What is a mystical experience?

Lawrence Kushner described a mystical experience as having 4 attributes:

  • It is transient
  • You are passive to the experience
  • The experience is noetic, cognizable
  • It is ineffable, you can’t put it into words

Is it an esoteric event, conveyed only by a holy or spiritual being, or experienced in some altered state? Or…

There are many reports of mystical experiences from extraordinary encounters with spiritual teachers, or while in altered states, or in NDE’s (near death experiences).

Consider that access to the mystical can be encountered at any moment. It’s a matter of receptivity and attention.

The mystical experience on the mat: receptivity and attention

  1. Receptivity: Guruji once said “Nothing can be forced. We must absorb everything without the conditioned mind.” What happens if you come to your mat with a fresh uncluttered mind? In Zen Buddhism this is described as “beginner’s mind”, that is, having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level. I’ve heard Senior teacher Lois Steinberg encourage students to “wash your brain” before beginning a pose, to remove the preconceived notions of what you can and cannot do. So, receptivity is the frame of mind of being open to all possibilities.
  2. Attention: Guruji remarked: “We often fool ourselves that we are concentrating because we fix our attention on wavering objects.” One of the hallmarks of Iyengar yoga is paying close attention to anatomical details and alignment in a precise way. But if we limit our attention to the mechanical details (the citta of the pose), what do we miss? In asana practice we are learning how to pay attention. Psychologists describe this as metacognition – that is, becoming aware of and understanding the experience of paying attention. So, in asana we begin the practice by focusing our attention: from big toe to inner ankle to inner thigh, etc. With practice, these multiple points become one pointed… and then “no pointed”. This is described in III.4, where
  • Patañjali shows dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption) as three threads woven into a single, integrated, unfolding strand. Then he introduces three transformations of consciousness related directly to them, and successively ascending to the highest level, at which consciousness reflects the light of the soul. These transformations are nirodha pariñama, samadhi pariñama and ekagrata pariñama. (Excerpt From: B. K. S. Iyengar. “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.”)

Nirodha is the quieting of mind chatter, samadhi is absorption (the unification of consciousness into absorption) and ekagrata is the movement from one-pointed to no-pointed attention. Through the regular practice of asana the practitioner can journey inward to the core and back and access the mystical.

The mystical experience off the mat: receptivity and attention

Take the most ordinary experience of your day: walking the dog, doing the dishes, preparing a meal. Pause for a moment; take a slightly deeper breath and exhale. Widen your eyes slightly and relax the muscles of your mouth and jaw. Then gaze at one thing (anything) like this is your first encounter. Attend to each detail of that thing, one piece at a time, then slowly shift your focus to the whole, like adjusting a lens from micro to macro. Pause. Breathe.

Let me know what happens.

“Yoga does not just change the way we see things,
it transforms the person who sees.”
BKS Iyengar