Defining Mysticism

Commentary on Deikman's Essays
"Deautomatization and the Mystic Experience" and
"Bimodal Consciousness and the Mystic Experience"

~Sandra Stahlman

Deikman supplies an explanation of the process of the mystical experience in psychological terms. Proceeding on the assumption that meditation and renunciation are the primary techniques for producing such an experience, he describes how the phrase "mystical experience" covers a spectrum of experiences. Deikman categorizes accounts of these experiences as either untrained-sensate, trained-sensate, or trained-transcendent.

He explains that untrained-sensate refers to phenomena that occur in individuals who do not actively practice meditation or other exercises used to produce a religious experience. These phenomena are usually described by the individuals as an extension of their "normal" psychological processes. The experiences occur most frequently in natural settings and/or under the influence of drugs.

Deikman believes that, phenomenologically, the trained and untrained sensate states are indistinguishable. What makes the trained-sensate category distinct is that trained individuals tend to have experiences which conform to their learned religious cosmology; a prior knowledge and/or expectation of the experience directs its interpretation.

The final category, trained-transcendent, describes experiences that go beyond sensation and "normal" psychological processes; they transcend emotion and affect. Deikman describes these experiences as transient and passive. Characteristic is a sense of the unity of all things; multiplicity disappears as the individual undergoes a process of "ego-loss". These experiences usually occur only with a long, dedicated process of training.

In addition to a characteristic sense of unity, the experience carries with it an intense feeling of reality, even though no tangible evidence of realness is available. Deikman cites clinical examples of experiences which seem real yet carry no evidence of reality. He asserts that the feeling of realness is distinct from the object of sensation; this feeling can be reduced or intensified regardless of the stability of the sense object. This same principal applies as well to the unusual sensations which accompany mystical experience. In such instances it is the mode of perception which has changed, not the external stimuli themselves. Deikman refers to this process as "perceptual expansion;" awareness includes stimuli which are usually filtered or repressed, such as our own electrochemical processes. As such information-limiting processes are deautomatized, boundaries of self expand to include a wide source of knowledge previously withheld from conscious awareness.

Although necessary to be able to discriminate, filter, analyze, describe - to engage the environment actively, it is equally important to be able to be receptive to information we would "normally" disregard. In the receptive mode we are able to see the greater picture, to reconcile difference, to be creative. There is an idea in our culture that the rational mind is preferred, even to the point of exclusivity, over the intuitive/non-rational mind. Deikman points out that our brain was designed to have both complimentary modes, and he believes that when both work together the results are a more healthy being.

Deikman, A. "Deautomatization and the Mystic Experience." Understanding Mysticism. Image Books: Garden City, 1980.
Deikman, A. "Bimodal Consciousness and the Mystic Experience." Understanding Mysticism. Image Books: Garden City, 1980.

Written by Sandy Stahlman, 1992, at the University of Rochester

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