Physically still, yet moving through dimensions unexplainable by the human reason. Floating gently in the ether of origin, traversing great distances in unknown worlds, witnessing stunning displays of fractal fireworks, being in awe at the unity of all, interacting with the grand cosmic intelligence – mystical experiences remove us from the well-known and place us in the ineffable.
According to one of the greatest philosophers and psychologists of the late 19th century, William James, being beyond expression is the principal quality of mystical experiences. In his work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, he proposes three other defining features: noetic quality, transiency, and passivity. Even though his opus lies far in the past and argues for a simple division of mystical experiences to religious or insane, this analysis given by the “father of American psychology” still holds much truth in it.
Ineffability and noetic quality represent the spiritual core of the mystical experience. The first is what shocks us out of our established system of beliefs by demonstrating the possibility (in some cases, even a more convincing realness) of other worlds and forms of existence. The second baffles us with the astounding depth of universal insight we are given a glance at, efficiently solving problems and remedying difficulties by breaking our patterns of thought and asserting other perspectives that stem from love, rather than fear.
These radically altering effects have in the recent decades prompted much scientific curiosity. As psychedelics entered the eye of the public with the synthesizing of LSD and the subsequent growth of the counterculture movement in the 1960s, science received a valuable tool to probe into the mystical.
SCIENCE OF THE MYSTICAL
Research began as early as 1962, when Walter Pahnke applied his prologue to the Mystical Experience Questionnaire as part of his Ph.D. thesis in his research known today as the “Good Friday Experiment.”Pahnke administered 30 milligrams of psilocybin to Harvard Divinity School students during a Good Friday religious service. Nine out of the ten students who received the active pill were found to have experienced phenomena described by Pahnke’s typology of mysticism to a significantly greater extent than the control subjects. In subsequent interviews, participants characterized these effects as deeply influential to their lives and career paths, and their understanding of faith and the world. Of even greater significance, a follow-up conducted by Rick Doblin 25 years later found that the participants still considered the event a genuine mystical experience.
More recently, a new wave of studies on the mystical effects of psilocybin has begun washing over the proverbial scientific shore. Research done by Griffiths et al. in 2006, 2008, and 2011 once again showed that the mystical experiences participants had under psilocybin were “among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant of their lives” and that they were long-lasting.
Aside from demonstrating the spiritual significance of mystical experiences, we are also starting to see important findings from studies treating psychological issues and addictions with psilocybin. Recently, Griffiths et al. conducted a study in which the terminal cancer patients suffering from related depression and anxiety who rated their experience with psilocybin as “highly mystical” were the ones who experienced the most benefit out of psilocybin treatment. Garcia-Romeu et al. similarly found greater odds that the long-term smoker participants who were able to successfully quit tobacco after a psilocybin treatment were more likely to have viewed it as a mystical experience.
Finally, MacLean et al. found a significant increase in the psychological factor of Openness in users who reported a mystical experience occasioned by psilocybin. Openness is a personality trait dimension measured by the Five Factor model, the most widely acknowledged and statistically validated personality inventory. Intellectual curiosity, appreciation of emotions, diverse experiences, and an affinity for creativity can all be attributed to this factor. Long-term increase in Openness was recorded in the follow-up.
In an interesting turn of events, psilocybin is also being given to leaders of different religions worldwide by researchers from Johns Hopkins and New York Universities, in an attempt to have them elucidate the mystical part of the experience using their spiritual understandings. The study is still pending, with the researchers attempting to recruit as many leaders as possible in order to acquire a diverse pool of perspectives.
With the advancement in functional neuroimaging techniques, we have gained new insight into the relationships formed by the brain’s abundantly interconnected parts. Functional MRI research conducted during psychedelic trips, specifically under LSD and psilocybin, gives evidence of a weakening of connections within known systems, while, at the same time, showing a strengthening of connections between the different parts of the cerebrum, ultimately resulting in a “unified, more integrated brain,” according to Robin Carhart-Harris, the leading scientist behind these investigations. Many new transient structures are found to appear in the brain under the effect of psilocybin.
Further research is needed to elucidate the potential correlation between these physiological changes in the brain and the perceived mysticality of the experience, if not to attribute this sensation to specific aspects of brain activity. As the brain seems to be somewhat reconfiguring itself during psychedelic experiences, we might assume that it’s “tuning” itself to other functional frequencies. This conjecture does not feel completely far-fetched if we take into account that it’s actually electricity (neural impulses) that is being rewired to different parts, creating a shift in the energetic field of the brain. Perhaps accessing mystical states of deep insight and universal connectedness relates to this expansion of the connectional capacity of our source of consciousness.
Mystical experiences can be deeply transforming and powerful tools of spiritual evolution. Traditionally considered to be restricted to religious-based epiphanies and available only to a small few who were deserving enough to be addressed by their god or gods, in these times of mass awakening, they are but a wholesome, intentional psychedelic experience away.
Touching the mystical can facilitate the creation of many shifts, novel perspectives, and appreciations. It has the potential to add more or less permanent layers of understanding to the way we perceive and think about life. Just witnessing the immensity and complexity of the ineffable worlds and dimensions that don’t follow our physics can profoundly decentralize the traveler and demonstrate convincingly that existence has much more to it than what we are familiar with in our personal microverses. This realization is deeply sobering; it makes clear how stuck we are in our reactive patterns and comfort zones, and offers us the choice of abandoning them.
During mystical experiences, the reaches of our sensory system are often potently enhanced. Seeing more vivid colors in an expanded field of view while listening to music with the entire body, hearing birds chirping from miles away, and every breath feeling like the first, can leave its mark on an individual. There is something deeply empowering about feeling your organism perform closer to its full perceptional potential. Beyond that, the spectacle of closed-eye visions and the experience of synesthesia go way over what we would even assume we’re capable of perceiving; their power can at times make us feel as if we were receiving messages from a grand, powerful source.
Asides from sensory, empowerment comes in the psychological form. How about feeling never-before-experienced emotions? Or, at times overwhelming, new heights of already familiar ones? As the job of our immensely complex brains is to eliminate noise from the abundance of stimulation to which we’re exposed most of the time, our senses and feelings often go numb. Mystical experiences provide us with what our system hides from us. They remind us that we’re profoundly powerful and sensitive beings.
These gifts of augmentation can drastically improve one’s confidence. Going through life often makes us feel insignificant and, at times, powerless. The realization of how special we actually are and how incredible it is to be alive – to be perceiving and feeling all that the psychedelic experience can allow us – reminds us of the deep, kind human core we all carry albeit under layers of societal conditioning. We get a chance to remember that we are love and that we are doing well in life (whatever we are doing, we’re doing it as best as we can, considering all our circumstances and experiences).
Mystical experiences push us past the limits of what we can fathom as humans. And what lies beyond the limits? Well, in the real world, it’s normally just a dark cloud of fear. But, on the other side of them, fear is exposed as an impostor. The most profound changes happen when we choose to leave fear behind and surrender to the powers that hold and guide us through our transformation. Naturally, surrender has fear imbued inside it and it’s not an easy leap of faith. The alternative implies holding on to and being guided by the fear of what can happen. Understandably, the road that follows isn’t as gentle and rewarding as taking the risk of surrender usually turns out to be.
Taking us past our limits is often referred to as ego-dissolution or ego death. This is definitely not a fun experience and, for some, can feel like actual death. Of course, in the biggest challenges lie the most valuable opportunities, and so in facing death we are given a chance to release the fear of it, otherwise known simply as fear (all other fears are just variations on the fear of death). Coming face to face with death might be among the most humbling and awesome experiences a human can go through. It offers us an opportunity to reevaluate our appreciation for life and spend our seconds more present in the present.
When we let go of fear, we can finally stop taking life so seriously and do more things out of love, for ourselves and others, instead of for gain, from ourselves and others. We can give instead of expecting to get back. We can quit a job that makes us miserable and figure things out later. We can travel and try to explore what we can of this astoundingly diverse planet, and connect with others on a deeper level of empathy and understanding. We can realize that our problems are just stories we tell ourselves about the facts… We can free ourselves from the conditionings of our ego.
The profound wisdom that lies waiting to be harvested from mystical experiences has the potential to cure humanity on both the macro and micro level. However, as it requires a great deal of effort and purity of intention, as well as a disruption of the status quo, it is, naturally, stifled by the powers that be. But the third wave of understanding of the capacity of psychedelics is emerging and, with it, the awareness that the mystical is very present and accessible – and that in it lies the path to global healing. With kindness, patience, and a growing pool of empirical evidence, reason will slowly prevail over grasping, and the paradigm will shift.