Mystical Experience †
Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.
During the first year of life, a child will be quite unable to use the sign-stimulus, will not understand the directions from the experimenter and can relate to the objects only haphazardly. It is really senseless to talk of concepts at all at this stage of development. …
…for Vygotsky, being able to name an object is not evidence of having a concept of it, at least not a true concept …
A concept is a mediated relationship of a person to their environment in which a word, acting as a sign for a problem or solution encountered by the community in the past, is used to organise the individual’s actions, but which necessarily also includes immediate sensorimotor interactions with the environment. …
…In so far as [children’s] relationship to the world is mediated (for example through sensorimotor activity itself), the mediating element is their own body—grasping, crying, sucking, etc. In such a condition, a child is not able to develop concepts at all. Indeed, in their first efforts at using words, they completely fail, but, as the saying goes, in order to swim one must get into the water, and once the child throws themself into speech, they begin to learn, and the most embryonic phenomena of conceptual thinking can be said to have come into being.
So what exactly is there, in a leopard-identifying animal’s brain?
I think there is not anything in its brain that relates specifically to leopards in the way that either a thought or a word in the human brain does. All over the brain there are cohorts of neurons that respond directly to all the sights and sounds and smells that come in from the world by changing the rate at which they send out electrical impulses. Among all of these cohorts are neurons responding to sights and sounds and smells that might be made by leopards. When “enough” of these neurons (“enough” being still a black box) are triggered by a leopard appearance, the animal goes into high alerts, may issue an alarm call, may take appropriate action. But the neurons activated on any given occasion are just one subset of the complete set of potentially leopard-responding neurons. The next appearance of a leopard may trigger a quite different subset, though the result (in terms of the animal’s reactions) may be identical. Bottom line is, there’s nowhere any fixed, determined set of linked neurons that represents “leopard” and nothing else.
Differently put, concepts are the result of combining different mental contents.But once you have a word or sign for “leopard”, there has to be such a set. There has to be a fixed, permanent set of neurons that represent the sounds or gestures needed to produce the word or sign in question. But for that word or sign to have meaning, this fixed set has to link to all the different representations of leopard-bits on which the original “leopard” category was based.
I’m not saying that “concepts are words”, or “you have to have a word to have a concept”. Least of all am I saying, “You cannot think without words”. … [O]nce the brain found the trick of making concepts, it no longer needed a word as the base for a new concept. It just needed some place where all the knowledge could come together and link with other concepts.
4. Mental Absorption
The simplest variety of affect begins in the interior of a living organism. It springs up vague and diffuse, generating feelings that are not easily described or placed. The term “primordial feelings” captures the idea.
My use of the term “primordial” is conventional and meant to refer to the simple and direct nature of what I conceive of feelings as having been as they emerged in early human evolution and as they still are likely to be in many nonhuman species not to mention human infants.
5. Mystical Experience
- A sense of unity or totality
- A sense of timelessness
- A sense of having encountered ultimate reality
- A sense of sacredness
- A sense that one cannot adequately describe the richness of this experience.
6. The Memory of Mental States
you could say that babies and young children have episodic memory but not autobiographical memory. Although they are very good at remembering specific events in the past, they do not put these events into a single coherent timeline, do not remember how they know about the events, and do not remember their past attitudes toward events. .. And they do not have a single “inner autobiographer”, a self who links their past and present mental states.
7. States and Statements
8. Further Implications
9. Trait and State
Dissociative absorption is a tendency to become absorbed in imagination or in an external stimulus (movie, book) to the point of obliviousness to one’s surroundings and reduced self-awareness.
According to Steven Katz62 … as well as other ‘constructivists’ … pure, unmediated experience simply does not exist. Each and every experience went through complex epistemological processes by which it was organised and shaped, and which made it communicable. Mystical experience, according to these critics, will always be prefigured and preconditioned by linguistic frameworks and the cultural context, the respective theologies and philosophies, the dogmas, social conditions, and pre-existing worldviews. What others had called interpretation was itself an ingredient of the experience.
Conflicts of Interest
Wulff (2014, pp. 369–70) sketches the way mysticism and mystical experience have been used from the 18th century onward. See also (Zarrabi-Zadeh 2008).
Annette Wilke (Wilke et al. 2021, p. 5) points out “that not only in popular discourse, but even among most of early scholars of mysticism, union, unity, unification, i.e., immediate unitive experience (unio mystica, ‘mystical union’) was very prominent in characterizing and defining universal mysticism. … many of them, however, were not interested in defining mystical experience as such, … Only later, when mysticism research had shifted to the Anglo-Saxon world, the nature of mystical experience itself became a common central question.”
See, e.g., (Franco 2018). For a different point of view, see (Osto 2019).
Indeed, Turner (1995) argues that medieval European mysticism is not based on mystical experience; see also (Kügler 2004).
Wilke (Wilke et al. 2021, p. 2), with references to earlier literature.
Smart (1967), too, does not hesitate to speak of the “timeless experience” of Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Śankara, and the Buddha that, he claims, “involves an apprehension of the transcendent”; see also Smart (1965, p. 75).
Hood (1975) developed a measure of reported mystical experience, Hood’s M-scale (see also Streib et al. 2021). Hood’s M-scale measures a personality trait, not the depth of a mystical state.
On the influence of memory on perception and subjective experience, see (Garner and Keller 2022; Lau et al. 2022).
Herzog et al. (2016); further Drissi-Daoudi et al. (2019). See also Manassi and Whitney (2022). On the experience of time passing more or less fast, see Wittmann (2013, 2018).
Buonomano (2017, p. 252 n. 11); with references to Scharnowski et al. (2009) and Sergent et al. (2013).
Christiansen and Chater (2022, p. 10), with a reference to Goldin-Meadow (2005).
Christiansen and Chater (2022, pp. 10–11), with a reference to Pyers and Senghas (2020).
One might hope to find similar testimonies in so-called feral children, children who have grown up without human contact. Unfortunately, few known feral children ever learned to speak, and the few that did (though imperfectly) have not recorded memories of their pre-linguistic experiences. See Candland (1993); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_child (accessed on 4 May 2022).
See http://markturner.org/blending.html (accessed on 10 June 2022).
Bickerton (2009, p. 125) mentions the four great apes, Californian sea lions, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, and African grey parrots. Barrett (2018, p. 260) points out that “words do not seem to be intrinsically part of most apes’ affective niche, as they are for typical human babies. To apes, words alone are not worth learning.”
Bickerton slightly modified his terminology in his more recent (and last) book More than Nature Needs (Bickerton 2014). Here, he uses the term “concept” also in connection with nonhuman animals, but asserts that there is a difference between nonhuman and human concepts. He still maintains “that a certain kind of thought probably limited to humans—thought that manipulates concepts of classes rather than of individual entities, that can transcend experience to create genuinely novel configurations—needed some kind of overt objects (signals or words) in order to get started.” (p. 103). Our conclusion that the experience of prelinguistic children is fundamentally different from ours remains the same.
It appears “that a unique context and selective pressure were responsible for the evolution of human language, given that no other primates have yet evolved a language-like communication system despite the fact that, arguably, they have the basic cognitive skills required and a similar genetic background to humans” (Számadó and Szathmáry 2006, p. 556). For other attempts, see, e.g., Laland (2017, chp. 8); Planer and Sterelny (2021). All accounts of the invention of words seem to fit in well with the notion of joint attention as a feature distinguishing humanity from other primates, as proclaimed by Tomasello (e.g., Tomasello 2019) and others.
See, e.g., Caldwell-Harris (2019); Lupyan et al. (2020). For a discussion of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, see Leavitt (2014); O’Neill (2015). Evans (2014, p. 215 ff.) summarizes experiments that show that language already influences perception at pre-conscious and non-linguistic levels.
Without necessarily subscribing to his philosophy, Wittgenstein’s famous statements—“the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”—come to mind (Wittgenstein 1922, pp. 5–7).
Losing one’s ability to use language, aphasia, does not take one back to a pre-linguistic state. One reason may be that “[i]n 99 per cent of aphasics the processing of language is damaged, but the memory for language is retained” (Hale 2007, p. 124, quoting Richard Wise).
Note that there was not always a word to designate states of absorption: “the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that written English usage of the term [‘absorption’] to signify engrossment only became commonplace in the mid seventeenth century (along with the term ‘immersion’)” (Herbert 2019, p. 237).
Cp. Hood et al. (2009, pp. 354–55): “the wide diversity of triggers or conditions facilitating mystical experiences … may have in common the fact that an individual fascinated by any given trigger experiences a momentary loss of sense of self, being ‘absorbed’ or ‘fascinated’ by his or her object of perception.”
“Mystical experiences are absorbed states.” (Granqvist 2020, pp. 219–20).
There are many theories of consciousness. LeDoux (2015, pp. 146–79) provides a useful survey. See also Cobb (2020, chp. 15) (“Consciousness”). All these theories share a “commitment … to the proposition that the brain is the centre, cause, operating system, and seat of consciousness, mind, and mental life” (Grayling 2021, pp. 255–56).
For a recent discussion between Seth and Solms, see https://npsa-association.org/anil-seth-mark-solms-dialogue/ (accessed on 10 June 2022).
One might add Jaak Panksepp (e.g., Panksepp 1998; Davis and Panksepp 2018).
“The non-feeling, ‘precise’ contents of the mind flow with distinction, silhouetted against the affect process, a bit like acting figurines against an animated backdrop.” (Damasio 2021, pp. 78–79).
Seth (2021, p. 218) goes further: “At the very deepest layers of the self, beneath even emotions and moods, there lies a cognitively subterranean, inchoate, difficult-to-describe experience of simply being a living organism. Here, experiences of selfhood emerge in the unstructured feeling of just ‘being’.” On p. 220 he says: “the very deepest levels of experienced selfhood—the inchoate feeling of ‘just being’—seem to lack … external referents altogether. This, for me, is the true ground-state of conscious selfhood: a formless, shapeless, control-oriented perceptual prediction about the present and future physiological condition of the body itself.” Elsewhere (Webb 2022, p. 96), he describes the most basic aspect of conscious selfhood as “at the deepest level without any describable content at all.”
This suggests that brain injuries that affect such associations may result in similar experiences; see, on this, Cristofori et al. (2016).
http://www.bodysoulandspirit.net/mystical_experiences/ (accessed on 10 June 2022).
Carhart-Harris and Friston (2019, p. 319) mention “subjective phenomena associated with the psychedelic experience, including the following: ego dissolution…, … altered time perception …, a sense of the ineffable …”
This is not to deny the importance of feelings, both for the mystic and from a theoretical point of view (see above). Already, William James ( 1920, p. 380) stated: “… mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.” See also Matilal (1975, pp. 218–219); Gäb (2021, p. 235).
(Olivelle 1998), Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.4; Kaṭha Upaniṣad 5.14.
E.g., (de Jong 1977), Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, 7.17: “If there existed anywhere something unarisen, it could arise. Since no such thing exists, what is it that arises?”
“Presumably”, because there is, of course, no way to prove that these three (Eckhart, Upanishads, Nagarjuna) had had no mystical experience. However, if not these three, there were, no doubt, others who had not.
As pointed out above, some (or even many) of these teachings can, at least in part, be explained in terms of the intellectual and cultural surroundings of their authors. However, the appeal of “mystical ideas” may have influenced the shape in which we find them in the relevant texts.
Is this what Damasio meant when he said: “In and of themselves, feelings are never memorized and thus cannot be recollected” (Damasio 2019, p. 141)? Clearly Damasio does not deny access to pure feeling: “The ebb and flow of spontaneous homeostatic feelings provides for an ever-present background, a more or less pure sense of being of the sort that those who practice meditation aspire to experience.” (cited above).
This implies that young children do not need absorption to remove the factors responsible for standard consciousness; those factors, quite simply, were not yet there.
Some scholars—most notably, Morrison and Conway (2010)—“consider a version of episodic memory (‘sensory-perceptive-affective’), which appears very early in life, and another version (‘conceptual episodic memory’), which appears later; … autobiographical is … considered by them to appear even later” (Staniloiu et al. 2020, p. 5).
It does not, to be sure, recall all the conscious experiences we ever had.
Tulving (1985, p. 3), with a reference to Ebbinghaus ( 1913, p. 1).
If I am not mistaken, this opinion has not been contradicted in subsequent research; see Renoult and Rugg (2020). Rugg and Vilberg (2013) draw attention to “a content-independent network that acts in concert with cortical regions representing the contents of retrieval”. Could it be that the content-independent network remembers the experience itself?
Note that the memory we are interested in has nothing to do with remembering facts, people, things, relationships, and places, which is liable to infantile amnesia (on which see Alberini and Travaglia 2017; Peterson 2020).
Cf. Slingerland (2021, p. 97): “[A] common theme in cultures from across the world and throughout history is the idea of spiritual or moral perfection as somehow involving regaining the child’s mind. The Gospel of Matthew declares, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ An early Chinese Daoist text, the Daodejing or Laozi, compares the perfected sage to an infant or small child, perfectly open and receptive to the world.”
For a recent review of the evidence, see Zarrindat and Khakpai (2020); further Taylor (2013, pp. 1079–80).
Cf. Ott (2007, p. 262): “standards for the definition and assessment of states of absorption have not been established thus far.” See also Mohr (2018, pp. 118–19). Depth of absorption should not be confused with levels of consciousness, on which see Bayne et al. (2016). Is it possible that the correlation between pupil dilution and (depth of?) attention may open up ways to measure depth of absorption? See Zhao et al. (2019).
Hypnosis is one method and, unsurprisingly, “[f]orty per cent of hypnotized subjects describe it as an altered state of consciousness, while sixty per cent compare it to a period of focused attention” (Dietrich 2007, p. 269).
i.e., activities that are “deemed religious” (Taves 2009).
On different traditions of meditation in ancient India, see Bronkhorst (1993). On Asian traditions of meditation in general, see Eifring (2016).
Interestingly, there are reasons to think that psychedelics can help to attain far deeper states; see below.
Cf., e.g., Siegel (2005). Slingerland (2021) discusses the social consequences of the ingestion of certain drugs.
“Research reveals that mystical experiences are relatively common in the general population. Averaging across samples, nations, and methods, colleagues (Hood et al. 2009) estimate their lifetime prevalence to be roughly 35%.” (Granqvist 2020, p. 219). These numbers may easily make us overlook that mystical experiences may be more or less “deep”.
Cf. Bronkhorst (2022). Interestingly, Tellegen and Atkinson, the originators of the Tellegen Absorption Scale, already distinguish between the two, in the title of their relevant article (Tellegen and Atkinson 1974): “Openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences (‘absorption’), a trait related to hypnotic susceptibility.” Here, the trait is openness, the state is the experience. The word absorption is here used to refer to the experiences, not to the trait. Yet, “[i]n discussing imaginative involvement and absorption, for instance, … Tellegen … sometimes blurred together comments on trait and state notions of absorption” (Roche and McConkey 1990, p. 92). Note further that Mattes (2022, p. 6) speaks of “the widespread confusion between enabling conditions of flow and the flow experience itself.”
Assuming that many scholars are “normal” or “average”, this may throw light on the fact that some of them find it difficult to take mystical experience seriously. Indeed, “for a long time, extraordinary consciousness experiences have either been ignored by the mainstream natural sciences or have been explicitly denigrated as nonexistent—as the fantasies of cranks.” (Wittmann 2018, p. 2769).
More can no doubt be added. Lewis-Williams (2010, p. 143) adds auditory driving (e.g., chanting, clapping, drumming); electrical stimulation; flickering light; fatigue; hunger; sensory deprivation; stress; and extreme pain to this list. Maij and van Elk (2018, p. 1) enumerate sensory over-stimulation, sensory deprivation, mind-altering substances, magic tricks, extreme rituals, meditation practices, trying to recall memories of past mystical experiences, expectancy manipulations, and the so-called “God Helmet”.
For recent research on meditation combined with psychedelics, see, e.g., Griffiths et al. (2017); Smigielski et al. (2019); Heuschkel and Kuypers (2020); Eleftheriou and Thomas (2021). Mention should also be made of the Good Friday Experiment designed by Walter N. Pahnke and carried out in 1962. Psilocybin was administered to theology students in a prayer chapel. For details, see (Wittmann 2018, p. 2226; Baier 2021, pp. 382–88). Psychedelics have also found their way into Buddhist meditation: https://www.lionsroar.com/the-new-wave-of-psychedelics-in-buddhist-practice/ (accessed on 10 June 2022); (Osto 2016).
This “Copernican” reversal of perspectives has been preceded—in Kenneth Rose’s (2016, p. 62) terms—by the “anti-Copernican” reversal of perspectives in the study of mysticism instituted by Steven Katz more than forty years ago; see further below.
This refers to Katz’s influential article of 1978 (Katz 1978) and subsequent publications.
Katz’s claim that pure, unmediated experience does not exist, initially presented as an assumption or even a fact, became, over time, a working hypothesis and an epistemological generalization (Hammersholt 2013, p. 476). Katz does not present anything resembling proof for this claim which, in view of the theory presented in the present article, looks like a totally unwarranted assumption.
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Bronkhorst, J. Mystical Experience. Religions 2022, 13, 589. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13070589
Bronkhorst J. Mystical Experience. Religions. 2022; 13(7):589. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13070589Chicago/Turabian Style
Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2022. "Mystical Experience" Religions 13, no. 7: 589. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13070589