Richard G. Petty, MD

Mystical Experience

I recently wrote a little bit about mystical experiences and mentioned the most widely used “definition,” the Stace Criteria:

  1. Deeply positive mood
  2. Experience of Union
  3. Ineffable sense
  4. Enhanced sense of meaning, authenticity and reality
  5. Altered space and time perception/transcendence
  6. Acceptance of normally contradictory propositions

There are many ways of inducing the mystical state: –

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Control of breathing: e.g. Pranayama
  • Chanting: e.g. Zoroastrian priests
  • Dance and movement: for example the whirling Dervishes or Morihei Ueshiba who reportedly achieved a state of mystical union after performing kata
  • Light, as happened with the mystic Jacob Boehme
  • Biofeedback
  • Mantra
  • Drugs

Although many people deliberately seek mystical experiences, some come out of a clear blue sky: the French writer, philosopher and Marxist materialist, Simone Weil, reported how reciting a devotional-metaphysical poem by the English religious poet George Herbert (1593-1633) while highly concentrated and emotional, turned her from an agnostic into a mystic. She was not looking for it to happen: it was unsought as it was unexpected. What was interesting was that after that first time, particularly in the last year of her life, she had mystical insights several times a week. Despite – or perhaps because – she was suffering from tuberculosis and was first in a hospital and then in a sanatorium during most of that time.

Some children have had a mystical glimpse before the age of ten, more during adolescence and still more during their thirties or forties. Richard Maurice Bucke in his classic book, Cosmic Consciousness, thought that the peak time was in the early thirties, but it can still happen in people in their seventies.

Many people need a dramatic shock – some form of enforced awakening – that subjugates the ego. Only then do they come alive spiritually. This enforced awakening is effective only if it breaks down old habits, trends, and beliefs. It may come about through working with or reading a teacher like Krishnamurti or Gurdjieff, or through major life events like a life threatening illness or unexpected bereavement. There is also little doubt that people become more interested in spiritual matters and more receptive to them at key points in their lives. Sometimes the experiences may occur as part of the process of individuation described by Carl Jung.

Some years ago I wrote a speculative piece suggesting that some mystical experiences may be triggered by a neurological mechanism involving the reticular activating system of the brain. The popular idea that mysticism is somehow related to the right hemisphere of the brain is probably not accurate. With the passage of time, it begins to look as if those speculations were accurate. Though one of the points that I made at the time, is that although we might be able to find a neurological substrate for mystical experiences that provide the form of the experience, that still left us with the problem of the content of the experience and therefore of its meaning for the individual.

At the beginning, the content of the mystical experience is culture bound and tends to be a product of a person’s belief system, which is why some mystics contradict each other. The Indian spiritual teacher Swami Ramdas (1884-1963) said that joy was both evidence of spiritual fulfillment and an ingredient of spiritual practice, while Simone Weil took an exactly opposite view and substituted unhappiness and suffering for joy: each proposed that a personal experience reflected a broadly universal truth. This is has been a common error for many spiritual teachers and their followers.

Saint Teresa of Ávila, a.k.a. St. Teresa de Jesus, the Spanish nun, mystic and author (1515-1582) was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, and her mystical revelations fit into classical Catholic dogma. In contrast a modern Christian mystic – Holden Edward Sampson – who was brought up in the Protestant Evangelical Church, thought that his personal experiences proved that Saint Teresa’s writings were false.

These differences of opinion, even amongst the most advanced mystics, are striking but not often discussed. As an example, it amused me to see Ramana Maharshi make gentle fun of Sri Aurobindo’s doctrine of spiritual planes. I love and rever the workds of both of these sages. Simone Weil staunchly promoted the spirituality of Greek culture while the French-born writer René Guénon a.k.a. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya thought that there was nothing much
to it. As people progress, there is usually more of a confluence:
mystics tend to report similar experiences, but they are often still
colored by their past lives.

Many people have mystical and spiritual experiences without knowing what is happening to them: they have never studied or been taught anything about them. I have seen quite a number of people who were supposed to be suffering from a psychotic episode, but who were actually having a profound spiritual experience. I have seen many thousands of psychotic people in almost fifty countries, and it is normally not that difficult to differentiate a breakdown from a breakthrough. Though even the most experienced of people sometimes find it difficult to be 100% certain what is going on.

It is essential for health care providers and for anyone who comes into contact with an individual who is having strange experiences, not simple to label them as mentally ill, but to remain alert to the possibility that there may be something yet more profound and meaningful going on in their lives.

Though for some people medicines, psychotherapy and the rest may be very helpful, others need spiritual support and guidance as they grow through a process of spiritual growth.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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