What does Science say about Mysticism

The Mystical Experience

For many individuals, it is the mystical religious experience that is the essence of such experiences. Dr. Andrew Grant, a recognized authority on Eastern mysticism, defines the mystical experience as “the poetry and the creative spirit of religion,” and sees it as an “experience of the divine that is beyond the boundaries of culture and language.” Counter to this perspective, however, is the fact that the vast majority of recorded mystical experiences, both transcendent (the sense of being in contact with the divine) and immanent (the sense of the divine unifying all things) are reported by followers of Eastern traditions.

Transcendent and Immanent

The distinction between transcendent and immanent is important to psychologists as it helps to classify and clarify variations of the experience itself. It helps to explain, for example, why in the UK fewer people report immanent experiences as compared to transcendent, while in the US this trend is reversed. Many psychologists who specialize in documenting religious experiences believe that cultural differences largely determine which of the two types is likely to occur. William James (1842 –1910), author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, still considered one of the most comprehensive texts on the subject even after a century, takes a broader and more-shall I say-mystical approach, claiming that the mind has a tendency to personalize what in reality is beyond personalization. Psychologists today believe that if James is correct, if there is an innate sense about the process (perhaps the so-called “God-spot” or “God Module“), we would expect it to be common to the human experience irrespective of culture-which it does appears to be (at least on a limited, qualified level).

Five Stages of the Eastern Mystic

While the mystical religious experience may be universal, evidence suggests that Eastern mystics (those devoting their lives to the pursuit of higher-self reality) go through five stages that may enable them to be more successful in attaining such experiences:

1. Awakening (conscious realization of a Divine Reality)

2. Purgation (profound awareness of one’s distance from the Divine Reality)

3. Illumination (detachment from worldly pleasures)

4. Dark Night (the purification extends into the core of the individual)

5. Union (mysticism is reached).

A sense of “ultimate unity” is thought to be the most striking feature of the mystical religious experience. Psychologists, however, frequently attempt to label these stages as representing various forms of psychosis. A broad spectrum of studies looking at the mystical religious experience have shown that nearly 25% of the cases studied have been triggered by depression and despair, with 13.5% triggered by prayer and/or meditation. One explanation offered by the Koran (as well as the teachings of Taoism and Buddhism) is that the superficial demands of society serve as distractions from the spiritual life, diverting the mind from its true nature-which is spiritual. Thus, when our minds have been pushed beyond safe levels or allowed to revert back to norms, we naturally gravitate toward the spirit.

The Question of Motivation

One important question raised by those who actively pursue an understanding of religious transcendence by way of mystical experiences, such as the Tendai Buddhist monks of Mount Hiei in Western Japan, is motivation. For these monks, neither fame nor fortune can result-so why do they do it? The Freudian argument is that they do it in the belief that they are pleasing a heavenly father who is a substitute for an earthly one. (This view, however, doesn’t seem to apply to the monks since Buddhism doesn’t believe in the existence of a heavenly being who requires worship.) Eastern philosophers suggest that monks such as those at Mount Hiei seek to achieve mystical enlightenment for the sake of all mankind; all sentient beings. They believe that by causing a profound change in their own consciousness, they benefit the consciousness of all men and women-regardless of their level of spiritual development, (which I, personally, find a rather noble pursuit).