Sun with bright rays against a blue sky

My grandfather died when I was twenty-one. Upon returning home from his memorial mass where I gave his eulogy, I experienced an altered state of consciousness when crossing the Bay Bridge. My skin tingled, I felt an energy push out of my skin, and I felt a new cleansing energy fill me to replace the old energy. At first the experience concerned me, for I was driving after all, but I signaled a lane change, safely changed lanes, found that I was still aware of my surroundings, and decided it was safer to continue driving that to stop in the middle of the bridge. I went on to experience at will, usually by staring into a candle flame, a series of altered states that felt either cleansing or seductive. Ever since that time, I have identified with mystics. Since I had a history of severe suicidal depression, I realized then that if I saw a psychiatrist and described my experiences, I would likely have received a diagnosis of mental illness. Because I ascribed religious meaning to the experiences and believed that God was calling me to some purpose, such as seminary training or a ministry of some sort, I did not seek psychiatric help. Instead, I attended the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) at Newman Hall, the Roman Catholic community at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a student. I went back to my family’s religious roots to make sense of what I had experienced. Today I understand that my mystical experiences can also be explained as symptoms of the manic and hypomanic states of bipolar disorder.

My current belief system is not limited to a Christian viewpoint, though I do love Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. Never have I ruled out other religions, or secularism for that matter, as valid and valuable belief systems. Honestly, as long as you seek truth and love, you’re going in the right direction. I am open to any explanation or definition of a higher power, whether that be a scientific explanation, nature itself, consciousness, existential freedom, humanism, pantheism, Western monotheistic concepts of God, or Eastern religions and philosophies. For simplicity, I use the term God to encompass any and all meanings of higher power or greater order, including most importantly love, truth, and universality.

That said, when I was thirty, I went on a one-week contemplative retreat, the topic of which was the Christian mystics. I had no idea that going on a contemplative retreat meant spending a week in near total silence. I went on the retreat because of my interest in Christian mysticism, and left with a new discipline – contemplative prayer. This discipline, practiced by the mystics, gave me a new way to pray, to open myself to God’s love, and to experience God’s presence in my life. In the busyness of life, I often forget the lessons I learned on that retreat, and find that I must return to mystic visionaries to remind myself that I, that we all, can have a close, personal, sometimes maybe even exhilarating and ecstatic, relationship with God (or whatever concept that most closely reflects the meaning of truth, love, and universality).

Mysticism can most simply be understood as the direct experience of God. Mystics seek to directly experience God through physical and contemplative states. Can God be known by reason or the five senses? Perhaps. Apologists and scientists use reason. Those who find God in nature, through the senses. The soul can also experience communion with God through direct, personal experience, intuition or insight. Throughout history there have been mystics claiming to have known God through visions or other revelations. Many have argued that these mystics suffered from neurological or psychiatric disorders, which may very well be true. Regardless, I for one find inspiration in their experiences and in the wisdom they gained and subsequently shared with others. Mystics continue to inspire and to raise questions as to the cause of their mystical experiences. Were they suffering from the symptoms of mental disorders? Were their visions the result of severe austerities including self-imposed near starvation and sleep deprivation? Or, were their experiences divinely inspired?

As a former psychotherapist and as someone who both identifies with mystics and has struggled with the sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying symptoms of a brain disorder, namely bipolar disorder type II, I believe that mystical experiences can be both divinely inspired and biologically based. God speaks to us, loves us, holds us close to Her/Him/It, in our illness, in the midst of hardship and suffering, as well as in health and joyous celebration. She/He/It is there when we soar high, as well as when we fall.


50 responses to “Mysticism”

  1. […] writing prompt to write about a loss, I kept circling back to two losses – the loss of my maternal grandfather and the loss of my expectations and plans for my future. Now, a third pops into my mind – my […]

  2. Yes, in fact, attributing meaning, aside from simply experiencing it, can be quite dangerous. Thank you for pointing that out.

  3. What I’ve determined for myself is that assigning meaning to these experiences can lead to delusional thinking

    I couldn’t agree more.

    What’s more the symbols used to define the meaning are inclined to crowd out the mystical experience itself, replacing it with what is basically an ego-driven ideology. The experience lends the ideology a false aura of holiness and infallibility.

    Nothing means anything but itself. Alternately, everything means everything else. Other assignations of meaning are just metaphors. They have their uses but you need to be careful to avoid confusing them with reality.

    There’s a meaning there but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing. – Russell Morris in The Real Thing

  4. Thank you, Robyn. Bless you. Having a loving husband who is your soul mate is a truly wonderful thing. I have one, too!

  5. Yes Kit very important! I took medication for two years Early 30’s , yet never had symptoms after doing some incredible work with Dr John Demartini’ the breakthrough experience. My grounded peaceful centered balance is the most important to me. It seems the wayseer work became important only after years of Stability. My husband is one of the most grounded divine spiritual Males I know, so this helps in our journey as wayseers together. Seeing your light and your assistance for so many Kit! Keep being you! Heart to heart Robyn

  6. Thank you for your feedback. Tolle and many other mystics speak of the same thing. We are all one.

  7. Thank you, Earth Angel. I do treat my bipolar illness, though, for my brain health and emotional stability is very important to me, especially since I am a mother.

  8. Thank you Kit, I came to your sight in a very round about way, perfect time to share from my heart to yours. We are spiritual beings and our “density ” “thoughts “” Bodies” can get in the way until we enter a state of sustained love where our thoughts and beliefs fade into the pure state of timeless ageless peaceful love, this is where the ” new” grounded Being exists. Eckhart Tolle describes this “inner heaven” in his book ” The New Earth”

  9. Thank you Kit You have opened the hearts of so many here! As spoken here in comments being a wayseer ,can be very challenging . Your open heart sings to all that hear you! Heart to heart Robyn.

  10. Agreed with God is in our heart. Heart to heart Robyn

  11. The pathfinders, wayseers are once again leading the way, I am a wayseer and I am in my 50’s ,I have had a very profound near death experience, and yes in fact had a psychotic episode in my 30’s

    I have journeyed into a grounded presence as I share what it is possible for mankind, living in unity and the vibration of love. So many of us who have had manic episodes( spiritual awakening) and out of body experiences are now able to express these visions in a world so filled with prior illusions, including the illusion that we are separate.

    I so appreciate your sharing this deep “process” that has been labeled ” mentally ill “when in fact spirituality rests out of the body. Without its density, just now after many moons of labels and dark ages, we are living as bright unlimited lights of love!

    Keep up the journey, as being grounded in spiritual work is very possible when we release all past labels. You both have so much to offer Heart to heart Robyn

  12. Namaste. Peace be with you.

  13. I enjoyed this post. Thank you for connecting.

  14. Honestly, as long as you love and have empathy for your fellow beings (human, other animals, and even plant species, for ecologically speaking, we are all interrelated), you are on the right path.

  15. An interesting post Kitt. Since being on antipsychotics I have a better understanding of why people embrace religion. Some literally and others metaphor and everything in between. I don’t put down others’ belief as I was inclined to in the past….pre-seroquel. My disbelief is not displayed as disrespect for their beliefs. I guess that I have more empathy for my fellow man, woman and any other gender that people identify with since being on seroquel.

  16. Intriguing and mature response. Sometimes we struggle to discern meaning where there may in fact be none. But to be aware is crucial. Thank you for your experience and insight.

  17. I loved this very balanced exploration of the mystical experience.
    As someone who was on “the mystic’s path,” I’ve had all these same questions. What I’ve determined for myself is that assigning meaning to these experiences can lead to delusional thinking–all those things I hope/wish/want to believe they mean. Instead I try to just experience them–the changes in energy, consciousness, awareness, emotion, the physical sensations–without making up any stories about them.

    In another culture, we would be the shamans, the pathfinders. We would be taken care of so that we could follow these experiences for the good of the tribe. Alas, here we must stay fairly grounded so that we can take care of our own physical/material needs. Maybe in another life…

  18. Please don’t tickle me when I come down to L.A., that’s all I ask! 😉 XOXOOXOX

  19. Intellectually, yes, Unitarian Universalism fits the bill. Thank you.

  20. My humble friend Kitt is going to tickle me for doing this, but I couldn’t help it – to learn more about this extraordinary person & writer check out what I wrote this morning:

  21. Absolutely! 🙂 And yes, didn’t even think about scientist believers who use reason to know God. (doh!) Great point, Kitt!

  22. Now, that’s a complete different matter, when you speak about respecting a patiens’s belief-system. Also that’s the position of the therapist, not the one of the patient … 🙂

  23. Wow, Kitt. Beautifully written. I don’t know if we’ve had this discussion, but whether you know it or not, you are likely a Unitarian Universalist.

    I appreciate you clarifying what a mystic is. I have several friends who consider themselves mystics, and my minister considers himself a mystic. Finally, I now know what they mean.

  24. Reblogged this on Stigmama and commented:
    An amazing piece by STIGMAMA contributor, Kitt O’Malley regarding mysticism, spirituality, and mental health. Thank you, Kitt for putting words to the wisdom.

  25. I edited it as follows: “Can God be known by reason or the five senses? Perhaps. Apologists and scientists use reason. Those who find God in nature, through the senses.” Would you agree, Susan?

  26. You are very right. Perhaps I will edit the post and change that statement. We very much experience God through his Creation and through the Senses He gave us.

  27. Thank you. Somehow I straddle the line between skeptic and believer, as a skeptic believer. I frame it as “choosing to attribute meaning” to my experience. It’s human nature to find meaning, whether or not that meaning actually exists. As long as it brings positive change to my life and to the lives of others, I figure, good enough.

  28. Kitt, I am convinced God moves in people and connects with them in many different ways, and am fascinated by your own experience. I did pick up on one comment I disagree with, however: “God cannot be known by reason or the five senses.” By reason – I might agree with that; by the five senses – I think anytime we are moved by the Spirit and go deeper into our relationship with Him, we experience God and we can know him through our senses if our heart is open.

    When I am simply still, or in nature, I know him through the things he creates. He communicates with me through the fragrance that wraps around me, or morning birds that sing a reminder that he loves me. I know these are from him to me; I feel him in my bones, deep in my core. The connection is palpable. Others may not, but I see him and know him in new blossoms or the sticky sap of honeysuckle. Maybe it’s because I live alone and sit in silence much of the time – but I know that calling, the openness to his presence and love, the contemplative prayer.

    So glad to read this, and to know we both know him and have a relationship with him. <3

  29. Yes. Although, when I was a psychotherapist, I tried to respect the religious beliefs of my clients, even my schizophrenic client who had religious delusions, when reality testing. It can be done.

  30. Thank you, Walker. I have studied four female mystics (Roman Catholic saints) in detail, but now must check out Margery Kempe and learn more about transpersonal psychology. So much to learn!

  31. I suppose I’m more of a skeptic and would tend to attribute any mystic experience to psychiatric symptoms. That being said I would love to have an experience that would prove me wrong and change my mind. I also believe in a higher power that is capable of anything and I am willing to be open minded enough to believe anything is possible. I guess what I’m saying is Lord, let it happen to me. Lol. Fantastic post! Thanks, Kitt!

  32. Why does the psychiatrist or psychotherapist forbid mentally unstable people to concern themselves with religion and/or mysticism etc.?

    Exactly, because the human mind of such a person wouldn’t be able to differentiate.

    Ethics do not allow to add another delusion upon already existing ones, I dare say.

  33. Thank you, Kitt for discussing this topic. The field of transpersonal psychology explores this in similar ways. And you know about Margery Kempe, the Christian mystic from the 1400’s who had postpartum psychosis, birthed 14 children and went on to travel throughout Asia and Europe on a mystic mission. There IS a connection between MI and altered states, mysticism, and spiritual emergence. Your chronicle of your awareness sheds light (no pun intended) on a real phenomenon and will encourage others to acknowledge their own experiences. Fantastic work, Kitt! Thank you!

  34. Kitt – this is such deep brilliant, fascinating detailed journey you had in you life, no comments or words can be add. This article is indeed the best practice for us to learn, explore and value such revealing experiment.

    This is a belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.


  35. Perhaps, for some. Not, perhaps, for others. For me, there is a confusing overlap that requires me to constantly question the meaning of my experiences. My responses, which included eventually attending seminary, were in keeping with a true calling, but I did and still do question exactly the nature of that calling.

  36. Thank you, Kas. My grandfather has always told my mother that what I needed was God in my life, so when he passed, he, in effect, reached out to me.

  37. Actually, Ellen, the medications do interfere with having mystical experiences, but I still consider myself a mystic. My experience of God is now that open feeling you get when meditating, when opening oneself to the presence of God.

  38. Interesting piece. Though mysticism is mysticism and has nothing to do with ICD-10 (or vice versa). 🙂

  39. kbsartori Avatar

    Well written, Kitt, and thought provoking! I happen to agree wholeheartedly with you regarding your widely inclusive belief system.

    Spiritual realities are just that, in my opinion.They are realities. And, of course, they are as many- faceted, inexplicable and mysterious as God is.

    Your story of your grandmother touched me. Four times in my life, I have felt the presence of someone very dear to me who had passed on to the next life–my father once and my step-daughter three times. Perhaps before those events happened, I may have been quite skeptical but now I am not… I believe that somehow they were communicating with me and I felt/feel extremely blessed because of it.

  40. A long time ago there was a New York Times article entitled, “Are We a Nation of Mystics?” I read it avidly because, I, too, could have mystical experiences at will. Now I am Buddhist but have been baptized Catholic (wanted to be a nun) and Protestant (as an infant). Anyhow, now with all the medications I take I find the mysticism grandly reduced much to my dismay. That is my main gripe with the medication. But I know I have to stay on it. I think, now that I am following the Buddhist path, it really interferes. So you are lucky you still have access to your states. Now I have to go through nature pretty much. Anyhow a very interesting and, as always, top notch post. Thanks for sharing such an important topic. xx ellen

  41. Thank you, Dyane. The roots of Christianity and Islam are Judaism. Judaism the bedrock of the two other religions.

  42. St. Teresa of Avila is my favorite saint. She was an impressive, accomplished and influential woman.

  43. I think a surprising number of people have. Otherwise, why would so many people believe in a higher power?

  44. Yes, this is so beautifully and clearly written, and I especially love how open-minded you are to other belief systems.

    My two all-time favorite authors come from devout Christian backgrounds (Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote dozens of religious themed books, and L.M. Montgomery, who was married to a minister who had manic depression. Tragically he believed he was “doomed to Hell”.) I’m technically Jewish but over the years I’ve become agnostic, believing in a Higher Power of some kind.

    It’s fascinating to read about your diverse history regarding your religious path, especially the mystical elements. I know that all of those experiences have made you a more compassionate and loving person both in your personal life and through your work helping others who suffer with bipolar disorder.

  45. Fascinating, Kitt. I’ve read a little bit about the mystics (my traditional Christian upbringing of Baptist/Presbyterian/conservative non-denominationalism doctrine didn’t exactly approve of mystics, as my denominations emphasize God’s revelation through the Bible and not experiences) but I don’t know much of their experiences. What I think of when I think about mysticism is a famous sculpture by Bernini that portrays St. Teresa in a moment of divine ecstasy/revelation:

    I’ve always found this image beautiful and positive, and whether St. Teresa was having an out-of-body experience, a neurological issue, a mental health issue, or a spiritual experience, it left her with a profound love for God and a desire to do good and imitate Christ.

  46. Just a beautiful piece. I have had mystical experiences, though not as sustained and revealing.

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