Use Yoga Science to Understand Mystical Experiences
I was home alone, walking through the living room, not thinking of anything in particular, when suddenly my consciousness erupted. It no longer ended at the surface of my body but expanded outward, filling the surrounding space. I experienced everything around me as inside me and absolutely identical to myself. I was no longer Linda Johnsen; I was everything. The bliss of that single moment was beyond description.
I suddenly understood that the entire universe is held within an all-pervading, blissful awareness.
It wasn’t “as if” I was the universe. I really “was” the universe. It happened spontaneously, and even though it only lasted a few seconds, I emerged from it changed forever. Any confidence I had in the materialistic scientific paradigm collapsed. So did my naive belief that heaven—the most joyful place I’d heard of before that moment—was a physical site with streets paved in gold. I suddenly understood that the entire universe is held within an all-pervading, blissful awareness. It’s useless for you to argue that I must have been hallucinating or having some kind of epileptic fit. The experience was real. In fact, it was far more vivid than everyday reality and it set me on a lifelong quest to understand exactly what had happened and how I could make it happen again.
I didn’t tell anyone about this experience for years. The possibility of different states of consciousness was not common knowledge when I was a kid and I didn’t think anyone would believe me. And the experience was so profoundly sacred that sharing it seemed like a desecration. But as more people have taken up meditation and begun to explore the inner dimensions of yoga, I’ve “come out of the closet” and have been discussing it with people I trust. One of the surprising things I’ve discovered is that mystical experiences like this one are not as rare as we might think. Scientific study of such alternate states of consciousness is sketchy, but some estimate that at least 10 percent of the population has had a full-blown mystical experience at some point in their lives.
Most of us make the transition between certain states of consciousness so routinely that we take them for granted. For example, in alternate states like deep sleep and dreaming, we experience the universe in a dramatically different way than we do in waking consciousness. No one calls these states mystical because they’re so common. Most of us also have occasional non-ordinary cognitive experiences like telepathy, precognition or déjà-vu. Some of us have even experienced “astral projection,” in which our physical body becomes paralyzed and we feel our center of awareness—but not the body itself—floating upward toward the ceiling. These can perhaps more aptly be called psychic phenomena rather than mystical states.
There are at least five types of experiences that are generally recognized as mystical. Let’s take a look at some of the ones people commonly report and see what yoga science has to say about them.
Pure consciousness is by far the easiest mystical state to access, though maintaining it for any length of time is surprisingly difficult. If you have any inward focus at all, you can reach this state in a split second. Close your eyes, ignore any data your senses are trying to feed you (sounds, smells, etc.), ignore the sensations in your body, ignore your thoughts, and focus exclusively on your inner sense of pure existence. This state is very much like being in deep sleep—because there is absolutely no content in your awareness—except that you’re fully alert, paying attention to nothing other than awareness itself.
Yoga texts describe this state as ananda, a word usually translated as “bliss,” though it doesn’t mean bliss in the sense of intense happiness. Instead, there’s neither happiness nor suffering here, just pure Self-recognition. Sages like Shankaracharya called this condition blissful because when we emerge from it we feel calm and deeply refreshed.
Remaining established in this state is devilishly difficult for beginners because it’s the nature of the mind to be in constant motion—feeding thoughts, images, and feelings to our awareness. It’s hard not to be pulled away by the continual tug of mental activity. Yet some yogis speak of the ability to remain in this state indefinitely, even after the death of the physical body, as liberation. Certainly this condition is free from pain, but it can potentially turn us away from our obligations to others. In some traditions, however, the goal is to remain in this state of pure witnessing awareness even while interacting with the world and living normal, active lives.
The peak experience is readily acknowledged by Western scientists, thanks to the pioneering work of Abraham Maslow and other humanistic psychologists. These Zen satori-like experiences are quite common, though perhaps not as common as most of us would like.
When I was in my late teens, I had a boyfriend who was one of the best-looking human beings I’ve ever seen. One evening as he was changing clothes before we headed out for dinner, he took off his shirt and turned toward me. In that moment my breath stopped. His physical beauty threw me into silent, motionless rapture; that moment felt absolutely perfect. If time had stopped right there I would have been content to gaze at him forever. I had much the same experience many times in Norway as a child, when I would look up and suddenly see the heart-stopping beauty of the mountains and fjords. Great poetry would also lift me into states of pure exaltation. In college, while many of my peers were getting high on drugs, I was tucked away in the library getting high on Wordsworth and Walt Whitman.
Peak experiences are often reported by athletes. In one timeless moment, they feel themselves performing perfectly. In that fragment of time the usual continual bluster of the mind disappears as they’re thrust into the full wonder of the present moment. They don’t feel that they are doing anything; rather, it feels as if the energy of the universe itself is acting through them. They’re no longer assessing their actions or trying to control themselves or anything else, but are totally released to the “just-so-ness” of the universe. Dancers, actors, craftsmen, and even nursing mothers have reported being propelled into this marvelous state.
In the pure consciousness experience, you’re completely present in the moment, but present only to your inner Self. In a peak experience, you’re also perfectly focused in the moment but your senses are directed outward. In both experiences, the sense of well-being is extraordinary.
Throughout history, artists in China and Japan have coveted these moments, claiming their best paintings emerged from them. Such moments are carefully cultivated by martial artists, who try to get their minds out of the way so their well-trained bodies can respond perfectly to any emergency. In the Bhagavad Gita, the yoga master Krishna counsels the archer Arjuna to go into battle with the knowledge that a greater force is acting through him. To win the war, he must surrender to a higher consciousness; his own ego involvement is reduced to the extent that winning or losing is no longer a priority.
With practice, all of life can become a peak experience.
In yoga terminology, the state of living completely naturally—allowing the power (shakti) of your higher Self to flow through you effortlessly, uninterrupted by any mental judgments or reactions—is called sahaja samadhi. With practice, all of life can become a peak experience.
According to the Isha Upanishad, “The seer sees the Self in all beings, and all beings in the Self.” Only someone who has had a unitive experience can fully appreciate how literal this description is. The flash of “cosmic consciousness” I experienced when I was 14 happens more seldom than the first two states of mystical consciousness just described, but bring up the subject in a large group and you’ll almost certainly find at least one person who’s had the experience. In this state the boundary between “self” and “other” dissolves and your individual consciousness merges with the living reality of everything around you, animate and inanimate. There’s a profound sense of coming home, of returning to a unity you suddenly “knew all along” was there, as if you’ve just awakened from a dream.
In India this state is called sarvatma, “all-pervading selfhood.” In it, you’re still aware of external objects, but they’re no longer external to you, they’re inside you. They’re more truly you than your liver or lungs are now. But you aren’t the person you are now; instead you’re limitless being and bliss. To return to who you ordinarily think of yourself as being means imploding back into a frustratingly limited state of consciousness.
Collapsing back into being “Linda Johnsen” was initially a terrible shock. I felt like I’d been kicked out of heaven. But the short glimpse of unity I experienced that day altered my understanding of reality dramatically. When I discovered yoga two years later I knew I had found a path that could help me find my way back to that infinitely expansive state.
The Upanishad ends with these words, “To the seer, all things have truly become the Self. What sorrow can possibly exist for him?”
There’s a specific type of unitive experience that’s described often in mystical literature: the sense of merging into a brilliant white light. This often happens in the near-death experiences (NDEs), popularized by the media. In some accounts, clinically dead patients have reported floating up out of their bodies and seeing a beautiful white light before they were resuscitated. They all say that approaching the light produced a tremendous sense of love, acceptance, and joy.
According to the yoga tradition, this inner light is real. One yogi I interviewed said that after months of intense spiritual practice it appeared to him with near-blinding brilliance. It threw him into a unitive experience just like mine, though it lasted much longer. It’s a pity to wait till you die to experience it.
By now most yoga students have heard of Ammachi, the “hugging saint” from South India who travels the world literally embracing thousands of people with her inexhaustible energy. Ammachi had observed strict spiritual practices as a young woman and one day an intensely bright light appeared before her and merged into her. After that she no longer experienced other people as separate from herself and began her program of non-stop world service. She radiates that light wherever she goes.
The gayatri mantra of the yoga tradition is addressed to this light. It says, “With loving reverence we bow to the divine inner Sun, the most splendid light in all the worlds. Please illuminate our consciousness!”
I saw this light once as a child. I woke up in the middle of the night with an intense sense that someone or something else was present in the room. When I opened my eyes, I saw the blazing white light hovering above me, like a rip in space-time through which an incredibly powerful force was beaming. I had no idea what the light could be and was scared out of my wits. When it started moving toward me I turned away and the light instantly disappeared. I look back on that experience now and groan at my stupidity.
Dissolution of Self
Buddhism describes liberation as nirvana, extinguishing the flame of individual consciousness and dissolving awareness into the void. This void is a real experience in deeper meditative states. In full shunyata, or total emptiness, no vestige of consciousness remains. The closest to this I’ve experienced is general anesthesia during surgery, when, for all practical purposes, any sense of awareness ceased completely. It’s a far deeper unconsciousness than even deep sleep. One of my meditation teachers, a pandit from Banaras, told me that the soul must cross avyakta, the unmanifest reality, in its journey to enlightenment.
Consciousness experiences unmanifest reality as a complete void. For most schools of yoga this is not a final resting place but a stage in the movement of consciousness. On the “other side” of the void, the pandit explained, is an incomprehensible state that can’t be described in any human language, but that is our soul’s source and ultimate destiny.
Nevertheless, the dissolution of self this experience points to does become necessary at a later stage of the game. You can’t permanently embrace the whole until you’ve surrendered the fragment. The way I understand this is that during my brief moment of cosmic consciousness, I had to release “Linda” completely to expand into something infinitely greater. For me it wasn’t a sorrowful renunciation, but an incredibly joyous recognition of the true all-pervading nature of our innermost being. But somewhere in the vastness and ecstasy of that experience, some impurity in my character called out, “Hey, wait, I’m Linda Johnsen!” and instead of merging permanently in that sublime condition, I collapsed back into the very ordinary person I was then and still am today. The choice is always ours.
Genuine mystical experiences may involve either pure subjective consciousness or an entirely outward focus. They may entail total emptiness of consciousness or complete fullness. They can involve brilliant light or a level of awareness utterly beyond any sort of sense perception. But these phenomena are real. When I hear scientists claim that they are merely the result of biochemical interactions in the brain, my reaction is always, “That researcher has never had the experience herself!” To me, it’s as if scientists are proposing that reality TV shows are created by the electronic components of a television set. Undoubtedly, there are changes in the brain when these states occur, but the states themselves point to a higher reality, just as the images we see when we open our eyes point to wave particles of electromagnetic energy striking receptors in our corneas.
Who has these experiences and why?
Who has these experiences and why? Studies have shown that mystical experiences often happen to people with no previous interest or background in spiritual disciplines. The Upanishads say, “The Lord chooses whom he will,” meaning that out of infinite grace, the Divine Being offers these incredible experiences freely for reasons we can’t understand. For myself, it was as unlikely and as shocking as being hit by lightning. And yet, it happened. It was a wake-up call from a higher dimension, an admonition to dive deeper into consciousness and to search out a more complete understanding for myself.
But here’s the sad part: These incredible experiences don’t last long; they vanish as quickly as they appear. That’s the reason the sages gave us yoga, so we would have a way to train and purify ourselves in order to find our way back to those higher states and hold on to them permanently.
I look at the cosmic experience I enjoyed so fleetingly like a free sample offered in a store: If you want more you have to pay for it. The price of higher states of consciousness is lots and lots of spiritual practice. It’s a fantastic bargain!
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.