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Mystical Encounters with the Natural WorldExperiences and Explanations$

Paul Marshall

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199279432

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0199279438.001.0001

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‘Being All, Knowing All, Loving All’

‘Being All, Knowing All, Loving All’


(p.49) 2 ‘Being All, Knowing All, Loving All’
Mystical Encounters with the Natural World

Paul Marshall (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The classic characterizations of extrovertive mystical experience by R. M. Bucke, Rudolf Otto, W. T. Stace, and R. C. Zaehner are summarized and their limitations exposed. The author proceeds to give a more nuanced description of extrovertive phenomenology, based on his study of a large number of mystical accounts. Several kinds of extrovertive unity are distinguished, and details are given of other notable characteristics: self-transcendence, expansive knowledge, all-encompassing love, visual and auditory phenomena, altered time-experience, presences and realities, somatic phenomena, paranormal phenomena, and fusion of characteristics, including synaesthesia. The experiences are often uplifting, but there can be disturbing features too, especially in cases associated with drugs, mental breakdown, and kundalini arousal.

Keywords:   Bucke, Otto, Stace, Zaehner, unity, God, reality, body, kundalini, paranormal

Extrovertive mystical experience shares many features with everyday experience. We all have some sense of what it is to know, to understand, to love, to appreciate beauty, to be joyful and at peace, and most of us have felt the sense of individual selfhood relax a little, whether in nature, loving relationships, group affiliations, or moments of intoxication. However, extrovertive experience raises the familiar to new heights and takes it in novel directions. These mystical departures from the ordinary were introduced in the previous chapter, and now they will come under closer scrutiny.

There is much to be gained by taking a look at previous characterizations of extrovertive experience. Bucke made a commendable effort to gather and analyse accounts, but he was indiscriminate in his choice of cases and read them in the light of his own experience. Otto identified several kinds of unity, but he made no use of detailed, first‐person accounts and drew instead on mystical philosophy. Stace too was overly influenced by mystical philosophy, and, although he quoted some first‐person writings, he paid insufficient attention to them. Zaehner chose examples that would reflect badly on the moral status of extrovertive mysticism, and, like Bucke, he took his own experience as representative. Previous characterizations have had serious methodological flaws, and individually they give a rather patchy sense of extrovertive experience. We shall see that one commonly recognized characteristic (unity) has been portrayed in disparate ways, that other characteristics (knowledge, light, time) have received uneven treatment, and that one important characteristic (love) has been neglected. Nevertheless, the classic treatments bring out some important features. Together they portray a phenomenological richness that explanatory efforts have failed to address, and they can be used as a starting point for a more rounded appreciation of extrovertive characteristics.

To work towards a more nuanced picture, I read through a large number of extrovertive accounts, looking out for commonalities, (p.50) variants, and previously overlooked characteristics. More detailed analysis would certainly have been possible, and a larger body of accounts could have been used, but the summary given below is sufficient for the present purpose, which is to give an overview of extrovertive phenomenology that is concise yet sufficiently detailed to allow the evaluation of explanations in Part II. Explanations that fail to address the range of characteristics adequately are misguided or in need of revision and development.

Classic Characterizations

The modern literature on mysticism contains many characterizations of mystical experience, but few pay specific attention to extrovertive phenomenology.1 Bucke's 1901 study of cosmic consciousness contained the first systematic characterization, and Otto's work on unifying vision a quarter of a century later proved influential, supplying Stace with some key ideas about extrovertive phenomenology. Writing in the late 1950s and the 1960s, Zaehner and Stace were the last to make substantial contributions. Since then extrovertive phenomenology has not attracted much attention, reflecting the general neglect of extrovertive experience in recent decades.


In the introduction to Cosmic Consciousness, Bucke explains that the prime characteristic is a ‘consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe’ ((1901) 1989: 2). It is the first of several ‘elements’:

  • •consciousness of the cosmos

  • intellectual enlightenment or illumination

  • indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness

  • a quickening of the moral sense

  • a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life2

(p.51) Bucke goes on to describe eleven ‘marks’ ((1901) 1989: 60–3, 65–6), although he wisely cautions the reader that the characterization is based on only a few cases. The first seven marks describe the experience itself (Table 2.1), whereas the remainder are concerned largely with circumstances and consequences.

Bucke claims that it is impossible to describe the intellectual illumination but reiterates insights that he attributed to his 1872 experience. These include the realization that the cosmos is not dead matter but a living presence: it is ‘an infinite ocean of life’ ((1901) 1989: 61). The experience discloses the immortality of life and soul, love as the foundation principle of the world, and the eventual happiness of all. There is also an understanding of the world in its totality (‘a conception of THE WHOLE’), the prime characteristic identified by Bucke in the introduction and now included under ‘intellectual illumination’.

Bucke's attempt to measure his collection of cases against the marks is fairly systematic, although the analyses are often strained or conjectural. For instance, in the case of Jesus, Bucke has little

Table 2.1 Bucke's characterization of cosmic consciousness



Subjective light

A ‘sense of being immersed in a flame, or rose‐colored cloud, or perhaps rather a sense that the mind is itself filled with such a cloud or haze’.

Moral elevation

Predominantly an emotional response to the experience that includes joy, assurance, triumph, and ‘salvation’.

Intellectual illumination

Bucke's term for the understanding and insights brought by the experience.

Sense of immortality

Bucke claims that intellectual illumination reveals the survival and immortality of the individual soul.

Loss of the fear of death

The fear of death vanishes as a result of the illumination rather than through a process of reasoning.

Loss of the sense of sin

The world is found to be empty of sin.


The awakening is like ‘a dazzling flash of lightning in a dark night, bringing the landscape which had been hidden into clear view’.

(p.52) evidence of the prime characteristic and comments weakly: ‘Presumably we have intellectual illumination’ ((1901) 1989: 92). Although Bucke's observations on predisposing circumstances are highly suspect (see Chapter 3), his experiential characterization has merit, probably because it draws on his own experience. Bucke identifies some relatively common features, including luminosity, understanding, love, joy, and the knowledge that all will turn out for the good. Other features are less readily generalizable, notably the knowledge of personal survival, which is rarely mentioned, although subjects do sometimes comment on a fearlessness that includes indifference towards death.3 Bucke mentions love, but his formulation is rather intellectual: he has the mystic recognize love as the foundation principle of the world but omits to note that the mystic can feel intensely loving and loved. Bucke's characterization of the luminosity as a rose‐coloured haze or cloud, based on his own experience, needs to be qualified, for the phenomenology is much more varied. There is also no mention of altered time‐sense. Most striking is Bucke's failure to include the mystic's sense of merger with the whole. Bucke describes an intellectual consciousness of the whole, not unity with the whole. It is a significant omission, given the frequency with which unitive merger is reported. In Bucke's collection, which contains few extrovertive accounts, the feature is not prominently represented, although there are explicit indications in the extracts Bucke took from Edward Carpenter's writings. Surprisingly, merger with nature was also neglected sixty years later by Stace. There was no excuse for Stace's omission because one of his chief sources, Otto, had acknowledged the unity of perceiver and perceived, and Zaehner had recently discussed the nature mystic's sense of unity with the natural world.


Otto distinguishes two categories of mystical experience, the inward and outward ways. The latter, the way of ‘Unifying Vision’, is equivalent to extrovertive experience, although Otto distinguishes unifying vision from the ‘nature mysticism’ of the poets and Romantics, which he dismisses for its emotionalism ((1932) 1987: (p.53) 76–9). Like Bucke's faculty of cosmic consciousness, Otto's unifying vision is noetic: it ‘looks upon the world of things in its multiplicity’ with an intuition or knowledge of its unity. However, the epistemologies are very different: Bucke's knowledge of the whole results from an evolutionary complexification of simpler mental operations, whereas Otto's knowledge of unity is an intrinsic, Kantian‐like intuition (see Chapter 4). For Otto, the unifying vision has two components, sensory vision of the world and a priori knowledge of the world's unity, so that there is an inner knowledge of an outer unity. Later scholars, including Stace and Wainwright, continued to assume that the nature contents of extrovertive experience are purely sensory.

Otto postulates three formal stages of unifying vision, and, relying on Plotinus and Eckhart, discerns five characteristics in the first stage (Table 2.2). In the first stage, the Many are primary but are unified in various ways: unity of things in a whole (Bucke's prime characteristic); the paradoxical identity of things; inclusion in an eternal Now; the identity of the perceiver and the perceived. First‐stage unity is dependent on the Many, for it consists of the integration of the Many in the whole and in the Eternal Now, the identity relations between the Many, and the identity of the perceiver with the Many.

In the second stage, the unity has a distinct reality of its own as ‘The One’, and ‘takes precedence’ as that ‘which is superior and

Table 2.2 Otto's characterization of first‐stage unifying vision




Things are experienced together as an All, a whole, a One.

Paradoxical identity of things

A relation of identity that defies ordinary logic.

Eternal Now

Negation of the usual type of association of things in space and time, replaced by an ordering in a higher way, in the Eternal Now.


Things are transfigured, becoming ‘transparent, luminous, visionary’.

Identity of the perceiver and the perceived

One becomes unified with the whole, sees all things in oneself, or better, all things as oneself.

(p.54) prior to the many’ (Otto (1932) 1987: 53). The One is the ‘essence, being, existence’ and ‘unchangeable foundation’ of the Many. It is the unconditioned that conditions all things. The One, the unifying foundation of the Many, can be treated impersonally or personally. For example, in theistic systems, it is called ‘God’ and addressed in personal terms. Finally, in the third stage, the Many are left behind, either absorbed into the One (Eckhart) or discarded as a veil that hides the One (Śaṇkara). The intuition of the transcendent One, or the ‘Godhead’ in theistic terminology, involves no multiplicity at all, not even the dependent multiplicity of the second stage. The three stages can be understood as a movement from the complete immanence of oneness in the Many, through the immanence–transcendence of the One, to the complete transcendence of the One. Otto, despite his lack of engagement with first‐person accounts, makes a valuable contribution by distinguishing several kinds of unity, although the third‐stage unity is not properly extrovertive if it is supposed that the world has been left behind. Strong on unity and conscious of altered temporality and luminosity, Otto was weak on features that Bucke had raised, such as affective characteristics and the specifics of the illuminative insight. Unrecognized by Otto, love was also neglected by Stace and Zaehner.


By examining a small number of writings from a variety of cultures and historical periods, Stace believed that he had not only extracted the essential characteristics common to all well‐developed mystical experiences but had distinguished characteristics that differentiate two types of mystical experiences (Table 2.3). The extrovertive and the introvertive types share several characteristics (3 to 7), but the introvertive, unlike the extrovertive, is completely devoid of contents and therefore lacks spatio‐temporal characteristics (1 and 2). Stace explains that extrovertive experience is well‐developed nature mystical experience, experience that is more than a vague feeling of a presence in nature (1961: 80–1).

In making the introvertive–extrovertive distinction, Stace adapts from earlier scholars, including Otto, a twofold typology in which mystical experience of withdrawal ‘inwards’ to the self, mind, or soul is distinguished from mystical experience of movement ‘outwards’ to the diversified world. Stace's version of the inwards–outwards distinction and his characterizations of the two types have often been repeated, and they have provided a basis on which a number of (p.55)

Table 2.3 Stace's characterization of mystical experience

Extrovertive experience

Introvertive experience


The unifying vision, expressed abstractly by the formula ‘All is One.’ The One is, in extrovertive mysticism, perceived through the physical senses, in or through the multiplicity of objects.

The Unitary Consciousness, from which all the multiplicity of sensuous or conceptual or other empirical content has been excluded, so that there remains only a void and empty unity.


The more concrete apprehension of the One as being an inner subjectivity in all things, described variously as life, or consciousness, or a living Presence. The discovery that nothing is ‘really’ dead.

Being nonspatial and nontemporal.


Sense of objectivity or reality.

Sense of objectivity or reality.


Feeling of blessedness, joy, happiness, satisfaction, etc.

Feeling of blessedness, joy, happiness, satisfaction, etc.


Feeling that what is apprehended is holy, or sacred, or divine.

Feeling that what is apprehended is holy, or sacred, or divine.





Alleged by mystics to be ineffable.

Alleged by mystics to be ineffable.

scholars have developed their work. Stace's characterization has even been used to define ‘operational categories’ for empirical research, in Pahnke's work on psychedelic and mystical experiences (e.g. Pahnke and Richards 1966), and in Hood's widely used ‘Mysticism Scale’ or ‘M Scale’ (1975),4 which departs from Stace's summary lists by dropping paradoxicality, introducing noetic quality and ego loss, and allowing unity to be understood as a merger of self and world or the unification of everything in a whole. More recently, the Mysticism Scale has been reworked to allow extrovertive and introvertive experiences to be measured independently (Hood, Morris, and Watson 1993).

Stace's understanding of mystical unity will be discussed in Chapter 5. For the moment, it is sufficient to note that he takes the extrovertive unity to be either (1) paradoxical identity of objects perceived through the senses, or, more often, (2) the empty unity (p.56) of introvertive experience. In effect, Stace borrows and adapts two of the unities described by Otto, namely the first‐stage identity between things that defies ordinary logic, and the second‐stage One behind the Many. Unfortunately, Stace fails to discriminate sufficiently between the two, which leads to confusion. Also, Stace has no place for Otto's other first‐stage unities: he dismisses the unity of the whole as trivial (1961: 64), and overlooks both perceiver–perceived unity and the ordering of things in the Eternal Now. Stace's assumption that the diversified contents of extrovertive experience are always sensory and his concept of paradoxical identity are developed from Otto, who prepared the ground by misinterpreting the Plotinian unity‐in‐multiplicity of the intelligible universe and the Eckhartian identity of things in the Godhead as a complete identity of sensory items.

Stace's second extrovertive characteristic, the realization that all things are alive, mirrors Bucke's observation, and it is the closest Stace comes to attributing noetic characteristics to mystical experience. Noetic characteristics—Bucke's ‘Intellectual Illumination’—are almost absent from Stace's characterization, which is a major shortcoming because heightened knowledge, understanding, or meaning is commonly reported. The omission probably follows from Stace's overriding conviction that the mystical core is an empty unity, a pure consciousness devoid of any noetic contents. Noetic qualities are an embarrassment for Stace's theory. There are other notable omissions too, with no inclusion of luminosity or time‐experience, as Wainwright has observed (1981: 10), and also no recognition of love. This is despite the occurrence of special luminosity and altered temporality in Stace's most detailed extrovertive case, a mescaline experience reported by N.M. Stace even discusses N.M.'s comment that ‘Time and motion seemed to have disappeared so that there was a sense of the timeless and eternal’ (1961: 73), yet the ‘nontemporal’ characteristic is included by Stace only in the introvertive list.


Zaehner does not bring together in any one place the characteristics he attributes to natural mystical experience, one of the three types of mystical experiences he distinguishes, the others being the monistic and theistic types. The summary in Table 2.4 imposes a degree of organization that is not typical of Zaehner's discursive style, and it is (p.57)

Table 2.4 Zaehner's characterization of natural mystical experience



Sense of unity involving the natural world

Peculiar to the natural mystical type

•unity between natural objects

•unification in a greater life

•unity through absorption in the world

•unity through assimilation of the world

Transcendence of time and space

Shared with theistic and monistic types

Deepened sense of reality or significance

Shared with theistic and monistic types


Shared with theistic and monistic types

Wonder and joy

Shared with theistic and monistic types

Lack of moral content

Shared with monistic type

No love or concern for others

Shared with monistic type

not intended to be definitive.5 For Zaehner, mystical experience of any type is defined by unity, as it is for Stace. However, Zaehner understands unity not as a Stacian empty consciousness but primarily as unity with an object, either the world (natural), an impersonal Absolute (monistic), or a personal God (theistic). The key characteristic of natural mystical experience is a sense of union or identity with the natural world.6 When fully developed, natural mystical unity is an identity, and the mystic proclaims ‘I am the All’. Zaehner recognizes two basic categories of natural mystical unity (1957: 77). The first is a perceived unity between natural objects, although this (p.58) type of unity is not emphasized by Zaehner. Rather, the focus is on the mystic's sense of union or identity with the world or its parts. The object of the unity may range from individual objects to the entire universe.

In Mysticism Sacred and Profane, Zaehner sometimes speaks of the unity as an obliteration of the distinction between subject and object or an identity of subject and object (1957: 78, 101–2). More commonly, he favours the term ‘expansion’. ‘Enlargement’ is also used: nature mystics ‘would seem to agree that what they experienced was an enlargement of the ordinary field of consciousness in a vision that seemed to comprise all Nature’ (1957: 99). Whilst continuing to use these expressions in his next work, At Sundry Times, Zaehner also refers to a unification in a greater life (1958: 48). Zaehner also considers two ways in which the mystic may experience union or identity with nature. In the first, the mystic feels ‘swallowed up in the greater whole’ in the second the greater whole ‘actually seems to be part of oneself’ (1957: 40), the self or personality enlarged beyond its normal bounds.

Another characteristic attributed by Zaehner to natural mystical experience (and to mystical experience in general) is ‘transcendence of time and space’, which Stace had reserved for the introvertive experience. At one point, Zaehner gives transcendence of time a status comparable to that of unity, claiming that it is ‘the lowest common denominator of every form of mysticism, and where there is no trace of it, there would seem to be no “mystical” experience’ (1960: 7). Natural mystical experience ‘is, at its highest, a transcending of time and space in which an infinite mode of existence is actually experienced’ (1957: 50). It is by no means clear what Zaehner intends by ‘transcending’ or ‘infinite mode of existence’. His treatment of the topic across his works is unsatisfactory, exhibiting obscurity, inconsistency, and a lack of helpful examples, and it is too convoluted to trace here.

Another characteristic—deepened sense of reality—is comparable to Stace's ‘sense of objectivity or reality’, shared by both the extrovertive and introvertive types. For Zaehner too, the characteristic is not peculiar to extrovertive experience. In comparison with mystical experience, ordinary experiences of the natural world may seem unreal, a shadow or shade (1957: 50, 199). Zaehner speaks from personal experience: ‘beside it the ordinary world of sense experience seems pathetically unreal’ (1957: xiii). Zaehner occasionally mentions several other characteristics, such as beauty, wonder, joy, bliss, (p.59) and luminosity. Again, these are not taken to be peculiar to natural mystical experience.

Finally—and of great importance for his evaluation of the mystical types—Zaehner believes that both natural and monistic mystical experiences lack significant features possessed by theistic mystical experience, namely moral qualities and love. Zaehner attests to these deficit characteristics in his own extrovertive experience. Theistic mystical experience takes God as its object in a union relationship, and it is inherently moral and good because the object is good (1957: 206). In contrast, natural mysticism, like monistic mysticism, is a ‘mysticism without love’ (1974a). Nature is indifferent, and a sense of unity with it can be no basis for morality and love (1957: 104, 204).

Complicating the Phenomenology

In lieu of a comprehensive treatment of extrovertive phenomenology, which would be a study in itself, I shall raise some commonly reported or striking features that I have noted in the existing body of accounts. I explored extrovertive phenomenology by gathering together over two hundred published accounts, from collections and individual sources, dating from the nineteenth century to the present day and mainly of Western cultural provenance. One limitation of the study is therefore its reliance on modern Western sources: cross‐cultural and historical variations need to be investigated. Another limitation is the lack of attention to types and stages. I have not attempted to identify distinct types of extrovertive experience, except to suggest a distinction between experiences that bring a transformation of sense‐mediated visual contents and experiences that derive their visual contents from some other source. Nor have I explored any patterns of development that the longer, more complex experiences may exhibit.

Accounts were selected for analysis if, on initial inspection, they were found to describe experiences in which the universe or some of its contents were experienced in a ‘mystical’ way, that is, transformed by profound unity, knowledge, love, luminosity, sense of reality, altered time‐experience, and so forth, as set out in Chapter 1. I included experiences that took place under a variety of circumstances, as long as they satisfied the ‘extrovertive’ criterion, although I steered clear of the large number of drug‐induced cases that (p.60) consisted mainly of perceptual distortions or trains of fantastic imagery. These are not typical of spontaneous extrovertive cases and could skew the characterization (see Chapter 3). In a study dedicated to extrovertive phenomenology, separate characterizations of experiences under different circumstances could be attempted. For example, extrovertive experiences triggered by nature scenery, near‐death crises, and a range of psychoactive drugs could be compared and contrasted.

The accounts were all ‘first‐order’. Scholars have a variety of mystical texts at their disposal, and some are more useful than others for characterization purposes. Peter Moore has distinguished between (1) self‐reports of mystical experiences (‘first‐order’), (2) impersonal accounts that need not be tied exclusively to the author's own experience (‘second‐order’), and (3) theological or liturgical writings that refer to spiritual realities but make little or no mention of mystical experience (‘third‐order’) (1977: 118–29; 1978: 103). All three types have a place in the study of mysticism, but third‐order writing is not helpful for characterization, being far removed from the experiences. First‐order writings are the most suitable, and second‐order writings may have value if they are not overly systematized. Of course, the study of first‐order writings is not without its problems. Description can be selective, unclear, ambiguous, lacking in detail, and influenced by cultural expectations and received modes of expression. But it is to be hoped that a reliable picture emerges through study of a large number of accounts obtained from a variety of sources.


The unity of extrovertive experiences is not distinct from other features. It is instantiated in transformed experiences of self, knowledge, love, vision, light, life, and time. Self is united with others; knower merges with known; love, light, and life weave things together; times and places fuse in a whole. Nevertheless, it is instructive to consider unity separately, before proceeding to the features through which it is encountered.

Various forms of unitive expression are to be found in extrovertive accounts, sometimes within the same account. One common form of expression describes the apprehension of all things together, in a complete, unbroken whole (integral unity):


What joy when I saw there was no break in the chain—not a link left out—everything in its place and time. Worlds, systems, all blended in one harmonious whole. (C.M.C., in Bucke (1901) 1989: 270)

In some cases, integral unity involves a ‘filling in’ of the gaps that ordinarily seem to keep things apart. Spaces connect rather than separate:7

it struck me that the oneness was in part explained by the sensation that the air and space and light was somehow tangible, one could almost grasp it, so that there wasn't a space which stopped because my human form was there, but that my form was merely a continuity of the apparently solid space. (RERC 322, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 46)

Integral unity corresponds to Bucke's ‘conception of the whole’ and Otto's experience of things ‘together as an All’.

Further unities concern the relation between the world and the subject who apprehends it. Subjects often report that they felt themselves to be part of the world (immersive unity), became identified with the world or some of its parts (identificatory unity), or contained the world within themselves (incorporative unity). The following passage shows a progression through the four forms of expression:

I suddenly realized that I was conscious of everything that is [integral], and that I was part of it all [immersive]. Then I became aware of it from a different aspect. I was everything that is [identificatory]. It seemed curious at first, but then turned into a feeling of being very much alone. I thought surely there must be something or somebody outside of me, but I searched and searched and could find nothing that was not a part of me [incorporative]. (RERC 4764, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 171)

Identificatory language (‘I was X’, where X is the world, a tree, person, bird, rabbit, stone, and so on) tends to be ambiguous: it is often unclear what kind of unity subjects have experienced unless they give further indications.

Another form of unitive expression conveys a deep sense of fellowship with other beings, a sense of connection through common identity, empathy, and love (communal unity):

I experienced in that moment a sense of profoundest kinship with each and every person there. I loved them all!—but with a kind of love I had never felt before. It was an all‐embracing emotion, which bound us together (p.62) indissolubly in a deep unity of being. I lost all sense of personal identity then. (M.W., in Johnson 1959: 84–5)

In simple cases of identificatory and incorporative unity, appreciation of others may be obscured because everything has been absorbed into the greater consciousness or self. No other real subjects are discerned. Communal unity overcomes cosmic solipsism because it balances the incorporative ‘they in me’ with the reciprocal realization ‘I in them’. Others are recognized as equals, as distinct beings who are also conscious of the whole. As a child of 5 or 6, Mary Austin experienced the ‘Presence of God’ as a commonality of life and awareness:

It was a summer morning, and the child I was had walked down through the orchard alone and come out on the brow of a sloping hill where there were grass and a wind blowing and one tall tree reaching into infinite immensities of blueness. Quite suddenly, after a moment of quietness there, earth and sky and tree and wind‐blown grass and the child in the midst of them came alive together with a pulsing light of consciousness. There was a wild foxglove at the child's feet and a bee dozing about it, and to this day I can recall the swift inclusive awareness of each for the whole—I in them and they in me and all of us enclosed in a warm lucent bubble of livingness. (Austin 1931: 24–5)

Profound meditations on the communal unity of expanded vision are to be found in Thomas Traherne's writings. Amongst modern theorists, communal unity is most conspicuous in Edward Carpenter's treatment of cosmic consciousness and his socio‐mystical concept of ‘democracy’.

Subjects sometimes describe unifying links between things (interconnective unity). They report that objects were connected by visible or invisible bonds. In the gardens of St John's College, Oxford, the historian of science Frank Sherwood Taylor discovered the vitality, intelligibility, and interconnectedness of things:

At the same time everything revealed itself as interconnected. There was no visible link, yet round each centre of life there was an influence, as if each living thing were a centre in a spiritual medium. (Sherwood Taylor 1945: 98)

By contrast, the links discerned by F.W. were visible, consisting of a vibratory, radiating, sparkling light that surrounded objects and linked them together into a whole (Johnson 1959: 64–5). Perhaps the most extraordinary type of interconnection is the seemingly paradoxical identity of parts that some scholars, including Otto and (p.63) Stace, seized upon in traditional mystical literature (especially Plotinus' Enneads), but which is also suggested by a few modern accounts. Parts are intimately connected because each part is the whole (see Chapter 8). This form of interconnective unity can shade into communal unity if the whole parts are recognized as conscious beings.

Subjects occasionally report that they apprehended the world in unitive relation to its source or ground (source unity). The Many are united with the One that supports them, and they are united amongst themselves through their common origin. One of the most impressive descriptions of source unity comes from a ‘rather well‐known theologian’ who was subjected to the ‘Altered States of Consciousness Induction Device’ (ASCID) developed by Jean Houston and Robert Masters, a pendulum‐like device to which subjects were attached (see Wulff 1997: 195–6). The theologian felt as though his mind ‘were united to the mind of God’. He witnessed luminous, mathematical Forms, the source of the Forms, and the entire world‐process of outflow and return, with the creation ‘participating in the infinite life of the Source’ (Houston and Masters 1972: 312–14). Another experience of source unity has been described by John Wren‐Lewis. After hours of unconsciousness brought on by a poisoned toffee supplied by a would‐be robber, Wren‐Lewis noticed that his shabby hospital room appeared extraordinarily beautiful, and he became aware of a ‘shining darkness’ at the ‘back’ of his consciousness, a darkness that ‘seemed to contain everything that ever was or could be, all space and all time’, but without any separation (1988: 110–12). In this new state of consciousness, which has persisted since 1983 with some ups and downs, Wren‐Lewis and the rest of the world seem to emerge moment by moment from the darkness, bringing a feeling of unity (1988: 116).

Source unity corresponds to Otto's second‐stage unifying vision. Stace's extrovertive unity bears some relation to it, but Stace greatly underplayed the role of the One as the source of phenomena. For the most part, he presented it as an undifferentiated consciousness juxtaposed with the sensory multiplicity, with no source–product relation. Strictly speaking, it is not an extrovertive unity because it is not experienced as connected with the natural world. The experience has a dual structure, consisting of an empty unity and a sensory multiplicity. Robert Forman has called this a ‘dualistic mystical state’ (Chapter 5).

(p.64) Many of the unities are not theoretically exclusive and could occur together as aspects of the same experience. For instance, the subject could simultaneously apprehend the world as a whole (integral), feel a part of that whole (immersive), have a sense of loving fellowship with other beings (communal), intuit connections between things (interconnective), and discern the grounding of things in a common origin (source). Although immersion and incorporation are logical alternatives, immersive and incorporative expressions do occur together: ‘I am a part of nature itself and it is a part of me—we are one’ (RERC 2668, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 134). There is no contradiction if different kinds of self are involved, with the ordinary self felt to be immersed in the world and a deeper self or consciousness felt to incorporate the world.

Extrovertive unity is a unity that integrates rather than obliterates. It pulls together multiplicity without abolishing it. It is therefore intermediate between the relative fragmentation of ordinary experience, with its pervasive conceptualizations of radical division, and a condition of oneness or simplicity in which all distinctions are obliterated. At its most balanced, extrovertive unity would combine the differences that maintain diversity with the interconnections and identities that hold the many together. This unity‐in‐difference has two aspects. First, there is unity‐in‐duality of subject and object, knower and known, perceiver and perceived. Subject is united with object, but neither is obliterated. Second, there is unity‐in‐multiplicity. Many things exist together in the whole, each clear and distinct yet intimately united. Each is a part of the whole and embodies the whole through its connections with other parts and the whole.


Mystical accounts sometimes describe a ‘letting go’ of the everyday self. Indeed, it can be a diminution of the habitual self‐focus that leads to a mystical experience (e.g. Ancilla 1955: 20). The transformation may be experienced as a relaxation or dissolution of the ordinary self and may also involve the discovery of a deeper self, such as Warner Allen's immortal self that is not the usual ‘I’ (1946: 31). Gopi Krishna felt himself expand into a ‘titanic personality, conscious from within of an immediate and direct contact with an intensely conscious universe’ (1971: 207). Mrs A. recounted her childhood discovery that ‘Everything that had ever happened or would happen was within myself’ (Johnson 1959: 71). Self‐transformations are (p.65) closely associated with unity, knowledge, and love. Mystics who feel or know themselves to be immersed in the world, inclusive of the world, identified with things, or deeply in love with others, will experience changes in their customary self‐identifications with body and personality. For instance, one subject experienced a slackening of his usual self‐identity when he felt an empathetic oneness with seabirds struggling in a gale (C.E.N., in Hall 1937: 152).

In some instances, changes to the self‐concept are a threat and inspire fear. Negative experiences seem to be particularly common in drug‐induced cases, with the ordinary self smashed to pieces or inflated to a precarious state of cosmic importance (e.g. Braden 1967). The intensity and lack of control of some drug inductions appear to make subjects vulnerable to panicky interpretations and misidentifications. However, in many spontaneous cases the self‐transformation is relatively smooth and positive, bringing liberating perspectives. For instance, an immersive unity allowed a man to appreciate that his recent losses were not so important (C. G. Price, in Coxhead 1985: 33). His self‐worth was rooted in a permanent relation to the whole, rather than in passing personal concerns.


Accounts often refer to profound knowledge, insights, understanding, and meaning. Indeed, some experiences appear to be predominantly noetic, with no accompanying perceptual changes or feelings of love. Theorists have often neglected noetic qualities by focusing too intently on unity in the abstract, which is unfortunate because noetic qualities are often prominent and may indeed contribute to the unitive sense.

One type of noetic feature is comprehensive knowledge. During the experience, the subject feels that everything is known, although the comprehensive knowledge is not retained when the experience ends. Still, the subject believes that omniscience was attained. R. H. Ward knew ‘everything there was to know’ and found that this non‐conceptual, non‐discursive ‘real knowledge was simultaneous knowledge of the universe and all it contains’ (1957: 28). The extent of the knowledge can be temporal as well as spatial. Gopi Krishna discovered ‘a boundless world of knowledge, embracing the present, past, and future’ (1971: 213).

Extrovertive experiences also bring profound understanding and meaning. Subjects acquire, if only for the duration of their experiences, (p.66) an understanding of purposes and reasons, the ‘why’ of existence, life, and suffering, and they may be struck by the simplicity of the revelation. Ancilla found that ‘it was the answer to all questions’ (1955: 21). Allen's discovery of the deeper self solved the puzzle: the simple answer to the ‘riddle of life’ was the realization that ‘I am not “I”, not the “I” I thought’, and it was ‘like coming home’ (1946: 31). Others too have commented on the sense of returning home or rediscovering forgotten knowledge.8

As well as the comprehensive knowledge, extrovertive experience can bring specific insights that may be remembered afterwards. These include the kinds of insights that Bucke called ‘intellectual illumination’, such as realization of the unity, order, harmony, and life of the world, and the supreme importance of love. Subjects can make more specific observations too, about structures and processes, microscopic to cosmic, and about events, including events in their own lives. Mrs A. claimed to have seen, at the age of 8, ‘many things, events I later learned about, also much I have as yet been unable to discover from any physical source’ (Johnson 1959: 71). Another 8‐year‐old girl had insights into geological structure, including the importance of asymmetry in natural processes (RERC 2366, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 49–51). Specific insights can be answers to questions posed by subjects or relate to particular objects viewed by subjects. Bill Bingham remarked that his mystical knowledge was not of the all‐inclusive kind and addressed whatever he focused his attention on (Corcoran 1996: 14, 131).9

Insights into a cosmic evolutionary process have been quite common and are sometimes combined with ideas of reincarnation. Martin Israel witnessed evolutionary development through cycles of rebirth in which creatures move towards ‘completion’ (1982: 30–1). One of the most commonly reported insights is the understanding that everything is or will be ‘all right’. All is well when viewed in the global context, in the harmony of the perfected whole:

Also I saw millions of jigsaw pieces all floating into their correct position. All was well. All was completed. As I know now that it is; but within our Earth concept of time and space, we still have the working through of it to accomplish. (RERC 4071, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 128)


Everything and I were the same, all one. It was the most peaceful and ‘right’ feeling imaginable and I knew without any smallest doubt that everything happened for a reason, a good reason, and fitted into everything else, like an arch with all the bricks supporting each other and their cornerstone without cement, just by their being there. I was filled, swamped, with happiness and peace. Everything was RIGHT. (RERC 1239, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 47)

Subjects sometimes draw a connection between their ‘all is well’ realizations and Julian of Norwich's phrase ‘all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’, popularized by T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets (e.g. RERC 4548, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 154; RERC 1520, in Cohen and Phipps 1979: 142). In her Showings, Julian had accepted the orthodox theological position, indebted to Neoplatonism, that evil has no substantive existence when understood from God's omniscient, eternal viewpoint. From the divine perspective, all is well in the divinely created world, and sin is merely a local deprivation of good that works towards ultimate good. But it appears that Julian also entertained the unorthodox notion of a universal salvation that takes place at the end of time through a divine act (Baker 1994: 63–82), so that ‘all shall be well’ refers to an event in the future as well as to the eternal state of affairs. Interestingly, Bucke's characterization of cosmic consciousness includes realizations of both the lack of sin in the world and the eventual happiness of all. Bucke had been drawn to Universalist teachings in his earlier years, an attraction that possibly influenced his understanding of cosmic consciousness (see Shortt 1986: 64–6). Universalists believe in the ultimate salvation of all.


Subjects can experience powerful feelings of love for others in the vicinity or in the world in general. Margaret Prescott Montague was ‘madly in love’ with everything she saw:

For those fleeting, lovely moments I did indeed, and in truth, love my neighbor as myself. Nay, more: of myself I was hardly conscious, while with my neighbor in every form, from wind‐tossed branches and little sparrows flying, up to human beings, I was madly in love. (1916: 593)

Subjects sometimes feel deeply loved themselves and gain the impression that reality is loving and caring. In Chapter 3, we shall (p.68) also see that love, concern, and compassion are sometimes the antecedent circumstances of extrovertive experience.

Based on inadequate data, the classic characterizations of extrovertive experience neglected love. In the most glaring instance, Zaehner mistakenly took the lack of love in his own experience as typical of extrovertive experience. Love can indeed be absent, and it is noteworthy that whilst some experiences stop at unity, knowledge, and vision, others begin with love or proceed to love. Two accounts of mescaline experimentation illustrate the difference. William Braden experienced a shattering of his ordinary sense of self, saw interconnections between the constituents of objects, and then remembered his identity with all things (1967: 229–43). The last realization was profoundly disturbing for several reasons, the most unsettling aspect being the loss of others. In the identificatory unity, Braden gained the world but lost other people. He desperately wanted there to be at least one other real person, but none was forthcoming. Rosalind Heywood's mescaline experiment proceeded similarly, with self‐loss, interconnectedness, and oneness (1978: 229–39). However, there were differences, and the most significant concerned love. Heywood had asked where love was in the unbearable cosmic splendour and interconnectedness, a question that shifted her perspective to that of the ‘Divine Mother’, an attitude of unpossessive, joyous, personal love towards the world and everything in it.


Extrovertive visual experience can take several forms. In the simplest cases, visual experience continues as normal, with no luminous transfiguration and no expanded range (e.g. S.T., in Johnson 1959: 42; Austin 1998: 537). In another variation, vision of the surroundings is completely obliterated by light, but the subject is inwardly in touch with the world through unity and knowledge, and the experience therefore qualifies as extrovertive:10

I then looked up at the snows—but immediately I lost all normal consciousness and became engulfed as it were in a great cloud of light and an ecstasy of Knowing and understanding all the secrets of the Universe, and a sense of the utmost bliss in the absolute certainty of the perfection and piercing purity of goodness in the Being in whom it seemed, all were finally (p.69) enclosed, and yet in that enclosure utterly liberated. I ‘saw’ nothing in the physical sense…it was as if I were blinded by an internal light, and yet I was ‘looking outward’. (RERC 514, in Beardsworth 1977: 32)

In some cases, the obscuring light dissipates and leaves behind a transformed perception of the world. A.G.F.'s core experience took place in a ‘great whiteness’ that blotted out her vision, even though her eyes were open. When the light faded, she was left with enhanced perceptions that lasted for months: ‘The world was turned into a veritable paradise’ (Hall 1937: 250–1).

More often, the luminosity is diffuse or clear, rather than totally obscuring. In Bucke's case, the light was a haze, a ‘flame colored cloud’ that he initially interpreted as a nearby fire and then as an interior light ((1901) 1989: 8). One subject experienced a hazy luminosity on a cliff walk:

Although there was no mist, the light seemed suddenly white and diffused and I experienced the most incredible sense of oneness and at the same time ‘knew what it was all about’, ‘it’ being existence. (RERC 322, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 46)

Individual objects can appear to glow from within, or there can be a general increase in brightness in the visual field. Illumination can appear uniform, with no central source and no shadows. Sparkling luminosity, exhibiting point‐like concentrations, is also described: a prayer for help led to a vision of trees, houses, and stones filled with sparkling light (F.W., in Johnson 1959: 64–5). Like Bucke, subjects may conclude that the light is ‘interior’, or like Franklin, they may describe the light as both interior and exterior.11 Others simply regard the light as an external phenomenon, a suffusion of the surroundings. As for colour, white and gold are often reported. Bucke's flame or rose‐coloured cloud is not without parallel, as there are some reports of red and blue colorations, including pinks, oranges, purples, and violets. Green seems to be uncommon, although Laski notes an anaesthetic case in which ‘the meaning of everything’ was a ‘sort of green light’ (1961: 261).

Visual transformations can include increased attentiveness and clarity. Intense awareness is sometimes reported in the early stages of the experiences. For instance, one subject experienced a sharpened sense of awareness attended by appreciation of beauty and an intense joy, and, as the experience deepened, a sense of her (p.70) environment as part of a greater whole (‘Judith’, in Hoffman 1992: 40). Objects stand out more clearly than before, in distinctness, shape, and colour. Vision can even become penetrative or ‘X‐ray’‐like, reaching into and through normally opaque objects. In extreme cases, the entire universe becomes transparent. Not all experiences of the cosmos are visual: apprehension of the universe can be unitive and noetic. Nevertheless, there are visions of the cosmos, and these obviously raise questions about the nature of the experiences and the nature of perception. As noted previously, some leading scholars have taken the sense‐mediated status of extrovertive visual contents for granted,12 and it is true that many accounts do describe what seem to be transformed sensory contents. If a representative or indirect theory of perception is assumed, then it is the subject's visual representations that have been transfigured by luminosity, not vision of the objects themselves in the external world. However, the penetrative and cosmic visions seem to reach beyond the usual sensory limits, and some visual experiences occur when sensory input is greatly diminished, as in sleep and near‐death emergencies. Warner Allen's experience took place after he had closed his eyes. C.M.C.'s cosmic vision seems to have occurred after sensory perception had been excluded. Yogananda discovered that his panoramic vision was the same whether his eyes were open or closed (1993: 242–3). It is difficult to understand how these could be sense‐mediated if standard theories of perception are assumed. Sensory mechanisms, as ordinarily understood, would be unable to support penetrative vision or mediate a vision of the cosmic immensity. The experiences would have to be hallucinatory or dream‐like, or involve trans‐sensory contact with the universe. Alternatively, a non‐standard theory of sensory perception could be invoked, such as Henri Bergson's direct‐realist filtration theory of perception, which in principle allows expanded sensory contact with the world (see Chapter 8).

It is interesting that some accounts suggest that two modes of visual perception can operate simultaneously, ordinary sensory perception and mystical non‐sensory perception. Although open to interpretation, Gopi Krishna's account seems to describe two types of vision, one sensory, phenomenal, and transient, the other trans‐ (p.71) sensory, noetic, and eternal. Gopi Krishna had become ‘conscious from within’ of an ‘intensely conscious universe’, whereas the phenomenal world about him appeared phantom‐like, an ‘evanescent and illusive appendage’ of the ocean of existence (1971: 207–8). Irina Starr found that she continued to observe objects in the ordinary way, but at the same time she was able to direct a special faculty of inner vision towards objects. It was in this special sight that objects were transformed by light, life, beauty, and meaning (1991: 8–9). Again, we need to ask whether the special vision described in such accounts is hallucinatory or a trans‐sensory form of contact with the world.


Auditory transformations are reported far less often than visual ones. The general increase in attentiveness at the commencement of experiences can include a sharpening of hearing as well as sight. However, whereas vision continues to deepen, hearing can diminish. There are several reports of a silence or ‘hush’. For instance, Derek Gibson was travelling to work by motorcycle when the engine noise faded, without any sign of mechanical failure. When the subsequent extrovertive experience came to an end, the engine noise returned (Coxhead 1985: 10–11). Similar in this respect—and in other respects too—was Yogananda's experience. A quietening of traffic noise was associated with visual extension into the immediate environment, and also a feeling of bliss and a permeating luminescence (1993: 95).

Paradoxically, subjects may relate that the silence was accompanied by heightened perceptions that included hearing. In these cases, ‘silence’ may refer to the inner state of mind, rather than to the auditory sense:

The first symptom was a sudden hush that seemed to envelop me—this was subjective, however, as my hearing and all my other senses appeared actually to be keener than normal. (RERC 904, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 133)

When Major Haswell scrambled out of a trench in the Second World War, he could see the flames of exploding shells, but could not hear them in the stillness that marked the beginning of his experience. Yet he was surprised to hear the singing of birds, even though there were no birds nearby (Coxhead 1985: 39). After hearing a (p.72) commanding voice, a woman was surrounded by a ‘tremendous silence’, but she could hear the insects in the grass (RERC 4233, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 126). Both subjects experienced unitive identification with insects, Haswell with a butterfly, the woman with bees, beetles, and ants (and many other things too).

Some cases suggest that there is a link between the silence and a transformed experience of time. A woman reported that both sound and motion ‘stopped’ (RERC 4415, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 53). A man felt that time had ‘frozen’ along with a ‘cessation of all sound’ (RERC 3401, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 135). The universe was quivering, but the motion was frozen. On an earlier occasion, beautiful music seemed to pervade the surroundings, and the sense of time disappeared.


Extrovertive experiences are usually fairly brief, lasting from moments to hours, although traces may remain for days, weeks, and longer. In rare cases, the experiences themselves have endured for days and weeks (e.g. Courtois 1986; Starr 1991; Segal 1998: 12–13), and perhaps indefinitely (e.g. Wren‐Lewis 1988). Subjects often lose track of time and cannot gauge how long their experiences lasted unless they have some reference points before and after. Experiences often start abruptly, but gradual shifts are also described. The experiences usually fade away naturally, although subjects sometimes report a sudden ending brought about by an intrusive sound or social interaction (e.g. RERC 904, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 133; Mrs L., in Johnson 1959: 23–4).

Although momentary, some experiences seem to endure for a long time or have a ‘timeless’ or ‘eternal’ character. Sometimes transformation and motion cease completely, or, expressed more abstractly, ‘time stops’. Alternatively, transformation persists but alters in quality: things change in a coordinated manner, integrated in the harmoniously transforming whole. It is a dynamic aspect of unity: the world is experienced not only as an integral, interconnected whole but as a whole that develops in an integrated way. Subjects may use musical analogies to convey the sense of coordinated transformation. The transforming world is a cosmic dance.

Subjects may report that the temporal scope of their experiences expanded: a succession of events was taken in ‘all‐at‐once’. In extreme form, inclusivity consists of an apprehension of the entire (p.73) world‐process, past, present, and future. Inclusive apprehension has sometimes been ascribed to God, the vision of the world sub specie aeternitatis, and mystics who achieve contact or union with God may be thought to share in the vision. Thomas Traherne gives eloquent expression to the idea when he describes the space in which all ages are exhibited to saints and mystics (Centuries V. 6). Traherne joins inclusivity with momentariness: each moment of time, if inspected closely, would reveal the eternal spaciousness. Reference to eternal duration is not confined to older, theologically infused mystical writings, for it recurs in modern first‐order accounts (e.g. RERC 2505, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 108; Wendy Rose‐Neill, in Coxhead 1985: 30). The eternity is not a stagnant changelessness but the dynamic world‐process presented in its entirety. Thus, C.M.C. saw ‘everything in its time and place’, but her description stresses life and development, the ‘passing from order to order’ of the everlasting, universal life (Bucke (1901) 1989: 270). Temporal inclusivity and harmonious flow are not mutually exclusive, for the eternal vision presents the dynamic, coordinated transformation of things in comprehensive, completed form.


The dynamic character of the world is often expressed as ‘livingness’. Even inanimate things are found to be intensely alive. Everything seems to pulsate, vibrate, ‘breathe’:

All of a sudden, when I was walking in the country near my home (not taking a walk, just going to the mail‐box) everything came alive around me, and seemed to glow and breathe with animation—even the sticks and stones at my feet, and the mountain across the valley; the trees particularly I remember. It was a very beautiful and profoundly disturbing and frightening experience. (RERC 271, in Beardsworth 1977: 62)

The sense of animation can derive from the dynamism of the scene, the vibration, motion, or shifting luminosity. Life means transformation. The chemist Humphry Davy (1778–1829), a friend of Coleridge and Southey, brought out the life–motion association very strongly in his account of a nature experience:

To‐day, for the first time in my life, I have had a distinct sympathy with nature. I was lying on the top of a rock to leeward; the wind was high, and everything in motion; the branches of an oak tree were waving and murmuring to the breeze; yellow clouds, deepened by grey at the base, were rapidly (p.74) floating over the western hills; the whole sky was in motion; the yellow stream below was agitated by the breeze; everything was alive, and myself part of the series of visible impressions; I should have felt pain in tearing a leaf from one of the trees.…Deeply and intimately connected are all our ideas of motion and life, and this, probably, from very early association. How different is the idea of life in a physiologist and a poet! (Davy 1836: i. 119)

The sense of animation can also be a realization that everything is conscious or intelligent, or that everything has its existence in consciousness or mind (e.g. Austin 1931; Starr 1991). Life means consciousness.


Personal or impersonal ‘presences’ are sometimes reported in extrovertive accounts. Subjects may gain the impression that a personal being is in the vicinity, even though no one can be seen. Genevieve Foster saw nothing unusual with her ‘outward eye’, but she knew that a ‘numinous figure’ stood in front of her, a figure with whom she was exchanging love (1985: 43). R. Ogilvie Crombie, a theosophist who became involved in the Findhorn Community, felt a surge of power and an intensification of awareness as he walked through the grounds of a mansion, and then became aware of a presence by his side, whom he understood to be Pan. Crombie became ‘one’ with the god and saw the natural world through his eyes, spying nymphs, fairies, and other nature beings in the woods (Sutcliffe 1998: 36–7). More often, the personal presence is an all‐pervading love or benevolence, with no localized form, and subjects may talk of the ‘presence of God’. When used impersonally, ‘presence’ can refer to a life‐force or power, or to the reality that the subject is beginning to apprehend. John Middleton Murry's sense of ‘presence’ had two aspects, the presence of the universe in which he found himself to be a part, and the presence of his deceased wife Katherine Mansfield, who was also knit into the whole (Murry 1929: 36–8).

Subjects frequently believe that they were in touch with reality during their extrovertive mystical experiences, whether the world in its hidden depths, the source from which the world emerges, or a power that is active in the world. During a sleepless night shortly after the death of her mother, a woman had the ‘most shattering experience of her life’:


Without any sense perception (except that I do seem to recollect an impression of light and darkness), I was made aware of a Reality beyond anything that my own mind could have conceived. And that Reality was a total love of all things in heaven and earth. ‘It’ enclosed and accepted every thing and every creature: there was no distinction of its love between the star, the saint and the torturer. All were ‘kept’ by this Power, and loved by it. I understood—then at least—the phrases ‘I am that I am’ and what I later read as ‘the coincidence of opposites’. ‘It’ is Eternal Being.…

For myself I did not doubt then, and have never doubted since, that I was put in touch with that ultimate reality for which we use the shorthand ‘God’. (RERC 4182, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 61–2)

Standing amongst pine trees and looking at the sky, another woman was suddenly lifted into white luminosity and ecstasy, with ‘no sense of time or place’. After a minute or two, the condition subsided, leaving a feeling of unity and a conviction that reality had been touched: ‘I felt ONE with everything and everybody; and somehow I knew that what I had experienced was Reality, and that Reality is Perfection’ (B.E.B., in Hall 1937: 81).

For subjects in theistic religious contexts, ‘God’ is the obvious point of reference for expressing the sense of contact with reality. To give a possible historical example, Angela of Foligno recalled that once, during Mass, she conversed with God and was then shown the whole of creation: ‘…in everything that I saw, I could perceive nothing except the presence of the power of God, and in a manner totally indescribable.’ Overcome with wonder, her soul cried out: ‘This world is pregnant with God!’ (Lachance 1993: 169–70). Contemporary subjects have also understood their experiences in terms of contact with God or some related spiritual reality. For example, one woman understood her experience of luminosity and oneness with her surroundings in terms of the Holy Trinity (RERC 4230, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 73–4). The woman whose ‘dentist's chair’ account was quoted at the beginning of the Introduction went on to say:

I was aware of a hand holding the whole world in its care—regardless of race, colour or creed—this was God caring for all his children.…I have never doubted since that day that there is a God and that he is a God of love. (RERC 4384, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 114)

When an extrovertive account refers to the spiritual reality as God or the presence of God, it is often unclear how the subject was able to recognize it as such. In St Angela's story, it is taken for granted that (p.76) the presence is God's power: she has been conversing with God, who then proceeds to demonstrate his presence in the world (‘I want to show you something of my power’). Do subjects know intuitively that the presence is God, through some higher, spiritual knowledge, such as God's self‐knowledge, or is God recognized through the divine characteristics and activities? In the following example, the subject explains that he has used ‘God’ language because it suggests some of the features he experienced:

I have used the word ‘God’ because I know of no other word which carries the implication of infinite power, goodness, wisdom and peace. But whatever name we give to this power, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it exists and that it is available to anyone who is prepared to expend some effort to make contact. (RERC 874, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 152)

The account exhibits a cautiousness over ‘God’ terminology that is often present in modern testimonies. Subjects sometimes explain that they only thought of God afterwards, or that they are unsure whether God terminology is appropriate, or that by ‘God’ they mean an interior reality rather than the external, anthropomorphic deity that conventional religion had taught them.13 In one case of cosmic mystical experience, induced by LSD, the subject observed that there was no directing force: ‘Everything flowed from itself by its own energy. If there is any god or creative power, it exists only as a man‐made concept’ (‘successful executive’, in Houston and Masters 1972: 307). The subject had apparently encountered the depths of cosmic reality but was reluctant to call it ‘God’ because there was no sense of a dominant or controlling force.


Changes in body awareness and unusual body sensations are sometimes reported. Consciousness expansion and incorporative unity can be expressed as expansion of the head or the body. Some notable scriptural and literary portrayals of the cosmic body may have been inspired by extrovertive experiences. Arjuna's experience of Kṛṣṇa's cosmic display in the Bhagavad Gītā combines ‘body of God’ (p.77) theology with a mystical theophany.14 Some mystics have taken the idea further:

  • May my body blossom into your true nature,
  • The worlds become my limbs.

Utpaladeva, Śivastotrāvalī 8. 7 (Bailly 1987: 57) 

  • You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea it self floweth in your Veins,
  • till you are Clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars…

Thomas Traherne, Centuries I. 29 (1958: 15)

The mystic not only witnesses the cosmic body of God but shares it through union with God. Edward Carpenter also wrote about the mystic's cosmic body (e.g. 1904a: 220–2).

Perhaps the most interesting somatic phenomena are the sensations of flowing ‘energy’ and feelings in specific body areas:

Suddenly, it was as if a funnel was in the top of my head and my consciousness went out into it, spreading wider and wider as it went. (RERC 4764, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 171)

Muz Murray's account of cosmic expansion is rich in somatic references. His experience began with a feeling of ‘strange pressure’ in the ‘brain’, which developed into an understanding of his identity with the universe and the sense that his body cells had a consciousness of their own (Coxhead 1985: 31–3). Anne Bancroft's feeling of unity with a rhododendron branch seemed to come from her forehead (1977: 66–7). Sarah Miles experienced intense heat above the solar plexus, coldness in her limbs, and a strange form of breathing that led into a state of unity with all things (Lello 1985: 75). Allan L. Smith's experience of ‘cosmic consciousness’ began with ‘some mild tingling in the perineal area’ (Smith and Tart 1998: 100). After A.G.F. was surrounded by white light, she noticed a ‘vitality’ flow from her feet to the crown of her head, at which point she felt the barrier between herself and God come down (Hall 1937: 249–50).

It has already been noted that some Indian systems of contemplative practice tie expansive experiences of the cosmos to transformations in the subtle anatomical structures said to be positioned approximately along the spinal column, from the perineum to the crown of the head and above. Study of the literature on modern kuṇḍalinī experiences may reveal additional extrovertive cases with (p.78) somatic accompaniments, although there appear to be many instances of kuṇḍalinī arousal in which extrovertive experience does not ensue (Sannella 1976: 25–42). This is to be expected, for visionary and unitive expansions are supposed to occur only when the uppermost cakras are activated, preceded or accompanied by the development of paranormal abilities.


Some scholars, including Otto, Stace, and Inge, have drawn a sharp distinction between paranormal phenomena and mystical experiences, dismissing the former as inferior occurrences that can safely be put aside in the study of mysticism. Others have rightly criticized the sharp separation, pointing out that the boundaries between the two are not clear‐cut and that historical instances show a relation. Mystics have described paranormal abilities, and paranormal phenomena have accompanied their meditative practices (see Moore 1977: 59–62; Hollenback 1996: 17–20, 276–8). In the case of extrovertive experience, a connection with telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and out‐of‐the‐body experience is sometimes evident. For instance, Derek Gibson experienced a dramatic extension of vision that began to penetrate objects and magnify them (Coxhead 1985: 10). The penetrative vision could be classed as ‘paranormal’, specifically a vivid form of ‘X‐ray clairvoyance’, vision that supposedly reaches through opaque barriers. In Gibson's case, the ‘X‐ray ability’ (as he called it) developed unitive features, taking the experience in a mystical direction. Gibson was no longer a detached, clairvoyant observer but became unified with the things he saw. The experience became recognizably mystical, with strong noetic and unitive features, transformation of self‐experience, peace, and joy. It is noteworthy that the mystical state emerged out of the paranormal vision, suggesting a connection between the two. Gibson's experience is unusual but not unique. Peter Moore (1977: 70–4), for instance, illustrates the overlap between mystical and paranormal by quoting the intriguing case published by W. L. Wilmshurst (1928).15 The experience began with a penetrative, panoramic vision (p.79) associated with a blue or violet haze. As the experience developed in a mystical direction, the hue changed to gold. In another case, Julie Chimes recalls an experience that occurred when she was subjected to a murderous assault (1996: 65–6, 69–71). The experience combined out‐of‐the‐body experience, a life‐review, telepathy, clairvoyance, and mystical features (unity, meaning, love): ‘Somehow everything was me. In me and out of me.…I was part of a magnificent whole’ (1996: 70). There was a kuṇḍalinī‐like sensation of heat moving up the spine, and even the desolidifying blue light of the Wilmshurst account made an appearance, associated with a vision of Christ.

The link between paranormal and mystical phenomena should be of considerable interest to theorists. Is it indicative of common or related mechanisms, as the kuṇḍalinī framework would have us believe? If paranormal phenomena sometimes develop into mystical states, is it a sign that the former are prefigurations of the latter, with, say, telepathy and clairvoyance embryonic forms of mystical knowledge and vision, and precognition, retrocognition, and life‐reviews rooted in the temporal inclusivity of extrovertive mystical experience? An explanation that demonstrates subsumptive power by accounting for both extrovertive and paranormal phenomena would be in a stronger position than one that dealt with just one or the other.


Lists of individual characteristics may give the impression that the characteristics are discrete. However, some accounts suggest a fusion. For instance, light–life–love and light–life–knowing fusions are described by C.M.C. (Bucke (1901) 1989: 271) and Irina Starr (1991: 10) respectively. In another case, there was a light–consciousness–love link: on a nature walk, H.B.'s consciousness expanded in unison with a golden light, and there was an awareness that ‘in this light, or one with it’ is a spirit of ‘smiling, loving watchfulness and beauty’ (Hall 1926: 86–7).

Colours, sounds, and other sensory qualities may also lose their separateness, a merging of sensuous contents that can be called ‘synaesthetic’. Synaesthesia is not commonly reported in the accounts I have read, with the exception of drug‐induced cases, which is perhaps no surprise since it is well known that psychedelic experiences often involve synaesthesia (see Marks 1978: 99–100). (p.80) However, at least two examples of light–sound synaesthesia do appear to be non‐drug cases. Both subjects felt that they had come into contact with reality, which gives the experiences their mystical feel (RERC 3144, in Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 175–6; M.I.D., in Johnson 1959: 60–1). In a third case, both mystical and synaesthetic unities were described, and all sensory qualities seemed to be rooted in luminosity (‘Helga’, in Hoffman 1992: 39).

From the early 1880s, synaesthesia received medical, psychological, aesthetic, and mystical attention. For some thinkers, it represented an advanced stage of evolutionary development that brought visionary revelation and unity, whilst for others it was, like mystical experience, a symptom of degeneration (see Dann 1998). Bucke, who shared the contemporary interest in the evolution and devolution of the mind, drew no connection between cosmic consciousness and synaesthesia, although Carpenter, in a letter to Bucke dated 16 June 1892, had attempted to convey his mystical experience by juxtaposing synaesthetic and identificatory unities: ‘The perception seems to be one in which all the senses unite into one sense. In which you become the object’ (Bucke (1901) 1989: 198; see Weir 1995: 49). Elsewhere, Carpenter described cosmic consciousness as ‘a sense that one is those objects and things and persons that one perceives (and the whole universe)—a sense in which sight and touch and hearing are all fused in identity’ (Bucke (1901) 1989: 206). Carpenter's assimilation of synaesthesia to mystical unity may well express his own experience or simply reflect contemporary spiritualizations of synaesthesia. One source, however, is clear: Carpenter had become familiar with Śaiva teachings on the reunification of the sense faculties in a higher space consciousness (1892: 187–91).


Experiences of a ‘spiritual’ character can be far from uplifting. Merete Jakobsen (1999) has drawn attention to a variety of disturbing religious experiences recorded in the Alister Hardy collection, and in recent years researchers of near‐death experience have become increasingly aware of negative cases (e.g. Greyson and Bush 1992). Drug‐induced spiritual experiences can be uplifting, but ‘bad trips’ are common. By contrast, spontaneous extrovertive experiences seem to be generally positive in tone, dominated by bliss, joy, reassuring insights, balancing perspectives, love, and so forth, if the (p.81) cases I have studied are representative. It is, of course, quite possible that they are not fully representative, for negative experiences are less likely to be reported than positive ones, except in psychiatric contexts. Still, it is difficult to point to spontaneous examples that are thoroughly negative, with no redeeming features at all, although extrovertive experiences associated with drugs, mental breakdown, or kuṇḍalinī arousals can be very disturbing indeed (e.g. Braden 1967; ‘Adelaide M. B.’, in Schroeder 1922; Gopi Krishna 1971).

This is not to say that spontaneous extrovertive experiences are free from disturbing elements, but the overall character is generally affirmative, rather than horrific or destructive. Nevertheless, the sheer intensity of positive features, such as beauty, love, and understanding, can be overwhelming. Changes in the sense of self can also be very unsettling. The challenge to the ordinary self‐concept can generate fear, and identificatory and incorporative unities can bring feelings of loneliness and existential anxiety. These feelings may interfere with the further development of the experiences and leave subjects in a raw state. John Horgan's experience (1998: 261–2; 2003: 32–5) under a psychedelic drug is strikingly similar in some ways to William Braden's experience under mescaline. Both Horgan and Braden describe the existential fear of the solipsistic, all‐inclusive ego that seeks refuge from its anxiety and loneliness in a multiplicity of limited selves, and both are drawn by their experiences into theological speculations about a fearful or limited God. However, Horgan also speculates that in the grandiose state he may have projected his personal fears of self‐dissolution on God (2003: 70).

If identificatory and incorporative unities can, on occasions, lead to an inflationary misappropriation of the world by the human ego and consequent difficulties, there is the converse possibility that immersive unity can prompt a deflationary swing in which the ego overreacts to the discovery of its insignificance in the overall pattern of the world. There is also the possibility of self‐criticism if the experience discloses ‘moral’ failings (e.g. St Teresa's shame). Subjects may feel that their negative attitudes to others and selfish priorities have put them out of step with the deeper nature of things. This reaction seems to arise quite often in near‐death circumstances.


(1) For instance, William James's marks—ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity—are intended to cover all mystical experiences. For recent general characterizations, see Franks Davis (1989: 54–65) and Hollenback (1996: 40–119).

(2) For an early version of the list, see Bucke's letter to Horace Traubel dated 20 March 1892, items 15 to 19 (Lozynsky 1977: 182–3).

(3) e.g. RERC (Beardsworth 1977: 16), Owens (Coxhead 1985: 35), May (1993: ix), RERC 2668 (Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 134), Bingham (Corcoran 1996: 131), and Austin (1998: 538).

(4) For detailed overviews, see Hood et al. (1996: 256–65) and Hood (1997).

(5) See also Wainwright (1981: 12) and Newell (1981: 133–43, 258).

(6) Zaehner, playing with Jungian ideas, also distinguishes a second, more advanced type of ‘natural’ mysticism, which has unity with nature as just one part of its overall composition (1957: 118). This is an integration of the collective unconscious and the conscious mind in the Jungian Self. Whereas ordinary natural mystical experience is a unity with the collective unconscious, integration brings the unconscious into unity with the conscious in a way that is centred on the Self.

(7) Other examples include RERC 2366 (Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 51), the cases of ‘Harold’ and Jenny Wade (Wade 2000: 285, 289–91), and ‘Bengt’ (Wade 2004: 172).

(8) e.g. Ward (1957: 27), Raine (1975: 119–20), Gibson (Coxhead 1985: 62), Spangler (May 1993: 299).

(9) See also RERC (Beardsworth 1977: 16) and Franklin (2000). It can also be a feature of near‐death experience (e.g. ‘Tom Sawyer’, in Ring 1984: 58).

(10) See also Spinney (Zaehner 1958: 50–1), Bharati (1976: 39), Owens (Coxhead 1985: 35), and Smith (Smith and Tart 1998: 100).

(11) For other examples, see Beardsworth (1977: 22–3).

(12) ‘the senses provide the raw material’ (Otto (1932) 1987: 255); ‘perceived through the physical senses’ (Stace 1961: 79); ‘To put the matter crudely, the panenhenic vision…occurs with the eyes open’ (Smart 1968: 66); ‘the “raw data” are presumably fairly ordinary visual, auditory, tactual and (sometimes) olfactory sense data, although these may be unusually intense and vivid’ (Wainwright 1981: 23).

(13) e.g. account from Starbuck's collection in James ((1902) 1985: 394 n. 2), Austin (1931: 25), E.G.S. (Hall 1937: 41), Ancilla (1955: 21), Stapledon (Johnson 1959: 44), ‘person I have not met’ (Johnson 1984: 111–12), Gibson (Coxhead 1985: 63), RERC 4182 (Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 61–2), RERC 4217 (Maxwell and Tschudin 1996: 128–9), and Franklin (2000: 14).

(14) On the cosmic body of Viṣṇu and Kṛṣṇa, see Matchett (2001). Also Overzee (1992), on the divine body in Rāmānuja's thought. The Buddhist ‘three‐body doctrine’ is also of interest (e.g. Harvey 1990: 125–8).

(15) Rather oddly, Wilmshurst claims to have received permission to ‘restate’ the narrative (‘The Vision Splendid’) in his own words, which suggests that the experience was not his own. ‘Restating’ the narrative is not the best procedure for conveying a reliable account, unless Wilmshurst was himself the subject. An abridged version is included in Happold's study (1970: 136–8).