Does Talking About a Mystical Experience Make it Stronger?
A reader wrote in to ask this question:
If you share with others a moment of profound mystical insight that you have does it, in fact, make it stronger and real for the person with the epiphany? In other words, in the retelling does it gain strength?
It’s a great question, and I think the answer is, “Generally speaking, Yes.”
In other words, it’s one thing to receive a profound encounter with God, and/or mystical insight, and/or some other ecstatic or enlightening or unitive moment of grace. It sounds pretty good — and perhaps we assume that such “moments of grace” are rare and exceptional. But I know of at least one neuroscientist, the psychiatrist Gerald G. May, who thought that “mystical experiences” (I don’t like that term very much, but it’s the best we’ve got) are actually profoundly normal — but our brains are pretty good at filtering them out!
In his book Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology, May writes:
As I have said, unitive experiences … may well be virtually universal. I can say at least that nearly all people—and this includes children and mildly [intellectually disabled] adults as well as people with minimal brain damage or schizophrenia—whom I have interviewed in depth have been able to remember at least one or two such experiences.
But if such moments of perceived union are “virtually universal,” May also acknowledges that our normal, street-level consciousness is pretty good at either ignoring or simply forgetting such moments of received union.
Ironically, the most frequent final reaction to a unitive experience is to forget it, to put it out of one’s mind and “get back to business.” Sometimes this return to self-defining activity occurs so abruptly that one feels shocked by the transition. When this happens there is little chance of the experience being integrated meaningfully into one’s subsequent attitudes toward life. It is simply a moment, experienced and forgotten, leaving only a hint of longing at levels that are barely conscious.
So… if we can accept May’s contention — that mystical experiences are actually quite ordinary, but the human brain seems to be skilled at forgetting about them, ignoring them, or perhaps even repressing them — then developing skills that can help us to remember such moments of encounter, celebrate them, and acknowledge them, will certainly be a great help.
I think about the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, whose book Revelations of Divine Love is her attempt (quite a good attempt, actually) to describe a spectacular, nearly 24-hours-long visionary experience she received during a serious illness. Fast forward to the twentieth century, when the Trappist mystic Thomas Merton wrote down several key mystical experiences in his life; in The Seven Storey Mountain he tells of a moment of ecstasy he received during a Catholic Mass in Cuba; in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander his famous “epiphany” which took place on a busy down streetcorner; and in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton his Satori-like experience of luminous, loving emptiness that took place at a Buddhist Temple in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) just a few days before his untimely death in 1968.
Three different mystical moments, written about in three different books: but the golden thread here is that he did, in fact, write about each one. And I suspect that the reason why Julian, and Merton, and so many other people write about their mystical encounters, is because they know that writing about them helps them to understand them, remember them, interpret them, and more fully realize them.
Now, I don’t want to be dogmatic here. I am sure that countless people have mind-blowing mystical insights and experiences and never write a single word down. I think it would be misguided to suggest that their mystical encounters are somehow “not as real” or “not as strong.” At the end of the day, it is God, the Holy Spirit, who directs our experiences of encounter with the mystical or the numinous. By the grace of God, someone who is entirely illiterate could still have an encounter with God that ranks up there with the Transfiguration. So I’m not saying there is a necessary correlation between mystical experience and telling about it (I’m focussing on writers, but clearly there’s also the possibility of sharing your mystical encounter with another person orally). Also, keep in mind St. Thomas Aquinas, who, after having a profound mystical experience on December 6, 1273, actually stopped writing altogether — he felt that, compared to the heavenly beauty of what he had seen, everything he had ever written was as worthless as straw. So not everyone needs, or even wants to, articulate what they experience when they encounter the mystery. The Spirit works in different peoples’ lives in different ways.
Writing (or telling) your mystical story is not necessary for strengthening your sense of what you encountered; but based on how many of the mystics did, in fact, write or otherwise recount their experiences, I think it’s safe to say that writing, or telling, your mystical story is a very good way of improving the odds that you will remember it, understand it, or appreciate the depth of its power and meaning in your life.
I think mystical experiences are analogous to dreams. In her marvelously entertaining books Dream Power and The Dream Game, dream interpreter Ann Faraday suggests that making a habit of writing down your dreams will help you to remember more of them. Why? Because when you write down your dreams, you are signalling to your unconscious that dreams matter to you; they’re important to your conscious self. I think what is true for the unconscious with dreams is equally true for the spirit (the “superconscious”) in regard to mystical experience.
Keeping a spiritual journal also is relevant here. While there are plenty of perfectly mundane, down-to-earth reasons to keep a journal (for self-understanding, emotional healing, etc.), a journal can also be a forum for exploring the frontier of mystery when it comes to your personal experience of unitive consciousness and/or the presence of God. And keeping a journal on a regular basis means that when something extraordinary does happen, you’re in a better position to write about it — your pump is already primed, so to speak.
The questioner asked specifically about “sharing” your experience with another. I think writing it down, even if you don’t share it with anyone (other than God), is still a very effective way of deepening your understanding of your experience. But certainly, the grace in telling another person is that you have someone to share it with, to pray with you, offer you feedback, and partner with you in discernment (“Why, Lord, did I get blessed in this way?”). On the other hand, there are people who may not be comfortable with you talking about your spiritual experiences — it is, after all, quite an intimate dimension of life. So I think one needs to exercise discernment before just telling the world about your encounter with God! But if you do have someone you can trust, this can be a rich and rewarding spiritual practice in its own right (and of course, a good spiritual director will very much be the kind of person you’ll want to share this kind of thing with).
Thanks for such an insightful question!