What is a mystical experience?

“I was floating on the ocean and then something just changed. I lost the sense of me being separate from things and just became joined in this beautiful oneness with the ocean, sky and wind. There was no sense of time … just this huge, eternal expanse. It was amazing.” I work as a psychotherapist and this was the response of a client, Derek, when I asked him how he developed his personal spiritual beliefs. Like many people today, he didn’t refer to a religious text or philosophy. Instead, he spoke of an experience that gave him an insider’s view into spirituality.

Throughout the ages, mystics and holy men and women from both Eastern and Western traditions have described such mystical experiences. We could therefore be tempted to assume that such states belong only to exalted spiritual practitioners, however this is not the case. Researchers into mystical experiences have found that about a third of people report having experienced them at least once in their life. These people aren’t mystics. They’re not necessarily religious. They’re ordinary people from all walks of life.

Experiencing mystical states is therefore much more prevalent than we might think, which leads to an obvious question: why are such experiences kept so hidden? Why don’t people speak about such things? When clients talk to me about these experiences, they either wait until they’ve checked out where I stand on spiritual ideas, or they preface their stories with “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but…” or “I know this is silly, but…”. It seems it’s not comfortable or safe for people to talk about such things.

Researchers have discovered that people tend not to speak about these experiences to anyone — not to friends or even partners. You’d think that such amazing stories would be shared, but people are very reluctant to speak about them for fear of embarrassment or shame. They also fear being misunderstood, ridiculed or considered a freak. However, if a third of the population has had such experiences, it would be difficult to consider them freakish!


Hidden mystics and cultural taboos

“I work in a high-powered corporate environment. There’s no way I’d let on about any of this stuff. I’d be out of a job in a second.” This was one of Derek’s reasons for not talking about his experience. Another client, Elise, had a different reason: “Are you kidding? I’m a scientist. I analyse data. I use logic, reason. What sense am I supposed to make of this? I don’t even believe it happened myself.”

A major reason why we may be reluctant to accept mystical experiences is that our culture is still very scientific and materially based. Spiritual or mystical experiences tend to be scorned because they don’t fit the current scientific view. Of course, healthy scepticism is not all bad, and the current rise of religious fundamentalism is a reminder that we need to tread carefully in matters spiritual. However, the people who’ve experienced mystical states are not necessarily religious; nor do they want to turn their experiences into dogma. What often happens is simply that the experience gives them a quiet confidence in the realisation that there is more to the world than meets the eye. It gives them access to a bigger picture.

The materialistic world view has actually led to a very small picture that is extremely human-centric. It protects us from facing the sacred dimension of experience. The word sacred refers to that aspect of reality that is far greater than the human realm. After a mystical experience, we may have to face up to the existence of something far greater than ourselves. As in Elise’s case, this can be uncomfortable.

It can be so difficult to explain or integrate a mystical experience that some people “forget” the experience until they are reminded of it through a crisis or therapy. It’s as if the human mind is a computer that just can’t process the information, so it shunts it off into some forgotten file in the unconscious. This occurs because a mystical experience can be very overwhelming. It’s like trauma in some ways. Our system can get overloaded with so much new information coming in all at once that we just can’t digest it. Instead, we block out the experience.

Many of us value being in control of life, and culturally we’re encouraged to manage our life competently. A profoundly joyous mystical state, however, is definitely beyond our control; it is therefore not necessarily a welcome addition to our life experience. In ages past, there were Dionysian and other rites where ecstasy was cultivated through religious ritual, however our culture today makes no such space for these things. Certain altered states (for example, alcohol induced) are socially sanctioned, but ecstasy? No way!

Clients have told me that they consider their mystical experiences to be special or sacred and therefore want them treated with respect. They don’t want them spoiled by the negative reactions of others, so they prefer to remain quiet about them. Also, talking too much about something can make it become mundane, so this is another reason for discretion. In addition, the experiences are so far out of the realm of normal experience that they are actually difficult to convey; often words can’t begin to describe them.


The experiences

Researchers have found that people begin to remember their mystical experiences when they realise it’s acceptable to have them. Without someone in authority validating them, these experiences may remain hidden. Imagine how we could benefit as a culture if such experiences were supported and affirmed.

So what are these experiences actually like? They’re not the type of experiences evoked during retreats and guided visualisations. They’re not about contact with your angels or your higher self. In fact, mystical experiences break down any sense of self and they take your being into a realm beyond intellectual comprehension.

There’s a variety of different sorts of mystical states, so it may help to describe some of the experiences people have related to me. They all involve connection with a profound reality underpinning all of existence. As you read them, you can compare them with your own experience, or they may indeed remind you of an experience you’d forgotten.

Most of these people describe some sense of union — the universe as a single, connected consciousness. There is no sense of good or bad and no sense of time. They feel connected with eternity. Joel, for example, said he felt “connected to a massive force that was boundless, eternal and timeless”. Mary described a pillar of light that came down upon her; she said it gave her an absolute certainty in God. Many of these people use the word “God” to describe what they experience, but they are always quick to explain that they don’t mean a religious God. It’s just that it’s the only word they can think of to describe the incredible nature of something that contains the whole universe.

“I ended up on my knees and looked out the window and everything seemed to be lit up … in this state I could see a glowing, light-filled, joyous essence that was vibrating from things. I just knew that somehow existence was good. And there was this love that was enfolding and all-encompassing,” said Tanya.

“I could see that the physical world is just an illusion. It was like peeking behind everything, every mask that ever existed,” described Raymond, who went on to say that he felt he was connecting with some force that was like a spirit of the land and getting some sense of the consciousness that resides in the natural world. “It’s not empty, but alive with its own consciousness.”

When people experience such things, they describe feeling bliss, rapture, reverence and awe. They may hear celestial music, feel vibrations running through their body or drop to the floor overwhelmed. The experience can be so powerful that they describe it as being ecstasy in the true sense of the word — not like the pill some people take! Afterwards, they are left with a sense of grace or blessing, and harmony or serenity. Jackie described it as “a stillness beyond stillness”. People also tell of being left with a sense of knowing about love or connectedness in a way that is beyond the intellect. It’s an embodied sense of knowing — “something your cells know,” said Jackie.


What causes a mystical state?

Given the amazing nature of mystical experiences, it would be great to know what causes them. Usually they are completely spontaneous and unpredictable. Sometimes, however, such experiences are brought on by times of great stress and change when intense emotions are experienced and life is in transition and chaos. When our ego defences are down, the sacred has a better chance of entering into our consciousness. Echoes of mystical states also commonly occur when we are inspired by nature’s beauty or by art, or when our hearts are open to love.

Although you can’t really make a mystical experience happen, spiritual philosophies nevertheless talk about them as being familiar stages in the journey of spiritual development. They’re like signposts pointing us towards true reality and they can inspire people to continue with their spiritual practices.

So while mystical states are not guaranteed, practices like meditation and yoga can lay the ground for them to occur. The psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) predicted that as Westerners took up the Eastern practices of meditation and yoga, there would be an increase in kundalini awakenings. A kundalini awakening is when spiritual energy curled at the base of the spine begins to rise up the spine, evoking a mystical state of consciousness.


The associated risks

It’s good to keep in mind that spiritual philosophies talk about mystical states as being normal developmental stages, otherwise the experiences can be so magnificent and out of the ordinary that people could be tempted to think they are “special” or “chosen” if they’ve experienced them. They may risk becoming inflated and narcissistic or may even think the experience gives them licence to become a spiritual teacher. A single mystical experience does not qualify one for spiritual leadership.

It’s also important not to become attached to such an experience. This is one reason why spiritual leaders have been careful about when and how they introduce knowledge of such things to their followers, otherwise it can be like an addiction whereby mystical experiences are continuously sought. This would be to miss the whole point of the mystical experience as a beacon to guide and inspire us; we need to find ways to bring this reality into everyday living. A mystical experience will not fix your life — it takes continued work and dedication to do that.

Another concern is that a mystical experience can be difficult to integrate with everyday life. Some people may become open to depression when they see how far short of the mystical vision their life really is. Everyday faults and imperfections can loom large in comparison with the magnificence of the altered state. Alternatively, if the altered state does not fit with the individual’s world view, they may become critical of it and develop a ridiculing attitude towards themselves and others who’ve had similar experiences — a paradoxically negative effect of such a positive experience.


Transformative after-effects

Most people feel a sense of gratitude and reverence for life as a result of the mystical experience. It can bring a sense of magic to life and fill a gap where before there was something missing. These people may feel more creative, inspired and vital for some time afterwards.

For some people it may be a turning point and give a new direction in life. They may gain a sense of meaning and purpose and want to make a contribution to life. Compassion and generosity may begin to replace self-centredness. They might not take things so much for granted and may find joy in simple things.

Mostly, experiencing a mystical state simply gives a quiet confidence that a spiritual aspect of reality does exist; that all is not as the materialists would have us believe. There is also a freedom from religious dogma through having direct access to a spiritual reality that is not part of conventional religious notions. It’s as if an inner glow rests in the background of life, giving a sense of affirmation and confidence that all is OK at some level.


Cultivating a mystical way

The aim is not to cultivate and seek altered states. A mystical state is more like a teacher that can open our consciousness to new ways of experiencing. It’s an inspiration for everyday life. Therefore, it’s important to ground the ecstatic experience in daily life; to hold the mystical understandings while remaining in normal consciousness.

We can practise bringing love and compassion into everyday scenarios. This is no easy task and it takes time — a lifetime, in fact! And you don’t need to have had a mystical experience to do this. Anyone can practise noticing and cultivating compassionate moments in everyday life.

Spiritual practices like meditation and contemplation allow us to turn off the mental chatter. Since ecstasy is definitely not an intellectual state, such practices can prepare our being for this level of reality. Some people’s minds are like a fortress and will definitely need some breaking down before they will allow entrance to any sacred reality. Spiritual practices can also foster a state of surrender. Because mystical states of consciousness are not in our control, being in a state of surrender can make us more receptive to them.

Despite the existence of mystical states, our challenge is to find the sacred and the eternal in everyday life. There’s little point sitting on a mountaintop chasing the mystical experience when there’s work to be done, families to be raised and a world to be transformed. We can all bring a little piece of heaven down to earth!

All names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.


Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne. M: 0417 103 018.



The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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