#4 The Mystical Experience
What it is, what we can learn from it, and some of my personal encounters with mystical consciousness.
|Apr 23|| 5||4|
It was the 4th of December 1963 when Bill Richards, a 23 year-old theology student at the University of Gottingen in Germany, was getting an injection of psilocybin in a dark basement room on the campus. Not knowing much about the undergoing research into psychosis, and never having heard of the drug synthesised by Sandoz, he was told by friends who had also been on the trial to expect insights into his early childhood.
Instead, he was immersed in an “exquisitely beautiful, multidimensional network of intricate, neon-like geometric patters”. He saw “incredibly detailed imagery best described as Islamic architecture and Arabic script”, about which he didn’t know anything. Once he felt himself melt into the visuals, he experienced consciousness outside of time, “a pinnacle from which history could be viewed.” His awareness was “flooded with love, beauty, and peace beyond anything I ever had known or wildly imagined to be possible. ‘Awe’, ‘Glory’, and ‘Gratitude’ were the only words that remained relevant”. Coming out of the experience hours later, he scribbled on a piece of paper by his bed “Reality is. It is perhaps not important what one thinks about it!”.
Days later, he reviewed his note and was amused by the banality of it. It felt like he’d written “water is wet”, and thought of it as a profound insight even though any idiot knows it. But what he was trying to capture was the very essence of a mystical experience.
“The mystical experience is nothing other than becoming aware of your true physical relationship to the universe.” - Alan Watts
If only it were that easy, Mr. Watts. In fact, it’s quite common to hear experienced psychonauts talk about mystical experiences the same way they’d tell you about their breakfast. “Yeah, so then I became everything and I was nothing and it was so beautiful, wanna grab a beer?” But mystical experiences are not easy to explain, or understand if you’ve never had one - in fact, one of their core characteristics is ineffability. Even Freud, who we can all agree was a brilliant man in many respects, couldn’t wrap his little head around them. He saw them as a possible memory of union with the mother’s breast (classic Freud), but later acknowledged “there may be something else behind this, but for the present it is wrapped in obscurity”.
Maslow and the psychology of mystical experiences
To understand the psychological mechanisms of the mystical experiences, let’s first debunk one of the first concepts of psychology we all learned. Abraham Maslow, of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, actually never created the pyramid. He didn’t see our needs as a step-ladder we level-up through one need at a time. Instead, he believed we’re always moving back-and-forth through these needs, doing better in some and not so well in others at the same time.
The other interesting fact is that in his last years of life, Maslow changed his mind about the pinnacle of human needs, but never got to publish it. The greatest aim of a person wasn’t self-actualisation (being the best me!!), but self-transcendence: connecting to something greater than myself, be it other humans, nature, the universe or God.
And the route to this pinnacle was through peak experiences, a term also coined by Maslow. He described these as "rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter." He thought of them as means of becoming more than just the self, and claimed that they tend to provide a sense of deep security, and give strength during periods of suffering or struggle in life. And he never even took psychedelics!
Right, so what are mystical experiences?
Mystical, or peak experiences are, at their core, experiences of (self-)transcendence and unity. They’re glimpses at the grand picture, experiences of the ultimate reality of consciousness. Sometimes they’re called religious experiences, when the grand picture is one of God. They can occur spontaneously, but can also be elicited through practices like meditation, prayer, fasting, dance or… psychedelics.
Of course, not all psychedelic experiences are mystical. Especially at lower doses, psychedelics tend to keep you at the level of psychological material - so valuable in accessing repressed memories and feelings and breaking out of limiting beliefs. But at higher doses, these substances can transcend this level through the phenomenon of ego death (a surrendering of identity we’ll discuss in a later newsletter) and induce a mystical experience. How can you tell you’re having one? The Mystical Experience Questionnaire, developed by Walter Pahnke in the sixties, helps us judge the experience based on these mandatory qualities: unity, transcendence of time and space, noetic quality, sacredness, positive mood, and ineffability/paradoxicality.
Boundaries seem to dissolve as you experience a deep union with everything around.
The transcendence of time and space
Beyond time and space, you find yourself in an endless stream of present moments. Alan Watts pointed that, from the standpoint of our culture, this now-ness is very bad for business. Being in the now keeps us from worrying and planning for the future. So who’s going to buy insurance policies or savings accounts? Who gives a crap about retirement plans, when we have this moment now?
“The truth is that people who live for the future are, as we say of the insane, ‘not quite all there’ and also not quite here: by overeagerness they are perpetually missing the point. Foresight is bought at the price of anxiety, and when overused it destroys all its own advantages.” - Alan Watts
The insights you’re experiencing feel as real as the reality you were so used to before. Their truth feels absolute, and often people report a “download” of information about what is.
You feel that what you’re experiencing is holy or sacred, and you feel a deep sense of gratitude for being able to see it.
Your experience is bright and joyful, even blissful at times.
The experience is so big that language cannot do justice to the depth of feelings and insights.
“The single most meaningful experience of my life”
Bill Richards, the 23 year-old from the start of this newsletter, who I can now introduce as clinical psychologist at Johns Hopkins and longtime psychedelic researcher and mystic (and personal hero), later said that his first mystical experience made him feel less like “a puppet controlled by the social expectations that impinged on my life”, more playful, spontaneous, and more capable of allowing relationships characterised by genuineness and intimacy to develop.
It’s no wonder volunteers report mystical experiences with psilocybin as among the top 5 personally and spiritually meaningful experiences of their lives (their verbatim comments 14 months after the experience are truly inspiring).
But one mystical experience won’t make you the new Buddha. Bill Richards reminds us that they’re nothing but glimpses - powerful, unforgettable - but the work comes after, as it tends to do with psychedelics.
A mystical experience is only the awakening, the beginning of your spiritual development. Once the experience ends, you’re back at base camp, looking up at the difficult climb ahead. This epic climb is Purgation, and it often includes what St. John of the Cross called “The Dark Night of The Soul” in his poem. This is the spiritual journey, a trek through the unknown. It’s a true period of transformation, which culminates at the peak, where one reconnects with the Divine and is able to live a more fulfilling and joyous life. Mmmbasically, enlightenment.
What can I learn from a mystical experience?
In his career, Bill Richards identified five common insights of mystical experiences: God, immortality, interrelationships, love, beauty and emerging wisdom. The noetic quality of these insights can really challenge how you see the world, particularly if your views are quite rigid. But with proper support and integration, these insights could be the key towards living a peaceful, more loving and fulfilling life. Take my hand, let me show you why:
I completely understand if you’re rolling your eyes right now. As a former atheist, I still often cringe at the mention of “God”, mostly due to the baggage of mindless oppressive religion that comes with it. But trust me, this isn’t about the bearded white man in the sky who gets to decide whether you go to heaven or burn in hell. This is about a sacred, body-less, gender-less, dogma-free dimension of consciousness, and you can call it God or Jehova or Allah or Brahman, or even The Great Muffin (as writer Anne Lamott calls him in her beautiful book Almost Everything). Or, you know, just consciousness.
To get around this issue of ineffability, we can look at Hinduism for a better expression of the meeting between self and God in a mystical experience. Hindus believe that the Atman of the individual self recognises that it is an integral fragment of the universal Brahman, just like a drop of water that unites with the vast ocean. I’ve experienced this myself in my first mystical experience: I was looking at a vast, infinite blue fabric, understanding that it was the only thing, consciousness itself, the entire universe. But when I looked for myself in it, the way you would look down to search for your body, I only saw the same blue fabric. I was it, looking at itself.
This, essentially, is non-duality (which translates as “not-two”), and it refers back to the paradoxical aspect of mystical experiences from the questionnaire above. It’s the awareness of polarity that Alan Watts talks about as an essential quality of transcendental experiences. It refers to the realisation that all things, states or events that we are so used to seeing as opposites (black and white) are actually interdependent, and part of the same thing. Left and right, black and white, figure and background, self and other - they can only be defined in relation to the other. Watts said that as this awareness grows, you realise that you yourself are polarised with the universe in such a way that you imply each other.
“You feel that you are something being done by the universe, yet that the universe is equally something being done by you, which is true, at least in the neurological sense that the peculiar structure of our brains translates the sun into light and air vibrations into sound. Our normal sensation of relationship to the outside world is that sometimes I push and sometimes it pushes me. But if the two are actually one, where does action begin and responsibility rest? If the universe is doing me, how can I be sure that, two seconds hence, I will still remember the English language? If I am doing it, how can I be sure that, two seconds hence, my brain will know how to turn the sun into light?”
This experience of non-duality can initially feel like a blow to people like me who spent most of their lives living in the comfortable certainty of atheism and materialism. My first contact with this unitive consciousness, moments before the experience of the infinite blue fabric I mentioned above, was not so smooth. After hours of humiliation and pain marked by feeling like I was getting buried alive over and over, an interesting figure appeared. I recognised it as consciousness/the universe. Trembling and feeling the worst I’d ever felt, I asked why it was doing this to me - was consciousness inherently evil? At which point, the almighty figure standing in front of me raised its arms… gave me the finger, and left. Look, I even drew it:
What started as the deepest disappointment in the world (“whoa, the universe doesn’t give a crap about me”) quickly turned into a big fit of laughter when I realised that yes, indeed, the universe doesn’t care about Me. Ah, the freedom! And when the big blue fabric came along, it all made sense. The universe/consciousness just… was. “Reality is”, as Bill Richards wrote in his note.
The fascinating thing about this is how the psychedelic-induced mystical experience met me where I was at that stage of my development. On a following trip, in the middle of my next mystical experience, I caught a glimpse of Jesus and laughed in his white beardy face. Clearly, I wasn’t ready to see him as a symbol, which is what the experience was about, rather than the biblical son of God, so he went away.
Then, months later, at the psilocybin retreat Synthesis, I had my first mystical religious experience. After a lot of turmoil, the duvet on top of me was starting to feel very warm. I felt like a chick in an egg, just about to hatch. And as I pushed the duvet away with my legs (a little bit self-conscious that others might see this dramatic act), I felt like I was stepping into a beautiful garden of white light. For someone whose experiences had exclusively been dark, this felt magical. Over the course of the next hour, I felt like a small child learning (actually, remembering) the building blocks of life: love, repentance, forgiveness, goodness, compassion, prayer. I felt a deep sense of peace, like I’d arrived home. Yes, there was a part of me that wanted to resist the religiousness of it - but why would I? I hadn’t felt such peace and joy for a very long time.
The concept of interspirituality
If the idea of spirituality makes you squirm, I totally get it. I’ve been there, and still am in many respects. But one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way was how inclusive spirituality is. From the outside, spirituality may look like a world of crystals, religious icons, and people who don’t brush their hair much doing strange rituals. But maybe you’ll find comfort in the concept of “interspirituality”, coined by Wayne Teasdale, who is both a Christian and a Buddhist monk.
When thinking about the pinnacle of self-transcendence, imagine this mountain of truth. It has only one peak, but there are many different paths up the mountain. Each one is worth travelling and comes with its own symbols and rituals. And the beauty of it is that we can all choose our path, and respect that others choose their own. As we approach the peak, the paths come closer and closer to each other, and eventually merge into the same meaning, whether that’s God, consciousness, Allah or The Great Muffin.
“Believing in the validity of mystical consciousness is similar to believing that one truly loves one’s spouse or children” - Bill Richards
Alan Watts called this insight awareness of eternal energy, which manifests as the intense white light, “which seems to be both the current in your nerves and that mysterious e which equals mc2”. This state opens the door to experiencing energy, and seeing how all existence is nothing but that. And since energy is a pulsation, which has has crests and troughs, so the experience of existing has to go on and off too.
Physicist Fritjof Capra noted that mystics and physicists often sound very similar: what religious people call immortality, mathematicians call infinity. But they’re both referring to the same nature of consciousness: the immortal fabric that changes and shifts, but never dies.
In my first mystical experience, this was the blue fabric I mentioned before, starting to animate like boiling water in a pot. The bubbles that emerged from it transformed into dancing people and animals. As soon as a bubble transformed into a jiggly being, it would immediately fall back into the fabric, and then form a new bubble, and so on. It showed me that our experiences were transient and joyful, and that in the end we’ll all return to the same living fabric that created us.
“There is simply nothing to worry about because you yourself are the eternal energy of the universe playing hide-and-seek (off and on) with itself.” - Alan Watts
Studies on patients with terminal cancer have proven that experiencing this infinite, immortal consciousness drastically reduces the fear of death in people. Let me borrow a little report from a 31 year-old cancer patient suffering from advancing stage IV lymphoma:
“I first went to a place that seemed to completely lack the qualities of this world as we know it. I seemed to transcend time and space and I lost complete identification with the ‘real’ world. The experience seemed to me to be as if I was going from this world back to another world before this life had occurred… The actual changing from this life to whatever was before this life seemed to be involved in a very bright silver mass of energy with very strong electrical current… Strangely enough I felt that I had been in that mass of energy at one time before. When I was there everything seemed to make sense… It was a very beautiful world, one in which love was very much a part… The basic theme that I perceived… was that life continues to go on and we are basically some form of essence from a Supreme Being and we are part of that Supreme Being… I don’t have the fear of death I once had… I have found that everyday living seems to be much more enjoyable. Small things in life that I may have overlooked I seem to appreciate now. I have a much greater and deeper understanding of other people… and a much greater capacity to try to fulfil other people’s needs. Overall I think I am a much more content individual, having had the great opportunity to just glimpse for a very short moment the overall thinking of God, of possibly being brought into His confidence for just a brief period, to be reassured that there is a very beautiful, loving masterful plan in this Universe for all of us.”
If you’ve experienced the oneness of everything, then our interconnectedness is the most obvious next insight. Alan Watts called this awareness of relativity, as he talked about the sudden realisation that you are just a link in an infinite hierarchy of processes and beings. Instead of being the centre of the universe, as a human, you feel that your experience is quite similar to that of molecules, bacterias, insects, plants, animals, or even angels or gods. From this, Watts said we can understand that we’re all just variations of the same thing.
This insight manifested in my first mystical experience as the dancing blobs emerging from the blue fabric, and showed me how people I struggle with are made of the same thing that made the people I love, or the cats I chase for cuddles.
“As the retina enables us to see countless pulses of energy as a single light, so the mystical experience shows us innumerable individuals as the single Self.” - Alan Watts
This isn’t the roses and chocolates on Valentine’s Day kind of love. In mystical consciousness, love is much more than human emotion, and it’s often said to be the ultimate nature of the energy that makes up the world. This type of love can be seen as a manifestation of the personal nature of God (or consciousness, don’t make that face). This love is devotional, where one entrusts everything to God/the universe.
Most people coming out of mystical experiences (or even lower doses of psychedelics) say things like “love is everywhere", or “love is everything”, which can sound trite unless you’ve experienced this powerful energy yourself - those cheesy fridge magnets and bumper stickers may be more enlightened than you think.
For some, understanding that love is the energy that binds everything might translate into sexual liberation. But for most it brings a deeper appreciation for their loved ones and all living things, and an ease in accepting love from others.
Similar to what we discussed about love, in mystical consciousness beauty isn’t subjective, in the eye of the beholder, or comparable. Beauty is an absolute quality, and it often manifests as feelings of awe in the face of the intricate patterns, colours and brightness that accompany a psychedelic experience. The experience of beauty is not one of the eyes, but a deeply felt feeling of amazement, which usually stays with people after a mystical experience ends.
6. Emerging wisdom
The beauty of these experiences is how they often seem to have been choreographed specifically for you, as if written by a master storyteller. The stories unfold in the best possible way for you to gain insight and be transformed by them. The Universe giving me the finger and leaving was the best way I could be both humbled, and set free, and understand it as an act of playfulness. To anyone else, the same demonstration could’ve been interpreted as cruel, and profoundly painful.
This innate wisdom is what many psychedelic therapists and researchers refer to as the “inner healer”: our natural tendency to heal ourselves, which often unlocks on psychedelics. It’s what Maslow calls our tendency for growth, self-actualisation and self-transcendence.
But why are we able to have these mystical experiences?
While we still don’t have a clue how consciousness really works, there’s a growing theory that it isn’t produced in the brain. Instead, the brain works as a filter to reduce it because the entirety of it would be so overwhelming. And there are reasons to believe that it might be the case. If you remember the second edition of this newsletter, we discussed how psychedelic drugs reduce activity in the Default Mode Network in your brain - the hubs that are responsible for strictly coordinating brain activity and construct your sense of self/ego. Once the DMN quiets, brain parts begin communicating in novel ways, generating the psychedelic state, and your ego dissolves, which allows the mystical experience to ensue.
Huxley subscribed to this idea, calling the brain a “reducing valve” for consciousness. In his book The Doors of Perception, dedicated to his experience with mescaline, he says:
“Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large.”
But still, why is this ability to self-transcend encoded in us? The only answer I could find comes from Buddhism and Hinduism. They believe in the cycle of reincarnation, called samsara, where our souls move like water from one vessel into another with every lifetime. Since life is full of suffering, our goal is to attain moksha, or nirvana in Buddhism, which is liberation from suffering by understanding our true nature as one with God (“Mmbasically, enlightenment” - yes, I did just quote myself). This ends the cycle of birth-rebirth, frees one from suffering as their soul (Atman) merges with the wider consciousness of Brahman.
But if these ideas of reincarnation, enlightenment and a wider consciousness feel too easy to dismiss, then focus on the longlasting reported benefits of a psychedelic-induced mystical experience in treating alcohol addiction, tobacco addiction, end-of-life anxiety for terminal patients, or just making well people lead less fearful, more fulfilling lives. I am one of them, hence my decision to part with advertising and this very newsletter.
But what if it is indeed a game of consciousness playing hide and seek with itself, like Alan Watts said? It’s a story, and I choose to believe it because, honestly, my old nihilistic certain self wasn’t much fun. Like Leslie Jamison, who in her essay We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again from her latest book faces her skepticism to open up to the idea that kids might remember past lives, I’m more open to accepting how little I know about the world.
“And if reincarnation is a story some people find comforting, then it’s also true that the soul is just a story, too: the notion of an essential, singular self in each of us. Reincarnation both buffers this belief and disrupts it: what we call our soul doesn’t die, but perhaps it was never ours. Ultimately this is what appealed to me about the story of reincarnation, that it asked me to believe in a self without rigid boundaries - a self that lived before and would do it again. In this way, it was a metaphor for what I was struggling to accept about living at all: that nothing we lived was unique, that we were always - in some sense - living again.”
So if you’re catching yourself feeling overly skeptical about this whole thing, perhaps look at what might be keeping you from considering it. As Leslie wrote in her incredible essay, you might find quite a lot of joy and wonder on the other side of certainty.
“But I felt defensive of reincarnation from the start. It wasn’t that I necessarily believed in it. It was more that I’d grown deeply skeptical of skepticism itself. It seemed much easier to poke holes in things - people, programs, systems of belief - than to construct them, stand behind them, or at least take them seriously. That ready-made dismissiveness banished too much mystery and wonder.”
And with that, I thank you for reading this far and I hope this topic has opened some avenues of wonder and exploration for you too. The links at the bottom might be a good start, but I’d also love to hear what you think. So please post a comment or reply to this email, and share this newsletter with anyone who might find this interesting. And, if you can, please support me on Patreon.
Dept. of further investigation
“Psychedelics, used with good motivation, skill, and integrity, can contribute much toward easing the pain and suffering of the world while giving access to wisdom and compassion for spiritual development.” - Myron Stolaroff