The Varieties of Mystical Experience
Our subjective perceptions are arrestingly compelling, yet highly unreliable.
Posted Dec 18, 2019
“A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.” — Rabbi Lawrence Kushner1
As a psychiatrist, I routinely hear about all sorts of unusual perceptual experiences, and not just from people who are psychotic. A wide variety of psychiatric, neurological, and other medical conditions can cause distorted perceptions. Some of these conditions involve disordered or diseased states affecting the brain; some are transient; and some occur in otherwise healthy, normal people—for example, trancelike dissociative states, and perceptual distortions associated with hypoglycemia and sleep deprivation, among other factors.2
Some distorted perceptions are entirely normal phenomena but are outside the range of most people's usual life experiences. There is also the simple but potent power of suggestion, as well as numerous sources of perceptual illusions, and very many powerful cognitive biases that affect how people interpret and recall their experiences.
Seeing is believing3
It is said that seeing is believing. But actually, believing is seeing—we often see what we believe to be there, misinterpreting our senses in illusory ways. Moreover, our senses sometimes create perceptions out of nothing at all. When people experience perceptions of non-real things in ways that are indistinguishable to them from other aspects of their actual reality, the last thing they are willing or able to believe is that those perceptions could have been due to their own brain malfunctioning—their mind playing tricks on them.
People tend to trust their physical senses and to believe what their own brain tells them, no matter how bizarre. They will layer explanations on top of their perception of reality to explain away contradictions. Since we experience the external world entirely through our senses, we find it hard to accept that these perceptions are sometimes entirely subjective and not necessarily reliable experiences of objective reality. After all, what else can we trust and depend on more than our own senses?
Subjective perception can seduce even hardened skeptics
American author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, who describes herself as "a myth buster by trade," wrote earnestly about an unusual subjective perceptual experience she had that serves as an excellent example of the way we give our subjective experience too much credence. I consider it a good illustration precisely because I admire Ehrenreich as a very intelligent and critically-minded person.
She has persuasively argued elsewhere for evidence-based, reality-based thinking. It is therefore ironic that she would be so captivated by her own subjective perceptions, as described below, and take these so seriously. If such an astute skeptic can be overwhelmed by the power of her own subjective perceptions and emotions, then the rest of us ought to have less confidence in our own rationality, and to be very wary of the power of emotion and subjectivity to skew our critical thinking.
“A furious encounter with a living substance”
Ehrenreich wrote about this particular experience decades after it happened to her one morning in 1959 at age 17, on a ski trip:4 The experience "shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. Years later, I learned that this sort of event is usually called a mystical experience."
She recognizes that because of poor planning and insufficient money she was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959, when:
"I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world—the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings—suddenly flame into life . . . just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it . . . It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.”5
She felt a kind of unity with all of nature, living and nonliving, all “recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.” She felt “ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.”
“Mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter”
Ehrenreich had previously had other unusual but less intense experiences and had been medically assessed as having a dissociative disorder (commonly associated with perceptual illusions and feeling detached from reality or having dreamlike states). She was also the type of child who habitually spent a lot of time absorbed in her own thoughts and internal world during her difficult, unhappy childhood.
An avowed atheist since childhood, Ehrenreich rejected a theistic explanation for her experience but is open, all these years later, to considering that the universe might be suffused with some sort of vaguely mystical “Otherness” or animistic energy—some as-yet-unidentified pervasive life-form permeating all of nature, possibly conscious and possibly very powerful.
She postulated that “mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter,” giving us “tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind.” She wondered if the universe is “pulsing with a kind of life,” which might be “capable of bursting into something” that we might momentarily experience like the flame she thought she saw that day.
She suggested that science should not dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena and should take seriously the possibility that these experiences really do represent some sort of “encounter” with some unknown, vital, conscious force in the universe. She proposed that we need “more subjective accounts.”6
Considering that in her other writings Ehrenreich has stressed the need for realistic and unbiased thinking, it is all the more striking that she should regard her own subjective perceptions as a reliable source of evidence for the nature of objective reality. This illustrates just how compelling subjective perception can be—the only thing that makes Ehrenreich's experiences remarkable and impressive to her is that they are hers.
“Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow”
Subjective experiences of seemingly unexplained mystical-type “encounters,” as well as experiences of eerie coincidences, are among the most powerful reasons why people are prone to religious or spiritual beliefs. William James, the “father of American psychology” and an influential philosopher, published a wide variety of firsthand accounts of subjectively powerful mystical experiences and revelations collected from people from all walks of life.7 The experiences typically led to strong, long-lasting, even lifelong religious convictions, because they usually reinforced belief in a divine cosmic order.
James wrote, “Whoever possesses strongly this sense comes naturally to think that the smallest details of the world derive infinite significance from their relation to an unseen divine order”8—in other words, everything happens for a reason. He referred to the difficulty in overriding these irresistibly convincing subjective perceptions with logical thought:
I spoke of the convincingness of these feelings of reality, and I must dwell a moment longer on that point. They are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible [sensory] experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are . . . If you do have them, and have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief.9
According to James, people's reasoned intellectual philosophies are often formed as ways to rationalize their irrational subjective-intuitive experiences. Once formed in this way, these beliefs cannot easily be shaken by rational counterarguments:
The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. Then, indeed, our intuitions and our reason work together . . . The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow. If a person feels the presence of a living God after the fashion shown by my quotations, your critical arguments, be they never so superior, will vainly set themselves to change his faith.10
More willing to doubt the laws of physics than to doubt our own minds
Clearly, we find our own subjective perceptions arrestingly compelling and are more willing to doubt the laws of physics than to doubt our own minds. People underestimate the capacity of our brains to create their own convincing realities. They underestimate how powerfully realistic some dissociative experiences, hallucinations, and other well-recognized mental/neural misperceptions can seem.
Come and sit in my office for a week and listen to people argue passionately (and even seemingly rationally) that their demonstrably implausible perceptions or beliefs are real. Then judge for yourself which explanation is more plausible—that the bizarre experiences that you will hear described are actually real, or that the human brain can easily fool us into believing weird things.
1. “Lawrence Kushner, Kabbalah and Everyday Mysticism,” On Being with Krista Tippett, May, 15, 2014, https://onbeing.org/programs/lawrence-kushner-kabbalah-and-everyday-mysticism/
2. For an extensive and entertaining account of many examples of such experiences (including hallucinations brought on by sleep deprivation and by sensory deprivation), see Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (New York: Times Books, 2011). These examples include Shermer's own experience of bizarre perceptual distortion and delusion while severely sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic—he believed with certainty that he was being abducted by aliens when his crew took him off his bicycle into their support motor home for a 90-minute sleep break after he started weaving on his bike after riding 83 straight hours and 1,259 miles during the grueling Race Across America.
3. This article was adapted from: Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018), pp.52-56.
[CLICK 'MORE' TO VIEW FOOTNOTES 4-10]
4. Barbara Ehrenreich, “A Rationalist's Mystical Moment,” New York Times, April 5, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/a-rationalists-mystical-moment.html?_r=2; Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything (New York: Twelve, 2014).
5. Ehrenreich, “Rationalist's Mystical Moment.”
7. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Modern Library ed. (New York: Modern Library, 1994). Based on his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1902.
8. Ibid., p. 403.
9. Ibid., p. 83.
10. Ibid., p. 85. James himself, while skeptical of conventional literal-minded religious beliefs and believing most of the mystical experiences he described to have “morbid origins” [disordered origins] in brain pathology, was more or less agnostic regarding the existence of some kind of spiritual dimension to the universe. His own beliefs appear to have been closest to pantheism or pandeism (an amalgam of pantheism and deism). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James#Philosophy_of_religion.