What is mysticism? Many traditions around the world – religious as well as 'philosophical' – have a 'mystical' dimension, yet what is called 'mystical' is so unique to each tradition in terms of content and expression that it's difficult to see what the mystical 'element' or 'factor' might be.
It seems many people assume that mysticism is connected to the supernatural; it involves experiencing something that is 'not of this world.' Experiences in prayer and experiences triggered by group singing, chant and dance, are oft thought of as 'mystical.' But what I want to suggest is that mysticism is first and foremost a naturalistic phenomena; that what a mystical experience is – at its root – is not primarily supernatural, but something arising out of our biology and psychology. This is not to deny a religious interpretation of mystical experiences, but rather to point to a common ground—and to allow the possibility of mysticism for those who are not religious.Recently, while walking up this trail near where I live, I found myself stilled, and so stopped along the creek that runs to the left of the path in the picture. Because I have practiced meditation for four decades, I recognized the sensation as a moment of what has been called 'gathering;' in which I 'collected myself' and came to my 'center' and was there refreshed; suddenly feeling all of the stress of my week slip away and leave my body; laving me much more at peace that I had been.
I'm not trying to 'brag,' but simply describe the experience I had on this particular walk. As I stood by the creek, I felt my whole body 'energized' by the sudden melting away of stress, and my face turned upward (probably because of years of training in various religious traditions, from Pagan to Catholic) and the sunlight fell on my face, refreshing me and seeming somehow 'cleansing' as it warmed my flesh. I took three deep breaths and then stretched my hands up toward the tree tops. I was then 'stilled' there even more powerfully; I did not want to move or leave the spot where I was standing. I felt a sense of 'communion' with Nature; that I was 'part of it all' (which I am; we all are—it’s just that we don't usually experience it so consciously or intensely). I stayed there, stilled, for at least 25 minutes, immobile; almost unable to move (though I could have, had people come up the trail or something else interrupted this 'moment of peace').
Of course, this was a very intense experience, and things like this don't happen all the time; it was a peak experience—something like this may occur three or four times a year, if I'm diligent in my praxis and am both practicing meditation regularly and also practicing wakefulness as I walk through the rounds of the day (i.e., trying not to fall into being 'asleep at the wheel of life.') More modest experiences of centering and un-stressing occur more or less regularly for someone who practices meditation and related disciplines. Yet these are always overshadowed by these 'peak' experiences.
What is going on here?
I used to assume that this kind of thing was supernatural; and while there may be some kind of 'divine' element to it, at root this kind of experience seems to me to be perfectly naturalistic. It is something that is happening in the body; in the nervous system—it involves the emotions and stems from the physical state of the brain. I have of course prepared myself for experiences like this via decades of practicing meditation and related disciplines; I have chanted and danced and thought about 'transcendence' my whole adult life, and this has certainly 'primed' my nervous system; my mind and my body--for 'extra-ordinary' experiences (whether or not they have a supernatural dimension is a secondary question here).
These experiences epitomize what mystics know as 'transcendence;' a 'stepping above' or 'stepping out' of our ordinary, day-to-day consciousness, into a state – biological, bodily, emotional, mental – that un-stresses and revitalizes us. This 'transcendent' state of consciousness is possible because of the 'wiring' we have as the particular biological beings we are. Our species, I would suggest, is 'wired' for mystical experience at this naturalistic level; and perhaps this is why so many religions feature 'mysticism.'
Why is this important?
Because it reveals our nature to ourselves and helps us understand our religious traditions from a more naturalistic standpoint. Back in early the 1990's I had an experience that changed my spiritual outlook. I was involved at that time in an ecumenical meditation group; i.e., its members included a Buddhist, a couple of Catholic friends, a couple of wicchan practitioners, a goddess worshipper and a young man who was an atheist. At the time, I was interested in Celtic mysticism and monastic prayer. We were all practiced at meditation in our own particular traditions. As we sat together in a circle, each meditating in his or her own way, a cacophony of voices arose, chanting and singing. _It was rather amusing! But then, as we each got beyond the threshold where vocalization was necessary and deep breathing took over, each of us arrived at a state – unique to our own belief system – that brought us to the place of peace.
The feeling of 'union' between the nine of us in that circle was intense, and I've never forgot it. Eight of us came away with a vivid sense that our religious traditions were all 'pointing to the same thing,' whatever that might mean. But this, of course, left our atheist friend rather disturbed, as he had no belief in a god or goddess or anything supernatural, though he, too, had experienced something 'calming' and was in a 'beautiful state.'
Over the last 20 years I've come to see that what really united us in that circle was the fact that we were all having bodily experiences, involving mental an emotional elements, brought on by chant and song and rhythmic breathing. Despite the differences in our beliefs, there was a 'common ground' to our experience – our biological nature. We were having a human experience of transcendence. We were just interpreting it differently; according to different symbol systems.
Over the last decade my spiritual journey has taken me from a religious to a scientific interpretation of the world, yet I'm still having 'mystical' experiences, because I'm still practicing the disciplines that open me to moments of transcendence. I practice the disciplines because the effect is beneficial, and because I'm still open to the mystery of 'what is.' What I've learned is that mystical experience is a naturalistic phenomenon.
There is research being done on this (if you are interested, the work of Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili, beginning with Why God Won't God Away (2001) and then Dean Hamer's The God Gene (2004) is still a good starting point). I will try and write more about this, but I think I've said enough for one day.