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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 World’s 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 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.


Posted in: Features, June/July 2014

5 Responses to Mystical Experience

  1. Chester Kirchman June 22, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    City & State
    Orangeville, PA
    Professor McCormick, this is an interesting piece on extroverted and introverted psychological aspects of world unity in religion. It appears you have belief in Carl Gustave Jung’s alchemical view of personal psychology, with mention of the studies.
    Another method of reviewing this unity, is through holism and/or universalism. Although they do not exclude Carl Gustave Jung’s synchronicity, (meaningful personal coincidences), they each look beyond this personal epiphany. Quaker Universalist Fellowship accepts many personal views of spirituality and reality in obtaining a holistic aspect of the world.
    When personal views are considered, from the extroverts and the introverts, we reach a much broader view of the global consciousness as described by many different religions and/or cultures.
    May God be with all of you.

    • Don McCormick July 9, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

      City & State
      Los Angeles, CA
      Jung had a fascinating life. And I like some of the insights Jung has, like how after communion he realized that “the words and acts of this ritual seemed to have no experience behind them.” And how important experience is for a spiritual practice or belief. And his insight into Freud’s reductionistic attitude towards “the higher reaches of the human spirit, whether in a person or in a work of art.” And how Freud lost all authority for Jung when Jung realized that Freud “seemed to place personal authority above loyalty to truth.”

      I also love how Jung “counts experience as more important by far than any conceptual system” and how he pits “knowledge” in opposition to “understanding.”

      However, I also agree with Ken Wilbur’s critique of Jung. I mean, Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s teachings really do seem to get trapped in the level of symbols and myth. Although psychologically, aesthetically and existentially rewarding, remaining lost in the wonderful intricacies and subtleties of this level is a bit of a spiritual dead end as far as I can tell. I agree with Wilbur that this is not the same as the level of mysticism. Perhaps because Jung so valued experience and based his psychology on it so much, he could not present a psychology of human development that transcended his own development. And, as Wilbur points out, “Freud was not Buddha; Buddha was not Freud. Trust me.” Neither was Jung, it appears.

      Also, the way that Jung treated some of his female patients was appalling. I feel that I also must remark on Jung’s sexist idea that “a woman’s consciousness tends to be exclusively personal and centered upon her own family, the man’s is made up of various worlds, of which his family is only one.” In an online class discussion of Jung, a brilliant student of mine, Marie-France Boisselle, wrote “Many teachers, both men and women, trained in the male-centered tradition, are still handing the ideas and texts of that tradition on to students without teaching them to criticize their anti-woman attitudes, its omission of women as part of the species.” In discussing Jung, I feel obligated criticize Jung’s anti-woman behavior and attitudes.

      Archetypically yours,

      Don

  2. Kevin Plunkett July 21, 2014 at 7:57 pm #

    City & State
    Atkinson
    Interesting article by by Don McCormick. I approach it as a lifelong lover of mystic literature and experience, though unaffiliated with any sect, but most knowlegeable about Christian and Buddhist traditions. Several observations in way of contributing to the dialogue. To approach mysticism from a logical/intellectual direction, of necessity, requires one to use language in a fashion totally incompatible with mystic language, Not only is the mystic experience ineffable, but at its highest expression creates a whole new conceptualizing of language as seen in great mystics like Jacob Boehme and Meister Eckhart, who use words in highly unusual ways, verbally recreating the mystic act, and functioning largely on subconscious levels, collapsing preexisting ego structures.. Which leads to my final point–this succinct overview for all its insights, ignores the frightening a bewildering aspects of the most intense visions–what Teresa described as a spear driven through her heart from God.

    • Don McCormick July 21, 2014 at 10:35 pm #

      City & State
      Los Angeles CA
      I have a lot of questions and responses, but I will limit my self to just a couple questions and one response.

      “To approach mysticism from a logical/intellectual direction, of necessity, requires one to use language in a fashion totally incompatible with mystic language,”
      I’m not sure what you mean by “mystic language.” Some mystics use a scientific, or precise language. Other mystics use a poetic language. Maybe you could say more.

      This next sentence really confuses me. Perhaps you can clarify some of it for me. I’ll just take the first part. “Not only is the mystic experience ineffable, but at its highest expression…”
      Could you say a little more about what you mean by the “highest expression” of mystic experience? When I think of various mystics, I’m not sure that I could determine that the expression of someone like Meister Eckhart is a higher or lower expression of mysticism than, say, the Buddha, Sasaki Roshi, or Ram Dass.

      “Which leads to my final point–this succinct overview for all its insights, ignores the frightening a bewildering aspects of the most intense visions–what Teresa described as a spear driven through her heart from God.”
      You are right about this. My article pays little attention to visions, as they for the most part constitute a conceptually different part of the psychology of religion (and of theology) than mysticism. Also, teachers in introverted mystical traditions, many forms of Buddhism for example, often recommend that people on the mystic path avoid getting caught up in visions or supernatural phenomena, pointing out that these can become strong distractions from transformative, introverted mystical experience.

  3. mstair October 17, 2015 at 8:31 am #

    City & State
    charlotte, nc
    “Paul, from his unique mystical perspective, saw a “new” form of creation. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 tells us that the exciting part of the experience is that the old passes away and the new begins the moment one begins to live in Christ! From our physical perspective, we may not yet see it but Paul assures us it is the ever-present reality. Therefore, Paul regarded no one from a human point of view. What did he see when he considered another human? Did he see or sense a soul or a person’s spirit?
    ”

    Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “The World’s Favorite Bible Verses.” MS Peabooks, 2013. iBooks. https://itun.es/us/8lbRJ.n

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