Mystical experience

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Since the 19th century, mystical experience has evolved as a distinctive concept. It is closely related to "mysticism" but lays sole emphasis on the experiential aspect, be it spontaneous or induced by human behavior, whereas mysticism encompasses a broad range of practices aiming at a transformation of the person, not just inducing mystical experiences.

Perennialists regard various mystical traditions as pointing to one universal transcendental reality, for which those experiences offer the proof. The perennial position is "largely dismissed by scholars"[1] but "has lost none of its popularity".[2] Instead, a constructionist approach became dominant during the 1970s, which states that mystical experiences are mediated by pre-existing frames of reference.

Neurological research reveals which areas in the brain are involved in so-called "mystical experience" both spontaneous and behavioral induced. Especially the brain's temporal lobe seems to have a significant role here.

An attributional approach focuses on the (religious) meaning that is attributed to speific events, and incorporates both neurological and psychological explanations.

In mystical and contemplative traditions, mystical experiences are not a goal in themself, but part of a larger path of self-transformation.

Origins of the term "mystical experience"

The term "mystical experience" has become synonymous with the terms "religious experience", spiritual experience and sacred experience.[3] A "religious experience" is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework.[3] The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of western society.[4] William James popularized the use of the term "religious experience" in his The Varieties of Religious Experience.[5][4] William James:

In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which bring it about that the mystical classics have, as been said, neither birthday not native land.[6]

The concept of "mystical experience" has influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge of a transcendental reality, cosmic unity, or ultimate truths.[web 1][note 1] Scholars, like Stace and Forman, have tended to exclude visions, near death experiences and parapsychological phenomena from such "special mental states," and focus on sudden experiences of oneness, though neurologically they all seem to be related.

Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the notion of "religious experience" further back to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite. The notion of "religious experience" was used by Schleiermacher to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular critique. It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.[7]

A broad range of western and eastern movements have incorporated and influenced the emergence of the modern notion of "mystical experience", such as the Perennial philosophy, Transcendentalism, Universalism, the Theosophical Society, New Thought, Neo-Vedanta and Buddhist modernism.[8][9]

Inducement of mystical experience

Several "causes" may be discerned for the inducement of mystical experiences:

  • Spontaneous; either apparently without any cause, or by persistent existential concerns, or by neurophysiological origins;
  • Religious practices, such as meditation;
  • Entheogens
  • Neurophysiological origins, such as temproal lobe epilepsy.

Phenomenological research

Perennialism versus constructionism

In the 19th century perennialism gained popularity as a model for perceiving similarities across a broad range of religious traditions.[10] William James, in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, was highly influential in further popularising this perennial approach and the notion of personal experience as a validation of religious truths.[11]

Since the 1960s, debate has continued on "the question of whether mysticism is a human experience that is the same in all times and places but explained in many ways, or a family of similar experiences that includes many different kinds, as represented by the many kinds of religious and secular mystical reports".[12] The first stance is perennialism or essentialism,[13] while the second stance is social constructionism or contextualism.[13]

The essentialist model argues that mystical experience is independent of the sociocultural, historical and religious context in which it occurs, and regards all mystical experience in its essence to be the same.[13] According to this "common core-thesis",[14] different descriptions can mask quite similar if not identical experiences:[15]

[P]eople can differentiate experience from interpretation, such that different interpretations may be applied to otherwise identical experiences".[16]

The contextualist model states that mystical experiences are shaped by the concepts "which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience".[13] What is being experienced is being determined by the expectations and the conceptual background of the mystic.[17] Critics of the "common-core thesis" argue that

[N]o unmediated experience is possible, and that in the extreme, language is not simply used to interpret experience but in fact constitutes experience.[16]

Principal representants of the perennialist position are Walter Terence Stace,[18] who distinguishes extroverted and introverted mysticism, in response to R. C. Zaehner's distinction between theistic and monistic mysticism;[19] Huston Smith;[20][21] and Ralph W. Hood,[22] who conducted empirical research using the "Mysticism Scale", which is based on Stace's model.[22][note 2] The principal representant of the constructionist position is Steven T. Katz, who, in a series of publications,[note 3] has made a highly influential and compelling case for the constructionist approach.[23]

The perennial position is "largely dismissed by scholars",[1] but "has lost none of its popularity".[2]

William James – The Varieties of Religious experience

William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience is the classic study on religious or mystical experience, which influenced deeply both the academic and popular understanding of "religious experience".[5][4][11][web 1] He popularized the use of the term "religious experience"[note 4] in his "Varieties",[5][4][web 1] and influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge of the transcendental:[11][web 1]

Under the influence of William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, heavily centered on people's conversion experiences, most philosophers' interest in mysticism has been in distinctive, allegedly knowledge-granting "mystical experiences.""[web 1]

James emphasized the personal experience of individuals, and describes a broad variety of such experiences in his The Varieties of Religious Experience.[6] He considered the "personal religion"[24] to be "more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism",[24][note 5] and defines religion as

...the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude , so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.[25]

According to James, mystical experiences have four defining qualities:[26]

  1. Ineffability. According to James the mystical experience "defies expression, that no adequate report of its content can be given in words".[26]
  2. Noetic quality. Mystics stress that their experiences give them "insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect."[26] James referred to this as the "noetic" (or intellectual) "quality" of the mystical.[26]
  3. Transiency. James notes that most mystical experiences have a short occurrence, but their effect persists.[26]
  4. Passivity. According to James, mystics come to their peak experience not as active seekers, but as passive recipients.[26]

William James recognised the broad variety of mystical schools and conflicting doctrines both within and between religions.[6] Nevertheless,

...he shared with thinkers of his era the conviction that beneath the variety could be carved out a certain mystical unanimity, that mystics shared certain common perceptions of the divine, however different their religion or historical epoch,[6]

According to Harmless, "for James there was nothing inherently theological in or about mystical experience",[27] and felt it legitimate to separate the mystic's experience from theological claims.[27] Harmless notes that James "denies the most central fact of religion",[28] namely that religion is practiced by people in groups, and often in public.[28] He also ignores ritual, the historicity of religious traditions,[28] and theology, instead emphasizing "feeling" as central to religion.[28]

Freud and the Oceanic feeling

The understanding of "mysticism" as an experience of unity with the divine is reflected in a famous comment by Freud on the "oceanic feeling". In response to The Future of an Illusion (1927) Romain Rolland wrote to Sigmund Freud:

By religious feeling, what I mean—altogether independently of any dogma, any Credo, any organization of the Church, any Holy Scripture, any hope for personal salvation, etc.—the simple and direct fact of a feeling of 'the eternal' (which may very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and as if oceanic). This feeling is in truth subjective in nature. It is a contact.[web 3]

Rolland derived the notion of an "oceanic feeling" from various sources. He was influenced by the writings of Baruch Spinoza, who criticized religion but retained "the intellectual love of God". Rolland was also influenced by Indian mysticism, on which he wrote The Life of Ramakrishna (1929/1931) and The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (1930/1947).[web 3] Ramakrishna's experiences may have been the result of epilepsy, which can cause ecstatic states of mind.

In the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents (1929/1930) Freud describes this notion, and then remarks that he doesn't know this feeling himself.[29] He then goes on to locate this feeling within primary narcissism and the ego ideal. This feeling is later reduced to a "shrunken residue" under the influence of reality.[web 3]

R. C. Zaehner – Natural and religious mysticism

R. C. Zaehner distinguishes three fundamental types of mysticism, namely theistic, monistic and panenhenic ("all-in-one") or natural mysticism.[19] The theistic category includes most forms of Jewish, Christian and Islamic mysticism and occasional Hindu examples such as Ramanuja and the Bhagavad Gita.[19] The monistic type, which according to Zaehner is based upon an experience of the unity of one's soul,[19][note 6] includes Buddhism and Hindu schools such as Samhya and Advaita vedanta.[19] Nature mysticism seems to refer to examples that do not fit into one of these two categories.[19]

Zaehner considers theistic mysticism to be superior to the other two categories, because of its appreciation of God, but also because of its strong moral imperative.[19] Zaehner is directly opposing the views of Aldous Huxley. Natural mystical experiences are in Zaehner's view of less value because they do not lead as directly to the virtues of charity and compassion. Zaehner is generally critical of what he sees as narcissistic tendencies in nature mysticism.[note 7]

Zaehner has been criticised by a number of scholars for the "theological violence"[19] which his approach does to non-theistic traditions, "forcing them into a framework which privileges Zaehner's own liberal Catholicism."[19]

Walter T. Stace – extroverted and introverted mysticism

Zaehner has also been criticised by Walter Terence Stace in his book Mysticism and philosophy (1960) on similar grounds.[19] Stace argues that doctrinal differences between religious traditions are inappropriate criteria when making cross-cultural comparisons of mystical experiences.[19]

Based on the study of religious texts, which he took as phenomenological descriptions of personal experiences, and excluding occult phenomena, visions, and voices, Stace distinguished two types of mystical experience, namely extrovertive and introvertive mysticism.[19][30] Extrovertive mysticism is an experience of unity within the world, whereas introvertive mysticism is "an experience of unity devoid of perceptual objects; it is literally an experience of 'no-thing-ness'".[30] The unity in extrovertive mysticism is with the totality of objects of perception; the unity in introvertive mysticism is with a pure conscousness, devoid of objects of perception.[31] Stace's categories of "introvertive mysticism" and "extrovertive mysticism" are derived from Rudolf Otto's "mysticism of introspection" and "unifying vision".[31]

Following Stace's lead, Ralp Hood developed the "Mysticism scale."[32] According to Hood, the introvertive mystical experience may be a common core to mysticism independent of both culture and person, forming the basis of a "perennial psychology".[33] According to Hood, "the perennialist view has strong empirical support," since his scale yielded positive results across various cultures,[34][note 8] stating that mystical experience as operationalized from Stace's criteria is identical across various samples.[36][note 9]

Although Stace's work on mysticism received a positive response, it has also been strongly criticised in the 1970s and 1980s, for its lack of methodological rigueur and its perennialist pre-assumptions.[37][38][39][40][web 1] Major criticisms came from Steven T. Katz in his influential series of publications on mysticism and philosophy,[note 10] and from Wayne Proudfoot in his Religious experience (1985).[41]

According to Katz (1978), Stace typology is "too reductive and inflexible," reducing the complexities and varieties of mystical experience into "improper categories."[42] According to Katz, Stace does not notice he difference bteween experience and interpretation, but fails to notice the epistemological issues involved in recognizing such experiences as "mystical,"[43] and the even more fundamental issue of which conceptual framework precedes and shapes these experiences.[44] Katz further notes that Stace supposes that similarities in descriptive language also implies a similarity in experience, an assumption which Katz rejects.[45] According to Katz, close examination of the descriptions and their contexts reveals that those experiences are not identical.[46] Katz further notes that Stace held one specific mystical tradition to be superior and normative,[47] whereas Katz rejects reductionist notions and leaves God as God, and Nirvana as Nirvana.[48]

Masson and Masson criticised Stace for using a "buried premise," namely that mysticism can provide valid knowledge of the world, equal to science and logic.[49] A similar criticism has been voiced by Jacob van Belzen toward Hood, noting that Hood validated the existence of a common core in mystical experiences, but based on a test which presupposes the existence of such a common core, noting that "the instrument used to verify Stace's conceptualization of Stace is not independent of Stace, but based on him."[40] Belzen also notes that religion does not stand on its own, but is embedded in a cultural context, which should be taken into account.[50] To this criticism Hood et al. answer that universalistic tendencies in religious research "are rooted first in inductive generalizations from cross-cultural consideration of either faith or mysticism,"[51] stating that Stace sought out texts which he recognized as an expression of mystical expression, from which he created his universal core. Hood therefor concludes that Belzen "is incorrect when he claims that items were presupposed."[51][note 11]

Steven Katz - constructionism

Katz' criticism of "unmediated experience"

After Walter Stace's seminal book in 1960, the general philosophy of mysticism received little attention.[note 12] But in the 1970s the issue of a universal "perennialism" versus each mystical experience being was reignited by Steven Katz. In an often-cited quote he states:

There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences. Neither mystical experience nor more ordinary forms of experience give any indication, or any ground for believing, that they are unmediated [...] The notion of unmediated experience seems, if not self-contradictory, at best empty. This epistemological fact seems to me to be true, because of the sort of beings we are, even with regard to the experiences of those ultimate objects of concern with which mystics have had intercourse, e.g., God, Being, Nirvana, etc.[53][note 13]

According to Paden, Katz rejects the discrimination between experiences and their interpretations.[19] Katz argues that it is not the description, but the experience itself which is conditioned by the cultural and religious background of the mystic.[19] According to Katz, it is not possible to have pure or unmediated experience.[19][54]

Yet, according to Laibelman, Katz did not say that the experience can't be unmediated; he said that the conceptual understanding of the experience can't be unmediated, and is based on culturally mediated pre-consepctions.[55] According to Laibelman, misunderstanding Katz' argument has lead some to defend the authenticity of "pure consciousness events," while this is not the issue.[56] Laibelman further notes that a mystics interpretation is not necessarily more true or correct than the interpretation of an uninvolved observer.[57]

Other criticisms

Following the lead of Katz the notion of "experience" has been thoroughly criticised.[52][58][59] Robert Sharf points out that "experience" is a typical Western term, which has found its way into Asian religiosity via western influences.[52][note 14] The notion of "experience" introduces a false notion of duality between "experiencer" and "experienced", whereas the essence of kensho is the realisation of the "non-duality" of observer and observed.[61][62] "Pure experience" does not exist; all experience is mediated by intellectual and cognitive activity.[63][64] The specific teachings and practices of a specific tradition may even determine what "experience" someone has, which means that this "experience" is not the proof of the teaching, but a result of the teaching.[3] A pure consciousness without concepts, reached by "cleaning the doors of perception",[note 15] would be an overwhelming chaos of sensory input without coherence.[66]

Other critics point out that the stress on "experience" is accompanied with favoring the atomic individual, instead of the shared life on the community. It also fails to distinguish between episodic experience, and mysticism as a process, that is embedded in a total religious matrix of liturgy, scripture, worship, virtues, theology, rituals and practices.[67]

Richard King also points to disjunction between "mystical experience" and social justice:[68]

The privatisation of mysticism – that is, the increasing tendency to locate the mystical in the psychological realm of personal experiences – serves to exclude it from political issues as social justice. Mysticism thus becomes seen as a personal matter of cultivating inner states of tranquility and equanimity, which, rather than seeking to transform the world, serve to accommodate the individual to the status quo through the alleviation of anxiety and stress.[68]

Robert Forman - Pure Consciousness Event

Robert Forman has argued that lay-people who describe mystical experiences often notice that this experience involves a totally new form of awareness, which can't be described in their existing frame of reference.[69][70] Newberg argued that there is neurological evidence for the existence of a "pure consciousness event" empty of any constructionist structuring.[71]

Neurological research

Brain lobes
Lobes of the human brain (temporal lobe is shown in green)
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The scientific study of mysticism today focuses on two topics: identifying the neurological bases and triggers of mystical experiences, and demonstrating the purported benefits of meditation.[72] Correlates between mystical experiences and neurological activity have been established, pointing to the temporal lobe as the main locus for these experiences, while Andrew B. Newberg and Eugene G. d'Aquili have also pointed to the parietal lobe.

Temporal lobe

The temporal lobe generates the feeling of "I," and gives a feeling of familiarity or strangeness to the perceptions of the senses.[web 4] It seems to be involved in mystical experiences,[web 4][73] and in the change in personality that may result from such experiences.[web 4] There is a long-standing notion that epilepsy and religion are linked,[74] and some religious figures may have had temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). Raymond Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (1901) contains several case-studies of persons who have realized "cosmic consciousness";[web 4] several of these cases are also being mentioned in J.E. Bryant's 1953 book, Genius and Epilepsy, which has a list of more than 20 people that combines the great and the mystical.[75] James Leuba's The psychology of religious mysticism noted that "among the dread diseases that afflict humanity there is only one that interests us quite particularly; that disease is epilepsy."[76][74]

Slater and Beard and renewed the interest in TLE and religious experience in the 1960s.[web 5] Dewhurst and Beard (1970) described six cases of TLE-patients who underwent sudden religious conversions. They placed these cases in the context of several western saints with a sudden conversion, who were or may have been epileptic. Dewhurst and Beard described several aspects of conversion experiences, and did not favor one specific mechanism.[74]

Norman Geschwind described behavioral changes related to temporal lobe epilepsy in the 1970s and 1980s.[77] Geschwind described cases of extreme religiosity, called the Geschwind syndrome,[77] and aspects of the Geschwind syndrome have been identified in some religious figures, in particular extreme religiosity and hypergraphia (excessive writing).[77] Geschwind also introduced the "interictal personality disorder," describing a cluster of specific personality characteristics which he found characteristic of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. Critics note that these characteristics can be the result of any illness, and are not sufficiently descriptive for patients with temporal lobe epilepsy.[web 6]

Neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick, in the 1980s and 1990s, also found a relationship between the right temporal lobe and mystical experience, but also found that pathology or brain damage is only one of many possible causal mechanisms for these experiences. He questioned the earlier accounts of religious figures with temporal lobe epilepsy, noticing that "very few true examples of the ecstatic aura and the temporal lobe siezure had been reported in the world scientific literature prior to 1980". According to Fenwick, "It is likely that the earlier accounts of temporal lobe epilepsy and temporal lobe pathology and the relation to mystic and religious states owes more to the enthusiasm of their authors than to a true scientific understanding of the natyure of temporal lobe functioning."[web 7]

The occurrence of intense religious feelings in epileptic patients in general is rare,[web 4] with an incident rate of ca. 2-3%. Sudden religious conversion, together with visions, has been documented in only a small number of individuals with temporal lobe epilepsy.[78] The occurrence of religious experiences in TLE-patients may as well be explained by religious attribution, due to the background of these patients.[web 5] Nevertheless, the neurological research of mystical experiences is a growing field of research, searching for specific neurological explanations of mystical experiences. Those rare epileptic patients with ecstatic seizures may provide clues for the neurological mechanisms involved in mystical experiences, such as the anterior insular cortex, which is involved in self-awareness and subjective certainty.[73][79][80]

Anterior insula

Insular cortex
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The insula of the right side, exposed by
removing the opercula.
Latin Cortex insularis
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A common quality in mystical experiences is ineffability, a strong feeling of certainty which cannot be expressed in words. This ineffability has been threatened with scepticism. According to Arthur Schopenhauer the inner experience of mysticism is philosophically unconvincing.[81][note 16] In The Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky argues that mystical experiences only seem profound and persuasive because the mind's critical faculties are relatively inactive during them.[82][note 18]

Fabienne Picard proposes a neurological explanation for this subjective certainty, based on clinical research of epilepsy.[73][84][note 19] According to Picard, this feeling of certainty may be caused by a dysfunction of the anterior insula, a part of the brain which is involved in interoception, self-reflection, and in avoiding uncertainty about the internal representations of the world by "anticipation of resolution of uncertainty or risk". This avoidance of uncertainty functions through the comparison between predicted states and actual states, that is, "signaling that we do not understand, i.e., that there is ambiguity."[85] Picard notes that "the concept of insight is very close to that of certainty," and refers to Archimedes "Eureka!"[86][note 20] Picard hypothesizes that in ecstatic seizures the comparison between predicted states and actual states no longer functions, and that mismatches between predicted state and actual state are no longer processed, blocking "negative emotions and negative arousal arising from predictive unceertainty," which will be experienced as emotional confidence.[87] Picard concludes that "[t]his could lead to a spiritual intepretation in some individuals."[87]

Parietal lobe

Andrew B. Newberg and Eugene G. d'Aquili, in their book Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, take a perennial stance, describing their insights into the relationship between religious experience and brain function.[88] d'Aquili describes his own meditative experiences as "allowing a deeper, simpler part of him to emerge", which he believes to be "the truest part of who he is, the part that never changes."[88] Not content with personal and subjective descriptions like these, Newman and d'Aquili have studied the brain-correlates to such experiences. They scanned the brain blood flow patterns during such moments of mystical transcendence, using SPECT-scans, to detect which brain areas show heightened activity.[89] Their scans showed unusual activity in the top rear section of the brain, the "posterior superior parietal lobe", or the "orientation association area (OAA)" in their own words.[90] This area creates a consistent cognition of the physical limits of the self.[91] This OAA shows a sharply reduced activity during meditative states, reflecting a block in the incoming flow of sensory information, resulting in a perceived lack of physical boundaries.[92] According to Newman and d'Aquili,

This is exactly how Robert and generations of Eastern mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual and mystical moments.[92]

Newman and d'Aquili conclude that mystical experience correlates to observable neurological events, which are not outside the range of normal brain function.[93] They also believe that

...our research has left us no choice but to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the ultimate realness of something that is truly divine.[94][note 21]

Why God Won't Go Away "received very little attention from professional scholars of religion".[96][note 22][note 23] According to Bulkeley, "Newberg and D'Aquili seem blissfully unaware of the past half century of critical scholarship questioning universalistic claims about human nature and experience".[note 24] Matthew Day also notes that the discovery of a neurological substrate of a "religious experience" is an isolated finding which "doesn't even come close to a robust theory of religion".[98]

Attribution Theory

After constructivism, Proudfoot proposes an approach that also negates any alleged cognitive content of mystical experiences: mystics unconsciously merely attribute a doctrinal content to ordinary experiences. That is, mystics project cognitive content onto otherwise ordinary experiences having a strong emotional impact.[99][100] This approach has been further elaborated by Ann Taves, in her Religious Experience Reconsidered. She incorporates both neurological and cultural approaches in the study of mystical experience.

Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly that knowledge that comes with them) as revelations caused by divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes. They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware.[web 9]

Developmental perspective

Mystical experiences may be regarded as a goal in themself, but are better seen as a departure point for further development in spiritual traditions.[101]


Theravada - samatha and vipassana

In the Theravada-tradition traditions two types of Buddhist meditation practices are being followed, namely samatha (Pāli; Sanskrit: śamatha; "calm") and vipassana (insight).[web 10] Samatha is a primary meditation aimed at calming the mind, and it is also being used in other Indian traditions, most notably dhyana as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Contemporary Theravada orthodoxy regards samatha as a preparation for vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening the concentration in order to allow the work of insight, which leads to liberation. In contrast, the Vipassana Movement argues that insight levels can be discerned without the need for developing samatha further due to the risks of going out of course when strong samatha is developed.[102] For this innovation the Vipassana Movement has been criticised, especially in Sri Lanka.[103][web 11]

Though both terms appear in the Sutta Pitaka, Gombrich and Brooks argue that the distinction as two separate paths originates in the earliest interpretations of the Sutta Pitaka,[104] not in the suttas themselves.[105][note 25] The suttas contain traces of ancient debates between Mahayana and Theravada schools in the interpretation of the teachings and the development of insight. Out of these debates developed the idea that bare insight suffices to reach liberation, by discerning the Three marks (qualities) of (human) existence (tilakkhana), namely dukkha (suffering), anatta (non-self) and anicca (impermanence).[104]

Zen Buddhism

Another example of this further development is the Zen Buddhist training, which does not end with kenshō. Practice is to be continued to deepen the insight and to express it in daily life.[106][107][108][109][note 26] To deepen the initial insight of kensho, shikantaza and kōan-study are necessary. This trajectory of initial insight followed by a gradual deepening and ripening is expressed by Linji Yixuan in his Three mysterious Gates, the Five Ranks, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin,[112] and the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures[113] which detail the steps on the Path.


Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharshi frequently recommended Vichara, "Self-enquiry", also called ātma-vichār or jnana-vichara,[114] as the most efficient and direct way of realizing Self-awareness, in response to questions on self-liberation and the classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta.[web 12][115] It is the constant attention to the inner awareness of "I" or "I am",[note 27][note 28] and is also the method which was followed by Nisargadatta Maharaj.

According to Ramana Maharshi, the I-thought[note 29] is the sense of individuality: "(Aham, aham) ‘I-I’ is the Self; (Aham idam) “I am this” or “I am that” is the ego."[119] By paying attention to the 'I'-thought, inquiring where it comes from,[web 15][note 30] the 'I'-thought will disappear and the "shining forth" (sphurana)[web 17] of "I-I"[web 13][note 31] or Self-awareness will appear.[note 32] This results in an "effortless awareness of being",[web 15] and by staying with it[web 17][note 33] this "I-I" gradually destroys the vasanas "which cause the 'I'-thought to rise."[web 15] When the vasanas disappear, the mind, vritti[note 34] also comes to rest, since it centers around the 'I'-thought,[121] and finally the 'I'-thought never rises again, which is Self-realization or liberation:[122][web 15]

If one remains still without leaving it, even the sphurana – having completely annihilated the sense of the individuality, the form of the ego, 'I am the body' – will itself in the end subside, just like the flame that catches the camphor. This alone is said to be liberation by great ones and scriptures. (The Mountain Path, 1982, p. 98)." [web 17][note 35]

Robert Forman notes that Ramana Maharshi made a distinction between samadhi and sahaja samadhi. Samadhi is a contemplative state, which is temporarily, while in sahaja samadhi a "silent state" is maintained while engaged in daily activities.[123] Forman notes that "the first experience of samadhi [by Ramana] preceded sahaja samadhi by several years."[124]

Transcendental meditation

Robert Forman, who is a long-term Transcendental meditation practitioner, with over 40 years of practice,[web 21] describes the "Pure Consciousness Event," a state of consciousness which is similar to transcendental consciousness in transcendental meditation.[125] TM describes seven states of consciousness; "pure" or"transcendental consciousness" is the fourth state of consciousness, and the first of four transcendental states of consciousness, which eventually end in full enlightenment.[125][web 22][note 36]

According to Forman, introvertive mysticism is a transient, contemplative state, akin to samadhi, while extroverted mysticism is a more developed form of mysticism, akin to sahaja samadhi, a "silent state" which is maintained while engaged in activity.[126] Shear, also a long-term TM-practitioner, also notes that Stace regarded extroverted mysticism to be a less complete form of mysticism, but was puzzled by the fact that there are far more descriptions of introverted mysticism than of extroverted mysticism.[127] Shear proposes a developmental sequence of three higher states of consciousness:[128]

  1. HS1: the recognition of pure consciousness/emptiness
  2. HS2: the stable presence of this pure consciousness/emptiness throughout all activity
  3. HS3: the recognition of this pure consciousness/emptiness as the ground of all being

According to Shear, HS1 corresponds to Stace's introverted mysticism, whereas HS3 corresponds to Stace's extroverted mysticism, and is actually the more developed form of mystcism, in contrast to what Stace supposed.[127]


In Jung's analytical psychology, religious experiences may contribute to the process of individuation, in which the center of the personality shifts from the persona and the ego to the Self. McNamara proposes that religious experiences may help in "decentering" the self, and transform it into an integral self which is closer to an ideal self.[129]

See also


  1. McClenon: "The doctrine that special mental states or events allow an understanding of ultimate truths. Although it is difficult to differentiate which forms of experience allow such understandings, mental episodes supporting belief in "other kinds of reality" are often labeled mystical [...] Mysticism tends to refer to experiences supporting belief in a cosmic unity rather than the advocation of a particular religious ideology."[web 2]
  2. Others include Frithjof Schuon, Rudolf Otto and Aldous Huxley.[20]
    • Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 1978)
    • Mysticism and Religious Traditions (Oxford University Press, 1983)
    • Mysticism and Language (Oxford University Press, 1992)
    • Mysticism and Sacred Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2000)
  3. The term "mystical experience" has become synonymous with the terms "religious experience", spiritual experience and sacred experience.[3]
  4. James: "Churches, when once established, live at secondhand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine. not only the superhuman founders, the Christ, the Buddha, Mahomet, but all the originators of Christian sects have been in this case; – so personal religion should still seem the primordial thing, even to those who continue to esteem it incomplete."[24]
  5. Compare the work of C.G. Jung.
  6. See especially Zaehner, R. C., Mysticism Sacred and Profane, Oxford University Press, Chapters 3,4, and 6.
  7. Hood: " seems fair to conclude that the perennialist view has strong empirical support, insofar as regardless of the language used in the M Scale, the basic structure of the experience remains constant across diverse samples and cultures. This is a way of stating the perennialist thesis in measurable terms.[35]
  8. Hood: "[E]mpirically, there is strong support to claim that as operationalized from Stace's criteria, mystical experience is identical as measured across diverse samples, whether expressed in "neutral language" or with either "God" or "Christ" references.[36]
  9. * Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 1978)
    * Mysticism and Religious Traditions (Oxford University Press, 1983)
    * Mysticism and Language (Oxford University Press, 1992)
    * Mysticism and Sacred Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2000)
  10. Robert Sharf has criticised the idea that religious texts describe individual religious experience. According to Sharf, their authors go to great lengths to avoid personal experience, which would be seen as invalidating the presumed authority of the historical tradition.[52][4]
  11. Two notable exceptions are collections of essays by Wainwright 1981 and Jones 1983.
  12. Original in Katz (1978), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Oxford University Press
  13. Roberarf: "[T]he role of experience in the history of Buddhism has been greatly exaggerated in contemporary scholarship. Both historical and ethnographic evidence suggests that the privileging of experience may well be traced to certain twentieth-century reform movements, notably those that urge a return to zazen or vipassana meditation, and these reforms were profoundly influenced by religious developments in the west [...] While some adepts may indeed experience "altered states" in the course of their training, critical analysis shows that such states do not constitute the reference point for the elaborate Buddhist discourse pertaining to the "path".[60]
  14. William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru' narrow chinks of his cavern."[65]
  15. Schopenhauer: "In the widest sense, mysticism is every guidance to the immediate awareness of what is not reached by either perception or conception, or generally by any knowledge. The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. The mystic starts from his inner, positive, individual experience, in which he finds himself as the eternal and only being, and so on. But nothing of this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince.[81]
  16. Minsky's idea of 'some early Imprimer hiding in the mind' was an echo of Freud's belief that mystical experience was essentially infantile and regressive, i.e., a memory of 'Oneness' with the mother.
  17. Meditator: It suddenly seemed as if I was surrounded by an immensely powerful Presence. I felt that a Truth had been "revealed" to me that was far more important than anything else, and for which I needed no further evidence. But when later I tried to describe this to my friends, I found that I had nothing to say except how wonderful that experience was. This peculiar type of mental state is sometimes called a "Mystical Experience" or "Rapture," "Ecstasy," or "Bliss." Some who undergo it call it "wonderful," but a better word might be "wonderless," because I suspect that such a state of mind may result from turning so many Critics off that one cannot find any flaws in it. What might that "powerful Presence" represent? It is sometimes seen as a deity, but I suspect that it is likely to be a version of some early Imprimer that for years has been hiding inside your mind.[note 17] In any case, such experiences can be dangerous—for some victims find them so compelling that they devote the rest of their lives to trying to get themselves back to that state again.[83]
  18. See also Francesca Sacco (2013-09-19), Can Epilepsy Unlock The Secret To Happiness?, Le Temps
  19. See also satori in Japanese Zen
  20. See Radhakrishnan for a similar stance on the value of religious experience. Radhakrishnan saw Hinduism as a scientific religion based on facts, apprehended via intuition or religious experience.[web 8] According to Radhakrishnan, "[i]f philosophy of religion is to become scientific, it must become empirical and found itself on religious experience".[web 8] He saw this empiricism exemplified in the Vedas: "The truths of the ṛṣis are not evolved as the result of logical reasoning or systematic philosophy but are the products of spiritual intuition, dṛṣti or vision. The ṛṣis are not so much the authors of the truths recorded in the Vedas as the seers who were able to discern the eternal truths by raising their life-spirit to the plane of universal spirit. They are the pioneer researchers in the realm of the spirit who saw more in the world than their followers. Their utterances are not based on transitory vision but on a continuous experience of resident life and power. When the Vedas are regarded as the highest authority, all that is meant is that the most exacting of all authorities is the authority of facts."[web 8] This stance is echoed by Ken Wilber: "The point is that we might have an excellent population of extremely evolved and developed personalities in the form of the world's great mystic-sages (a point which is supported by Maslow's studies). Let us, then, simply assume that the authentic mystic-sage represents the very highest stages of human development—as far beyond normal and average humanity as humanity itself is beyond apes. This, in effect, would give us a sample which approximates "the highest state of consciousness"—a type of "superconscious state." Furthermore, most of the mystic-sages have left rather detailed records of the stages and steps of their own transformations into the superconscious realms. That is, they tell us not only of the highest level of consciousness and superconsciousness, but also of all the intermediate levels leading up to it. If we take all these higher stages and add them to the lower and middle stages/levels which have been so carefully described and studied by Western psychology, we would then arrive at a fairly well-balanced and comprehensive model of the spectrum of consciousness."[95]
  21. See Michael Shermer (2001), Is God All in the Mind? for a review in Science.
  22. According to Matthew Day, the book "is fatally compromised by conceptual confusions, obsolete scholarship, clumsy sleights of hand and untethered speculation".[96] According to Matthew Day, Newberg and d'Aquily "consistently discount the messy reality of empirical religious heterogenity".[97]
  23. Bulkely (2003), The Gospel According to Darwin: the relevance of cognitive neuroscience to religious studies. Religious Studies Review 29 (2), 123–129. Cited in [97]
  24. Brooks: "While many commentaries and translations of the Buddha's Discourses claim the Buddha taught two practice paths, one called "shamata" and the other called "vipassanā," there is in fact no place in the suttas where one can definitively claim that."[105]
  25. See, for example:
    * Contemporary Chan Master Sheng Yen: "Ch'an expressions refer to enlightenment as "seeing your self-nature". But even this is not enough. After seeing your self-nature, you need to deepen your experience even further and bring it into maturation. You should have enlightenment experience again and again and support them with continuous practice. Even though Ch'an says that at the time of enlightenment, your outlook is the same as of the Buddha, you are not yet a full Buddha."[110]
    * Contemporary western Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett: "One can easily get the impression that realization, kenshō, an experience of enlightenment, or however you wish to phrase it, is the end of Zen training. It is not. It is, rather, a new beginning, an entrance into a more mature phase of Buddhist training. To take it as an ending, and to "dine out" on such an experience without doing the training that will deepen and extend it, is one of the greatest tragedies of which I know. There must be continuous development, otherwise you will be as a wooden statue sitting upon a plinth to be dusted, and the life of Buddha will not increase."[111]
  26. Ramana's written works contain terse descriptions of self-enquiry. Verse thirty of Ulladu Narpadu: "Questioning 'Who am I?' within one's mind, when one reaches the Heart, the individual 'I' sinks crestfallen, and at once reality manifests itself as 'I-I'. Though it reveals itself thus, it is not the ego 'I' but the perfect being the Self Absolute.[web 12] Verses nineteen and twenty of Upadesa Undiyar describe the same process in almost identical terms: "'Whence does the 'I' arise?' Seek this within. The 'I' then vanishes. This is the pursuit of wisdom. Where the 'I' vanished, there appears an 'I-I' by itself. This is the infinite.[web 13]
  27. According to Krishna Bhikshu, an early biographer of Ramana Maharshi, "[a] new path for attaining moksha was indicated here. Nobody else had discovered this path earlier."[116] According to David Frawley, "atma-vichara" is the most important practice in the Advaita Vedanta tradition, predating its popularisation by Ramana Maharshi.[web 14] It is part of the eighth limb of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, which describes the various stages of samadhi. Meditation on "I-am-ness" is a subtle object of meditation in savikalpa samadhi.[117] It is also described in the Yoga Vasistha, a syncretic work which may date from the 6th or 7th century CE, and shows influences from Yoga, Samkhya, Saiva Siddhanta and Mahayana Buddhism, especially Yogacara.[118] The practice is also well-known from Chinese Chán Buddhism, especially from Dahui Zonggao's Hua Tou practice.
  28. Ahamkara or Aham-Vritti[web 15]
  29. According to Ramana Maharshi, one realises that it rises in the hṛdayam (heart). "Hṛdayam" consists of two syllables 'hṛt' and 'ayam' which signify "I am the Heart".[web 16] The use of the word "hṛdayam" is not unique to Ramana Maharshi. A famous Buddhist use is the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya Sutra, the Heart Sutra
  30. "Nan-nan," literally "I-I", also translated as "I am, I am", "being-consciousness",[web 18] and "I am I".[web 19] According to David Godman, the "I-I" is an intermediary realisation between the "I" (ego) and the Self. "[T]he verses on 'I-I' that Bhagavan wrote are open to two interpretations. They can be taken either to mean that the 'I-I' is experienced as a consequence of realisation or as a precursor to it. My own view, and I would stress that it is only a personal opinion, is that the evidence points to it being a precursor only.[web 20]
  31. Ramana Maharshi: "(Aham, aham) ‘I-I’ is the Self; (Aham idam) “I am this” or “I am that” is the ego. Shining is there always. The ego is transitory; When the ‘I’ is kept up as ‘I’ alone it is the Self; when it flies at a tangent and says “this” it is the ego." [119] David Godman: "the expression 'nan-nan' ('I-I' in Tamil) would generally be taken to mean 'I am I' by a Tamilian. This interpretation would make 'I-I' an emphatic statement of Self-awareness akin to the biblical 'I am that I am' which Bhagavan occasionally said summarised the whole of Vedanta. Bhagavan himself has said that he used the term 'I-I' to denote the import of the word 'I'."[web 12]
  32. According to Sadu Om, self-enquiry can also be seen as 'Self-attention' or 'Self-abiding'.[120]
  33. Conceptual thinking, memory, the creation of "things" in the mind
  34. Ramana Maharshi: "Liberation (mukti) is the total destruction of the I-impetus aham-kara, of the "me"- and "my"-impetus (mama-kara)".[122]
  35. See also Fred Travis, Summary of Research on Higher States of Consciousness


  1. 1.0 1.1 McMahan 2008, p. 269, note 9.
  2. 2.0 2.1 McMahan 2010, p. 269, note 9.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Samy 1998, p. 80.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Sharf 2000.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Hori 1999, p. 47.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Harmless 2007, p. 14.
  7. Sharf 2000, p. 271.
  8. McMahan 2008.
  9. King 2001.
  10. King 2002.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Harmless 2007, pp. 10–17.
  12. Horne 1996, p. 9.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Katz 2000, p. 3.
  14. Hood 2003, pp. 321–325.
  15. Hood 2003, p. 321.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Spilka e.a. 2003, p. 321.
  17. Katz 2000, pp. 3–4.
  18. Horne 1996, p. 29, note 1.
  19. 19.00 19.01 19.02 19.03 19.04 19.05 19.06 19.07 19.08 19.09 19.10 19.11 19.12 19.13 19.14 Paden 2009, p. 332.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Forman 1997, p. 4.
  21. Sawyer 2012, p. 241.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Hood 2003.
  23. Forman 1997, pp. 9–13.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 James 1982 (1902), p. 30.
  25. James 1982 (1902), p. 31.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 26.4 26.5 Harmless 2007, p. 13.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Harmless 2007, p. 15.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 Harmless 2007, p. 16.
  29. Freud 1930.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Hood 2003, p. 291.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Hood 2003, p. 292.
  32. Hood 1974.
  33. Hood 2003, pp. 321–323.
  34. Hood 2003, p. 324, 325.
  35. Hood 2003, p. 325.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Hood 2003, p. 324.
  37. Moore 1973, p. 148-150.
  38. Masson & Masson 1976.
  39. Katz 1978, p. 22-32.
  40. 40.0 40.1 Belzen 2010, p. 97.
  41. Hood 2001, p. 32.
  42. Katz 1978, p. 25.
  43. Katz 1978, p. 28.
  44. Katz 1978, p. 30.
  45. Katz 1978, p. 46-47.
  46. Katz 1978, p. 53-54.
  47. Katz 1978, p. 65.
  48. Katz 1978, p. 66.
  49. Masson 1976, p. 109.
  50. Belzen 2010, p. 50.
  51. 51.0 51.1 Hood 2015, p. 467.
  52. 52.0 52.1 52.2 Sharf 1995-B.
  53. Forman 1997, p. 9.
  54. Horne 1996, p. 29.
  55. Laibelman 2007, p. 207.
  56. Laibelman 2007, p. 209.
  57. Laibelman 2007, p. 211.
  58. Mohr 2000, pp. 282–286.
  59. Low 2006, p. 12.
  60. Sharf 1995-C, p. 1.
  61. Hori 1994, p. 30.
  62. Samy 1998, p. 82.
  63. Mohr 2000, p. 282.
  64. Samy 1998, pp. 80–82.
  65. Quote DB
  66. Mohr 2000, p. 284.
  67. Parsons 2011, pp. 4–5.
  68. 68.0 68.1 King 2002, p. 21.
  69. Forman 1991.
  70. Forman 1999.
  71. Newberg 2008.
  72. Beauregard 2007.
  73. 73.0 73.1 73.2 Picard 2013.
  74. 74.0 74.1 74.2 Devinksy 2003.
  75. Bryant 1953.
  76. Leuba 1925.
  77. 77.0 77.1 77.2 Drvinsky & Schachter 2009.
  78. Dewhurst & Beard 1970.
  79. Picard & Kurth 2014.
  80. Gschwind & Picard 2014.
  81. 81.0 81.1 Schopenhauer 1844, p. Vol. II, Ch. XLVIII.
  82. Minksy 2006, p. ch.3.
  83. Minsky 2006.
  84. Geschwind & Picard 2014.
  85. Picard 2013, p. 2496-2498.
  86. Picard 2013, p. 2497-2498.
  87. 87.0 87.1 Picard 2013, p. 2498.
  88. 88.0 88.1 Newberg 2008, p. 2.
  89. Newberg 2008, pp. 2–3.
  90. Newberg 2008, p. 4.
  91. Newberg 2008, p. 5.
  92. 92.0 92.1 Newberg 2008, p. 6.
  93. Newberg 2008, p. 7.
  94. Newman 2008, p. 140.
  95. Wilber 1996, p. 14.
  96. 96.0 96.1 Day 2009, p. 122.
  97. 97.0 97.1 Day 2009, p. 123.
  98. Day 2009, p. 118.
  99. Proudfoot 1985.
  100. Taves 2009.
  101. Shear 2011.
  102. Bond 1992, p. 167.
  103. Bond 1992, p. 162-171.
  104. 104.0 104.1 Gombrich 1997, p. 96-144.
  105. 105.0 105.1 Brooks 2006.
  106. Sekida 1996.
  107. Kapleau 1989.
  108. Kraft 1997, p. 91.
  109. Maezumi 2007, p. 54, 140.
  110. Yen 1996, p. 54.
  111. Jiyu-Kennett 2005, p. 225.
  112. Low 2006.
  113. Mumon 2004.
  114. Sadhu Om 2005, p. 136.
  115. Godman 1985, p. 6&7.
  116. Bhikshu 2012, p. ch.22.
  117. Maehle 2007, p. 178.
  118. Chapple 1984, p. xii.
  119. 119.0 119.1 Venkataramiah 2000, p. 363.
  120. Sadhu Om 2005.
  121. Venkataramiah 2006.
  122. 122.0 122.1 Zimmer 1948, p. 195.
  123. Forman 1999, p. 6.
  124. Forman 1999, p. 45, note 27.
  125. 125.0 125.1 Williamson 2010, p. 182.
  126. Forman 1990, p. 8.
  127. 127.0 127.1 Shear 2011, p. 146 note 4.
  128. Shear 2011, p. 144.
  129. McNamara 2014.


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  21., About Robert K.C. Forman
  22. 7 levels of consciousness: The path of enlightenment

Further reading

  • Katz, Steven T. (1978), "Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism", in Katz, Steven T., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Oxford university Press<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Forman, Robert K., ed. (1997), The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy, Oxford University Press <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Taves, Ann (2009), Religious Experience Reconsidered, Princeton: Princeton University Press<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links