It’s difficult to define a mystical experience. What exactly does it involve? Do they all share some basic elements? It’s probably a good idea to broadly define mystical to include the different kinds of experiences that people report as being mystical. What’s also interesting is that it is common for mystical experiences to have lasting effects, especially in changes to the personality. The changes can be positive or negative or a mixture of both. The long-term effects seem to be heavily influenced by context, that is, what the individual brings to the experience and what they take from it. But I’ll get to that aspect of them later. A mystical experience is easily understood as an “altered state of consciousness” – they are not typical of one’s ordinary, waking state of consciousness, but are more dream-like, trance-like, unique and intense in their own right.
You can alter your state of consciousness in a number of ways: tribal drumming, repetitive dancing, fasting, sleep deprivation, dehydration, near-death experience, dreaming, chanting, different kinds of meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, using sensory deprivation tanks and taking drugs. Michael Persinger also tried (and successfully did in some cases) induce a mystical experience by manipulating the temporal lobe with magnetic fields. Check out his paper The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences for more detail on his “God helmet” that he developed.
The kinds of altered states accessed by these methods will be very different, but if they are mystical, they might share some common features. These include contact (visually and/or auditory) with a separate entity. If you are a Christian, this separate entity might be Christ or the Virgin Mary, whereas if you are a Hindu this separate entity might be the goddess Kali. William James said in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) that a central feature of a mystical experience is its ineffability, which means that you cannot explain the experience. People who are asked what happened during their mystical experience might say that “words cannot do it justice” or something similar. The experience is completely alien and unrecognisable. Other common features include a loss of the boundary between yourself and the world, a sense of timelessness or eternity, a feeling of ecstasy, union with the universe, and the sense of gaining important insights and knowledge.
The neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, who wrote the book Why God Won’t Go Away, tried to find the brain region or process responsible for these kinds of mystical experiences. By scanning the brains of Tibetan monks deep in meditation, he found that the posterior superior parietal lobe (which is involved in creating spatial boundaries) is starved of input. Therefore, this could be how that sense of “oneness” is achieved, by removing one’s spatial boundaries.
This is an interesting finding, but it does not shed much light on the various causes of mystical experiences or what the long-term effects of these experiences might be. Nevertheless, the subject of how religious practices can actually change your brain is worth looking into, especially since some forms of meditation are useful in reducing stress, anxiety and depression, and increasing levels of concentration. For more on this, I would recommend Newberg’s book How God Changes Your Brain.
Some have tried to describe some of the features of mystical experiences as pathological, that is, a sign of a mental disorder or mental dysfunction. In one case, a man named Simon reported being the “living son of David (from the Bible)” and said he could see sacred words and letters on ordinary objects. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) would describe this first experience as a Delusion of Grandiose Ability and describe the second experience as a Primary Delusion. However, the DSM also defines psychotic in two ways; first, as a temporary state and second, as a disorder. If Simon’s experiences were long-lasting and constant, then we might want to ascribe his experiences to a mental disorder.
Some writers have even suggested that mystical experiences, in general, are mentally quite healthy. Carl Jung, for example, said in his essay Psychology and Religion, that a mystical experience was a “psychologically healthy experience.” In a study carried out by Dale Caird, it was found that individuals who reported having a mystical experience scored higher on psychological well-being scales compared to the control group. William James argued that it is difficult for mystical experiences to have long-lasting negative effects because these experiences are transient, that is, they do not last for very long. Disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, on the other hand, are long-lasting and that is what makes them a disorder and not an experience. This seems like a fair distinction, but there are cases where mystical experiences have developed into psychotic episodes.
David Greenberg followed four Jewish mystics who became engulfed in the teachings of Kabbalah. Greenberg pinpointed the cause of their psychosis as the inability to control entry into the mystical state. This loss of control is what eventually led to their paranoid delusions and withdrawal from the social world. Becoming obsessed with the mystical experience and isolating yourself from the ordinary world is a recipe for disaster. Remember, it is not so much the mystical experience itself, but its context which can lead to positive or negative effects.
Back to Greenberg’s findings, it seems that when the entry into the mystical experience is controlled and voluntary, it is less likely to have long-term negative effects. Taking hallucinogenic drugs would be an example of controlling your entry into the mystical state. To have long-lasting positive results, it is also important for the person to integrate the experience into ordinary reality and not letting it disrupt their relationships, family and career.
Whether a mystical experience is defined as having good or bad long-term effects heavily depends on cultural context. For example, the Ashaninka people living in Peru regularly take ayahuasca (a brew which allows DMT to be orally active) and claim to be in contact with “spirits” during the experience, but continue to believe in their existence after the experience is over. Now a Western doctor might diagnose these people as possibly schizophrenic or delusional, but because the ayahuasca experience is the cultural norm, it does not cause long-lasting problems. In fact, the experiences seem to create long-lasting stability, community and well-being among the Ashaninka people. Mystical experiences are actually very common and are considered healthy in many societies. The anthropologist Erika Bourguignon found that out of 448 societies, 52% of them would engage in some sort of religious trance which involved “possession by spiritual beings.”
Several studies now seem to confirm the potential long-term benefits of mystical experiences caused by psychedelic drugs. In Rick Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule, several participants reported an elevation in mood and general outlook on life, long after the session with DMT was finished. In a now famous study of psilocybin (in magic mushrooms), a group from John Hopkins University found that out of the 30 volunteers in the study, 22 out of 33 reported having a ‘mystical’ or ‘sacred’ experience. Furthermore, 67% rated the experience as being one of the “most meaningful experience of his or her life.” The participants reported increases in aesthetic appreciation, imagination, creativity and in higher doses (which are more likely to cause mystical experiences) participants said that they felt more “openness” a year after the session. Participants in the study also reported “sustained positive changes in attitudes and behaviour.”
Eric Kast has claimed that LSD could be useful for patients who are dying of a terminal illness. If used in a therapeutic setting, Kast says that LSD can break down the psychological barriers (such as fear of death) of the patient and make them more responsive to their environment and family.