What Is A Mystical Experience?
Like flow, mystical experiences play a role in paradigm-shifting breakthroughs.
Big wave surfers become one with their wave. Painters experience phenomenal creativity. Scientists are finding that our brains are wired for mystical experiences.
Untapped potential is at the crossroads of science and spirituality.
These moments of ecstasis are psychologically and biologically real.
Decoding them is the cutting edge of peak performance.
Characteristics of a Mystical Experience
Mystical experiences are moments of higher consciousness that carry tremendous personal insight.
Science has shown they have the ability to rewrite someone’s brain chemistry.
While the circumstances of each experience varies, they seem to correlate with:
- A feeling of surrender.
- A sense of oneness.
- A profound intensity.
- Extreme clarity.
- New perspectives.
- Enlightenment — either as a lasting experience or being “in” it for a moment.
The enlightenment that comes from a mystical experience can lead to incredible mastery.
The Study of Mystical States of Consciousness
Have you ever had a profound experience of a spiritual nature? What did it feel like? Intense energy? Laser focus? All-consuming love? An encounter with God?
Have you ever wondered what happened in your brain during and even after that experience?
The first person that attempted to define mystical experiences was William James.
James was a late 19th-century philosopher and psychologist who wrote “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” The book describes a mystical experience as having four characteristics.
- Ineffability — they defy expression. A mystical state must be experienced to be fully understood.
- Noetic — they include the mind as well as the intellect. These states carry revelations of deep truth that have authority.
- Transient — they don’t last long. Mystical experiences are brief. Even the memory of them may be flawed.
- Passive — a person having a mystical experience feels like they are being steered by unseen powers.
James was ahead of his time. He taught the first psychology course anywhere in the world at Harvard in 1876. For “The Varieties” he studied Buddists, Muslims, and Christians. When it came to the religious, he looked for the outliers. “These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever,” he says in the book’s introduction.
Shockingly, James’ ideas wouldn’t resonate again for another hundred years. That’s when Wilder Penfield came along.
Penfield was a neurosurgeon who developed a new surgery for epilepsy. While trying to cure seizures, he mapped the functions of different brain regions. While Penfield tried to pinpoint the source of a seizure, he discovered even more. He said, “The brain is the organ of destiny. It holds within its humming mechanism secrets that will determine the future of the human race.” One of his findings showed that dreams and memory happen in the brain region as mystical experiences. In other words, we experience spirituality through our biology.
The God Gene
The traits of many specific genes are still unknown. What if there was a genetic link to spiritual experiences? Molecular biologist Dean Hamer believes he found it. In his book, “The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes” Hamer identifies a gene called VMAT2. The way it transports certain neurochemicals can produce intense mystical experiences. It’s also what helps create the magic effect in psilocybin mushrooms.
The mystical isn’t only found in traditional religions. It might include:
- States of Awe.
- Flow states.
- Meditative states.
- Out-of-body experiences.
- Near-death experiences.
- Speaking in tongues.
Finding the “god gene” doesn’t disprove religion or diminish spiritual experiences. It enhances them.
The Rise of Neurotheology
Aldous Huxley, the English writer and psychonaut, wrote his final novel “Island” in 1962. The story is about an ideal society under threat from a dark conspiracy. Huxley makes a reference to this society using “neurotheology” but never defines it. It seems like a dream Huxley wished for the future. A line in the novel reads, “The more a man knows about himself in relation to every kind of experience, the greater his chance of suddenly, one fine morning, realizing who in fact he is…”
Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist pioneering the science of neurotheology today. He defines Neurotheology as “a field that seeks to understand the link between our brain and our religious or spiritual selves.”
The “neuro” part includes neuroscience and neuroimaging, psychology and the health sciences. Traditional spirituality, meditation, prayer, and other aspects of human beliefs comprise theology. To practice neurotheology right requires respect for both sides.
Newberg has studied the brains of Brazilian psychics, Sufi mystics, and Franciscan nuns. In "How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain" he explains how brain imaging can be used to study the experiences common to members of these groups. He's seen brain changes that altered a person's perception of the world. In surveying thousands of people who have experienced enlightenment, Newberg found lasting benefits.
These life-changing transformations might include:
- Being permanently less-stressed.
- Losing bad habits.
- Becoming better at collaboration and creativity.
- Feeling happier and more self-satisfied.
This is an empathetic science with many parts. “It’s about learning to understand your inner subjective experience,” Newberg says.
The below video is a great place to start for an overview on Neurotheology. You'll get a breakdown of its history, my take on it and how it all circles back to ultimate human performance.
Big “E” or Little “e”?
The highest level of consciousness. That’s how Eastern philosophers look at enlightenment. The word itself comes from two latin words that put together mean “into the light.” Newberg has found enlightenment can have different levels. He distinguishes between what he calls “Big E” versus little “e” experiences. A little “e” isn’t going to change everything about you. A big “E” is going to rock your world to its core—shifting everything you thought you knew about purpose, health, spirituality, and death. Big E's can happen through a daily meditation practice or in a blink while walking down the street. That’s what makes enlightenment’s potential for human development so exciting. It’s not confined to certain religions or beliefs. It can give you the clarity to understand the world in a way you never have before.
The Benefits of Mystical Experiences
When a video game character unlocks an achievement, they get new skills. Mystical experiences may hold the real key to permanent power-ups for all humans. Some of the achievements worth working towards are:
- Accelerated learning.
- Better problem-solving.
- Deeper empathy and understanding.
- Enhanced creativity and communication.
- Increased happiness and self-satisfaction.
Who knows what’s possible when we’re all primed to get the most out of these experiences?
Want to learn more about the two-way street between the spiritual and the brain?
Check out episode 4 of Flow Research Collective Radio “Flow States & Unlocking Permanent Enlightenment.”
We talk with Andrew Newberg about the permanent changes created by the transient state of enlightenment. Newberg also reveals the amazing discovery he made about dopamine during a brain scan study of attendees at a spiritual retreat.
Listen to the full episode now --->