Mystical Experiences

AIPR Information Sheet: Mystical Experiences

The mystical experience is a state of consciousness defined by a sense of unity or oneness with the Universe, overwhelming ecstasy and feelings of love, insight, and (sometimes) a sensed presence of a personal God. It is said to be the core spiritual experience underlying all religions (2,3,6,16). It is a central concern of transpersonal psychology. Mystical experience plays a role in many aspects of human experience: personal growth, mental illness, healing, scientific discovery, artistic creativity, intuition, psychic phenomena, the origin of certain historical events, and religious conversion.

Mysticism refers to beliefs about mystical experience. So many religious, philosophical and occult interpretations of the experience exist that the underlying meaning is often obscured. From early times, the term was associated with mystery teachings and secrecy (17).

Mystical experience occur in all cultures and may be similar, or related to: nirvana (Buddhism); samadhi (Yoga); (Zen); tao; pure consciousness (TM); enlightenment; illumination; God-realisation; cosmic consciousness (Bucke) (2); Kingdom of God, grace, and the holy spirit (Christians); ultraconsciousness (Dean); oceanic feeling (Freud); individuation (Jung); inner light (Quakers); and observing self (Deikman) (5).

The pathway leading from nature to humanity to divinity (mystical experience) has been called: perennial philosophy (15B); primordial tradition (24); and the “Great Chain of Being” (Lovejoy).

Reports are common from shamans in tribal societies. The Dreamtime beliefs of the Australian Aborigines describe mystical experiences mixed with mythology (15A).

The mystical experience is defined by a sense of oneness with the Universe, ecstasy, love and insight.


Feelings of oneness, ecstasy, and insight are almost universal (non-theistic mysticism, as reported by Hindus and Buddhists). At times, these features are combined with a sensed presence of a personal God (theistic mysticism, as reported by Christians and Moslems) (26A). Superimposed are socially determined features, which depend on the temperament, education, religious belief and cultural setting of the mystic. The mystical experience is like but distinct from: near-death experiences (the NDE); drug and psychotic states; dissociation states; and vivid autonomous imagery. Hood’s Mysticism Scale, when given to 300 students, isolated two factors: an “experience” factor (unity, spaceless, timeless, inner subjectivity, ineffability), and a factor interpreted as the joyful, religious feeling of the experience (14).

Typical features include:

Oneness. There are two gradational types. External (extroversive: merging of self with nature, music or other persons (“God is the Universe”). Internal (introversive): higher level merging of self with “inner world”, or pure awareness (” I and all living beings are God”).

Ecstasy, well-being and healing. A popular definition of mysticism is “wisdom found through love” (17). However, about 10% of the experiences produce trauma. The experience has therapeutic value: its induction, for example, by hypnosis, may relieve pain.

Increased insight. Greater creativity, charisma, and sense of purpose (renewal); loss of fear of death; revelation of the secrets of the universe. However, this revelation is not infallible. Converting the insight into words is subject to interpretation error.

Perception of light. An intense white light that pervades everything. More rarely, intense sharply defined colours are seen, including black.

Uplifted perception. Transcendence of space and time; ineffability (defies description); feelings of levitation and out-of-body states.

Self validating. The experience has its own meaning (reality). The mystic feels no need to explain it.

Physiological. Slow or fast breathing and heart beat.

Psychic phenomena. ESP, out-of-body experiences (OBEs), visions, prophetic voices, etc., are often associated, though not always.


Most mystical experiences come suddenly, unexpectedly, and last only minutes (8,9,18). The less intense plateau experience lasts much longer (21). In a few mystics, this state is almost continuous. Preparatory steps may trigger an experience. The trigger is superimposed on some background (perhaps personality) influence. Triggers can be either internal (psychological) or external (social support, or symbolic objects). Examples are (12,15,18,19):

State of relaxation and believing. Meditation; fantasy; beautiful experiences (nature; music; poetry); prayer; religious settings (church, shrine); creativity; autohypnosis; mediumship or channelling trance.

Sensory deprivation. Solitary confinement; dreams; sleep/awake interface; hypnosis; “highway hypnosis” (while driving).

Sensory overload and emotional arousal. Rhythmic drumming (shamans); frantic music and dancing (such as the whirling dervishes); religious revival meetings; brainwashing; fatigue; anger; faced with death (with or without a near-death experience).

Physiological changes. Over/under breathing; fasting; dehydration; fever; fatigue; drugs (especially anaesthetic or psychedelic). These methods can be dangerous.

How widespread?

Laski recognised the reality of the phenomenon from her small study (18). She then recognised that minor mystical experiences are very common and have a profound social effect (19). Religious experiences are reported by 30-65% of the population (1,8,9,11,25), but only 8-30% actually felt oneness (9,10,18). In one study, 34% of the sample reported intense spiritual experiences, but only 2% out of the 34% reported “oneness”, the rest were equally divided between “psychic” and “church consolation experiences” (no spiritual elements) (25).

Laski recognised that minor mystical experiences are very common and have a profound social effect.


The proposed models overlap and offer different levels of explanation. The most reductionist model is listed first.

1. Neurophysiological

Mystical experience is produced by under-arousal or over-arousal of the brain (7), Both paths may consist of discrete, perhaps progressive, steps; but both eventually produce oneness.

Hypo-arousal (meditation path)

Lessened arousal produced by meditation. Fischer (7) recognises steps from relaxation, meditation and trance states to oneness. This path is followed by yogis. The kundalini method sometimes produces rebound into hyper-arousal. The two main meditation methods are: onepointedness (focussing on a single target, for example, chanting a mantra) and mindfulness (being open and attentive to all thoughts and sensations).

Hyper-arousal (hallucination path)

Heightened arousal (euphoria), from chanting, dancing, anger, etc. Fischer (7) recognises steps from creative, anxiety, “hyperphrenic” and ecstatic states to oneness.

The Fischer model of progressive steps has not, in practice, been accepted as valid.

If the mystic cannot cope with hyper-arousal, a psychotic state can eventuate (20,27,32). The mystical experience may partly explain some types of schizophrenia. Four gradational types may exist: mystical experience with psychotic features; psychotic with mystical features; and psychotic experience (20).

Consciousness is a spectrum or hierarchy of successive levels.

Each level includes all lower levels.

2. Holographic model

Neurophysiologist Karl Pibram states that mystical experiences tap into a holographic universe transcending space and time (22,30). Memories may be distributed over the cortex as a hologram: an interference pattern of light waves that reproduces a 3-D image. The whole memory image can be reconstructed from any part of the hologram. A more precise model is a multiplex (patch) hologram: data is gathered in strips and then integrated into a complete 3-D image. This type uses normal white light instead of laser light, and it captures movement. The memory image (hologram) is a complex pattern of light, movement and sound waveforms. It can be resolved into a simpler set of waveforms (frequencies). A frequency domain is spaceless and timeless, and synchronistic (in the Jungian sense).

Psychologists in general have not accepted a holographic memory model, as it did not live up to early promise (1A). The term “frequency domain” as used by Pibram need not refer to a separate timeless, spaceless reality. The link is only analogical and has little explanatory power (29,30).

3. Spectrum model

Most transpersonal psychologists and mystics believe the experience reflects a higher reality. Consciousness is a spectrum or hierarchy of successive levels beyond the personal construction of the individual mind (23,24,28,29,31,32). Each level includes, and is more inward-looking and indescribable, than all lower levels. A developing child evolves to a higher level, as is human consciousness in general. Thus, the proportion of people have mystical experiences should be increasing.

Formulations vary, though three broad levels are recognised, corresponding roughly to body, mind and spirit, or nature, humanity and divinity.

Pre-personal level. This level consists of the physical body, including body sensations, perceptions and emotions and associated mythic structures.

Personal (mental) level. Most Western psychologists deal only with personal levels of consciousness, that is, normal waking consciousness. Christians speak of “mind” and a higher “soul”. Rowan (23) includes peak experiences (21), being in touch with “pure energy”, getting in touch with oneself (centre of awareness).

Transpersonal level. These are also called transcendent or superconscious levels; universal self; oversoul; spirit (by Christians). Possible sub-levels include (23,28):

Psychic. The start of transcendence. Manifests as psychic phenomena such as ESP, apparitions and out-of- body experiences. Called siddhis by yogis (13).

Subtle. Being in touch with an inner teacher or “higher self” in the form of a guardian angel, spirit guide, or “archetype”. In Islam or Christianity, the sense of being in touch with a personal God.

Causal or Unmanifest. Archetypes and personal God no longer manifest. The “ego” merges into a formless radiance or void. Christians do not recognise complete merging. Instead, they refer to an omnipotent God, beatific vision, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Holy Trinity, that is, the union of Father (God), Son (Jesus) and Holy Ghost (Spirit) into one Godhead.

Ultimate. Called Nirvana (Buddhism); Brahman-Atman (Hinduism); the One (Plotinus); Universal Mind; Godhead. The individual self merged with the Void. Individual consciousness ceases to exist. Buddhists teach that Nirvana is reached by meditation (the 8-fold path), by which all desires and cravings are removed. Some yogis say that when kundalini (psychic energy stored at the base of the spine) rises into the brain, the individual merges with the universal self, producing God-realisation (13).

This model suggests that psychic experiences lie at the crossroads between normal conscious experiences and mystical experiences. Intuition can be modelled as a brief glimpse into the transpersonal level (26).

Critiques of the spectrum model are discussed by Rothberg (22A). Not everyone agrees that a unitary mystical experience underlies all religions, in particular the personal/impersonal distinction. Philosophical objections relate to the truth and value of hieratical structures of reality levels. Non-hierarchical models can be thought of as complementary to hierarchical ones.

Case histories

Many well-known persons have had mystical experiences, though documentation of the earliest cases is poor.

Christian leaders Moses; Ezekiel; Isaiah; Jacob; Jesus (Christ); Paul; John (Revelations); St Augustine; Francis of Assisi; Teresa of Avila; John Yepes (John of the Cross).

Other religious leaders, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha); Mohammed; Ramakrishna; Yogananda; Aurobindo; Ramana Maharishi; Muktananda.

Scientists and philosophers. Plotinus; Rene Descartes; Blaise Pascal; Emanuel Swedenborg; Richard Bucke; Carl Jung; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; Abraham Maslow.

Writers, Alfred Tennyson; Dante; William Blake; Honore Balzac; William Wordsworth; Walt Whitman; Laurens van der Post.

Others. Jacob Boehme; Henry Vaughan; Helen Keller; Richard Bach (“Jonathon Livingston Seagull”); Buckminster Fuller; Charles Lindburgh (aviator); Arthur Koestler; Mahatma Ghandi; Dag Hammarskjold.


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