Editor’s Introduction: This is submitted anonymously by a graduate researcher in the field of psychology.
My Awakening and Mystical Experience Story:
If I reflect on it sincerely, my spiritual awakening probably began with a parent’s death when I was a young child. Although at the time I was still yet to go through the process of giving up my naive childhood religious faith for the default alternative of atheistic scientific materialism, and then finding my way to a broader spirituality later, this was a beginning, an event that in some sense set me apart from my peers, and positioned me to seriously consider things that most people only begin to face with their own impending mortality, later in life.
In the words of one near-death experiencer, who asked the beings of light she was communing with during her NDE why her own child was destined to die before reaching full adulthood, their response was, “Beauty comes of all things.” This can be a difficult pill for many to swallow, but I believe it is true. All our suffering is the fertile soil from which blossoms of consciousness evolution eventually grow.
As just alluded to, the spiritual aspect of my early development afterward consisted of losing my childhood Protestant Christian faith during the transitionary period into adolescence, when my rational faculties came online, followed by a period of discovering evidence to convince me that materialism is also wrong. I particularly found near-death experiences convincing, which, the internet still being nascent at the time, I actually learned about in books from the library. This all took place over the span of my adolescence. I discovered enough evidence to persuade me that there was most likely a spiritual dimension to reality, which also sparked an interest in other related nonordinary phenomena and Eastern philosophies, in my mid-teens going forward.
These life processes merely serve as the context for the true highlight and crescendo of my spiritual awakening story, however, which was my mystical experience at the age of 17, facilitated by psilocybin. I have since had other experiences with profound or transcendental implications or dimensions, but never one so intense and transformative as this one, which took place around 17 years ago, at the time of this writing.
It began with a friend and I consuming the neural catalyst, which in hindsight was done somewhat haphazardly, though not entirely so. Sparing the reader the less relevant earlier phases of the experience, which were more-or-less typical of such occasions, a moment came later on when my mind had reached such a state of liquefication that I could not even make sense of what was in front of me, and in a downward internal spiral in the fetal position, I felt certain that I had gone permanently insane, and began to envision the implications of this, including my family having to place me in a mental health facility, etc. Again, not so unusual for a “bad trip.”
The point at which it became unusual, however, was when I decided that I would rather die. At this moment, a change came over me, everything stopped, and I could see my heart beating, with a blue-purple or indigo vision. From this breaking point forward, I was in a very different state from normal embodied awareness. My ruminations had ceased, and it simply felt very different from anything remotely resembling my normal state. I watched my heart beating, and I somehow knew that I could stop it if I wanted to. With that realization, another transition took place, which I do not have a clear memory of. Interestingly, it is only the transitions that I have difficulty remembering.
What I do remember next is flying at an extremely high speed through various twisting and turning “hyperspace tunnels,” or in other words bright, multi-colored, hyper-real tunnels, as if there were a gargantuan hyperdimensional plumbing system down which I had been flushed. I did not have any sense of being in control of this, I seemed to simply be flying through them, like a passenger on a roller coaster ride, too stunned or absorbed in the intensity of the experience itself to even have the slightest thought of stopping, or to question what the nature of this experience was. To do so would have been like pondering the engineering behind a roller coaster while riding it, practically unthinkable to anyone not desensitized to the scenario.
I also had no sense of embodied existence, it was as if I had left my body, but not floating above and seeing my body below, as in NDEs. Rather, it was as if I had passed into another dimension entirely, via some sort of portal or wormhole within myself. The “me” that was passing through the tunnels seemed to simply be a point of view. Shortly after the experience, I conceptualized this by saying I went “elsewhere” or “nowhere,” because it didn’t seem to have anything to do with time and space as we know it, nor the embodied modus operandi by which we typically know it.
The next transition is also fuzzy, but I think it involved a gradual brightening of the tunnels as if at the end of this hyperspace maze, I was emerging into some sort of very bright light, and so as I approached the end, the tunnels became more and more bright. This transition, like the other, is vague in my memory, and it’s possible I unconsciously concocted it retroactively to fill in the gap, I’m unsure.
Next was being in the Light itself, which I do remember quite clearly, if somewhat “ineffably,” and which therefore requires careful description. I will attempt to stay true to the experience as I remember it and to be clear when I am speaking metaphorically or literally.
I typically call it an ocean of Light, which is probably not a terrible description, although this metaphor should be used with some caveats. It wasn’t like the ocean in the sense that I could see a distance in it, the way you can see in the ocean, so not a space per se. However, it was oceanic in the sense of being all-encompassing, boundless, and vast; there was nothing but this light, and some kind of subtle forms within it, to be described shortly. It also did not have the sense of emptiness that the ocean does, it was quite full, seemingly packed with something, a plenum rather than a void; but a plenum of what? Love? Information? Pure possibility? Blissful Radiance? The Bright Mind of God? Any of these descriptions might elicit appropriate imaginal approximations in the mind of the reader. All I have is a memory, what it was like, and my thoughts afterward which attempt to fit it into some meaningful structure of understanding.
Another useful tool to imagine what it was like is to use the sun, as we experience it when looking at it in the sky. When the sun is relatively high in the sky, you can look at it briefly before it begins to hurt, and what you see is a disc of the maximum luminosity that your eyes are capable of taking in. We have all seen this. Take that quality of maximum luminosity that is seen in the sun’s disc in the sky, and imagine instead that you are inside an ocean of that same quality, like being inside of the sun. Being at the center of the sun, in that sense, would be akin to being in an ocean of maximum luminosity, experientially. This is a useful imaginative tool to approximate what it was like, at least visually.
However, the visual brightness (if “visual” is even the right word for that ethereal Luminosity) was only one facet of the experience. What was far more significant was the state of being, which I can only attempt to describe. For one thing, I had no definite sense of self with boundaries, as we normally do, that sense that we are a point within a matrix of space and time. Using emotional language, the closest word is probably “Bliss.” However, there was no sense of being a self feeling blissful, there was no sense of “me.” There was only this ocean of blissful luminosity, which I was a part of, or merged with, was one with. So, again unlike the ocean, I was not a point in space, and it was not perceived to be a space. Rather, it was something very difficult to describe, and the metaphor of ocean or space is only useful because it captures the sense of vastness, boundlessness, infinity.
This experience allowed me to later understand metaphors from nondual Eastern teachings describing our soul or consciousness as being like a drop of water in relation to the ocean, and self-realization being a merging of that drop back into the ocean. I don’t recall hearing that metaphor before the experience (though I might have), but when I heard it after, it made sense in the context of my experience. Another way to describe the way it felt is completeness. It was as if it were the maximum possible experience of everything positive, again, an infinite plenum.
Another characterization provided by the Eastern traditions seems quite appropriate to me, that the Light seems like the essence of consciousness, the essence of existence, the essence of all positive feeling, bliss, very much reinforcing what in Vedanta and Yoga is described as Sat-Chit-Ananda, existence-consciousness-bliss. I can see very much why it would be described that way, although no words can do it justice. It was as if experiencing the essence of consciousness, existence, and bliss, of which all our mundane experiences of these phenomena are merely shadows, or like a raindrop on the tongue compared to the ocean. All of these metaphors I would later hear in the Eastern traditions made perfect sense, based on my experience, so I haven’t found them as difficult to understand as some others might.
However, these are conceptualizations that occur after the fact, useful to relate the experience and fit it within a conceptual framework of reality, but merely concepts. In the actual Light itself, none of these ideas occurred to me, no ideas whatsoever occurred. I was not in a state of mentation at all, but rather of utter Bliss, Ecstasy, Infinity, Pure Being.
While there was no sense of being the normal finite self within an experiential space that we normally have, there were forms in that Light; I would not want to give a false impression that it was purely formless, as if a featureless brightness. However, these forms are only the vaguest memories for me, and I get the sense that this is because they were something beyond what can properly fit into my mundane mind. I can say that they were faint in the light, as if made of very light pastel colors that only minimally shaded or colored the light with form or differentiation. They were also abstract, with no clearly definable figures, certainly no human-like forms, but the closest thing I could tell you to imagine might be translucent, pastel abstract forms free-floating in an ocean of light. I realize that’s quite vague, again, likely because it was something beyond what I or we can conceptualize with these meat brains.
There were also tones. The best way I can think of to describe them is complex perfect tones; I suppose I could say “angelic harmonies” but this may give too much anthropomorphic flavor, I did not perceive that anything was singing, but rather that these pure vibrational tones were simply ambiently present in the Light, seemingly a part of it, somehow, as were the more visual forms. It was all one essence, one light, and these forms and tones were somehow just a part of it. I can’t explain or describe it beyond that.
Other than attempting to describe these qualities, there is not much to report by way of events, since no events really “happened” there (nor likely do they ever), other than Being in this Infinite Blissful Luminosity. However, when the light began to fade, I could feel myself slipping back into my body, and do not recall taking the same tunnels back, but rather the light simply began fading, and I began to become gradually more aware of the body and to gently ease into it. Slipping back in is very much how it felt, like the hand sliding into a glove. In fact, I recall twitching my fingers as I came out of this sort of paralysis, feeling almost as if I were putting them on, like a glove, and getting the fit right.
The most prominent immediate after-effect was a warm afterglow which lasted some weeks or months, and an increased sense of spiritual connection and security. For a few months, I was like a fresh soul. I knew, after this, that I was not my body, that I was something far, far beyond this minuscule creature. Actually, among other things, this helped clear up an unhealthy relationship I had with food. Previously, I had had an addictive pattern with food, where I would unconsciously eat for comfort or to make me happy, leading to unnecessary weight gain, which is quite a common problem, especially in the United States. After this, I did not have this problem, I saw that food is merely fuel/nutrition and did not look to it for happiness, and the fact that this change came specifically from realizing that the body is merely a vehicle is perhaps interesting.
I also grew closer to Christ and made some attempts to connect to the Christianity of my upbringing, but in the end, there were too many doctrines in the churches which I couldn’t agree with. Nevertheless, I have always felt closer to Christ and God because of this experience, even though it doesn’t really resemble anything taught by Christianity, except perhaps a few mentions of God as Light here or there, in the Bible. I have since learned that some mystical Christians highly value light experiences like this, especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as well as in Hinduism and other religions.
Other changes included something I could broadly characterize as “straightening up.” I was a teenager and had been engaging in various unhealthy behaviors in my earlier teen years, including experimenting with drugs in an irresponsible way, and I had become identified with a sort of strange, Hunter S. Thompson-esque persona. I was also fairly depressed, anxious, and overweight. After this experience, I cut my hair, began exercising regularly, stopped wasting my time on video games, began trying harder at school, and generally focused on being the best version of myself I knew how to be, at the time, leaving various adolescent fascinations more or less behind me. This is not to say that I had no problems which continued or that my life became perfect, by any means, but a significant leap in personal growth occurred very naturally after this experience. My awakening continued into my adult years and had various phases I could identify and outline for you, but I feel that this mystical experience and its after-effects are the most interesting and noteworthy part.
As so many who have had experiences like this have said: My life has never been the same. I have no doubt about the existence of a transcendent dimension of myself and reality, and while I may have various creaturely problems having to do with living life in this monkey body with its fears and desires, I have very little underlying existential insecurity. I have also since had a strong sense of purpose, though the specifics of what I should do have not always been clear. I also realize, looking back now, that it took many years of learning to properly understand the experience, and the concepts of Eastern spiritual philosophy have been very helpful in that, particularly Yoga and Vedanta.
A few thoughts on that: if I take the teachings of these traditions and what I have experienced for myself seriously, then the world as we know it would seemingly have to be somehow a manifestation of that Infinite Light of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. How can this be, considering the mundane character of our everyday existence, and what we know from science? How can the lonely existence of each seemingly discrete and isolated object be that grand infinite existence, “in drag?” How can a seemingly individual consciousness such as yours or mine, which seems to be embedded at a specific location in the world (in one’s head, usually), be actually that infinite omnipresent consciousness? How can finite moments of love or happiness be drops of that one great ocean of bliss? As scientists and academics who are attempting to reconcile what we have known through spirituality with what we have known through science, we must inevitably ask ourselves questions like these.
I am not a physicist and not qualified to offer any mathematically satisfying theories, but I can offer a metaphor for your consideration:
Consider a movie projector, the old kind with actual film. Without the film, there is simply light on the screen, but when the film is overlaid and obscures the light here and there, forms are created. The forms which can be generated by these patterns of differential or selective obscuration of the light are virtually limitless (the content of all movies), yet in truth, each one of the people, scenes, and objects in the movies at any given moment are simply composed of the places where the light at that moment is not obscured. In other words, they are made of light, but their forms are defined by the limitation of that light provided by the darkness/obscuration of the film. Concerning the nature of change, when a person or object seems to move on the movie screen, there is in reality no motion of objects, per se, but rather a shift in the selective obscuration of the light beneath.
I find this a useful metaphor for conceptualizing how the spiritual model we seem to be converging on, seemingly some kind of Idealism, and science can be compatible. In this case, space-time being the 4(+)-dimensional film, and all existing things and energy being places where that film’s selective obscuration of the light beneath is relatively reduced, or in other words, where there is some degree of space-time transparency, so-to-speak. Of course, it would be infinitely more complex and multi-dimensional compared to the movie projector, but the metaphor merely serves to illustrate the basic mechanism, a light of infinite existence which is differentially obscured by some sort of illusion of non-existence, the space-time film.
This would be an answer to Hawking’s ponderance, “What breathes fire into the equations,” to which a new question might be posed, “What conceals this fire, and defines its flames with equations?” In this model, the true mystery is not the light of existence, but the seeming non-existence film which partially conceals it. Physicists may not consider these ideas worthwhile given our current models (I don’t know, I’ve not discussed it with any), but to me, it is a model that carries a potential for reconciliation between what we know about the material world from science, and our more spiritual experiences and philosophies.
This model also calls to mind the words of Swami Vivekananda, “This universe is the wreckage of the Infinite upon the shores of time, space, and causation.” Or, if you prefer poetry, in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, stains the white radiance of Eternity.”
Regarding consciousness, as we typically know it (via the body-mind), perhaps it is a unique way for the light beneath to shine through, not merely as existence (as in inanimate objects), but with specific patterns that allow the subtler qualities of the existence-consciousness-bliss essence to manifest in the film-world of 3-d space-time.
In Vedanta, the metaphor of buckets of water in the sun is used to illustrate this. The sun is the infinite essence, buckets are bodies, and water is mind. The light of the sun shines everywhere, the basic existence shared by all objects ultimately coming from the same source, and even the existence of the space between them, but only in the qualities of water is the essence or source reflected, i.e., consciousness, metaphorically appearing as a little sun reflected in the water, an individual point of consciousness embedded in the space-time matrix. Even then, only in perfectly still and clean water is the reflection fully manifest, which we might say is metaphor for states of love, happiness, peace, or perfect bliss at final realization, etc. This is why the goal of Yoga is to still the vrittis, or waves of the mind, so that the essence of perfection may shine through undistorted, which is experienced as bliss. This is metaphorically cleaning out the debris from the buckets of water, and stopping the waves which distort the little sun reflection.
Stepping away from how my experience has informed my conception of reality, if I reflect on how my awakening has culminated in my perspective on life in recent years, I now think of it as being like Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, in that the approach, ideally at least, is to participate in the activity of this life, to serve my purpose and play my part, while simultaneously knowing that it is all an impermanent but beautiful dream, and that what is truly real, what I am and all others most deeply and essentially are, is that Infinite Divine Luminosity which I and many others have touched, or in some cases plunged completely into. What I experienced on that night 17 years ago did very much feel more real, more fundamental, than anything else I have experienced. I have no illusions that I will ever be able to prove my experience’s veracity, or that anyone sufficiently skeptical will find it convincing, but for me, it was. It’s one thing to hear someone else’s experience, it’s quite another to take that plunge yourself.
This is also not to say that I don’t believe in non-physical spiritual domains of existence, such as those heavenly (and hellish) places reported by near-death experiencers, or a personal God; I generally do. Why not? Many scientific minds have more trouble with this than with some infinite absolute, because it is too closely associated for them with “supernatural” religious ideas of angels and demons, which they have worked to distance themselves from culturally. In my opinion, there may well be virtually endless such places (layers of the film?), and vast or miniscule beings dwelling in those places or planes which we can scarcely comprehend.
However, to whatever extent that is true, they are just that: things, and beings, regardless. Subtler things and beings no doubt, from our mundane perspective quite amazing and significant should we have the opportunity to encounter them, but ultimately things and beings with varying degrees of boundaries and limitations, still figures on the movie screen, defined and made finite by the differential obscuration of absolute existence. Beneath all things and beings, even subtle, vast, or unfathomable ones, there is something that is not a thing, something infinite, something that does not have boundaries, something whose essence all are composed of. I believe that is what I experienced that night.
On a more pragmatic level, one way to describe the effect that this has had on my day-to-day experience is to say: In the time since I had this luminous baptism, what lies beyond the boundaries of my finite self and world concept, rather than the mysterious darkness of ignorance (which I would say is the default experiential periphery for humans, at least modern ones), there is instead an effulgent, blissful brightness. Although my remembrance and level of consciousness fluctuate, and I often do get lost in the labyrinthine pathways of the meat-monkey ego mind in various ways, through it all, that luminous context makes all the difference.