Deautomatization  and the Mystic Experience

Arthur J. Deikman*

   To study the mystic experience one must turn initially to material that appears unscientific, is couched in religious terms, and seems completely subjective. Yet these religious writings are data and not to be dismissed as something divorced from the reality with which psychological science is concerned. The following passage, from "The Cloud of Unknowing," a fourteenth-century religious treatise, describes a procedure to be followed in order to attain an intuitive knowledge of God. Such an intuitive experience is called mystical because it is considered beyond the scope of language to convey. However, a careful reading will show that these instructions contain within their religious idiom psychological ideas pertinent to the study and understanding of a wide range of phenomena not necessarily connected with theological issues:

     . . . forget all the creatures that ever God made and the works of them, so that thy thought or thy desire be not directed or stretched to any of them, neither in general nor in special .... At the first time when thou dost it, thou findst but a darkness and as it were a kind of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God . . thou mayest neither see him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel him in sweetness of love in thy affection . . if ever thou shalt see him or feel him as it may be here, It must always be in this cloud and in this darkness .... Smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love.1

   Specific questions are raised by this subjective account: What constitutes a state of consciousness whose content is not rational thought ("understanding in thy reason'), affective ("sweetness of love"), or sensate ("darkness," "cloud of unknowing")? By what means do both an active "forgetting" and an objectless "longing" bring about such a state? A comparison of this passage with others in the classical mystic literature indicates that the author is referring to the activities of renunciation and contemplative meditation. This paper will present a psychological model of the mystic experience based on the assumptions that meditation and renunciation are primary techniques for producing it, and that the process can be conceptualized as one of de-automatization.


   Accounts of mystic experiences can be categorized as (1) untrained-sensate, (2) trained-sensate, and (3) trained-transcendent. "Untrained-sensate" refers to phenomena occurring in persons not regularly engaged in meditation, prayer, or other exercises aimed at achieving a religious experience. These persons come from all occupations and classes. The mystic state they report is one of intense affective, perceptual, and cognitive phenomena that appear to be extensions of familiar psychological processes. Nature and drugs are the most frequent precipitating factors. James cites the account of Trevor to illustrate a nature experience:

    For nearly an hour I walked along the road to the "Cat and Fiddle," and then returned. On the way back, suddenly, without warning, I felt that I was in heaven  — an inward state of peace and joy and assurance indescribably intense, accompanied with a sense of being bathed in a warm glow of light, as though the external condition had brought about the internal effect  — a feeling of having passed beyond the body, though the scene around me stood out more clearly and as if nearer to me than before, by reason of the illumination in the midst of which I seemed to be placed. This deep emotion lasted, though with decreasing strength, until I reached home, and for some time after, only gradually passing away. 2

   For an example of a drug experience James cites Symonds' description of undergoing chloroform anesthesia:

    . . . I thought that I was near death; when suddenly, my soul became aware of God, who was manifestly dealing with me, handling me, so to speak, in an intense, personal present reality. I felt him streaming in like light upon me . . . I cannot describe the ecstasy I felt. Then, as I gradually awoke from the influence of the anaesthetics, the old sense of my relation to the world began to return, the new sense of my relation to God began to fade 3

   More recent accounts of experiences with LSD-25 and related drugs fall into the same group. 4

   The "trained-sensate" category refers to essentially the same phenomena occurring in religious persons in the West and in the East who have deliberately sought "grace," "enlightenment," or "union" by means of long practice in concentration and renunciation (contemplative meditation, Yoga, and so forth). One example of this group is Richard Rolle, who wrote:

    . . . I was sitting in a certain chapel, and while I was taking pleasure in the delight of some prayer or meditation, I suddenly felt within me an unwanted and pleasant fire. When I had for long doubted from whence it came, I learned by experience that it came from the Creator and not from creature, since I found it ever more pleasing and full of heat. . . 5

   A more elaborate experience is recorded by Julian of Norwich:

    In this [moment] suddenly I saw the red blood trickle down from under the garland hot and freshly and right plenteously. . . . And in the same showing suddenly the Trinity fulfilled my heart most of joy. And so I understood it shall be in heaven without end to all that shall come there. 6

   Visions, feelings of "fire," "sweetness," "song," and joy are various accompaniments of this type of experience.

   The untrained-sensate and the trained-sensate states are phenomenologically indistinguishable, with the qualification that the trained mystics report experiences conforming more closely to the specific religious cosmology to which they are accustomed. As one might expect, an experience occurring as the result of training, with the support of a formal social structure, and capable of being repeated, tends to have a more significant and persisting psychological effect. However, spontaneous conversion experiences are also noteworthy for their influence on a person's life. Typical of all mystic experience is a more or less gradual fading away of the state, leaving only a memory and a longing for that which was experienced.

   Mystics such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, commentators such as Poulain, and Eastern mystic literature in general, divide the effects and stages through which mystics progress into a lesser experience of strong emotion and ideation (sensate) and a higher, ultimate experience that goes beyond affect or ideation. It is the latter experience, occurring almost always in association with long training, that characterizes the "trained‑transcendent" group. The trans-sensate aspect is stated specifically by a number of authors, such as Walter Hilton and St. John of the Cross:

   From what I have said you may understand that visions of revelations by spirits, whether seen in bodily form or in the imagination, and whether in sleeping or waking, do not constitute true contemplation. This applies equally to any other sensible experiences of Seemingly spiritual origin, whether of sound, taste, smell or of warmth felt like a glowing fire in the breast or in other parts of the body, any. thing, indeed, that can be experienced by the physical senses. 7

    . . . that inward wisdom is so simple, so general and so spiritual that it has not entered into the understanding enwrapped or clad In any form or Image subject to sense, it follows that sense and imagination (as it has not entered through them nor has taken their form and color) cannot account for it or imagine ft, so as to say anything concerning it, although the soul be clearly aware that it is experiencing and partaking of that rare and delectable wisdom. 8

   A similar distinction between lower (sensate) and higher (transcendent) contemplative states may be found in Yoga texts. "Conscious concentration" is a preliminary step to "concentration which is not conscious (of objects)."

   For practice when directed towards any supporting-object is not capable of serving as an instrument to this [concentration not conscious of an object] . . . Mind-stuff, when engaged in the practice of this [imperceptible object], seems as if it were itself non-existent and without any supporting‑object. Thus [arises] that concentration [called] seedless, [without sensational stimulus], which is not conscious of objects. 9

   In the transcendent state, multiplicity disappears and a sense of union with the One or with Ali occurs. "When all lesser things and ideas are transcended and forgotten, and there remains only a perfect state of imagelessness where Tathagata and Tathata are merged into perfect Oneness . . . " 10

   Then the spirit is transported high above all the faculties into a void of immense solitude whereof no mortal can adequately speak. It is the mysterious darkness wherein is concealed the limitless Good. To such an extent are we admitted and absorbed into something that is one, simple, divine, and illimitable, that we seem no longer distinguishable from it. . . In this unity, the feeling of multiplicity disappears. When, afterwards, these persons mine to themselves again, they find themselves possessed of a distinct knowledge of things, mare luminous and more perfect than that of others. . . This state is called the ineffable obscurity. . . This obscurity is a light to which no created intelligence can arrive by its own nature. 11

   This state is described in all the literatures as one in which the mystic is passive in that he has abandoned striving. He sees "grace" to be the action of God on himself and feels himself to be receptive. In addition, some descriptions indicate that the senses and faculties of thought feel suspended, a state described in Catholic literature as the "ligature."

   Human variety is reflected in the superficial differences between the various mystic records. However, perusal of these accounts leads one to agree with Marechal when he writes,

   A very delicate psychological problem is thus raised: the consensus of the testimonies we have educed is too unanimous to be rejected. It compels us to recognize the existence in certain subjects of a special psychological state, which generally results from a very close interior concentration, sustained by an intense affective movement, but which, on the other hand, no longer presents any trace of "discursiveness," spatial imagination, or reflex consciousness. And the disconcerting question arises: after images and concepts and the conscious Ego have been abolished, what subsists of the intellectual life? Multiplicity will have disappeared, true, but to the advantage of what kind of unity? 12

   In summary, mystic literature suggests that various kinds of people have attained what they considered to be ex­alted states of mind and feeling, states that may be grouped in three divisions: untrained-sensate, trained-sensate, and trained-transcendent. The most important distinction would appear to be between an experience grounded in customary affect, sensations, and ideations, and an experience that is said to transcend such modalities.


   How is the mystic experience produced? To answer this question I will examine the two basic techniques involved in mystical exercises: contemplation and renunciation.

   Contemplation is, ideally, a nonanalytic apprehension of an object or idea-nonanalytic because discursive thought is banished and the attempt is made to empty the mind of everything except the percept of the object in question. Thought is conceived of as an interference with the direct contact that yields essential knowledge through perception alone. The renunciation of worldly goals and pleasures, both physical and psychological, is an extension of the same principle of freeing oneself from distractions that interfere with the perception of higher realms or more beautiful aspects of existence. The renunciation prescribed is most thorough and quite explicit in all texts. The passage that begins this paper instructs, "Forget all the creatures that ever God made . . . so that thy thought . . . be not directed . . to any of them. . .”  In the Lankavatra Scripture one reads, . . . he must seek to annihilate all vagrant thoughts and notions belonging to the externality of things, and all ideas of individuality and generality, of suffering and impermanence, and cultivate the noblest ideas of egolessness and emptiness and imagelessness. . .” 13 Meister Eckhart promises: "If we keep ourselves free from the things that are outside us, God will give us in exchange everything that is in heaven .... itself with all its powers ....” 14 In Hilton one reads,

    "Therefore if you desire to discover your soul, withdraw your thoughts from outward and material things, forgetting if possible your own body and its five senses. . . "15 St. John calls for the explicit banishment of memory:

   Of all these forms and manners of knowledge the soul must strip and void itself, and it must strive to lose the imaginary apprehension of them, so that there may be left In it no kind of impression of knowledge, nor trace of aught soever, but rather the soul must remain barren and bare, as if these forms had never passed through it and in total oblivion and suspension. And this cannot happen unless the memory be annihilated as to all its forms, if it is to be united with God. 16

   In most Western and Eastern mystic practice, renunciation also extends to the actual life situation of the mystic. Poverty, chastity, and the solitary way are regarded as essential to the attainment of mystic union. Zen Buddhism, however, sees the ordinary life as a proper vehicle for "satori" as long as the "worldly" passions and desires are given up, and with them the intellectual approach to experience. "When I am in my isness, thoroughly purged of all intellectual sediments, I have my freedom in its primary sense . . . free from intellectual complexities and moralistic attachments . . . " 17

   Instructions for performing contemplative meditation indicate that a very active effort is made to exclude outer and inner stimuli, to devalue and banish them, and at the same time to focus attention on the meditative object. In this active phase of contemplation the concentration of attention upon particular objects, ideas, physical movements, or breathing exercises is advised as an aid to diverting attention from its usual channels and restricting it to a monotonous focus. 18 Patanjali comments,

    Binding the mind-stuff to a place is fixed-attention. . . Focusedness of the presented idea on that place is contemplation . . . . This same [contemplation] shining form [in consciousness] as me intended object and nothing more, and, as it were, emptied of itself, is concentration. . . The three in one are constraint. . . . Even these [three] are indirect aids to seedless [concentration]. 19

   Elaborate instructions are found in Yoga for the selection of objects for contemplation and for the proper utilization of posture and breathing to create optimal conditions for concentration. Such techniques are not usually found in the Western religious literature except in the form of the injunction to keep the self oriented toward God and to fight the distractions which are seen as coming from the devil, (The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is a possible exception.20

   The active phase of contemplative meditation to a preliminary to the stage of full contemplation, in which the subject is caught up and absorbed in a process he initiated but which now seems autonomous, requiring no effort. Instead, passivity –- self-surrender  — is called for, an open receptivity amidst the "darkness" resulting from the banishment of thoughts and sensations and the renunciation of goals and desires directed toward the world.

   When this active effort of mental concentration is successful, it is followed by a more passive, receptive state of samadhi in which me earnest disciple will enter into the blissful abode of noble wisdom . . . 21

   For if such a soul should desire to make any effort of its own with its interior faculties, this means that it will hinder and lose the blessings which . . . God is instilling into it and impressing upon it. 22

   It should not be forgotten that the techniques of contemplation and renunciation are exercised within the structure of some sort of theological schema. This schema is used to interpret and organize the experiences that occur. However, mere doctrine is usually not enough. The Eastern texts insist on the necessity for being guided by a guru (an experienced teacher), for safety's sake as well as in order to attain the spiritual goal. In Western religion, a "spiritual advisor" serves as guide and teacher. The presence of a motivating and organizing conceptual Structure and the support and encouragement of a teacher are undoubtedly important in helping a person to persist in the meditation exercises and to achieve the marked personality changes that can occur through success in this endeavor. Enduring personality change is made more likely by the emphasis on adapting behavior to the values and insights associated both with me doctrinal structure and with the stages of mystical experience.

   How can one explain the phenomena and their relation to these techniques? Most explanations in the psychological and psychoanalytic literature have been general statements emphasizing a regression to the early infant-mother symbiotic relationship. These statements range from an extreme position, such as Alexander's, where Buddhist training is described as a withdrawal of libido from the world to be reinvested in the ego until an intrauterine narcissism is achieved  — "the pure narcissism of the sperm"  — to the basic statement of Freud's that "oceanic feeling" is a memory of a relatively undifferentiated infantile ego state. 23 Lewin in particular has developed this concept. 24 In recent years hypotheses have been advanced uniting me concepts of regression and of active adaptation. The works of Kris, Fingarette, and Prince and Savage illustrate this approach to the mystic experience.25 This paper will attempt an explanation of mystic phenomena from a different point of view, that of attentional mechanisms in perception and cognition.


     In earlier studies of experimental meditation, I hypothesized that mystic phenomena were a consequence of a de-automatization of the psychological structures that organize, limit, select, and interpret perceptual stimuli. I suggested the hypotheses of sensory translation, reality transfer, and perceptual expansion to explain certain unusual perceptions of the meditation subjects.26 At this point I will try to present an integrated formulation that relates these concepts to the classical mystic techniques of renunciation and contemplation.

   De-automatization is a concept stemming from Hartmann's discussion of the automatization of motor behavior:

   In well-established achievements they [motor apparatuses] function automatically: the Integration of the somatic systems involved in the action is automatized, and so is the integration of the individual mental acts involved in it. With Increasing exercise of the action its intermediate steps disappear from consciousness. . . not only motor behavior but perception and thinking, too, show automatization . . . .

   It is obvious that automatization may have economic advantages, in saving attention cathexis in particular and simple cathexis of consciousness in general. . . . Here, as in most adaptation processes, we have a purposive provision for the average expectable range of tasks.27

   Gilland Brennan developed the concept of de-automatization:

   De-automatization is an undoing of the sold. automatizations of apparatuses  — both means and goal structures  — directed toward the environment. De-automatization is, as it were, a shake-up which can be followed by an advance or a retreat in the level of organization. . . . Some manipulation of the attention directed toward the functioning of an apparatus is necessary if it is to be de-automatized. 28

   Thus, de-automatization may be conceptualized as the undoing of automatization, presumably by reinvesting actions arid percepts with attention.

   The concept of psychological structures follows the definition by Rapaport and Gill:

    Structures are configurations of a slow rate of change . . . within which, between which, and by means of which mental processes take piece . . . . Structures are hierarchically ordered. . . This assumption . . . is significant because it is the foundation for the psychoanalytic propositions concerning differentiation (whether resulting in discrete structures which are then coordinated, or in the increased internal articulation of structures), and because it implies that the quality of a process depends upon the level of the structural hierarchy on which it takes place.29

   The de-automatization of a structure may result in a shift to a structure lower in the hierarchy, rather than a complete cessation of the particular function involved.

Contemplative Meditation

   In reflecting on the technique of contemplative meditation, one can see that it seems to constitute just such a manipulation of attention as is required to produce de-automatization. The percept receives intense attention while the use of attention for abstract categorization and thought is explicitly prohibited. Since automatization normally accomplishes the transfer of attention from a percept or action to abstract thought activity, the meditation procedure exerts a force in the reverse direction. Cognition is inhibited in favor of perception; the active intellectual style is replaced by a receptive perceptual mode.

   Automatization is a hierarchically organized developmental process, so one would expect de-automatization to remit in a shift toward a perceptual and cognitive organization characterized as "primitive," that is, an organization preceding the analytic, abstract, intellectual mode typical of present-day adult thought. The perceptual and cognitive functioning of children and of people of primitive cultures have been studied by Werner, who described primitive imagery and thought as (1) relatively more vivid and sensuous, (2) syncretic, (3) physiognomic and animated, (4) de-differentiated with respect to the distinctions between self and object and between objects, and (5) characterized by a dedifferentiation and fusion of sense modalities. In a statement based on studies of eidetic imagery in children as well as on broader studies of perceptual development, Werner states:

    The image . . . gradually changed in functional character, It becomes essentially subject to the exigencies of abstract thought. Once the image changes m function and be. comes an instrument in reflective thought, its structure will also change. It is only through such structural change that the image can serve as an instrument of expression in abstract mental activity. This is why, of necessity, the sensuousness, fullness of detail, the color and vivacity of the image must fade. 30

   Theoretically, de-automatization should reverse this development in the direction of primitive thought, and it is striking to note that classical accounts of mystic experience emphasize the phenomenon of Unity. Unity can be viewed as a dedifferentiation that merges all boundaries until the self is no longer experienced as a separate object and customary perceptual and cognitive distinctions are no longer applicable. In this respect, the mystic literature is consistent with the de-automatization hypothesis. If one searches for evidence of changes in the mystic's experience of the external world, the classical literature is of less help, because the mystic's orientation is inward rather than outward and he tends to write about God rather than nature. However, in certain accounts of untrained-sensate experience there is evidence of a gain in sensory richness and vividness. James, in describing the conversion experience, states: "A third peculiarity of the assurance state is the objective change which the world often appears to undergo, 'An appearance of newness beautifies every object' . . . ." He quotes Billy Bray: “. . .I shouted for joy. I praised God with my whole heart .... I remember this, that everything looked new to me, the people, the fields, the cattle, the trees. I was like a new man in a new world." Another example, this one from a woman, "I pled for mercy and had a vivid realization of forgiveness and renewal of my nature. When rising from my knees I exclaimed, 'Old things have passed away, all things have become new.' It was like entering another world, a new state of existence. Natural objects were glorified. My spiritual vision was so clarified that I saw beauty in every material object in the universe. . ." Again, "The appearance of everything was altered, there seemed to be as it were a calm, a sweet cast or appearance of divine glory in almost everything." 31

   Such a change in a person's perception of the world has been called by Underhill, "clarity of vision, a heightening of physical perception;" and she quotes Blake's phrase, "cleanse the doors of perception."32 It is hard to document this perceptual alteration because the autobiographical accounts that Underhill, James, and others cite are a blend of the mystic's spiritual feeling and his actual perception, with the result that the spiritual content dominates the description the mystic gives of the physical world. However, these accounts do suggest that a "new vision" takes place, colored by an inner exaltation. Their authors report perceiving a new brilliance to the world, of seeing everything as if for the first time, of noticing beauty which for the most part they may have previously passed by without seeing. Although such descriptions do not prove a change in sensory perception, they strongly imply it. These particular phenomena appear quite variable and are not mentioned in many mystic accounts. However, direct evidence was obtained on this point in the meditation experiments already cited.33 There, it was possible to ask questions and to analyze the subjects' reports to obtain information on their perceptual experiences. The phenomena the subjects reported fulfilled Werner's criteria completely, although the extent of change varied from one subject to the next. They described their reactions to the percept, a blue vase, as follows: (1) an increased vividness and richness of the percept  — more vivid," "luminous"; (2) animation in the vase, which seemed to move with a life of its own; (3) a marked decrease in self-object distinction, occurring in those subjects who continued longest in the experiments: ". . . I really began to feel, you know, almost as though the blue and I were perhaps merging, or that vase and I were .... It was as though everything was sort of merging. . "; (4) syncretic thought and a fusing and alteration of normal perceptual modes: "I began to feel this light going back and forth;" "When the vase changes shape I feel this in my body," "I'm still not sure, though, whether it's the motion in the rings or if it's the rings [concentric rings of light between the subject and the vase]. But in a certain way it is real . . . it's not real in the sense that you can see it, touch it, taste it, smell it or anything but it certainly is real in the sense that you can experience it happening." The perceptual and cognitive changes that did occur in the subjects were consistently in the direction of a more "primitive" organization.34

   Thus, the available evidence supports the hypothesis that a de-automatization is produced by contemplative meditation. One might be tempted to call this de-automatization a regression to the perceptual and cognitive state of the child or infant. However, such a concept rests on assumptions as to the child's experience of the world that cannot yet be verified. In an oft‑quoted passage, Wordsworth writes:

    There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,

    The earth, and every common sight,

    Time did seem

    Apparelled in celestial light,

    The glory and the freshness of a dream. 35

   However, he may be confusing childhood with what is actually a reconstruction based on an interaction of adult associative capacities with the memory of the more direct sensory contact of the child. "Glory" is probably an adult product. Rather than speaking of a return to childhood, it is more accurate to say that the undoing of automatic perceptual and cognitive structures permits a gain in sensory intensity and richness at the expense of abstract categorization and differentiation. One might call the direction regressive in a developmental sense, but the actual experience is probably not within the psychological scope of any child. It is a de-automatization occurring in an adult mind, and the experience gains its richness from adult memories and functions now subject to a different mode of consciousness.


   The de-automatization produced by contemplative meditation is enhanced and aided by the adoption of renunciation as a goal and a life style, a renunciation not confined to the brief meditative period alone. Poverty, chastity, isolation, and silence are traditional techniques prescribed for pursuing the mystic path: To experience God, keep your thoughts turned to God and away from the world and the body that binds one to the world. The meditative strategy is carried over into all segments of the subject's life. The mystic strives to banish from awareness the objects of the world and the desires directed toward them. To the extent that perceptual and cognitive structures require the "nutriment" of their accustomed stimuli for adequate functioning, renunciation would be expected to weaken and even disrupt these structures, thus tending to produce an unusual experience.36 Such an isolation from nutritive stimuli probably occurs internally as well. The subjects of the meditation experiment quoted earlier reported that a decrease in responsiveness to distracting stimuli took place as they became more practiced. They became more effective, with less effort, in barring unwanted stimuli from awareness. These reports suggest that psychological barrier structures were established as the subjects became more adept.37 EEG studies of Zen monks yielded similar results. The effect of a distracting stimulus, as measured by the disappearance of alpha rhythm, Was most prominent in the novices, less prominent in those of intermediate training, and almost absent in the master38 It may be that the intensive, long-term practice of meditation creates temporary stimulus barriers producing a functional state of sensory isolation.39 On the basis of sensory isolation experiments it would be expected that long-term deprivation (or decreased variability) of a particular class of stimulus "nutriment" would cause an alteration in those functions previously established to deal with that class of stimuli.40 These alterations seem to be a type of de-automatization, as defined earlier  — for example, the reported increased brightness of colors and the Impairment of perceptual skills such as color discrimination.41 Thus, renunciation alone can be viewed as producing de-automatization. When combined with contemplative meditation, it produces a very powerful effect.

   Finally, the more renunciation is achieved, the more the mystic is committed to his goal of Union or Enlightenment. His motivation necessarily increases, for having abandoned the world, he has no other hope of sustenance.


   Granted that de-automatization takes place, it is necessary to explain five principal features of the mystic experience: (1) intense realness, (2) unusual sensations, (3) unity, (4) ineffability, and (5) trans-sensate phenomena.


   It is assumed by those who have had a mystic experience, whether induced by years of meditation or by a single dose of LSD, that the truthfulness of the experience is attested to by its sense of realness. The criticism of skeptics is often met with the statement, "You have to experience it yourself and then you will understand." This means that if one has the actual experience he will be convinced by its intense feeling of reality. "I know it was real because it was more real than my talking to you now." But "realness" is not evidence. Indeed, there are many clinical examples of variability in the intensity of the feeling of realness that is not correlated with corresponding variability in the reality. A dream may be so "real" as to carry conviction into the waking state, although its content may be bizarre beyond correspondence to this world or to any other. Psychosis is often preceded or accompanied by a sense that the world is less real than normally, sometimes that it is more real, or has a different reality. The phenomenon of depersonalization demonstrates the potential for an alteration in the sense of the realness of one's own person, although one's evidential self undergoes no change whatsoever. However, in the case of depersonalization, or of de-realization, the distinction between what is external and what is internal is still clear. What changes is the quality of realness attached to those object representations. Thus it appears that (1) the feeling of realness represents a function distinct from that of reality judgment, although they usually operate in synchrony; (2) the feeling of realness is not inherent in sensations, per se; and (3) realness can be considered a quantity function capable of displacement and, therefore, of intensification, reduction, and transfer affecting all varieties of ideational and sensorial contents.42

   From a developmental point of view, it is clear that biological survival depends on a clear sense of what is palpable and what is not. The sense of reality necessarily becomes fused with the object world. When one considers that meditation combined with renunciation brings about a profound disruption of the subject's normal psychological relationship to the world, it becomes plausible that the practice of such mystic techniques would be associated with a significant alteration of the feeling of reality. The quality of reality formerly attached to objects becomes attached to the particular sensations and ideas that enter awareness during periods of perceptual and cognitive de‑automatization. Stimuli of the inner world become invested with the feeling of reality ordinarily bestowed on objects. Through what might be termed "reality transfer," thoughts and images become real.43

Unusual Percepts

   The sensations and ideation occurring during mystic de-automatization are often very unusual; they do not seem part of the continuum of everyday consciousness.

   "All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame colored cloud."44 Perceptions of encompassing light, infinite energy, ineffable visions, and incommunicable knowledge are remarkable in their seeming distinction from perceptions of the phenomena of the "natural world." According to mystics, these experiences are different because they pertain to a higher transcendent reality. What is perceived is said to come from another world, or at least another dimension. Although such a possibility cannot be ruled out, many of the phenomena can be understood as representing an unusual mode of perception, rather than an unusual external stimulus.

   In the studies of experimental meditation already mentioned, two long-term subjects reported vivid experiences of light and force. For example:

    . . . shortly I began to sense motion and shifting of light and dark as this became stronger and stronger. Now when this happens it's happening not only in my vision but it's happening or it feels like a physical kind of thing. It's connected with feelings of attraction, expansion, absorption and suddenly my vision pinpointed on a particular place and . . . I was in the grip of a very powerful sensation and this became the center 45

   This report suggests that the perception of motion and shifting light and darkness may have been the perception of the movement of attention among various psychic contents (whatever such "movement" might actually be). "Attraction;" "expansion; . " absorption;' would thus reflect the dynamics of the effort to focus attention  — successful focusing is experienced as being "in the grip of" a powerful force. Another example: " . when the vase changes shape . . . I feel this in my body and particularly in my eyes . . . there is an actual kind of physical sensation as though something is moving there which recreates the shape of the vase."46 In this instance, the subject might have experienced the perception of a resynthesis taking place following de-automatization of the normal percept; that is, the percept of the vase was being reconstructed outside of normal awareness and the process of reconstruction was perceived as a physical sensation. I have termed this hypothetical perceptual mode "sensory translation," defining it as the perception of psychic action (conflict, repression, problem solving, attentiveness, and so forth) via the relatively unstructured sensation of light, color, movement, force, sound, smell, or taste.47 This concept is related to Silberer's concept of hypnagogic phenomena but differs in its referents and genesis.48 In the hypnagogic state and in dreaming, a symbolic translation of psychic activity and ideas occurs. Although light, force, and movement may play a part in hypnagogic and dream constructions, the predominant percepts are complex visual, verbal, conceptual, and activity images. "Sensory translation" refers to the experience of nonverbal, simple, concrete perceptual equivalents of psychic action.49

   The concept of sensory translation offers an intriguing explanation for the ubiquitous use of light as a metaphor for mystic experience. It may not be just a metaphor. "Illumination" may be derived from an actual sensory experience occurring when in the cognitive act of unification, a liberation of energy takes place, or when a resolution of unconscious conflict occurs, permitting the experience of "peace;' "presence;" and the like. Liberated energy experienced as light may be the core sensory experience of mysticism. If the hypothesis of sensory translation is correct, it presents the problem of why sensory translation comes into operation in any particular instance.

   In general, it appears that sensory translation may occur when (1) heightened attention is directed to the sensory pathways, (2) controlled analytic thought is absent, and (3) the subject's attitude is one of receptivity to stimuli (openness instead of defensiveness or suspiciousness). Training in contemplative meditation is specifically directed toward attaining a state with those characteristics. Laski reports that spontaneous mystic experiences may occur during such diverse activities as childbirth, viewing landscapes, listening to music, or having sexual intercourse.50  Although her subjects gave little description of their thought processes preceding the ecstasies, they were all involved at the time in intense sensory activities in which the three conditions listed above would tend to prevail. Those conditions seem also to apply to the mystical experiences associated with LSD. The state of mind induced by hallucinogenic drugs is reported to be one of increased sensory attention accompanied by an impairment or loss of different intellectual functions.51 With regard to the criterion of receptivity, if paranoid reactions occur during the drug state they are inimical to an ecstatic experience. On the other hand, when drug subjects lose their defensiveness and suspiciousness so that they "accept" rather than fight their situation, the "transcendent" experience often ensues.52 Thus, the general psychological context may be described as perceptual concentration. In this special state of consciousness the subject becomes aware of certain intrapsychic processes ordinarily excluded from or beyond the scope of awareness. The vehicle for this perception appears to be amorphous sensation, made real by a displacement of reality feeling ("reality transfer") and thus misinterpreted as being of external origin.


   Experiencing one's self as one with the universe or with God, is the hallmark of the mystic experience, regardless of its cultural context. As James puts it,

   This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the Individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states 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. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterance an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates languages, and they do not grow old.53

   I have already referred to explanations of this phenomenon in terms of regression. Two additional hypotheses should be considered: On the one hand, the perception of unity may be the perception of one's own psychic structure; on the other hand, the experience may be a perception of the real structure of the world.

   It is a commonplace that we do not experience the world directly. Instead, we have an experience of sensation and associated memories from which we infer the nature of the stimulating object. As far as anyone can tell, the actual substance of the perception is the electrochemical activity that constitutes perception and thinking. From (his point of view, the contents of awareness are homogeneous. They are variations of the same substance. If awareness were turned back upon itself, as postulated for sensory translation, this fundamental homogeneity (unity) of perceived reality  —the electrochemical activity  — might itself be experienced as a truth about the outer world, rather than the inner one. Unity, the idea and the experience that we are one with the world and with God, would thus constitute a valid perception insofar as it pertained to the nature of the thought process, but need not in itself be a correct perception of the external world.

   Logically, there is also the possibility that the perception of unity does cor­rectly evaluate the external world. As de­scribed earlier, de-automatization is an un­doing of a psychic structure permitting the experience of increased detail and sensation at the price of requiring more atten­tion. With such attention, it is possible that de-automatization may permit the awareness of new dimensions of the total stimulus array  — a process of "perceptual expansion." The studies of Werner, Von Senden, and Shapiro suggest that development from infancy to adulthood is ac­companied by an organization of the perceptual and cognitive world that has as its price the selection of some stimuli and stimulus qualities to the exclusion of others.54 If the automatization underly­ing that organization is reversed, or tem­porarily suspended, aspects of reality that were formerly unavailable might then enter awareness. Unity may in fact be a property of the real world that becomes perceptible via the techniques of medi­tation and renunciation, or under the special conditions, as yet unknown, that create the spontaneous, brief mystic ex­perience of untrained persons.


   Mystic experiences are ineffable, incapable of being expressed to another person. Although mystics sometimes write long accounts, they maintain that the experience cannot be communicated by words or by reference to similar experiences from ordinary life. They feel at a loss for appropriate words to communicate the intense realness, the unusual sensations, and the unity cognition already mentioned. However, a careful examination of mystic phenomena indicates that there are at least several types of experiences, all of which are "indescribable" but each of which differs substantially in content and formal characteristics. Error and confusion result when these several states of consciousness are lumped together as "the mystic experience" on the basis of their common characteristic of ineffability.

   To begin with, one type of mystic experience cannot be communicated in words because it is probably based on primitive memories and related to fantasies of a preverbal (infantile) or nonverbal sensory experience.55 Certain mystical reports that speak of being blissfully enfolded, comforted and bathed in the love of God are very suggestive of the prototypical "undifferentiated state;" the union of infant and breast, emphasized by psychoanalytic explanations of mystical phenomena. Indeed, it seems highly plausible that such early memories and fantasies might be re‑experienced as a consequence of (1) the regression in thought processes brought about by renunciation and contemplative meditation, and (2) the activation of infantile longings by the guiding religious promise that is, "that a benign deity would reward childlike surrender with permanent euphoria."56 In addition, the conditions of functional sensory isolation associated with mystic training may contribute to an increase in recall and vividness of such memories.57

   A second type of mystical experience is equally ineffable but strikingly different  — namely, a revelation too complex to be verbalized. Such experiences are reported frequently by those who have drug-induced mystical experiences. In such states the subject has a revelation of the significance and interrelationships of many dimensions of life; he becomes aware of many levels of meaning simultaneously and "understands" the totality of existence. The question of whether such knowledge is actual or an illusion remains unanswered; however, if such a multileveled comprehension were to occur, it would be difficult  — perhaps impossible  — to express verbally. Ordinary language is structured to follow the logical development of one idea at a time and it might be quite inadequate to express an experience encompassing a large number of concepts simultaneously. William James suggested that "states of mystical intuition may be only very sudden and great extensions of the ordinary 'field of consciousness.' " He used the image of the vast reaches of a tidal flat exposed by the lowering of the water level.58 However, mystic revelation may be ineffable, not only because of the sudden broadening of consciousness that James suggests, but also because of a new "vertical" organization of concepts.59 For example, for a short while after reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire one may be aware of the immense vista of a civilization's history as Gibbon recreated it. That experience can hardly be conveyed except through the medium of the book itself, and to that extent it is ineffable, and a minor version of James's Widened consciousness. Suppose one then read War and Peace and acquired Tolstoy's perspective of historical events and their determination by chance factors. Again, this is an experience hard to express without returning to the novel. Now suppose one could 'see' not only each of these world views Individually but also their parallel relationships to each other, and the cross connections between the individual conceptual structures. And then suppose one added to these conceptual strata the biochemical perspective expressed by The Fitness of the Environment, a work which deals, among other things, with the unique and vital properties of the water molecule.60 Then the vertical interrelationships of all these extensive schemata might, indeed, be beyond verbal expression, beyond ordinary conceptual capacities  — in other words, they would approach the ineffable.

Trans-sensate Phenomena

   A third type of ineffable experience is that which I have described earlier as the "trained-transcendent" mystical experience. The author of "The Cloud of Unknowing;" St. John of the Cross, Walter Hilton, and others are very specific in describing a new perceptual experience that does not include feelings of warmth, sweetness, visions, or any other elements of familiar sensory or intellectual experience. They emphasize that the experience goes beyond the customary sensory pathways, ideas, and memories. As I have shown, they describe the state as definitely blank or empty but as filled with intense, profound, vivid perception which they regard as the ultimate goal of the mystic path.61 If one accepts their descriptions as phenomenologically accurate, one is presented with the problem of explaining the nature of such a state and the process by which it occurs. Following the hypotheses presented earlier in this paper, I would like to suggest that such experiences are the result of the operation of a new perceptual capacity responsive to dimensions of the stimulus array previously ignored or blocked from awareness. For such mystics, renunciation has weakened and temporarily removed the ordinary objects of consciousness as a focus of awareness. Contemplative meditation has undone the logical organization of consciousness. At the same time, the mystic is intensely motivated to perceive something. If undeveloped or unutilized perceptual capacities do exist, it seems likely that they would be mobilized and come into operation under such conditions. The perceptual experience that would then take place would be one outside of customary verbal or sensory reference. It would be unidentifiable, hence indescribable. The high value, the meaningfulness, and the intensity reported of such experiences suggest that the perception has a different scope from that of normal consciousness. The loss of "self" characteristic of the trans-sensate experience indicates that the new perceptual mode is not associated with reflective awareness‑the "I" of normal consciousness is in abeyance.


   A mystic experience is the production of an unusual state of consciousness. This state is brought about by a de-automatization of hierarchically ordered structures of perception and cognition, structures that ordinarily conserve attentional energy for maximum efficiency in achieving the basic goals of the individual: biological survival as an organism and psychological survival as a personality. Perceptual selection and cognitive patterning are in the service of these goals. Under special conditions of dysfunction, such as in acute psychosis or in LSD states, or under special goal conditions such as exist in religious mystics, the pragmatic systems of automatic selection are set aside or break down, in favor of alternate modes of consciousness whose stimulus processing may be less efficient from a biological point of view but whose very inefficiency may permit the experience of aspects of the real world formerly excluded or ignored. The extent to which such a shift takes place is a function of the motivation of the individual, his particular neurophysiological state, and the environmental conditions encouraging or discouraging such a change.

   A final comment should be made. The content of the mystic experience reflects not only its unusual mode of consciousness but also the particular stimuli being processed through that mode. The mystic experience can be beatific, satanic, revelatory, or psychotic, depending on the stimuli predominant in each case. Such an explanation says nothing conclusive about the source of "transcendent" stimuli. God or the Unconscious share equal possibilities here and one's interpretation will reflect one's presuppositions and beliefs. The mystic vision is one of unity, and modern physics lends some support to this perception when it asserts that the world and its living forms are variations of the same elements. How­ever, there is no evidence that separate­ness and differences are illusions (as af­firmed by Vedanta) or that God or a transcendent reality exists (as affirmed by Western religions). The available sci­entific evidence tends to support the view that the mystic experience is one of in­ternal perception, an experience that can be ecstatic, profound, or therapeutic for purely internal reasons. Yet for psychological science, the problem of under­standing such internal processes is hardly less complex than the theological prob­lem of understanding God. Indeed, re­gardless of one's direction in the search to know what reality is, a feeling of awe, beauty, reverence, and humility seems to be the product of one's efforts. Since these emotions are characteristic of the mystic experience, itself, the question of the epistemological validity of that experience may have less importance than was initially supposed.

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