Mystical experiences—we’ve heard about them, maybe had them, but what are they? These experiences cross religious, cultural and geographic lines, and they tend to have some things in common. According to Ullman and Reichenberg-Ullman in Mystics, Masters, Saints and Sages, typical aspects of mystical or “enlightenment” experiences include:
1. Interconnectedness and ego transcendence: A fundamental shift in consciousness from the individual to the whole appears to typify the enlightenment experience.
2. Timelessness and spaciousness: No thing or concept remains fixed in time and space.
3. Acceptance: This is a relaxation or surrender, a revelation or insight that all is transpiring according to a plan or randomness that surpasses the individual will.
4. Beyond pleasure and pain: Those who have experienced enlightenment describe rapture, ecstasy, love, or simply a contentment that transcends suffering.
5. Clarity: The enlightened mind is spontaneous, immediate and flexible.
6. Shattering of preconceived notions: Rigidity, expectations, preconceived ideas and persona give way to a vaster reality and even to a profound realization of emptiness, vastness, or nothingness.
Mystical experiences can be invoked, or not invoked. Sometimes it has to do with some sort of spiritual practice; a preparation of “the ground of your being,” as it is described in some traditions. That can take the form of eastern meditation, or western meditation as in Centering Prayer, in which the aspirant is seeking “to withdraw our attention from the ordinary flow of our thoughts… [to reach] the inner stream of consciousness, which is our participation in God’s being,” according to Father Thomas Keating in his book, Open Mind, Open Heart.
And there are times when it is not invoked, but spontaneous. Periods of contemplation, prayer, or even suffering, can act to prepare the ground of one’s being for the mystical opening—for the transformation of consciousness—to occur. During this opening, the mystic experiences something completely out of their ordinary life, out of their ordinary knowing. Often this is something internal, but it can take the form of a physical change, a physical manifestation. In the case of Saint Catherine of Sienna, in the Catholic tradition, it is said that when she was in her ecstatic stages that her whole body would become numb and she was out of the realm of senses and that she could not be awakened. As a witness to the events wrote, “It would have been easier to break [her arm] than to get her arm to move.”
My Mystical Experience
I was at the Unity Institute taking classes in the summer of 2003, singing a song to myself that repeats the line “Pour yourself in me, pour yourself into my heart, wonderful Spirit...” I was sitting on the bed when I began to feel an overwhelming “goodness” filling me. I began laughing and crying at the same time. I felt filled to overflowing, like big, 55 gallon drums of goodness and love were pouring into me. It was something that I had never experienced before.
Although this is not a phrase that I used in my spiritual background, one of the thoughts that came to me was the idea of being filled with the Holy Spirit, that it was a physical and a spiritual sensation of being filled up, and Up, and UP. It was a feeling of elation, but it was so unbelievably big that I did not know how much more I could contain. Finally, I was laying on my back on the bed, and I had my hands up and I said, “I get how good you are. I get how good you are...” And then the filling stopped and a calmness began to come over me. That whole experience was amazing and transformative.
I used to believe that a mystical experience or a spiritual experience had to be able to cross religious and cultural boundaries to be real. For instance, a Christian having an experience seeing Buddha or Mohammed (or vice versa) would be very powerful indeed, and seem to attest to the veracity of the mystical experience. But I do not believe that any longer. I do not believe that the experience has to be divorced from or “above” the consciousness of the experiencer. The mystical experience takes a shape through the mind of who has the experience.
Wisdom resides within, and as I let go and let go some more, I am able to access and hear that wisdom. And that divine consciousness, the divine identity that Jesus realized in himself, is available in all of us. Now is the time for us to wake up and pay attention to the divine in ourselves.