Is mystical experience a perception of something real?

Andrew M. Davis has posted a link to an exchange between Rupert Sheldrake and Slavoj Zizek, in which Zizek raises a common objection to the reality of mystical experiences.

This is something I have agonised about at length. After all, when I had my first peak mystical experience, I was a scientific materialist, and my obvious question was to explore what, other than a glimpse into the underlying workings of the universe, which I didn’t think possible, might have prompted that experience. This was despite the fact that the experience itself was very real to me, more real, in fact, than anything else in my experience. I canvassed every potential cause which I or others could come up with. No, I hadn’t taken any mind-expanding substance, I wasn’t in a strong electromagentic field, I wasn’t hungry or sleep deprived, I wasn’t under any psychological stress. And after a visit to my GP, I was reassured that I didn’t have any of the brain abnormalities known to produce such experiences (such as temporal lobe epilepsy), nor any psychological conditions (such as schizophrenia) which apparently do likewise.

But this was not a type of experience which others around me could testify to. Indeed, it was some years before I met someone else who had had a similar experience. I’ve written elsewhere about my attempts to find both a language of expression to talk about it (which I found in the writings of mystics) and a way of repeating it (which I’ve never found a wholly reliable way of doing).

So, was this (as Zizek seems to say) something which was nothing but an anomalous brain state? In the case of Sheldrake, his was at least initially produced by a mind-expanding substance, so the challenge has more “bite” to it. But mine wasn’t.

I found significant assistance from considering my own eyesight. I’m short-sighted. I can’t see much detail in things more than a few feet from me, and the far distance is just a blur. I could go and get laser surgery, which providers assure me would let me see things I couldn’t otherwise see with clarity – that would be an external interference with my perceptual apparatus producing a change in my perception. As it happens, I haven’t done that, but I wear spectacles for any activities which need me to see clearly at any distance – and that is another, temporary, interference with my perceptual apparatus.

I’ve also noted that by applying slight pressure to the side of my eyeball, I can bring things into focus which would otherwise be unclear – clearly I’m slightly changing the focal length of my eyeball in the process.

The thing is, I don’t write off things I see this way or by wearing specs which I wouldn’t otherwise be able to see as being merely products of interference with my perception. I therefore ask myself why I should write off mystical experiences, however they are arrived at, as merely products of interference with people’s perceptions. I will rather hold to the idea that, for some reason unknown, I suddenly became able (on fairly rare occasions) to perceive something real, but which was normally beyond my perception.

Mostly, it’s more analagous to wearing specs or deforming the eyeball, but some traces of that perception have never gone away. I cannot see existence other than in that light, ever since that day in August 1967 – and that makes it, at least a little, analagous to the laser surgery.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.