The Religious Sensibility, the Sense of Awe, is Non-Mystical

[A]s dawn arises on the new day, the Buddha achieves illumination.  This illumination so stuns him — it is an opening of the world — that he sits there for seven days.  Then he steps away and for seven days, regards the spot where he had sat.  Then for seven days he walks back and forth integrating what he has learned. Then he goes and sits beneath a tree and thinks, This cannot be taught.  And that is the first doctrine of Buddhism: it cannot be taught. No experience can be taught.  All that can be taught is the way to an experience.

Joseph Campbell, David Kudler

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

S. Mitchell, translator

At a website called, Ask the Atheists, back in October, some folks asked this question:

When theists and atheists feel awe, is it the same thing? I imagine that theists and atheists both get a feeling of awe and amazement when we see a beautiful sunset, mountain valley, etc. But the believer sees this as God’s handiwork, and attributes the beauty to Him. Is it a similar thing?

Five atheists then volunteered answers to the question.   Four of them agreed that atheists and theists feel almost the same thing when they experience awe of nature, while, in my opinion, a fifth atheist (“logicel”) over-thought the question instead of answering it.

Here, as an example of someone who answered the question, is “Mike the Infidel”: “As a former believer, I can tell you that it’s almost identical. The only difference is that I don’t go a further step and feel awe at the thought that it was all made with us in mind.”

In general, the atheists answered the question in ways very compatible with Carl Sagan’s reflections on nature and wonder:

By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, “I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.

I happen to believe all of these folks are correct to suggest “the religious sensibility, the sense of awe” is more or less the same for atheist and theist alike.  But only if they are not claiming that this religious sensibility, this sense of awe, is a mystical experience.

That is to say, the mystical experience is radically different from the awe of atheist and theist alike, and it should not be confused with that awe.

Of course, the two are confused all the time.  There are plenty of people in this world — maybe a large majority of people — who could easily read Campbell’s and Kudler’s descriptive myth of the Buddha’s illumination and then promptly, without thinking about it, confuse the Buddha’s obviously mystical experience with Carl Sagan’s awe when “looking up on a clear night”.

Yet, I don’t blame them for their confusion.  In my experience, the only thing more difficult to grasp than how radically different mystical experiences are from normal experiences is the nature of the mystical experience itself.  Confusion is the norm, not the exception, and no one should ever be blamed for looking like an fool when discussing this particular subject.   We all in some sense must become fools to discuss this subject.

Before we go on, it seems necessary to do a bit of housekeeping here: There are many kinds of mystical experiences.  Yet, we are only concerned here with just one kind of mystical experience.

That is the kind of mystical experience the Buddha was referring to when he thought, “This cannot be taught”.  And I take that kind of mystical experience to be practically the same kind of mystical experience that Lao Tzu, the author of The Tao Te Ching, was less directly referring to when he wrote, “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

Put differently,  the mystical experience being discussed here is the experience that one seems almost certain to have should a person’s subject/object perceptions abruptly end, thus dissolving the process that creates the self, while experiencing yet continues.

So far as I can discover, people who have not had an experience like — or very close to being like — the mystical experiences of the great sages will almost always confuse those mystical experiences with Sagan’s feeling of awe.

To express the same point with a touch of absurdity:  Sunstone’s Law of the False Equivalence of Mystical and Non-Mystical Experiences forceably asserts that,  “Anyone who has not had a mystical experience will inevitably understand mystical experiences to be the mere equivalent of an intense feeling of awe (usually regarding nature).

It’s the only law I’ve ever come up with, and it probably ought to be the last.  Enjoy!

Further writings on mysticism are here.

20 thoughts on “The Religious Sensibility, the Sense of Awe, is Non-Mystical

  1. I guess Google translate did not help. I will try and locate the English text, the original I wrote elswhere but never posted because written long before I began blogging.
    Basically, when I was 15 or so I had a very strong moment when I felt God very present and near me.
    I’ll follow up later. I now have to drive my daughter to the metro station.

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  2. I wrote this some time in 1998 for a discussion group I attended. I could not retrace my original text so I retranslated it from the French translation I had made last March. I tried Google…it was pityfull.
    “Et cum spiritu tuo!
    July 1946 armed fighting is over, the cold war begins. I am 15, in Lake Gémont (our school’s summer camp), everything is peace and beauty. The night has fallen. No moon… but myriads of stars. This bluish and diffuse light reveals forms never previously seen. Four or five verchères (flat bottom row boats made in Verchère, Qc), five or six lanky teens in each are immobile on a watery mirror. Alone, whippoorwills break the silence, each of their chirps signaling the end of an annoying mosquito.
    Abbé Séguin, full of resources, hooked a portable phonograph to two car batteries and loaded the contraption on one of the rowboats for a concert on the lake under the stars: the program, that evening, Beethoven’s pastoral Symphony. The music suddenly soars. Whippoorwills ceased to hunt. Not a sound, except music. Third movement, allegro, flute mimics a bird, in the vicinity of our boats a loon responds in tune. Three times he sings the note in tune with the musicians.
    Romantic teenager, perhaps, at this moment, Lake, rowboats, music, the bird, the stars, my companions, myself, mingled in a single entity and God was there, smiling. We, the nature and eternity were in full communion. Gently, the music ended and in silence we returned to the dock. That evening, the night prayer had never been sung with such devotion. Not a word was said while we entered our tents and went to sleep”.
    Never since then have I experienced such a feeling. I have been in awe at the spectacle of Northern Lights, during moon or solar eclipses, but never have I felt that presence of God as I did that night.
    Therein, I believe, lies the difference between awe and a mystical experience.

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  3. Although I am convinced that no words — neither mine nor anyone else’s — can really capture a mystical experience, I believe you have written as effectively as is perhaps possible about one.

    I think the key passage for me is, “… at this moment, Lake, rowboats, music, the bird, the stars, my companions, myself, mingled in a single entity and God was there, smiling. We, the nature and eternity were in full communion.” From my studies of mystics and their experiences, Paul, I know the sense of oneness or union of all things is a motif that transcends any particular society or culture and is instead used by mystics everywhere to describe their experiences.

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  4. Indeed Paul, without the oneness notion it is not mystical, it may be strongly emotional or awe but not mystical. And I repeat that it was the one and only such experience that I have lived and it was 65 years ago…but it is still as vivid as if it had happened a few minutes ago.

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  5. There is a school of thought in Zen Buddhism that asserts a person never has the same kind of mystical experience twice in a lifetime. I tend to think they are correct, but I don’t really know. At any rate, your experience would seem to bear them out.

    I am 98% in agreement with your statement that “without the oneness notion it is not mystical”. I am all but absolutely certain you are right on the mark there.

    It would be nice if you were, too, because one of the theories I’ve developed about mysticism predicts that a certain kind of mystical experience will always involve oneness. It would be nice if I were right about something now and then.

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  6. I’m in an interesting position here. The self who was the face as a teenager, Bernard, was/is a mystic, dabbled in Zen and communed with nature on a daily basis. Me as Brian tends more towards the quantum reality which leads to a more matter-of-fact acceptance of the bizarre ‘nature’ of life. It is amazing and awesome and all those horrible words tossed around by athletes and preachers and those who cannot accept anything mysterious and spontaneous. To those who believe someone is guiding every single action, a mystic experience is deeply unsettling.

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  7. Brian, I believe there are perhaps millions of people like Paul Costopoulos here who have had at one time or another in their lives a mystical experience. Such people tend to deal with mysticism rather well.

    But I recognize, as you point out, that there are people who “cannot accept anything mysterious” and for whom the very notion of a mystical experience is “deeply unsettling”. And most days, I think those latter folks are in the majority.

    The politics of mysticism is an area of the subject matter that I do not usually get into. I find the politics dismal and depressing.

    But you are right: No matter what our feelings about it are, the politics is something that must be looked at and understood.

    By the way, Brian, my guess — and it is at this point no more than a guess — is that in the future we will have placed mysticism on a scientific footing.

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  8. I don’t know about that, Stephen. I’ve been reading about mystical experiences for 35 years now, and so far as I can gather, they come to all sorts of people. Of course, there is no guarantee they will come to anyone of us. You can no more force yourself to have a mystical experience than you can force a breeze to enter your window. But what you can do is open the window — that is, keep an open mind — in case the breeze does come.

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  9. I was lucky enough to be raised by an agnostic and a lapsed Baptist — meaning that no one really laid any sort of religious rap on me — and have a mystical experience, by any reasonable definition, in DAR Constitution Hall when I was eleven going on twelve. The National Symphony was playing; Brahms, the second symphony.

    Do you know it? That headlong, swooping final movement that rolls up into a huge ball of lights and bursts in all directions two or three times, hops into a different dimension with a sort of hurdy-gurdy motif, back to the fireworks ostinato and then stacks the brass sections one on top of the other — it’s more like hearing the horns giving birth to the trumpets giving birth to the trombones — which finally fill up the whole concert hall? It’s a sound massive and solid enough to pin you to the wall or lift you to the top of the rotunda; it felt like both.

    I came to myself in the awful velour covered seat, feeling as if I had fallen into it from some unimaginable height, not sure where I had been, weeping. Oh, I thought. This is why people go to hear music.

    It didn’t make me “believe” in anything, except the incredible power of music (and I guess, by extension, of anything that can take us via our senses out of the jails of our skulls: ex-stasis). Scientifically definable? Maybe; maybe some day someone will demonstrate what happens when neurons engage and re-engage until the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; a function of a certain kind of attention, I think, which the Yogis discuss more matter-of-factly than we do. It was not so much a sense of oneness, but of permanence or timelessness (that brass note is still going on), which may be another aspect of the same thing.

    It didn’t change anything about the way I lived my life, except that it changed everything, though I’d have to write a book to explain how.

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  10. Hi Sledpress! Good to see you!

    There are many different kinds of mystical experiences, but only one kind of mystical experience need concern us here. Here’s a slightly technical way of describing that particular kind of mystical experience:

    …the mystical experience being discussed here is the experience that one seems almost certain to have should a person’s subject/object perceptions abruptly end, thus dissolving the process that creates the self, while experiencing yet continues.

    I have emphasized the phrase, “…dissolving the process that creates the self”, because when that happens, when the self is dissolved, so to speak, then the mystic experiences a sense or perception of oneness. That sense or perception of oneness is the signature experience for this kind of mystical experience. There are many kinds of mystical experiences, but this is the kind that involves a sense or perception of oneness.

    So, to me, the question at this point becomes, is that the kind of mystical experience you had?

    Now, you yourself seem to be uncertain whether you experienced a sense of oneness the day of your experience: “It was not so much a sense of oneness, but of permanence or timelessness…, which may be another aspect of the same thing.” So, we do not know for certain whether or not you had the sort of experience under discussion here, but I think there is some possibility that you did.

    OK. Here, in our discussion, begins where you (or anyone reading this) earn your pay grade: I will make what follows as easy to understand as I can, but if you are able to genuinely follow it, you are indeed a rare one.

    Normally, we are aware or conscious of our world through the lens of subject/object perception. That kind of perception involves dividing reality into separate, discrete things. And the most important division here is the perception that reality is divided between subject (i.e. self) and object (i.e. non-self). Put slightly differently, in normal awareness or consciousness, you see the world through a lens that fractures reality into what is you and what is not you.

    Thus, subject/object perception is the very opposite of the mystical experience of oneness.

    By the way, this experience of oneness is precisely what some — but not all — mystics call “god”. But make no mistake here: The god of the mystics has nothing at all to do with the God of non-mystics. The two things are radically different.

    Now comes an opportunity for you to earn a pay raise. That is, this next part is just a little bit more difficult to understand than what we’ve gone over so far.

    Strictly speaking, no one has ever had a mystical experience.

    To say that someone – anyone – has had a mystical experience is just a conventional way of talking about something that is so radically different from anything one normally would experience that the very word “experience” is ridiculous when used to refer to it.

    There are at least two reasons why no one has ever had a mystical experience. First, when the process that creates subject/object perception “dissolves” (is interrupted or comes to an end), then the self also “dissolves” (is interrupted or comes to an end).

    Put differently, when you stop the process of subject/object perception, you bring self awareness to an end. There is now no subject, no “I”, no self, that remains to experience anything. Consequently, how can anyone, strictly speaking, say they had a mystical experience? There was no “they” to have had it.

    The second reason why no one has ever had a mystical experience is in some ways more important than the first. For some reason, the brain ceases to record consciously accessible memories when subject/object perception is dissolved.

    It’s quite possible that the brain is still storing memories during a mystical experience. But if so, then it is storing memories in such a way that those memories will never be able to be accessed by the conscious mind.

    Consider for a moment that for the first two or three years of your life, your brain stored tons of memories that your conscious mind has never been able to access. Consequently, from the standpoint of your conscious mind, your earliest memories of this world take place not from birth onward, but from sometime in your second or third year onward.

    Well, any memories you have during a mystical experience will later on be as accessible to your conscious mind as all those memories you stored during, say, your first year of life have been accessible to your conscious mind. Which is to say, the memories of your mystical experience will never be accessible to you.

    Because you will never be able to consciously recall your mystical experience, it is problematic that we call the damn thing an “experience” in the first place.

    So, for those two reasons, it can be legitimately said that, strictly speaking, no one has ever had a mystical experience.

    At this point, you have definitely earned an opportunity for a second pay raise. Hopefully, you have not found anything we’ve so far said to be too difficult to understand. But what comes next might require a little bit more effort on your part. Just so you know.

    Let’s sum what we know so far, then take it one step further. Normally, we go through life consciously aware of things. Put differently, our normal consciousness involves subject/object perception.

    Then one day, for whatever reason, our normal consciousness dissolves, subject/object perception comes to an end or is interrupted, and suddenly “we experience” the oneness of all things. But during the actual “experience” here, we store no memories that will later be accessible to our conscious mind.

    It is only as we are coming out of our mystical experience that we begin to again store memories that are accessible to our consciousness. And what that means in practice is that we almost always mistake the coming out phase of the experience for the actual or core experience itself.

    Of course, the coming out phase begins with the reformation of the self, the start up again of subject/object perception, or the return to normal consciousness — however you want to put it. In other words, the very instant that we think, “Jeebers! I am having a mystical experience”, we are again a self and are thus no longer having a mystical experience.

    The aftertaste of the mystical experience is now upon us. As I have explained and emphasized, we will never be able to consciously recall the experience itself, the actual “taste of god”, so to speak. But we will be able to recall the aftertaste. And we will probably, in all likelihood mistake the aftertaste for the taste.

    Sledpress, my guess is that you are in the following passage describing your feelings during the aftertaste of a mystical experience you had when you were eleven years old going on twelve:

    I came to myself in the awful velour covered seat, feeling as if I had fallen into it from some unimaginable height, not sure where I had been, weeping.

    Now, I could go into this more and in greater detail. I’ve been a student of these experiences now for about 35 years and I do have a “few” ideas about them. But I’m going to wrap it up for now because I think I have offered you enough of a model of mystical experiences to help you answer the question of whether yours at 11 was an experience of oneness. The last thing I like to point out is that your passage here brilliantly expresses how many people come to regard their experience:

    It didn’t change anything about the way I lived my life, except that it changed everything, though I’d have to write a book to explain how.

    Well said!

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  11. Um, was it necessary to say all those things about how it might be hard to follow?

    I mean, I went to collidge ‘n everything even if I do lift heavy things. I even considered a Masters’ in comparative religions but the abstraction and pettiness of academic life turned me way off.

    I took up Yoga when I was ten, too. I didn’t stay completely stuck in the asana stage even if I was picking it all up out of books, which was what you had to work with in Northern Virginia in 1964.

    But yes. I could not describe to you exactly what happened, except that by the time I was aware that it happened I was already coming back from it, and it felt as if it took an infinite time but was wedged in between the notes of that brass column. Your exposition makes perfect sense to me; I flash on Alan Watts’ concept of the “Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are,” an idea that is right next door, to wit that we all represent fragments of an infinite consciousness that imagine they are separate. Watts had the habit of religion, of course, but it’s not necessary to the concept, at least in the creator-God sense.

    I doubt it’s that darn rare at all, except that detached articulation of the phenomenon isn’t so common (some people trying to describe it would just come off sounding crazy and others might find themselves tied to a stake, or whatever was fashionable in their neighborhood).

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  12. (Watts, of course, was doing his best to make Buddhism accessible to readers in the era of the Flower Child, and probably it fit the iconoclastic times to refer to a “taboo” that maintained our separateness, but I always liked his matter-of-fact presentation.)

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  13. Sledpress #16: “Um, was it necessary to say all those things about how it might be hard to follow?”

    Those were not for your benefit as they were there to warn readers who have never had a mystical experience to pay very close attention to what’s being said.

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  14. Fair enough.

    But as I say, I suspect this happens to more people than you suggest — even if only for a fleeting moment or two. As a massage therapist, I witness a lot of those moments.

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