Have You Ever Had a Mystical Experience?

The other day, my friend Kathy, who deeply loves talking with others about the Baha’i teachings, told me her first question when she encounters a spiritual seeker: “Have you ever had a mystical experience?”

Well, have you? What a great question, I thought.

Probably your answer is yes – it is for most people – so it might be helpful to ponder that crucial question and its possible answers for a while.

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I had to think about it, too, but then my first mystical experience came back to me. I was five. Raised a Lutheran, one Sunday, I went to church in Portland, Oregon, with my Norwegian grandparents, sat through a boring sermon, and sung a few hymns. I squirmed, fidgeted, couldn’t wait to leave. That was definitely not the mystical part. But when we got home, my grandma began baking. She asked me to help her stir the flour and water, so I stood on a chair to reach the big baking bowl on the counter.

As I stirred, I watched the wheat flour and the water mix together, and suddenly, I had a vision. No, I didn’t see anything that wasn’t there – it wasn’t that kind of vision at all. Instead, I saw the mixture of those two elements in the bowl and knew, somehow, far beyond my childish intellectual abilities, that this universe and everything in it had been created with the utmost love and care. 

I know – it doesn’t sound that profound, right? Wheat flour and water mix – big deal. But it struck me at the moment that the making of bread, the staple food of people since the beginning, came from those two simple things. 

This sudden realization filled me with a sense of gratitude and grace. My heart expanded in my chest, suddenly growing in its capacity of feeling and emotion. For a moment, I felt transported to what seemed like a higher realm, to a place where I could see all of the elements of creation mixing together over the arc of time to make and sustain the human race, including me. That felt like love.

Standing there stirring, this startling realization hit me with great force.

I got down from the chair where I stood, took my grandma’s hand, and insistently asked her to sit down with me for a moment. I said, “I want to know about God. Can you please tell me?” I had to know because, at that moment, I felt the presence of a Creator, and it moved my heart and soul so much.

She looked at me, shocked, and enveloped me in her arms. I will never forget that floury hug. My grandma, who I always associated with love and warmth and acceptance, had tears in her eyes. She told me later that her tears came from the realization that something had happened to me, something special, that had also happened to her at about the same age. 

I forgot all about this mystical experience as I grew up, but after I became a Baha’i, my grandma reminded me about it, saying, “You’ve always, even when you were a little child, had a burning interest in the spiritual things of life.”

We’ve probably all had experiences like these, mystical moments we can’t explain or rationalize – a prescient dream, a vision of a future time, a minute of déjà vu, an unexpected realization or insight into our own soul, a sudden awareness of the presence of the Creator. Do you remember yours?

Typically, those essentially spiritual experiences happen outside the realm of our five outward senses, beyond the normal ways we have of receiving information. They can be inspirations, dreams, or waking insights. They can occur to us when we least expect them. They can happen while reading, meditating, walking, working, or even sleeping. 

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In Abdu’l-Baha’s book “Some Answered Questions,” he said:

It is therefore clear that the spirit has powerful perceptions that are not mediated by the organs of the five senses, such as the eyes and the ears. And, with respect to spiritual understandings and inner disclosures, there exists among spiritual souls a unity that surpasses all imagination and comparison, and a communion that transcends time and place.

In the next paragraph, however, Abdu’l-Baha warned us, saying that we can often delude ourselves, calling some visions “vain imagination and pure illusion.” He said: “In the world of sleep, too, one may have a dream which exactly comes true, while on another occasion one will have a dream with has absolutely no result.”

So when we have those mystical experiences and wonder whether they’re illusion or illumination, how do we tell the difference?

We’ll explore that question in the next essay in this series.

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