There is one particular state of consciousness that can change your life forever.
This moment can only be described as “ecstatic” in that you experience your connection to life expand significantly. In this moment you feel that life is full of beauty and sacredness, but this feeling and phenomenon is somehow objective and outside of your individual 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.”
The Candle in the Dark
The best way to describe a 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 is 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 in 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 sits 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; a hole in the hillside. 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 consciousness and identity to begin and end vanish (otherwise known as an 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.
Much of your ecstatic feeling comes 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 which your intellect finds paradoxical in comparison to what it is accustomed to.
7. The Experience Is Indescribable
The overwhelming magnitude of emotions and intuitive understanding you embody makes the attempt to even describe it feel limited by language and 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.
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, but 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 feel the experience but the degree in which they experience it will vary compared to someone who has undergone maturation; the deep exploration of their psyche, and who has learned 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 who has dedicated his life to cultivating soulful maturity; to tilling the soil of his 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.
This is precisely why I emphasize so much the necessity of inner work and the journey of soulful maturity. Without widening the gap through which we connect to Soul, the mystical experience has no deep long-lasting impact on us. But with it, we taste the fragrance and essence of eternity.