Features of Mystical Experiences
Noted psychologist and philosopher Dr. William James identified the following four main characteristics of mystical experiences:
- Ineffability. Mystical experiences are powerful states of feeling that are beyond words. It is impossible for an Experiencer to verbally convey their importance, grandeur, and profundity to another. Mystical experiences have to be experienced to be understood.
- Noetic quality. Although mystical experiences are similar to states of feeling, they are also states of knowing. The mystical experience contains new understanding, new awareness, elevating revelations, and/or insights into depths of truth. They provide a glimpse of some aspect of the infinite intelligence, vast omnipresence, peace, and/or bliss/love of the Higher Power or Force underlying all reality.
- Transiency. Except in rare cases, mystical experiences cannot be sustained for long. They usually can only be reproduced imperfectly in memory, although their psychological and spiritual impact remains permanently.
- Passivity. Although mystical states may be facilitated by certain spiritual practices, once the mystical experience has begun “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance” or “as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”
[Reference: William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1958]
Types of Mystical Experiences
Mystical experiences take many different forms. Yvonne Kason MD has categorized mystical experiences into the following seven main categories. Even though any one mystical experience might contain elements from several different categories, one of the categories usually seems to stand out, which is useful for giving a name to the experience.
- Unitive experiences. A feeling of union, communion, or direct connection with God, the Divine, the universal consciousness, or with the universal life force; a feeling of one-ness; an experience of merging into the oneness of all things; a feeling that ones self is united with the entire universe, or connected with all creation; sometimes a feeling of unity and merging with another person, a scene in nature, or with our planet.
- Ecstatic or Bliss episodes. Experiences of profound bliss, joy, ecstasy, all-encompassing love, awestruck wonder at the profundity and beauty of the universe, or overwhelming feelings of devotion to and love for the Divine, all of which may be accompanied by spontaneous tears of joy.
- Mystical visions. Visions of deities, saints, gurus, spiritual archetypes, or important figures from the worlds religions, such as the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Krishna, Mohammed, Moses, and/or the Virgin Mary; usually accompanied by a powerful feeling of unconditional love, compassion, spiritual upliftment, healing, and/or guidance. May be visions of figures from ones own religious tradition, but may also be figures from other religions or faith traditions.
- Expansive episodes. A sense of dramatically expanded consciousness in which the individual point of perception seems to expand from its normal size to a much greater size; the sense of expansion may stop at a few feet beyond the head or move outward to varying degrees, until the expansion may encompass the entire earth, or even the whole cosmos.
- Spiritual rebirth/Religious conversion/Purification. A sudden, profound spiritual awakening; a spontaneous religious conversion; a dramatic reorientation of spiritual beliefs; a sense of being purified or chastened followed by a profound spiritual upliftment or heart opening; a sense of dying, hitting bottom, facing past errors, or having a shamanistic type of encounter with the dark side – followed by a profound experience of spiritual rebirth, illumination, ecstasy, or union with Divine.
- Revelation/Illumination. A sudden, profound insight into the nature of the universe or absolute truth; a spontaneous intellectual revelation that is beyond the bounds of normal, analytical reason with vast amounts of information or understanding being conveyed very rapidly or all at once; brings with it new spiritual insight or new knowledge for humankind; or a spontaneous revelation regarding ones life purpose or life’s meaning.
- Dissolution experiences. An experience of the complete dissolution, dissolving, or disappearance of the sense of small ego self into the Cosmic All, the Absolute, the Infinite, the stillness. No sense of individuality remains. Deep dissolution is indescribable.
All types of mystical experience may be accompanied by strong perceptions of light or luminosity; or, may include an inner visual perception of a deep dusky blue color.
Suggested Further Reading on Mystical Experiences
J Bucke, Richard Maurice. Cosmic Consciousness. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1969.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: New American Library, 1958.
Jung, Carl G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Kason, Yvonne. Touched by the Light: Exploring Spiritually Transformative Experiences. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2019.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: New American Library, 1974.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita – Royal Science of God-Realization. Los Angeles, California. Self-Realization Fellowship: 1996.