Mystical experiences may share common elements

mystical_experienceYou’ve probably heard or read somewhere that all religions are different ways of approaching the same truth. This sentiment, while heartwarming, is a controversial one. Of course, conservative adherents to different faith traditions tend to dismiss claims that other religions might offer any glimpses of truth. But the debate is probably fiercest in the academy: one of the biggest arguments among scholars who study religion is whether or not religions actually have anything in common with one another. Now, a new study by researchers in Tennessee and China suggests that they do, at least when it comes to mystical experiences.

Mystical experiences are one of the cornerstones of religious phenomena worldwide. The feelings of profound mystery, unity with all creation, and ecstasy that characterize mystical encounters have inspired Sufi poetry, Hebrew prophetic writings, and medieval theology – not to mention Daoist philosophy and Buddhist sutras. But while the traditions that have sprung up in different regions of the world often feature strikingly divergent practices and beliefs, scholars and writers ranging from William James to Aldous Huxley have noted equally powerful similarities between mystical experiences across times and cultures.

For example, many mystical experiences feature profound feelings of unity with all creation. Mystics suddenly feel the boundaries between themselves and the external world drop away, and an oceanic feeling of oneness takes their place. Or they might encounter a profound sensation of ineffable knowledge – unutterable truths about the deepest secrets of the universe.
In 1960, a researcher named Walter Stace suggested a stable core of eight basic components to mystical experience. In his view, some combination of the core elements characterized every mystical encounter, regardless of culture. The eight components he identified were ego loss; timelessness/spacelessness; total unity; inner subjectivity (a sense that everything in the universe is somehow conscious or aware); positive affect; sacredness; noetic quality (greater knowledge of the cosmos); and ineffability. Other researchers picked up on this model, and, at least in the world of social sciences, it became commonplace to assume that mystical experiences shared a basic underlying essence around the world.
But at the same time, new developments in fields such as literary criticism, religious studies, and philosophy were highlighting the often staggering differences between various cultures. Given the vast gulfs between languages and cultural histories, how could it be possible to really know what a Japanese Zen Buddhist experienced when he reported a feeling of oneness with everything? To scholars in these fields, even today it often seems deeply arrogant to assume that one person’s experience qualifies him or her to understand anything at all about the experience of a person from a different time and place. These writers claim that everything, including mystical experience, is culturally constructed – the product of a unique historical and cultural situation that has little in common with situations elsewhere in the world or in history.
In response to this conflict, Zhuo Chen, Ralph W. Hood, P.J. Watson (all of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga), and Lijun Yang (Southwest University for Nationalities, China) published a research paper recently that challenges both these reductionistic models. Instead of assuming that mystical experiences are the exact same around the world, or that they're totally incompatible social constructions with nothing in common, Chen and colleagues took the middle road. Surveying a large population of Tibetan Buddhist lay practitioners living in China, they found that adherents to Tibetan Buddhism did, in fact, report many of the same core experiences suggested by Stace fifty years ago. However, the Tibetan respondents seemed to interpret those elements differently. For example, since Tibetan Buddhism denies the existence of gods per se, using sacredness or holiness to describe mystical experience didn’t seem to be effective. Instead, a “vertical mysticism” emphasizing a progressive path toward personal enlightenment took the place of holy rapture.
Chen and colleagues took their results to indicate that the basic building blocks of mystical experience are stable across cultures, but that different cultural and historical contexts lead to divergent interpretations of those experiences – often radically so. That is to say, it may feel very similar to have a mystical experience, regardless of whether one is a Tibetan Buddhist or a mainline Protestant. But the stories we tell about those experiences, and the meanings we assign to them, may vary dramatically.
This research is unlikely to put a stop to the argument between the social constructivists and the universalists anytime soon. These positions are deeply entrenched in the academic world, and it’s going to take more than a survey of a few hundred Buddhists to convince anyone, much less the trendsetters in their fields, to change their minds. Still, it’s refreshing to see serious researchers taking a principled stand for the middle way. That there are basic underlying commonalities in human experience seems to make sense, given that all humans share nearly the same genetic code. But these experiences – even the most profound and transformative of them – don’t happen in a vacuum. Culture, language, and religion shape and frame our interpretations of all experiences, including religious ones. It’s at this nexus that biology, culture, and religion find their meeting place.

Editor's note: This subject has been treated previously at, albeit from a somewhat different perspective. Click here for more.