What Mystical Experiences Might Tell Us

Some experiences appear to reveal deeper reality.

What can we learn from them?

A woman sits by the sea, thinking about the nature of love, when she is engulfed by a white light that brings peace and joy. She feels one with all beings, not just human, and loves them all. Another woman, emerging from a medically induced coma, ‘comes home’ to total understanding, blissful unity, and love. A man, in a near-death emergency, is immersed in light and realizes that he himself is the brightness, a light that loves, knows, and contains all. Another man, weighed down with cares, is enveloped by golden luminosity and understands that he is an integral part of the whole. From this greater vantage point, his worries are put in perspective.

Experiences such as these, which are commonly called ‘mystical’, take place under a wide variety of circumstances, although very often amid the beauty of nature or in moments of crisis and distress. They are encouraged by a calming of the inner chatter that keeps the mind busy and distracted. While it is rare for an individual to have more than one or two experiences of this kind, across the population a significant minority have had such experiences, and over the years many accounts have been gathered by researchers. Certain characteristics are described again and again: unity, wholeness, heightened consciousness, deep and expansive knowing, self-transcendence, altered time-perception, light, love, compassion, peace, bliss, joy, aliveness. The experiences feel extraordinarily real, far more so than everyday consciousness, and it can seem that usually hidden depths of reality are being revealed. It is as if confused dreams have given way to a clear wakefulness that is one’s rightful condition.

Mystical experiences have often been explained away as biological and psychological abnormalities or products of religious indoctrination. However, such explanations have had major weaknesses, not least their inability to account in detail for the full range of mystical characteristics. The possibility remains that the experiences truly are ‘windows on reality’ and it is reasonable to ask what the experiences might tell us about the world and ourselves if they are genuinely revelatory. Admittedly, study of the implications of mystical experience has its challenges, theoretical and practical, but some tentative speculations can be made.

First, there is reason to think that consciousness is more fundamental than usually supposed. It has been common to assume that consciousness is derivative, a product of brain activity, but the profundity and sheer expansiveness of consciousness in mystical states suggest otherwise. Some experiences even give the impression that the entire universe exists as the contents of consciousness, which gives some support to those mind–matter philosophies that take mind rather than matter to be the more fundamental. If mind is primary, then there are some interesting consequences. For instance, a purely physical description of the world will be incomplete, and physics will have to take into account mind if it is ultimately to be successful. Furthermore, extrasensory perceptions, such as telepathy and precognition, are more understandable in a world of mind, and also survival of death, since mind, although conditioned by the brain, is not dependent on the brain for its existence. Interestingly, mystical experiences themselves can bring a powerful conviction that death is not final.

Second (and closely related to the above), mystical disclosures of luminous reality suggest that light experience is no mere ‘glow’ of brain activity but is fundamental too, as intrinsic to the world as consciousness itself. Indeed, consciousness and light do not seem to be distinct, and it makes sense to talk of ‘luminous consciousness’ or even ‘conscious light’. In the modern era, philosophers banished colour from the physical world, confining it to the mind alone, but if luminosity is fundamental then we should invite colour back into the world at large. Third, mystical experiences bring new perspectives on time, notably the realization that all times coexist in the present moment. It may therefore be a mistake to assume that the past is no more and the future yet to be. Certainly, precognition becomes a little more understandable if the future already exists.

The most personally significant lessons to be drawn from mystical openings have to do with self-identity. A core feature of mystical experience is unity—unity with others, with the environment, with the universe, with the source of all things. Naturally, these unities involve transformations of self-understanding: the illusion of radical separateness lifts, revealing a more extensive, connected, inclusive identity, one that some mystics find to be the conscious light itself. In a world of community and shared essential nature, to harm another is equivalent to harming oneself and those one loves. This is no mere intellectual rationalization, and, as mystical and near-death experiences repeatedly attest, love is the key.

But mystical experiences are generally short-lived, and then the hard work begins, for it is no easy task to integrate the realizations into everyday life. Some have hoped that, as time goes by, mystical insights into the fundamental equality and affiliation of beings will become more common and influential, broadening the sense of kinship beyond narrow bounds and thereby transforming society, ethics, politics, law, work and business, attitudes to persons different from ourselves, treatment of animals, and care of the natural world in general. It remains to be seen whether this will ever come to pass, but at least for the moment individuals can take heart in the intuition that beyond all the cruelty, exploitation, selfishness, and tragedy in the world there is meaning and a basic all-rightness, although often very difficult to discern.

What, then, can we learn from mystical experiences? Undoubtedly, they are likely to contribute to philosophical investigation of the big questions and help shed light on such puzzles as parapsychological phenomena and life after death. More speculatively, they may encourage an expanded physics from which mind is not excluded. But their implications go deeper still, reaching to the heart of who we are and what is truly important.

Paul Marshall

March 2015