We live in a where most people believe in God. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the number of atheists in the world remains rather small (only 3% in the U.S.A and only 9% in Canada), and this is even after a couple centuries of scientific progress (Hunsberger & Altemeyer, 2006). We can ask the question why, and of course some people will say that it is because people are stupid and gullible (Dawkins, 2006), but that is not the case, and least in all circumstances. People who accept the existence of God, and people who take spiritual experiences seriously, do so not because they are stupid and irrational, but because they are logical and intelligent (Boyer, 2001), because there are structures in their brain that support it (Andew Newberg, d’Aquile, & Rause, 2001; Andrew Newberg & Waldman, 2009), and (most importantly) because they have had experiences that make them question the dogmatic scientific view that the only thing that exists is what we can see with our eyes.
Yes, you heard that right.
People believe in the spiritual side of life because they have experiences that make them question the materialism of modern science. This much has been recognized for thousands of years. In the Western world there are traditions of spiritual/mystical experience that go all the way back to Plato and beyond (Versluis, 2007). William James, the famous American psychologists, felt that all religions were based on the mystical experience of some charismatic avatar (James, 1982) and other have agreed. Walter Stace, one of the biggest contributors to the study of mystical experience there ever was, called mystical experience “a psychological fact of which there is abundant evidence.” He further went on to say that “To deny or doubt that it exists as a psychological fact is not a reputable opinion. It is ignorance” and “very stupid.” (Stace, 1960 14). Indeed, Abraham Maslow made his career on the study of “peak experiences” (Lester, Hvezda, Sullivan, & Plourde, 1983; A. Maslow, 1994; A. H. Maslow, 1968, 2012) which are really just a secular form of mystical experience. But, we are not interested in the details here. The point here is that spiritual/mystical experience is key, that it is ubiquitous. People believe not because they are stupid but because they have experiences that make them think, push them away from naive materialism, or give them faith that there is indeed something more. I suppose the question now becomes, how many people have these experiences? Conservative estimates put the number anywhere between thirty and fifty percent (Bourque, 1969; Bourque & Back, 1971; Yamane & Polzer, 1994). And it is not just the uneducated who have these experiences. The limited sociological research that has been conducted on the phenomenon has found that those with more education are equally likely, if not more likely, to have profound mystical experiences (Bourque, 1969; Bourque & Back, 1971). The educated just don’t conceptualize it in the same way. Instead of using religious language and concepts they use a secular language, or a psychologically neutral language, characterizing them, for example, as peak experiences (A. Maslow, 1943, 1970; A. H. Maslow, 1964) or “pure conscious events” of something like that. When we open the field and bring together our definitions we find that mystical experience really is a ubiquitous experience. Abraham Maslow himself actually expressed surprise at just how common these were. He writes:
In my first investigations … I used this word because I thought some people had peak-experiences and others did not. But as I gathered information, and as I became more skillful in asking questions, I found that a higher and higher percentage of my subjects began to report peak-experiences…. I finally fell into the habit of expecting everyone to have peak-experiences and of being rather surprised if I ran across somebody who could report none at all. Because of this experience, I finally began to use the word “non-peaker” to describe, not the person who is unable to have peak-experiences, but rather the person who is afraid of them, who suppresses them, who denies them, who turns away from them, or who “forgets” them.(A. H. Maslow, 2012, pp. 340-341).
So what are we to make of this? Well, unless we want to discount evidence, we need to accept the fact that a lot of people have mystical experiences and that these experiences form the basis of their belief in things beyond the material. Once we do that then we need to be careful not to pathologize mystical experience. Although there are some cases where mystical experience intersect with madness (Heriot-Maitland, 2008), in most cases mystical experience have positive effects on the mental health of the people who have them (Andew Newberg, et al., 2001). Indeed, Abraham Maslow said that the healthiest people have mystical experience (Maslow, 1962). Consider the recent admission by former teen idol David Cassidy that a mystical experience has, at first blush at least, seemed to have helped him with his alcoholism and his disjunctive and misaligned behaviour (Sharp, 2013a, 2013b). David got positive benefit from his mystical experience. He writes:
I dropped to my knees and I felt something go through me that was like, I felt this experience that was just, thank you God. I felt this relief. I begged it and I was crying and weeping like a little boy, like a, like a sobbing little infant, like I’m sure I did many times as a kid. And I felt this incredible sense of relief because I stopped lying to myself (Zamost, 2014).
Mystical Experience is Big
We can accept mystical experience as such, but even if we do I’d be careful about reading too much meaning into Mr. Cassidy’s account, or anybody else’s account for that matter, not because there is nothing there but because, and speaking as a mystic myself, what is there is a lot bigger than most people can wrap their heads around and express in a simple paragraph or two. Why is mystical experience so big? As a mystic I would have to say that, one hand, mystical experience is big because the reality that mystical experience points to is big–a lot bigger than you might at first think. Although I firmly believe that it is possible to capture “what is there” if you spend enough time, energy, and thought on it, you can’t capture the essence of the experience, or the essence of the reality it points to, in a few words on a page. In an account like David’s you are not even seeing the tip of the proverbial iceberg, you’re just seeing a small cube of ice floating on the surface of a vast ocean of Consciousness (Sharp, 2006). If you draw simple conclusions from one or two mystical accounts, you are not getting the full story by a long shot. Mystical experience is a lot bigger in another way as well. Mystical experience is also huge in a hermeneutic sense. Even if you fully apprehend the “object” behind mystical experience, sorting out what those mystical experiences mean for the individual (and for the rest of us), and wrapping our collective head around the deeper realities that these mystical experiences point to, is not an easy task (Sharp, 2014).
There are different levels of mystical experience, for example. You can have little mystical experiences like David Cassidy did, or you can have full blown mystical revelations where the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is revealed in a powerfully synoptic blast of revelatory power. Mystical experiences can also be positive and healing experiences (so called Peak Experience), or they can be super negative and frightening (what I call Nadir Experiences). My own account of my own initial “opening” experience is not a tale of fairies and gnomes, it is a tale of demons and dragons (Sharp, 2014). And of course, it is more complicated than even levels and types would indicate. Beyond the difference levels of experience we may have, we also have different conceptual frameworks, not all of them very useful, for understanding that which we experience. We all filter our experiences depending on our personal biography, culture, language (Katz, 1978; Proudfoot, 1985), and past religious/spiritual training. If you have a mystical experience you can understand it and talk about it from a Christian perspective, a Jewish perspective, a Buddhist perspective, a secular-humanist perspective, or even a neuro-theological perspective. Put another way, liberal humanist atheists have liberal humanist atheist experiences and Christian fundamentalist have Christian fundamental experiences. Given the levels and complexity of mystical/religious experience, you would be very wise to avoid coming to major conclusions from a simple account or two. Having said all this the question now becomes, what’s really going on. With so many variations in experience, and so many different ways to look at it, how do you sort it all out? The question is, how do you get to the authentic core?
The Authentic Core
Unfortunately, it is not so easy to get the the authentic core. In fact, when you get right down to it, it is quite messy. It is messy to the point where some people claim there really is no rhyme or reason to it, just people’s idiosyncratic interpretations of ultimately empty events (Penner, 1983), events that may be authentic but that are perhaps rooted in nothing more than the regressive defense mechanisms of the mind (Freud, 1961, 1964), or (more recently) the evolutionary neurobiology of the brain (Boyer, 2001). That’s not the way it is though. As a practicing mystic myself I can tell you that mystical experiences aren’t mere language constructions, nor are they delusions, madness, or even neurological epiphenomenon (Kluger, 2004). Mystical experiences point to a reality, a truth, and a Fabric of Consciousness that is far beyond our daily life experience.
As I wrote in The Great Awakening: Concepts and Techniques for Successful Spiritual Practice, the normal reality that we experience on a day-to-day basis is just the meniscus, the surface layer, beneath which flows a vast, grand, and (at least to the new initiate) mind boggling realitythe normal reality that we experience on a day-to-day basis is just the meniscus, the surface layer, beneath which flows a vast, grand, and (at least to the new initiate) mind boggling reality (Sharp, 2007). The reality is so vast and so grand that even committed, professional mystics have a hard time wrapping their head around it, and/or explaining it to others. Most of the time mystics simply jam out of trying, saying simply that it is “beyond words” and leave it at that. Despite the mystical cop out, the realities of mystical experience are not beyond words. True, it takes a lot of time and effort to get it all down and ground it, but it can be done (see my SpiritWiki for my one aspect of my own attempt to “get it down”). I’m not going to go into all the details here in this short article, but I would like to point out four things that I would like the reader to take from this short little article.
One, I hope I have drawn your attention to the ubiquity of mystical experience. Despite propaganda to the contrary, mystical experience is a lot more common than you might at first think.
Two, I want to suggest that you can’t just dismiss the experiences as so much irrational, emotional, delusion. You can try as some do, but if you do you’re only representing to the world your own ignorance of this area of scholarly inquiry. Of course I’m not suggesting you come to immediate conclusions about the nature of the experience I’m just saying there’s more to it than you have been led to believe.
Three, I want you to understand that mystical experience is big, and it takes a lot of thought and effort to wrap your head around it. You can’t know, understand, or judge what mystical experience is based on a single experience or two. If you ask me, you can’t even understand mystical experience from a single traditional perspective. There’s a lot going on beneath the thin meniscus of reality and if you want to understand what, you have to buckle down and put in the work.
Finally, and four, I want to try and convince you that there is something worth paying attention to, especially at this particular historical juncture. Personally I don’t think anybody, black or white, rich or poor, is going to be able to understand the world around them, and what is happening to their families, unless they take a look at the mystical root of all reality. As I explain elsewhere, Consciousness is emerging and, rich or poor, there is nothing that you can do to stop it. This is not a little thing. Speaking as someone with experience, Consciousness, God, Krishna, the Real, or whatever you want to call it is bigger than you might think, and a lot different than you may have been led to believe. It is an understatement to say that it going to be a challenge for a lot of people. You can either embrace that emergence with open arms, joyfully moving forward into a new world of consciousness and creation, or you can, out of fear, greed, or ignorance, dig in your heels and resist. Ultimately though, resistance is futile. Consciousness will expand into your physical unit whether you want it to or not. The only question is, what are you going to do about it.
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