(About a 26 minute read)
If words were characters in a novel, the word “mysticism” would be the whore with the good heart. Like the whore, mysticism has a bad reputation. People, both religious and non-religious, look down on her. Reactions to her range from deep suspicion to shocked disbelief, often followed by rumor-mongering, gossip, and slander.
Some folks, such as most of the Catholic scholars of mysticism, try to reform her. Though they might love her, their efforts to bring her into the respectable fold of Catholic theology are doomed from the start: She’s wild is mysticism. You may love her, but you’ll never tame her. There are schools of Hinduism that acknowledge her, even claim her as one of their own; but so often — not always, but so often — they too want to tame her, bring her into the fold of their theologies just as much as the Catholic scholars.
Many Muslims, who usually know her by the name of “Sufism”, deny she’s properly one of them at all. The New Agers like to claim her as their own, but frequently think her many, often gaudy, accessories are the true her. Fundamentalists of any religion generally claim to have never themselves been so improper as to have even met her, although a few certainly have “snuck out at nights”.
“Spiritual, but not religious” folks are everywhere on the board when it comes to her. Some have never had a thing to do with her, while others have written all over their faces: “Just got laid”. And then there are the scornful non-believers. Not just any non-believers, but the non-believers who have plenty of cheerful vile for all religions. They quite frequently conflate mysticism with religion — when they’re not busy conflating it with sheer madness — and condemn both with happy, if blind, zeal.
Like all proper outcasts, mysticism has her true lovers, the folks who as best they can, fundamentally accept her as she is (for how can you truly love someone you also labor to fundamentally change?). Historically, Siddhārtha Gautama, the man who become the Buddha, was probably one of her earliest known lovers. Meister Eckhart was a famous lover from the late European Middle Ages. So, much more recently, was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who some say was the final, promised reincarnation of Siddhārtha. Still alive today, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh are among her more internationally famous contemporary lovers. But she has millions of other lovers, mostly unrecognized, mostly ordinary men and women in every culture and society on the planet.
For that’s the thing about mysticism: Like a whore, she is to be found everywhere. Never the mainstream anywhere, she is nevertheless ubiquitous.
So, the lady mysticism presents us with a problem. How can we see her for who she is when who she is, is masked by so much slander, gossip, and rumor? Is it even possible to see her in a fresh light now? Or are we so set in our ways that such a thing is as improbable as reforming her? And what are her prices these days? Not that I’m interested in her prices for anything but purely scholarly reasons.
Towards a Fresh Look
I suspect one way for many of us to take a step towards gaining for ourselves a fresh look is to begin by recognizing the crucial role played by experience in mysticism. One of the several ways mysticism is different from religions — at least, so many religions — is that thought, belief, knowledge, theology, dogma, are not even close to being core to it. At the very best, those things play a merely supplemental role.
Instead, I think the core of mysticism is experience.
As it happens, there are a small number of experiences that are often called, “mystical”. Those experiences range from such things as predictive dreams and visions to what I very creatively, almost poetically, call “the mystical experience” (“the”, because the mystical experience seems to be in several ways the most life changing experience of them all). But in all cases, “experience”, and not “mystical”, is in some ways the most important word in the expression, mystical experience.
As I see it, no amount of knowledge about mysticism or about mystics themselves, no matter how comprehensive or accurate it is, can make one a mystic. Only a mystical experience can do that. And especially, the mystical experience.
Many people, however, use the term “mystic” more inclusively than me to include, not just folks who’ve had the experiences, but anyone who merely studies or advocates mysticism. And that’s fair. That’s not how we do things around my cottage, by golly, but it’s fair.
[Insert Section Title Here. Don’t Forget, Paul!]
One summer’s morning, around the age of 13, I was biking down a leafy tree-lined street in my hometown when I happened upon someone I had not seen in awhile. He was a boy a year younger than me, and he had a reputation for being wild. I suspect his reputation was owed more to his frank honesty, though, than to his actual wildness. In that small town, you tended to collect all sorts of reputation — if you were honest.
He and I entwined the handlebars of our bikes — a trick that stabilized the bikes nicely, allowing us to sit them without needing to put our feet down to stay upright. Then we were off telling each other all the news fit to forget. And I have indeed forgotten most of it, but the one thing I still vividly recall came towards the end of our conversation when my friend confided that he’d recently had an experience of indescribable bliss. I had never heard of the word, “bliss”, and had to ask what it was.
As he spoke, his face took on a radiance somewhere between happiness and joy. He told me he didn’t know the right words to describe his experience, but it had to be what adult‘s meant when they talked of being “seized by the Holy Spirit“. Though only twelve, he was completely serious. And he was certain — absolutely certain — he’d discovered life’s greatest and most precious gift.
While I was skeptical of his claims to being seized by the supernatural even at 13, I could not ignore his sincerity. Consequently, I hung on every word until the very moment I suddenly recognized he was talking about his having discovered masturbation.
Although I wouldn’t have put it quite this way at the time: That was the first time in my life I heard someone insist that a non-mystical experience was actually mystical. Of course, it has not been the last. It’s a curious fact that many of us who have not yet had a mystical experience are nevertheless inclined to think our biggest, most moving experiences to date must be — absolutely must be — what the mystics are talking about. I suppose there is something very human in that.
Although many people have tried, it is virtually impossible to communicate the content of the mystical experience to people who have never themselves had one. The experience is radically different from normal experiencing. And it is so extraordinarily difficult to communicate its content because of the nature of words.
There is a profound sense in which words do not refer to “things”, but to shared experiences. When I say, “I saw a barn”, you either get my meaning or not to the extent you share with me some kind of experience of a barn or barns. If you have no experience of barns then I must resort to trying to find some shared experience with which to suggest a barn to you. “Barns are large buildings used to house animals and to provide a place where farm boys and girls can smooch in privacy.” But what if something is so radically different from anything else that it’s incomparably different?
For instance, sometimes the word “blissful” is used to describe the content of the mystical experience — and that might mislead some of us into thinking that we can imagine this bliss by mentally multiplying joyful feelings, say, a thousand times. But mystical bliss is not one end of a joy continuum. It is altogether something different.
Later on in this post, I will now and then drop a word or two about the reported content of mystical experiences, but please bear in mind that those words should not be taken as representations of the content, but instead as interpretations.
The Mystical Experience
I first became interested in mysticism some forty or so years ago when I was studying comparative religion at university. I noticed that a group of people — mystics — seemed to be describing more or less the same sort of experience despite the fact they were as individuals from cultures and societies as diverse as 500 B.C.E. China and Medieval Europe. To be sure, they weren’t saying exactly the same things. But they were close enough that it was like reading the different opinions of people experiencing, say, looking at the same cat.
That struck me as unusual. I knew enough about religions at the time to appreciate how different they can be one from the other. And yet, here were these strange people more or less agreeing with each other!
I won’t recount here all the false trails and dead ends I went down over most of the next 40 years after that initial insight. Suffice to say one of the few truly fruitful things I did with all that time is listen to people, perhaps a surprising number of people, when they told me of their own strange experiences.
Studies performed in Britain and the United States have found that about a third of the people surveyed in each country report having had at least one exceptional or extraordinary “spiritual or religious” experience. What percentage of those experiences are the mystical experience is anyone’s guess. But I have met quite a few people who’ve had the experience. I have also learned that you can develop a sort of nose for who is likely to have had such experiences, and that you can sometimes — not always, but sometimes — gently coax then into talking about their experiences.
So far as I can see, the mystical experience can be characterized as coming about when normal subject/object perception comes to an abrupt end while some form of experiencing yet continues.
Subject/object perception is the kind of normal, everyday perception that we’re all familiar with as waking consciousness. Specifically, it is the part of consciousness that divides the world into us and not-us. Us is the subject. Not-us are the objects. I look at a tree. I do not merely see the tree, though. I also “see” that the tree is not me, that it is distinct, other than me.
When that way of perceiving the world breaks down, you apparently enter a radically new world where instead of sensing division, you sense unity or oneness. You become one with the tree. Or, as Robert Plant famously sings in Stairway to Heaven, “When one is one and one is all…”.
Mysticism and God
Now, this One seems to be easily characterized as deity:
The self, when confined into the usual wakeful state of consciousness, is human, but when enters into the transcendental state of Absolute Oneness, becomes God. ― Abhijit Naskar
It is easily characterized, or interpreted, as god because, if you think about it, what can possibly be bigger than the oneness of all things? There appear to be other reasons as well for why the experience is frequently interpreted as an experience of god, but that one in particular is a biggie (pun shamelessly intended).
Yet, the experience need not be interpreted as such. The Dao De Jing (or Tao Teh Ching, for old foggies like me) implies that it is an experience of The Way, an apparently non-sentient “something” that is superior to the gods and proceeds them, but in some sense permeates all things. And while theistic mystics seem to be in the majority, there are plenty of atheistic and agnostic mystics too.
If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. A master says: “If I had a God that I could understand, I would not regard him as God.” If you understand anything about him, then he is not in it, and by understanding something of him, you fall into ignorance. — Meister Eckhart
Even with many theistic mystics, one gets the impression that their use of the word “god” is more like a placeholder for a mystery than it is like a description for something known. It is as if they are using the world for lack of a better one.
“God is not the name of god, but an opinion of him.”
— The Ring of Pope Xystus, based on The Sententiae of Sixtus, a Pythagorean.
One of the most common criticisms of mystical experiences is to claim they are “hallucinations”. But mystical experiences don’t fit in neatly with what psychologists know about genuine hallucinations. For one thing, people who suffer an hallucination realize it was an hallucination the moment it’s over. But people who have a mystical experience usually claim that it still seems real to them even years or decades later.
For another thing, hallucinations tend to involve a single sense. One hears a disembodied voice. One sees Jesus. One feels the presence of something. But mystical experiences typically affect, in one way or another, the entire, or nearly the entire, perceptual field, just like normal experiences.
Last, hallucinations can be frequent and recurring. But mystical experiences tend to be rare. One is “lucky” to have had one. To have a few is exceptionally lucky. To have had more than a few is almost unheard of.
Basically, it might be open to debate what mystical experiences are of, but that they seem real — at least as real as anything else — is pretty much indisputable, so far as I can see.
Both from reading the often fairly well known writings of mystics, and from private talks with mystics, I have form the impression that mystics, as a group, are a bit on the wild side when it comes to harboring “proper” beliefs about gods. They tend not to reference, say, holy scriptures as authoritative guides to what to believe about deity. When they reference such things, it is most often done in the spirit of “and here’s something that sounds surprisingly like what I experienced”.
Police, lawyers, and psychologists are all acutely aware of the fact that, if there are 20 witnesses to the same car accident, there are likely to be at least 21 versions of what exactly happened. Witnesses to the mystical experience are no exception to that rule.
Some will tell you they experienced god, some will tell you they did not, or are not sure that they did. Perhaps more significantly, some witnesses seem more reliable than others, just as with witnesses to anything else. It’s my impression that the more reliable the witness, the more hesitant, cautious, and circumspect they are when arriving at any interpretations or conclusions about what they’ve experienced.
Last, the mystical experience seems to transform people, often profoundly, and often along certain familiar lines. I have learned there is a bit more general agreement among mystics who give some indication of having been transformed by the experience than there is among mystics who give little or no indication of having been transformed. Just so, mystics whose experience or experiences were drug induced seem to me, at least, to show fewer signs of any lasting transformation than mystics whose experiences arose spontaneously.
We shall now turn to those transformative experiences.
The Transformative Nature of the Mystical Experience
By a single such experience of only a few moments’ duration a man’s life may be revolutionized. He may previously have found life meaningless and worthless, whereas now he feels that it has acquired meaning, value, and direction, or his attitude to life may sometimes be radically and permanently changed. — W. T. Stace
I spoke earlier of having developed over time a “nose” for mystics. Much of that nose seems to involve picking up on clues so subtle or slight as to be difficult to easily describe. A “lightness” when dealing with beliefs about god, for instance. And, so far as I know, no one clue in itself is a notably reliable guide to who is or isn’t a mystic. I’ve learned to wait for a number of clues before guessing that someone might be a mystic. In fact, I’m never certain who is or isn’t a mystic until they tell me their stories, and even then, not always.
It does seem to me, however, that mystics tend to be transformed, permanently transformed, by their experiences, except perhaps in the case of most drug induced experiences. I should make clear here, though, that I am now speaking specifically of mystics who have had the mystical experience. There are other mystics who’ve had other experiences, but not the mystical experience. Of those mystics, I am not at the moment
gossiping rumor mongering talking about for the simple reason that their experiences do not seem to me all that transformative.
It also seems to me that some non-mystics are also “transformed”, but by what I don’t know.
I do know, however, that there are people who in most or every respect seem to be mystics, except they claim to have never had any such experiences. So it does not seem to me that one must necessarily be a mystic to be like a mystic. But it sure does help: For every normal person I’ve met who is very much like a mystic, I have met several actual mystics.
One of the things I believe I have noticed about mystics (and some non-mystics) is that they are somewhat unusually aware of their ego and how it behaves or operates in practice. Almost no mystic I’ve come across (except, once again, in the case of drug-induced mystics) is notably unaware of, say, the ways in which their ego distorts their views and understanding of reality. Moreover, most mystics seem to me to be less egotistical than the average member of our species. They tend to be more modest, more willing to laugh at themselves, and less trapped or led around by their ego than most (but certainly not all) non-mystics.
In general, mystics are what I call “spiritually advanced”. But I mean that in a very off-beat way. My definition of “spirituality” is rather unconventional. It is “the manner and extent to which a person deals with their psychological self”. I go into that in much greater detail here.
Not every mystic has an especially profound love, appreciation, and respect for nature, but most of the ones I know do. Their love, however, is not usually of the sentimental sort that romanticizes nature, and sees only its positive aspects. Rather, they tend to be very realistic about it. They know and accept that nature can be unpleasant at times and that it has horrors. Yet, mystics tend to treat nature with reverence.
The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive. — Thich Nhat Hanh
A few have told me that, like Thich Nhat Hanh, they find it easier to feel “alive” in nature than in towns and cities, or even in their own homes. As one young man passionately told me, “Nature is my church”.
Mystics on the whole also seem to me to be notably less likely to complain about — or to be defeated by — misfortunes than the rest of us. They appear to be a resilient lot. They very seldom turn cynical or bitter even though they seem to have suffered as much as is usual for a human. This might have something to do with W. T. Stace’s observation that the mystical experience tends to give people a sense of meaning or purpose in life, even if they had no such sense before. It seems that people, both mystics and non-mystics, who feel they have a purpose or meaning in life are generally more resilient than those who don’t, and mystics usually seem to have an enduring sense of purpose or meaning
The most psychologically healthy people I personally know are every one of them mystics. Yet, that does not mean all mystics enjoy good psychological health. I have known plenty of mystics, for instance, who suffer from depression or other disorders. Maybe the one thing I haven’t known, so far as I can recall, is a depressed mystic who was suicidal. Again, perhaps that has something to do with an enduring sense of purpose or meaning.
There are mystics of every religion and of no religion at all. As a general rule (with exceptions) they tend to wear their religions (or non-religion) lightly. Mystics, by and large, are almost the opposite of fanatics. Even when they believe they’ve experienced god, they overwhelmingly tend to be unwilling to impose their views or beliefs about god on others. The non-believing mystics I’ve met tend to be just as reluctant to impose their views or beliefs on others as the believing mystics.
The relatively rare exceptions usually seem to be people who were very quick to arrive at firmly held interpretations and conclusions about their experiences. That same group, incidentally, are more likely to be members of a particular religion, more likely to interpret their mystical experience(s) in terms of that religion (e.g. “I didn’t just experience god, I experienced God, the God of the Bible.”), and more likely to come from a fundamentalist background within their religion.
As a group, mystics do not strike me as notably more moral than other people. But they do strike me as overall a bit more humane. They tend to treat others with decency, even others they don’t particularly like. And they tend to strongly disapprove of unnecessary cruelty. I have not yet known a mystic to seriously advocate murder, rape, assault, or even mistreating someone in any significant way. I assume, however, that it’s possible there are mystics in this world who are exceptions to the rule.
There are some other ways that mystics seem to me to stand out at least a bit from the crowd. But most of those ways are rather difficult to describe, so I haven’t tried to do so here.
Mystics themselves will very often tell you that their experiences absolutely changed everything, or at least everything important, about them. It’s not only Christian mystics, for instance, who speak of their experiences as “being reborn”, and as “the start of a new life”. Plenty of others do too, including non-believers.
In my experience, however, this seems to be an exaggeration. Those mystics I have not only met, but gotten to know well, do not seem to me to be radically changed. They seem changed in some ways, but not in every way, and not so much that they might be fairly called “radically” changed. But I have no access to their psychological interiors, so it’s quite possible they are much more changed than I myself can see.
Also — and I think this is most important — I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting someone along the lines of Pema Chodron , Thich Nhat Hanh, or Jiddu Krishnamurti. By almost all accounts that I’ve read or have heard told of these people, to know them is an extraordinary experience in itself. Had I met someone like them, I strongly suspect I would now be telling you that, in my experience, the mystical experience can be radically transformative.
It seems to me that the differences between mystics and the rest of us are matters of probability. Things on the order of, “Forty-six percent of non-mystics are X, but ninety-three percent of mystics are X”. That, rather than non-mystics are X, and mystics are Y.
It would be quite interesting if some science were done of this. My own impressions are just that: Impressions, and probably as full of inaccuracies as is humanly likely. Nevertheless, accurate or not, my impressions are that mystics — with notable exceptions — are less egotistical, more spiritual, more resilient, psychologically healthier, and more humane (among other things) than most of the rest of us.
The Physiological Basis for Mysticism
When I first became interested in mysticism, almost the entire library of published scholarly books on the subject could have been carted around in a single student backpack with space left over for copies of the Bhagavad Gita, a collection of Rumi’s poetry, and a few other primary works. Over the past twenty or thirty years, that’s changed dramatically.
Some of the most significant changes have been coming from the field of neuroscience, which seems to be rapidly discovering the physiological basis for mysticism. So rapidly, in fact, that my own information on the subject is very likely outdated by now. So, I won’t go into the details here, but I do plan to post on the subject at a later date, once I’ve had time to read some recent books I’ve purchased in order to get reasonably up to date. Meanwhile, I’d like to mention two things here.
First, regardless of whether one thinks the mystical experience is of god or not, it is now more than clear the experience crucially involves the brain. This might disappoint those of us who were hoping that the experience would somehow provide evidence for a disembodied consciousness. or even evidence of being produced by a miraculous intervention by deity. I myself never hoped for either thing, but I know people who have.
Next, it should be noted here that the mere fact there is a physiological basis for the experience does not logically imply that god is nothing more than a brain fart. To say that it does is just as illogical as saying that, because we have largely discovered the physiological basis for vision, everything we see is an illusion.
Stay tuned to this blog for a future post or posts on current findings in the physiology of mystical experiences!
Other Mystical Experiences
In addition to the mystical experience, there is a whole host of other experiences — or alleged experiences — that folks routinely call “mystical”. These include, but are not limited to, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and apparitional experiences. The Zen monks call these experiences “makyo”, and sometimes say that almost all of them are illusions, but that now and then someone has one that is for real.
But are any of them really
really really real? They do not seem to be reliably verifiable through any current methods of intersubjective verification, and are therefore outside the realm of the sciences — which are generally speaking our most reliable means of inquiry. Moreover, whenever it’s been possible to subject any single experience of those sorts to scientific scrutiny, the result has been either to debunk the experience or to find little or no support for regarding it as real.
However, none of that absolutely rules out the possibility that some such experiences — perhaps only a few — are indeed for real. It just makes it unlikely that they are.
Those of us who hope or believe that at least some of those experiences are real can take heart in Saint Elmo’s fire. Saint Elmo’s fire, it is now plausibly suspected, is a rare, but naturally occurring plasma.
That explanation, however, would not have been at all possible a few hundred years ago when the “fire” was spotted hovering around the dome of Sophie’s Cathedral on the eve of the battle for Constantinople. The key thing to grasp here is that no one — not even the finest most knowledgeable people on the planet at the time — could have discovered the cause of the fire.
Let me repeat that for emphasis: Under no likely circumstances could the cause have possibly been discovered back then. That is, it wasn’t just a matter of no one did the right research. It was a matter of no one could have done the right research. The gulf between the knowledge of the time and the necessary knowledge to explain St. Elmo’s fire was simply unbridgeable by the technology of the day.
One might ask then, is there a natural explanation for at least a few paranormal events? Are they as real as St. Elmo’s fire, but as inaccessible to us today as the fire was roughly 500 years ago?
I think it quite likely that, if any such events be real, they have natural explanations, although we might be years or even centuries away from when such explanations will be possible for us to formulate.
Trenchant and Insightful Summary
I must now confess that I’ve had my own mystical experiences, including what I so wittily call the mystical experience. There was a time, when I was much younger than I am today, when I thought my experiences were definitive. I have since been thoroughly disabused of any such notion.
Today, I see myself as like one of 20 witnesses to the same car accident, and if I stand out in any particular way from any of the other 19 witnesses it’s merely that I might be a bit more unsure of my own accounts and interpretations of the events in my life than they are of theirs. That uncertainty comes to me largely through having talked with so many other witnesses, a few of whom even impressed me as much better witnesses than myself.
There is so much about mysticism that I have left out here. This certainly should not be taken as a comprehensive essay on mysticism. Anyone who wants to read more of my thoughts on the subject should go here. Meanwhile I’d appreciate any comments you would like to share on mystics or mysticism.
Thank you for reading this! As usual, any cash donations in appreciation of this post will be immediately forwarded to Uncle Sunstone’s Cottage Refuge for Wayward Dancing Girls. You can be absolutely confident your money will go to buying the girls the g-strings they need to stay warm during sudden cold spells this Spring and Summer, and also to replace the strings that somehow so frequently wind up stuck in Uncle Sunstone’s teeth.
It’s quite a mystery how that happens.