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Mystical Experience Reading List

Below is a brief list of important books on mystical experience. The list is not comprehensive; rather, it is a good starting point for learning more about mystical experierience. We suggest first reading the mystical experience books marked with stars before their titles.

Some of the early titles are out of print, but they are available from used book sources such as online book sellers. When reading the books, please keep in mind that no single viewpoint represents the entire field of mystical experience studies.

Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind by Richard Maurice Bucke

This work is the magnum opus of Bucke's career, a project that he researched and wrote over many years. In it, Bucke, a McGill-educated medical doctor, described his own experience, that of contemporaries (most notably Whitman, but also unknown figures like "C.P."), and the experiences and outlook of historical figures including Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Plotinus, Muhammad, Dante, Francis Bacon, and William Blake.

Bucke developed a theory involving three stages in the development of consciousness: the simple consciousness of animals; the self-consciousness of the great majority of humanity (encompassing reason, imagination, etc.); and cosmic consciousness – an emerging faculty and the next stage of human development. Among the effects of this progression, he believed that he detected a lengthy historical trend in which religious conceptions and theologies had become less and less fearful.

Cosmic Consciousness (first published in 1901) remains a valuable, pioneer work in the study of mystical experience. Still, it is important to note that 1) some of Bucke’s ideas (e.g., false concepts relating to gender and race) reveal that he was too heavily influenced by his background and time and 2) the evolutionary theory of his book is speculative (although it may ultimately prove to be true).

Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality by Edward Kelly et. al

The rise of modern science has brought with it increasing acceptance among intellectual elites of a worldview that conflicts sharply both with everyday human experience and with beliefs widely shared among the world’s great cultural traditions. Most contemporary scientists and philosophers believe that reality is at bottom purely physical, and that human beings are nothing more than extremely complicated biological machines. On such views our everyday experiences of conscious decision-making, free will, and the self are illusory by-products of the grinding of our neural machinery. It follows that mind and personality are necessarily extinguished at death, and that there exists no deeper transpersonal or spiritual reality of any sort.

Beyond Physicalism is the product of an unusual fellowship of leading scientists and humanities scholars who dispute these views. In their previous publication, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century (see below), they argued that physicalism cannot accommodate various well-evidenced empirical phenomena including paranormal or psi phenomena, postmortem survival, and mystical experiences. In this new theory-oriented companion volume they go further by attempting to understand how the world must be constituted in order that these “rogue” phenomena can occur. Drawing upon empirical science, metaphysical philosophy, and the mystical traditions, the authors work toward an improved “big picture” of the general character of reality, one which strongly overlaps territory traditionally occupied by the world’s institutional religions, and which attempts to reconcile science and spirituality by finding a middle path between the polarized fundamentalisms, religious and scientific, that have dominated recent public discourse.

Dimensions of Mystical Experience: Empirical Studies and Psychological Links by Ralph W. Hood Jr.

Written by a Professor of Psychology, this book is focused solely on the empirical study of mysticism. The author has published numerous articles on the psychology of religion and spirituality in professional journals, is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1995–1999), and has been coeditor of The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.

The book consists of a series of 16 previously published papers that, according to the author himself, “are representative of the scope and range of what amounts to a very narrow methodological perspective for the study of mysticism.” These papers primarily use a measurement approach with three major emphases: 1) mysticism can be measured with the same degree of sophistication and reliability as any other construct of psychology; 2) the fact that the report of mysticism can be measured allows us to correlate this report with other phenomena of interest to psychology of religion; and 3) there exists the possibility of quasi-experimental studies of mysticism.

Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century by Edward Kelly et al.

Current mainstream opinion in psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind holds that all aspects of human mind and consciousness are generated by physical processes occurring in brains. Views of this sort have dominated recent scholarly publication. The present volume, however, demonstrates empirically that this reductive materialism is not only incomplete but false.

The authors, five accomplished professors, systematically marshal evidence for a variety of psychological phenomena that are extremely difficult, and in some cases clearly impossible, to account for in conventional physicalist terms. Topics addressed include phenomena of extreme psychophysical influence, memory, psychological automatisms and secondary personality, near-death experiences and allied phenomena, genius-level creativity, and “mystical” states of consciousness both spontaneous and drug-induced. Chapter 8, “Mystical Experience,” focuses primarily on the psychological character and biological accompaniments of these powerful experiences.

The authors contend that all of the aforementioned phenomena are more readily accommodated by an alternative “transmission” or “filter” theory of mind/brain relations advanced over a century ago by a largely forgotten genius, F. W. H. Myers, and developed further by his friend and colleague, Harvard Professor William James. This theory, moreover, ratifies the commonsense conception of human beings as causally effective conscious agents, and is fully compatible with leading-edge physics and neuroscience. The book should command the attention of all open-minded persons concerned with the still-unsolved mysteries of the mind.

Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis by Steven T. Katz

This comprehensive study by a group of ten distinguished American and British scholars aims to sympathetically and objectively deal with mystical experience in Christianity, Judaism, and Eastern religions. The contributors, well respected academics in their fields, focus on actual mystical texts and details of the subject matter. These contributors challenge the interpretation that all mystical experience is the same.

 
 

*Mysticism and Philosophy by W.T. Stace

What is the “mystical experience?” Where does it come from? What does it mean? Is it a link to a divine realm? What is the real value to the many human cultures and religions that have acknowledged it through history? Does the mystical experience reveal a spiritual presence in the universe greater than man? If so, what is the nature of the spiritual presence and what is its relationship to man? What are the implications of the mystical experience on the questions on the nature of the self, on philosophy, on morals, and ethics, and on human claims to immortality? Mysticism and Philosophy by W.T. Stace of the Princeton University philosophy department seeks to answer these questions.

W. T. Stace reviews the many types and varieties of mystical experience in order to discover its meaning and value for mankind. Accepting the psychological fact of mystical experience in some people at certain moments in history, Stace sets out to examine the vague meaning of the term “mystical” and to specify empirically the main characteristics of these experiences as recorded through history. Drawing from the world’s major religious disciplines, Stace expands on fundamental issues such as structure of language, objectivity or subjectivity in experience, dualism, monism, pantheism, and the underpinning of logic to provide a framework through which we can begin to understand the mystical and its place in our world.

First published in 1960, Mysticism and Philosophy is still regarded as one of the leading works in the study of mystical experience.  In Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century (2007), Edward Kelly et al. write that Stace’s work remains, “One of the most searching, thoughtful, and provocative examinations of … questions [about mysticism] carried out to date…”

Mysticism and Religious Traditions by Steven T. Katz

This book seeks to help answer the question, “What is the relationship between mystical experience and traditional religion?” Is the mystic a religious “Lone Ranger” who struggles against authority. Although many people see mystics as people who transcend the traditions of organized religions, the ten highly regarded scholars of religion who contributed articles to this book question this generalization. They argue that mystical thought and experience can be fully understood only within the context of particular cultures and religious traditions. The book’s articles discuss the contexts of mysticism and the social mediation of mystical experience within all of the world’s major religions.

Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology by F.C. Happold

This work seeks to help answer the question, “What is mysticism?”

In this clear, straightforward, and insightful book, F.C. Happold combines a study of mysticism – as experience, as spiritual knowledge, and as a way of life – with an illustrative anthology of mystical writings.  Drawing material from all over the world, the anthology includes not only selections from the Christian mystics (such as Meister Eckhart and St. John), but also from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, from Plato and Plotinus, from the Sufi mystics of Islam (such as Baba Kuhi and Rumi), from Dante, and even from the “nature mystic”, Richard Jeffries.

While Happold acknowledges his own Christian bias, he states that “What, when one studies the mystical expressions of different religions,  stands out most vividly…is…the basic similarities of the [mystical] vision.”  Happold’s study and anthology complement each other very well, and they knit together to form a brilliant and original introduction to mysticism.

Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness by Evelyn Underhill

Mysticism is usually thought of as an intense state involving personal unification with the Divine or Ultimate Reality. By its very nature, it is an ineffable experience, impossible to put completely into words. It is not impossible, however, to study the phenomenon, with an eye toward understanding not only its nature and manifestations, but its relationship to spirituality in general. This book is such a study. Widely considered one of the best books on mysticism for the general reader, this classic volume assembles a broad range of information scattered among monographs and textbooks in many languages.

The work of a noted British authority on mysticism, it is divided into two parts: the first provides an introduction to the general subject of mysticism and its relation to metaphysics, psychology, theology, magic, and symbolism. The second and longer part contains a detailed study of the nature and development of spiritual or mystical consciousness, including such topics as the awakening of the self, the purification of the self, voices and visions, introversion, ecstasy and rapture, the dark night of the soul, and the unitive life. An interesting appendix provides a historical sketch of European mysticism from the beginning of the Christian era to the death of Blake.

Richly documented with material drawn from such great mystics as St. Teresa, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and William Blake, this remarkable study will be of immense interest to students, psychologists, theologians — anyone interested in this extremely personal and powerful form of spiritual life.

Mysticism in World Religion by Sidney Spencer

In Mysticism in World Religion, the late Sidney Spencer – a leading Unitarian Church Reverend and a former Principal of Manchester College, University of Oxford – “sought to show that mysticism in its various forms and expressions was much more compatible with tolerant and rational forms of Liberal Religion than with the more dogmatic conservative and orthodox forms” (according to The Psi Symposium Annual Journal for 2004).

Spencer sees the core function of religion as "intuitive apprehension" of a God who, in varied aspects, is at one and the same time transcendent and identified with the world in which He dwells. "Beneath the forms of religious ceremony and observance…there lies the awareness of the Transcendent, which moves men's hearts with awe," and "it is when men pass from dim awareness to the certainty which comes from immediate contact that mysticism arises."

Written in a scholarly manner, Mysticism in World Religion is well documented and contains quotations by a wide range of mystics. Moreover, this unbiased work shows a sympathetic understanding of the mystic traditions of both the East and the West.

Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness by Robert K. C. Forman

In an exploration of mystical texts from ancient India and China to medieval Europe and modern day America, Robert K. C. Forman, one of the leading voices in the study of mystical experiences, argues that the various levels of mysticism may not be shaped by culture, language, and background knowledge, but rather are a direct encounter with our very conscious core itself.

Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness focuses on first-hand accounts of two distinct types of mystical experiences. Through examination of texts, recorded interviews, and autobiographical experiences, the author describes not only the well-known "pure consciousness event" but also a new, hitherto uncharted "dualistic mystical state." He provides a readable depiction of what mysticism feels like. These accounts, and the experiences to which they give voice, arise from the heart of living practices and have substance the greatly adds to the literature on mysticism.

The book also reexamines the philosophical issues that swirl around mysticism. In addition to examining modern day constructivist views, Forman argues that the doctrines of Kant, Husserl, and Brentano cannot be applied to mysticism. Instead he offers new philosophical insights, based on the work of Chinese philosopher of mind Paramartha. The book concludes with an examination of mind and consciousness, which shows that mysticism has a great deal to tell us about human experience and the nature of human knowledge far beyond mysticism itself.

Religious Experience by Wayne Proudfoot

This book seeks to answer questions such as:  How is religious experience to be identified, described, analyzed and explained?  Is it independent of concepts, beliefs, and practices?  How can we account for its authority?  Under what conditions might a person identify his or her experience as religious? 

Wayne Proudfoot, a Columbia University Professor specializing in the philosophy of religion, aims to show that concepts, beliefs, and linguistic practices are presupposed by the rules governing this identification of an experience as religious.  Proudfoot contends that some of these characteristics can be understood by attending to the conditions of experience, among which are beliefs about how experience is to be explained.

The Spiritual Nature of Man: Study of Contemporary Religious Experience by Alister Hardy

This book is based upon the first eight years’ work of the Religious Experience Research Unit set up at Manchester College, University of Oxford, in 1969. Sir Alister Hardy, the founder of the Unit, was a distinguished marine biologist at Oxford and a Fellow of the Royal Society. In Hardy’s words, the book is “intended as a contribution towards the study of this important, but still so little understood, part of our make-up, made in the spirit of an inquiring naturalist.”

The Spiritual Nature of Man: Study of Contemporary Religious Experience offers a discussion of the whole range of religious experience as revealed by the examination of the first three thousand personal accounts sent in to the Religious Experience Research Unit.  These accounts include ecstasies, visions, voices, illuminations, unitive/mystical consciousness, and many other experiences.  Chapters cover: Varieties of spiritual awareness, Dynamic patterns of experience, Triggers and consequences, Studies from the records, Quantitative research, and more. 

While Hardy sought to examine spiritual experience broadly rather than to make a case for any specific religion, he believed that, “The bringing of the elements of religion [i.e., spiritual elements] into the realm of scientific thought may prove to be a vital issue:  unless this can be done, religion as a moral force may disappear, and we cannot be sure that our civilization will survive without it.  Accordingly, one of Hardy’s main goals in writing his book, was “to present such a weight of objective evidence in the form of written records of these subjective spiritual feelings and of their effects on the lives of the people concerned, that the intellectual world must come to see that they are in fact as real and as influential as are the forces of love.”

*The Teachings of the Mystics by W.T. Stace

What is mysticism? Who is a mystic? The late W.T. Stace of the Princeton University philosophy department seeks to answer these questions.

In this impartial and perceptive survey, a leading modern philosopher interprets and analyzes the characteristics, nature, meaning, and value of mystical consciousness as it has been described by the great mystical writers of the world down through the ages.

The Teachings of the Mystics includes selections from: The Upanishads, Sri Aurobindo, Buddhist texts, Professor D. T. Suzkuki, Lao-Tzu, Plotinus, Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, Jan Van Ruysbroeck, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Farid Al-Din Attar, Jalal Al-Din Rumi, The Zohar, and Arthur Koestler.

If you are new to mysticism studies or are seeking a summary of Stace’s ideas along with a broad array of mystical writings, then we recommend reading this before reading Stace’s more scholarly book, Mysticism and Philosophy (see above).

*The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience is a book by the late Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James, comprising 20 lectures given at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  While The Varieties of Religious Experience was first published in 1902, the work continues to be the subject of academic study and is still considered to be one of the best psychological studies of spiritual experience to date.

William James believed that individual religious experiences, rather than the precepts of organized religions, are the backbone of the world’s spiritual life. His discussion on conversion, repentance, mysticism, and saintliness – and his observation on actual, personal religious experiences – all support this thesis.

The lectures included in The Varieties of Religious Experience concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science, in James' view, in the academic study of religion. Soon after its publication, the book found its way into the canon of psychology and philosophy, and has remained in print for over a century.


Works on Science and Spirituality

The following books, written by leading contemporary scientists, provide an excellent starting point for learning more about the scientific reality of spiritual phenomena and its implications.  These books do not focus exclusively on mystical experience, but rather on science and spiritual experience more broadly.

The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena by Dean Radin

This myth-shattering book explains the evidence for the veracity of psychic phenomena, uniting the teachings of mystics, the theories of quantum physics, and the latest in high-tech experiments. With painstaking research and deft, engaging prose, Dean Radin, Ph.D. dispels the misinformation and superstition that have clouded the understanding of scientists and laypeople alike concerning a host of fascinating oddities. Psychokinesis, remote viewing, prayer, jinxes, and more – all are real, all have been scientifically proven, and the proof is in this book.

Radin draws from his own work at Princeton University, Stanford Research Institute, and Fortune 500 companies, as well as his research for the U.S. government, to demonstrate the surprising extent to which the truth of psi has already been tacitly acknowledged and exploited. The Conscious Universe also sifts the data for tantalizing hints of how mind and matter are linked. Finally, Radin takes a bold look ahead, to the inevitable social, economic, academic, and spiritual consequences of the mass realization that mind and matter can influence each other without having physical contact.

The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal Is Bringing Science and Spirit Together by Charles Tart

Charles Tart, Ph.D. reconciles the scientific and spiritual worlds by looking at empirical evidence for the existence of paranormal phenomena that point toward our spiritual nature, including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, and psychic healing.

Science seems to tell us that we are all meaningless products of blind biological and chemical forces, leading meaningless lives that will eventually end in death. The truth is that unseen forces such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and other phenomena inextricably link us to the spiritual world, and while many skeptics and scientists deny the existence of these spiritual phenomena, the experiences of millions of people indicate that they do take place.

In this book, copublished with the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), transpersonal psychologist Charles Tart – who was trained at M.I.T., UNC-Chapel Hill, and Stanford University – presents over fifty years of scientific research conducted at the nation's leading universities that proves humans do have natural spiritual impulses and abilities. The End of Materialism presents an elegant argument for the union of science and spirituality in light of this new evidence, and explains why a truly rational viewpoint must address the reality of a spiritual world. Tart's work marks the beginning of an evidence-based spiritual awakening that will profoundly influence your understanding of the deeper forces at work in our lives.

The Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality Edited by Lisa J. Miller

Postmaterial spiritual psychology posits that consciousness can contribute to the unfolding of material events and that the human brain can detect broad, non-material communications. In this regard, this emerging field of postmaterial psychology marks a stark departure from psychology's traditional assumptions about materialism, making this text particularly attractive to the current generation of students in psychology and related health and wellness disciplines.

The Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality, edited by Lisa Miller, Ph.D., Director of Columbia University’s Spirituality & Mind Body Institute, codifies the leading empirical evidence in the support and application of postmaterial psychological science. Sections in this volume include:

  • personality and social psychology factors and implications
  • spiritual development and culture
  • spiritual dialogue, prayer, and intention in Western mental health
  • Eastern traditions and psychology
  • physical health and spirituality
  • positive psychology
  • scientific advances and applications related to spiritual psychology

With chapters from leading scholars in psychology, medicine, physics, and biology, The Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality is an interdisciplinary reference for a rapidly emerging approach to contemporary science. This overarching work provides both a foundation and a roadmap for what is truly a new ideological age.