The Mystery of Mystical Experience

You might not know how to respond if a person asks you: “Have you ever had a mystical experience?” Granted, it’s a very tough question to answer. How do we even begin to define a mystical experience?

Two summers ago I was living and working on a farm. Situated in the rolling hills of West Virginia, Bethlehem Farm is a Catholic community that teaches people about sustainable practices and operates a home-repair program throughout the local area. The first morning after my arrival, I woke up early and went downstairs to get some coffee. I walked outside, took a sip of my coffee, and looked out over the distance. The morning fog was thick, but I could make out a few miles worth of lush, dense forest. At that exact moment, my vision became extremely clear and a warming chill went down my entire body. I closed my eyes briefly and was momentarily brought to tears. I was overcome with emotion and this feeling that “you are exactly where you need to be.” It was one of the most reassuring, comforting, and uplifting experiences I have ever had.  It’s this moment, and a similar experience 4 years prior, that have led me down the curious path of understanding mysticism.

This, funny enough, is the exact spot where I had what I would consider a mystical experience. I took a picture of this spot to preserve the memory.
Photo by Matthew LaBorde

What we know as “mysticism” has been around since the 13th century, and maybe even earlier. Merriam Webster’s dictionary does a fine job of defining mysticism as

“the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics”

and

the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight).

This type of “mystical” experience with spirituality has been sought after, written about, and deeply felt by many historical figures and religious leaders primarily through contemplative practices like prayer and meditation. Because of the extensive documentation that exists from many mystics who have described their life changing and out-of-body experiences, these mystical states have been pursued both naturally and chemically (through the use of psychoactive compounds like psilocyben) by people everywhere for millennia.

But how do we know when we’ve had a mystical experience? Just as the question of “How do I know?” is often asked of big ideas like love, faith, and religion, what we might think of as “mystical” experiences often leave us wondering if we are actually feeling the real thing. Did we truly experience “direct communion with ultimate reality?” or did we just feel, what my mother might lovingly call, the “warm and fuzzies”? It is difficult to understand and talk about precisely because of its highly abstract and subjective nature. 

Although the mystical experience is highly subjective, patterns have emerged over many years of listening to the stories of mystics and people who have had these experiences. Douglas Shrader, a Professor of Philosophy from New York, consolidated much of what we know about the common characteristics experienced by mystics into a paper titled, “Seven Characteristics of Mystical Experience (2007). In it, Shrader documents the work of well known philosophers William Blake and Meister Eckhart and compiles their thoughts into 7 main characteristics, which include:

1. Ineffability — The ironic quality of mystical experience that makes us unable to capture the true nature of the experience in words. This first quality adds to the grandiose perception of mystical experiences: that they are so powerful that they transcend even the human language. 

2. Noetic quality — This is “the notion that mystical experiences reveal an otherwise hidden or inaccessible knowledge”. 

3. Transiency — It has been reported that these experiences can last up to two hours, but can be as short as a few seconds.

4. Passivity — As mentioned earlier, some psychoactive compounds and contemplative practices can help create the grounds for mystical experience, but these experiences are passive and happen to us. We do not have any control over when and how they happen.

5. Unity of opposites — “a sense of Oneness, Wholeness or Completeness”. We are able to feel at peace, at one. 

6. Timelessness (a sense that mystical experiences transcend time).

7. “A feeling that one has somehow encountered ‘the true self’ (a sense that mystical experiences reveal the nature of our true, cosmic self: one that is beyond life and death, beyond difference and duality, and beyond ego and selfishness.”

It is sometimes helpful to put language to our experience, even when it seems impossible to do so. I often wonder whether or not my experience in West Virginia was the stuff of mystics, or if it was just the culmination of a beautiful morning, a warm cup of coffee, and the feeling of being super happy to be where I was in that moment. But, I’ll always insist that it was something special, especially given the rarity of that particular moment and the way it made me feel.

This farm, for me, is one of those “thin places” between the heavens and earth where we are able to catch glimpses of divine presence. Photo by Matthew LaBorde

To me, it is refreshing that mysticism concerns itself with our spiritual and subjective relationship to God or a higher power. It’s the lack of focus on religious doctrine and absolute truth that is appealing. For me, feeling a deep spiritual connection to a higher power is an extremely important aim. More important, I would argue, than proving to others that the Catholics “have it right,”about what to believe and how to act.

At the end of the day, to understand mysticism is to understand and believe that we can experience God, or a higher power, through the practices of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. However, one of the characteristics of mystical experience is passivity, which highlights an important contradiction: we can’t will our way to everything. Perhaps it might be easier to think of it like this: Meditation, prayer, and contemplation will not necessarily give you a mystical experience on their own, but these practices could help you approach life with a clear mind, an open heart, and an ability to listen to what’s around you. Maybe then, with an open spirit, can you begin to feel the divine. 

About Matthew LaBorde

Matthew is the coordinator of a vocational center at a homeless services non-profit in the Washington D.C area. For the last four years, he has worked with a wide range of poor and low-income individuals and families on the goal of finding meaningful employment. He is interested in topics like psychology, feminism, spirituality, and music. Matthew graduated with a communication arts degree from Spring Hill College, where he also served as the Editor of the student newspaper for two years. (Casa Maura Clarke, Los Angeles 2014-2015)