A&O – EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIENCE – spiritual and mystical






including spiritual and mystical dimensions


Adapted from Greenberg (2003)










“.. . Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there floats a sort of dust‑cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to.”

(Wm. James, 1909)




…but when there is a perfect storm of circumstances–perceptions, conceptions held in mind at just the right moment, in just the right way, you are primed for an extraordinary, even transformative experience:

“If I were to tell you where my greatest feeling, my universal feeling, the bliss of my earthly existence has been, I would have to confess: It has always, here and there, been in this kind of in-seeing, in the indescribably swift, deep, timeless moments of this divine seeing into the heart of things.” (Rilke, cited by phenomenologist Max van Manen (2017) speaking to moments of extraordinary insight.)

[now glance at THE TEACHABLE MOMENT (the “perfect storm”) in which a TRANSFORMATIVE LEARNING EXPERIENCE might occur.  (Is this what Joseph Campbell called “aesthetic arrest?”] [biologists: why is this a “heart-stopping” moment?]).


“A mind,” William James has written, “is a system of ideas, each with the excitement it arouses, and with tendencies impulsive and inhibitive, which mutually check or reinforce one another.  The collection of ideas alters by subtraction or by addition in the course of experience, and the tendencies alter as the organism gets more aged.” — How does the interplay of your ideas changed and how do they change YOU?  And what of the dramatic transformative change sometimes called a “mystical experience?”


BIOLOGICAL BASICS: We were born with a mission.  We are the bridges to the next generation. [medieval culture had us suspended on a bridge, halfway between apes and angels]  We have uncertain knowledge about the past and even less certain knowledge about where we are leading, but we are the bridges.





If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.

  For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow

chinks of his cavern.



“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,”

stated Pascal [Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie Pensées 1670]



“I would nevertheless have no idea of an infinite substance,

I who am a finite being,

unless the idea had been placed in my by some substance

which was in fact infinite

(Descartes’ proof of God in Meditations 1641) 




Language:  Terms like “mystical” mean many things to many people, but there is a common core of understanding in broad use in our culture (reflected in conventional dictionary “definitions”) as well as personal and local understandings that are constructed from the countless times we have heard the word used.

It is the nature of the brain to create categories, and words becomes “lightning rods” for the many senses in which we have heard the word (and similar words) used.  The diversity of uses of some words often points to an ancient common ancestor, a precursor revealed by the etymology of the word. We can begin with the shared understanding based on likely etymology and dictionary senses.




To approach the meaning of “Spiritual” it is important to recall that as we experience the world, its representation within us grows and enlarges.  We inhale the world, we take it into us, like our breath. We are inspired.   Spiritual refers to that in a way — “spirit” is breath, the breath of life that we take into ourselves.  The urgency of breathing partly informs the meaning of “inspiration.”   The external world, taken in through our senses has become part of us, in some senses we are indistinguishable and have become—even briefly—“one.”   But as we mature this is so gradual it is imperceptible. 

“Spiritual” refers to the fact the we have inspired something from outside ourselves into us.  Inspiration has from earliest times been regarded as the gift of the gods. 



“Spiritual experience” and “religious experience.”  For our purposes, spiritual experiences are personal, private and  ineffable. We may approximate them in words or pictures, and others with whom we try to communicate may even understand in part, recognizing some common ground, some shared dimension. “Religion” on the other hand refers to a social phenomenon which is founded on and validated by spiritual experience as related by like-minded individuals and/or role models. 

We are bound to each other by common beliefs and goals, and our validation for this is the continuing corroboration from others: with that confidence we can cultivate the pursuit of and explore our personal experiences of inspiration.  Below we will visit definitions and experiences and try to find common ground.



WHAT is a “mystical experience?”  The dictionary/shared definition is a doorway!   We MUST enter in this way if we are to share questions and answers with others.

EVERYDAY ECSTASY.   Marghanita Laski wrote a novel in the 1950’s in which her heroine experienced ecstasy.  She thought it an extraordinary phenomenon but responses from her readers made it seem that it was really rather commonplace.   In her original view

“an ecstatic experience gave a feeling of being outside time, [indicating] that time was illusory and timelessness was perhaps, the reality . . . an ecstatic experience sometimes felt like a translation to a simpler, purer state . . . in which one received new knowledge, wonderful beyond possible rendering into words . . . and sometimes like contact with a transcendent spirit”


She wanted to know what other people experienced. This became her book, Ecstasy: In Secular and Religious Experiences in 1961. 


In the late 1960’s, Sir Alister Hardy, a pioneering oceanographic scientist,  founded the “Religious Experience Research Unit” (RERU)  at Oxford[1], and after ten years published The Spiritual Nature of Man, summarizing, among other things, findings on the natures of “spiritual experiences” as characterized by 3000 respondents to a questionnaire.  “The Spiritual Nature of Man constitutes the result of the first eight years of work by the Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU), founded by Alister Hardy in 1969. RERU’s objectives were

(1) to build up a body of knowledge of actual experiences collected from first-hand written reports;

(2) to examine these reports for patterns;

(3) to undertake a few preliminary quantitative studies of the reports;

(4) to draw some tentative conclusions.

The bulk of The Spiritual Nature of Man treats the first two of these objectives. Hardy reports that approximately 3000 personal accounts of religious experience were sent to RERU from 1969 to 1976. These accounts were then scrutinized for patterns. Eventually a twelve-fold classificatory scheme emerged –– one, however, that classified the characteristics of the experiences and not the types of experiences. The presentation and explication of this classificatory scheme constitutes the bulk of The Spiritual Nature of Man (and in my opinion constitutes the work’s only significant contribution to the study of religious experience, therefore I will include it in its entirety on the following two pages). In the closing chapters Hardy summarizes his findings by offering a list of the “essential features of man’s spiritual nature” (as revealed by his study): “feelings for transcendental reality which frequently manifest themselves in early childhood; a feeling that ‘‘Something Other’’ than the self can actually be sensed; a desire to personalize this presence into a deity and to have a private I-Thou relationship with it, communicating through prayer” (131). Hardy’s own Christian bias should be born in mind . . .  Review by Tim Knepper, Fall, 2001 at  http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/courses/exp/resources/reviews/  

“Religious experience” begs a definition that muddles cause and effect – so Rhea White   has suggested that these be termed“ exceptional human experiences” (EHE’s)   Exceptional human experience is an umbrella term for anomalous experiences that transform the individual who has them so that they are engaged in a process of realizing their full human potential, which makes the experience an exceptional human one. There are many types of experiences, usually instances of the psychic, mystical, healing, death-related, encounter, and desolation/nadir type, as well as those we call peak experiences.

“The Exceptional Human Experience Network, Inc.” (EHEN) is an educational, research, and information resource organization studying all types of anomalous (out of the ordinary) experiences. Because these experiences are primarily subjective, scientists tend to ignore them. They do not fit into today’s scientific theory, and our culture typically does not have a way to understand and deal with them. People who have these types of experiences are often not believed, or are considered odd or strange.”  – 

[Rhea White had a near-death experience when in an auto accident while a junior English major at Penn State Rhea found herself “seemingly above the earth bathed in a sense of unity and singing peace and incredible aliveness, enveloped in felt meaning while my body lay unconscious on the hood of my car. I thought I had died–and it was wonderful. I was “told” that “nothing that ever lived could possibly die.” I felt the “everlasting arms” behind me to the ends of the universe.”  She was about to begin study for the ministry when she began work instead with JB Rhine at Duke University  “After four years with Rhine as a research fellow, I went to New York as Research and Editorial Associate at the American Society for Psychical Research under the direction of Gardner Murphy.” She obtained a Master’s in Library Science from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and  began work as a reference librarian at a busy public library on Long Island.  “In 1990 I decided to . . . study the basic data of parapsychology–the experiences people report. But I soon realized that they could not be viewed properly without considering them along with all the other sorts of nonordinary and anomalous experiences people have. In a vision I saw the need to study all of them as a single class of experience, which I called “exceptional human experience.” I have been pursuing this aim ever since.”]


More recently,  Dr. Charles T. Tart.   Tart was educated at UNC (PhD 1963) and became Professor of Psychology at UC-Davis in 1966 (currently emeritus) where he specialized in anomalous experiences and consciousness.   He has collected “transcendent experiences” reported by professional sciences and founded “The Archives of Scientists Transcendent Experience” (TASTE) – In his experience, fellow scientists confessed to “experiences that intrigued them and/or were emotionally important to them, but which they could not tell to their colleagues or friends for fear of rejection or ridicule. . . .” The “Current Edition of Experiences” of contemporary scientists will convey a sense of the range of transcendent experiences scientists have shared with Tart — Further, speaking of these seems often to be “therapeutic”  

For Laski, a suitable term for the experience she spoke of was hard to come by – “experiences that could reasonably be expected to follow from known causes” or “expected pleasures” as in seeing something beautiful or making love didn’t count –that might be euphoria..  But “extraordinary” did – “experiences that are different from those we could expect in the normal course of events and different in seeming to lie outside the normal course of events” (p6). 

[She liked the term “ecstasy” but was concerned about other uses: “a prolonged trance-like state” in Catholic theology; a state of madness –such as Ophelia’s in Hamlet; a consequence of using some commercial product.  Ecstasy is transcendent in one dictionary sense (“surpassing, excelling other experiences of its kind, going beyond ordinary limits . . . extraordinary”) but also implies “of praeternatural origin”

Hardy arrayed the “intense religious experiences” he documented  in 12 general categories that range from the sensory/perceptual (visual such as visions, illuminations, lights, feelings of unity with surroundings or other people; auditory, such as calming or guiding voices, speaking in tongues; tactile such as healing or comforting touch; olfactory) including extrasensory perceptions (involving telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance) through dreams and intense affective or cognitive convictions (such as  security, joy, awe, clarity and enlightenment, love, integration, and hidden purpose)

William James believed he knew.  “In mystic states,” he wrote, “we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.  This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed” (William James quoted by Carl Herman Voss, in “The Universal God” ( p 258), Chris’s reading in the service of August 11 2002) 


James (1918) described four salient characteristic of the mystical experience which have sustained the test of time and are still quoted by today’s scholars of mysticism (e.g. Stace, 1960; Happold, 1990):

  • Ineffability: The experience defies expression; it cannot be described in words.
  • Noetic quality: It gives insight and knowledge into deep truths, which are sustained over time.
  • Transiency: Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Usually they last from a few seconds to minutes and their quality cannot be accurately remembered, though the experience is recognised if it recurs.
  • Passivity: Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, like meditation, once they set in, the mystic feels out of control as if he or she were grasped and held by a superior power.


“Mystical experiences occur more frequently than might be believed. Hay, (1985) quotes results of numerous surveys on religious experience where the consensus is that between 30 and 40 percent of British and American adults claim to have had an experience, at least once in their lifetimes, which fits James’ (1918) description. Deikman (1966) believes that these experiences can occur both in individuals who actively practice meditation, or other exercises used to produce a mystical experience, but also in those who have never practised such disciplines. Such experiences seem to occur most frequently in natural settings, during deeply enjoyable moments, or under the influence of drugs.”

Maslow (1970) secularised the experience by calling it ‘peak experience’. He defined the peak experience as natural and available without the need for an organised religious context and claims that “religion becomes… a state of mind achievable in almost any activity of life, if this activity is raised to a suitable level of perfection” (Maslow, 1970, p.170). [I think here, Maslow is really referring to spirituality] During a peak experience, the individual experiences an expansion of self, and a sense of unity and meaningfulness in life. The experience lingers on in one’s consciousness giving a sense of purpose, integration, self-determination, creativity and empathy (Maslow, 1970).


Csikszentmihalyi (1975) focused on the holistic sensation experienced when acting with total involvement. He claims that this experience, called ‘flow’, can occur in activities of deep play, whether these are in forms of sport, or deeply involving work like surgery. Contemporary actors, who will be studied in this dissertation, can experience flow by being totally involved in their physical training. In flow, action and awareness are merged as the person becomes aware of her actions but not of the awareness itself. This is similar to Crook’s (1980) description of subjective self-awareness. The main contrasts between flow and normal life are one-pointedness of mind, total involvement, timelessness, integration of mind and body, feeling one with companions and with nature, and contact with ultimate reality (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). These characteristics are similar both to Maslow’s (1970) description of the peak experience and to James’s (1918) characteristics of the mystical experience.

Therefore both Maslow’s (1970) peak experience and Csikszentmihalyi’s (1975) flow, tap into the same altered states described as mystical experiences. All theorists have implied that these states can be induced through complete involvement in particular exercises, whether they are quiet and reflexive like meditation, or physical and active like contemporary theatre. . . .




The idea of “DEEP” is often used to characterize extraordinary experiences and I think it lends a quality to the term as it is used as an acronym for the constituent disciplines of integrative biology of behavior: “DEEP ETHOLOGY.”     For example, beginning with 18th century geology, “deep time” referred to durations beyond any easy ability to imagine.  It is often a source of awe and even fear (which together create the SUBLIME).  At all levels of organization–wherever our inquiries in biology and natural history begin, the network of causes and consequences extends beyond our competence to conceptualize and points towards our most extraordinary experiences.

(More about our words–a couple of working definitions: Awe is an experience of something incomprehensibly amazing that challenges every-day categories. It is allied with wonder, a questioning of one’s perceptions and conceptions evoked by a challenge to familiar conceptual frameworks; a cognitive state that opens one to new ideas.) Both participate in the sublime.



1. Arctic Scientist.  working as a scientist in Antarctica . . . a blizzard back at base so the chopper pilots couldn’t come and pick us up and we had a (much needed) 2 day holiday. As you do on holiday, we went for a walk. We walked . . . to the end of the valley and then climbed . . . We all went up the hill at our own pace, so I was separated from my companions by the time I reached the top and sat down to recover. My mind was totally blank. After a while I realized that I had expanded. I was no longer a small discrete consciousness located in my head – I encompassed the whole valley. I was HUGE. I was part of everything – or rather everything was part of me. I was ancient and unbelievably powerful. It was wonderful. . . . After . . . about 10 minutes, my friends appeared and my state snapped back to normal. I was very sorry about this, but also fairly relieved! We ate some Spam, regretted that no one had brought anything to drink, and slid off down the hill again. And that was that.” –posted to Tart’s website March 7 1999 ( )

2. Professor at Rutgers.  Spring morning in 1979, four or five years . . . as a professor at Rutgers University, living alone at the time in a small garden apartment . . . I lay in bed, not yet ready to get up [but] fully awake . . . I had planned on working on some reading and writing that weekend, but was just procrastinating getting started.. . . As I lay there, without much of anything going on in my head, just lazily lying there with my eyes open and no particular sensate stimuli occurring in my local environment, I heard, absolutely clear as a bell, loud and clear, unmistakably and distinctly, right in the middle of my head, just as if I had stereo headphones on, what sounded like a fairly deep mature male voice. It only said one word. It said my first name, “Jon.”  But it was how that voice said my name that had a whole world in it for me experientially. It drew that one word out slowly, but only in the realistic way someone might if they were cajoling, teasing, coaxing me. I have never before or since heard a voice in my head to which I could attribute no external stimulus. agent, or person. And, never before or since have I experienced so much connotative affective/cognitive association and meaning in any voice, inner or outer. –posted to Tart’s website March 7 1999 ( )

3. Astrophysicist.  Once a every few months or so, I get this incredible, almost overwhelming sense about the inter-connectedness of all humans, all life, all matter. . . . We all know intellectually that everything and everybody came out of the same supernova explosions five or ten billion years ago, the stars, the sun, the moon, and the planets all came out of the same Big Bang as the rest of the universe. But it seems as if one of the main goals of society is to create barriers between everyone and everything, so we do not understand our interconnectedness and common origin and fate.  . . . I am overcome by this sense of how we are all part of the same entity, how we are all unified and in this universe together. My connections to people, to things, to stars seems very commonsensical and obvious — seems powerful and I feel it in my bones. I know it is true in a profound way. These moments give me peace and wisdom, and courage to go on and grow and help change the world to help break down some of these barriers, in some modest and appropriate way.  –posted to Tart’s website(1999) Tart’s website 3/7/99 ( )

4.  Epileptic Author.  There are moments, and it is only a matter of five  or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the  eternal harmony … a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with  which it manifests itself and the rapture with  which it fills you.  If this state were to last more than five seconds,  the soul could not endure it and would have to  disappear.  During these five seconds I live a whole human  existence, and for that I would give my whole life  and not think that I was paying too dearly …  (Dostoevsky) Dostoevsky’s “eternal harmony” was described in Oliver Sacks, TMWMHWFH p 162 (1985, Summit Books, building on T. Alajouanine’s (1963) essay, “Dostoevsky’s epilepsy,” in Brain 86:209_221 – this specific expression of temporal lobe epilepsy is, however, rather uncommon) (recalls Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.” and Sigmund Freud’s “I have often felt as though I had inherited all the defiance and all the passions with which our ancestors defended their Temple and could gladly sacrifice my life for one great moment in history” (quoted in an e-mail from Phil Roberts, Jr. To hbe-l May 23, 2000).   (ENDNOTE About Epilepsy and Mystical Experience[1])  read about Dostoyevsky’s Ecstasy

(Incidentally, Dostoevsky once also said, “How terrible to watch a man who has the Incomprehensible within his grasp, doesn’t know what to do, and sits down playing with a toy called God.”)

5.  Dr. Livingstone.  “a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening.  It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife.” (David Livingstone when seized by a lion and presumably affected by an explosive release of stress hormone, particularly an endogenous opiate such as endorphin)  As David Livingstone recalled the experience of being seized unawares by a lion,  “It caused  This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and no sense of horror in looking round at the beast.  This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivora; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death.”

6.  Party Guy.

                              I have felt

                        A presence that disturbs me with the joy

                        Of elevated thought; a sense sublime

                        Of something far more deeply interfused,

                        Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

                        And the round ocean and the living air,

                        And the blue sky, and the mind of man–

                        A motion and a spirit, that impels

                        All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

                                                And rolls through all things.

(Wordsworth’s inspiration for this poem came while walking home after a dance one night)

  7.  Jill Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight”  (watch her TED video) 

   8.  Philip Pullman’s Ecstasy:  “In 1969, the British writer Philip Pullman was walking down the Charing Cross Road in London, when his consciousness abruptly shifted. It appeared to him that ‘everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes’. …. he told me he believes that his insight was valid, and that ‘my consciousness was temporarily altered, so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of routine ordinary perception’. He had a deep sense that the Universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He says: ‘Everything I’ve written has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’” Read the rest of Jules Evans’ comments in Aeon

9. An account of Maurice Bucke’s experience.  Bucke was 36 and he was on his way home reflecting on the time he just spent with friends reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. … All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.”  (Maria Popova wrote that “Although the illumination only lasted a moment, Burke felt that he learned more in those few seconds than in all his years of study, more even than what could ever possibly be taught by the standard modes of scholarship.” (read the entire essay Read Brain Pickings wonderful essay on “Cosmic Consciousness: Maurice Bucke’s Pioneering 19th-Century Theory of Transcendence and the Six Steps of Illumination”  [link] )

10. Pioneering artist:  “During a seance, af Klint  heard a voice telling her to paint ‘on an astral plane’  so as to ‘proclaim a new philosophy of Life.’   ‘I had no idea,’ she said, ‘what the paintings were supposed to depict: nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely without changing a single brushstroke.’  go to A&O notes on Hilma af Klint


READ a collection of

Ways of Creative Artists have Characterized Their Extraordinary Experiences

The feeling that creative thoughts and acts often originate from some unknown or unknowable source outside one’s self (external locus of control) have given many artists a sense of spiritual mystery.  Some felt like “channels” through which transcendent thoughts might flow.  (An internal locus of control makes some artists feel “god-like”–as they have taken the power of creation for themselves)

“Those divinely possessed and inspired have at least the knowledge that they hold some greater thing within them,” said Plotinus,[i] “though they cannot tell what it is; from the movements that stir them and the utterances that come from them they perceive the power, not themselves, that move them….”   [What Plotinus calls “fuller and greater; above reason, mind, and feeling,” contemporary sensibilities may recognize as being is touch, communicating, with one’s deeper cognitive capacities.  We know now that reason is often less a path to action than a way of rationalizing what happens and extracting patterns that might guide future actions.  God is deep within us.]


But (of course) there are alternative perspectives:  

See wikipedia on Apollonian_and_Dionysian.   Then also  (e.g.)  Krus & Kennedy (1982). “The dimension loading on Zen, Goethe, and East scales was labeled Dionysian. High correlations of this dimension were found with an external locus of control, high trust proneness, high absorption levels, focal-peripheral space awareness, affective-cognitive belief systems, high susceptibility to hypnotic suggestions, high levels of written output of low complexity and suspended critical appraisal. The dimension loading on Consciousness I, Consciousness II, and West scales was termed Apollonian. This dimension correlated highly with internal locus of control, low trust proneness, peripheral-focal space awareness, cognitive-affective belief systems, low sus­ceptibility to hypnotic suggestions, low levels of written output of high complexity, and immediate critical appraisal.”  (Krus, DJ &  DH Kennedy (1982) Some characteristics of Apollonian and Dionysian dimensions of economic theories. Psychological Reports, 50, 967-974).



(For many this related to Isaiah 64:8:  “But now, O LORD, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand.”)

Whatever they are called, and however they come about, many of these  MYSTIC EXPERIENCES are “Accounts of spontaneous religious ecstasy and conversion characteristically include a preceding period of depression, melancholia, pain, suffering, and duress (Leuba, 1896; Starbuck, 1897).  The most characteristic pattern

(1) begins with increasing discomfort and anxiety, including attempts at sleep or social withdrawal, which

(2) climax in an ecstatic luminescence of insight and ecstasy and

(3) are followed by long periods of “saintliness.”

Countless words have been used to describe or define this experience it and the  state it engenders.  But these words are used less to describe than to  indicate the direction from which the event may be approached.  Some  words and phrases seem to overlap, others are unique.

[in the definition of spirituality we probably do not need reference to religion –although they are often linked, in part because most if not all religious traditions have found various ways of evoking a mystical experience and then putting these experiences into service as validation for the religious precepts: they make predictions, ask for trust in the process, and are validated by success.  


Some of these experiences were SUBLIME (like Wordsworth’s) –there is more you need to know about the sublime 

IS Dostoyevsky’s “eternal harmony” the same as  Maslow’s “peak experience” or the  Zen Buddhist’s “satori” or  the yogi’s “samadhi”? 

Is Buddha’s “awakening” the same as Jung’s “individuation?”     Is the  “luminosity” of the Tibetan Book of the Dead the same as the Quaker’s  “inner light” or Jacob Boehme’s “light which is the heart of God” or the  “living flame” of Saint John of the Cross?  

Is Saint Paul’s  “peace that passeth understanding” the same as Thomas  Merton’s “transcendental unconscious”?  

Could Blake’s “divine intuition” be linked to Gurdjieff’s “objective  consciousness” or Brother Lawrence’s “unclouded vision” or Arthur  Deikman’s “deautomatization”?  

How are Arthur Clarke’s “overmind” and Emerson’s “Oversoul” related?    

Could Colin Wilson’s “intensity experience,” Eliade’s “shamanic  ecstasy,” and  Saint Teresa’s “ecstasy” be the same as the LSD  explorer’s “moment of truth” or Meyerhoff’s peyote-induced “mystic  vision,” 

Or how about what Julian Silverman (writing of acute schizophrenia) called “the  oceanic fusion of higher and lower referential processes”? 

Might all these be a manifestation of one part or another of the  neurophysiological “drive-arrest-release sequence in biogenic amine inhibitory systems, releasing temporal lobe limbic, hippocampal-septal  hypersynchrony that lasts for long periods of afterdischarge?”


      “And if any have been so happy as truly to understand Christian annihilation, extasis, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kisse of the Spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes unto them.”   –Sir Thomas Browne.   [Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, 1658) was a reflection on death, immortality, and the futility of things here on earth. Excerpt from Ch V.   Brown’s more famous Religio Medici (1635) ( ), attempted to reconcile science and religion, was written about 1635.]  

Plotinus, a Greek who headed an intellectual circle in Rome, took Plato’s idea of the Good – the ultimate source of beauty and truth towards which the rational soul yearns – and turned it into a god-like essence that “radiated” soul like the sun radiates light. . . . the philosopher’s aim in life should be to turn away from the world of the body and its untrustworthy senses, and to become reunited with this primal essence through a contemplative ecstasy.”    –John McCrone

[The church took its legal code from the Romans and for its theology, it turned to the mind/body dualism of Plato. . . . The key figure linking the philosophy of Plato to the theology of the Catholic Church was the Third Century philosopher, Plotinus. Plotinus, a Greek who headed an intellectual circle in Rome, reworked Plato’s writings, making them even more mystical. He took Plato’s idea of the Good – the ultimate source of beauty and truth towards which the rational soul yearns – and turned it into a god-like essence that “radiated” soul like the sun radiates light. Plotinus believed the philosopher’s aim in life should be to turn away from the world of the body and its untrustworthy senses, and to become reunited with this primal essence through a contemplative ecstasy.”    –John McCrone From his Introductory chapter to The Myth of Irrationality– the science of the mind from Plato to Star Trek.  Macmillan London, 1993; Carroll & Graf, New York, 1994 (ISBN 0-7867-0067-X).]


AHA!  Such experiences are also known in science: Archimedes’ “Eureka!”

Archimedes (287-212 BCE) was probably the greatest scientist until Newton..  He was an aristocrat taught in Alexandria by a student of Euclid.  Was said to be excited beyond belief when he discovered, whilst bathing, the principle of buoyancy –he could compare volume to weight and thereby infer density.

Is the “Aha!” or the “spontaneous restructuring” of reality described by Gestalt psychologists the same as what our research team in existential phenomenology calls “transformational learning” evoked during a “teachable moment” and an extreme representation of Piagetian “accommodation.”

See Robert W. Weisberg’s discussion of “the ‘Aha!’ Myth” in Creativity: Genius and other Myths Freeman, San Francisco, 1986


Similarities to INSIGHT, to GESTALT SWITCH, to AESTHETIC RELEASE (Campbell) –all of which are associated with my favorite hormones.  (These used to be testosterone, but are now joined by cortisol and the hormones of the stress response)  Have you been TRANSFORMED? (even a little?)  read what Joseph Campbell said about “aesthetic arrest”


Discours de réception de Louis Pasteur (1882)

“He who proclaims the existence of the Infinite, and none can avoid it — accumulates in that affirmation more of the supernatural than is to be found in all the miracles of all the religions; for the notion of the Infinite presents that double character that forces itself upon us and yet is incomprehensible. ..

As long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on human thought, temples will be erected for the worship of the Infinite, whether God is called BrahmaAllahJehovah, or Jesus; and on the pavement of these temples, men will be seen kneeling, prostrated, annihilated by the thought of the Infinite. ”’

The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language — the word enthusiasm — en theos [Εν Θεος] — a god within. …

The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. …

Blessed is he who carries within himself a God, an ideal, and who obeys it: ideal of art, ideal of science, ideal of the gospel virtues, therein lie the springs of great thoughts and great actions; they all reflect light from the Infinite.”

Lecture delivered after the death of Émile Littré, when Pasteur as a result was elected a member of the French Academy. · Discours de réception de Louis Pasteur (27 April 1882) (Wikiquote)

the comments of Pasteur resemble some of those by Pascal, and may be inspired by Francis Bacon, : “A little Philosophy inclineth Mans Minde to Atheisme; But depth in Philosophy, bringeth Mens Mindes about to Religion.” (in Essays (1597), “On Atheism”)




Transcendence – tran-scen’-dent 1 a: exceeding usual limits: SURPASSING b: extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience… 3: transcending the universe of material existence.  [from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: G&C Merriam Co. 1980.  p.1230]


(1961:1) Marghanita Laski. 1961.  Ecstasy in secular and religious experiences.  Tarcher, Los Angeles.

WHY is the IDEA of a mystical experience SO attractive? WHY are they sought?  WHY are those who claim to have experienced them sought?

Does it validate the otherwise flimsy tissue of belief in things otherwise unseen, unexperienced?  Is it as close as we will come to the REALITY-TESTING of religious belief?

Might ATTRACTIVE experiences be so construed because they evoke pleasure—because they serve a more-or-less URGENT BIOLOGICAL NEED –a response naturally selected in EVOLUTION because the contribute to FITNESS?!

and ADDICTION involves a perversion of that desire, an insatiability for pleasure that can never be wholly trusted or sustained (and it SHOULD NOT be sustained!) It represents a potentially dysfunctional intrusion into the normal homeostatic balances that maintain us (remember Dostoevsky: “If this state were to last more than five seconds,  the soul could not endure it and would have to  disappear.)


All the labor of man is for his mouth,

and yet the appetite is not filled (Eccl 6:7)


Cut down the whole forest of desires,

not a tree only

[Correspondence of Charles Darwin cited by Wright 1994]


To understand addiction we must understand pleasure —

and the Mystical Experience is reported as intensely pleasurable

[or could it be terrifying? Agonizing?]


There is intense pleasure, an aesthetic epiphany, when new knowledge is recognized.  There is an evoked harmony of old and new, of inner and outer forces  , comfort of the established and confidence in the face of the unknown.  In John Dewey’s (1934) view, the fundamental –biological — origin of aesthetic experience involves alternating equilibrium and tension –when, as Ellen Handler Spitz put it, the aesthetic ideal dissolves categories of time and space and absorbs into itself past memories and anticipation of the future (1985:142); “encounters with the beautiful temporarily obliterate our sense of inner and outer separateness by drawing us into an orbit in which boundaries between self and other, and also categories into which we divide the world, dissolve” (p 142).

[George Santayana (1898) speaks of the “duality which is the condition of conflict” which disappears at the aesthetic moment  –when the beautiful, “harmony between our nature and our experience,” when the world and mind are in perfect correspondence and there is “harmony between what is within and what is external (Ellen Handler Spitz 1985:141).  This recalls the medieval ideal of harmony:  “accord between the structure of the universe, the canons of the social order and the good of the individual” (Joseph Campbell 1972) and suggests the source of its spiritual power: “. . . the religious life consists of the belief that there is an unseen order  and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto” (Wm. James, 1902).]


In the Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler wrote, “All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it — and they do enjoy it as much as man and other circumstances will allow.” [Samuel Butler 1835–1902 – Way of All Flesh (1903) ch. 19]



Pleasure is ephemeral and addictive.  Seeking it is a habit that may contribute to our survival and success, but habituation to any rewarding activity has much in common with addiction.


But our behavioral traits, forged and tempered (that is, happened upon and preserved by natural selection) not just throughout the generations since we have been recognizably human but through the far vaster time during which the contours of our brains –their anatomy and chemistry– and their possibilities–  had evolved.


“Emotions are coordinated states, shaped by natural selection, that adjust physiological and behavioral responses to take advantage of opportunities and to cope with threats that have recurred over the course of evolution. Thus, the characteristics and regulation of basic emotions match the requirements of specific situations that have often influenced fitness. Emotions influence motivation, learning, and decisions and, therefore, influence behavior and, ultimately, fitness. Subjective feelings offer a window (often distorted) into motivation, but they are not the essence of emotion and are not even always a necessary component. . . . These observations are consistent with the origins of emotions as specialized states shaped to cope with situations that involve opportunities or gains and a greater number of different kinds of situations that involve threats or losses. (Nesse and Berridge 1997)


We are, mind and body, a product of our genes and our reason for being (it has been said) is not our happiness but their perpetuation. “We are survival machines __ robot vehicles blindly  programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as  genes…”They swarm around in huge colonies, safe inside  gigantic lumbering robots. . .they are in you and me; they  created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the  ultimate rationale for our existence.  “I shall argue that  the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self_ interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even,  strictly, the individual.  It is the gene, the unit of  heredity.”   (R. Dawkins (1976) The Selfish Gene;   (based on Clutton_Brock and Harvey, 1978).  While pleasure may point the path, it is not the destination.


Superstition?  An organisms’s expectations are apparently reflected in the activity of ventral striatum (Schultz et al 1992) apparently as a result of error-signal detection by dopaminergic neurons (Schultz, Dayan, Montague 1997)Schultz (1998) has observed that the activity of dopamine neurons in the ventral striatum, once evoked by a rewarding stimulus, come to be controlled by reward-predicting stimuli over time.  Considering the critical importance of an organism’s capacity for making predictions to create associations between stimuli and responses and to help discriminate most favorable responses, ventral striatal neurons are apparently involved in the information processing that underlies motivation (as reviewed by Schultz 1998).   


REPRISE/REVIEW  —  From a recent forum:


PARTS OF THE BRAIN, their interaction, their orchestrations . . .

They give rise to various facets of consciousness some of which are very familiar to us.  Some not

One of the most extraordinary states of consciousness is the result of the activity in our brainstems of cells that contain the amine neurotransmitters NE & serotonin. 

The quiescence of these cells is not notable

Some, the biggest of the cells containing serotonin, are the raphe nuclei –in the midline of the pons –a white seam running down the middle of the brainstem.

other cells, those with NE are on either side in the locus ceruleus (“blue place”) –they reach all the way to the cortex and down to the spinal cord Noradrenergic locus ceruleus neurons: their distant connections and their relationship to neighboring (including cholinergic and GABAergic) neurons of the central gray and reticular formation.  (Jones BE.  Prog Brain Res  1991;88:15-30)

Noradrenergic LC neurons appear to be relatively unique in the brain, being unsurpassed in the divergence and ubiquity of their projections through the central nervous system. In this regard, they share certain characteristics with peripheral noradrenaline neurons of the sympathetic nervous system.

As such they would be assumed to play a very general role in modulating the activity of large populations of neurons in multiple, functionally diverse systems. Like other periventricular and reticular neurons, they have the potential to receive afferent information from multiple sources via long dendrites, upon which the majority of their inputs from brainstem and forebrain may arrive.

They appear closely related to the cholinergic neurons of the laterodorsal tegmental nucleus, their neighbors that are located medial and rostral to them within the periventricular gray and that have similarly oriented and positioned long dendrites that would allow reception of similar afferent input as the LC neurons and also possibly interaction with the LC neurons.

As evidenced by input to the noradrenergic cell bodies in the compact portion of the nucleus, a moderate GABAergic innervation, that may derive in part from local neurons, could have a potent influence on the activity of the cells. Periventricular GABAergic cells could also serve as intermediaries to other afferent input, from a distance, terminating in the periventricular region or from local neurons such as the cholinergic cells of the laterodorsal tegmental nucleus. 

Its processes ramify throughout the brain.

WHEN they become active, as they do from time to time, consciousness is suppressed. 



OUR HYPOTHESIS: SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE, like the stages of sleep, dreaming, or waking: all can be viewed as an outcome of the orchestration of specific structures in the brain as energized, facilitated, or inhibited by

a. intrinsic rhythms of the body (and neuromodulating hormones in particular)

b.  circumstances (such as real or perceived stress (challenge to meeting a more-or-less urgent need); signals from the world that trigger endocrine responses that affect the brain and behavior.

BUT brain processes in the extreme (such as leading to seizures) are almost always negative. The opposite (remember Dostoyevski) is quite rare but very real and very illuminating: look in on “Ecstatic Epilepsyby Anil Ananthaswamy in New Scientist on  [i] And then for additional and more recent connections, look at Gschwind & Picard (2016) “Ecstatic Epileptic Seizures: A Glimpse into the Multiple Roles of the Insula” in . New cases (note) observe an interesting pleasurable “subjective certainty” associated with the anterior insula  (“increased blood flow maximal at the junction of the right dorsal mid-insula and the central operculum”) 



[i] Anil Ananthaswamy (2014) Ecstatic epilepsy: How seizures can be bliss. NEW SCIENTIST.  24 January 2014, issue 2953:44-47.   


Like DREAMS, spiritual experiences such as

(a) feelings of being at one with everything,

(b) extraordinarily narrowed or enlarged fields of attention,

(c) vivid clarity of perception and myriad details

(d) a vivid sense of the cosmic significance of details




There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The Glory and the Freshness of a dream.

(Wordsworth’s Ode, Intimations of Mortality, 1)




NEWLY associated with spiritual experience because of its involvement in a case study of ecstatic epilepsy: Induction of a sense of bliss by electrical stimulation of the anterior insula   (Picard et al 2013); reported  and contextualized by Anil Ananthaswamy[i] in New Scientist magazine in 2014 (as mentioned above)  


(insula “is buried inside the fissure dividing the frontal and parietal lobes from the temporal lobe, and its main function seems to be to integrate “interoceptive” signals from inside the body, such as the heartbeat, with “exteroceptive” signals such as the sensation of touch.  There is also evidence that the processing of these signals gets progressively more sophisticated looking from the back of the insula to the front. The portion of the insula closest to the back of the head deals with objective properties, such as body temperature, and the front portion, or anterior insula, produces subjective feelings of body states and emotions, both good and bad. In other words, the anterior insula is responsible for how we feel about our body and ourselves, helping to create a conscious feeling of “being”. This led Bud Craig at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, to argue that this part of the brain is the key to “the ultimate representation of all of one’s feelings – that is, the sentient self”.”)

HOW do we come to have confidence in our beliefs? 

(a) Correspondence — through “reality testing” we determine how reliably our belief “represents” reality. (“eye-witness evidence”)

(b) Coherence — how well does a belief fit with other beliefs  (“circumstantial evidence”)


THE “resolution” of unfamiliar or ambiguous states of consciousness depends on the “alignment” of lens, filters, and modulators such as 

(a) Subconscious concerns

(b) Subclinical stress (specific neural and endocrine responses to perturbations in the world affect how input (sensation & perception), integration (coordinating ongoing experience with past experiences, ongoing circumstances, and intentions) and output (actions).

(c) Social referencing (when confronted with ambiguity we are highly susceptible to the influence of more experienced “referees”)

(d) Redintegration (old information can be reinterpreted in terms of new)

(e) Cognitive dissonance  (we try to minimize the mismatches between our beliefs and the real world)

(f) Narrative thinking (we have powerful urges to know the causes and consequences of phenomena)



AESTHETICS  (we know the world through our senses) with experience we grow progressively more settled in our EXPECTATIONS and habits . . . we may RARELY USE the highest capacities of our consciousness.


“We may dance toward it and away, achieve glimpses, and even dwell in its beauty for a time; yet few are those that have been confirmed in that knowledge of its ubiquity which antiquity called gnosis and the Orient calls bodhi: full awakening to the crystalline purity of the bed or ground of one’s own and yet the world’s true being.  Like perfectly transparent crystal, it is there, yet as though not there; and all things, when seen through it, become luminous in its light” (Joseph Campbell 1968)



Is the brain the portal or source of spiritual experience? — recalls the arguments surrounding CREATIVITY: is it INSPIRATION or PERSPIRATION?  –are we channeling God– the supreme One acting through us—or are we inventing and discovering the world on our own (or both)

WE may have the sense now that the spiritual experience is highly prized and attaining it cannot be other than a great good thing –although we can also argue that its pursuit is more important to us than its attainment.

AND, in fact pursuit can be fraught with difficulty.   Mariana Caplan, a psychotherapist and author of “Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path” has identified 10 Spiritually Transmitted Diseases.[2] 


Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy-induced seconds of transcendent bliss may present a possible path for connecting brain function to spirituality.  And, in fact, “Ecstatic epilepsy” while quite uncommon is well known and other cases have been studied by Swiss neurtologist  Fabienne Picard, and reported by Anil Ananthaswamy.  See Ecstatic Epilepsy: How Seizures can be Bliss.

Spirituality and religion in epilepsy was also explored by Devinsky OLai G. (2008).   Their abstract: Revered in some cultures but persecuted by most others, epilepsy patients have, throughout history, been linked with the divine, demonic, and supernatural. Clinical observations during the past 150 years support an association between religious experiences during (ictal), after (postictal), and in between (interictal) seizures.” [3]    

HOW FAR CAN YOU PUSH EXTRAORDINARY and remain sufficiently functionally adaptive to meet your needs as an organism?    Related to Caplan’s concerns, is the difficulty of distinguishing extraordinary feelings and behavior from something much less  benign than the growth experience implied by transcendence:  This was recognized by Gerhard Bronn and Doris McIlwain   in their article “Assessing Spiritual Crises: Peeling Off Another Layer of a Seemingly Endless Onion” (Journal of Humanistic Psychology 2015; 55:346-382.

AND CERTAINLY, various neuropsychiatric conditions can alter cognitive functions in a way that sometimes manifests as creativity.  See, for example, Scott Barry Kaufman’s, “The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness


Jan 16 2003 / 2017 / 2018 / 2020



CONNECTIONS CREATE, CONNECTIONS CHANGE (Phenomena have MEANING to the extent they are CONNECTED; they can alter the way in which cognitive processes (such as those in ART and SCIENCE) are coordinated). What about CONNECTIONS between INDIVIDUALS?


CHANGE (all change involves connections and all changes in connection involve STRESS; the balance between disintegration and renewal) These have meaning to the extent they are COMMUNICATED.

COMMUNICATION (…involves CREATING CONNECTIONS within and between individuals) information must be transmitted.  When information is communicated within or between levels of organization (as in within or between individuals) and coordinated with change, learning occurs.   Communication involves transmitting and receiving information.  Sounds like “teaching” and “learning.”

TEACHING/LEARNING (learning involves coping with STRESS; resolving cognitive dissonance; error detection and correction))

TRANSFORMATIVE LEARNING (some learning experiences are deeply affecting and we move from KNOWING to REALIZING)

CONSCIOUSNESS, and some of its states relevant to ART; then


[i]. Plotinus (c.205-270) in his Enneads, V, 3.14, trans by WKC Guthrie, cited in A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, edited by AJ Ayer and Jane O=Grady Blackwell. 1992.


[1] [“After Hardy’’s death in 1985,  Dr David Hay became the Director of the “Religious Experience Research Unit”. Subsequently he was appointed Reader in Spiritual Education at Nottingham University. The hypothesis that has guided his research over the past twenty-five years is that religious or spiritual awareness is biologically natural to the human species and has been selected for in the process of organic evolution because it has survival value.]


[1] Greenberg, N.(2003).   The Natural History of Mystical Experience: Ecstasy, Epiphany, and Addiction. Public Forum. Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church​, Knoxville, TN.  January 26, 2003     “Spiritual” experiences have been associated with specif brain functions: look at “Ecstatic Epilepsy.” 

[i] Anil Ananthaswamy (2014) Ecstatic epilepsy: How seizures can be bliss. NEW SCIENTIST.  24 January 2014, issue 2953:44-47.    The article quoted appeared in print under the headline “Fits of rapture” … Anil Ananthaswamy is a consultant for New Scientist

[3] Spirituality and religion in epilepsy was explored by Devinsky O1Lai G. (2008) Their abstract: Revered in some cultures but persecuted by most others, epilepsy patients have, throughout history, been linked with the divine, demonic, and supernatural. Clinical observations during the past 150 years support an association between religious experiences during (ictal), after (postictal), and in between (interictal) seizures.

In addition, epileptic seizures may increase, alter, or decrease religious experience especially in a small group of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). Literature surveys have revealed that between .4% and 3.1% of partial epilepsy patients had ictal religious experiences; higher frequencies are found in systematic questionnaires versus spontaneous patient reports.

Religious premonitory symptoms or auras were reported by 3.9% of epilepsy patients. Among patients with ictal religious experiences, there is a predominance of patients with right TLE. Postictal and interictal religious experiences occur most often in TLE patients with bilateral seizure foci. Postictal religious experiences occurred in 1.3% of all epilepsy patients and 2.2% of TLE patients.

Many of the epilepsy-related religious conversion experiences occurred postictally. Interictal religiosity is more controversial with less consensus among studies. Patients with postictal psychosis may also experience interictal hyper-religiosity, supporting a “pathological” increase in interictal religiosity in some patients.

Although psychologic and social factors such as stigma may contribute to religious experiences with epilepsy, a neurologic mechanism most likely plays a large role. The limbic system is also often suggested as the critical site of religious experience due to the association with temporal lobe epilepsy and the emotional nature of the experiences. Neocortical areas also may be involved, suggested by the presence of visual and auditory hallucinations, complex ideation during many religious experiences, and the large expanse of temporal neocortex. In contrast to the role of the temporal lobe in evoking religious experiences, alterations in frontal functions may contribute to increased religious interests as a personality trait.

The two main forms of religious experience, the ongoing belief pattern and set of convictions (the religion of the everyday man) versus the ecstatic religious experience, may be predominantly localized to the frontal and temporal regions, respectively, of the right hemisphere.”   — Epilepsy Behav. 2008 May;12(4):636-43. doi: 10.1016/j.yebeh.2007.11.011. Epub 2008 Jan 2.