Some philosophers flesh out the concept of mysticism by pointing to the characteristics of the experience itself. Those who, like William James, have had a mystical experiences report it as:

If an experience is transcendent, it lacks a discernible geography. Put another way, you don’t know where the experience occurs; it lacks space/time coordinates. It thus makes little sense to say “The experience occurred in her mind,” or “The experience occurred in a reality beyond the soul.” The experience is thus unlike seeing the stop sign on the corner of Main Street, but it may not be inappropriate to claim that the mystical experience is like your reflection on the piece of music you heard yesterday.

Mystics such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila hasten to point out that since the experience is not rationally decipherable, it cannot be captured verbally in a manner that other experiences are. Naturally, this ineffability raises difficult epistemological questions that will be gone over in the chapter on alleged “proofs” of God’s existence. These problems of knowing include, but are not limited to, assessing what the experience means, both for the experiencer and the non-experiencer, and what it proves about the reality content of the experience.

Noetic: The mystical experience purports to convey some illumination about the meanings of your life or about reality itself. “Noetic” also implies that some truth has been realized. What does the experience mean measured against the rest of your life? What kind of reality exists beyond the confines of your everyday experience?

Ecstatic: Mystics point out that the experiences are ecstatic, since they fill the soul with bliss or peace. Accounts of mystical experiences include the claim that the experiences of everyday life seem trivial by comparison with this spiritual ecstasy. “Everything else seem as straw,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas after his vision of God.

Unitive: The experiences are claimed to break down ordinary experiences with their walls between subject and object. In ordinary perception it is tempting to view reality in two parts: subject and world. But the religious experience breaks down this duality in favor of an experience that unites the perceiver with God or some other object of perception.

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