Spiritual but not Superstitious (Mystical Without the Mumbling)

“Spirituality” is emotion. Sometimes the spiritual emotion springs from a consciously adopted attitude toward the world we see around us. Sometimes it hits us unexpectedly. A “spiritual experience” can be anything from the warm-fuzzy feeling we get singing a song we love to the inexpressible “mystical” experience of feeling one with all that is.

Both great feelings. But not mysterious. Psychologist Daniel Khaneman in his groundbreaking book Thinking, Fast and Slow outlines how the head/heart and body/soul distinction actually functions. Fast thinking, which Khaneman calls System One, is our fight or flight selves. The visceral reaction. Slow thinking, System Two, is our reason and problem-solving abilities. We don’t think about System One. System Two takes discipline.

As we learn more about these systems, we see more clearly what techniques and technologies best trigger responses. For example, when the rhythm of the music reaches about 120 beats per minute—the average heart rate for mild exertion—we feel like dancin’.

For my money the most insightful writer on the subject of spirituality and mysticism is Jiddu Krishnamurti. Born into British-occupied India, a young Krishnamurti was taken under the wing of the Theosophists and trained in that mystical tradition. The Theosophists thought Krishnamurti would be the great “World Teacher” that they predicted would come to earth.

Krishnamurti eventually renounced Theosophy but did indeed become a great teacher, a synthesizer of spiritual and religious thinking from all over the world.

One of Krishnamurti’s gifts was a keen BS detector. Therefore, when Krishnamurti talks about spirituality and mysticism, I listen.

His key insight goes like this: “It is only when you listen without the idea, without thought, that you are directly in contact.”

Listening without preconception; without judgment; without the interference of ego; listening in order to hear, to experience—right now, with as little of the usual interference as possible. Unmediated experience. This listening pushes System Two down into System One.

This sort of listening requires presence in the moment. It requires us to be in the place of the breath and that mental space that is at once maximum concentration and maximum surrender. This experience may be achieved by various techniques, from mediation to fasting to merely looking up at the stars.

From the Centering Prayer of Christianity to Buddhist zazen to the various yogas, human beings have developed techniques for getting to this space. Since these techniques are designed to dampen System Two and trigger System One, they feel visceral, spiritual.

Woo Without the Woo Woo

“Mysticism” is a technique aimed at achieving a “mystical experience.” Again, this experience is a feature of brain function and has little to do with specific religious or philosophical practices, except insofar as all religions aim for the experience and have techniques for achieving it.

Some traditions are overt about it—Sufism, for example. Shamanistic practice. Transcendentalism.

Take, for instance this passage from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden:

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.

The transcendental experience is being awake in the here and now.

It’s All About the Flow

Since spiritual and mystical experiences are a feature of brain chemistry, not specific religions, atheists and agnostics have no particular reason to poo-poo the idea. As a matter of fact, mystical experience doesn’t need a religious component at all, as demonstrated by the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who introduced the notion of “flow” experience. Csikszentmihalyi found “flow” in experiences as diverse as sports and video gaming. He lists the elements likely to bring on flow experiences:

1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. merging of action and awareness
3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time
is altered
6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as
autotelic experience


A flow experience sounds like a “mystical” experience, doesn’t it? Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Sounds “spiritual.”

There’s nothing mysterious about mystical experience. You can put yourself in the way of the flow experience by following very simple (and secular!) procedures.

The Extraordinary Is All About the Ordinary

I’m a writer. I’ve been writing for years. I learned early-on that if I was going to get writing done, I had to do it every day. As part of my daily routine. So, I get up early every morning, make coffee, and sit down to write. And write. And write. Writing is my spiritual practice.

Sometimes, everything clicks and I go into the flow experience. The mystical experience. Sometimes not.

Since I was trained in writing by Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, I took up Buddhist meditation as a daily practice too. This was part of the “mindfulness” that the writers who became Buddhists in the 1950s thought contributed to honest and deep writing. They passed that on to me.

Over the years, I have discovered that meditation and writing have the same effect: They bring my mind into the present moment. Remember Thoreau’s words:

I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment.

When we are not living in the present moment, we are living in memory or fantasy. We are out of touch with what is. We are kicked back and using System Two. And we are a long way from a spiritual experience!

There’s nothing mysterious about the mystical. Spirituality is a feeling. We don’t have to buy what particular religions are selling to access these feelings. It’s all in our heads.

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The Transient, the Permanent, and the Stitching Horse: What Remains True in Religions
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  • Karen Johnston

    David, thank you for these confluences. Made my day.

  • Otto Tellick

    This is the first time in my life that I have seen someone else use the word “autotelic”. Made my day too – thank you very much!

    While I’m an affirmed atheist agnostic (yes, the various Gods described by known religions are all imaginary; no, I’m not saying “god(s)” cannot exist – just that no human can describe one in a useful, coherent way), I do not discount, dispute, or poo-poo the notion that the human brain can be capable of something “transcendent.” It’s just that there has always been something intrinsically subjective about it, something that is essentially difficult, indeed impossible, to share in any reliable, accountable way. Even if we know it when we feel it, we haven’t been able to define it objectively. It’s on a par with Thomas Paine’s point about revelation:

    “It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing.”

    (p.s.: I”ve been using the pseudonym “Otto Tellick” on various discussion forums for several years.)

    (Added as an edit/update: ) I wonder whether notions of “transcendence” – or “flow” – might simply be a “supernaturalism of the gaps”. We can’t regard it as something within the realm of methodological naturalism, because we haven’t yet learned enough about it to know how to describe it cogently in natural terms. (But maybe someday people will figure it out…)

    One more edit (last one, I promise!) — Having admitted my open-mindedness about the possibility of transcendence, I must also admit that its “pattern of occurrence” seems to be effectively indistinguishable from random perturbations of normal brain function. Once there’s an objective metric for identifying when it happens and what it causes, it will truly be a useful concept. Until then, it’s speculation.

    • David Breeden

      Dear Otto,

      Thanks for tell-ing as it is!

  • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ ValPas

    Good one! A mystical experience can be as real as the enjoyment of an ice cream cone. It’s just dimensionally greater, I think, and usually more memorable.