Beyond Concepts: The Transrational Nature of Mystical Experiences

transrational mystical experiences

Mystical experiences are characterised by ineffability – that is, what is subjectively experienced is difficult, or impossible, to adequately put into words. However, we can go a step further and say that such experiences are transrational: their ineffability relates to the fact that these experiences lie outside the scope of reason. While on the one hand, rational explanations can be given as to how these experiences arise, this does not give us a window into the ‘what it is like’ aspect – the qualitative features – of them. Of course, this could be said of any qualitative experience, which might ostensibly make this point about the inherent privacy of mystical states an uninteresting statement. 

Nonetheless, there is something particularly transrational about these altered states of mind. The experience of redness, for instance, is ineffable, but this is not the kind (or perhaps degree) of ineffability we have in mind when we think of the experience of the divine, paradoxicality, ultimate unity, the transcendence of space and time, and the dissolution of all concepts and reference points. We cannot describe in words the qualitative experiences we have in everyday waking consciousness, such as redness, regardless of whether someone else can see colour or not. But if you have experienced redness, you know what it is like in your imagination and memory, and once experienced, there is no confusion about its qualitative nature. 

What makes the transrational mystical experiences unique, on the other hand, is that even if you have had them, this doesn’t mean you can even contain in your mind the what-it-is-like character of them. There may be a semblance of them – an emotional charge to the experience that, if recalled, gives you a taste of what occurred. There could be a strong conviction that one felt the divine, and went beyond all division and concepts, in that moment; but now back in sober reality, it can be difficult or impossible to truly imagine and remember the true character of the experience. 

Because of the distinctness of mystical phenomenology compared to everyday or profane phenomenology, we could also call the former transconceptual, transcognitive, or translinguistic. Indeed, the psychonaut and lecturer Terence McKenna remarked that the DMT breakthrough experience was “un-English-able”. It is not only as if there are no words in any language to communicate what is experienced, but that there are no adequate concepts either. This hyperineffability – inability to not only describe an experience, but inability to think of them conceptually – gives one the impression that the human mind has not evolved the ability to hold onto the experience once it’s over. To a large extent, it seems that mystical states lie outside the function and bounds of memory. They go beyond cognition.

This point may be contested, however, as certain metaphysical systems may precisely capture and accommodate such experiences, such as panpsychism (everything possesses consciousness), cosmopsychism (the universe as a whole is conscious: a supermind beyond the kind of consciousness possessed by any individual entity within the cosmic supermind), pantheism (nature/the universe is God), or monism/nonduality (everything is ultimately one or unified, rather than dual or divided). 

Still, even if someone may find a metaphysical framework that helps them to make sense of their mystical experiences – which we can call metaphysical integration, and which philosopher of mind and metaphysics Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes argues is needed in psychedelic therapy – this doesn’t discount the aforementioned hyperineffability of these experiences. The paradoxical nature of these experiences is that they can, one the one hand, be made sense of from a metaphysical standpoint, but on the other hand, they also seem to lie outside sense-making and rational inquiry. 

It is almost as if some things belong in the mystical realm, and in that realm only. The experiences are, to a large extent, inherently unrememberable for that precise reason. It can feel like some grand insights can only be had in that state, which cannot be gathered and taken back to sober reality (although it is very possible that no meaningfully rich insights actually take place, only the impression or feeling of insight). Mystical experiences also don’t appear to be amenable to logic. And this can explain why so much of mysticism is based on contradiction and paradox (such as Zen koans/riddles, the teachings of Taoism, and Buddhist philosophy). 

The transrational nature of mystical experiences also makes research on these experiences curious. In psychedelic therapy studies, participants are asked to rate how ineffable their experiences were, using questionnaires like the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ). But how can you rate, measure, and quantify how ineffable an experience was? What does that actually mean? If a mystical experience is perceived as being highly ineffable, then does it make sense to describe it in other terms included in the MEQ, such as sacredness, insightfulness, and transcendence? Again, this might just point to the paradoxical quality of ineffable experiences: they can be at once described (based on a conviction of what occurred) and indescribable (being lost for words, especially right after the return to consensus reality). While the experience may be referred to as ‘more real than real’, or ultimate reality, this doesn’t mean someone can communicate clearly to anyone, including themselves, what that newly discovered clear reality is like.

We can use signs (words) to point to the ineffable, but not truly touch the ineffable unless in a rarefied state of consciousness. Words are the finger pointing at the moon, but not the moon itself. Hyperineffability and the transrational may be a source of frustration (because one wants to clearly remember what was one of the most profound and life-altering experiences of one’s life). So perhaps integrating these experiences should also involve an acceptance of mystery, humility about the limits of the human mind, and perhaps even an entertaining of the idea that transrational experiences can be meaningful without being sources of cosmic knowledge. By this last point, I mean that it doesn’t matter if one feels cosmic insights (about the nature of the universe/reality) have been lost after a mystical experience is over because it’s possible such insights were never genuine in the first place. 

In any case, the philosopher Chris Letheby argues in his book Philosophy of Psychedelics (2020), what is more relevant from a therapeutic perspective, is whether psychedelics change mental representations of the self, rather than their metaphysical quality. Mystical experiences, induced by psychedelics or otherwise, can take us beyond concepts – a philosophically interesting feature of them; but in terms of how satisfied we feel with respect to life and ourselves, what could be most crucial is how our self-concept is altered in a recognisable way.

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