I hesitate to dip my toe into this lake because I am by no means an expert on mysticism. At the same time, I think it’s important for people to discuss. I know from my own experience it can cause insecurity and disappointment when you don’t understand what is really going on when people use certain language. And just like magick is different than the magic in fairy tale stories, mystical experiences are often quite different from what we would expect.
Most beginner books on Wicca include at least some section on visualization and other experiences, such as that what a person might undergo during a guided meditation, for example. Very often these books talk about “seeing” or “hearing” or some other sensory experience, or at least what sounds like one. Here’s a very typical example, taken from a meditation on building visualization skills:
“See the orange before you, as if a real piece of fruit is hanging on an invisible tree. Take note of the color, and variations of color. Is it completely ripe? Notice the texture of the orange’s skin, the curves and bumps. Reach out with your physical hands and pretend to grab it. The orange is now in your hands. How does it feel? Can you smell it? Peel back the skin. Can you feel the wetness of the juice on your hands? Can you taste it? Use all your senses.” (Christopher Penczak, “The Inner Temple of Witchcraft”, p. 103).
At this point, some people may be ready to throw up their hands in frustration. What orange? It’s not physically there, and you certainly aren’t physically tasting it or feeling it. Does practicing Wicca mean that I have to physically see with my eyes things that are not present to others? Does it mean I have to have visions to be successful?
But it’s quite easy to see how someone can get that impression. After all, the language is the same as if the real orange were in fact in front of you. So what is it meant when someone says “I see” or “I feel”?
A disclaimer: I realize there are people who do see things as if they were physically present with their bodily eyes. I’ve had a couple of experiences like this, and I can easily count them on one hand. Some people do process what would be called “mystical experiences” with their bodily five senses.
But for the rest of us, how do we see that orange?
Visualization and what it is:
The majority of people are able to visualize. There are people who can’t picture images in their minds, a situation that is called “aphantasia”. That doesn’t mean that they can’t have mystical experiences, but they are going to be experienced differently.
Most of us, however, are able to visualize. If we are asked to close our eyes and imagine a rose, we can do it. If asked to recollect the smell, we can. We don’t physically smell it at the moment, and yet in some real way we experience it. If you’ve ever accessed the memory of a song without physically hearing it, that is a form of auditory visualization. Have you ever talked to yourself silently or daydreamed?
These things are very real and yet they don’t happen in the material world. There is an assumption here which are crucial to realize when talking about mystical experiences and other states of consciousness. It’s the assumption that only what we experience with our five senses is real. It’s the assumption that sensory input is the only way we can learn things accurately. This philosophy is called empiricism, and it is a fundamental building block of a materialistic view of the world. I do not mean that people who believe this are obsessed with material goods, but that “Materialism as a philosophy is held by those who maintain that existence is explainable solely in material terms, with no accounting of spirit or consciousness. Individuals who hold to this belief see the universe as a huge device held together by pieces of matter functioning in subjection to naturalistic laws.” (Allaboutphilosophy.org)
If you are interested in Wicca, chances are high this is not a philosophy you hold to. But it is an underlying assumption of much of the skepticism about the supernatural. (I say supernatural because as of this point it is not something that science can measure or quantify in any way). And there is certainly a place in Wicca for skepticism. People who look for signs in every little thing, or explain everything by the supernatural often are seeing what is not there. In Wicca, we at least look to the mundane before the supernatural. If two candles burn next to each other and their wax merges, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s true that the God and the Goddess use the little things to speak to us or to reveal themselves to us. This is an area, though, where it is possible to go overboard and in the process drive yourself and everyone around you crazy.
What visualization does and how it affects magick
Visualization often feels like “imagining” or “playing pretend”. The difference between daydreaming and visualization with intent is that we are accessing and creating a reality on the astral plane, using our psychic senses. Our imaginations are kind of like our background thoughts; until we focus them and place intent behind them, they are just there. But just like a thought becomes more than just a thought when you act on it, focusing on a visualization and placing intent behind it makes it more than “just imagining”. Christopher Penzack, further on in that same book, discusses what visualization is.
“At times, magick and meditation may feel inauthentic, like you are “making it up” or “using your imagination.” Magick is imagination. The power to visualize is imagination. Magick is imagination mingled with your intention. Think of how magickal children are. They haven’t lost the ability to imagine and enter the magickal state of awareness. You are working with the magickal forces of the universe, but you must partner with them. Your interface with unseen forces is imagination.” (ibid, pg. 166)
You’re using a different sense, what some have called “the sixth sense”, to interact with a different state of reality. Right now, this is not a reality that science can access. But a hundred years from now, who knows?
When you cast a circle, and you visualize that circle being built around you, you are creating that circle on what is often called the astral plane. That is why we call a circle a place that is between space and time. It’s a place where you interact with both realities.
And if we can interact with the Universe in this way, it only makes sense that the Universe can interact with us in this way. So when we do a guided meditation, for example, there are a few things going on. First, you are using meditative techniques to enter into an altered state of consciousness where you are more aware of this reality, this communication. Then you are using your visualization skills to create a reality in which the goal of your meditation can take place. Let’s say your meditation is to find your patron deity. You are seeking out the deity, you are placing yourself in a situation where your senses are open to hear and see what is going to happen. This is the perfect opportunity for your patron to communicate with you- you are there, you are open, you are aware.
This is where these experiences become something that someone who hasn’t experienced them can’t fully understand. There comes a point in these experiences where they take on a life of their own. Many people have seen and talked to deities that they didn’t even recognize, and it was only later that they found out who it was. The conversation sounds like you thinking to yourself, but it’s not you thinking, you’re hearing things in a different way than you hear your own “voice”. We all have a tone, a voice we use when we talk to ourselves in our minds. Very often it “sounds” similar to our physical voice. When these experiences happen, you “hear” another “voice”.
It’s not possible to prove those kinds of experiences to another person, even when they end up manifesting in the physical world. If nothing else, they can always write it off as “confirmation bias”. This is one of the reasons why one of the parts of the Witches’ Pyramid is “To keep silent”. Unless the person is open to these kinds of experiences, you may end up feeling confused and misunderstood if you share them.
This is why it is highly encouraged to write down your experiences in meditation, etc., right after they happen, while the details are still fresh. Because there isn’t immediate tangible evidence, once the initial feelings wear off, you may feel like “Well, maybe I just imagined it all.” Your journal is your account of your journey. And over time, you will begin to see how these experiences take root and grow in your daily life. When this happens, you begin to see how the world is full of magick.
Altered States of Consciousness
But what is going on in the mind and in our physical bodies while this is going on? Surely it’s having some effect, right? The answer is yes, and it shows that the “reality” of these experiences isn’t as far from the quantifiable and the scientific as one might think.
Most of us are aware that the brain produces waves, which are electrical charges that activate communication with specific neurons in the brain. Recent research shows there are about 86 million neurons in the brain, give or take. There are different types of brain waves.
Alpha Brain Waves: These are the brain waves that occur when you are awake, conscious, but in a deep state of relaxation.
Beta Brain Waves: This is our “default” waking state. Beta brain waves are what enable us to stay focused and alert and that helps us learn, problem solve and make decisions.
Theta Brain Waves: These are associated with reduced consciousness, light sleep, and deep relaxation. This state of mind is also linked with deep meditative and hypnotic states of mind.
Gamma Brain Waves: These are released when we are trying to use the higher cognition of our brain. When we receive input from several different sources and combine it, gamma waves occur.
Delta Brain Waves: The slowest of all the brain waves, these occur when you’re sleeping deeply and are related to the unconscious mind; for example, they keep autonomic nervous system functions (such as heartbeat, digestion, etc.) going while you sleep.
These brain waves both create and record experiences and are altered by outside influences. Caffeine, for example, is a beta wave stimulant, which is why it can help you focus when studying but it can also make you jittery and nervous. Dreaming occurs in a delta state. Alpha waves act as a “bridge” between the experiences of beta waves and theta waves. Without the beta waves, you won’t be able to access the information that happened during the theta state. Gamma brain waves integrate these differing waves into what is known as perception.
Some would say that these brain waves create mystical experiences. That might be true if they were completely immune from outside influence. But they aren’t. It is possible to affect all the brain waves by varying acts of cognition and action. Meditation is probably the best known of these actions. This could even be said to be true of delta waves as it is possible to choose to stay up (obviously this wouldn’t work long term, but it’s simply to show that human agency does have an effect on brain waves).
Why is this important? Because it shows that there is something objective going on. It’s not all “imagination”, you aren’t just the unwitting victim of what your brain decides to engage in, and it’s certainly not a hallucination. While overactive gamma waves have been shown in episodes of psychosis, these waves are a result of objective dysfunctions in parts of the brain- they don’t just appear all by themselves (for just one example, look at this article). Hallucinations also lead to dysfunction in other areas of life, where someone in a mystical experience has control over themselves and is able to move from their experience back to normal life. They are able to access what they experienced and learned and integrate it into their lives. In other words, mystical experiences have a positive impact on the person; psychosis does not.
Remember that we are in the relatively early stages of knowledge about the brain and consciousness. After all, brain waves weren’t measured until the 1930’s/40’s. MRI’s and CT scans and other similar types of tests are even newer. And seeing how the brain interacts with other unseen parts of reality, such as the interaction with quantum physics, is in its infancy.
Obviously, this doesn’t fully explain mystical experiences. It’s not meant to. What it is meant to show is that there are objective realities that can be measured behind experiences that cannot necessarily be measured. Again, science isn’t the only way of knowing and what we experience with our five senses is not the only “real” form of experience.
This isn’t to say that these things are never experienced outside of the mind. Reiki, for example, which is energy work (and the ability to perceive and direct energy is something that many would say falls under a mystical experience) has been shown to have many positive effects. Increasing relaxation could be placebo effect or could be attributed to the environment in which the treatment occurs. Lessening the side effects of chemotherapy and improving surgical outcomes is a lot harder to write off (Does Reiki Work?). And what about the fact that treatment can occur without the practitioner being physically present? This is just one example of a treatment or technique that accesses non-tangible, non-scientifically accessible forms of reality and yet produces objective, measurable results.
So what does all this tell us about how to access non-physical reality? It shows us that, like any other ability, we can improve our skills in this area. It may come more naturally to others, but we all have this ability to some extent. Even those who cannot picture images in their mind can use other non-physical senses, such as perception, to access altered states of consciousness and other forms of reality. This is why meditation and visualization practice is so important, especially at the beginning of someone’s journey into magick. Simply wishing for something isn’t enough. You have to be actively engaged in making that happen. That these states of the brain can be influenced by outside stimuli shows why aids such as ritual and sensory experiences such as incense and drumming can help induce altered states of consciousness.
This is only the broadest overview on this topic. Again, I am not an expert in mysticism. My goal is to simply alleviate the anxieties of those who have felt like they haven’t had the experiences of others. This also is meant to help those who have experienced feel more confident in the reality of what happened.