Can you know God directly, through the workings of your own mind? Or do you need an agent, a religious leader, or a book of ancient scriptures to get you there?
The answers are: yes, you can know God directly through something called “mysticism.” No, you don’t need to have an agent or intermediary or ancient book to get you there. The direct knowledge of God occurs to some people as a flash of insight that is very powerful and thrilling. This flash of insight is called “the mystical experience.” I never thought about it much, but I suppose I am a mystic. No, that doesn’t mean I have to wear a turban or learn to play the sitar. I don’t even have to burn incense, though I think it might be nice. Anyway, my wife would probably complain.
I have had the mystical experience three times in my life. Each experience happened to me in my youth, while I was earnestly seeking to know God and while I was discussing God with other young men. However, the most powerful of the three happened to me in June of 1964. At the time it happened to me, I had never heard of mysticism or the mystical experience. I only knew that I had experienced something extraordinary, something profound.
Some background: when I was 19 years of age, I was acutely aware of my mortality and horrified at the thought of death. I had begun a search to find the truth about God, whether or not He existed, and if He did, what He wanted from human beings. Was there an after life? What did you have to do to get there?
In June of 1964, two church buddies accompanied me and my younger brother on a camping trip. The four of us went to Seacliff, California, where we camped in a tent overlooking the Pacific ocean. One night we went down to the beach after the sun had set and noticed that the white caps of the incoming tide were no longer white – they were glowing in a beautiful, luminescent blue. Since I was a biology major at the time, I knew the glowing light was caused by unicellular organisms in the surf, either dynoflagellates or diatoms. These one-celled marine animals glowed in royal blue, causing the tide to glow blue from their teeming millions. When we walked on the wet beach, a circle of blue sparkles would erupt around each footstep. It was like walking through sapphires. We were in awe of nature’s beauty.
We sat on a dune overlooking the incoming tide of blue light, looking up at the sky and the moon and the stars. We began to talk about God and whether He had a plan for man. That’s when it happened to me. Suddenly the mortal veil slipped from my eyes and I instantly perceived the divine nature of the universe. In that moment, all doubt about the existence of a supreme being vanished completely. God was no longer an abstract idea, but an indisputable fact. This cosmic insight lasted only a few moments, but in those moments I perceived and understood eternity, the interrelationship of all things and the fact that there is no death. I perceived a large multitude of people standing in a far away plain, the people who have died, and was relieved to know that men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin live on. In those brief moments I lost all fear of death. I realized that I was as important in the grand scheme as the largest stars or suns, that I existed for a reason. It was a thrilling revelation and all human fear, doubt and cynicism were burned away by the divine light that flooded my mind.
I did not feel that I had some kind of magical experience, or that I had learned something new. I felt as if I had learned something I already knew, but had forgotten. I felt that this divine truth was always in front of me, but that somehow I couldn’t see it. For whatever reason, the door to my soul had opened briefly to allow in the light.
I was 19 years old. I didn’t have a clue what had happened to me, or that the same experience happens to other people too. I went to bed in my tent that night, listening to the surf crash against the sandy shore, and slept very soundly until morning.
It wasn’t until a few months later that I found out my flash of insight is called “the mystical experience.” I learned it in a class in philosophy that I took at San Jose State. My teacher, a Buddhist, told me that there are religious sects in the Far East that spend all their time trying to experience what I had experienced. These schools of thought constitute something called “Myticism.” They call my kind of experience “attaining enlightenment,” or “achieving nirvana.” It was amazing to me: I had the experience and I didn’t even have to go on a diet of bean curd and goat’s milk! I didn’t have to burn incense or wear saffron robes or shave my head or sit in the full lotus position. What many eastern monks spend a lifetime trying to experience, I had experienced, with no real effort. I felt blessed.
Mysticism is the pursuit of direct knowledge of God, or if you prefer, ultimate reality, through conscious awareness, intuition or insight. Mystics believe that a true human perception of the world transcends logical reasoning or intellectual comprehension. This is not an intellectual cop-out. Human reasoning and logic are limited to the physical world of human experience that is perceived with the five senses. Human reason and logic are inadequate tools for understanding what lies beyond the limit of the five senses. Faith is, therefore, not a denial of human logic or reason, but a form of intuitive knowledge that is derived from other sources.
The mystical experience cannot be adequately described in words, since it transcends ordinary experience. My description above will therefore be inadequate. However, to explain it in simple terms, it felt as if I were eyeball to eyeball with God, if only for one brief moment.