There has been much discussion of the stages of mystical experience.
Indeed, William James, a pioneer in the study of mystical experience, first characterized the process as one of “organic ripening.”
There are some minor differences in the stages proposed by various scholars. But all the phase-models share similarities to the experience of a psychological crisis.
For example, all the models proposed by scholars describe
In my book Mystical Experience: A Psychological Perspective, I described a five-phase crisis model. This model was based on the five major phases of a crisis experience: 1) pre-crisis, 2) impact, 3) crisis, 4) resolution, and 5) post-crisis.
Here I will provide an overview of these five phases.
Of course, there are limits of any phase-model to capture the essence of mystical experience. Some phases can succeed each other more quickly, some phases can appear to be bypassed, or the process can become locked into a particular phase.
However, the usefulness of a crisis model is that it produces testable predictions for empirical research.
Phase 1: Pre-Crisis Phase
During the pre-crisis stage, the person maintains an equilibrium.
The stress they encounter is balanced by their coping mechanisms.
To maintain equilibrium people are always solving problems. As long as people believe their problems can be solved using their available coping skills, equilibrium is maintained.
Phase 2: Impact Phase
A psychological crisis begins with a sudden disruption to important life goals. These disruptions cannot be overcome with usual problem-solving methods.
Examples of stressful events precipitating a crisis include:
• troubled personal relationships
• loss of jobs
• financial problems
• life transitions
• terminal illnesses
The first 1-3 days of a crisis are spent in shock, feeling confused, weak, and helpless, while everything seems to be in chaos.
Not all stressed persons move into a crisis state.
The external events themselves do not define the crisis, but instead, the person’s responses and reactions to the event do.
Phase 3: Crisis Phase
The initial impact period brings a 1-3 month crisis period. This is characterized by anxiety, hypersensitivity, irritable mood, tiredness, depression, and sleeping disorders.
In the crisis phase the person confronts the problem. The person’s usual strategies have failed to solve the problem brought about by the precipitating event.
From this point, the person is in a downward spiral becoming increasingly disorganized, anxious, tense, and hopeless.
Sooner or later the person confronts deep-rooted existential concerns about the meaning of life.
This is the sense one must, and yet one cannot find any real “truth.” This leads to non-rational guidance.
Phase 4: Resolution Phase
The resolution phase includes all the new attempts directed toward easing tension. The decision-making processes, however, are based on intuitive gut reactions, instead of analytical thinking.
Resolutions have the potential to be adaptive or maladaptive.
William James acknowledged mystical experiences were not always positive. He described some that were downright, harmful, evil, and frightening.
A comprehensive model of mystical experience needs to consider the potential for both positive and negative outcomes.
Phase 5: Post-Crisis Phase
The post-crisis phase is the 2-12 month period after which the above phases have passed.
This last phase is a period of restoration, rebuilding, and readjustment. It is a period of significant, sometimes radical, transformation in the person.
Some equilibrium is restored during the post-crisis phase. Yet this equilibrium can be lower, the same, or higher than the one previous to the crisis.
Figure 4 illustrates four potential consequences after encountering an adverse event.
Figure 4. Four possible outcomes of adversity
Mystical experiences often cause positive, lasting effects. The positive change has been classified into four areas toward self, others, life, and the mystical experience itself.
First, the mystical experience induces a powerful transformation in one’s personality. The personality changes are not so much at the level of core personality traits. Instead, goals, feelings, attitudes, behaviors, and life meaning are radically transformed.
The second change following mystical states is the person acts more open, authentic, and tolerant of others.
The third change is about attitudes toward life. Mystical experience often facilities the emergence of hope. Purpose and meaning become more prominent in everyday life.
The last change involves attitudes toward the mystical experience. There is a new, more profound understanding of the role mystical experiences play in the unfolding of life.
So, the next time you have a stressful life event occur, and seem to despair about life’s meaning, it could be the first step to transformation. Which could lead you to a greater experience of meaning than you could ever imagine.
Click here to buy a copy of my book on Mystical Experience.
The concept of unity consciousness can be difficult to understand. But as I addressed in the last post: It’s at the core of the mystical experience.
And there are ways to make it easier to understand! Don’t think that unity experienced in meditation is the only type of unity you can experience!
Now, you’re wondering how to make sense of unity consciousness.
The first step is to differentiate between the two essential components of mystical experience: (1) content and (2) process.
As I have addressed, the content component (i.e., “what” the experience is about) is about unity.
The process component (i.e., “how” the experience occurs in space and time) has two interacting parts: (a) symbolism, and (b) ego-dissolution.
Figure 1 shows how these components interact to increase the intensity of the experience.
Figure 1. The intensity of mystical experience increased when more factors appear together: 1 = no or mild mystical experience, 2 = moderate mystical experience, 3 = intense mystical experience.
The most essential characteristic of the mystical experience is unity.
The subject or observer no longer feels the usual separation between themselves and the world. Yet the subject still knows on another level, they are separate from objects (i.e., they are not delusional).
In a mystical experience a person feels that they are a part of everything. This can be perceived with the physical senses through the external world.
A sense of underlying oneness is felt in the multiplicity of objects in the world.
Mystical experience also involves a process of “ego-dissolution.”
There is a loss of the common sense of self while becoming one with the external world or cosmos.
This ego-dissolution involves anxiety, panic, and a sense of unreality. Often the feeling of dreaminess is the most frightening aspect of anxiety or panic.
Negative life events often occur prior to mystical experiences because they disrupt the ego. Because the ego no longer exists as an organizing force the person enters the “unknown.”
Mystical experience also involves signs and synchronicity.
That’s the conclusion of Alister Hardy’s study of the written responses of more than 5,000 persons, who found the most common spiritual experiences included: “a patterning of events in a person’s life that convinces him or her that in some strange way they were meant to happen.”
Another large survey of religious-like experiences they revealed the “commonest of all the categories” referred to “extraordinary coincidence(s) or to a sense somehow one’s life has an unfolding pattern to it.”
The mystical experience is not explainable within the conventional natural order of our everyday world. Thus the term “supernatural” is helpful in this context.
Carl Jung originated the concept of synchronicity, the view the structure of reality includes a principle of non-causal connection.
Synchronicity explains the sense of “wholeness,” “connectedness,” and “unity” in mystical experience.
However, a persistent theme in the study of mystical experiences is the lack of attention given by theorists to the concept of synchronicity.
In my opinion, most researchers neglect just what is essential to the phenomena of mysticism.
So there you have it. I hope I have convinced you why three features (e.g., unity, ego-dissolution, and symbolism) make up the mystical experience content and process!
Click here to buy a copy of my book on Mystical Experience.
One may say truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its root and center in mystical states of consciousness.
—William James (1902, p. 379)
Have you ever had a mystical experience?
What separates a mystical experience from an ordinary one?
The Core of Mystical Experience
Researchers agree the one essential feature of mystical experience is an experience of unity.
Indeed, debates on mystical experience are best understood in terms of how this unity is to be interpreted.
Much of the Western study on mystical experience begins with reference to William James’s book Varieties of Religious Experience.
James tells us that mystical experience is a relatively rare event in which individual consciousness merges in radical unity with the universe.
James identified four characteristics of all mystical experiences:
What is essential from James’s investigation is the notion that mystical experience is different from the everyday world of experience.
James set the standard for the modern study of mystical experience.
Introvertive and Extrovertive Unity
One of the questions researchers have asked since James work is: What is the mystical experience of unity all about exactly?
Stace (1960) contended that the mystical experience of unity is expressed in one of two ways: “introvertive” and “extrovertive.”
In the introvertive type of unity the subject “looks inward into the mind” to achieve “pure consciousness.” This type of unity is experienced during meditation with one’s eyes closed and is perceived as an experience of nothingness.
In the extrovertive type of unity the subject “looks outward through the senses” (Stace, 1960, p. 110) and grasps the unity of all things in or through the multiplicity of the natural world. In this type of experience all things are felt to be alive (e.g., stones, trees, the sky).
Look for future posts about mystical experience over the next several months.