The Mystical State of Consciousness in Joseph Smith’s First Vision

I suggest that Joseph Smith’s earliest direct encounters with God happened in mystical experience, or what is also known as altered states of consciousness.

I suggest that Joseph Smith‘s earliest direct encounters with God happened in mystical experience, or what is also known as altered states of consciousness. He recorded:

…while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the [natural] objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision…

““Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 706, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 1, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/1. The word “natural” is included in Orson Pratt’s 1840 account, and in Orson Hyde’s 1842 account.

Note how he says that his “mind” was “taken away.” The Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde accounts say his “mind” was “caught away” from his surroundings. In other words, his consciousness was taken into a wholly different space/state/mode apart from the grove of trees he was in. We might say he was no longer really in the grove at all, at least his consciousness wasn’t there. His mind had shifted to a different form of consciousness, and it seemed as if he was “taken away” from all objective natural surroundings. This seems to be common in the other “First Vision” type experience accounts I’ve studied; consciousness shifts, it changes, and all perception of reality along with it. Consciousness is transfigured, and Reality is seen in an entirely new, beautiful, and glorious Light.

It’s not that Joseph’s body was literally taken to a different location. I think his body stayed right there, in the grove of trees. It was his mind that was changed into a different state of being, a different mode of perception, a different way of seeing. Consciousness itself seemed to shift so that reality itself seemed to change. It was a transformation of consciousness that allowed him to perceive the Divine, to pass through the veil. This is perhaps what the ancients meant by the Greek word metanoia, traditionally translated in the New Testament as “repentance,” but which may perhaps be better translated as “change of mind,” or “beyond mind,” (meta = change/after/beyond, nous = mind).

We have unfortunately focused so much on an interpretation of the “natural objectivity” and materialistic literalism/historicity of Joseph’s visions and revelations that I think Mormonism may have missed their deeper spiritual and mystical reality. We seem to be little aware of the spiritual nature, the spiritual perennial wisdom, the “hidden treasures” of wisdom and knowledge that he seemed to discover deep in consciousness itself (D&C 89:19), in his very being, in human nature itself. These “treasures” were not literally gold plates buried within the ground of the Earth, but rather hidden within the “ground” of being, within the human being or “Adam” (the Hebrew adamah meaning “ground” or “earth;” cf. Matthew 13:44). I suggest that Joseph’s experiences did not take place in an everyday waking state of consciousness, but rather in a deeply altered mystical state of consciousness, a contemplative or meditative awareness.

The result of focusing on the outward physical and historical literalism of the accounts and revelations is that we seem to spend much of our time skipping along the surface of consciousness, like a stone on water, talking of endless superficialities and physical outward forms and religious performances and legalistic forms of religion, when I think genuine prophet-mystics like Joseph dive deep into the inner mind and consciousness itself to realize God directly, that stone sinking down into the depths of the water, to witness first-hand what is Real above and beyond the everyday mind. They go beyond the ordinary egoic mind, they transcend everyday consciousness, to perceive things in a much different way, prior to all egoic filtering, judgments, analysis, categorization, theologizing, and rationalization, perhaps even to perceive Reality as it really is. This is contemplation, but perhaps has also been known as the beatific vision, awakening, enlightenment, salvation, heaven, nirvana, unio mystica.

I’m intrigued by the statement of John M. Bernhisel, a physician and later delegate for Utah to the United States House of Representatives, after spending nine months boarding with Joseph Smith described him as a contemplative:

…Joseph Smith is naturally a man of strong mental powers, and is possessed of much energy and decision of character, great penetration and a profound knowledge of human nature. He is a man of calm judgment, enlarged views, and is eminently distinguished by his love of justice. He is kind and obliging, generous and benevolent, sociable and cheerful, and is possessed of a mind of a contemplative and reflective character. He is honest, frank, fearless and independent, and as free from dissension as any now to be found. But it is in the gentle charities of domestic life, as the tender and affectionate husband and parent, the warm and sympathizing friend, that the prominent traits of his character are revealed, and his heart is felt to be keenly alive to the kindest and softest emotions of which human nature is susceptible. He is a true lover of his country and a bright and shining example of integrity and moral excellence in all the relations of life. As a religious teacher as well as a man, he is greatly beloved by this people.

Andrus and Andrus, They Knew the Prophet, 199

As one with “strong mental powers,” “profound knowledge of human nature,” with the “mind of a contemplative and reflective character,” and a heart that was “keenly alive to the kindest and softest emotions of which human nature is susceptible,” I think he joins with many others throughout history who have transformed their mind and consciousness in such a way so as to become intimately acquainted with the deepest realities of human nature, consciousness, and the human heart.

That doesn’t mean Joseph was perfect. Far from it. As Fr. Richard Rohr recently noted, “the greater your light, the longer your shadow will be cast,” perhaps paraphrasing Carl Jung who once said, “the further you go into light, the greater your shadow becomes.” We become keenly aware of these people’s weaknesses, imperfections, their large shadows, their “tragic flaws” as Rohr says. They wouldn’t be “tragic” if they weren’t extremely distressing. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t also have genuine contemplative gifts, deep insight into the nature of consciousness and being. Rather, it may be precisely because of their deep contemplation that their shadows became ever greater, they were revealed to the light, and perhaps at times their shadows overcame them.

It’s fascinating to consider that Jesus’ own shadow may have been mythologized in the personalities we know as Judas and Thomas. Perhaps it was not “Judas” who betrayed Jesus, or “Thomas” who doubted Jesus, but Jesus’ own shadow (or ego) who did both of these things within him towards his true Self, the Christ. Maybe the collective ego also participated. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it. Maybe our own shadow also betrays and doubts our true Self. This is not an excuse for egoic acts, but perhaps it may help us to recognize and be compassionate towards the shadows in others, knowing that we too have such a shadow in ourself. We all have a dual nature, and we do well when we allow our true Self to express itself, the Divine within us to speak and act, what Jesus may have also called the “Father” working in him, while also integrating our shadow self in healthy ways.

It is deep in consciousness where I believe Spirit is encountered directly, even our Spirit, which is the same as God’s Spirit, where Reality is known first-hand, and where God is known “face to face,” not subject to object, but subject to subject. God is not seen as merely another object or a being “out there,” but is the Subject, our own deepest Being, which is the same Being in all beings and all things everywhere. This can only be truly known in contemplative or mystical states of consciousness itself, which reveals the true nature of consciousness to itself. It can be known in no other way. Even these words fall far short of that experiential knowing or gnosis.

No amount of historical inquiry, religious scholarship, doctrinal exposition, scriptural elucidation, debate, or apologetics will get us there. All of that may help point us in the right direction, but until we go into our own consciousness to investigate who we really are, we can’t really know it in truth. As Joseph wrote,

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…the things of God Are of deep import and time and expeariance and car[e]ful and pondurous and solom though[ts] can only find them out. thy mind O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation must streach [stretch] as high as the utmost Heavens, and sink sear[c]h in to and contemplate the loest lowest consideatins [considerations] of the darkest abyss, and Expand upon the broad considerations of Eternal Expance, he must commune with God.

(“Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839,” p. 12, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 6, 2017, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-the-church-and-edward-partridge-20-march-1839/12.)

Thy mind! Deep “thoughts.” Stretch high into the heavens. Sink into the darkest abyss. Contemplation! I suggest that Joseph was not talking about a broadly learned intellect and extensive storehouse of human knowledge, as this quote is often interpreted to mean, but the development and transformation of consciousness itself. That is where we may “commune with God,” for ourselves, and only this truly leads souls to salvation. It is salvation, in itself. It is this quote that inspired me to name this website “Thy Mind, O Human!”

Unfortunately, because Mormonism has often failed to see the deeper consciousness nature of Joseph Smith’s experiences, it has never really developed contemplative practices that its people could use to return to those deep mystical states of consciousness. The temple ordinances, instead of being a contemplative ritual, seems to have become about performances, acts that we believe have salvific efficacy in themself. As Hebrews notes, such “sacrifices” of a religious “law” performed endlessly can never bring us to perfection (Hebrews 10:1).

As is a common pattern in the development of religions from mystical origins, Mormonism became a very “heady” religion, caught up by so many thoughts, ideas, doctrines, knowledge, dogma, beliefs, scriptures, and rituals that it lost its connection to the “heart” of things. Joseph himself seems to have intuited this when he recorded of his First Vision that God communicated to him that most religious people “draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me” (cf. Isaiah 29:13). It becomes all about the right words, instead of the right being. The symbol of the heart is often used in mysticism to refer to that conscious experience that is devoid of thought, that moves from the head to the heart, that is deeply in touch with the body, soul, and spirit (or consciousness), which experiences itself to be at-one in one’s core or center with all others in pure love and compassion.

Just days before his martyrdom, Joseph preached,

“Man existed in spirit; the mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as, and is coequal with, God Himself.”

Larson, Stan (1978), “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text“, BYU Studies, 18 (2): 193–208.

Again, I think he was referring to Consciousness, and the inner Spirit of humanity that we may come to know directly in contemplative or mystical states of consciousness. And this Spirit may be realized as One in God.

Does this help us see Joseph Smith’s First Vision in new light? Does it make better sense of this experiences? Does it help to point us in a new direction where we too may experience what Joseph experienced? Where do you think it is lacking? Where do you interpret it differently? Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.


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4 thoughts on “The Mystical State of Consciousness in Joseph Smith’s First Vision

  1. I think it’s a bit troubling that you can have such an experience and it lead to some really egocentric and abusive beliefs and practices. And I marvel that he continued to produce some truly mystical content in the Doctrine and Covenants and his speeches. Do you think he spent his life trying to make sense of his experiences…and sometimes he got it, and sometimes he didn’t?

    1. Yes, it is very troubling. I agree. I think it is also revealing, that you can have deep mystical insights and real spiritual gifts and yet still be influenced by your ego, your darkness, your shadow. We all have two sides to our nature, and even in those who have cultivated their light and divine side, the ego can still flare up.

      I sometimes wonder if Jesus acted erratically at times. The New Testament records that some thought he had a demon/devil, or that he was mad/insane (John 10:20). Even his own family thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21)! It doesn’t seem like people would think that of a kind, wise, gentle, humble healer. He must of have been doing some radically unorthodox and outlandish things, which was disconcerting for many. As the commentary on the Book of Thomas the Contender notes, perhaps the “contender” was within him, dueling aspects of his inner psyche, between the ego-self and the Christ-self, between the dark and the light.

      Perhaps a more modern example is the Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, of whom Pema Chödrön’s was a disciple. He is known for coining the phrase “crazy wisdom,” and did many very controversial things, including deviant sexual behavior. And yet, Pema stands by him as a truly gifted spiritual teacher, who really helped her on her spiritual journey. I don’t think she would excuse his bad behavior, but perhaps she sees it in a larger frame. Some believe that such “crazy wisdom” is perhaps meant to help shake people out of their traditional ways, to break up their customary behavior and train of thought, to liberate them from their established patterns to new ways. I think it may also just be their ego taking advantage of their position of power.

      Yes, I think every mystic spends their life trying to make sense of their experiences. It’s a lifelong effort. Because these experiences are beyond all words, images, reason, rationality, they must be translated/interpreted by the mind to integrate them into life. I think the mystic is in a continual process of doing this, trying to convert their experience into something that has meaning in human life. They are in the most fundamental and raw activity of meaning-making, from the very ground of consciousness. I think some mystics are more gifted in this translation/interpretation than others, and in the same mystic at some times more than others. Might Joseph have had beautifully exquisite and eloquent mystical abilities at some times, and yet also produced very obtuse and strange pseudo-scientific and immoral trash at other times? Yes. I think we’ve made the mistake of thinking he was all black or all white, when I believe he was both. As are we all, to one degree or another.

  2. Bryce, for me this essay serves to articulate what I, personally, am already discovering. By desiring to interpret such a theophany as Joseph’s as “God taking the action to pierce the veil because this man was so special, and had such a special mission that this one-in-history event took place”, we invoke so many deceptions:
    – the idea of “prophets” that are somehow more blessed with a divine relationship than everyone else
    – spiritual hierarchies, and thus order and structure within the “kingdom of God”, which mirror the political and power structures of society
    – that we, as individuals, cannot access the mind of God for ourselves
    – launches a paradigm of comparison…”I’m not as spiritual as he is”.
    I realize that these all overlap and are somewhat redundant – different manifestations of the same concept that, although we claim that God is no respecter of persons, we actually believe He totally is.

    I’ve had “visions” where I’ve been “welcomed” by a circle of “noble and great ones” including Abraham, Joseph, Isaiah, etc. I’ve been introduced by Christ to the Father. I’ve had conversations with Mary, the wife of Christ – who I understood to be Mary Magdalene. Does this make me special? I don’t look at it that way. I was just open. Was Joseph “special”? When I read Berhisel’s description of Joseph, I recognize those things in myself. Does that make me special? I don’t look at it that way. We all have the same opportunity, if we will recognize that desire in ourselves.

    I know I’m preaching to the choir, and I enjoy reading your experiences and thoughts, and “comparing” them with mine – not to establish one above or below the other, but as priceless perspectives of the whole.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Scott. Yes, I think we need to reinterpret Joseph’s experiences in new light. As Richard Rohr noted at The Universal Christ conference I went to this last weekend, the reason for God’s “chosen people” is to help all people know that they are chosen! All people are God’s people! Everyone. There is no one that is more chosen than another, that God has singled out as more special than another. There is no hierarchy to God. We are all infinitely special to God, because God is in each and every one of us.

      Now, I do think that we each have our unique gifts, talents, etc. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts” (1 Cor. 12:29-31). Different people have different capacities, different blessings, different skills and abilities. But that doesn’t make any greater or better than another. They are just different. And we need all these differences in the Body of Christ, just as a human body needs different tissues to function. No tissue is “better” or more “special” than any other.

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