Mystical Experience: Psychological and Philosophical Context
The term ‘mysticism,’ comes from the Greek μυω, meaning “to conceal.” In the Hellenistic world, ‘mystical’ referred to “secret” religious rituals. In early Christianity the term came to refer to “hidden” allegorical interpretations of Scriptures and to hidden presences, such as that of Jesus at the Eucharist. Only later did the term begin to denote “mystical theology,” that included direct experience of the divine … in general, ‘mysticism’ would best be thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions. [Gellman, Jerome, “Mysticism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy].
Mystical experiences are transcendent encounters with the Divine that, by definition, occur outside the normal course of human existence. They are subjectively reported to us by others, are not directly available to all and do not always take the same form.
The revealed and mystic literature of mankind bears ample testimony to the fact that religious experience has been too enduring and dominant in the history of mankind to be rejected as mere illusion. There seems to be no reason, then, to accept the normal level of human experience as fact and reject its other levels as mystical and emotional.” [Muhammad Iqbal,
How do psychologists and philosophers describe the elements of a mystical experience? The summarized description below follows the four characteristics of mysticism set forth by Harvard University psychologist and philosopher, William James, in his 1902 classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature.
1. Ineffable — This characteristic defines the property of something that is inexpressible or incapable of description. Being indescribable and inexpressible, the mystical experience defies language and definition.
The contents of mystical experiences cannot be limited to words, for the state must be directly experienced and cannot be shared, only described and reported.
By means of this contemplation of heavenly forms and images they rise by degrees to heights which human language cannot reach, which one cannot even indicate without falling into great and inevitable errors. The degree of proximity to Deity which they attain is regarded by some as intermixture of being (haloul), by others as identification (ittihad), by others as intimate union (wasl). But all these expressions are wrong . . . Those who have reached that stage should confine themselves to repeating the verse — “What I experience I shall not try to say; Call me happy, but ask me no more.” [Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Confessions of al-Ghazali].
If we can, by God’s grace, turn ourselves entirely to Him, and put aside everything else in order to speak with Him and worship Him, this does not mean that we can always imagine Him or feel His presence. Neither imagination nor feeling are required for a full conversion of our whole being to God. Nor is intense concentration on an idea of God especially desirable. Hard as it is to convey in human language, there is a very real and very recognizable (but almost entirely undefinable) Presence of God, in which we confront Him in prayer knowing Him by Whom we are known, aware of Him Who is aware of us, loving Him by Whom we know ourselves to be loved. [Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude].
. . . his soul was caught up in ecstasy, whether in the body or out of the body, and he saw and heard what no tongue can tell. It was without form or mode, and yet it contained within itself the entrancing delightfulness of all forms and modes. His heart was athirst, and yet satisfied; his mind was joyous and blooming; wishes were stilled in him, and desires had departed. He did but gaze fixedly on the dazzling effulgence, in which he found oblivion of himself and all things. [Henry Suso].
2. Noetic — From the Greek noēsis / noētikos, noetic refers to inner wisdom, direct knowing, or subjective understanding. This characteristic relates to the rational and intellectual aspects of the mystical experience. Though indescribable and undefined, mystical experiences provide significant and important knowledge.
Mystical experiences impart a prolonged sense of certainty and authority base on a relationship to the Divine. Despite being inarticulate, they are significant and importance, offering insight and illumination to the mind.
. . . in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and of all things you may be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the super-essential Radiance of the Divine Darkness. [Mystical Theology, Dionysius the Areopagite].
There is no doubt that great insights and revelations are profoundly felt in mystic or peak-experiences, and certainly some of these are, ipso facto, intrinsically valid as experiences. That is, one can and does learn from such experiences that, e.g., joy, ecstasy, and rapture do in fact exist and that they are in principle available for the experiencer, even if they never have been before. Thus the peaker learns surely and certainly that life can be worthwhile, that it can be beautiful and valuable. There are ends in life, i.e., experiences which are so precious in themselves as to prove that not everything is a means to some end other than itself. [Abraham Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences].
All that I put down in my books is not the result of thinking or discursive reasoning. It is communicated to me through the breathing of the angel of revelation in my heart. All that I have written and what I am writing now is dictated to me through the breathing of the divine spirit into my spirit. This is my privilege as an heir not as an independent source; for the breathing of the spirit is a degree lower than the verbal inspiration. [Ibn ‘Arabi].
3. Transient — A mystical experience is rarely sustainable for long periods. However, though the experience is temporary and its memory my fade with time, a permanent mark remains. The individual that returns from a mystical experience to a “normal” frame of mind is never the same person.
Moreover, mystical experiences are uniquely recognizable upon recurrence and can increase in their profound richness and importance.
Yet the amazing experiences of the mystics leave a permanent residue, a God-subdued, a God-possessed will. States of consciousness are fluctuating. The vision fades. But holy and listening and alert obedience remains, as the core and kernel of a God-intoxicated life, as the abiding pattern of sober, workaday living. [Thomas R. Kelly, Holy Obedience].
A believer longs after God – to come into His presence – to feel His love – to feel near to Him in secret – to feel in the crowd that he is nearer than all the creatures. Ah! dear brethren, have you ever tasted this blessedness? There is greater rest and solace to be found in the presence of God for one hour, than in an eternity of the presence of man. [Robert Murray M’Cheyne].
If ye keep watch over your hearts, and listen for the Voice of God and learn of Him, in one short hour ye can learn more from Him than ye could learn from Man in a thousand years. [John Tauler, The Inner Way, Sermon XV].
4. Passive —The oncoming of a mystical experience may be facilitated by prescribed techniques that aim at sublimation of the inner life. However, mystical experiences are rarely considered the result of physical effort or ascetic endeavors.
In any event, once the mystical experience sets in, the mystic feels helpless, as if under a superior power.
And some are led into the state of complete obedience by this well-nigh passive route, wherein God alone seems to be the actor and we seem to be wholly acted upon. And our wills are melted and dissolved and made pliant, being firmly fixed in Him, and He wills in us. [Thomas R. Kelly, Holy Obedience].
You ask then how I knew He was present, when His ways can in no way be traced? He is life and power, and as soon as He enters in, He awakens my slumbering soul; He stirs and soothes and pierces my heart, for before it was hard as stone, and diseased. [Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 74].
When the soul has attained the experiential stage it will have achieved the condition of self-annihilation (fana) and will be able to perceive visually and experientially the unity of all things, the Creator and His creation, the visible and the invisible, the eternal and the temporal. Ibn ‘Arabi in Fakhry, A Short Introduction to Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Mysticism, p. 82.