If order to figure out who we are, why we are here, and what our purpose is we often end up exploring religion, science, philosophy and spirituality. This quest can teach us a lot of things about what other people have figured out so far. New things are being figured out every single day and sometimes they contradict one another.
We can read and learn as many things as we want but without direct experience it will always be based on another person’s description of an event or finding that they had. That always leave room for doubt. Yes, you can have faith that their description of their experience is true but what if their perception was biased or there were important details that were indescribable or not yet measurable?
Science and our senses can only pick up a limited range of color, sound, and frequency and the idea of accurately being able to transfer emotional and impression data is still beyond most of our grasps even as empathic people.
We are unique and different for a reason. Though our journeys may be similar only you can walk your path and form your own ideas about your experiences.
Let’s take a look at a particular type of experience that is unique and personal while still having themes that are similar when described. This experience often seeds religions and though we aren’t sure what causes it many people are starting to have experiences that are completely changing their perceptions on life.
What is Mysticism and the Mystical Experience?
Mysticism is defined as “a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions.”
The “mystical experience” is an experience that is spiritual and sacred while often being more than just a religious experience. A “religious experience” is a subjective experience that is inside of the framework of the religion.
According to Larson,
“A mystical experience is an intuitive understanding and realization of the meaning of existence – an intuitive understanding and realization which is intense, integrating, self-authenticating, liberating – i.e., providing a sense of release from ordinary self-awareness – and subsequently determinative – i.e., a primary criterion – for interpreting all other experience whether cognitive, conative, or affective.”
Describing the Indescribable
Often times mystical experiences are considered to be beyond words. The terminology that is used in order to describe this rare and unique happening does have some common themes. Researchers recently surveyed hundreds of people and had them describe their personal view of a “mystical experience”.
“We decided to survey the public about their spiritual experiences because the profoundly positive feelings of well-being associated with mystical experiences makes them worthy of scientific investigation,” said senior author of the study Professor Andrew Newberg, M.D. “By analyzing the language of mystical experiences, our study begins to identify shared features of these experiences.”
Dr. Andrew Newburg and his research team studied 777 people who reported having a spiritual or religious experience. Just by analysing the words and the pattern there they discovered that individuals that had mystical experiences, defined by the Death Transcendence Scale, would use words like “one-ness,” “with,” and “everything” when describing their experience.
The same group almost never used religious words such as “religious,” “holy,” “hell,” and “christ.” This leads us to suspect that there is more going on in a mystical experience then religious and cultural conditioning.
This fits Dr Newburgs previous research where he used neuroimaging. There he found that during a mystical experience the regions of your brain that are associated with spatial boundaries are completely altered. This may be because when you are having a mystical experience you feel as though you are no longer in your body. You feel that there is no difference between your arm and the chair you are sitting in. There is no separation between your body and the people around you. It all feels like it is part of one entity.
“We are performing ongoing analyses of this incredible database of spiritual experiences,” Dr. Newberg said. “We hope to learn more about the nature of these experiences, how they are perceived and how they affect people. We also plan to tie this information into what we know about the human brain.”
Direct Experience, Religion, and Spirituality
The example of Reed and his mystical experience analysed by a psychologist.
“After hiking along the sea at dawn on a strenuous trail, Reed found his heart racing with an adrenaline surge. He decided to take it easier and walk aside the water’s edge. As he gazed at the sun rising over the ocean “a sudden expansive feeling of the infinite universe overwhelmed me”. At the same time he felt “fused with the vast ocean and sky..” and this feeling immediately became some thing else; “I began to feel a terror…” and as he later said “the sensation would crush me if it didn’t stop.” Reed’s entire experience “lasted for only a flash”, but it transported him to the outer boundary of his endurance.”
–Kevin Nelson M.D.
The Terror of Oneness Feeling
When people touch the divine sometimes that shock of complete oneness can translate into fear. Instead of being rooted and center they feel completely alone. Sometimes these individuals wonder what reality really is and perhaps that we are all just one big mirror of the ultimate self.
When we don’t have a mystical tradition in our culture we have no framework for what is really happening and since the ego has to completely leave for us to experience the divine, sometimes we also feel like we are dying in the process.
To be very clear, the ego is the tool of the mind in order to experience reality as a separate entity. Without that ego, we only perceive endless connection and become ultra aware of everyone and everything around us. As you can see, the ego is a tool for this experience and without it we can feel completely out of our element until we have had some training in grounding and staying balanced.
In Reed’s case, he had no doubt that he touched the divine. People in mystical experiences don’t experience their ego so they have no doubt what they are experiencing is very real. This feeling combined with feeling ultimate unity was a fast trigger for fear. The way our brains are wired the sense of fear and unity are tightly linked. As we become more completely accepting of ourselves the easier it is to experience unity.
2 Types of Mystical Experience
There are two types of mystical experience, the inner and the outer experience. With the outer or extrovertive mystical experience, like Reed’s, you look outward through your physical senses and there you connect with unity.
The Introvertive mystical experience is where you go completely inside and shut out your physical senses. In this experience, you shut out the outer world and transcend into “pure” consciousness.
Introvertive Mystical Experience Example:
‘One night Frank lay still in bed with his eyes closed and began drifting off to sleep when: “Without any premonition, I became a point of consciousness completely devoid of any physical form.” Although this was only the beginning of his experience, this feeling alone left an indelible mark on Frank, convincing him that he touched the ultimate reality.’
– Kevin Nelson M.D.
Many researchers who have dived deep into the study of mystical experiences, such as master psychologist William James, believe that these experiences are universal for humans. In other words, there are no experiences based on your culture or religion. Though each individual may use his or her religion or culture to explain the experience they are not different depending upon your faith.
Mystical experiences have been recorded in ancient history and began in ancient rituals. This is where neuroscience comes in and points to the primal brain.
The Chemistry of Oneness in your Brain
Prominent neurologist S. Weir Mitchell urged William James to experiment with mescal which is used by indigenous people in the Southwest. James, who is also a doctor, was curious and decided to explore consciousness my embracing “a wider world of being than that of our everyday consciousness”.
Though a mystical experience can ‘just happen’ they can also sometimes be triggered by psychedelics. Neuroscientists use hallucinogens such as psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and mescal to induce experiences that the scientists can them observe using neuroimaging.
They also look at the role of serotonin in the brain because of its role in depression, fear, memory and consciousness itself.
It appears from their research that the mystical oneness experience is translated through a unique quality of serotonin neurochemistry known as serotonin-2a. Our emotional brain, known as the limbic system has serotonin-2a nerve endings. If for some reason there are removed the brain creates the mystical experience similar to LSD.
Are They Real Spiritual Experiences?
Having a mystical experience can dramatically change a person’s life. Even though we have pinpointed how to induce a mystical experience doesn’t change the deep life-changing effects they can have such as treat everyone and everything with love and respect.
James absolutely agreed that the experience was real. “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots”. So in other words, we shouldn’t get caught up in what causes the experience but instead focus on what comes out of them.
How Culture can Shift our Perception of Mystical Experiences.
If we want to understand our experiences we need to look at them from many angles and with as little bias as possible. If you were a Christian when you had your experience you may suddenly believe that you were God in that moment. This would be because of the overwhelming knowledge and connection with everything and your believe that God is that force. This sudden belief may feel confusing and cause a great deal of fear in others.
So the next time you hear someone say that they are a God, understand that it may be because of a personal mystical experience. If they look at the experience closely they may come to see that we are all equally capable of the same oneness connection and are all divine by that definition.
In order to better understand what is really going on, especially for those of you who have been in that place, I am going to leave you with some wisdom from Alan Watts who has spoken a lot about this incredible and life changing experience.
About the Author
Kirsten is a writer who loves to practice vipassana meditation, yoga, travel, and learning about nature, consciousness, and how to make the world a better place. Her current interests involve studying and practicing flow, staying In Flow, and recognizing the natural flow of the universe. Kirsten loves to learn about the holistic healing arts. She is also interested in ancient cultures and practices such as Druidism. Kirsten is honored to be apart of such an incredible movement of love and heart centered living in this world.