The definitions of mystical experience used in research
and clinical publications vary considerably, ranging
"upheaval of the total personality"
(Neumann, E. in The
to definitions which include
(Scharfstein, B. Mystical
For clinical assessment, the mystical experience can
be seen as a transient, extraordinary experience marked
of harmonious relationship to the divine
of noesis (access to the hidden spiritual dimension)
loss of ego
in time and space perception
sense of lacking
control over the event.
Definitions of Mysticism)
James saw mystical experience as being at the
core of religion, and believed that such experiences
led to the founding of the world's religions.
Experiences and Psychopathology
Surveys assessing the incidence of mystical experience
in the general population indicate that it has been
rising. during the past few decades. Now more than
half the population polled answered yes to the Gallup
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
(Gallup , )
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 .
To some degree this reflects a change, partly attributable
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
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
(see Lukoff D, Lu F, Turner R. Toward
a more culturally sensitive DSM-IV: Psychoreligious and psychospiritual problems)
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, such as the followers
of the Guru Maharaji, cultivate mystical experiences,
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.,
These events 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, a former psychologist turned spiritual teacher,
describes individuals in a "god-intoxicated" state
undergoing a training program for mystical experience
under the close supervision of a master.
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 (4).
Mystical experiences can be overwhelming for individuals
who don'talready have a strong sense of self. 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,
when the inrush of spiritual energy is overwhelming in its suddenness and
(Self-realization and psychological disturbances in Spiritual
Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis by Stanislav
Grof and Christina Grof, pp. 34-5)
However, there are also several specific similarities
between self-reported descriptions of mystical and
of being transported beyond the self to a new realm
of communion with the 'divine'
Sense of ecstasy
Loss of self-object
(synesthesia, dampening, or heightening)
(Buckley, P. Mystical
experience and schizophrenia)
QUIZ EXERCISE 12:
A feeling of communion with the divine occurs ...
a) more often in mystical experiences
b) more often in psychosis
c) in both mystical experiences and psychosis
Record your answers for later insertion into the Quiz.
Hallucinations in mystical experiences are more often
visual than auditory. In both states, the sensation
of seeing and being enveloped in light is common.
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
subjects emphasize illness/deviance themes
accounts emphasize altered sensory experience
focus on religious/spiritual issues
subjects emphasize adaptive and interpersonal themes
(Oxman TE, Rosenberg SD, Schnurr PP, Tucker GJ, Gala G, The
language of altered states)
QUIZ EXERCISE 13:
Record your answers for later insertion into the Quiz.
This strongly suggests that content can be used as
a guide in differential diagnosis.
Phenomenological overlap with one of
the types of spiritual problems
1 of the differential diagnostic criteria presented
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 seeking spiritually transformative
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
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.
I certainly experienced this inflation in my spiritual
crisis, believing for a while that I was a reincarnation
of Buddha and Christ. (see my case
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
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
experience and schizophrenia p. 430)
Thus the most crtical component of clinical care is
to recognize and diagnose episodes involving mysitical
episodes. Therapy to help a person integrate a mystical
experience should follow the guidelines suggested in Lesson
psychiatrist Richard Bucke
His personal mystical experience as recounted in his influential book in the
field of psychology of religion, Cosmic
in Mental Illness by David Lukoff,PhD
Case of Howard, hospitalized while on a Mental Odyssey.
WWW LIBRARY of Religion
LIBRARY of 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 Buckley, P. and Galanter,
M. (1979). Mystical experience, spiritual knowledge,
and a contemporary ecstatic religion. British Journal
of Medical Psychology, 52, 281-289.
4 Lannert, J. (1991). "Resistance
and countertransference issues with spiritual and religious
clients." Journal of Humanistic Psychology 31(4): 68-76.