Top Films that Capture the Mystical Experience, Vol. 1


We polled Reality Sandwich contributors to find out what films they thought most effectively captured the mystical experience. As you might expect, we got a diverse list — and more suggestions than would comfortably fit into a single column. So here is Volume 1 of the RS mystical films list. More installments to come. 

  • The Matrix
  • Waking Life
  • Bee Season
  • The Fountain
  • Spirited Away
  • Enter the Void
  • Wizard of Oz
  • Being There
  • Au Hasard Balthazar
  • Stalker

The Matrix
By Velcrow Ripper

What I love about the original Matrix are the powerful memes and metaphors it spawned, many of which have stayed with me, and in our culture, persistent and relevant, long since the release of the film in 1999. Central to this is the moment when Neo is offered a choice, one which is on offer for all of us: will you take the red pill, or the blue pill?

Take the blue pill, and you wake up in your bed, safe and sound and comfortable, and just as unaware as before. Take the red pill, and everything changes. As Morpheus says,  “You felt it your entire life – there’s something wrong with the world.  Like everyone else you are born into bondage.. a prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the matrix is – you have to see it for yourself.”   

Neo chooses the red pill, and awakens from his illusion. The red pill might be uncomfortable, but it’s also exhilarating, fiery, and true.    

In this era of rapid climate change, economic collapse, widening wealth inequality, blossoming social movements, and global consciousness, the Zeitgeist I’m feeling, and loving, is that introspection is giving way to “outrospection.” The concept of enlightenment is shifting to applied awakening, to embodied spirituality, practical love, waking up with compassion to the very real world, in all its pain and all its glory.  

We are all plugged into the Matrix, in varying degrees. Do we dare to take the red pill, and break free from the petty, illusory existence of the greed machine, a consumerist fantasy that is being peddled to us by a dominator culture bent on self destruction? Do we dare wake up to the truth of interdependence and impermanence?

As for me, there’s no place I’d rather be, than right here, right now, in this world of chaos, possibility, and love. As Morpheus says, “Welcome to the real world.”

Velcrow Ripper is an award-winning filmmaker with dozens of films and videos under his belt, including Scared Sacred, winner of the 2005 Genie (Canadian Academy Award) for best feature documentary, and Special Jury Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Waking Life
By Ryan Hurd 

Ten years ago, Waking Life came out as an animated feature film, and proceeded to flop in the box office. It’s now considered a cult classic. I first saw the film the year of its release, when I was in a post-college funk, living with fellow intellectually-constipated artists and writers in Athens, Georgia, where we all worked mindless occupations that had job descriptions such as (I’m not making this up): “must have the ability to perform routine and monotonous tasks with close attention to detail and with frequent interruptions.” The main theme can be summed up by one character’s observation that it “seems like everyone’s sleep-walking through their waking state or wake-walking through their dreams.” Ouch. 

In a dazzling animated world that fluxs and flows from gritty reality to mandala-infused blossoms of abstraction like a psilocybin trip (the first feature film using a digital rotoscoping technique pioneered by MIT wizard Bob Sabiston), we follow the unnamed protagonist as he confronts characters who present new paradigms of reality to consider as he tries to wake up. It’s really more of a documentary of postmodern ideas than a drama. We hear long diatribes about existentialism, apocalyptic anarchy, Situationism, anticonsumerism, string theory, schema theory, Gnosticism and Tibetan Buddhism, each of which provide our young Everyman with a piece of the puzzle. 

The overall effect is as brain-numbing as it is stimulating, creating an oversaturation effect that will either annoy the shit out of you, or create a platform for a brief transcendence as your rational brain shuts down, making room for the truths of the intuitive mind. The entire movie feels like a dream—not just a weird dream, but one of those rare lucid dreams in which you know you’re dreaming and beginning to suspect that the other dream figures might know more than you do. Lucid dreaming is, in fact, the central metaphor for the film. We’ve all heard the New Age statement, usually said in a somewhat condescending tone, “you create your own reality.” In Waking Life, we watch this creation take place without judgment, where ideas collide and evaporate with impulses, emotional hangovers, and fresh creativity. 

Ten years after my first viewing, now having established a career and a family, I definitely have a different philosophical bent, but Waking Life continues to be relevant to my life as I continue my own process of waking up.

Ryan Hurd is an independent scholar, editor of DreamStudies.org, and board member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  



Bee Season
By Hillary S. Webb

There’s a story from the Talmud in which four rabbis behold the glory of Paradise through intense meditation on God’s name. One rabbi, overwhelmed by such splendor, loses his mind. Another dies. Another renounces his faith and becomes a heretic. The fourth rabbi allows the experience to become part of him. He enters in peace and leaves in peace.


One can assume that Myla Goldberg had this story in mind when she wrote the novel upon which the movie Bee Season was based. The film follows the four members of the Naumann family, each responding differently in face of The Mystery. When daughter Eliza wins a series of spellingbees, father Saul, believing her to have mystical gifts, enters Eliza into an intense process of Kabbalistic training. Son Aaron, once the favored child, feels rejected and becomes a Hare Krishna. Wife Miriam is committed to a mental institution after she is caught breaking into people’s homes, collecting items that she believes will lead to tikkun olam, the repair of the fractured world. Saul’s compulsion to live vicariously through his daughter’s gift is too great for him to return them to equanimity. In the end, it is Eliza who recognizes what she must do in order to reassemble the shards of her broken family.

A sadly underrated film, Bee Season offers not only a thought-provoking storyline with a talented cast, but is a visually impressive film, artistically arranged in such a way to evoke the very essence of the mystical experience.

Hillary S. Webb, PhD, is the former Managing Editor of Anthropology of Consciousness, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. She received MA in Consciousness Studies from Goddard College in 2006 and a PhD in Psychology from Saybrook University in 2009.

The Fountain
By Michael Garfield

Darren Aronofsky's epoch-spanning reincarnation love story is about more than the quest for eternal life or the fanatical love that justifies it. Somewhere in the interference pattern between a dizzying braid of worldspaces past, present, and future, Aronofsky shows us the transcultural yearning that defines our human condition, regardless of (or, rather, beyond) space and time.  

The narrative jumps between three crusades – one literal and two figurative – weaving the story of one man's quest to save his dying queen. The obvious irony is in how this desperate story happens over and over, its characters transcending the life and death struggle that consumes their specific incarnations. It's a reminder that we belong to patterns greater than ourselves. The Fountain constantly challenges our concrete categories and simple human understanding, marrying creation and destruction, birth and death, in a story with no clear ending or beginning.

The film's tireless refrain, "Death is the road to awe," glows in the calm joy of heroine Izzy Creo as she accepts her terminal cancer; but is only realized in the third act by her hero Tommy Creo as he plunges (metaphorically?) into a dying star and over a 2001-esque threshold of transcendental splendor. When all three narratives collide in the film's trans-rational finale and the long-sought Tree of Life finally bears its strange fruit, you'll probably leave the (Cartesian) theater as I did: rapt in cinema synchronicity, marveling at Aronofsky's genius for translating the deep truths of the mystical experience to film. (And when you find out that all of those glorious space sequences were actually yeast filmed under a microscope, you might even have your own moment of involutionary fractal wonder.)

Scientific illustrator and essayist by day, and a live electronic musician and performance painter by night, Michael Garfield is intent on demonstrating that everything is equally art, science, and spiritual practice – to revive cultural and individual investment in the renaissance thinking that finds equal value in thinking and feeling, description and experience.

Spirited Away
By Robert Tindall

Luxurious, well-lit spirit boats plying the night waters? Bath houses for the spirits? The danger of total memory loss? Implanted spells in the shape of little black worms? Bitter medicines that provoke vomiting and purge the system of malign influences? Animal transformation? Shamanic flight? Surely, we’re in the realm of Amazonian shamanism!


Surprisingly, we’re also in the realm of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the renowned anime director’s most successful, and Japan’s top grossing, film. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away both conveys a strong ecological message and depicts a young heroine’s journey without falling into the simplistic good/evil formulas characteristic of Disney. Instead, the protagonist Chihiro surmounts the obstacles in her path by discovering her innate capacity to heal and to perceive the true essence of those around her. In short, she conquers through love.

Miyazaki’s imaginary realm is wild and free, much as the mythos of traditional and ancient peoples.

The influence of ancient Greek myth upon Miyazaki’s work has long been recognized. For example, the protagonist of Spirited Away, Chihiro, has her parents transformed into swine for eating the food of the spirits, and must, Odysseus-like, must find their cure and effect their release. Yet less recognized is the imprint of the cosmovision of Amazonian shamanism upon Spirited Away.

The early arrival of the Acero Punta, the steamship of the spirits sited throughout the Amazon waterways and depicted by artist Pablo Amaringo, first tips off the viewer of Miyazaki’s new cultural inspiration. It is an ayahuasca-like medicine that Chihiro, like a good curandera, utilizes to heal the sick that clinches the case.

Chihiro receives the intensely bitter, fist-sized ball of medicine as a reward after performing her first purga upon a polluted river spirit, and is soon required to purge and heal two spirits of intense maladies. The first, her ally the river spirit Haku, dying of internal bleeding while in dragon-form, swallows the potent remedy, is flung into convolutions, and vomits up a stolen golden seal upon which sits a black worm. Chihiro kills the worm, which had been implanted in Haku by the witch Yubaba to enslave him – a hex and extractive procedure quite typical of Amazonian folk medicine.

The second healing, performed upon No Face, a spirit akin to the hungry ghosts of the Buddhist tradition, triggers the most comical sequence of vomiting in cinematic history: as No Face careens after the fleeing Chihiro through the levels of the bathhouse, disgorging the contents of his vast swollen, distempered belly, he literally returns to his senses. After a bout of hurling reminiscent of the most nightmarishly purgative of ayahausca ceremonies, we hear him give a post-limpiada burp and meekly beg pardon! The restoration of No Face’s original self is complete, and he finds his home with Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeneba.

Really, that’s what Spirited Away and the Amazonian shamanic tradition is all about – finding one’s way home. It’s an inspired nostos, a homecoming song, in the best of Ancient and traditional storytelling ways. 

Robert Tindall is a writer, classical guitarist and inveterate traveler, whose work explores themes of pilgrimage and the crossing of frontiers into other cultures and states of consciousness. 

Enter the Void
By Jonathan Zap

Enter the Void is more than a spiritual movie, it is a spiritual experience if you can take it. It is inspiring, shimmering, hallucinatory, appalling, pulsating with raw emotion, sexuality, and the human psyche at and past the edges of everything.  A review of this movie, for those who haven’t seen it, should tell you as little as possible about what happens in the movie. Suffice to say that it begins in a cramped Tokyo apartment where a young protagonist is smoking DMT. We follow his extreme first person point of view into the DMTverse and back out again where he is trying to pull himself together to complete a drug deal. It would be a mistake to know anything more about the plot. 

Once you’ve seen the movie then you can read my longer, personal, and somewhat surrealized review of the movie: When a Void is not a Void: a sort-of review of Enter the Void. If you haven’t seen the film, do it right: Blu-ray, surround sound, or at least very good headphones, 32” (minimum size) high definition screen, cell off, nighttime, fairly empty stomach, and whatever else you would do to prepare yourself for a life-changing vision that will be both eerily beautiful and traumatic. Line up all the right conditions so that you can have what movies are capable of: a participation mystique experience.  A movie with the power to be a spiritual experience like Koyaanisqatsi or Enter the Void should be seen in a setting of sacred concentration. If you’re seeing it at home with others, let people know that this is not a movie to talk over or text over. 

Some people are disdainful of my insistence on quality equipment, and have characterized it as an indulgence in consumerism and gadget obsession. But you wouldn’t want to hear a Beethoven symphony for the first time via the speaker of a cell phone, would you? Would you want to have sex for the first time while wearing fifty condoms? Sensory impact is crucial and this movie was intended to have sensory impact. Without gadgets there are no movies, and without the right gadgets movies have insufficient sensory impact. Don’t cheat yourself and try to watch this, or any movie worth watching, on a Netbook or other under-sized screen.  Watch this 30 second clip of David Lynch dissing the watching of movies on an Iphone. The screen needs to be at least 32” so that in close up people are at least life size. The smaller the screen, the closer to it you should be. 


Especially if you are going to see a movie that has the power, as Enter the Void has, to be a spiritual experience you owe it to yourself to line up the right conditions or wait until you have. 

The longer review for those who have seen it: 

When a Void is not a Void: a sort-of review of Enter the Void.

Jonathan graduated with honors in philosophy and English from Ursinus College and has an MA in English from NYU. He is a photographer, author, teacher, paranormal researcher and philosopher who has written extensively on human evolution, contemporary mythology and many other subjects.

Wizard of Oz
By Jill Ettinger

It's been more than 70 years since The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, but the film continues to feel timeless and as relevant as ever to fans old and new. It's the movie that transformed movie. Bursting out of black and white into gorgeous Technicolor was as magical as the way director Victor Fleming took the hero(ine)'s journey to a supernatural level, bringing to life the places and stories many of us visit only when we dream. 

Anything was possible in the Land of Oz, especially, if like Dorothy Gale, one held onto innocence and the idea that there are magnificent powers always within our reach. While "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" hints to places so magical that they exist only outside of our imagination, it's Dorothy's final words while in Oz—"there's no place like home"—that reveal the truth: there really is no separation between the mystical and mundane. In Oz, they meet at an eerie yet spectacular intersection where good witches, bad witches, munchkins, scarecrows, wizards, lions and tinmen all remind us, like Salman Rushdie wrote of the film, "the weakness of grownups forces children to take control of their own destinies.'' What's more mystical than that? 

Jill’s examinations on our food and culture regularly appear in a number of publications, primarily OrganicAuthority.com, where she writes a daily news column as well as contributes feature articles.

Being There
By Chris Kilham

Of all the films I have had the pleasure to see, few have touched me as deeply as Being There, starring Peter Sellers and Shirley Maclaine. The tale could easily be written off as a comedy of errors, and the movie does contain errors galore. But there is a potent message in Being There.

Chance the gardener, played by Peter Sellers, works for an old man in a mansion in a bad neighborhood of Washington, D.C. When the old man dies, Chance, for the first time in his entire 50 year life, is set out on the street, with nowhere to go. As fate would have it, he is bruised by the limosine of the nation's wealthiest man Benjamin Rand, in which that man's wife Eve, played by Shirley Maclaine, is riding.

For medical examination by a private physician Peter Sellers is taken to the estate of the Rands. From the onset Chance, whose name is misunderstood as "Chauncey Gardener," delights Eve, who becomes quite smitten by the mysterious, simple-minded stranger. Benjamin Rand finds him refreshing. Quickly, Chauncey meets the President of the United States, goes to powerful diplomatic dinners, is interviewed on TV, and generally wows everyone in sight with his zen-like manner and his utterly simplistic view of life. In short, he's a total fool. Or is he? Throughout the film, Chance is unquestionably misunderstood and taken as far wiser and far better 

informed than he really is. But he is a man at peace, content in his every move, unfailingly kind, and lovely to be around. He laughs at jokes he doesn't understand, and endears himself to everybody. 

In the end, Chauncey Gardener is established, with his simple thoughts and breathtakingly quirky nature, into the highest strata of political and social power in the nation's capital. He does it with ease and grace and humor, and people just fall all over the man. All of this begs the question; who is the fool? Is it Chance with his simple mind and permanent sense of humanity and care? Or is it all the rest of us, with our undignified complexities that matter not a fig, and self-importance made of vapors and not a shred more?


For mystical movies that touch the soul, while keeping you laughing until you are sobbing from it all, they don't get better than Being There. Watch it, over and over. 

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter, author and educator. The founder of Medicine Hunter Inc., he has conducted medicinal research in over 20 countries.

Au Hasard Balthazar
By David Metcalfe

It’s a movie focused mostly on a donkey, and it’s one of the most sublime bits of cinema you’ll have the good fortune to encounter.  When I first saw Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar it sent me stumbling out through the movie theater doors lost in a feeling of poignant ecstasy. I ended up on a hill across the street staring in wonder at the strange and naked world that the film had revealed around me. 

Children acquire and baptise a young donkey, beginning an infinite hour and a half of allegorical immersion into a sanguine cinematic mirror of existence. The story is simple, following the life of the donkey, and the life of Marie, one of the children that is introduced in the beginning of the film. Bresson’s vision for “pure cinematography” divorces the narrative from fantasy, and focuses on a visceral simplicity which serves to express the mystery of unadorned existence. The film ripples forward, each scene an epiphanous glimpse of suffering, debasement, hope, ennui, tenderness and perseverance, translated through the kaleidoscopic refraction of daily life.  

As gothic cathedrals take crystalline shape from the simple alignment of geometrical figures, Au Hasard Balthasar emerges from a mastery of the simple cinematic image.  It’s one of the rare moments when movie making goes beyond propaganda, entering an adept quietude pregnant with new possibilities for the evocation of the sacred.

Bresson was known for his use of untrained actors, or ‘models’ as he called them, to focus the film under his sole direction. In the impossibility of such a vision, and the tension it creates, the true mystery is teased out. Within this tension new relationships are developed, bringing out the elemental forces at play in the narrative. Social roles, titles, individuality, sacred and profane distinction, and even the difference between human and animal, are all exposed as set pieces. The world locked in this tension becomes itself a seeming allegory, and the marriage of symbol and reality, ideal and material, is born out in the film.

More than an angelic theophany, Bresson shows that all that is needed is the perseverance of a donkey to open the path of saints. In graphic detail we see how costly and absurd such perseverance can be in a world enflamed by confused humanity. Never stepping outside of the familiar, Au Hasard Balthazar presents a mysticism that is perhaps even more alienating than some high flown heavenly vision of sanctity, as it is presented in the midst of our lives, during our most elemental and vulnerable moments.  

David Metcalfe is a Contributing Editor to Reality Sandwich and Books Editor for The Revealer, the online journal of NYU's Center for Religion and Media.

Stalker
By David Rothenberg

Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker often appears on film critics’ lists of the best films of the twentieth century, and there are many good reasons for this. Stalker is a film that draws you in to its unique logic and vision. Once you watch it you will be changed. Every time you watch it again, you may be changed in more ways that you don’t expect. The plot is a grand 20th century Cold War dystopian one, where we are in some imaginary future where most of the world has been rendered dangerous and uninhabitable after some kind of unnamed war or nuclear accident (note that this came out seven years before Chernobyl).  Surrounding the City is a forbidden area called The Zone, a place possible to visit only in the company of a trained guide, called a Stalker.  Two men agree to accompany the Stalker into the Zone, once called only the Writer, the other the Professor. 

The most brilliant thing about the film is this supposedly toxic Zone just looks like a run-down, abandoned half-industrial half-forest area of the kind easy to find in many parts of the world.  Whatever dangers may exist here are invisible, impossible to see, and yet our travelers strive with care to identify them. They end up in a space in an abandoned building called the Room, where it is said your truest inner desires will be realized. But who among us really knows our innermost desires?  Will our travelers enter the Room, or will they need to turn away? This great mystical parable begins in the heat of Cold War fears but succeeds in becoming a delicately epic myth that transcends any particular moment in history. It will be watched and pondered for many decades.

David Rothenberg is a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, with a special interest in animal sounds as music.