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How to Know if You Have Had a Mystical Experience


Hildegard von Bingen’s “finger of God”

4,074 words

Most people believe they have never had a mystical experience. This includes sceptics, of course – but also those who are quite open to the idea and who wonder, perhaps, why they have never been graced with one. However, the conclusions of both groups are usually based on misconceptions about what a mystical experience must be like. People imagine, for instance, that it involves visions of some kind, in which, perhaps, voices are heard or supernatural beings appear. They may believe that mystical experience involves Swedenborgian journeys to other realms, out of body experiences, automatic writing, and other such exotic phenomena. While certainly such events (if they exist) do qualify as “mystical,” it is nonetheless a serious error to use these sorts of phenomena as a standard.

Like many other sorts of experiences, mystical events exist on a spectrum or continuum. For example, everyone accepts that there is more than one kind of orgasm: sex is sometimes rapturous, sometimes disappointing. So it also is with aesthetic experience: I may be profoundly moved by one musical performance, and relatively unmoved by another. As to the spectrum of mystical experience, at one end there is rapture, and a sense of being totally transformed. Plotinus writes, “It has happened often. Roused into myself from my body – outside everything else and inside myself – my gaze has met a beauty wondrous and great. At such moments I have been certain that mine was the better part, mine the best of lives lived to the fullest, mine identity with the divine.”

The other end of the mystical spectrum is not, however, like the other end of sex or the experience of listening to music; the other end of the mystical spectrum is not “disappointing” or “unmoving.” It is still an extraordinary experience (in the literal meaning of that term), and it is profound – but it is very brief, and much less dramatic than the experiences we have heard about from figures like Plotinus, or Hildegard of Bingen, or Emmanuel Swedenborg. These fleeting, not-so-dramatic mystical experiences, I would maintain, actually come to us on a semi-regular basis. In fact, I would wager that almost everyone reading this essay has already had one. These experiences go largely unnoticed, however, for three basic reasons: (1) they do not fit our stereotype of the mystical experience (heavens parting, staring into the gaping maw of Krishna, etc.); (2) they are usually, again, very brief; and (3) they do not cohere with the rest of waking life, and our sense of what is “normal.”

To further explain what I am getting it, I will use the phenomenon of hallucination as a helpful analogy. (This is somewhat of an ironic choice, of course, since skeptics would like to dismiss all so-called mystical experiences as hallucinations!) Most people will tell you that they have never had a hallucination. The reason is that they have a fixed, overly dramatic idea of what hallucinations are: seeing pink elephants, imagining that your dog is telling you to go out and kill (as in the “Son of Sam” case), or imagining that bugs are crawling all over your skin (as in the DTs). And they assume that hallucinations are a sign of some serious physical or mental malady. But any competent intro psychology professor will tell you that, in fact, we have hallucinations on a daily basis.

Have you ever imagined that you heard the phone ring, when it had not? Have you ever thought you saw, in your peripheral vision, a bug crawling on the ceiling, and turned to look and found nothing there? Have you ever thought you smelled something bad and searched in vain for the source? These sorts of things are daily occurrences and the examples just given qualify as, respectively, auditory, visual, and olfactory hallucinations. These events happen to us so often we don’t even reflect on them, hence most people’s surprise when told that they regularly experience hallucinations. Further, we are habituated to deal with these minor hallucinations in a way that is quick, efficient, and perfectly rational. We simply check to see if the experience matches up to the rest of our experience.

For example, I turn my head and look directly at the ceiling to see if a bug really is there. Finding that there isn’t one, I instantly dismiss the experience as a “trick of the eye” and think no more about it. Or, smelling something bad, I ask if others smell it. If they do not, I usually pay the matter no further attention. In both cases, we immediately dismiss the event as a “trick” because it does not fit into the regular pattern of our experience of reality: real objects don’t simply vanish when looked at directly; odors are usually detectable by more than one person (they are, to use a fancy word, intersubjectively verifiable). And so on.

I’d like to suggest that the place of mystical experience in our lives is actually quite close to that of hallucinations – and our manner of dealing with both is strikingly similar. I believe that we experience small-scale, fleeting mystical experiences on a semi-regular basis (not as often, however, as we experience hallucinations – though this will obviously depend upon the person). Having claimed this, now I must flesh out just what I mean by such a “small-scale mystical experience.”

Have you ever, in the middle of doing something (anything, really) suddenly felt that there was a kind of “break” in the ordinary flow of your object-centered experience? I do not mean that suddenly you are no longer aware of what is in front of you. But it is as if suddenly the quality of your awareness changes. For example, have you ever, quite suddenly, been struck by the fact that what you are looking at really exists? Again, it could be anything. Perhaps you are handling a small stone. And suddenly, inexplicably, it is as if you see for the first time that this is. Fleetingly, you experience a sense of wonder and strangeness. Or, to take another example, perhaps there comes a moment in your day when, for no apparent reason, you suddenly and very briefly have the strong intuition that everything right now, just as it is, is somehow fundamentally right. A further example: Have you ever had the experience, perhaps in some kind of natural setting, when you felt relaxed and content, that there is some fundamental unity to everything?

Usually, these experiences go as swiftly and as inexplicably as they come. Again, I am not speaking of an experience of being yanked away from the objects around you, or of seeing new or strange objects (such an experience would belong at the extreme end of the mystical spectrum). Rather, I am talking about a kind of momentary shift of focus, in which you are suddenly seeing the same world in an entirely different way. This experience is an interruption in the normal flow of time, and it is a shift to what I have already characterized as a different “quality” of experience. It communicates nothing in words. You simply seem to see the truth of things at a higher, or deeper level. And the experience carries a “quality of profundity.” In other words, when you have the experience it carries an ineffable, but unmistakable “feel of truth.” If the experience could speak, it would say “This is it: this is how things really are.”

Again, the experience I am speaking of is usually very, very brief. And, just as in the case of the hallucination, we tend to simply dismiss it. The reasons we do so, in fact, are very similar, though subtly different. In the case of the hallucination, we dismiss a sensory event because it does not fit in with the steady flow or overall pattern of sense experience. In the case of the fleeting, small-scale mystical experience, the event is dismissed because it seems to convey an interpretation of the real that is completely out of keeping with our ordinary interpretation. If we were to stay with what the experience seems to say to us about reality, it would necessitate a radical shift in how we relate to what is present to us, at least for a few minutes – but for most of us, even those few minutes are intolerable.

To illustrate this, let’s take the first example I gave above: I am handling a small stone, and suddenly I have the strange intuition that for the first time I am realizing that this is. Such a realization constitutes a fundamental change of focus from how we usually relate to objects. Ordinarily, our relation to objects is utilitarian. I pick up the stone, say, because I want to skip it across the lake – because I’m competing with my friends to see who can do it best. So, the stone simply becomes a tool; something to use for some practical purpose. But if I pick up the stone and am suddenly struck with wonder by the fact that this thing exists, this is an entirely different way of relating to the stone. If I were to stay with this feeling and with the thought to which it leads – presumably: the fact that things are is something that should occasion wonder – I would immediately lose interest in skipping stones. I would be immediately removed (mentally, not physically) from my surroundings, and my whole manner of relating to the world would change, at least for a while.

For most people, this is strange and uncomfortable. The feeling of wonder may be in some sense pleasurable and satisfying, but is also powerfully discomfiting to many. And imagine what would happen if I tried to stay with this moment, to really look at this stone and stay with this intuition of its existence, instead of skipping it across the lake. Well, as the seconds tick by my friends would stand there expectantly, waiting for me to skip the stone, wondering why I am frozen there, staring at it. If still more seconds tick by there is the danger they will think me . . . odd. And so there are powerful influences at work that pressure us not to stay with this moment. To do so would both upset our well-established, conventional sense of the real, of what life is about – and risk ostracism. There is also very little chance that most people will return to the experience later, in thought, and ask themselves what it meant. For when we try to interpret what is being conveyed by the experience, it is, again, always something at odds with how we have been taught to orient ourselves toward the real.

So, these sorts of experiences happen to us now and then – but they are brief, and we usually quickly dispense with them, and do not return to them. Do you recognize yourself in any of what I have said? Have you ever had an experience that seemed in any way like the ones I have described? If so, you have had mystical experiences and simply did not know it. Sometimes these experiences do stay with us. In other words, we move on from them quickly – but we don’t forget them. And perhaps we may recall them from time to time, but the recall may not really lead to anything. Now and then, we remember this strange event and how it seemed to crack open our ordinary experience of things. Perhaps we wonder, or shudder a bit – then we promptly return to our ordinary life.

My mother had such a tale to tell. She thought of herself as a religious person, though she was far from devout and considered religious observance more of a social duty than anything else. She was very close to her father, and suffered greatly when he died. Shortly after the funeral, my mother found herself standing in her parents’ backyard, near the end of the day. Her eyes were attracted by the setting Sun, its orange glow shining through the trees. In just that moment, she told me that she suddenly felt suffused by a strong sense of peace. She had the intuition, which did not come in the form of words, that everything was as it should be, that everything was right. Then the experience passed away, and she returned to the house and to her family. The experience lasted only a few seconds, but she remembered it vividly for years. It may have been the one thing in her life that convinced her of a cosmic order – what she simply would have called God.

Experiences of the kind I am describing happen even to hardened skeptics. They usually dismiss them, of course, with some kind of materialistic explanation. Some glitch in the brain, they conclude. Nothing to get excited about. Certainly no reason to think any differently about the world or ourselves. No reason to question our assumptions. Their appeal to what they consider “science” (in reality, a dogmatic and ill-founded materialism) provides them with an interpretation that is at least as comforting – for them – as the faith of a Christian. Of course, there are also some people who are just mystically tone deaf: not only are they skeptics, they really never have had an experience of the kind I have described, and can’t even begin to understand what I am talking about.[1] [2]

Hopefully, however, the foregoing has convinced most of my readers that, yes, they have had a mystical experience; that some experiences they formerly did not think of as “mystical” really do qualify. Still, at this point some might wish for a definition of “mysticism.” Perhaps because they might believe that using such a definition as a criterion would be a sure way to decide whether we have had mystical experiences. The trouble with this, however, is that all discussion of “mysticism” really must begin with the “mystical experience.”[2] [3] “Mysticism” is notoriously difficult to define, and the basic reason for this is stated openly by many mystics themselves: This is something that really cannot be put into words. And the root reason for this is that mysticism, as a form of thought or body of ideas, has its basis in the ineffable mystical experience.

All mystical writings are attempts to put into words the realizations that someone has had from mystical experience. Now, I am aware that not all mystical writers actually speak of their experiences (e.g., Meister Eckhart) – but I would maintain, nonetheless, that mysticism, as writings or teachings, is impossible without some basis in mystical experience. That experience could be anywhere on the “spectrum” we discussed earlier. But mysticism without at least some mystical experience is, so far as I can see, unthinkable. Of course, the trouble with mystical experience is that it itself is unthinkable, or at least unspeakable – again, as the mystics continually tell us. There is a great deal of irony in the fact that so much ink has been spilled trying to describe the indescribable – an irony that has not been lost on many, including those who would simply dismiss mysticism.

Of course, oceans of ink have also been spilled trying to describe love – even though that emotion is probably indescribable and indefinable; we truly know it only when we experience it. But nobody thinks that all the poetry and prose that has been produced on love is therefore complete hogwash, and a waste of time. (And certainly nobody thinks that if we can’t define love it doesn’t exist.) Rather, we find that the great poets do indeed capture something about love – they do indeed approach the reality of it. What they say resonates with us, even though what they say never perfectly captures love, just because no verbal formula ever could.

Skeptics’ objection to mysticism is that mystics contradict themselves – to such a degree that we can even speak of a “logic of contradiction” in mysticism. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us that Brahman “sees without seeing . . . hears without hearing . . . thinks without thinking.” Mystics like Eckhart and Cusa tell us that God is both “transcendent and immanent,” “distinct and indistinct,” “maximum and minimum” – and neither. A first step toward understanding why mysticism (East and West) contains such paradox is simply to recognize that it is always an attempt to express in words an experience that is beyond words; an experience of “something” that is beyond all familiar categories. Hence, all descriptions fail.

Skeptics also reject mysticism because mystics claim to be describing One Reality, but they do not agree with each other. The differences between mystics are partly a reflection, again, of the inherent impossibility of capturing the mystical “something” in words. But they are also the result of pre-existing beliefs and cultural peculiarities. For example, a Christian mystic is inevitably going to interpret his experience of the ineffable as having something to do with Jesus Christ. A Hindu mystic will arrive at a very different interpretation.

Julius Evola provides us with another example of differences in mystical interpretation – one with which my readers may be familiar. In Introduction to Magic and elsewhere, Evola rejects “mysticism” and terms his own path “initiation.” He also sometimes refers to the former as the “wet (or humid) way” and the latter as the “dry way.” According to Evola, mysticism is all about yearning to be swept away by an ineffable Absolute; submerging one’s existence in the Other. By contrast, initiation is about identification with the Absolute – it is a path of transforming oneself into the Ultimate Power; essentially, it is a path of self-deification.

Now, Evola has correctly identified two real and contrasting paths. But his terminology is arbitrary. My use of “mysticism” is simply broader than his: I would describe the “wet way” and “dry way” as two varieties of mysticism. The two ways identified by Evola are, in fact, perfect illustrations of how mystical experience provokes conflicting interpretations. To see this, let us consider the claim made in Vedanta, tat tvam asi (you are it!). We can also express this in the formula “Atman = Brahman.” Suppose we have an experience of this – meaning an experience in which suddenly I feel that I am identified with the Ultimate. When we come away from the experience, how we subsequently interpret it is going to involve differences of emphasis.

To put it in the simplest possible way, we arrive at the interpretations known as the “wet way” and the “dry way” depending upon which side of the = sign we emphasize in “Atman = Brahman.” Do I interpret the experience as meaning that the Ultimate really is me (Brahman = ATMAN), or as meaning that I really am the Ultimate (i.e., an appearance of the Ultimate; Atman = BRAHMAN)? The first interpretation is an experience of self-deification: I am God (the “dry way”). The second is an experience of the cancellation of my little self, and absorption into the great Ultimate (the “wet way”).

However, one can see that the move from one to the other is really a kind of “Gestalt switch.” (Is it a rabbit, or is it a duck? Is it a vase, or is it two people facing each other?) What determines whether one inclines to the “wet way” or the “dry way”? It probably has a great deal to do with personal character. And it almost certainly has something to do with one’s sex. The “dry way” is pretty much exclusively dominated by men, and women’s mysticism is wholly and entirely “wet.” (Medieval female mystics constantly wrote about yearning for Christ as for a lover, yearning to be penetrated by “the beloved,” longing to lose themselves in Him, etc.)

The “wet way” and the “dry way” are simply two ways of talking about the same exact thing, with different types of people preferring two different sets of interpretive categories. Which interpretation is “correct”? Both. And neither. The same can be said for all mystical teachings. All are correct. And none. The mystics are really at their most honest, and closest to truth, when they simply say “this cannot be said.”

But we find this disappointing. We want the texts of mysticism to communicate a full-bodied truth to us. Ultimately, however, all they can really do, by way of their strangeness and paradoxical reasoning, is put our minds into a state of confusion, a feeling of the utter futility of language and conventional logic. This can serve to point us beyond our ordinary experience to something else. In short, the writings or teachings prepare the ground. For what? For the mystical experience, which is the only true means of understanding.

Our disappointment with mystical texts rests on a misunderstanding. It tacitly assumes that words and accounts are the only way in which truth can be communicated. But the whole point of mysticism, really, is that mystical experience is another mode in which truth can be reached. Other human modes of truth-seeking include poetry, myth, music, painting, sculpture, drama, philosophy, and science.

Even though most of us (as I hope I have now convinced you) have had mystical experiences, we usually think of “the mystic” as someone who has them more often. But sometimes this is not the case: Sometimes the mystic is a man (or woman) who is grabbed by one experience and seeks to live the rest of his life in the light of it. What does this mean? It could possibly mean to interpret it again and again – perhaps to interpret it to death. But it could also mean to replicate the openness that is a precondition of mystical experience in the first place. Simply put: If we had not been somehow open or receptive at the time, no mystical experience would have occurred. If the mystic is smart enough to recognize this, and to find some way to till this soil a bit, then the likelihood of further mystical experiences increases. (This is the esoteric purpose of prayer.)

Given all the foregoing, however, the reader may be surprised when I say that the real point of the mystical life is not to have mystical experiences. It is to live in the light of the truth that one has glimpsed. The point of the mystical life is not to have multiple, peak experiences of “awakening”; it is to live life fully awake. It is to put oneself into a state that lives with the truth, a truth which is only briefly glimpsed in the mystical experience. Obviously, this state of living with the truth is not a constant mystical experience. This would be like thinking that the purpose of life is to achieve an uninterrupted orgasm.

We can begin to live the mystical life by catching ourselves when we have small-scale mystical experiences, of the kind I have described. And the good news is that we can make them more likely, through putting ourselves into that state of openness or receptivity discussed a moment ago. But how does one do that? Well, here we arrive at one of the greatest paradoxes of the mystics, which seems calculated to turn the impatient and the skeptical away from the path permanently. The answer is that it must be through a doing that is no doing at all; an acting that is not acting. And how do you do that? You don’t.


[1] [4] Probably the only way such people may ever have mystical experiences is through the use of psychedelic drugs – which do, in fact, guarantee an experience of the kind I have described. Of course, even a dramatic drug experience can be dismissed by skeptics as merely a “hallucination” – hence the question-begging term “hallucinogens.” The choice of terminology we face here – “hallucinogens” vs. “psychedelics” – points to competing phenomenological descriptions. One set of individuals interpret their experience on, say, LSD, as “hallucinations”; i.e. as false. But the same data could just as well be interpreted as affording us deeper insight into the fundamental nature of reality. Why should we automatically assume that the experience is “deceptive,” as opposed to an indication of some important truth? The only reason for rejecting such an interpretation is the recognition that what is experienced in the “trip” does not cohere with ordinary experience, and commonsense metaphysics. Obviously, such a reaction – whether it comes from a “scientist” or from an “ordinary person” – is motivated simply by fear and conformism.

[2] [5] Yes, I am aware that many scholarly discussions of “mysticism” do not begin this way. My point is that they should.