“Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” ―
SUMMARY: While it is nearly impossible to adequately communicate the content of a mystical experience to a non-mystic who has never had one, somethings perhaps can be said about the experience that might shed some light on it.
(About a 9 minute read)
Suppose you came across a community of people living in the Amazon rain forest who had never before seen — or even heard more than a rumor or two — of people like you or of your culture and civilization.
Further suppose, upon learning their language, you discover it is beautifully suited to expressing the interrelatedness of all things, but there is neither any word for “god” nor any words that can be used to express the concept of god. In short, the people have no concept of metaphysics at all.
The world, to them, is not much more than what it appears to be, and the closest you can come to telling them about god more or less translates into “Big Hidden Man/Woman”, which makes them wonder whether you’re talking about a transgendered human of inordinate size who hides behind bushes and trees.
Even more troubling is you begin to suspect their language contains many more “technical” terms for forms and ways in which things are connected to each other than any language you know of. They can tell you there is a precise difference between how a certain species of fish is influenced by lunar cycles, and how humans are influenced by lunar cycles, but the nuances they so easily see are completely outside your understanding.
If you were plunged into such circumstances, you might — might — gain an inkling of how hard it is to “translate” a mystical experience into terms that a a person who has never had one can comprehend.
In a sense, it is easy to describe what happens during a mystical experience. At least something of what happens. We now know, for instance, that activity in the parietal lobe of the brain is somehow suppressed, leading to a perception that in some way or sense there is no distinction between you and anything within your field of perception. That is, you and the tree you’re looking at become one.
Or we can make the same point by stating that normal, everyday consciousness in which there is an automatic, sharp, and profound distinction between self and non-self abruptly ceases to function while some form of awareness remains in which all things become one.
Or we can just say that you might experience god, and discover that god is you and you are god. And we could add to all of these descriptions that you might also experience infinity, a feeling of infinite strength and power, unconditional love, absolute bliss, vast sentience, and so forth.
But in the end, what do any of those terms mean to the non-mystic? If you are an Amazonian native who has have never before experienced a camera, it is easy enough for someone to show you what one does, but how can he or she explain how the machine works in terms that will give you an accurate understanding of how one works?
In short, the short answer to the question, “What is a mystical experience like”, is that it’s like nothing else you have ever experienced. This essay, then, is merely my best effort to explain the — at best — barely explainable.
One night, when I was nineteen years old, I was talking with a small group of friends when I experienced for a few brief moments something that I had almost no references to describe. I could have told you there was a sudden stilling of consciousness, then a sense of infinity, overwhelming power and strength, and several other things.
I could also tell you that almost instantly after the experience ended, and consciousness had returned, I concluded I had just experienced God. And for the rest of the evening, everything I looked at in the room or otherwise sensed — my friends, an ashtray, a soft drink can, the music, the smell of cigarettes, etc. — seemed both the center of the universe and God at the same time.
Yet I think however well you understand what I’m saying, I cannot possibly convey to you what a mystical experience is like unless you yourself have had one. So what I’ll tell you is only what I can tell you about them, beginning with the fact the experience was completely disorienting to me.
Imagine you walked into a some sort of object on a dark street. Further imagine you had no frame of reference for it — it was totally alien to you. If so, I think you would be very unlikely to at first distinguish between what was the object and what was your experience of the object.
For instance, upon walking into it, you “see stars”, but are those stars you or a property of it? My mystical experience was like that. Today I have plenty of words to describe it, but the night it happened, I was a nineteen year old boy with a very limited range of concepts or references in which to place it.
For instance, I didn’t immediately think, “I was just now experiencing infinity”. It was only after a bit of thought that I could put that word to what I had experienced. And though the thought “I was just now experiencing God” came to me almost instantly, I had a profound sense that “God” was too shallow of a concept to describe what I’d experienced. In fact, everything I had experienced came “without any labels”, and it was only afterwards that I began putting two and two together to arrive at labels.
I grew up in a small town without any exposure to religion apart from non-mystical Christianity and the non-mystical writings of a few philosophers and intellectuals. I had heard — usually as a joke — of “seeing God”, but that was about it. And I had certainly not seen God. I had experienced God with all my senses and more. I had been aware of the world — of reality — in a radically different from normal way.
Naturally, given everything, I thought I had gone insane. One moment I had been normal, a self separate from all the things that were not me. The next moment there was no me, and “I” was the universe. Given my background, the category of “insane” fit better than anything else I could think of to describe what had happened to me.
Which frightened me. I especially feared being locked up in an institution. So I refused to tell anyone what had happened to me. It took me weeks to simply to get beyond believing I was insane, let alone anything else.
I didn’t know it the night it happened, but the experience transformed me in ways that I am still discovering decades later. Imagine an experience — almost any experience will do — one of the profound distinctions between an experience, and merely hearing about an experience, is that an experience almost always involves more than you consciously know about it.
One of the most important ways in which the experience transformed me is to give me a perspective on the self — and an understanding of it — that I had not even an inkling of before the experience.
About a month or two after my experience, I was walking to class when I suddenly realized that the song Amazing Grace could easily have been written by someone who had experienced what I’d experienced. Perhaps you can imagine my relief that I was not alone, that I might not be insane after all, but only someone who’d had an amazing experience.
In the end, it would take me years to deal with a world in which there seem to be too equally plausible — but wholly contradictory — categories of existence or reality. There is the normal world in which — among other things — I am a person separate from the rest of the stuff in the universe. Then, there is the mystical world in which — again, among other things — I and the universe are the same thing. I don’t think of myself as a “cosmic dancer”, but perhaps that term isn’t such a bad one to describe moving between those two realities.
For in my view of things, neither reality can in the final analysis claim with certainty to be the only real one. I know most mystics are of the opinion that their experiences have revealed to them that our normal reality is an illusion and that mystical reality is the true or real reality, but I am past taking sides now.
After decades of both thinking and feeling about it, I am like‘s butterfly — or is it I am like the butterfly’s Zhuangzi?
An immediate reason for writing this post — which I have long wanted to do — was a brief conversation earlier today with Lisa R. Palmer, who is also a mystic. Her thought-provoking and insightful blog can be found here.
I have written extensively on mysticism, including a sort of primer to the topic, called, Mysticism is a Whore: Allow Me to Introduce You.