December 6, 2021

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Vince Hatt: Becoming mentally healthy may be mystical | Column

What makes us psychologically healthy? Abraham Maslow found out in the mid-20th century that even a Ph.D. in psychology did not give him an answer to this question. Why? Since its beginning, psychology had focused on mental illness rather than mental health.

So, Maslow began a study of psychologically healthy people. He interviewed people with outstanding creativity, inner strength, and resilience. He discovered that they had one thing in common: They had “mystical experiences.” Since this phrase was confusing to many people, Maslow replaced it with the now familiar term “Peak Experience.”

Spiritual writers, however, stay with the term mystical experience. Let me “de-mystify” mystical. As a spiritual companion, I find that when people feel safe, many will speak of mystical experiences though they rarely call them that. These are moments of awe and sacredness.

Some common examples of such inner experiences are the birth of a child, a sunrise on a lake, the death of a parent, a wide smile on a baby’s face, a time of quiet prayer, or a moment of deep connection with a spouse, friend, nature, or pet. A mystical — or peak experience — is “a sense of the sacred glimpsed in and through the particular instance of the present moment.”

About 30 years ago, while I was biking across Iowa, I had a mystical experience. I will describe it in the present tense as it is just as real today. I am biking in a park near Des Moines. As I am coasting down a short hill and splashing through a one-foot stream, I look up and see the sun dancing in splendor among the bright green leaves of a nearby tree. I am filled with awe. I feel at one with everything. I am part of something much bigger than the world itself.

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Back in 1902, William James wrote “Varieties of Religious Experiences.” He listed some qualities of these experiences that can be called mystical, religious or peak experiences. First, they are hard to put into words. I struggled with writing the previous paragraph and still don’t think I have it quite right.

Second, these experiences are transitory. They can happen in seconds and disappear quickly.

Third, they are a gift. You cannot cause them. You can try to recreate the situation, but the experience will not return.

Finally, these experiences can have a life-changing impact. I do not remember anything else about my week riding across Iowa. But I do remember that experience. Returning to this memory, I am reminded of the unity and sacredness of the world and of life.

Perhaps the most famous mystical or peak experience is that of Thomas Merton. There is even a monument in Louisville at the location where it happened. Here are Merton’s own words.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.”

Lutheran theologian Marcus Borg wrote of his mystical experience in “Convictions,” a final book as he reflected on his life. It was on a flight from Tel Aviv to New York. Here are Borg’s own words.

“I looked around, and everything was filled with exquisite beauty — the texture and fabric of the back of the seat in front of me, the tray full of food. … Everybody looked beautiful — even a passenger who, as we left Tel Aviv, had struck me as perhaps the ugliest person I had ever seen. … Even he looked wonderous. My face was wet with tears. I was filled with joy. I felt I could live in that state of consciousness forever.”

These mystical or peak experiences changed both Merton and Borg forever.

Back to Abraham Maslow. Here is his main point. Maslow concluded that our psychological health differs to the degree to which we integrate these peak or mystical experiences into our lives and the awareness they bring to our daily living.

This is a startling and unexpected discovery. Yet I have witnessed several “ah-ha” moments when people share these life-changing experiences as they grow toward wholeness.

Education, success, medications and beauty may be helpful to a person, but they do not guarantee psychological health. Maslow discovered that honoring and integrating peak or mystical experiences is the best predictor of psychological health.

Vince Hatt has been a spiritual director for over 40 years. He has a master’s degree in religious education from Catholic University and a master’s degree in theology from the Aquinas Institute.

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