“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. — Hamlet
In a way, the basic idea underlying all of mysticism is the notion that our species of great ape is capable of experiencing at least two kinds of awareness. The first kind of awareness — which is consciousness or conscious awareness — is familiar to all of us. The second kind of awareness — mystical awareness — is familiar to fewer of us.
No one knows how many of us have at one time or another experienced mystical awareness. The experience seems to be uncommon, but not actually rare. Perhaps, then, a few million people worldwide have experienced it.
Despite that mystical awareness is not nearly as common as conscious awareness, it can be obvious to even a casual reader of the world’s religious literature that the experience of mystical awareness has informed and inspired much of that literature. That seems especially true in the East.
For instance: While the foundational literatures of the Abrahamic religions — the Torah, Bible, Qur’an, etc — are comparatively devoid of references to mystical awareness, the foundational literatures of the great Eastern religions — the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Dharmmapada, etc. — are thick with such references. It is even possible to assert, with reason, that mystical awareness is at the very core of such Eastern religions as Buddhism and Taoism.
The Study of Mystical Awareness
In my opinion, the phenomenon of mystical awareness has yet to be adequately studied by science. There is, for instance, no effort to study mystical awareness that is comparable to the efforts to study conscious awareness. In part, that may be because science has traditionally been dominated by Westerners, and Westerners usually come from cultures where mysticism is more or less a cultural backwater. But it is also because mystical awareness presents a number of challenges to easy study. Some of those challenges will become evident later on in this essay.
My hunch is some people are shocked by the notion mystical awareness should be scientifically studied. That is likely because for some people, mystical awareness is inseparable from supernatural forces, entities, and so forth. To suggest that science should study mystical awareness is for those people much the same as saying that science should study the gods — an impossibility. However, I’m of the insufferable opinion that mystical awareness is a natural phenomenon that can be studied by natural means.
During the Muslim Siege of Constantinople in 1453, St. Elmo’s Fire was seen emitting from the top of the Hippodrome. The mysterious Fire caused quite a stir. It was not understood at that time that St. Elmo’s Fire was a natural phenomenon. The Byzantines attributed it to a sign that the Christian God would soon come and destroy the invading Muslim army.
I think the way the Byzantines responded to the sight of St. Elmo’s Fire illustrates the human tendency to attribute unexplained natural phenomena to supernatural causes. What we cannot explain, we often call an act of god. Yet, merely because the science of the day cannot explain something is no logical reason to deem that thing metaphysical in origin.
For over thirty years, I have been interested in mystical experiences (especially the sort of mystical experience that is sometimes called “enlightenment”). Mystical experiences seem to me to be natural phenomena. That is, they seem to be phenomena that can be wholly explained in natural terms.
Maybe I’m right about that, maybe I’m wrong.
Anything is possible, and mystical experiences may yet defeat all efforts to explain them entirely in natural terms. But even if they do — even if a hundred years from now we still have no entirely adequate natural explanation for mystical experiences — it would even then be illogical to assume on that basis alone that mystical experiences require us to posit a supernatural origin for them. St. Elmo’s Fire proves that.
If we had reasoned in 1543 that St. Elmo’s Fire must have a supernatural cause, simply because we don’t know of any natural cause for it, we would have been wrong. And if we reason in 2009 that mystical experiences must have a supernatural cause, simply because we currently don’t know of any natural causes that wholly explain them, we would again be wrong.
Naturalism is the notion that phenomena can only be explained in terms of natural causes. It is the opposite of the doctrine that at least some phenomena can only be explained in terms of metaphysical causes. Naturalism comes in more than one flavor, which allows folks to argue passionately about which flavor they like best:
Ontological naturalism is the flavor of naturalism that asserts nothing metaphysical exists. Nature is all there is.
Epistemological naturalism is the flavor of naturalism that asserts we can know only nature. Our ability to know ends where nature ends.
I usually find ontological naturalism too speculative for my tastes: How can we possibly know whether or not anything exists metaphysically — beyond nature? There seems to be no reliable method for accomplishing that chore. So most days I am more kindly disposed towards epistemological naturalism than ontological naturalism. Thus I have approached the study of mystical awareness from the standpoint of an epistemological naturalist.
Please Don’t Sue Me Disclaimer
Despite all I’ve said so far, there are limits to what can be consciously known about mystical awareness. The word “mystic” can be traced back to an Indo-European root meaning “to be silent or mum”. It is widely recognized by mystics of all cultures that many aspects of mystical awareness are — and will always be — beyond the understanding of conscious awareness. In any discussion of mystical awareness, it cannot be over-emphasized how radically distinct mystical awareness is from conscious awareness:
The tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal Name.
Where the one awareness is, the other is not.
What is a “Mystical Experience”?
What a mystical experience is depends on who you speak with. Some people would call an experience “mystical” if it involved an intense emotion — such as an overwhelming feeling of awe when witnessing a large waterfall or a sunrise. Others might call an experience “mystical” if it involved something they considered metaphysical — such as seeing a ghost, experiencing god, or using magic crystals.
Those are legitimate uses of the word, of course, but they are not my usage. When I refer to an experience as “mystical”, I am referring quite specifically to an awareness in which subject/object perception has come to an end while experiencing continues. During such an experience, there is no awareness of a distinction between the observer and the observed, the knower and the known, the self and other than the self — That is, between the subject and the object of awareness. All within the field of awareness is perceived as a unity — as one.
At this point we might ask, who or what does the experiencing when conscious awareness is interrupted and the mystical experience occurs?
For normally, when our conscious awareness is at work, we tend to think it (i.e. our mind, our conscious awareness, our consciousness, our self, our ego, our “I”) experiences the world. But when conscious awareness ceases, then who or what does the experiencing?
Of course, one answer is the organism, the individual, the body, the senses and the brain — these are still experiencing even though conscious awareness has ceased and is no longer experiencing.
How Do We Know Anything At All About Mystical Experiences?
Near as I can tell, no one has actually observed themselves having a mystical experience because, during the experience itself, the observer (which is a property of conscious awareness) is not present. There is simply an awareness without, however, anyone who is aware. Thus it might be reasonably asked how we know anything at all about mystical experiences?
Well, if I’m right about these things — and, of course, I’m usually painfully wrong about these things — then everything we know about mystical experiences is ultimately derived from what we know of their aftereffects on our consciousness.
Imagine a calm pond with a smooth surface. Then imagine a stone thrown into that pond. Now pretend you didn’t see the stone go into the pond. Instead, you turned only in time to watch the aftereffects of the stone’s entry into the water. What can you deduce about “whatever it was” that made those spreading ripples you now see on the pond?
Sally is not consciously aware of her mystical experience during the experience itself. Only as Sally’s experience ends — as her consciousness once again reasserts itself — does she notice something has happened.
At that point, it is somewhat likely, but not guaranteed, that Sally will try to interpret what has happened, for it seems that some people immediately try to interpret what has happened to them, while others refuse to do so. I myself don’t know whether refusing to interpret a mystical experience is completely possible, but it does seem to some extent possible.
For an unknown reason, there appears to be a correlation between holding out, refusing as much as possible to interpret an experience, and how much that experience transforms us. If that’s so, then the less Sally interprets her experience, or the longer she holds out, the more it will transform her.
Let’s say Sally tries to interpret her mystical experience immediately upon becoming aware something has happened. It is highly likely Sally will think she is in the very midst of her experience, rather than recognize her experience has already ended. However, it seems logically impossible for us to be both mystically aware and consciously aware at the same moment. Either we perceive a division between subject and object, or we do not. Either the observer is present, or it is not. What Sally is simultaneously observing and interpreting are the aftereffects of a mystical experience. She is not seeing the stone enter the water, but is instead seeing the ripples on the pond.
I have barely touched on some of the issues involved in the study of mystical awareness. However, I think it was about time that I discussed them to the extent I did. After all, I had written several posts to this blog that discussed mystical awareness, but had yet to write anything about how we know about mystical awareness. If I have had the good fortune to be right about some of these issues, then please leave your compliments in the comments section. On the other hand, if I have screwed up in my usual fashion, then please go to Rambodoc’s blog and complain to him — the more bitterly, the better. He likes it that way. 😀