The mystical experience is a transient, extraordinary experience marked by:

  • feelings of unity
  • sense of harmonious relationship to the divine
  • euphoria
  • sense of noesis (access to the hidden spiritual dimension)
  • loss of ego functioning
  • alterations in time and space perception
  • sense of lacking control over the event.
    (see Several Definitions of Mysticism)

The definitions of mystical experience used in research and clinical publications vary considerably, ranging from

"upheaval of the total personality"
(Neumann, E. Mystical man in The Mystic Vision)

to definitions which include

"everyday mysticism"
(Scharfstein, B. Mystical Experience)

Surveys of mystical experience typically use a question such as,

"Have you ever experienced a spiritual force that seems to lift you out of yourself?"

Wiliam James saw the mystical experience as being at the core of religious experience and believed that such experiences have led to the founding of the world's religions.

Surveys assessing the incidence of mystical experience in the general population indicate that it has been rising. Below are the percentages of the population who answered yes to the Gallup Poll question:

Have you ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or a power — whether you call it God or not — which is different from your everyday self?

    1973: 27%
    1986: 42%
    1990: 54%
    (Gallup [1], [2])

Given that most of the adult population report such experiences, they are clearly normal rather than pathological phenomena.

A recent survey found that most clinicians do not currently view mystical experiences as pathological [3]. To some degree this reflects a change, partly attributable to Abraham Maslow, Ph.D., who was a founder of humanistic psychology in the 1960s, and then went on to found transpersonal psychology. He described the mystical experience as an aspect of everyday psychological functioning:

It is very likely, indeed almost certain, that these older reports [of mystical experiences], phrased in terms of supernatural revelation, were, in fact, perfectly natural, human peak- experiences of the kind that can easily be examined today. (Abraham Maslow Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences p. 20)

Yet historically mental health theory and diagnostic classification systems have tended to either ignore or pathologize such intense religious and spiritual experiences. Some clinical literature has described the mystical experience as symptomatic of

  • ego regression [4]
  • borderline psychosis [5]
  • a psychotic episode [6]
  • temporal lobe dysfunction [7]

Freud reduced the "oceanic experience" of mystics to "infantile helplessness" and a "regression to primary narcissism" (in Civilization and Its Discontents).

In contrast to Freud, other theorists have viewed mystical experiences as a sign of health and a powerful agent of transformation, including C.G. Jung, (see Psychology and Religion) and Evelyn Underhill (see Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness).

In addition, studies have found that people reporting mystical experiences scored lower on psychopathology scales and higher on measures of psychological well-being than controls. (see The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach by Ralph W. Hood, Editor).

Many contemporary religious groups cultivate such experiences, such as the followers of the Guru Maharaji.

Mystical experiences, analogous to an acute circumscribed hallucinatory episode, were found to be a central factor in the conversion of some of the adherents to the Divine Light Mission ([8], p. 281).

These experiences typically lasted one to three hours. Such behavior and states of mind appear psychotic, but they take place in a cultural context which promotes and guides such experiences. Similarly Ram Dass describes individuals in a "god-intoxicated" state who are undergoing a training program for mystical experience under the close supervision of a master and their peers.

Case studies document instances where mystical experiences are disruptive and distressing. This is one type of spiritual problem that therapists see regularly. In a survey, psychologists reported that 4.5% of their clients over the past 12 months brought a mystical experience into therapy.

Mystical experiences can be overwhelming for individuals who don't have a strong sense of self to begin with. They can become frightened and confused by the sudden influx of spiritual consciousness. Roberto Assagioli, MD, known for being the founder of psychosynthesis, described this clinical problem:

The personality is unable to rightly assimilate the inflow of light and energy. This happens, for instance, when the intellect is not well coordinated and developed; when the emotions and the imagination are uncontrolled; when the nervous system is too sensitive, or when the inrush of spiritual energy is overwhelming in its suddenness and intensity. (Self-realization and psychological disturbances in Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis by Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof, p. 34-5)

However, there are also several specific similarities between self-reported descriptions of mystical and psychotic experiences.

  1. Feeling of being transported beyond the self to a new realm
  2. Feeling of communion with the `divine'
  3. Sense of ecstasy and exultation
  4. Heightened state of awareness
  5. Loss of self-object boundaries
  6. Powerful sense of noesis
  7. Distortion of time-sense
  8. Perceptual changes (synesthesia, dampening, or heightening)
  9. Hallucinations
    (Buckley, P. Mystical experience and schizophrenia)

Hallucinations in mystical experiences are more often visual than auditory. In both states, the sensation of seeing and being enveloped in light is common. Thus there is often a need to make differential diagnosis using the approach and criteria presented in Lesson 3.

A computerized content analysis comparing written passages describing schizophrenia, hallucinogenic drug experiences, and mystical experiences with autobiographical accounts as controls also provides guidance for differential diagnosis:

  • Schizophrenic subjects emphasize illness/deviance themes
  • Hallucinogenic accounts emphasize altered sensory experience
  • Mystical accounts focus on religious/spiritual issues
  • Normal control subjects emphasize adaptive and interpersonal themes
    (Oxman TE, Rosenberg SD, Schnurr PP, Tucker GJ, Gala G, The language of altered states)

This strongly suggests that content can be used as a guide in differential diagnosis. This is Criterion 1 of the assessment criteria:

Phenomenological overlap with one of the types of spiritual emergency

One of the main risks observed following ecstatic mystical experiences is ego inflation in which an individual develops highly grandiose beliefs or even delusions about their own spiritual stature and attainment. Many theorists have seen this as an "occupational risk" associated with spiritual seeking.

The very calling contains the scent of inflation — or as it is called in Zen, the stink of enlightenment.
(Gary Rosenthal in Spiritual Choices: The Problems of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation)

Jung also observed inflation as a risk of spiritual practices:

The state we are discussing involves an extension of the personality beyond individual limits, in other words a state of being puffed up...The inflation has nothing to do with the kind of knowledge, but simply and solely with the fact that any new knowledge can so seize hold of a weak head that he no longer sees and hears anything else. He is hypnotized by it and instantly believes he has solved the riddle of the universe.
Portable Jung

I certainly experienced this inflation in my spiritual crisis, believing for a while that I was a reincarnation of Buddha and Christ (Lukoff's Shamanic Crisis).

As with other types of spiritual emergency, individuals in the midst of intense mystical experiences have been hospitalized and medicated, when less restrictive and more health-promoting interventions could have been utilized. Some have suggested that the presence of a mystical experience is a contraindication for medication:

The phenomenological overlap in some aspects of the acute mystical experience and acute schizophrenia . . . suggests that the presence of similar subjective phenomena in some acute schizophrenics might be a possible marker of patients who should not receive medication (Mystical experience and schizophrenia p. 430)

Therapy to help a person integrate a mystical experience should follow the guidelines suggested in Lessons 5 and 7.

Canadian psychiatrist Richard Bucke
His personal mystical experience as recounted in his influential book in the field of psychology of religion, Cosmic Consciousness.

Myths in Mental Illness
Case of Howard, hospitalized while on a Mental Odyssey.

The WWW LIBRARY on Religion and Spirituality contains articles on mystical experiences and guides to online resources on mysticism

1 Gallup, G., (1987) The Gallup poll: Public Opinion 1986., Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources.

2 Gallup 1990 This survey data was obtained directly from the Gallup Organization. Source Document: Gallup Poll-A.I.P.O. JUN 1990.

3 Allman L, de la Rocha O, Elkin D, Weathurs R. (1992) Psychotherapists' attitude towards clients reporting mystical experiences. Psychotherapy, 29, 564-569.

4 Freud, S. Civilization and Its Discontents

5 Group for Advancement of Psychiatry (1976) Mysticism: Spiritual quest or mental disorder. New York: Author.

6 Horton PC (1974) The mystical experience: Substance of an illusion. Am Psychoanalytic Assoc J 22(1-2):364-380.

7 Mandel, A.J. (1980) Toward a psychobiology of transcendence: God in the brain. In RJ Davidson and JM Davidson (Eds), The psychobiology of consciousness. New York: Plenum Press.

8 Buckley, P. and Galanter, M. (1979). Mystical experience, spiritual knowledge, and a contemporary ecstatic religion. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 52, 281-289.

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