This post is about the nested stages of mystical experiences.
First, an analogy: everyone knows that not everyone that can stand up can also walk around, but we also know that pretty much everyone that can walk can stand up. And we know that not everyone that can walk can run, but everyone who can run can walk. So, if those four things were all that we any of us knew about standing, walking, and running, then, just from those facts alone, we could make up a hierarchy – we could interpret that running is a more complex and advanced behavior than walking, and that walking is more complex and advanced than standing.
Similarly, years ago, there was a study done about mystics, saints, and great spiritual teachers throughout history. The researchers read the writings and went over their teachings of these folks, and found that there seemed to be a nested hierarchy of mystical and spiritual experiences. And they figured this out because all of the great beings had the most basic level of unitive experience, but only some of them had the next level, and only some of those had the next level, and so on. The higher one went up in the hierarchy, the few numbers of great beings seemed to have experienced that next stage.
Using that methodology, they determined that a trans-human mysticism is the most ground-floor, basic form of mysticism; it’s apparently the one thing that has been experienced by all the great spiritual folks that the researchers examined.
First though, before entering the ground floor of expanded consciousness, we need to walk through the front door. The mystical journey starts for all of us with regular, everyday life, the mindstate in which we spend most of our time: for most people reading this, that mindstate is probably full of money and work, love and sex, food, health, family and friends, keeping the house clean and doing the laundry, meetings and calendar appointments, news and politics, travel and vacations, music and movies, creativity and psychology, working out and showering afterwards, big life choices, emotions, anxiety and depression, addictions, and suffering.
A trans-human mystical experience happens when we drop a little deeper and expand a little bigger than our normal everyday life, however, and we have a heart-bursting sense of the unity and interconnectedness of all of humanity. Sometimes this happens after having some sort of deep, emotionally open community experience, after reading deep poetry or reading an in-depth, emotional story of the life of someone on the other side of the world, a near death experience or the death of someone important to us, or while looking down on a city from a tall building or while flying above in an airplane. We feel, wow, all humans have joys and sorrows like me, we all do the best we can every day, there is a thread of connection and shared humanity that runs through me and through the heart and soul of every person on the planet, we’re all in this together, and we are all part of one pulsing, alive meta-organism of the human species.
Nature/Biosphere mysticism is the next most advanced experience, one where we feel a vibrant unitive radiance not just with all other humans, but with all of the living world. An example of this is going for a walk in the woods, and feeling a beautiful connection and harmony with the birds, the insects, the squirrels, the trees, and the ferns. It is the level of mystical experience of Walt Whitman, John Muir, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it’s an inspiration for many environmentalists. Many people who get out of the city and out into nature to hike or camp as often as possible are going to experience this level of reality.
I have been told by a couple friends that they feel that some people have a nature mysticism which excludes humanity (for example, feeling deeply connected to trees, birds, squirrels, and ferns while hiking, but feeling separate from the other human hikers) before either a trans-humanity mysticism or a nature mysticism which includes humanity too. So, maybe there are two first-level mystical experiences – human-only and nature-only – before the next level, human-and-nature.
The next most evolved form of mystical experience is prana/chi/Holy Spirit mysticism. This means, feeling energetically connected and interwoven with everything one sees, hears, and experiences, whether it is “alive” or not. An example of this would be, walking in the woods, and feeling a subtle, pulsating, interconnected Divine energy humming, swirling, and flowing not just through oneself and through the other humans, animals, and plants, but also though the rocks and dirt, the walls and buildings, the streams and ponds, the wind, and the clouds, sun, moon, and stars above.
The next most evolved is Divinity mysticism. This means having a sense of a numinous Divinity, a transcendent Divine Deity of pure consciousness and pure love that is the dreamer of the dream that is the universe that we normally perceive ourselves living in. A mystic on this level experiences a benevolent, wise, and deep “presence” generating and saturating the unitive, buzzing flow of chi of the phenomenal, visible world, but is also somehow beyond or more than that.
Monotheistic religions are inspired by this level of mysticism. Unfortunately, some people who engage such religions have not had a complete direct mystical experience themselves, but instead more work with the written record of the Deity mystical experience had by Jesus, Paul, Mohammad, Moses, and Abraham. But such beings as Aquinas, St Theresa of Avila, and Rumi are examples of people who did, it would seem, have the full raw, real, direct experience of Divine mysticism, outside of books and teachings. (And I suspect most monotheists have had such experiences at times, even if just fleetingly once or twice)
A fifth form of mysticism, a rarefied and highly evolved state, is being in touch with the Cosmic Void, the dream-like insubstantial nature of everything. If this world is a dream in the Divine God/Goddess consciousness/love mind/heart – well, where do dreams exist? Nowhere. What are dreams made out of? Nothing. If a dreamer doesn’t have a body, do they actually exist? And if the dreamer doesn’t exist, then how can the dream exist? In Buddhism, this is called “Emptiness”, or Shunyata (which is also the Sanskrit and Hindi word for the number “zero”). And the experience in this stage is of the world having a transparency, ephemerality, or diaphanous nature, like a flicker of lightening that comes and goes, or like a hologram.
There’s a coldness if a person stays stuck here at this level of mystical experience. In Buddhism, it’s called a “Pratyeka Buddha“, or a “Private Buddha” – someone who has achieved spiritual release and freedom for themselves and themselves alone, and now sees the normal world just as fake and meaningless. The popular spiritual writer Jed McKenna seems to me to be stuck in this stage.
The final, most evolved form of mysticism is what is often called “Nonduality“. This ineffable term can be defined as a mystical person experiencing the integration and simultaneous unitive identity of normal life, human, nature, world, transcendent Divinity, and Void, all at once. The Dreamer is the Dream is the Dreaming, and it’s all Divine, and all the different levels are “at one”. The idea here is, the saint who is fully immersed in a non-dual mystical experience is able to slide between all of the “different” levels of reality effortlessly and with ease, with total freedom, feeling an immense spaciousness combined with a rich fullness, with no viscosity and no getting caught anywhere, and with no force or compulsion.
The motivation of people who live in the Nondual is often to help other folks who are caught in pre-mystical illusion to wake up and get free, like Morpheus in “The Matrix” offering Neo the red pill. This is true “Enlightenment” – the reality, it seems to me, of The Buddha, Eckhart Tolle, Jesus of Nazareth, and Ramana Maharshi.
According to the researchers, only a tiny, tiny number of mystics evolve to the point where the pass through all five increasingly rarefied levels and then take the sixth and final step of integrating them all together and reaching out to other beings in compassion.
This post is drawn from research that I heard Ken Wilber talk about in his Kosmic Consciousness audio program, but that I cannot now find the exact location of (so, cannot find the name of the researchers).
I was inspired to write about this in part because a few friends posted the meme below to Facebook, and I’ve seen it elsewhere on the web:
I get that this guy was criticizing unthinking, unevolved following of Christianity/Islam/Judaism, people who follow religious teachings without having had the personal experience that the teachings come from. And of course pollution and environmental damage suck, and of course a few people seem to not care about it because they are focused on “The Next World”.
From the perspective of the six stages of mystical experience, though, this guy is at the second level, nature mysticism, and he’s criticizing level four, Divinity mysticism. It is like twelve year old criticizing the world of adults – it’s someone less evolved criticizing something that they do not yet understand. Nature is indeed God. But if one leaves it at that, and asserts that Nature is the only Divinity and that there is no transcendence beyond that, then the theory of nested stages of mysticism says that that perception is a relatively more primitive form of mystical spirituality.