It is a truth near universally recognized that you cannot become a superb mechanic unless — as a minimum requirement — you
have a girlie calendar in your garage first acquire a great deal of knowledge. Moreover, that knowledge needs to be of two sorts.
In no particular order, you must both learn the sort of stuff you can learn from instructors and books, and you must also learn the sort of stuff you can only learn hands-on, by doing something — sometimes over and over again. The ancient Greeks called the first kind of knowledge logos, and the second kind, gnosis. We tend to call them “knowledge” and “know-how”.
The question arises, however, whether you need one, the other, or both kinds of knowledge in order to become a superb mystic?
Put differently, must you be of any particular religious tradition or school in order to attain to a mystical experience, the sine qua non of which is a perception of all things being in some sense or way one? Must you follow any specific teachings or practices? And do teachings and practices even help? Or are they really mere ways of idling away the hours before your
boy or girl calendar arrives in the mail you attain to a mystical experience?
I suspect many good folks would say “yes” to most of those questions. Perhaps it is even a cultural assumption — at least in the West — that knowledge is key here. Especially, book or scriptural knowledge, because we in the West are so accustomed to seeing the bible as key to our spiritual development. So if we start pursuing a mystical path, we naturally think in terms of how learning all the right things will help us.
But is that assumption borne out by the evidence? I actually think not. At least, not nearly so much as we might assume.
For the past forty years, I’ve been an amateur collector of mystical experiences. When I guess someone might have had one, I prompt them a bit to tell me about it, and they sometimes do. And something I’ve noticed: A fair number of people have been stumped what caused the experience, for they can recall having done nothing to bring it about.
Again, awhile back, a group of researchers solicited over 2000 accounts of mystical experiences and found that about 20% of them came from nontheists — atheists and agnostics. Presumably, many of those fine folks had done nothing intentionally to bring about their experiences, although some might have.
It seems to me likely then that any kind of knowledge might not be as key to having a mystical experience as we might at first suppose. But if that’s true, then it raises a fascinating question.
What, if anything, does the fact knowledge has relatively little to do with mystical experiences tell us about the experiences themselves?
I think it underscores or emphasizes how fundamentally mystical experiences are shifts in perception, rather than gestalt-like experiences. By “gestalt” I mean an event in which what you know “comes together at once” to create a new understanding of something.
Of course, that is sometimes called “a new perception” of something, but that’s not what I mean by perception here. “Perception” in this context is the frame of our sensory fields. For instance, we see, taste, touch, and feel thirst. Each of those is a sensory field. Perception frames them in the sense that it provides or adds to them certain characteristics that are not the things we see, taste, etc.
An example would be our sense that what we are seeing at the moment is real. That perception of realness is not a property of the thing itself, but rather a property or characteristic of our sensory field of sight. Again, we perceive things as being us or not us. That once more is a characteristic of our perceptual frames.
A mystical experience can be seen as an abrupt shift from how we normally perceive things to a different way of perceiving things. One of the frames that is lost during that shift is our perception of the world as divided between us and not us.
So now we might ask: Do we need to know much for such a shift to come about?
I think not. For one thing, the neural sciences have now revealed that mystical experiences involve at least a reduction in activity in the parietal brain lobe, most likely an increase in activity in the thalamus, and perhaps a change in dopamine levels, among other things. Those are things that could be influenced by some kind of conscious or subconscious knowledge, but they don’t necessarily need to be.
Again, there are no techniques of bringing about a mystical experience that guarantee you will have one, but Eastern meditative techniques have been relatively successful. These, however, do not generally depend on more than the knowledge of how to practice them.
Last, some traditions, such as Zen, are full of stories of people who attain to mystical experiences without need of scriptures, or much need of instruction. So I think it’s pretty clear that, for those and other reasons, knowledge is not much use in bringing about a mystical experience.
Jiddu Krishnamurti, by the way, was adamant on that point. He routinely went even further to state that too much knowledge hindered or prevented mystical experiences. One of his key points was that, if you set off in pursuit of a specific experience, you were likely to find it soon or later, but it would turn out to be a construct of your knowledge.
So there might be a way in which knowledge is not only unnecessary, but actually detrimental. But where does that leave us?
In a word, calendars! Krishnamurti had a beautiful metaphor. Imagine you are inside your house (i.e your mind) and wish for a breeze to come in (i.e. a mystical experience). What can you do to make that breeze happen? Nothing, of course.
You simply can’t force a breeze to rise. However, you can open your windows and doors. That is, you can remove the obstacles to a breeze coming in, should one arise.
Rumi also said much the same thing: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”