Mystical Experience in Modern English          ver 11

He who talks doesn't know,
he who knows doesn't talk":
that is what Lao-tzu told us,
in a book of five thousand words.

If he was the one who knew,
how could he have been such a blabbermouth?
                                                                    Po Chu-i

That's the problem with spiritual teachers. They have to be blabbermouths. But their words are (in the traditional Buddhist metaphor) fingers pointing at the moon; if you watch the finger, you can't see the moon.

Stephen Mitchell
Tao Te Ching - A New English Version

The Problem of Language

There is a consensus among contemplatives that the contemplative experience can not be adequately described in words. So we find ourselves facing an interesting problem. If contemplative experience can't be expressed in words (it is ineffable) how can we learn about it?

Fortunately there are other ways of knowing. According to Ken Wilber there are three ways of knowing.

"The first way, the analogical, describes Reality in terms of what it is like. It uses positive and finite qualities that are so overpowering that they can effectively hint at or point to the Absolute. ...

The second way, the negative, describes reality in a thoroughly negative way, since as St. Thomas pointed out, "we must proceed by the way of remotion, since God by his immensity exceeds every conception which our intellect can form." St Thomas thus called it the via negativa; and this way is what St. Dionysius termed the apophatic, which he likened to sculpture, for the "finished product" is arrived at only by chipping away all obstructions. ...

The third way is therefore an invitation, in the form of a set of experimental rules, to discover Reality for oneself. It is what G. Spencer Brown calls injunction, which he states:

is comparable with practical art forms like cookery, in which the taste of a cake, although literally indescribable, can be conveyed to a reader in the form of a set of injunctions called a recipe. Music is a similar art form, the composer does not even attempt to describe the set of sounds he has in mind, much less the set of feelings occasioned through them, but writes down a set of commands, which if they are obeyed by their reader, can result in a reproduction to the reader, of the composer's original experience.

Thus Reality, just like all insights and experiences, is literally indescribable but it can nevertheless be indirectly pointed to by setting down a group of rules, an experiment, which, if it be followed faithfully and wholly, will result in the experience-reality."

Ken Wilber Spectrum of Consciousness


What shall we call the experience that mystics and contemplatives have?

I like Gerald May's term "unitive experience" and find it a useful concept for contemporary dialog. Unitive experience historically has been seen as the experience of becoming one with the Divine. It is an experience which often leads to a sense of clarity, inner quiet, and a new sense of being which transcends our usual experience of being a separate self.

Also unitive experience often leads to insights which cut through the personal and social fictions in which we are enmeshed.

If the word "Divine" is not a comfortable one for you, substitute your own term. For example use the word God, Ground of Being, Goddess, Godhead, your Real Self, the universe, the Tao, Ultimate Reality, indiscriminate being in love with, etc. Calling this phenomena "unitive experience" is useful because it allows for a continuum of weak to strong experiences. Gerald May believes that all of us us have had this experience to one degree or another. However, many of us have not had our strongest unitive experiences in a "religious" setting.

There are two other terms frequently used for this experience are mysticism and contemplation. Mysticism in some traditions is synonymous with unitive experience but has the problem of being associated with the occult, psychic phenomena, and anti-intellectualism. These multiple meanings often make it a confusing term.

Contemplation is used in the Roman Catholic tradition as the deepest form of prayer, however, it may not be universal enough to include other traditions. It has the additional problem of being used in ordinary language to mean deep thought which can also be misleading. For these reasons unitive experience is my term of choice since it is pretty much a descriptive term without a long tradition and multiple meanings. 

Communication and the Ineffable

Keeping in mind the inadequacy of words, let's look at some attempts to describe unitive experiences.


He would wander the hills above the town and play around the ruins of a Hapsburg castle, the Stein. “It was a real paradise up there,” he (Hofmann) said in an interview in 2006. “We had no money, but I had a wonderful childhood.”

It was during one of his ambles that he had his epiphany.

“It happened on a May morning — I have forgotten the year — but I can still point to the exact spot where it occurred, on a forest path on Martinsburg above Baden,” he wrote in “LSD: My Problem Child.” “As I strolled through the freshly greened woods filled with bird song and lit up by the morning sun, all at once everything appeared in an uncommonly clear light. 

It shone with the most beautiful radiance, speaking to the heart, as though it wanted to encompass me in its majesty. I was filled with an indescribable sensation of joy, oneness and blissful security."

Albert Hofmann
Chemist who Synthesized LSD
New York Times article


"The dust and the stones of the street were as precious as gold, the gates were at first the ends of the world. The green trees when I saw them first, through one of the gates, transported and ravished me . . Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they should die.

But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the light of day ... The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine. ... I knew no churlish properties, nor bounds, nor divisions; but all proprieties and divisions were mine; all treasures and possessors of them.

So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world, which I now unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the kingdom of God."

This account comes from Thomas Traherne (1636-74).



"A salesman's story stands out in my memory.

He had suffered from alcoholism for many years and had participated in a variety of treatment approaches, to no avail. After a period of several years during which I had not seen him, he dropped by to say hello.

With pleasure but no great pride he announced to me that he had been free from alcohol for two years. He attributed his transformation to a single unitive experience that had come over him spontaneously one day while he was walking down the street.

He could think of nothing special about the day or the circumstances. He had taken that same walk many times before. But for whatever reason, it happened, and it also revolutionized his life. He said very mildly, "I discovered equanimity while walking to the grocery store."

This account comes from the book Will and Spirit by Gerald May.


"My first marriage ended after five years and I lost my three children.

The possibility of a family breakup never occurred to me. Without warning or good-bye, they were gone. I withdrew. When I didn't need to tend cattle, I stayed out on the Black Bear slope of Miller Peak, high in the Huachucas, in the Arizona -Sonoran borderlands.

I began learning Malay, a language I'd never heard, spoken on the other side of the world by a people I'd never met. Then I went to the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, where people wouldn't expect me to understand them. Then I went to the San Francisco Bay Area, where there was a good supply of library books written in Malay.

Sitting in the cheapest room I could find in Berkeley, I often concentrated on my heartbeat. When I concentrated on it, the stillness expanded and each beat became a sudden clutching, to keep from slipping away into final stillness. Each beat let me know that my heart still cared enough to clutch for life. As caring withered, the stillness grew and the clutching weakened.

About a month passed. Then, late one night as I sat waiting with indifference for each next beat of my heart, I realized it was slowing much more than ever before, to a stop. The last strands of caring gave way. I let go.

Out of the stillness that I thought was death, love enlivened me - or something like love that doesn't split, the way love does, into loving and being loved.

I gave away everything that I didn't need, acquired a copy of the New Testament, and left Berkeley, hitchhiking. For a week or two I wandered. Everywhere, I saw I'd been living in conjured make-believe, yet I had no new beliefs. It was more like having always seen an optical illusion one way that seems meaningless and then seeing exactly the same relations another way that's completely meaningful.

On the basis of quite limited information and no familiarity, I guessed I must have turned Quaker. Finding myself in Los Angeles, I located a Quaker meeting, attended, and decided that I had."

From the book Goatwalking by Jim Corbet.


"All at once I found myself wrapped in a flame colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself.

Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life.

It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain.

. . What joy when I saw there was no break in the chain - not a link left out - everything in its place and time. Worlds, systems, all blended into one harmonious whole."

This is a quote from R. M. Bucke


"Perhaps we can better understand this through a story of a Palestinian named Salam, one of my good friends. I met Salam when I was doing some teaching for the hospices of the Bay Area. He was able to sit with the dying because he had no fear of death. In the late 1960s and 1970s Salam had lived in Jerusalem as an activist and a journalist. Because he was writing about creating a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state, he was regularly arrested. He spent nearly six years in Israeli prisons. He was frequently interrogated and periodically beaten and tortured. This happens on every side in war.

One afternoon after he had been badly beaten, his body was lying on the floor of the prison and he was being kicked by a particularly cruel guard. Blood poured out of his mouth, and as the police report later stated the authorities believed he had died. He remembers the pain of being beaten. Then, as is often reported by accident and torture victims, he felt his consciousness leave his body and float up to the ceiling. At first it was peaceful and still, like in a silent movie, as he watched his own body lying below being kicked. It was so peaceful he didn’t know what all the fuss was about. And then Salam described how, in a remarkable way, his consciousness expanded further. He knew it was his body lying below, but now he felt he was also the boot kicking the body. He was also the peeling green paint on the prison walls, the goat whose bleat could be heard outside, the dirt under the guard’s finger- nails—he was life, all of it and the eternal consciousness of it all, with no separation. Being everything, he could never die. All his fears vanished. He realized that death was an illusion. A well-being and joy beyond description opened in him. And then a spontaneous compassion arose for the astonishing folly of humans, believing we are separate, clinging to nations and making war. Two days later, as Salam describes it, he came back to consciousness in a bruised and beaten body on the floor of a cell, with out fear or remorse, just amazement. His experience changed his whole sense of life and death. He refused to continue to participate in any form of conflict. When he was released, he married a Jewish woman and had Palestinian-Jewish children. That, he said, was his answer to the misguided madness of the world."

Jack Kornfield
The Wise Heart


Have you had unitive experiences? Think carefully about this. 

Assuming unitive experiences vary in intensity, we may at least get a taste of these experiences in feeling at one with nature, aesthetic experiences, deep meditation, creative activity, tragic life situations when we suddenly see how things are with great clarity, or flow experiences in sports, music, tai chi, or dance. Many spiritual mystics and poets  have used the language of love to describe their mystical experiences.

When have you had your strongest unitive experiences?

What were the settings or triggering events?

What effect, if any, did they have on you?

What words would you substitute for unitive experience if this does characterize your deepest spiritual experiences?

Knowing and Being

"For, as all exponents of the Perennial Philosophy have constantly insisted, man's obsessive consciousness of, and insistence on being, a separate self is the final and most formidable obstacle to unitive knowledge of God. To be a self is, for them, the original sin, and to die to self, in feeling, will and intellect, is the final and all-inclusive virtue.

Aldous Huxley - The Perennial Philosophy

Often, the language of the contemplative traditions doesn't make sense to us in the twentieth century. In this section we will look at attempts to translate these ideas into contemporary language.

The contemplative traditions (the perennial philosophy), understand unitive experience to be a condition of spiritual knowledge. The perception that we are separate selves is at some deep level seen to be an illusion. There are usually expressions of a nondualistic perception of the unity of all things in these traditions. Christian expressions hedge a bit on this, holding that even in the deepest unitive experience we are separate beings in a relationship to God the source of our being.

In the theistic forms of contemplative expression, panentheism (not pantheism), is common. Panentheism insists on maintaining simultaneously the paradox of Divine immanence (the indwelling God) and transcendence (God as other).

Huxley argues that the nature of our being affects the depth of insight that we can experience.  

"Knowledge is a function of being. When there is a change in the being of the knower, there is a corresponding change in the nature and the amount of knowing. ... But it is a fact, confirmed, and re-confirmed during two or three thousand years of religious history, that the ultimate Reality is not clearly and immediately apprehended, except by those who have made themselves loving, pure in heart (non-attached), and poor in spirit (humble)."

Or as Arthur Deikman puts it "The reality intuited by the mystic is convincing only when it is experienced; people who lack that experience adapt the concept to the world of the senses."



Where do you agree or disagree with the ideas expressed above?

Are there important elements that have been left out?


Experiences Mistaken for Unitive Experiences

Before we go any farther perhaps we had better talk a about other experiences which might be confused with unitive experiences. Unitive experience is not just emotion, thought, or psychological pathology.

"Certainly, mystical consciousness is to be distinguished from accounts of 'spiritual' experiences that are just more fantasies, more emotion laden dreams of merging and dependency.

The blissed out disciple with a fixed smile revolves in a dream as deep as any demagogue caught up in power. . . .

One reason for the widespread self-deceit in the area of spiritual development is that people have been trained to feel ashamed of "lower" wishes, despite the fact that such wishes have their own place and functions."

Deikman - The Observing Self


"I should make it clear here that there is a vast difference between such grandiosity (paranoid), which is clearly a pathological reaction, and a humble sense of direction and calling, which can be one of the very creative consequences of such an experience.

The two [unitive experience and paranoid experience] are easy to distinguish. One results in increased feelings of superiority and self importance.

The other is clearly accompanied by increased humility and a sense of being very ordinarily human, a greater awareness of one's feet of clay.

One leads to a desire to master, convert, or otherwise manipulate humanity. The other only a simple desire to be a servant of humanity."

Gerald May - Will and Spirit


Psychology and Spirituality

It is also easy to become confused regarding the difference between psychological growth and spiritual growth. 

Psychological development: 

"is a matter of self understanding, self acceptance, and personal integration.

The former (mystical path) involves itself with self-forgetting, the disappearance of the self into mysterious union with God, Absolute, the Transcendent aspect of reality, the Tao.

Thus the term self-transcendent (with emphasis on the small "s" self in the self, as opposed to the Self, higher aspect of the personality) means letting go of egoistic interests and practical, worldly matters."

Sinetar - Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics


There is however, as one would expect, a relationship between psychological development and spiritual development. It may be that the higher stages of spiritual development require a healthy Ego as a launch platform for further development

"Mystical science is for those who can obtain satisfaction of their worldly need from appropriate sources and do not seek them, in disguise, in the spiritual domain.

Worldly needs must be satisfied elsewhere so that their pursuit does not interfere with their learning process.

Similarly, psychopathology must be dealt with first. Consequently there is no way for mysticism to substitute for psychotherapy, or visa versa."

Deikman - The Observing Self


"But you have to be somebody before you can be nobody. The issue in personal development as I have come to understand it is not self or no-self, but self and no-self.

Both a sense of self and insight into the ultimate illusoriness of its apparent continuity and substantiality are necessary achievements. Sanity and complete psychological well-being include both, but in a phase-appropriate developmental sequence at different stages of object relations development.

The attempt to bypass the developmental tasks of identity formation and object constancy through a misguided spiritual attempt to "annihilate the ego" has fateful and pathological consequences. This is what many students who are drawn to meditation practice and even some teachers seem to be attempting to do."

Jack Engler - Transformations of Consciousness

Ken Wilber and Michael Washburn are two authors who are engaged in the attempt to outline the interface between psychological and spiritual development.

Wilber has tried to combine Western developmental psychology and Eastern psychologies that include transpersonal stages which go beyond the traditional stopping place of western psychology. In his view, development can be seen as a set of stages with the more mature stages encompassing the development of the preceding stages. People at the lower stages looking up don't understand the next level and often deny the existence of higher stages.

Since Western science fits into one of these stages, western psychology has tended make the mistake of interpreting the claims of individuals at higher stages as regression. Regression in the sense of reverting to magic or superstition rather than stages which have moved beyond the scientific stage. Eastern psychologies did not make this error and he draws on them to talk about stages beyond the scientific world view.

So Wilber is basically making the case that Western psychology grew out of a tradition of medical pathology which tried to bring patients to a position of a strong ego which would let them function in society whereas Eastern psychology was attempting to take more or less well adjusted human beings and turn them into enlightened beings. So that a complete psychology needs to integrate both points of view.

Michael Washburn has proposed a view that he calls the dynamic-dialectical model (U-turn towards origin model). In the higher stages the ego undergoes a return to the "Dynamic Ground" to end alienation through a new synthesis of spirit and ego. He believes that this view is more consistent with the Western ideologies of Jung, Christianity, and alchemy.

Self Esteem and Mortification

What about the concepts of mortification, purgation, dying to self, and humility? These are concepts which have been a part of the contemplative traditions.

To a generation that values assertiveness, self esteem, and the celebration of life these ideas often seem life denying and psychologically unhealthy.

"Why does the heart need to be purified? Renunciation means giving up one's attachments based on the wish to possess them.

Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, it is accepting that they go away.

The doer is asked to give up all attachment to the results of action. The principal function of the object self is to possess, hence renunciation aids in giving up the object self.

Deikman - The Observing Self


"We could try to invent a generalized detachment, dulling ourselves and withdrawing from life.

But the life-denying atmosphere of detachment is contrived and empty, totally unlike the utter immersion in life that accompanies truly gifted nonattachment.

. . Where we do have a choice, we can choose to allow attachments to come or go rather than constantly clinging to them. At those times we can be willing to watch our self-importance lessen or change instead of immediately leaping to shore it up."

Gerald May - Will and Spirit


I like to think of somebody's personality becoming transparent. Then it's there in full presence and full enjoyment of the things of this world, with all its likes and dislikes, just not attached to them.

For instance, it's fine to like chocolate. When you order, it's not being a great bodhisattva to say, "Oh, well, vanilla's fine, chocolate's fine, I'll have raisins if you want, put some hot fudge on it if you want, its all the same." No. "I'll have a vanilla cone."

In that great poem by the Third Patriarch, The Mind of Absolute Trust, he says, "The great way is not difficult as long as you don't cling to your preferences." He's not saying, "Get rid of your preferences," but "don't be attached to them."

Stephen Mitchell interview in the Inquiring Mind: Fall 1990


Motivation Beyond Desire

Since our usual understanding of motivation is based on ego needs, self interest, or desire: what is the source of motivation as the self is transcended?

"What other motivation could there be that is not reducible to self interest?

That answer is serving the requirements of the task at hand.

. . . The object self can never be satisfied because its wish for permanence and possession of all its desires can never be achieved. For another, at the end of the road stands death to take away possessions, everything cherished by the object self.

A person who complains of it may be reflecting an accurate perception of their lives, rather than a neurosis. There is no solution to the problem of meaning except to transcend the motivations of the object self.

The path to that transcendence is service - real service, which means serving the task and ultimately, serving what mystics call the Truth."

Deikman - The Observing Self


"This again is the question of where one's motivation comes from if it does not come from attachment . . .

Their contemplative answer is this: "As attachment ceases to be your motivation, your actions become expressions of divine love.

. . An Eastern echo from Tibetan Buddhism avows, 'The more the Soul unites with that which IS, the more thou wilt become compassion absolute.'"

Gerald May - Will and Spirit



Enlightenment is another term that has come into our vocabulary from Eastern religions and without its cultural context has led to confusion. Here are some quotes about enlightenment which may help you as you think about this concept.

The attainment of enlightenment is called "varjra-like" because it does not stand for any nonsense; it just cuts right through all our games.

Chogyam Trungpa - Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism


Even though I constantly tell you that you are already an enlightened person, you don't believe me, but this is really true. You are already enlightened. All we have to do is just practice.

Dainin Katagiri - Returning to Silence


When one is truly enlightened, one turns one's attention away from the mythical - metaphysical to the practical. Conversely, the safest path to enlightenment was to be found in the practical. . . It meant, rather, that identification and practice of a way of life which led to freedom from anxiety and suffering and the achievement of serenity in complete independence from outward experience . . . acceptance of things as they were rather than ascetic discipline and paranormal experiences.

John B. Cobb

But the real point is that the taking up of the special conditions of spiritual practice is an appropriate expression of unity consciousness.

A priceless jewel is of no earthly value whatsoever unless you can employ it, express it, manifest it. Likewise, an appropriate use of original, spiritual enlightenment is spiritual activity in its fullest sphere.

Even if, in our spiritual practice, it appears we are trying to attain enlightenment, we are actually only expressing it. If we take up zazen (sitting meditation), for instance, then deep within we are doing so not to become Buddhas but to behave like the Buddhas we already are.

Ken Wilber - No Boundary


Spiritual perfection is not found in the fulfillment of any rigid blueprint. It is found rather in the surprising moments of meeting between God's active grace and our spontaneous willingness.

All of us know such perfect moments. They are moments lived out of the heart, found scattered through the day like manna falling in the desert. They may be very simple and ordinary moments. Perfection is like that.

Tilden Edwards - Living in the Presence



Do you think these attempts to put the older language about spirituality into contemporary terms are faithful to the concepts they started with?

 How do these ideas fit with your own experience and understanding?