Frequently Asked Questions
Q1. What is a mystical experience?
While there is no universally agreed upon definition of mystical experience, researchers and philosophers generally use the term to refer to those experiences that are unitive. According to the late Princeton University Philosophy Professor W.T. Stace, “the central characteristic of mystical experience is the apprehension of a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate.” A broader definition of mystical experience, which is also valid, includes unitive mystical experience as well as a range of other transpersonal phenomena, such as voices and visions (regardless of whether these phenomena are accompanied by unity).
On www.imere.org, we define mystical experience as: consciousness of The Absolute, Ultimate Reality, or God.
To read about the common characteristics of mystical experiences, please see Q&A 6 BELOW.
Q2. What are some common misconceptions about mysticism?
In The Teachings of The Mystics, W.T. Stace provided an important summary of “Some Things Which Mysticism is Not”:
“The word “mysticism” is popularly used in a variety of loose and inaccurate ways. Sometimes anything is called “mystical” which is misty, foggy, vague, or sloppy. It is absurd that “mysticism” should be associated with what is “misty” because of the familiar sound of the words. And there is nothing misty, foggy, vague, or sloppy about mysticism.
A second absurd association is to suppose that mysticism is sort of mystery-mongering…[M]ysticism is not any sort of hocus-pocus such as we commonly associate with claims to the elucidation of sensational mysteries. Mysticism is not the same as what is commonly called the “occult” – whatever that may mean….”
Q3. Are there different types of mystical experiences?
W.T. Stace explained in The Teachings of The Mystics – as has been noted by previous researchers, including Rudolf Otto and Evelyn Underhill – that, “There appear to be two main distinguishable types of mystical experience, both of which may be found in the higher cultures. One may be called extrovertive mystical experience, the other introvertive mystical experience. Both are apprehensions of the One [“The Divine” or “Ultimate Reality”], but they reach it in different ways. The extrovertive way looks outward and through the physical senses into the external world and finds the One there. The introvertive way turns inward, introspectively, and finds the One at the bottom [i.e., the core] of the Self…”
Stace provided another summary of the two types of mystical experience in his work Mysticism and Philosophy: “[T]he extrovertive mystic, using his physical senses, perceives the multiplicity of external material objects – the sea, the sky, the houses, the trees – mystically transfigured so that the One, or the Unity, shines through them. The introvertive mystic, on the contrary, seeks by deliberately shutting off the senses, by obliterating from consciousness the entire multiplicity of sensations, images, and thoughts, to plunge into the depths of his own [being]. There in the darkness and silence…he perceives the One – and is united with it – not as a unity seen through the multiplicity (as in the extrovertive experience) but as the wholly naked “One” devoid of any plurality whatever.”
Stace regarded the introvertive type of mystical experience – the complete realization of unity outside of time and space – as the more advanced form of mystical experience.
Q4. What are the common characteristics of mystical consciousness?
“The most important central characteristic in which all fully developed mystical experieriences agree, and which in the last analysis is definitive of them and serves to mark them off from other kinds of experiences, is that they involve the apprehension of an ultimate nonsenuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate,” wrote W.T. Stace in The Teachings of The Mystics. “ In other words, it [mystical experience] entirely transcends our sensory-intellectual consciousness,” continued Stace.
As detailed in Q&A 3 above, there are two types of mystical consciousness: the extrovertive and the introvertive. They appear to be two species of one genus. Mystics themselves agree that the One apprehended in the extrovertive mystical experience is the same One apprehended in the introvertive mystical experience.
In Mysticism and Philosophy, W.T. Stace provides a summary of the common characteristics of extrovertive mystical experience and introvertive mystical experiences.
Common Characteristics of Extrovertive Mystical Experiences:
- The Unifying Vision – all things are one
- Apprehension of the One [“The Divine” or “Ultimate Reality”] as an inner subjectivity, or life, in all things
- Sense of objectivity or reality
- Blessedness, peace, [bliss], etc.
- Feeling of the holy, sacred, or divine
- Alleged ineffability
Common Characteristics of Introvertive Mystical Experiences:
- The Unitary Consciousness – the One, the void [“The Divine” or “Ultimate Reality”]; pure consciousness
- Nonspatial, nontemporal
- Sense of objectivity or reality
- Blessedness, peace, [bliss], etc.
- Feeling of the holy, sacred, or divine
- Alleged ineffability
Q5. Who has a mystical experience?
Anyone has the potential to have a mystical experience. Some people have had mystical experiences seemingly generated, at least in part, by their own conscious efforts (e.g., through meditation or other spiritual practice). Other individuals have had seemingly spontaneous mystical experiences (typically extrovertive mystical experiences).
Mystical experiences have been reported by people of all races and religions, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Zoroastrians, Native Americans, “spiritual but not religious” individuals, atheists, and agnostics. It is important to emphasize that, as W.T. Stace noted in Mysticism and Philosophy, “The question whether mystical consciousness favors one creed, one world religion rather than another, can plainly be answered by saying that it does not [emphasis ours]. The mystic in any culture usually interprets his experience in terms of the religion in which he has been reared. But if he is sufficiently sophisticated, he can throw off that religious creed and still retain his mystical consciousness.”
Moreover, Psychology Professor Ralph Hood, Jr., who has performed extensive psychometric studies of mystical experience, wrote in his book, Dimensions of Mystical Experience: Empirical Studies and Psychological Links, that, “Insofar as mysticism is empirically assessed, empirical criteria can be used to support a common core thesis.” In other words, the data support the idea that there is a universal core to mystical experiences reported by people who have various beliefs and who come from different parts of the world.
Q6. What is the purpose of mystical experiences?
Typically, mystics, theistic or not, see their mystical experience as part of a larger undertaking aimed at positive human transformation and not as the end point of their [spiritual growth], according to Jerome I. Gellman, an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
The late Maurice Bucke, MD, a mystical experiencer, believed that “The Savior of man is Cosmic Consciousness [Bucke’s term for mystical experience] – in Paul’s language – the Christ. The cosmic sense (in whatever mind it appears) crushes the serpent’s head – destroys sin, shame, the sense of good and evil as contrasted one with the other…”
In Religion and the Modern Mind, W. T. Stace explained that mystical experience – in all its forms and degrees – serves to foster compassion and love, “the fountains of all higher morality.” Stace wrote:
“The moral urge must be seen as flowing out of [mystical] experience. And undoubtedly that is true. For the experience is, according to the account of all who have it, not merely cognitive or emotional, but above all a value experience. It is blessedness, calm, peace. It is also, or contains as an integral part of itself, an infinite compassion and love for all men. And such compassion and love are the fountains of all higher morality.
But it is not enough to state the mere fact that love flows out of the mystic vision. For if no reason is given for this, it might in that case be a mere accident. The mystic vision is the unifying vision in which “all is one,” in which all distinctions are transcended. What, it might be asked, has this peculiar state of mind, wholly unpractical and visionary, got to do with practical life? The love of man for man is after all a practical affair having to do with the daily routine of our lives. And if it is true that the mystics do feel, as a result of their ecstasy, an increased love for their fellow beings, may not this be a mere superficial phenomenon? The mystic may have a sense of emotional uplift which will cause him, at least for the moment, to feel kindly to his fellows in much the same way as an intoxicant does. And can any such mere emotional [insight] be made the foundation of ethics?
But the connection between mysticism and love is not thus accidental and superficial. There is a necessary metaphysical relation between the two. The foundation of this relation lies in the fact that in the mystic vision, all distinctions, and therefore the distinction between one man and another, are transcended. Selfhood, in the sense in which I am one self and you are another, is gone. But it is out of such selfhood that all moral evil, especially hatred and envy of others, arises. He who achieves the vision sees that his self is the self of all men, that he is in them and they in him. There is for him no such distinction between an “I” and a “you” as would cause him to seek something for the “I” and deny it to the “you,” to hate another while loving himself, to cause pain to another while grasping at pleasure for himself. He lives in all men and all men live in him. His desire, his love, therefore, is not for himself but for all men. It is this which makes mysticism the source of the moral life…
[The mystic consciousness] is actually present in all men now. What [most] men call religious [i.e., sacred or holy] feeling is a dim [version] of what the [mystic] sees in brilliant illumination….[M]oral aspiration…[flows] out of the religious experience common to all men in proportion as it is dim or bright. And since that experience is basically the same in all men – the differences being of degree – the morality which flows out of it will be the same everywhere, the same for all men, though some will apprehend it more clearly, others more obscurely…
And we may also think that what some philosophers have called moral “intuitions” are in reality an influx into our ordinary consciousness of elements from that radically different kind of mentality, intuitive and non-discriminating, of which the mystics speak…”
Q7. Why should I learn about mystical experiences?
In their book, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, Edward Kelly et al., explain that “[I]t is an incontrovertible and empirically grounded fact that the mystical domain comprises large numbers of real human experiences – experiences, moreover, which are often uniquely powerful and transformative – and that experiences of this sort lie at or near the foundation of religions generally and thus even of civilization itself [emphasis ours]….”
Mysticism assigns to consciousness a central and even supreme reality. Its fundamental lesson is that there are experiences, forms of consciousness, and modes of being with characteristics not mechanical, physical, or computational….
Mystical and transpersonal experience is a real and vitally important facet of human psychology, and we must somehow come to terms with it. Restoring the mystical to its proper place will go far toward restoring the humanity of our science. The mystical roots of conscious experience also reveal a deep human identity, transcending all national, racial, personal, and theological differences. What better reason to investigate these remarkable, transformative experiences?”
Q8. How can I learn more about mystical experiences?
Please visit our Resources page, which includes a brief list of important books on mystical experience. We suggest first reading the mystical experience books that are marked with stars before their titles.
Q9. If I share an experience on this website, will my personal information be kept confidential? How will the information I provide by used?
Yes, your information will be kept confidential (unless you specify otherwise).
The information that you provide may be read by researchers and others approved by IMERE to review our materials. Your survey information may be excerpted, used in full, or used in aggregated form with other submissions in articles or books, in lectures or other educational materials, and on www.imere.org. We will not use specific identifying information. Your name will not be used unless you give express permission for IMERE to do so.
Q10. How can I become involved with the Institute for Mystical Experience Research and Education?
IMERE welcomes inquiries from people who are interested in helping to advance our mission and vision. Please contact us to learn about the possibility of volunteering your skills and time to help IMERE.
At this time, we are particularly interested in hearing from people with experience in one or more of the following areas: mysticism, academic research, statistical analysis, survey administration, and writing and editing.