ARE YOU A MYSTIC? – and is mystical experience the same as spiritual experience?

Statue of St Francis

"The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religion." – A Einstein HERE

Some people think that everyone is a mystic – more or less, depending on how you apply yourself, and also according to what ultimate encounters with the Whole that come your way – unlooked for. Others hold that only very special people can be called mystics – St Francis, Rumi , Rabia Basri etc.

I fall into the first group and I feel the same about being a philosopher or a car driver. I enjoy philosophy (and practice it as Lipman’s Philosophy for children/adults when I get the chance) but I’m not Socrates. I enjoy driving but I’m not Lewis Hamilton. Everyday I have an experience that I would call mystical – but I am not one of the great mystics.

I suggest that almost everyone has some sort of experience or encounter with the Whole or God if you prefer than term. The basic requirement is that you forget your self for a while and you sense the Whole rather than your self-assertion to be a wholly self-sufficient and autonomous being. The forgetting of self is illustrated in this 8thC Chinese poem by Li Po;

“The birds have vanished from the sky,

and now the last clouds slip away.

We sit alone, the mountain and I,

until only the mountain remains.”

Whenever I am deeply moved by something true, beautiful or good I forget myself. Such an experience lifts me up, but what are identified as the general characteristics of mystical experience as reported by those who realized them and reported across cultures and down through the ages?

General Characteristics of Mystical Experience

Mystical experiences are marked by all or some of the following feelings/insights;

  • A sense of unity or totality

  • A sense of timelessness

  • A sense of having encountered ultimate reality

  • A sense of sacredness

  • A sense that one can not adequately describe the richness of this experience (i.e. it is ineffable)

NB Most such experiences can last as short as a few seconds or up to a few days.

Which of these can’t equally be called spiritual experience?


Everyone include atheists, theists & agnostics – all have experiences or encounters with the Whole of varying degrees of impact e.g. Eckhart Tolle, the Founders of the great faiths, Saul on the way to Damascus. The question for them and us = what to do with the experiences.

I suggest that we all have basically just two kinds of experience. They are the experience itself and secondly what we make of it. If we see a great film in which we are deeply moved we come out of the cinema holding that experience within, often unable to speak, at least initially. Unless we lock up the experience within ourselves we need to process the experience so as to make use of it, or simply to make living with it more tolerable. This example is prosaic but at the other end of the scale is the mystical experience of those in whose wake the great religions have been founded. They had the mystical experience, and the rest is commentary. The experience is ineffable but the Founders were also great poet-philosophers – so great streams of the sublime experience have been transmitted to us.

The ‘sweet water’ of the Founders commentaries inspires us, and creates the mystical sensibility we gradually develop.

Religions are the form that the ultimate mystical experiences experienced by the Founders take. Religion is the ‘institutionalization’ of the descriptions of such experiences and what the Founders teach from th


But we also have, on a minor scale, such experiences and our lives are the lived commentaries that flow from what we make of such encounters – both the Founders encounters and those that we experience. The mystical and the spiritual are One. If there is a difference it might just lie in the intensity of the experience and in the wholeness of our response in living the life to which we are called.


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