The Ecstatic Journey: The Transforming Power of Mystical Experience by Sophy Burnham, Ballantine Books, New York, 1997, pp. 323, $25.00

Reviewed By John A. Speyrer

I am including this book in the list of books about the regressive psychotherapies because it recounts experiences which often happen to those of us in such therapies. At the end stages of deep feeling oriented psychotherapies, many become more spiritual and some have experiences which have the elements of mysticism. It is as though, after years of re-living our early traumas, our brain becomes more receptive to non-ordinary states of consciousness and a whole gamut of new consciousness experiences become accessible.

The Ecstatic Journey is the best book on the mystical experience I have read. It contains interesting snippets from the lives of the great mystics -- poets, philosophers, founders of religions and of religious orders and mystical experiences of very ordinary persons.

The book is a good companion to Stan and Christina Grof's The Stormy Search for the Self, although the later is more concerned with the resolution of the suffering aspects of such experiences while Burnham's work is mostly about the spiritual aspects of mysticism. Sophy Burnham defines mysticism as "the direct encounter with God (however that word is understood)."

A member of the Episcopal Church as a child, the author writes that in her youth, she did not feel particularly pious or spiritual. During college she no longer had any religious beliefs at all and felt that God had no special significance in her life. Her first inkling that a mystical journey was beginning was the spontaneous occurrence of a satori experience, which seemed to her as having nothing to do with religion.

Moving from her beloved New York City to Washington D. C. made her feel depressed and abandoned. Before leaving she had met a woman who taught her how to use a Buddhist form of meditation which she uses to this day. As she continued to meditate and as her prayers become more fervent, there developed a need and desire to "know" God. Occasionally, her prayers were tearful as she felt accompanied by an encouraging holy presence.

In 1977, at age 42, the author was assigned to write a magazine article on the ancient Inca fortress-city of Machu Picchu in Peru. She felt deeply that the upcoming adventure was guided by God. At a Central American airport shop she noticed people's skin were radiating intense light. The beauty of the landscape in Peru was overwhelming and she felt ecstatic joy at its beauty. Sensing a feeling of hearing "You Belong to Me," the author acquiesced to a feeling of merging with the divine. She felt wave after wave of light washing over her as she melted with joy. The author felt that she had had glimpses into all knowledge and truth from the very beginnings of the world. After the mystical experience was over, she was a different person.

Like a person who has been stripped of his defenses in intensive regressive therapy, Burnham complained that the experience made her too sensitive and too open. She became flooded with tears over the slightest feeling stimulus and no longer enjoyed or wanted to be in social situations. Music and attractive landscapes also triggered feelingful tears. The pulsating floods of light, which had begun in Central America, continued, as did the multiple ecstasies and the deep realization that everything that had occurred in the past and was to occur in the future world, was perfectly acceptable including war, death, conflict and destruction.

The author asks these important questions:

  • "What brings on a mystical encounter?"
  • "Why does it come at one time and not another, to some people and not to others?"
  • "Why must it be invited in, first by the loneliness that aches to be filled, then by surrender, a crying out for help?"
  • "And why do the mysteries present themselves in such vast and varying forms?"

Those forms. Sophy Burnham explains, take the shape of forces such as "wind, light, fire, peace, love, Christ, angels, guides, knowings, or dark nothingness."

Whether The Ecstatic Journey adequately answers these questions is doubtful. The author believes that an adequate explanation to the intriguing phenomena of mysticism will never be known.

Sophy Burnham acknowledges that mysticism is only one route to experiencing transcendent states of consciousness. Shamanic rituals, sacred dance, austere deprivation, and ingesting psychedelic drugs are other ways of accessing the transcendental mind-set, she writes. So does that mean that biochemical reactions reduces all such experiences to simple brain chemistry? Not at all. She states that William James in Varieties of Religious Experiences felt that every single state of mind or thought , both normal and abnormal, is the result of organic processes. Thus, there is no reason why one should think of mystical experiences as apart from oneself.

Even though it seems that the religious motif predominates in mysticism, there is also a similarity of experiences by those who have psychotic breakdowns accompanied by mystical experiences. What the author describes is a happy, joyful experience though, at times, the experience may be accompanied with some confusion. This is contrasted with a psychotic episode which is usually accompanied with depression, and much mental suffering.

She writes that during her transcendental happenings she was able to see "into the structure of the universe," and witnessed the future destruction of the planets by raging fires, with millions of years passing and more life developing. Others, while undergoing psychotic episodes, have also written of being present during the creation and destruction of the universe and the evolution of life (For similarities with others such experiences, see my article Psychosis, Mysticism and Feelings).

In Stanislav Grof's holotopic breathwork, it is common to re-live one's pre-birth, birth, infantile and early childhood traumas. (See my article, From Primal To Holotropic Breathwork.) However, in reading of mystical encounters with the divine by well-known mystics, I have not read of the re-living of such biographical material.

I do not believe that there is any reason why, in some instances, the religious mystic would not re-live his early traumas along with his mystical experiences, since seemingly the same mechanisms are at work in both unordinary states of consciousness. Perhaps, occasionally such material is present but not reported since the experiencer feels that its recounting would detract from the message he felt he has been privileged and blessed to receive. In addition, the experiencer might have felt that a recounting of incredulous biographical material would have added an extra layer of doubt to his already unbelievable recounting.

For other articles on this subject, see on this website, The Psychology of Mysticism