The greatest challenge of mystical experience is: How do you communicate your experience to others? How do you integrate your experience into daily life?
There are enormous difficulties in the task of communicating one’s mystical experiences.
First, languages are not available with which to describe such feelings or experiences. Religious language has traditionally been the domain within which to describe mystical experiences. Therefore, it is hard for nonreligious people to interpret and describe their experiences.
Second, even when languages do exist for describing one’s mystical experience they are often defended against by large segments of the population. There is now a large empirical literature that supports the central principle of Terror Management Theory that cultural worldviews help to buffer anxiety about death and the unknown.
This in turn is reflected by increased defensiveness, as well as increased contempt for others that threaten one’s worldview. Thus, under conditions of uncertainty defensiveness often increases because of the need to uphold an authoritative guide for action.
Part of the difficulty in reaching consensual understanding about mysticism can be explained in terms of the real conceptual problems involved. Yet, a full explanation calls for an examination of human defensiveness.
The greater is the willingness to forgo one’s personal experience as a guide to understanding, the stronger the commitment there must be to an ideological position. This means that ideological commitments lead rational people to focus on information that supports their positions and inaccurately interpret data that might contradict them.
These ideological commitments may arise from anything used to reinforce and justify values (e.g., religion, sports, entertainment, and politics). But either way they act to inhibit expressing any experiences that do not fit into consensually negotiated categories.
Mystical experience is not a safe topic. But then no cultural conflict was ever solved by ignoring the source and nature of conflict. In short, we need to talk about the deepest areas of the unknown in our culture if we hope to move forward.
My aim here is to foster a serious but constructive conversation about mystical experience.
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