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Karey Perkins

Mysticism has several generally agreed upon elements, as summarized by Woodhouse (216) and ( 89-93). The mystical experience is one of:

    (1) Undifferentiated unity (a sense of self merging with the infinite, eternal, godhead, or god as it may be variously viewed.)
    (2) Transcendence of space and time ("passing into a realm of eternity or infinity"; not a distortion of space and time)
    (3) Positive moods (joy, bliss, peace, sacredness, love)
    (4) Noetic incorrigibility (inner knowing of the objectivity/reality of the experience)
    (5) Paradoxicality (mutually contradictory propositions that do not contradict each other in the mystical state)
    (6) Ineffability (the inability to communicate the experience fully to others)
    (7) Transiency (passing, not permanent)
    (8) Positive changes in attitude and behavior (toward self, others, life and the experience itself)

Furthermore, it is generally agreed upon that the mystical experience, and the above characteristics associated with it, occur similarly across time, space and culture. To those chosen, or disciplined, or lucky, few, the mystical experience is received in very similar ways and experienced in similar ways, whether one is Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Christian, and whether one lived before Christ or today, although the interpretations and nomenclature assigned to the experience might vary slightly according to cultural tradition. Finally, most critics agree that mysticism, because it transcends time and space, is not the equivalent of either paranormal phenomena such as ghosts and telepathy and telekinesis, nor is it the same as other religious experience, such as miracles, visions, or voices of God, the angels, or saints. (Other religions refer to "God" as the infinite, the one, Brahman, Nirvana, Krishna, etc. In this paper, I shall use the Judeo-Christian word, God, for this concept/person.)

However, a problem occurs when one examines some claims of mystical experience that do indeed have many or most of the traits listed in the above description of mysticism. There are experiences with mystical elements, and that have many of the characteristics stated above, that some followers claim to be mystical experiences, and others do not. A positive LSD trip, for example, can bring a sense of oneness with the universe and a sense of transcendence of time and space, as well as all the other characteristics on the list. Later Sufism, which used sensory aids (drugs, music, dancing, contemplation of beauty) to produce experiences of ecstasy, claimed to be mystical. North American Indians used peyote in their religious ceremonies for added enlightenment. And also, a good "holy roller" Pentecostal would claim that perhaps at a one of his services, in which one is transported into ecstasy and "filled with" the Holy Spirit, one is having a mystical experience that fits most of the criteria listed above.

Are these in fact authentic full-fledged mystical experiences? Can one simply partake of a little LSD to attain spiritual enlightenment, as some proponents suggest? I would argue that they are not, nor can they. How are these experiences different from that described in the writings of the traditional mystics, especially as seen in the Christian or Catholic mystics like Meister Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, or St. John of the Cross? Quite simply, the authentic mystical experience does not serve, magnify, or benefit the self primarily; it has as its focal point and its attention God and others, and the self/ego is denied, disciplined, and subjugated to the needs, in love, and in service to God, and when one recovers from the mystical state, others. So, in addition to the previously listed definitive qualities of mysticism, the authentic mystical experience must demonstrate and be produced by an:

    (1) emphasis on the necessity for readiness/preparation of the soul,
    (2) emphasis on denial of senses/self/ego, often characterized by suffering,
    (3) emphasis on the fruits of the experience and NOT the experience/feeling itself, and
    (4) emphasis on union/relationship with God and NOT the experience/feeling itself.


When referring to the mystical experience, St. Teresa of Avila and Ruysbroeck both use the metaphor of the soul's spiritual betrothal and spiritual marriage to God. This is an apt one. (And perhaps also, it is a way of reconciling the duality of Christian world view with the belief in "the One" at the core of all being.) A marriage requires preparation; it usually takes at least months and often years to enter into, from first meeting to the vows, consummation, and years of love together. A marriage requires sacrifice; two people must "forsake all others" and exhibit selflessness for the other in order to create one life together. A marriage produces love and service for others; for example, it produces children. And, ultimately and most importantly, a marriage is defined as a union of two souls who become one. This union is the core of the nature of a marriage; all else results from it. The feelings of love and romance that accompany the marriage union, while pleasant, do not define it and are merely a side effect; just as the ecstasy of the mystical experience is not the definition of the soul's mystical union with God.

For the Christian mystics, the spiritual betrothal is the moments of spontaneous illumination, the Muslims' "halat", those glimpses of God unable to be recaptured; these can occur before the soul's dark night of suffering. These mystical experiences serve to lead the soul to the spiritual marriage, the more permanent union with God. The spiritual marriage, the Muslims "maqamat", is deeper union in the center of the soul. St. Teresa writes, "There is the greatest difference between all other visions we have mentioned and those belonging to this Mansion, and there is the same difference between the Spiritual Betrothal and the Spiritual Marriage as there is between two betrothed persons and two who are united so that they cannot be separated any more" (Stace 183). The latter only occurs after much time, effort, concentration, devotion, self-discipline and denial, and ultimately, suffering, for it is a kind of death - of the self.


Eckhart writes, "It is up to him to show himself to you or not, according as he knows you are ready for him…" (Stace 151). One cannot simply plunge into a mystical experience unprepared. This point is similar to point 2, for the suffering of the denial of senses and ego is the way of making ready for God's presence. The important thing to remember here is that the mystical union is rarely attained through shortcuts or a few simple meditative techniques. It is slowly worked towards, often over years at a time, often preceded with meditation that is of the mind, or perhaps sparked through images, which while desirable at one point, are later eschewed for the ultimate union, which must be devoid of thoughts or images. Ruysbroeck says that before one can unite with God, one must: (1) empty himself (2) "inwardly cleave to God" with a "burning glowing fire [of love that] can never more be quenched" and (3) "have lost himself in Waylessness and in a Darkness…in which the loving spirit has died to itself" (Stace 164). We see here in Ruysbroeck's second step the imperative quality of the love of God that is discussed in the last point. St. John of the Cross identifies readiness as being: (1) no longer able to mediate "discursively" (2) no longer desiring to think of sense-intellectual objects in meditation (3) and when "the soul delights in being alone, its loving attention fixed upon God in inward peace, quietude and rest" (Stace 192). He says the mystic must "learn" to live in God (Stace 192). He discusses, too, the "secret ladder" (Stace 197), implying that ultimately mystical union with God is a process of growth and preparation - one must climb the ladder, not jump to the top step of the ladder.


St. John of the Cross calls this suffering the "dark night of the soul." Eckhart refers to this as the "barren desert." Dionysius the Areopagite called this the "via negativa" or the "divine gloom." He explains, "For, by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of thyself and all things, though shalt in pureness cast all things aside, and be released from all, and so shalt be led upwards…" (Stace 135). For all the Christian mystics, as well as other mystics, emptiness of soul and renunciation of self is necessary to receive God. Not only senses and thoughts must be spurned, but also "divine enlightenment and voices and heavenly utterances" (136), in order to completely empty the soul.

Essentially , religious ecstasies can be produced by sensory bombardment or sensory deprivation. The sensory bombardment path, (which may include drugs, music, dancing, sexual activity, meditating on or suffusing oneself with beauty) may produce feelings and experiences of a mystical sort, but do not subjugate the self and ego to the will and love of God. Rather, it rewards and soothes, comforts and delights, inspires and elevates, the selfish ego by means of sensual and bodily experience (or even - intellectual means).

Obviously, drugs (such as LSD) rely on and use the body as a means of inducing certain feelings, rather than denying the body stimulation to free the soul for union with God. Once the drug is used, the partaker of the experience is not freed from, but dependent on, the physical world (body chemistry) to create the experience. Physiologically, state-dependent learning occurs; that is, when one learns how to do something in an altered state, one forgets how to do that same thing in sobriety, and must alter one's state (take the drug) to remember and accomplish that activity. The spirit/soul itself has learned little of the path to God then. Some may claim that a drug session or two may open one up to mystical experience and perhaps that is so; still, the real work must be accomplished eventually drug-free.

Drugs are also, obviously a shortcut to ecstasy. In an instant, regardless of one's spiritual state, one can have union with the Universe through a drug trip. Yet, for most of the mystics, much spiritual work and suffering must be done to ready the soul for the presence, infusion of God. While there are some who are naturally predisposed and may have spontaneous mystical experiences, this would be St. Teresa's "spiritual betrothal," guideposts on the path to a more permanent enlightenment and union that takes years of self denial, suffering and inner pain, all for the love of God. The soul is "filled with desolation and aridity" (Stace 191), hungering for, but not yet receiving, the presence of God. For St. John of the Cross, this suffering is preferable "more profitable" than rejoicing and action (Stace 194).

There are many reasons for this necessary suffering, which St. John discusses: One, God's strength is given in the weakness of the soul's emptiness; two, even further purifying of an already emptied soul must occur to make the soul purer, wiser, more cautious; three, God further detaches the soul from all that is not God (a "withdrawal", a "cure"); and four, in its absence of desire for sense stimulation, and in the emptiness thereof, the soul gains even further determination to please God (Stace 194). In other words, despite focusing, meditating, and emptying techniques the mystic uses to create the mystical experience, the suffering must occur for God to finish His work (which is, to completely loosen the hold of ego on the self - a much more arduous task than most realize). It is the sign of the mystic's love of God that he is willing, and intensely desires, to go through the suffering.

With a drug trip, there is no suffering. The soul has done no actual growth, only received the rewards (ecstasy) of feeling one with the All. One senses that a mystical experience of this sort gives lip service to the love of God, that universal love proclamations arising from such an experience are hypocritical, "based on neurotic need, wishful thinking, and self delusion" ( 94) Loving someone when it is easy and there are many rewards takes far less (spiritual) maturity than loving someone when it is difficult and there are many sacrifices (especially the ultimate - one's self). St. John of the Cross writes, "…a soul cannot dispose itself for this union…[it can be done] only by purity and love, that is, by perfect resignation and total detachment from all things for the sake of God alone" (Stace 189). The suffering, the sacrifice is in the name of love of God. Again, the last point (love of God), perhaps the most important point in distinguishing religious ecstasy from authentic mystical union, is again emphasized. Ruysbroeck writes, "And because they have abandoned themselves to God in doing, in leaving undone, and in suffering, they have steadfast peace, and inward joy…." (Stace 171). In this quote, Ruysbroeck places the feelings (peace, joy) as a secondary byproduct of the action of sacrifice and suffering for God.

St. John of the Cross says, "…the soul enjoys no longer food of sense but needs [hungers, desires, suffers for] another kind of food…which imparts to the soul deep spiritual quietude and repose" (Stace 191). Sensory deprivation, that is, silence, sobriety, solitude, not stimulation of senses, is the path of the mystic and the path to love of God.


The Christian mystics especially emphasize that it is the fruit of the experience- love and service to others - that must take precedence over the experience of the ecstatic bliss of oneness with God itself (Stace 131-132). Why? Because there is reward in the experience (ecstasy, and sometimes, pride in the ecstasy), which can be food for the selfish ego, that is not found in simple, tedious, laborious tasks of service, such as mopping floors and feeding the poor. Eckhart explains: "St. Thomas [Aquinas] says that the active life [of good deeds] is better than the contemplative, for in it one pours out the love he has received in contemplation" (Stace 152). This love is characterized, not by emotional effusiveness and bliss, but rather by quiet dignity, exhibiting a selfless servitude and sobriety. "Eckhart tells us that if a man were in a mystical ecstasy and knew of a poor man who needed his help, he should leave his ecstasy in order to go and serve the poor man" (Stace 26). If he merely enjoys his mystical state without service to others, he is guilty of "spiritual gluttony," according to St. John of the Cross (Stace 26). If the mystic has truly given his soul to God, then the most rewarding activity in which he can partake is service to others that arises from his overwhelming love for them. The mystical consciousness produces love not just of God, but of others, because it clarifies that we are all one.


Finally, and most important, the mystic's emphasis is on his Beloved, and his love of and union with the Beloved, not the by-product of that love (the feelings or experience). As soon as the emphasis is removed from the union itself, the uniting with God, and the relationship of awe and reverence and love of God, and once it is placed on the attainment of ecstasy itself, then the focus is on the self, the self's gain through the experience, and the experience becomes a selfish one rather than a selfless, spiritual one. Dr. Timothy Leary writes of the experiential "kick" or ecstasy produced by LSD as equal to the Catholic host, which also gives the same "kick" ( 87). In saying this, he equates the two because of their "kick", that is, ostensibly because of its "flirtation - confrontation - with God" (87), but his tone and emphasis on the LSD experience is more on the wonderful feelings and the ecstatic experience produced and far less on the awe and reverence and love of God found so often in traditional mystic literature. It is as though God has become a tool or instrument to create the experience (thus becoming subordinate to the experience), rather than the self/ego becoming subordinate to God (or the One) where the experience is, as it should be, a mere byproduct. The experience and the feelings should be a side effect, not the goal. The ecstatic experience, if focused on, is an addition to and inflation of the ego. Zen master Harada Roshi writes, "An ancient Zen saying has it that to become attached to one's own enlightenment is as much a sickness as to exhibit a maddeningly active ego" ( 98). The joy and bliss and wonder of, the enlightenment and knowledge gained from, the mystical experience are not wrong in and of themselves; they are beautiful and useful in helping the mystic find his way to true union - in helping the soul find its way home. But they become selfish when placed first. God only and the union with God (which is found through ultimate humility and emptiness of the soul) are first.

The mystical union of the soul with God finds a metaphor in the sexual consummation of marriage; take God out of the picture and one is left only with spiritual masturbation. Leave God in but reduce his importance as second to the ecstasy of the experience, and one has the selfish sexual union which places the pleasure and gratification of self before the union with the other person. Refuse the discipline and commitment of the self denial and suffering necessary for complete spiritual union, and one has merely the premarital sex of spontaneous illumination, rather than the spiritual marriage attained through years of self denial and sacrifice.


_____________________ . "Mysticism and LSD." _______________________. pp. 66 - 111. Stace, W. T. The Teachings of the Mystics. ___________________________, 1960. Woodhouse, Mark B. Paradigm Wars: Worldviews for a New Age. Berkeley: Frog, Ltd., 1996.

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