There are significant differences between the doctrines of the world’s various religions. These differences should not be ignored or minimized. They will, however, be temporarily set aside here as the focus will be upon the widespread nature of mystical experience rather than upon the divergent aspects of these experiences as they have been reported by adherents to various systems. While the experience of a Hindu mystic in Upanishadic India is undoubtedly different in important ways from that of a Christian mystic in the Egyptian desert of the 5th century, there are definite shared features in the descriptions of each experience which indicate the experiences to be of a similar, even if not identical, nature. It is these similar features which will be focused upon for the purposes of this paper.
In his survey of accounts of mystical experiences, psychologist William James discerned four characteristics shared by all of these experiences. These four characteristics described by James in his Varieties of Religious Experience provide an outline of the criteria by which an experienced can be determined to fit within the category of mystical experience. These four marks are:
1. Ineffability. The experience is indescribable, or nearly so. Words are insufficient to the task of accurately expressing the contents of the experience. This is demonstrated, for example, in the previously discussed experiences of Aquinas and Pascal, and in their mutual inability to articulate their experience without resorting to poetic imprecision.
2. Noetic quality. The experience provides a profound insight into the nature of reality that could not, apparently, be reached through the rational faculties on their own. The sixth century bishop of Rome and Christian mystic Gregory the Great describes, for example, an experience of Benedict of Nursia, the famous founder of European monasticism, in which he described seeing “the whole world … brought before his eyes, gathered together, as it were, in one ray of light.” Benedict’s experience, as described by Gregory, bears a great deal of resemblance to the more ecstatic and extended vision of Arjuna recorded in the Hindu spiritual classic The Bhagavad Gita. There, when God reveals himself to Arjuna, Arjuna is “filled with wonder and his hairs stand on end.” He exclaims,
O Lord of the universe, I see You everywhere with infinite form, with many arms, stomachs, faces, and eyes. Neither do I see the beginning nor the middle nor the end of Your Universal Form.
I see You with infinite power, without beginning, middle, or end; with many arms, with the sun and the moon as Your eyes, with Your mouth as a blazing fire whose radiance is scorching all the universe.
The entire space between heaven and earth is pervaded by You alone in all directions. Seeing Your marvelous and terrible form, the three worlds are trembling with fear, O Lord.
Seeing Your mouths, with fearful teeth, glowing like fires of cosmic dissolution, I lose my sense of direction and find no comfort. Have mercy on me! O Lord of gods, refuge of the universe.
3. Transiency. According to James, “mystical states cannot be sustained for long.” Pascal measured his experience at approximately two hours; Aquinas’s experience occurred during Mass, which indicates it could not have lasted longer than an hour or two; and Arjuna’s experience seems to have been so overwhelming that after only a short duration he pleads for it to end, saying, “O Lord! I am overwhelmed with fear. Please take again the Form I know. Be merciful. O Lord! You who are the Home of the whole universe.
4. Passivity. The experiencer feels as if he is not acting but instead being acting upon by a powerful force external to his own consciousness. This force is so tremendous that he is forced to submit his will to it. In a description of one of his mystical raptures, Augustine of Hippo, for example, begins by claiming that he was “admonished to return to myself … with [God] leading me on.”
In spite of the numerous other differences in form and content exhibited by individual mystical experiences or in mystical experiences which occur in differing cultural and religious contexts, these four marks are shared by all.