Mystical Experience

What the Psychological Research Has to Say

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Prominent twentieth-century Friends such as Howard Brinton and Rufus Jones have argued that mysticism is at the heart of Quakerism. But mysticism and mystical experiences raise many questions: What exactly is a mystical experience? What do they have to do with Quakerism? Do they come from some kind of mental disorder, like hallucinations come from schizophrenia? What triggers them? Is the mystical experience the core of all religions? In teaching courses on the psychology of religion, I’ve discovered that psychological research on mysticism has answers for many of these questions.

Let’s start with the first question: what exactly is a mystical experience? It is difficult to answer that question because the term is so loosely defined; it has come to symbolize a number of poorly defined concepts (one of the many dictionary definitions of mysticism is “vague or confused ideas”). In Friends for 300 Years, Howard Brinton describes mysticism as “a religion based on the spiritual search for an inward, immediate experience of the divine,” a definition which incorporates many different types of mystical experience. The field of psychology, however, reserves the term “mystical experience” for only one of these types, sometimes called a  “unitive mystical experience.” It is a form that shows up in all the major spiritual traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, mystical Christianity, Judaism (Kabbalah), Islam (Sufism), Taoism, Shamanism, etc.—but did George Fox have a unitive mystical experience? We don’t know enough about his experience to tell. This “pure” type of mysticism appears in Quakerism but also transcends it. Brinton wrote in Friends for 300 Years:

Quakerism is peculiar in being a group mysticism, grounded in Christian concepts. If it had been what might be called pure mysticism, it would not belong to any particular religion, nor could it exist as a movement or sect. Pure mysticism is too subjective to provide a bond of union.

Characteristics of Mysticism

The unitive mystical experience has four basic characteristics. The most consistently reported characteristic is the experience of an overwhelming sense of unity, hence the term “unitive mystical experience.” Second, people who have these experiences generally report that the experience is a valid source of knowledge. Third, they say that the experience cannot be adequately described in words (they say it is fundamentally indescribable, and that language can’t really communicate it very well, but once they’ve had this experience, other people’s descriptions suddenly make sense). Fourth, they say that they lose their sense of self. This last characteristic is reflected in Andrew Newberg’s brain scans of Franciscan nuns engaging in centering prayer. The scans show that when their prayer is at its peak, the part of the brain having to do with the sense of self is far less active than usual. The nuns reported that as their sense of self lessens, they feel closer to God.

Types of Mystical Experiences

Beyond these four characteristics of mystical experience, there are two types of unitive mystical experience: extroverted and introverted.

In extroverted mystical experiences, mystics experience unity with whatever they are perceiving. A friend of mine who is a decades-long Zen practitioner told me of an experience he had of looking at the ocean and losing any sense of self—subjectively becoming the ocean. This was extroverted mysticism. Another example comes from an elderly member of our meeting who told me about her experience of merging with the music of a Leonard Bernstein concert that she attended in New York City shortly after World War II. Her experience was far beyond simply being absorbed in the music. There was a very real sense of becoming the music and completely losing any sense of her self as an individual. Much of the quality of the extroverted mystical experience is captured by the eighth-century Taoist poet Li Po in his poem “Alone Looking at the Mountain,” translated below:

All the birds have flown up and gone;
A lonely cloud floats away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
Until only the mountain remains.

Mystics who describe their experience as union with God often include descriptions of unity that contain religious imagery. These are extroverted mystical experiences as well.

Introverted mystical experiences involve no experience of any emotions, thoughts, or perceptions such as sight, sound, emotion, or tactile sensation. Some describe the experience as a void: pure consciousness, white light, unity with the ground of being, and consciousness without an object. The person having this type of mystical experience has no sense of self, of time, or of place. Some say religious mysticism is superior to mystical experience with no sense of God, while others say introverted mysticism (which does not refer to God) is deeper than extroverted mysticism. Years ago, I had an introverted mystical experience and immediately afterward I could not tell whether it had taken place in a fraction of a second or over a period of several hours. It would not be precise to say that “I” experienced a sense of overwhelming oneness because there was no sense of my self at all—there was no “I” to experience anything. There was just oneness.

Triggers of Mystical Experience

Generally, a person’s attention becomes fully absorbed in an experience before it triggers a mystical experience. The more traditional and socially legitimate triggers of mystical experience include prayer, meditation, experiences of nature, church attendance, viewing art, hearing music, and undergoing significant life events such as birth or death.

Less traditional triggers—ones that are less socially legitimate—include sex and psychedelic drugs. One of the best-known research studies of mysticism and psychedelic drugs was conducted at Harvard University and involved dividing a group of divinity students into control and experimental groups. The experimental group received a dose of psilocybin, and the control group received niacin as a placebo. The experimental group reported profound religious experiences. In 2006, a more rigorous version of this experiment was conducted at Johns Hopkins University and produced similar results.

People who have had both meditation-triggered and drug-induced meditative experiences report that the drug experiences are not as profound or meaningful. This may be in part because the spiritual framework associated with a meditation practice helps them to put the experience in a more meaningful context. Research also shows that people who are already committed to a religious tradition who then have a mystical experience tend to become even more intensely committed to that tradition.

Unfortunately, it is very hard to tell what percentage of the public has had a mystical experience because the surveys have used so many different (and inadequate) definitions for mystical experience.

One thing that psychological research has made clear, however, is that mysticism is not an indicator of a psychiatric disorder. People considered “normal” have the same rate of mystical experience as psychiatric patients.

The Universal Core of All Religions?

The question of whether mystical experiences are the core of all religions has split those psychology, philosophy, and religious studies researchers who study mysticism.

On one side are the common core theorists, who celebrate the commonalities between religions and tend to be social scientists or neuroscientists. They argue that the unitive mystical experience is generally the same for all people. Some even go so far as to say that it is the common, core experience in all religions and that different language is used by different religions to interpret it. Aldous Huxley, a nineteenth-century English writer well known for his use of psychedelic drugs, called this idea the perennial philosophy because descriptions of the unitive mystical experience keep emerging in different religions and cultures throughout history. In the field of religious studies, common core theorists are often called perennialists. A well-known perennialist is Huston Smith, author of the best selling book The Worlds Religions and a participant in the Harvard psilocybin study.

On the other side of this controversy are the diversity theorists, who celebrate the differences between various religions and tend to come from the humanities. They lean toward the idea that it is impossible to separate an experience from the language used to describe it, and that the language various religious traditions use to describe the unitive mystical experience differs because their experiences actually are different. They argue that the common core theorists are incorrect when they say that the experience of the unitive mystical experience is the same for everyone and that people just interpret it differently for cultural reasons.

Psychological researchers have attempted to test whether mystical experiences can be separated from cultures and languages. They examined whether the underlying idea of a unitive mystical experience remained the same even when it was measured in many different cultures regardless of whether the measure used neutral language, or referred to God, Christ, Allah, etc.

Diversity theorists point out that while perennialists once dominated the field of religious studies, they now constitute a minority and argue that perennialism works out differences between religions in a manner that appeals to some but that leaves others feeling misrepresented. The philosopher of religion Steven T. Katz feels that perennialism distorts important elements of Jewish mysticism in order to make it more “mutually compatible” with other mystical traditions. In John Horgan’s book Rational Mysticism, Katz is quoted as saying that perennialists “think they are being ecumenical; they’re saying everybody has the same belief. But they are doing injustice to all the people who say, ‘I’m not believing like you do.’” According to Horgan, the Catholic scholar of mysticism Bernard McGinn complains that perennialism “strips Christian mysticism of precisely those religious distinctions that he as a Catholic finds most meaningful.”

An Ultimate Reality or Union with God?

The conflict described above leads us to what is perhaps the most interesting and important question addressed by the psychological study of mystical experience: is there evidence that the experience of unity in the mystical experience may be of a real, objective unity? The standard answer to this question is that psychologists can answer many questions about claims made by mystics but have nothing to say about whether or not their claims are true; that’s a question for theologians to answer.

This, however, is not entirely true. Psychologists can contribute some evidence that may help answer this question. Ralph W. Hood Jr., Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka, the authors of the textbook The Psychology of Religion, point out that it is common for researchers who start out neutral about mysticism to end up believing that it involves the perception of something real. They grow to feel that the unitive mystical experience is not just a subjective experience.

Many people who have mystical experiences describe them as union with God. Others describe them as union with the ground of all existence. This may provide at least some evidence for the reality of what I believe mystics experience: the existence of God or of some unity that underlies existence.

Donald W. McCormick

Donald W. McCormick is a member of Santa Monica (Calif.) Meeting. A professor for 28 years, he taught courses in management and leadership (and occasionally religion). He was a pioneer in the fields of workplace spirituality and mindfulness in the workplace. Currently, he develops mindfulness programs for organizations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Includes audio reading.

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