Communication, Conversation, Human Nature, Ideas, Life, Living, Marysa, Neuroscience, Psychology, Relationships, Science, Society, Terese, Teresums

Understanding Each Other

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:  Paul offers some thoughts on the foundation and basis for mutual human understanding in shared experiences.

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THE CRITICS GO NOVA! “Paul Sunstone has a ravenous appetite for stupidity.  There!  I said it!  I said his name.  My therapist tells me if I say his name often enough, I will accustom myself to it, I will numb myself, and I will no longer burst into uncontrollable giggle-snorting whenever…please excuse me. I am become disconcerted…”  — Arun Ghani, India’s Blogs and Beyond, “The Herald and News”, Hyderabad, India.

Continue reading “Understanding Each Other”

Attachment, Buddhahood, Buddhism, Consciousness, Cultural Traits, Culture, Emotions, Enlightenment, Human Nature, Ideas, Knowledge, Life, Living, Memes, Mysticism, Neuroscience, Psychology, Quality of Life, Religion, Satori, Science, Self, Self-Integration, Self-Knowledge, Self-Realization, Sense of Relatedness, Spirituality, Thinking, Transformative Experience

What is Spiritual Enlightenment?

(About a 9 minute read)

When I was at university, I met a woman two years older than me who seemed to me at the time to be so psychologically healthy that I had not expected people could be that “together” before I met her.  She changed not only my ideas of psychological health, but a number of my ideas of what people were and could be.

One day, she and I were talking when the topic of enlightenment came up.  I had only recently heard of the idea and I told her I wanted to find out if it was true.

“Oh, it’s real”. she said, “And it’s my life’s goal to attain it.”

I didn’t know — and I didn’t ask —  how she knew it was real.  The idea was so new to me that I had scarcely heard any evidence for it at that point.  But I did realize she was a very rational person and most likely had reasons she considered solid for believing it existed.

Continue reading “What is Spiritual Enlightenment?”

Consciousness, Culture, Enlightenment, Knowledge, Learning, Meditation, Mysticism, Neuroscience, Nontheism, Religion, Satori, Self, Self-Integration, Spirituality, Thinking, Transformative Experience

Can Knowledge Bring About a Mystical Experience?

(About a 5 minute read)

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.”

Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Consciousness, Cultural Change, Culture, Deity, Enlightenment, Evolution, God, God(s), Human Nature, Mysticism, Neuroscience, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Thinking

Rationalism and the Immanent Death of All Religions

(About an 11 minute read)

When I was growing up, there were arguably few good fantasy novels.  Lord of the Rings was yet to become popular in my home town, but I didn’t feel I was missing anything because science fiction attracted me like no other genre.  Hardcore science fiction.

No unicorns, no dragons — and usually no gods.  Just stuff based on the science or scientific speculations of the day.  Issac Asimov and Author C.  Clark.  In fact, I believe it might have been in Clarke’s book, The Deep Range, where I for the first time came across the notion that rational science was replacing irrational religion in the hearts and minds of all the world’s peoples.

I simply assumed Clarke had a point.  After all, he surely knew more about it than me.  A few years later, I carried the idea with me to university, where I signed up for my first course in comparative religious studies at least half convince religion would be taught as part of the history department within twenty years or so.

I have since then been thoroughly disabused of that notion.  I was actually a bit surprised the other day when someone brought it up again.

Granted, there are plenty of reasons to believe that religion is on the decline in the industrialized world.  Numerous surveys seem to demonstrate that beyond doubt.  For instance,  a 2016 Norwegian study found that 39% of Norwegians “do not believe in God”,  while a 2015 Dutch Government survey found that 50.1% of the population were “non-religious”.   And even in the US, which remains the most religious industrialized nation, younger people are notably less religious than their elders.

Yet, to me these studies are very difficult to interpret for at least two reasons.  They don’t always seem to have clear enough categories, and they often seem to have too few categories.

I’m out of my league in any language but English, so I haven’t studied the non-English language studies, but  I’m suspicious of categories that get translated as “non-religious” or are based on questions that get translated as, “Do you believe in God?”

“Non-religious” can mean so many different things to different people.  I would describe myself as “non-religious” meaning not an adherent of any organized religion, but I’m also a bit of a mystic, and to some people, that’s quite religious.

Beyond that, there are usually not enough categories to these surveys to satisfy my insatiable appetite to categorize things.  Don’t believe in god?  Fine, but do you consider yourself,  an atheist, an agnostic, someone who believes in spirits, ghosts, etc, a Christian atheist (big in the Netherlands), a believer in a “transcendent reality”,  or do you perhaps feel “there just must be something out there”, etc.

But putting aside my uniformed suspicions about the studies I’ve seen, I think there are at least two compelling reasons to suppose religion will survive rational science so long as we’re Homo sapiens.  Both reasons are rooted in the origin and nature of religions.

Now, anytime you speak about the origin and nature of religions some folks are bound to bring up the traditional ideas about that.  Religions began as proto-sciences that tried to explain nature, such as thunder, in terms of supernatural beings.  Thunder becomes a thunder god, in that view.

Freud thought religions began as a desire for a father figure that turned into a god.  Feuerbach, following some ancient Greeks, thought religion began as an idealization of a great man, such as a notable leader, following his death.  Others have argued that religion was begun by people seeking a sense of purpose or meaning in life.  And so on.

I myself would not actually argue against any of those traditional notions.  For all I know, they and many other such notions at least played some role in getting religion off to a start.  But I do think there are two more influential candidates.

There is general agreement these days among cognitive scientists that religion involves the architecture of the brain.  That is, religion is based in our genes, and most likely evolved early in our history.  Beyond that, there is much debate and a handful of theories about exactly what our brain’s architecture has to do with religion.

For reasons of space,  I’ll stick to the one theory I favor.  According to its view, we evolved functional brain modules, such as modules allowing us to think of others as having beliefs, desires, and intentions (Theory of Mind), organize events into stories or narratives (Etiology), or that predispose us to respond to danger signs in ways that might save our lives if the danger is actually real (Agent Detection).  Depending upon who you consult, there are up to two dozen or so such modules.

One way these modules might come together is this:  You’re sitting around a campfire one night, partying over an antelope carcass, when you hear a rustle in the bushes and perhaps even an indistinct growl that you might only be imagining.  You startle, the hair on your neck rises, and chills run down your spine.  “Something is out there!”

That’s Agent Detection speaking.  The rustle could be from a breeze or a harmless small animal.  The growl might only be imagined.  But the key thing here is that you react with fright just as you would if it were known to be a lion.

A few minutes later, you and your buddies pick up your spears to investigate.  Can’t very well get to sleep with a possible lion that close in.  But you find nothing.

This is repeated a few times during the night.  Each time you find nothing, but then it happens the next night, and so on.  Sooner or later, your best story-teller cooks up a narrative (Etiology)  in which a malevolent spirit is “out there”,  prowling around your camp,  perhaps waiting for the moment to strike.  But your sense of Agent Detection predisposes you think there must be something there.  Being a spirit, you cannot see him, but you don’t need to — what else could explain something making noises that have no body behind them?

Last, as time goes on, you start ascribing more and more beliefs, desires, and intentions to the spirit (Theory of Mind), until one day you have perhaps a god.  Or maybe not, maybe you and your buddies are devout spiritualists without any recognizable deities.  Whatever the case, you’ve now got something “religious”, in at least some sense of the word.

If the above is true, then we now have one deep root of human religiosity.   A root so firmly grounded in our brain’s architecture that it must be genetically based.  A clear implication is that, having evolved it, we would need to evolve out of it to be entirely free of its influence on us.  Until or unless we do that, we will be born with a predisposition to some kind of religiosity.

But is there another root, as equally well grounded?  It seems curious to me that a second root of human religiosity seems so often ignored.  Even if one dismisses mystical experiences as “rare hallucinations”, that would not actually demonstrate they were of little or no influence on the world’s religions.  Indeed, they seem core to at least Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, and a significant theme in others, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Now, there seem to be about 12-16 different kinds of experiences that are commonly called, “mystical”,  so I should take special care here to clearly distinguish what I mean by the word.  I mean only one quite specific kind of experience, which I call “the mystical experience”,  for lack of being inspired to come up with any other name for it.

The problem here is that, while it is easy to come up with words to describe the  content of that experience, it is impossible to come up with words capable of communicating that content to anyone but people who have had the experience.

Buddhists sometimes describe nirvana as a “cessation of suffering”,  and Christian mystics describe their experiences as “experiences of God”,  but neither phrase is able to communicate what those things mean to anyone other than the people who use them.  The problem is the nature of words themselves.  Words are symbols that ultimately depend on shared experiences to communicate much of anything.  If you had a barn, and I had never seen anything like it,  you would be reduced to describing your barn in terms of what I had seen.  “It’s like your mud hut, Paul, only much, much bigger.”

However, I have had some luck describing mystical experiences as involving a dissolution of subject/object perception, replaced by a perception of all things being in some sense one.  The key is to grasp that subject/object perception is perceiving the world in such a way that you divide the things you perceive into self and non-self.

That is, I not only see the tree in my yard, but I see the tree as “not me”.   That’s the normal, everyday mode of waking consciousness.  But if and when that breaks down and you perceive — if only for a moment or two — the tree and you as unified by some sense of oneness, then you’re having a mystical experience.  The sine qua non of those experiences is that breakdown into oneness.

In addition to that, there is much other content typical of a mystical experience, but it’s much harder for most us to understand how mundane joy differs from mystical bliss, than it is for us to understand we have suddenly lost or abandoned our sense of things being either “me” or “not me”.

Hence, I am only concerned with that one kind of mystical experience, but that’s not to say there are no other kinds — most of them probably more interesting than the mystical experience.

As I said, Christian mystics tend to interpret their experiences as experiences of the Christian God, but so too do most people around the world, and through-out the ages (except they aren’t usually talking about the Christian god).  Not the Buddha, of course, nor Lao Tzu, but so many others use “god” or virtual synonyms for god.  So, although there are an appreciable number of atheists and agnostics who have had mystical experiences, it’s easy to see how the experience could create a sense of deity.

Mystical experiences seem to be as deeply rooted in our genes as the other kind of experiences.  The neural sciences have revealed that they are associated with at the very least changes in the activity levels of the parietal lobe and the thalamus.   There seems to be evidence that they might also have something to do with “brain chemicals” like dopamine.  So, I think despite our understand of them is still quite limited we do now know enough to safely say they are genetically rooted in us.

Of course, the implication is that “god won’t go away anytime soon”.   But I think that can be more clearly seen when we consider that the sciences have no means for disproving the notion god might be behind, or the ultimate cause of, such experiences.

Even if we knew everything about their natural causes, we would have no means of knowing anything about whether or not there were supernatural causes to them also.

Now, if all of the above is true enough, then I think its safe to say the imminent death of all religions is not exactly “around the next corner”.  We would most likely need to evolve so far as to become a new species — with a new kind of brain — for that to happen.  So, while people may shift from one form of religiosity to another, I think most of us will retain some kind of religiosity.

I hope the future brings us ever more benign forms of religiosity.

Competence, Cultural Traits, Culture, Emotions, Intelligence, Logic, Mental and Emotional Health, Neuroscience, Psychology, Quality of Life, Reason, Thinking

Could Star Trek’s Mr. Spock Really Exist?

(About a 5 minute read)

Like most sensible people, I am firmly convinced that around 2,400 years ago in Athens, Greece, Plato invented Mr. Spock.

Of course, I do not believe that Plato invented all the details of Mr. Spock right down to his curiously arched eyebrows and pointy ears.  So far as I know, those details were worked out by Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and their band.  But the essential notion that a hyper-rational person would have few or no emotions — that was Plato.

In Plato’s view, emotions and thought were clearly distinct, and the only connection between the two was that emotions could mess with thought.  That is, while emotions could cause us to reason poorly, they had little or no positive impact on reasoning.  Apparently, Plato was the first to come up with those ideas — ideas which went on to become commonplace assumptions of Western thought.  And Roddenberry, etc seized on those assumptions to create Mr. Spock.

Of course, there are some rather obvious ways in which Plato was right.  Most likely everyone has had some experience with their emotions overwhelming their capacity for reason.  Every child is cautioned not to act in anger or other strong emotional state, least they do something irrational.  And many of us — perhaps even most of us — know that we tend to be more gullible when listening to someone present their views with a great deal of passion than when listening to someone present their views coldly.  “I don’t think Snerkleson is quite right in his views, but he’s so passionate about them that he must honestly see some merit to them.  Maybe there’s at least some truth to what he says about dog turds replacing petroleum as the fuel of the future.”  There are clearly ways emotions can interfere with thought, as Plato knew.

As it happens, though, the notion that emotions only have a negative impact on thought is not borne out by the evidence.

In the early 1990s, a man — who has come to be known as “Elliot” — was referred to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, by his doctors.  Elliot had applied for disability assistance despite the fact that, “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work”.  His doctors wanted Damasio to find out if Elliot had a “real disease”.

Damasio found that Elliot tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence.  His long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were unquestionably sound. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant.  Yet, when Damasio started digging into Elliot’s past job performance, he found that Elliot had often behaved as if he was indeed stupid and ignorant.

For instance, Elliot had at least once spent half a day trying to figure out how to categorize his documents.  Should he categorize them by size, date, subject, or some other rule?  Elliot couldn’t decide.  Moreover, he had been fired for leaving work incomplete or in need of correction.   And when Damasio studied what had happened to Elliot after his job loss, he found the same pattern of poor decision-making and incompetence.  Elliot had gotten divorced, then entered into a second marriage that quickly ended in another divorce.  He had then made some highly questionable investments that brought about his bankruptcy.  He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. Unable to live on his own, he was staying with a sibling. His life was in ruin.

When Damasio looked at Elliot’s medical history, he found that the turning point for Elliot had come about when he developed a brain tumor.   Before the tumor, Elliot had been highly successful in his business field.  He was even a role model for the junior executives.  And he had had a strong, thriving marriage.  Although the brain tumor had been successfully removed,  Elliot had suffered damage to some of the frontal lobe tissues of his brain having to do with the processing of emotions.

Damasio began testing Elliot for his emotional responses to things.  In test after test, Elliot showed little or no emotional response to anything.  He was, Damasio concluded, cognitively unaware of his own emotions.  Then Damasio had a revelation.  “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio wrote.

Damasio went on from Elliot to look at other case studies of people who had suffered brain injuries preventing them from being cognitively aware of their emotional states.  He found the same pattern over and over:  When emotions were impaired, so was decision-making.

The findings of Damasio and other scientists have largely revolutionized how scientists view the relationship between emotion and thought.  It now seems that emotions are, among other things, the means by which we sort out information: The relevant from the irrelevant, the high-priority from the low-priority, the valuable from the worthless.

And Mr. Spock?  Well, a real life Mr. Spock might spend hours trying to figure out whether to set his phaser to stun or kill.  Without emotions, decision-making becomes extraordinarily problematic.

Anxiety, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Evolution, Fear, Friends, Genetics, Happiness, Human Nature, Humor, Life, Love, Lovers, Neuroscience, Play, Psychology, Quality of Life, Relationships, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Society

Dealing with Fear of Rejection

(About a 22 minute read)

One of the mysteries of my life is that sometime between my 37th and 39th birthdays, I lost my fear of rejection.   It simply disappeared, evaporated, without my having done much of anything to overcome it.

It’s been about twenty years now, and I can only recall a single instance of the fear returning during that time.  That happened six years ago, and though the memory of it is still vivid for me, the fear lasted only a few hours.  I was visiting someone from my childhood, an older man that I had looked up to, and whose rejection I was always afraid of incurring.  It was more of a flashback to old fears, than the emergence of new ones.

Now, it seems to me possible that I’ve had other episodes of the fear during the past twenty years, episodes I no longer remember.  But if so, it does not seem likely they are many.  Instead, my memories are of doing with ease things that would have once made me feel awkward or embarrassed — or that I would have once never risked doing at all for fear of rejection.  To be clear, I can’t say rejection has never concerned me in all that time, but I think I can safely say that any concerns I’ve felt have very seldom risen to the level of fear.

Which is a good thing because the fear can be debilitating.  It can significantly influence your daily life, causing you to behave in ways you might not otherwise behave.  Among other things, the fear of rejection can impact your partnership and marriage prospects, your friendships, your other personal relationships, your career, and the quality of your life in general.  You can pay for it not only in lost opportunities, but also in anxiety, acute self-consciousness, social awkwardness, and even emotional suffering.  It is even for a few unlucky people, significantly more traumatic than hearing my poetry sung aloud!

The Science of Rejection

So far as I can find out, scientists have been studying rejection for about two decades now, but the focus of most of their studies has been on rejection itself, or the pain and suffering it causes, and not on the fear of rejection per se.  In this post, however, I will do the opposite by focusing more on the fear of rejection than on anything else.  Still, let’s start out with a few things the scientists have discovered.

One fascinating discovery has been that the brain by and large does not distinguish between the pain of rejection and physical pain.  Instead, it uses pretty much the same neural pathways to process both kinds of pain.  In brain terms, a broken heart and a broken arm aren’t all that different.

In fact, this is so much the case, that Tylenol can actually work to lessen the pain of rejection.  In one study, scientists placed a group of people on a daily regime of Tylenol for three weeks.  Then, in the actual fun part of the study, they brought the people into the lab, where they arranged for them to be cruelly rejected.  By placing these lucky people in an fMRI scanner, the scientists discovered that the folks taking Tylenol suffered significantly less pain from being rejected than the folks taking sugar pills.  Again, the brain treats a broken heart and broken arm much the same.

One difference, however, has to do with memory.  That is, we can relive and re-experience the pain from rejection much more vividly than we typically re-experience the pain from physical injuries:

Try recalling an experience in which you felt significant physical pain and your brain pathways will respond, “Meh.” In other words, that memory alone won’t elicit physical pain. But try reliving a painful rejection (actually, don’t—just take my word for it), and you will be flooded with many of the same feelings you had at the time (and your brain will respond much as it did at the time, too).  [Source]

So why is emotional pain in the case of rejection so closely linked to physical pain and — at least in our memories — even more vivid than physical pain?

The short answer is, because we’re social animals.  The slightly longer answer is that for millions of years during our evolution, we and our ancestors lived in circumstances in which getting kicked out of our community meant nearly certain death.  Humans generally don’t survive all that well outside of groups, except in the fictional imaginings of some authors, adolescents, and ideologues.  Consequently, those individuals who became our ancestors — that is, lived long enough to have offspring — were the folks who suffered the most from rejection, thus making them the same folks who took the most care to avoid being rejected by their groups.

  Obligatory Warning Lable

The science, while fascinating, is still very much emerging, and does not — so far as I can find — thoroughly address the question of how to deal with the fear of rejection, which I think can be at least as consequential in its own ways as the pain of rejection.

Naturally, at this point, I would like to be in a position to tell you that my years of relative freedom from the fear of rejection have provided me the “the seven secret insights” into how you, too, can overcome the fear of rejection, and that those powerful insights can be yours for only $29.95!  But the fact is, I can’t.  The best I can offer you is a mix of science and personal observation virtually guaranteed to mess up your life that might or might not prove useful to you.  In other words, it’s up to you to test these things for yourself.

Three Things That Probably Won’t Work Alone

Going through the online advice on how to deal with the fear, I repeatedly came across three things that I believe — based on both science and personal experience — are unlikely to work.  As I see it, if you try them and they do in fact work for you, then you’ve beaten the odds.   With that said, here they are in no particular order:

• Overcome your fear of rejection through willpower alone!  This is what I tried for a number of years with limited success.  For instance, when I young, I made a point when attending parties to introduce myself to as many women as I could.  However, it took an act of will to make myself do it, because I was actually rather shy back then.  I did find out, though, that I could indeed now and then will myself to do it, and that it did indeed pay off on occasion.  So why do I say “it probably won’t work”?

Overcoming fear through sheer force of will is problematic for a few reasons.  First, it requires a sustained, conscious effort.  You need to keep reminding yourself, pushing yourself “all night long”, as it were, to stick with it.  If you stop pushing, you stop doing it.  Which means that it’s fairly easy to just give up at some point — especially if you are not met with immediate success.

Again, all the while you’re pushing, the fear is still there.  You are at best overcoming your fear, rather than bringing about an end to it.  And that means you are constantly feeling your fear no matter how hard you push yourself to act in despite of it.  That’s fine and dandy if you’re a masochist, but not so good if you prefer to  live without sweaty armpits.

Last, there’s the backsliding. You can be successful on Tuesday, and yet a disaster on Friday.   Again, this is because you have to keep pushing or you stop overcoming.  Put differently, sheer willpower doesn’t appear to have a positive learning curve.   In my experience, merely willing to overcome fear lasts about as long as most New Year’s resolutions before the backsliding sets in.

To be sure, I’m speaking here of willpower alone.  It should be noted, however, that it can be a vital first step when combined with other techniques.

• Overcome your fear through studying the causes of it!  It’s quite tempting — almost instinctual — to search for the causes of your fear in your past.  People who do this tend to discover any number of life events that caused their fear.  Everything from a hyper-critical parent to social rejection suffered in middle school.   But so far as I can see, all such analyses suffer from at least one major problem: They aren’t solutions.

No matter how accurately you identify the personal causes of your fear, the knowledge by itself does little or nothing to resolve the issue.  So something further is needed, but what?  Frankly, I’ve yet to come across in popular advice a “something further” that seems likely to work.  One author, for instance, advised conjuring up your memories of past fears, and then having the “adult you time travel back in your mind to reassure the child you that everything will be alright in the end”.  Somehow, I seriously doubt that will work for large numbers of us.

To be sure, I do not wish to discourage self-examination.  Knowing yourself is key to so many good things in life, but in this case, it’s just not enough unless or until it can be combined with some other technique that will render it effective.

 • Overcome your fear by focusing on the good things that will come from acceptance rather than on the bad things that will come from rejection!  The problem that I see with this nugget of advice is fairly simple.   Just imagine you’re in a poker game.  You’ve got $100 bet, and your feeling mighty anxious you might lose it.   Would the sensible way to overcome your anxiety be to bet another hundred?  Or a thousand?  Or ten thousand?  As you can see, the more you jack up the potential cost of losing, the more anxious you are likely to become.  So why should “focusing on all the good things that will come from acceptance” make you much more than acutely conscious of how much you’ve got to lose if you are indeed rejected?

To sum up, each of these three things seems to me unlikely to work all that well alone.  Yet, in combination with other techniques, I believe they can often enough make a contribution.

Therapies

Encounter therapy is a standard tool of psychotherapists.  Not to be confused with encounter group therapy, which is a very different thing, encounter therapy involves overcoming one’s fears by physically encountering them, over and over again, if necessary.  For instance, a psychotherapist might encourage an especially shy person to walk up and down a busy sidewalk bouncing a basketball in order to draw attention to themselves.  The shy person is thus forced to confront their fears.

Encounter therapy appears to be at least fairly effective, although I doubt it works for everyone.  For instance, back in the day when I was approaching women at parties, it never did get much more than temporarily easier to do so.  That is, it tended to get a bit easier as the night wore on at any given party, but by the time of the next party, I was back to square one.

 It seems to me that encounter therapy is best combined with play.  Put differently, it’s best to make a game out of it.  For instance, instead of bouncing a basketball down the street — which is for merely shy people — decide to directly confront your fear of rejection by setting yourself the goal of getting rejected by a stranger at least once or twice a day.  Setting a goal turns it into a game. Then go out and find a stranger.  Ask him or her to, say, give you a ride across town.  If by some odd chance they accept your offer, then find another stranger.  And keep at it until you get your coveted daily dose of rejection.

Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?  The fact is, it has actually worked for some people, and in my opinion, it most likely would work for most of us.  But it won’t work unless you begin by making yourself do it — and that’s where sheer force of will comes in.  Apparently, it’s best to keep at it for perhaps 100 days, maybe longer, in order to see decisive results.

If it seems rather daunting to bounce out of bed tomorrow morning on a mission from Café Philos to achieve being rejected by strangers twice before midnight, then perhaps you can ease your way into such a noble pursuit by beginning with visualization.

The basic idea here is to face your fears.  That may sound cliché but it’s actually a fairly effective technique.  You begin by, as vividly as possible, imagining a situation in which you are rejected.  Here, your memories can come in handy.   What was the worse rejection you ever experienced?  Drag that sucker up as vividly as you can recall it.  It can help to write it down in alarming detail.  The point is to get make it as real as you can.

Now intensify it!

Yup, you heard right!  Make it worse!  Think of some way it could have been even worse than it was, and then vividly imagine how you would feel if that actually happened to you.

Next, do it again!  Make it worse than the worse you thought it could be.  Rinse and repeat this fun game for an hour or more daily.  Spend at least ten minutes on each stage in the progression.  And remember — writing it all down is better than just thinking about it.

The astonishing fact is that is a science-backed method for putting a significant dent in your fear of rejection.  Your goal should not be to stop with visualizations though.  You should, when you’re ready, progress to actual encounters.

Frequent readers of Café Philos may be forgiven if — up until this very post — they thought I didn’t know anything about how to have fun.  I am quite certain, however, that I have by now laid that myth to rest once and for all.

A Cognitive Landmine

In general, I’m a great fan of the notion that we are more efficiently changed through our actions than through our thoughts.  Put simply, a hundred days of seeking a rejection or two a day is, in my opinion, more likely to ameliorate one’s fear of rejection than a hundred days of contemplation.

Yet, I have also noticed that sometimes no amount of experience will do the trick because the experience is being interpreted in a counter-productive way.  So I’m now going to mention one belief in particular that has the potential to undermine one’s efforts to deal effectively with the fear of rejection through action, or for that matter, through any other means.

The idea here is fairly simple: Emotions, very much including fear, are reactions to the world as we see it.  But the world as we see it is by and large informed by our beliefs about it.   “Was she laughing at me or with me?’  The answer I give to that question might say more about my beliefs about her, and about people in general, than it says about her in fact.  With that in mind let’s forget all about this stuff, break open the beer keg, and party till it’s Christmas! turn to a belief that could be the cognitive foundation of one’s fear of rejection.

First, I would suggest you carefully examine yourself to see if in anyway you might harbor the desire that everyone like you.  That can be a bit tricky to do because it requires great self-awareness.  Time and again, I’ve heard people say that they do not desire everyone to like them, only to turn around moments later to say something that directly contradicts that notion.  It seems to be a frequent mistake.

In fact, the desire for everyone to like you — whether you are conscious of it or not — is one way to create the fear of rejection.  That’s because desire and fear are companions.  To desire something is to automatically fear that you won’t get it.  To fear something, you must see it as capable of thwarting a desire, unless your fear arises as an instinctual, knee-jerk reaction to, say, a sudden noise.  Otherwise, fear and desire travel hand-in-hand.  So, if you desire for everyone to like you, you fear rejection from anyone and everyone.

Now, the desire for everyone to like you is based on the unrealistic belief that it is actually possible for everyone to like you.  Think about this carefully.  Even though people routinely say they desire the impossible, they don’t really do that.  At least not in any significant way.

For a desire to get hold of you, you must — at the very least — think that it is remotely possible for it to be realized.  You may tell yourself that you truly want to walk through walls, but you don’t fear that you won’t be able to.  You don’t ache when you see a wall you can’t walk through.  You don’t feel frustrated that the wall is solid.  In fact,  you show few if any signs of genuinely desiring to walk through walls.  Thus, if you come to an honest belief that it is impossible for everyone to like you, you will cease to desire that everyone will like you — and with that cessation, you will no longer fear rejection from everyone.  You might still fear it from some people, but not automatically from everyone.  At least, that’s been my experience.

It is important that this is more than a mere intellectual exercise to you.  Instead, the truth that it is impossible for everyone to like you must be real to you.  As real to you as a memory of an actual experience.  So, if you wish to take this approach to your fear of rejection, you must be willing to study the issue until you can all but see the truth.

Once you have become clearly aware of the various reasons not everyone can like you, you will find, I believe, that you have not only lost your desire for everyone to like you, but also quite often your desire for this or that person in particular to like you.

For instance, one reason not everyone can like you is because there are intractable personality conflicts between people that you or they are powerless to change.  But once you see that, you are very likely to recognize when you have encountered someone with whom you have such a conflict.  And you are no more likely to believe they can like you than you are likely to believe everyone can like you.

The bottom line is that if you harbor on any level a belief that everyone can like you, you need to root out that belief if you are to deal effectively with the fear of rejection. In my experience, if you can do just that much, you will have gone a long way toward solving the problem.

Gleeful Summary

There is much else that could be said about this subject but lucky for you, a blog post is not a book.  However, I’ll briefly mention some further ideas you might want to consider:

  • Try setting your expectations of being liked low, but not too low.  Put them in neutral, so to speak, rather than in forward or reverse.
  • Avoid end of the word thinking about rejection.  I have too many friends who bump up their fear of rejection by fantasizing that the actual experience will be far worse than such things tend to be.  Yes, it can be painful, but you’ll survive.
  • Check your motives for wanting someone to like or accept you.  Are they honorable.  Unless you are a fairly wicked person (in which case, we should get together for coffee), dishonorable motives will backbite you.  That is, the intention to, say, exploit someone will increase your fear of being rejected by them.
  • For much the same reason, avoid being hyper-critical of people.  If you are, you will tend to take it on faith that any rejection you suffer from them is because of some flaw of your own.  This is absolutely not true the vast majority of the time.  But if you believe it’s true, it will surely increase your fear of rejection.
  • Even if and when someone rejects you for yourself, try to see it as a compatibility issue, rather than a condemnation of yourself.  “She didn’t like your sense of humor”?  That says little or nothing about the quality of your sense of humor, and everything about her own tastes in humor, and how incompatible her tastes are with yours.  If you see it as a condemnation of you, your fear of rejection will blossom like a weed in your heart.
  • There are over seven billion humans on this planet, and perhaps a few million more politicians, too.  That’s a lot people, human and otherwise, and with that many people, there is no real reason you can’t find at least a few — say a million or more — who genuinely like you or even love you as a person.  But how to filter out the ones who do from the ones who don’t? Try looking at rejection as a filter that is actually helping you to do that very thing.  This might not decrease the pain of being rejected all that much (there is science to suggest it won’t), but it can in my experience at least decease the fear of being rejected — if you take it to heart.
  •  Now, if you take none of my advice save for one thing, then take this: Never, ever universalize rejection.  If someone tells you they’re dumping you because you’re “too kind”, never conclude that means everyone, most people, or even a significant fraction of the world’s seven billions will think you are “too kind”.  Never!  Such thinking is totally barking up the wrong tree, hounding down the wrong trail, sniffing the wrong crotch, humping the wrong leg.  Get my drift?  And worse, it will increase your fear of rejection nearly astronomically.

There ain’t no good guy.
There ain’t no bad guy.
There’s just you and me,
And we just disagree.
— Dave Mason, We Just disagree

Nine times out of ten, Mason is right.

I’m turning the conversation over to you now.  This is your BIG opportunity to cheerfully tell me how wrong I am!  Please feel free to share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and stories in the comments section!

Buddhism, Consciousness, Delusion, Drug Abuse, Enlightenment, Epistemology, God, God(s), Happiness, Human Nature, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Joy, Life, Makyo, Meaning, Mysticism, Neuroscience, Nontheism, Psychology, Purpose, Religion, Satori, Self, Self-Integration, Siddhārtha Gautama, Spirituality, Transformative Experience

Mysticism is a Whore: Allow Me to Introduce You

(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.