There is one particular state of consciousness that can change your life forever.
This holy moment can only be described as “ecstatic” in that your connection to life expands significantly.
In this profound state of being, you feel that life is full of beauty and sacredness – yet this feeling is not subjective, but is instead an objective phenomenon that is outside your personal self. Theologian Rudolf Otto called this experience “numinosum.” But in this article, we’ll refer to it as the mystical experience.
All throughout history, the mystical experience has been referred to as a “religious” or spiritual experience, where the few mystics that recorded their experiences reported it as a rapturous and undifferentiated sense of joyful Unity with all of existence.
In a previous article, I wrote about the experience of “Kenosis,” a word coined by Christian mystics to describe the state of “divine flowing,” and this closely mimics what it is like to have a mystical experience. In psychology the closest term that captures this mysterious state of being is Abraham Maslow’s description of “Peak Experiences,” and in nature-orientated cultures like the Australian Aborigines, mystical experiences have been called “Dadirri.”
What is a Mystical Experience?
In essence, the mystical experience is a state of being in which the personal ego (or mortal sense of self) merges with the Divine, which is limitless and infinite. Mystical experiences are temporary glimpses into our most sacred and ancient home of Consciousness. Those who undergo mystical experiences often describe feelings of bliss, ecstasy, unconditional love, interconnectedness, and Oneness with all things.
The Candle in the Dark
Perhaps the best way to elaborate the mystical experience might be with an allegory. The ancient Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta has an interesting one:
Imagine that you are in a completely dark room. You’ve been told that in this room lives a very large snake. As you sit in the room, you can see its silhouette and you feel great fear as you contemplate the potential for it to bite you at any moment. But one day there is a flash of light which illuminates the room and you see that what looked like a snake was, in reality, a rope. Although the flash of light was momentary, it gave you a glimpse of the truth. All of a sudden your long-held fear vanished entirely, and your experience of the room was never the same ever again.
This is what a mystical experience feels like: it is like a flash of truth that releases you from your limited sense of self and gives you a taste of a reality that somehow feels more real.
Plato recounts that Socrates had a similar allegory regarding the mystical experience:
Suppose that you’ve been kept chained in a cave all your life. Behind you blazes a fire, and next to you sit a row of other prisoners. All that you and the prisoners know of life is the experience of watching the shadows dancing on the opposite wall to you, and the shared interpretations of what you see. However, by chance one day, one of the prisoner’s chains breaks and he escapes into the outside world. At first, he is confused, overwhelmed, scared, but he also feels an immense sense of expansion, awe, and bliss. He is aware that he is experiencing a larger, more complete and absorbing reality than what he could see within the cave. His natural instinct is to return to liberate his fellow men, but after struggling back into the world of darkness and shadows, his attempt to enlighten his companions is met with ridicule and incredulity as they accuse him of being crazy.
To some degree, we are all prisoners in the cave of our past experiences. Any worldview becomes a cave the moment it is taken for reality.
9 Characteristics of the Mystical Experience
Every person’s mystical experience varies in length and intensity. Have you had a mystical experience? Here are a few defining characteristics:
1. Conscious Unity
The boundaries of where you perceive your individual identity to begin and end completely vanish (otherwise known as ego death). Instead, you’re left with a boundless and infinite union with all that is around you.
2. There Is No Time or Space
With a lack of a definable identity or spatial recognition, your sense of time feels infinite. You go from perceiving time from moment-to-moment as a static individual, to perceiving it as a stream of eternal present moments.
Without time space is endless.
Because your sense of identity is gone, your ability to separate “your” (now non-existent) surroundings into individual “spatial” elements also disappears.
3. Objective Reality
Without a discernible identity comes a sense of greater “objectivity” as though you’re experiencing a much more intricate and profound reality. Everything doesn’t just feel perfect, everything is innately perfect.
Most of your ecstatic feelings stem from an immense sense of gratitude. This gratitude is an overwhelming sense of awe at “your” (now non-existent) insignificance in comparison to the vastness of existence.
5. Life Is Seen As Sacred
In fact, your sense of gratitude is so vast that you feel almost undeserving of having the opportunity to experience such a miracle. You develop a new sense of respect for the sacredness of life that allows you to be here.
6. You Understand Paradox
Our sense of self or identity creates duality in our perception of reality (“I” am separate from “That”). However, the moment this separation disappears, you’re left with a non-dual reality in which your intellect finds paradox after paradox (e.g., something is both light/dark, here/absent, human/divine, limited/eternal). In truly understanding paradox, you experience mind-blowing and expansive realizations.
7. The Experience Is Indescribable
The overwhelming magnitude of emotions and intuitive understanding that you embody makes the attempt to even describe the mystical experience feel limited by language. To try and put words to it feels insulting to the depth of the experience.
8. The Experience Is Temporary
The very nature of a mystical experience is its transience. Eventually, you end up returning back to your habitual way of life, but the experience changes something deep inside.
9. The Experience Is Life-Changing
After experiencing such a state, suddenly death isn’t as scary as it used to be, and the beliefs or ambitions that you once held to be so important immediately lose their meaning. In fact, the mystical experience often awakens a thirst to try to bring as much of that experience back into our regular day-to-day lives as possible. And so begins (or deepens) the spiritual awakening process.
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The Mystical Experience Is Only A Taste
There’s a useful term in the Christian doctrine known as “Grace.” This word basically means that we receive mercy and love from the Divine because it wants us to have it, not because we have done anything to deserve it.
Many people confuse having a mystical/spiritual experience with actually cultivating a spiritual life. To me, however, these experiences are brought by grace, and our appreciation of them is directly proportionate to our development of soulful maturity.
If the grace of a mystical experience is given to a 10-year-old child, they will no doubt enjoy the experience. But the degree in which they absorb it will be much less compared to someone who has undergone maturation – or the deep exploration of their psyche and the ability to live life from the seat of their soul.
For the child, it will be a great experience that will eventually fade and become a distant memory. But for the man or woman who has dedicated his/her life to cultivating soulful maturity, to tilling the soil of the soul, this experience becomes the seed that is prepared to blossom. This might be the very tipping point that leads to the ultimate spiritual awakening – also known as Enlightenment or Illumination, or the permanent shift in consciousness from the individual ego to the infinite Self.
Experiencing spiritual liberation as the goal of the spiritual path is precisely why practicing inner work and committing to the journey of soulful maturity are so crucial.
Without removing the blockages that obscure the Light of our Souls, mystical experiences have no deep or long-lasting impact on us. In other words, they just become extravagant experiences with no real substance. But by learning to integrate the profound realizations that we’ve had access to, we can experience true, long-lasting transformation. Slowly and steadily, we begin to taste the essence of eternity.
Are you interested in learning how to integrate your mystical experience? See our inner work article for more guidance on how to begin this spiritual path.