Consciousness, Enlightenment, Epistemology, Mysticism, Observation, Rambodoc, Reason, Religion, Science, Self, Spirituality

The Study of Mystical Experience and Mystical Awareness

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.  — Hamlet

In a way, the basic idea underlying all of mysticism is the notion that our species of great ape is capable of experiencing at least two kinds of awareness.  The first kind of awareness — which is consciousness or conscious awareness — is familiar to all of us.  The second kind of awareness — mystical awareness — is familiar to fewer of us.

No one knows how many of us have at one time or another experienced mystical awareness.  The experience seems to be uncommon, but not actually rare.  Perhaps, then, a few million people worldwide have experienced it.

Despite that mystical awareness is not nearly as common as conscious awareness, it can be obvious to even a casual reader of the world’s religious literature that the experience of mystical awareness has informed and inspired much of that literature.  That seems especially true in the East.

For instance: While the foundational literatures of the Abrahamic religions — the Torah, Bible, Qur’an, etc — are comparatively devoid of references to mystical awareness, the foundational literatures of the great Eastern religions — the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Dharmmapada, etc. — are thick with such references.  It is even possible to assert, with reason, that mystical awareness is at the very core of such Eastern religions as Buddhism and Taoism.

The Study of Mystical Awareness

In my opinion, the phenomenon of mystical awareness has yet to be adequately studied by science.  There is, for instance, no effort to study mystical awareness that is comparable to the efforts to study conscious awareness.  In part, that may be because science has traditionally been dominated by Westerners, and Westerners usually come from cultures where mysticism is more or less a cultural backwater.  But it is also because mystical awareness presents a number of challenges to easy study.  Some of those challenges will become evident later on in this essay.

My hunch is some people are shocked by the notion mystical awareness should be scientifically studied.  That is likely because for some people, mystical awareness is inseparable from supernatural forces, entities, and so forth. To suggest that science should study mystical awareness is for those people much the same as saying that science should study the gods — an impossibility.  However, I’m of the insufferable opinion that mystical awareness is a natural phenomenon that can be studied by natural means.

During the Muslim Siege of Constantinople in 1453,  St. Elmo’s Fire was seen emitting from the top of the Hippodrome.  The mysterious Fire caused quite a stir.   It was not understood at that time that St. Elmo’s Fire was a natural phenomenon.  The Byzantines attributed it to a sign that the Christian God would soon come and destroy the invading Muslim army.

I think the way the Byzantines responded to the sight of St. Elmo’s Fire illustrates the human tendency to attribute unexplained natural phenomena to supernatural causes.  What we cannot explain, we often call an act of god.  Yet, merely because the science of the day cannot explain something is no logical reason to deem that thing metaphysical in origin.

For over thirty years, I have been interested in mystical experiences (especially the sort of mystical experience that is sometimes called “enlightenment”).  Mystical experiences seem to me to be natural phenomena.  That is, they seem to be phenomena that can be wholly explained in natural terms.

Maybe I’m right about that, maybe I’m wrong.

Anything is possible, and mystical experiences may yet defeat all efforts to explain them entirely in natural terms.  But even if they do — even if a hundred years from now we still have no entirely adequate natural explanation for mystical experiences — it would even then be illogical to assume on that basis alone that mystical experiences require us to posit a supernatural origin for them.  St. Elmo’s Fire proves that.

If we had reasoned in 1543 that St. Elmo’s Fire must have a supernatural cause, simply because we don’t know of any natural cause for it, we would have been wrong.  And if we reason in 2009 that mystical experiences must have a supernatural cause, simply because we currently don’t know of any natural causes that wholly explain them,  we would again be wrong.

Naturalism is the notion that phenomena can only be explained in terms of natural causes.  It is the opposite of  the doctrine that at least some phenomena can only be explained in terms of metaphysical causes.  Naturalism comes in more than one flavor, which allows folks to argue passionately about which flavor they like best:

Ontological naturalism is the flavor of naturalism that asserts nothing metaphysical exists.  Nature is all there is.

Epistemological naturalism is the flavor of naturalism that asserts we can know only nature.  Our ability to know ends where nature ends.

I usually find ontological naturalism too speculative for my tastes: How can we possibly know whether or not anything exists metaphysically — beyond nature?  There seems to be no reliable method for accomplishing that chore.  So most days I am more kindly disposed towards epistemological naturalism than ontological naturalism. Thus I have approached the study of mystical awareness from the standpoint of an epistemological naturalist.

Please Don’t Sue Me Disclaimer

Despite all I’ve said so far, there are limits to what can be consciously known about mystical awareness.  The word “mystic” can be traced back to an Indo-European root meaning “to be silent or mum”.  It is widely recognized by mystics of all cultures that many aspects of mystical awareness are — and will always be — beyond the understanding of conscious awareness.  In any discussion of mystical awareness, it cannot be over-emphasized how radically distinct mystical awareness is from conscious awareness:

The tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal Name.

Where the one awareness is, the other is not.

What is a “Mystical Experience”?

What a mystical experience is depends on who you speak with.  Some people would call an experience “mystical” if it involved an intense emotion — such as an overwhelming feeling of awe when witnessing a large waterfall or a sunrise.  Others might call an experience “mystical” if it involved something they considered metaphysical — such as seeing a ghost, experiencing god, or using magic crystals.

Those are legitimate uses of the word, of course, but they are not my usage.  When I refer to an experience as “mystical”, I am referring quite specifically to an awareness in which subject/object perception has come to an end while experiencing continues.  During such an experience, there is no awareness of a distinction between the observer and the observed, the knower and the known, the self and other than the self — That is, between the subject and the object of awareness.  All within the field of awareness is perceived as a unity — as one.

At this point we might ask, who or what does the experiencing when conscious awareness is interrupted and the mystical experience occurs?

For normally, when our conscious awareness is at work, we tend to think it (i.e. our mind, our conscious awareness, our consciousness, our self, our ego, our “I”) experiences the world. But when conscious awareness ceases, then who or what does the experiencing?

Of course, one answer is the organism, the individual, the body, the senses and the brain — these are still experiencing even though conscious awareness has ceased and is no longer experiencing.

How Do We Know Anything At All About Mystical Experiences?

Near as I can tell, no one has actually observed themselves having a mystical experience because, during the experience itself, the observer (which is a property of conscious awareness) is not present.  There is simply an awareness without, however, anyone who is aware.  Thus it might be reasonably asked how we know anything at all about mystical experiences?

Well, if I’m right about these things — and, of course, I’m usually painfully wrong about these things — then everything we know about mystical experiences is ultimately derived from what we know of their aftereffects on our consciousness.

Imagine a calm pond with a smooth surface.  Then imagine a stone thrown into that pond.  Now pretend you didn’t see the stone go into the pond.  Instead, you turned only in time to watch the aftereffects of the stone’s entry into the water.  What can you deduce about “whatever it was” that made those spreading ripples you now see on the pond?

Sally is not consciously aware of her mystical experience during the experience itself.  Only as Sally’s experience ends — as her consciousness once again reasserts itself — does she notice something has happened.

At that point, it is somewhat likely, but not guaranteed, that Sally will try to interpret what has happened, for it seems that some people immediately try to interpret what has happened to them, while others refuse to do so.  I myself don’t know whether refusing to interpret a mystical experience is completely possible, but it does seem to some extent possible.

For an unknown reason, there appears to be a correlation between holding out, refusing as much as possible to interpret an experience, and how much that experience transforms us.  If that’s so, then the less Sally interprets her experience, or the longer she holds out, the more it will transform her.

Let’s say Sally tries to interpret her mystical experience immediately upon becoming aware something has happened. It is highly likely Sally will think she is in the very midst of her experience, rather than recognize her experience has already ended.  However, it seems logically impossible for us to be both mystically aware and consciously aware at the same moment.  Either we perceive a division between subject and object, or we do not.  Either the observer is present, or it is not.  What Sally is simultaneously observing and interpreting are the aftereffects of a mystical experience.  She is not seeing the stone enter the water, but is instead seeing the ripples on the pond.

Conclusion

I have barely touched on some of the issues involved in the study of mystical awareness.  However, I think it was about time that I discussed them to the extent I did.  After all, I had written several posts to this blog that discussed mystical awareness, but had yet to write anything about how we know about mystical awareness.  If I have had the good fortune to be right about some of these issues, then please leave your compliments in the comments section.  On the other hand, if I have screwed up in my usual fashion, then please go to Rambodoc’s blog and complain to him — the more bitterly, the better.  He likes it that way.  😀

________________

SEE ALSO:

A Late Night Thought on Our Perception of Reality

Are Mystical Experiences the Result of Natural Causes?

Are Things Experienced by the Senses Real?

Assuming God Exists is not Mysticism

Believing in Belief

Conscious Thought is Symbolic — No More, No Less

“Does the Denial of the Individual Self Actually Make Sense Even From a Mystical Perspective?”

Even Sex is not a Guaranteed Path to Transcendence

Heaven

Is Egotism Inherent in Mysticism?

Is Mysticism a State of Mind or is It an Experience?

Normal Awareness vs Mystical Awareness

One Way Mysticism Challenges Us

The God of Mystic Naturalism

The Profounder Distinction

What is Self to a Mystic?


15 thoughts on “The Study of Mystical Experience and Mystical Awareness”

  1. I love these long linear posts trying to say something about a phenomenon as immediate as ‘mystical awareness’. Language is linear, time is not, at least not in the mystic.

    Here is an interesting sentence, “The experience seems to be uncommon, but not actually rare.” “Seems to be..” you see. The alchemist quest, the prophets, is all about communication, not experience. Everyone has the experience, some get sucked into trying to communicate it rather than simply appreciate or induce it. Experience leaves only the question of consent.

    Was the central proposition, “More beer!” I concur.

  2. Hi Paul! I used to think everyone had mystical experiences, too. I profoundly doubt that now. Nowadays, I’m more inclined to guess only a minority of people have experienced mystical awareness.

    Beer, of course, is a vital nutrient.

  3. I haven’t got the faintest idea what “mystical awareness” is, have never had a “mystical experience”, don’t know anyone who has, and have never heard of their being any evidence that any such stuff has ever occurred (and I don’t could self-reporting as “evidence”). So I don’t accept the “the notion that our species of great ape is capable of experiencing at least two kinds of awareness.”

    I was listening to public radio while driving yesterday, and a “neuro psychologist” was mumbling his way through saying it is built into our brains to be superstitious (some mumbo-jumbo about the brain looking for explanations and patterns, etc.). He kept saying “I think.” He recited no studies. Anyway, it was interesting how he and the moderator (at least while I was listening) carefully skirted around the issue of whether religious beliefs are part and parcel of the alleged built-in superstition “gene.” Hmmmm.

    It seems to me our Western society is completely clogged up with people talking about their “mystical” “superstitious” views and experiences, they just do it all under the rubric of “religion.” Oh, and let’s not forget those who have been kidnapped by aliens.

  4. I went to read your prior post “Are Mystical Experiences the Result of Natural Causes?” I had not been a reader here that far back, so it was new to me.

    You make a valid point when you allude to how we perceive/receive the universe around us (including the mechanical pencil) in a very limited way, then interpret what little info we have, then call it “reality.” I cannot fathom how much “information” impinges on us and passes through us undetected due to our limited receptors (and, of course, uninterpreted). I allude, of course, to such things as neutrinos, electromagnetic stuff we can’t detect, etc., etc.

    Does it happen that somehow, in a way or in ways yet unknown, some of that unperceived part of the universe occasionally interacts with a human’s physical being in such a way as to leave an impression? If it does, is the experience so far alien to our day-to-day experience that it defies explanation in the usual terminology? I don’t know. Is that the source of notions of mysticism? Dunno.

    Of course, their is another whole physical “world” that could be the answer. We are composed of trillions of cells. About 10% of our cells are “us” and the other 90% are bacteria. Looked at from another angle, about 99% of the DNA composing “us” is not ours, but that of the tiny creatures we host. I am not making this up.

    A hot news flash is that the bacteria communicate with each other, both within species and between species. Could some of what is going on their sometimes impinge on the brain/consciousness in an unusual way (compared to day-to-day experience) and end up being defined as “mystical.” I don’t know.

    Hamlet (speaking for Shakespeare) was right, but that doesn’t mean there are ghosts.

  5. @ Twoblueday: Thank you for some fascinating comments!

    You assert that you do not consider self-reporting as evidence. That leaves me somewhat confused because it seems your objection to the notion some people have mystical experiences is your own self-report that neither you nor anyone you know has had one. I might be missing something here, but it seems to me you are claiming that self-reports are accurate when they’re yours, but inaccurate when they are someone else’s. I hope I’m misunderstanding you.

    As for whether there is any evidence from science regarding the existence of mystical experiences, it happens to be the case there is growing evidence from neuroscience for the notion mystical experiences are distinct physiological events. I think I might blog about that at some point soon.

    The word “mystic”, like most words, has more than one meaning. I’ve pointed out in several of my blog posts that I’m not using it to refer to any alleged experiences of ghosts, goblins, or aliens. Those things simply don’t interest me, Twoblueday — especially since they do not involve any change or alteration in subject/object perception.

    I agree with you that Hamlet was right but that doesn’t mean there are ghosts.

  6. No, a non-report (non-experience) is not the same as an anecdotal personal experience report. What I meant is that people might have all kinds of motivations and/or agendas in claiming to have had a mystical experience, and/or might be interpreting an experience fully explainable in “real world” terms because of their own lack of knowledge of the scientifically explainable, or some other reason. Think of my position as sort of like the scientific method. Anecdotal, non-reproducible results are to be highly discounted if given any consideration at all.

    Think of it as a witness credibility issue. A non-witness does not have credibility issues, he has no testimony/evidence to offer. That does not mean that a witness offering testimony should not have his or her testimony evaluated by the tools available, and that the evaluators are disqualified because they know nothing about the facts being related.

    Hope I made myself clear. I certainly do not vaunt my lack of experience with the mystical as “evidence” of its non-existence. Think of it as simply a “ground zero” position. Inertia, if you will. If someone wants to move me, they have to provide adequate impetus.

    I know you weren’t arguing for “ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night.” My comment about Hamlet was couched in a sort of shorthand I use, the word “ghost” merely being a stand-in for the whole “metaphysical” world (so I don’t wax any more verbose than I already do).

    So, I still don’t know where along the metaphysical spectrum from “deism” to “superstition” our pal “mysticism” belongs.

  7. Now I’m even more confused, when you say “mystical awareness is a natural phenomenon having nothing to do with metaphysics”, and have to admit that, at the end of the day, I have no idea what is meant my “mysticism.”

  8. @ Twoblueday: So far as I’m concerned, mystical awareness is the sort of awareness that occurs when subject/object perception comes to an end while experiencing continues. That at least seems to be a wholly natural event, even thought we don’t as yet entirely understand how it happens.

  9. Greetings, I am new here and there is so much to read so please forgive me if I am repeating something that has already been written.

    When reading your post, I wondered about the element of time. I have been paying more attention to synchronicity lately and the effects of consciousness on time.

    I like harboring the idea that one steps outside of time during a mystical experience so using the words ‘before’ or ‘after’ doesn’t seem logical to me.

    Perhaps using words like ever-present awareness vs. time-based consciousness would help to make that distinction?

    Kysha

  10. TIMELESS
    Today’s scientists are like religious gurus of earlier times. Whatever they say are accepted as divine truths by lay public as well as the philosophers. When mystics have said that time is unreal, nobody has paid any heed to them. Rather there were some violent reactions against it. Here are some examples:
    “G.E. Moore pointed out that if time is unreal then there are no temporal facts: nothing is past, present or future, and nothing is earlier or later than anything else. But, plainly, it is false that there are no temporal facts, for it is a fact that I am presently inscribing this sentence and that my breakfast yesterday preceded my lunch.”
    – Richard M. Gale
    [Book: the philosophy of time, edited by Richard M. Gale, Publisher: Macmillan, 1962, Chapter: Introduction to Section Two, The static versus the dynamic temporal, page 69.]
    “First of all, what can be meant by saying that time is unreal? If we really meant what we say, we must mean that such statements as “this is before that” are mere empty noise, like “twas brillig.” If we suppose anything less than these – as for example, that there is a relation between events which puts them in the same order as the relation of earlier and later, but that it is a different relation – we shall not have made any assertion that makes any real change in our outlook. It will be merely like supposing that Iliad was not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name. We have to suppose that there are no “events” at all; there must be only the one vast whole of the universe, embracing whatever is real in the misleading appearance of a temporal procession. There must be nothing in reality corresponding to the apparent distinction between earlier and later events. To say that we are born, and then grow, and then die, must be just as false as to say that we die, then grow small, and finally are born. The truth of what seems an individual life is merely the illusory isolation of one element in the timeless and indivisible being of the universe. There is no distinction between improvement and deterioration, no difference between sorrows that end in happiness and happiness that ends in sorrow. If you find a corpse with a dagger in it, it makes no difference whether the man died of the wound or the dagger was plunged in after death. Such a view, if true, puts an end, not only to science, but to prudence, hope, and effort; it is incompatible with worldly wisdom, and – what is more important to religion – with morality.”
    – Bertrand Russell
    [Mysticism, Book: religion and science, Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1961.]
    But when scientists have shown that at the speed of light time becomes unreal, these same philosophers have simply kept mum. Here also they could have raised their voice of protest. They could have said something like this: “We will never accept the statement that time is unreal. Then why are you wasting your valuable time, money, and energy by explaining to us as to how this time can become unreal? Are you mad?” Had they reacted like this, then that would have been consistent with their earlier outbursts. But they had not. This clearly indicates that a blind faith in science is working here. Or, perhaps they were awed and cowed down by the scientists. If mystics were mistaken in saying that time is unreal, then why is the same mistake being repeated by the scientists? Why are they now saying that there is no real division of time as past, present and future in the actual world? If there is no such division of time, then is time real, or, unreal? Thus spake Einstein when his lifelong friend Michele Besso died, “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” And thus spake scientist Paul Davies, “The most profound puzzle of all is the fact that whatever we may experience mentally, time does not pass, nor there exist a past, present and future. These statements are so stunning that most scientists lead a sort of dual life, accepting them in the laboratory, but rejecting them without thought in the daily life.” [Book: Other worlds, Publisher: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1980, Prologue, Page 14.] Is this very recent statement made by a scientist that “time does not pass” anything different from the much earlier statement made by the mystics that “time is unreal”?
    Now some scientists are trying to establish that mystics did not get their sense of spacelessness, timelessness through their meeting with a real divine being. Rather they got this sense from their own brain. But these scientists have forgotten one thing. They have forgotten that scientists are only concerned with the actual world, not with what some fools and idiots might have uttered while they were in deep trance. So if they at all explain as to how something can be timeless, then they will do so not because the parietal lobe of these mystics’ brain was almost completely shut down when they received their sense of timelessness, but because, and only because, there was, or, there was and still is, a timeless state in this universe.
    God is said to be spaceless, timeless. If someone now says that God does not exist, then the sentence “God is said to be spaceless, timeless” (S) can have three different meanings. S can mean:
    a) Nothing was/is spaceless, timeless in this universe (A),
    b) Not God, but someone else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (B),
    c) Not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (C).
    It can be shown that if it is true that God does not exist, and if S is also true, then S can only mean C, but neither A nor B. If S means A, then the two words “spaceless” and “timeless” become as meaningless as the word “brillig” (cited by Russell in his quotation mentioned above). By the word “brillig” we cannot indicate a person, a thing, an action, a property, a relation, or any other thing. Similarly, if S means A, then by the two words “spaceless” and “timeless” we cannot indicate anyone or anything, simply because in this universe never there was, is, and will be, anyone or anything that could be properly called spaceless, timeless. Now the very big question is: how can some scientists find meaning and significance in a word like “timeless” that has got no meaning and significance in the real world? If nothing was timeless in the past, then time was not unreal in the past. If nothing is timeless at present, then time is not unreal at present. If nothing will be timeless in future, then time will not be unreal in future. If in this universe time was never unreal, if it is not now, and if it will never be, then why was it necessary for them to show as to how time could be unreal? If nothing was/is/will be timeless, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anything can be timeless. If no one in this universe is immortal, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anyone can be immortal. Simply, it is none of their business. So, what compelling reason was there behind their action here? If we cannot find any such compelling reason here, then we will be forced to conclude that scientists are involved in some useless activities here that have got no connection whatsoever with the actual world, and thus we lose complete faith in science. Therefore we cannot accept A as the proper meaning of S, as this will reduce some activities of the scientists to simply useless activities.
    Now can we accept B as the proper meaning of S? No, we cannot. Because there is no real difference in meaning between this sentence and S. It is like saying that Iliad was not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name (Russell). So, if S is true, then it can only mean that not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless. Now, what is this “something else” (SE)? Is it still in the universe? Or, was it in the past? Here there are two possibilities:
    a) In the past there was something in this universe that was spaceless, timeless,
    b) That spaceless, timeless thing (STT) is still there.
    We know that the second possibility will not be acceptable to atheists and scientists. So we will proceed with the first one. If STT was in the past, then was it in the very recent past? Or, was it in the universe billions and billions of years ago? Was only a tiny portion of the universe in spaceless, timeless condition? Or, was the whole universe in that condition? Modern science tells us that before the big bang that took place 13.7 billion years ago there was neither space, nor time. Space and time came into being along with the big bang only. So we can say that before the big bang this universe was in a spaceless, timeless state. So it may be that this is the STT. Is this STT then that SE of which mystics spoke when they said that God is spaceless, timeless? But this STT cannot be SE for several reasons. Because it was there 13.7 billion years ago. And man has appeared on earth only 2 to 3 million years ago. And mystical literatures are at the most 2500 years old, if not even less than that. So, if we now say that STT is SE, then we will have to admit that mystics have somehow come to know that almost 13.7 billion years ago this universe was in a spaceless, timeless condition, which is unbelievable. Therefore we cannot accept that STT is SE. The only other alternative is that this SE was not in the external world at all. As scientist Victor J. Stenger has said, so we can also say that this SE was in mystics’ head only. But if SE was in mystics’ head only, then why was it not kept buried there? Why was it necessary for the scientists to drag it in the outside world, and then to show as to how a state of timelessness could be reached? If mystics’ sense of timelessness was in no way connected with the external world, then how will one justify scientists’ action here? Did these scientists think that the inside of the mystics’ head is the real world? And so, when these mystics got their sense of timelessness from their head only and not from any other external source, then that should only be construed as a state of timelessness in the real world? And therefore, as scientists they were obliged to show as to how that state could be reached?
    We can conclude this essay with the following observations: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then SE cannot be in the external world. Because in that case mystics’ sense of spacelessness, timelessness will have a correspondence with some external fact, and therefore it will no longer remain a hallucination. But if SE is in mystics’ head only, then that will also create a severe problem. Because in that case we are admitting that the inside portion of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists. That is why when mystics get their sense of timelessness from their brain, that sense is treated by these scientists as a state of timelessness in the real world, and accordingly they proceed to explain as to how that state can be reached. And we end up this essay with this absurd statement: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then the inside portion of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists.

  11. A true “mystical experience” appears to be nature’s way of cold booting the thinking machine in mankind, much the same way as a computer that has become jammed up will reset itself when the power is turned off.

  12. Pingback: Mystic Awareness
  13. I teach a class on how to have mystical experience at any time as this is Cosmic Sacred Energy I translate into words for you.This is evolving mature experience with out drugs.Inquire for more details as this is everyones birthright.

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