William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, delineated four major hallmarks of what might be described as a mystical experience.
- Ineffability: the individual just can’t put words to the experience, verbal description does not – cannot – do it justice or even begin to portray the authority, significance or nature of the event.
- Noetic Quality: the experience appears extremely significant and important for to the individual and it carries a kind of deep authority, inner knowing and personal truth.
- Transiency: the mystical state is not sustained as in it’s peak, but fragments, traces, parts, a felt sense and innate knowing – these do persist and are subject to ongoing development, meaning that the insights/wisdom/truths can deepen in richness and significance over time.
- Passivity: it is not by the individual’s active will or direction that the mystical experience occurs. Rather, the individual will is suspended for a time and it is as if the individual is ‘moved’ by something larger than him or herself (such as a higher power).
Clearly, this describes an experience that is quite enormous, powerful and outside of ordinary life experience. This is something that is remembered, owned, held tightly and nurtured. Something that becomes precious, guiding and indeed transformative in one’s life. A deep truth, knowing, reality or beauty may be revealed that is intrinsic to something ordinary, everyday and obvious. The experience of such states can be immensely powerful and transformative in one’s personal journey as well as for collective wellbeing. Does such a state have to have anything to do with religion?
It is possible but uncommon to enter such an altered state of consciousness without intention in everyday life, perhaps but not necessarily while listening to music or being in a sacred or natural space. However, there are various ways to prime for such an experience. For example, one way is through a meditation practice, another through Guided Imagery and Music, and another is through facilitated breathwork. Another increasingly acceptable and accessible way is through the use of sacred plant medicine, such as magic mushrooms (psilocybin) and ayahuasca which through their psychedelic (that is ‘mind-manifesting’) properties may occasion such mystical experiences. While mystical states and religion can seem confusingly intermingled, they are not the same thing. There are many religious people who have never had a mystical experience of this nature, while there are stalwart atheists who have. It is a human experience, not owned by any denomination, school of thought, medical practice or form of therapy. It is true that such experiences may absorb a kind of religious quality, depending on many factors such as the individual’s life experience, the place the experience occurs and even the music playing during the event.
Have you ever experienced an altered state, a mystical state or a spiritual state that relates to James’ conception?
For more information about altered states of consciousness, psychedelic integration, guided imagery and music, mind expansion, transformation and mystical states, please contact me to find out more.
Griffiths, Roland & Richards, William & Mccann, Una & Jesse, Robert. (2006). Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance. Psychopharmacology. 187. 268-283. 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5.
James, W. (1902), The varieties of religious experience. New York: Longmans, Green & Co.
Pollan, M. (2018). How to change your mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence. New York: Penguin Press.