and depths of the vast Otherworlds of the collective unconscious. Simultaneously, the schizophrenic is forced to slot into the sometimes petty humdrum and routine of daily existence. <...> The invasion of the ego by archetypal forces transforms the individual profoundly and irreversibly; no-one who has endured such a crisis can confine the expanded horizons of their consciousness to the claustrophobically "safe" and tame boundaries of cultural norms. "
Prague psychiatrist Stanislav Grof also pointed out that although the "transpersonal" sphere includes both saints and madmen, it's the ability to integrate one's experiences into everyday life that distinguishes mystical visions from psychotic episodes.
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Historical Accounts of Mystical Experiences
In one of her visions, Saint Teresa of Ávila saw a seraph driving a spear through her heart:
"I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…"
Sister Therese of Lisieux describes the noetic quality of the experience:
"I thought immediately of the joyful thing that I had to learn, so I went over to the window. I was able to see that I was not mistaken. Ah! my soul was filled with a great consolation; I was interiorly persuaded that Jesus, on the anniversary of His own death, wanted to have me hear His first call!"
French mathematician Blaise Pascal had a religious experience after nearly dying in a horse carriage accident. He made a brief note of it to himself:
"Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars. Not the God of philosophers and scholars. Absolute Certainty: Beyond reason. Joy. Peace. Forgetfulness of the world and everything but God. The world has not known thee, but I have known thee. Joy! joy! joy! tears of joy!"
English poet J. A. Symonds describes transiency and ineffability of a mystical state:
"Irresistibly it took possession of my mind and will, lasted what seemed an eternity, and disappeared in a series of rapid sensations which resembled the awakening from anaesthetic influence. One reason why I disliked this kind of trance was that I could not describe it to myself. I cannot even now find words to render it intelligible. It consisted in a gradual but swiftly progressive obliteration of space, time, sensation, and the multitudinous factors of experience which seem to qualify what we are pleased to call our Self."
For primate expert Jane Goodall mystical state was triggered by music:
"Many years ago, in the spring of 1974, I visited the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. There were not many people around, and it was quiet and still inside. I gazed in silent awe at the great Rose Window, glowing in the morning sun. All at once the cathedral was filled with a huge volume of sound: an organ playing magnificently for a wedding taking place in a distant corner. Bach's Tocata and Fugue in D Minor. I had always loved the opening theme; but in the cathedral, filling the entire vastness, it seemed to enter and possess my whole self. It was at though the music itself was alive. That moment, a suddenly captured moment of eternity, was perhaps the closest I have ever come to experiencing ecstasy, the ecstasy of the mystic."
Chemist and LSD discoverer Dr. Albert Hofmann describes an experience he had in a forest as a child:
"As I strolled through the freshly greened woods filled with bird song and lit up by the morning sun, all at once everything appeared in an uncommonly clear light. <...> It shone with the most beautiful radiance, speaking to the heart, as though it wanted to encompass me in its majesty. I was filled with an indescribable sensation of joy, oneness, and blissful security. I have no idea how long I stood there spellbound. <...> While still a child, I experienced several more of these deeply euphoric moments on my rambles through forest and meadow. It was these experiences that shaped the main outlines of my world view and convinced me of the existence of a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality that was hidden from everyday sight."
Indian mystic and yogi Gopi Krishna describes a mystical experience known as kundalini awakening:
“Suddenly, with a roar like that of a waterfall, I felt a stream of liquid light entering my brain through the spinal cord. Entirely unprepared for such a development, I was completely taken by surprise; but regaining my self-control, keeping my mind on the point of concentration. The illumination grew brighter and brighter, the roaring louder, I experienced a rocking sensation and then felt myself slipping out of my body, entirely enveloped in a halo of light. It is impossible to describe the experience accurately. I felt the point of consciousness that was myself growing wider surrounded by waves of light. It grew wider and wider, spreading outward while the body, normally the immediate object of its perception, appeared to have receded into the distance until I became entirely unconscious of it. I was now all consciousness without any outline, without any idea of corporeal appendage, without any feeling or sensation coming from the senses, immersed in a sea of light simultaneously conscious and aware at every point, spread out, as it were, in all directions without any barrier or material obstruction. I was no longer myself, or to be more accurate, no longer as I knew myself to be, a small point of awareness confined to a body, but instead was a vast circle of consciousness in which the body was but a point, bathed in light and in a state of exultation and happiness impossible to describe.”
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung had multiple mystical experiences in his lifetime:
"It seemed to me that I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents. Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India. My field of vision did not include the whole earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through that wonderful blue light...the sight of earth from this height was the most glorious thing I had ever seen..."
Over the next weeks, Jung would awaken every night to a feeling of ecstasy.
"I felt as though I were floating in space, as though I were safe in the womb of the universe---in a tremendous void, but filled with the highest possible feeling of happiness. Everything around me seemed enchanted...Night after night I floated in a state of purest bliss, thronged round with images of all creation."
Final Thoughts on Mystical Experiences
∞ Although some states may be an expression of pathology, many people report having had mystical (religious) experiences of transformational nature.
∞ Fasting, controlled breathing, whirling dervish dances, sensory deprivation, meditation and the use of psychoactive substances are the most known methods to achieve mystical states of consciousness. Some are considered more legitimate than others. In fact, it is often said that chemically induced states aren't authentic.
∞ That is false. First, religious use of hallucinogens is one of the most ancient human practices. Second, all spiritual techniques are meant to trigger neurological changes in the brain. So from the neurobiology perspective, all mystical states are created equal. However, someone who's engaged in a systematic spiritual practice will be better suited to integrate a mystical experience into their consciousness.
∞ Perhaps, the greatest challenge is not achieving a mystical state (considering the wealth of information on the subject and the relative availability of chemical aids) but giving in to it, letting go of the need to control and understand, allowing oneself to become passive and open to anything. Mystical experience is a transformational process of entering the unknown, and surrendering to it.
Have You Ever Had a Mystical Experience?
© 2011 Lana Adler