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“The Mystical Experience: Facts and Values” by Claire Myers Owens

Today the mystic state is considered by many Third Force psychologists to be part of the whole process of self-realization. It is often a vital step in the actualization of man’s potentialities—a matter of ultimate concern to every thoughtful person. The value of mystical experience to the individual and to society can be more clearly discerned when viewed in this broader frame of reference.


Most Freudian psychologists, on the other hand, dismiss the mystic state as an illusion. Dr. R. H. Prince of McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry, however, proposes that it is regression in service of the ego, but lays particular emphasis on the hypothesis that it represents regression to the state of early infancy or is often akin to the psychotic state (1). Here we should like to raise the question whether evidence supports these hypotheses. Are not Prince’s conclusions based on superficial resemblances, leaving untouched the values of the experience? Prince, who is a doctor of medicine, had the collaboration of Charles Savage, M. D., an analyst, in the preparation of the paper which he read before a conference held by the R. M. Bucke Memorial Society, under the general subject of “Personality Change and Religious Experience.” In the subsequent discussion, Dr. Walter H. Clark, who has elsewhere (2) written about the central importance of mystical experience to religion, expressed gratitude for the serious attention given this neglected subject. He remarked, however, that when the Freudians point out a few similarities between mysticism and early infancy they believe they have said enough to damn this most intense of all human experiences (3).

It is true that Prince’s paper is persuasive, well documented, and couched in scientific terms. For these reasons it might be devastating to anyone who is on the verge of accepting the validity of mystical experience, and therefore a detailed consideration of his arguments seems warranted.

Even a quick reading of Prince’s paper reveals his bias, for the similarities of the mystic state to the infantile or psychotic state are carefully presented, while the differences are scarcely mentioned. For example, several cases of pathological regression are cited and documented in detail. Then, as examples of regression in service of the ego, are listed sleep, the creative process, the state occurring in psychoanalysis, and the mystical state. Prince questions whether regression occurs in the cortex, or in the archaic area of the brain, and recalls Wilder Penfield’s experiments in stimulating the cortex of an epileptic patient, thus inducing him to re-experience long-forgotten incidents. Further, he suggests that the so-called mystical experience induced by ingestion of LSD offers evidence that the psychedelic chemicals suppress the activity of the cortex, the most highly evolved part of the brain, and activate the more archaic area, leaving the impression that it is obviously retrograde.

As characteristics of the mystical experience, Prince lists a feeling of oneness with nature or Deity, decrease in self-concern and interest in material things, increase in placidity and passivity in adversity. Others which he enumerates in detail, i.e., imperceptivity, participation, renunciation of the world, ineffability, noetic quality, ecstasy and fusion, he regards as regression to an infantile or pathological state. His implication seems to be that the activities of the older brain are ipso facto infantile or psychotic.

These examples may reveal analogous behavior between some cases of infantile regression and pathological states, and some cases of mystical experience. Against these observations, however, it seems only fair to place in evidence innumerable cases wherein the mystical experience has led to permanent transformation of the psyche in the direction of wholeness, health and self-actualization.

It is here that the question of value must be taken into consideration—a question which Prince has largely ignored. It has been shown even in the physical sciences, however, that complete objectivity is unattainable. And in the study of subjective states the problem of value is intrinsic—as indeed it is in everything which touches man closely. One of the greatest scientists, Einstein, reminded us that the scientific method teaches us facts but that the ultimate goal of life and the longing to reach it must come from another source. Our existence acquires meaning only by setting up such a goal with appropriate values (4). Mankind rises or falls according to its value system, as is evidenced by today’s destruction of values and evident increase in mental illness, fear, crime and devastating war. To the humanist, value derives from man’s intrinsic nature; to the religionist, value derives from the eternal ground of being. Both definitions are embraced by mysticism, wherein values are no longer abstractions, but living experience.

Years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote that the person who has had mystical experience is above logic. He has been there; he knows. While it is true that such experience carries its own affirmation, the mystic feels himself intensely one with humanity, and therefore he seeks continuously for ways to communicate to others the realities he has found. He keeps on trying to describe in rational terms what may be beyond reason to comprehend. In the context of our scientific age, therefore, the mystic welcomes the help that science can give to furnish a natural (not a supernatural nor a psychotic) explanation for his intuitive insights. Fortunately, not all scientists regard mystical experience as merely aberrant; some believe it may disclose phases of man’s knowing process.

For is the only valid knowledge scientific or rational? Northrop has indicated that there are two kinds of knowledge: theoretic, which is scientifically verifiable, and aesthetic, which is immediately apprehensible. Complete knowledge requires a synthesis of the two (5).

Thus, to understand mysticism properly, we should have scientific observation and facts, and experiential knowledge, which delivers values. In such an enquiry into subjective states, the personal experience of the mystic—the testimony of a life—should be admissible as valid evidence.

The Unconscious Source

Confusion seems to arise because the contents of the unconscious have not been sufficiently differentiated. The Freudians usually concern themselves with the personal unconscious only, that is, with the upper layer where personal neurosis may occur. As Jung has pointed out, however, there is a deeper level which he called the collective unconscious.

Here is the source of the highest good, of mystical and religious experience; here lie the springs of creativity. Here too is the dark seat of psychosis. And it may be said that at birth the infant is immersed in this collective unconscious (6, 7). It is obvious from these statements that the unconscious is the rich and fertile source of many different elements in man’s conscious life; it is also apparent that there are no water-tight compartments in this hidden area. All the more reason why great care should be taken to distinguish and evaluate the divergent contents of the unconscious. Yet the psychoanalytic psychologist is inclined to lump all these manifestations together.

My intention here is to show that despite some superficial similarities between the mystical state and the infant or psychotic state, their dissimilarities in cause, consequence and content, and therefore in value, put the transcendent experience in an entirely different category. I hope to prove that the mystic state derives from the deeper levels of the unconscious, and that in the balanced and mature individual it is healthy and deeply beneficial.

Prince lists several characteristics of the mystic state which he considers to be closely akin to that of the infant or psychotic. I shall attempt to differentiate these, to demonstrate that fragments of the human psyche, as presented by the good doctor, do not represent its totality, and to show that the conclusions he draws from a few selected details presented out of context are inadequate to explain the whole range of the experience. My argument is that in the mystic experience the center of gravity is transferred from the ego, which is the center of consciousness, to the self, which is the center of the whole psyche, and therefore of the person.

The value of the mystical condition, however, cannot be presented properly except in relation to the larger problems of man and society. One present danger we face is the dichotomy that afflicts man, that is, the dissociation between the conscious and the unconscious which causes so many people to suffer from the meaninglessness of life. Jung believed that this dissociation causes a general cultural sickness that manifests itself among men otherwise normal, leading to a breakdown of society. The question is how to transform man into the harmonious whole which nature intended him to be, and thus give meaning and purpose to his life. I hold that the mystical state, which can be instrumental in the release of unconscious energy and potential, offers a clue to meaning, wholeness and individual self-realization.

The tragic events and cultural dislocation that darken the world today are all man-made. It is becoming apparent that governmental or intergovernmental actions are insufficient to halt the current march toward violence and destruction. Improvements in man’s physical environment do not necessarily change and improve his behavior. As Jung pointed out, society cannot be regenerated unless man is regenerated. It is becoming painfully obvious that it is man himself who must be changed. This change is not easily effected by laws, by punishment, by exhortations, or even by education in the ordinary sense of that word. Then how? Man’s hidden potential, his “undiscovered self,” must be discovered by him.

“The Mystical Experience: Facts and Values” by Claire Myers Owens is an extract from The Highest State of Consciousness edited by John W. White, published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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