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 profound Unity with all of existence.
There have been many descriptions of the mystical experience throughout the ages. A few of my favorites are firstly the ancient Greek word and mystical Christian concept of Kenosis, or divine emptying. Such an intriguing word has been used for centuries to describe the state of divine receptivity that closely mimics what it’s like to have a mystical experience.
In psychology, the closest terms that capture this mysterious state of being are Abraham Maslow’s description of “Peak Experiences,” and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow.”
And in nature-orientated cultures like the Australian Aborigines, mystical experiences have been referred to as “Dadirri” – or the deep listening emerging from silent and still awareness.
But in layman’s terms, what is the mystical experience? And of what relevance does it have to the spiritual awakening journey that so many of us are undergoing?
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What is a Mystical Experience?
What is a mystical experience? In essence, the mystical experience is a state of being in which the personal ego (or separate sense of self) merges back into the Divine Self, also known as Source, Consciousness, God, Nondual Awareness, Brahman, or Nirvana.
A few other synonyms of the mystical experience are the Buddhist concept of Satori, the Kundalini awakening, as well as the Western notion of Self-Transcendence and the transpersonal experience.
Mystical experiences are temporary glimpses into our most sacred True Nature.
Those who undergo mystical experiences often describe feelings of bliss, ecstasy, unconditional love, interconnectedness, and Oneness with all things.
The Candle in the Dark (What a Mystical Experience Feels Like)
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.
Ancient Greek philosopher Plato once recounted a similar allegory from his teacher Socrates, which described what the mystical experience feels like and how it impacts one’s life. Below, I’ve loosely paraphrased his intriguing thought-experiment:
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 mental worldview becomes a cave the moment it is taken for “absolute reality.”
9 Characteristics of the Mystical Experience
There are moments of oneness with the Beloved, absolutely ecstasy and bliss. That is nothingness. And this nothingness loves you, responds to you, fulfils you utterly and yet there is nothing there. You flow out like a river without diminishing. This is the great mystical experience, the great ecstasy.– Irina Tweedie, Sufi & teacher
Every person’s mystical experience varies in length and intensity. However, there are a series of characteristics that almost all people who glimpse the Divine share.
If you’re curious to know whether or not you’ve had a mystical experience, you can read the nine characteristics that I’ve defined below:
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
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 the Nature of Paradox
Normally, our sense of egoic self creates a duality in our perception of reality (i.e., “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, beautiful/ugly, etc.). In truly understanding the nature of paradox and how it permeates all of reality, you experience mind-blowing realizations and expansive breakthroughs.
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 such a reality feels insulting to the depth of the experience.
8. The Experience is Temporary
The very nature of the mystical experience (experience being the keyword here), is its transience. Eventually, you end up returning back to your habitual way of life, but the experience changes something deep inside of you.
9. The Experience is Life-Changing
After experiencing such a state of ineffable Divine Truth, suddenly death isn’t as scary as it used to be, and the beliefs or ambitions that you once held to be so important often tend to lose their meaning. In fact, the mystical experience often awakens a deep thirst to try to integrate as much of that experience back into one’s regular day-to-day life as possible. And so begins (or deepens) the spiritual awakening process.
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Go deeper with a mystical experience journaling prompt + printable meditation mandala!
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 or spiritual experience with cultivating a spiritual life. It’s common to think that we can somehow “earn” or “manifest” such profound glimpses into the Divine, when in reality, such experiences are brought about by grace.
Furthermore, our appreciation of such profound experiences is directly proportionate to our development of spiritual 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, the mystical experience will be a great experience that will eventually fade and become a distant memory. But for an adult who has dedicated their life to cultivating spiritual maturity, to “tilling the soil of the Soul,” this experience becomes the seed that is prepared to blossom.
Indeed, such an experience 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 Higher Self.
Inner Work & Soul Work
Experiencing spiritual liberation as the goal of the spiritual path is precisely why practicing inner work (i.e., self-love, inner child, and shadow work) and soul work (i.e., surrender, disidentification with the ego, stillness) are so essential to committing to the journey of spiritual awakening.
Without removing the blockages that obscure our Inner Light, mystical experiences have no deep or long-lasting impact on us.
In other words, such experiences just become extravagant rendezvous with no real substance.
But by learning to integrate the profound realizations that we’ve been given access to, we can experience true and long-lasting transformation. Slowly and steadily, we begin to taste the essence of Eternity.
Have you ever had a mystical experience? What was it like? I’d love to hear about it below!