This lecture was intriguing, as it was the first time I was exposed to mixing anything ‘mystical’ to the presence of God. The term mystical always seemed to be very secular and pagan. However Rev. Richard Woods, OP, PhD educated us that ‘mystical’ can define many different types of experiences. Everything from a near death, out of body experiences, to moments with God, or what others define as the presence of something greater than themselves, can be considered mystical. A ‘sudden acknowledgement’ of something greater than us happening became a theme throughout the lecture. Dr. Woods’ lecture ‘Mystical Consciousness: Brain, Mind, and the Presence of God’ on January 16th, 2014, discussed this concept of mysticism and its intersection between both religion and science. He highlighted who was, and still is, involved in this conversation, and their theories, providing different angles and approaches on the subject. I appreciated this openness to various thoughts on the subject. Although expelled from many studies in the early twentieth century, research regarding human consciousness and mystical experiences made a return in recent decades and once again has prompted serious scientific study.
The lecture started out with the following quote to spark our thoughts:
“In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” ― Karl Rahner
The writers of the bible were called mystics, as their experiences and conversations with God are highlighted all over the bible. Think about John’s book of Revelation and the disciples’ encounters with Jesus after he died, or Moses when he obtained God’s commandments from the burning bush. Getting access to the inner wisdom of our world, and humanity, to get understanding and direction – are all part of the mystical experience.
Dr. Woods suggests we are all mystics and may just not realize it, as to one degree or another, we are always asking the questions about our existence, no matter which belief we come to. He says, “only in degree, not in kind, are all religions different.”
He notes another quote by an Islamic of the name Ibn Arabi;
“God deposited within human beings knowledge of all things, and then blocked them from perceiving it; this is one of the divine mysteries that reason denies totally and thinks impossible… no one can know what is within himself until it is revealed to him moment by moment.”
This overall concept of mystical experiences ties to that which is unseen, that we cannot see until we are given the privilege or opportunity to see it. This is why Dr. Woods suggests that we are all mystics and may not even know it.
In discussing the sociological religious experience humans tend to have, Dr. Woods goes on to say that our perception of time and space is facilitated by our brain structures, which is founded by our memories. Therefore, not knowing our memories, takes away who we are as people, and what describes the self. The concept of what is ‘the self,’ he went on to say, is very complicated. What are we? Who are we? What does it mean to be self-conscious? What does it mean when we die? Is it just our organs? Going further on the thought of just our organs, then the body and mind must be separate and distinct from each other. Since our existence (or as some subscribe to; since humans became conscious), people have turned to mystics to try to answer these questions about the self and understanding life’s journey. Theses mystics thought to be the ones that had direct conscious connection to something all knowing, or greater than them.
There are many debates that are on-going regarding the connection between God and science. One of these debates center around how mystical experiences tend to be both spiritual and physical. Dr. Woods reviewed several theorists that fit in four distinct categories, and their books that describe how they see this debate.
Atheistic – Don’t consider mystical experiences to having any connection with God. Books include:
Neo-reductionists – Consider mystical experiences as a brain function solely and not contact with God. Books include:
Traditional Religious – Where God is the source of all mystical experiences and science does not play a part. Book includes:
Positive Approach – Interconnection between Science and God during mystical experiences. Books include:
Dr. Woods pointed out that he finds it interesting that people have been polled since 1966 in the US and UK about religious and spiritual experiences. Trends from these polls show that more and more people are having mystical experiences. The studies also indicated that the older we get, the more likely we are to have a spiritual experience of some sort. Some of the questions I immediately began to think about related to why, how, and what purpose these numbers could mean in the larger collective whole of humanity? Are we subconsciously preparing for something? Is it time for humanity to get glimpses of truth? What shall we do with that truth once it’s unhidden to us?
Dr. Woods went back to defining ‘What is Mystical,’ since the term can include many types of experiences, including those induced by drugs, serious medical conditions such as seizures, deep meditation, and much more. In terms of classical traditional Christianity, a mystical experience means that there is an immediate experience of God within us and everywhere else. Here are some quotes from Christian theorists that have noted what the term ‘mystical’ meant:
“Immediate awareness of relation with God.”
“Momentary kiss with heaven.”
“Moments of good, truth and beauty…which ultimately changes you.”
The ongoing debate between religion and science and our consciousness, is not a new discussion amongst thinkers and scholars. Dr. Woods called the following people ‘Hall of Fame’ founders of the study between religious experiences and neuroscience in the late 19th century: William James, William Ernest Hocking, Sir Alister Hardy and Sir John Eccles. In the days of these men, it was a prestigious honor to be a part of what was called ‘The Gifford Lectures’ in Scotland which discussed the relationship between religion and science. These Hall of Famers all submitted lectures on their thoughts about the debate that is the basis for much of today’s serious scientific study on the topic.
We have experiences with God whether we know it or not, is what Hocking’s thought process consisted of. Even though religious doctrine belongs to the society, experience with it is personal.
Hardy had an interest in telepathic experiences and wanted to compare experiences for possible patterns or correlations with each other. He founded the Alister Hardy Trust and asks the question “Have you ever had a spiritual or religious experience or felt a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday life?” This trust was founded in 1969 in Oxford, with the objective of studying, “in a disciplined and as scientific a manner as possible,” accounts of religious or spiritual experiences, or what Dr. Woods, and many others in this field of research, call ‘mystical experiences.’
The neuroscience discipline has tremendous weight in the debate. Dr. Woods discussed how complicated our brains are in its structure and research in connection with spiritual experiences are being studied heavily. Various tools with acronyms such as EBS, EEG, CATZ, MRI, PET and others are being used in this research.
Dr. Woods’s personal ruminations, upon collecting all of the theories and research together, conclude that:
· Our brain is connected to our mystical experiences in some way or another
· Mystical experiences cannot be reduced to just experiences within the brain
· An awareness of profound unity or oneness is the common feature of mystical experiences
Have you ever had a mystical experience that allowed you to tap into the unseen?