A Glimpse at Mysticism

“I’m calling this talk “A Glimpse at Mysticism.” Let me begin it with a premise: that the basic impulse of all religion is a twofold perception: first, that there is some kind of an unseen order, some superior coherence to reality beyond what we know directly through our senses and rational minds; and secondly, that our highest good, is to put ourselves in harmony with that order. Some Unitarians may take exception, but in general, that twofold perception is the common element in nearly all religious experience and traditions. So, at least, argued the American psychologist and philosopher William James.

Going a bit further with James’s ideas, we can say that the essential purpose of prayer, broadly construed, in all of its forms, is to help establish that harmony, to bring us into some level of experiential contact with that higher order. I speak of prayer in its deeper manifestations, not the shallower forms of petitionary prayer–“Please God let the Rockets win this weekend,” or “Let Hurricane Isaac not blow away (or blow away, as the case may be) the Republican convention.” I speak not of pleas such as that, but the genuine efforts to experience a higher level of harmony.

Meditation can be seen as one such form of prayer. In the Eastern influenced forms of meditation, such as the Vipassana that we practice, we tend to assume that the route to that experience of harmony, is through what in the West we might call the self, through greater awareness of our interior world. Because, at its core, human nature is seen as divine, it is one with the source of the universe: the divine is immanent, within us, as well as transcendent, in the outer world. In Buddhism, we say there is no self, no separate individual, because ultimately that divine nature is not separate from its source: it is only a manifestation, an aspect, of that source. “Thou art That” says the Hindu scripture, the Upanishads: the God that you seek is who you are.

Mysticism can be seen as the ultimate experience of that vision, and that harmony. The term is relatively new; it gained currency only around the turn of the Twentieth Century. Before that time, the adjective “mystical” was occasionally used, often derogatorily, as meaning an assertion that was vaguely spiritual but insufficiently grounded in concrete reality and rational thought. What we now think of as mystical experiences were explained in terms of the particular religious tradition with which they were associated. Teresa of Avila, for example, may have felt an ecstatic oneness with God, but she never would have referred to herself as a “mystic.” The term implies an experience that cuts across—we might even say underlies—many religious traditions, and that has a consistency regardless of the belief systems of the individual seeker. In fact, it often takes the seeker entirely beyond those systems of mythology and belief and may come upon people who subscribe to no religious tradition at all.

James was among the first to use the term in that way, in his great lectures of 1901 and 02 that became The Varieties of Religious Experience, surely one of the most significant prose works the Twentieth Century. In case any of you might have a particular interest in these matters, I hope you’ll forgive me for mentioning that I’ll be giving a lecture on that work at the Jung Center in October—on the 18th; and for the true gluttons for punishment, the lecture will be followed by a six-week seminar in which we’ll study and analyze the work in detail. For tonight, I’m drawing not only on James, but on two other classics about mysticism that were published near the same time, R.M. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness of 1901 and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism of 1911. These works launched the academic study of mysticism that continues in our own time.

Let me give you a taste of the experience that we’re talking about. R.M. Bucke was a Canadian psychiatrist. This is his narrative of the pivotal moment in his life:

“I had spent the evening in a great city, with two friends, reading and discussing poetry and philosophy. We parted at midnight. I had a long drive in a hansom to my lodging. My mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images, and emotions called up by the reading and talk, was calm and peaceful.”

Now listen to this, in terms of what we practice in Vipassana meditation:

“I was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment, not actually thinking, but letting ideas, images, and emotions flow of themselves, as it were, through my mind. All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud.  For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed. I knew that what the vision showed was true.”

For James and other commentators since, mystical experiences such as this are what he called the “root and center” of religious life. All the rest—belief systems, theologies, scriptures, rituals, institutions and hierarchies—are derivative: they represent efforts to explain these experiences, or to perpetuate some of their benevolent effects among those of us who are not privileged to have them.

Bucke called his experience “an intellectual illumination impossible to describe.” All three of these early commentators on mysticism saw it as having two central characteristics. In James’s terms, mystical experience is “noetic” and “ineffable”: that is, it is a form of knowing, an insight that seems to reveal the reality and basic nature of that unseen, higher order. But those insights defy expression: they transcend rational thought and language and are impossible to describe, or to transmit to others.

Bucke characterized his illumination as “a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe.” These experiences are always transient, momentary, but at the same time, they are life-defining and transformative. For those who have them, they carry utter conviction: they are felt as a revelation of truth, a truth so powerful that the mystic’s life and character become subordinate to its authority. His experience was but a few seconds of Bucke’s life, but as he said, “That view, that conviction, I may say that consciousness, has never, even during periods of the deepest depression, been lost.”

That consciousness, too, is experienced as a great liberation, a rapture, a joyous release from the confines and the suffering of limited thought into awareness of a higher order of reality. It is a state of bliss. Bucke spoke of “a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness.” Underhill cites Catherine of Genoa:“the state of this soul is then a feeling of such utter peace and tranquility,” said Catherine, “that it seems to her that her heart, and her bodily being, and all both within and without is immersed in an ocean of the utmost peace….”

None of this is communicable; it can only be understood by direct experience, just as one must have been in love to understand the emotion. Mystics may try to express their experience in words and symbols, but they know that those utterances fall pitifully short. “The greatest mystics,” says Underhill, “distinguish clearly between the ineffable Reality which they perceive and the image under which they describe it.” James cites St. John of the Cross: the soul “recognizes,” says John, “however sublime and learned may be the terms we employ, how utterly vile, insignificant, and improper they are when we seek to discourse of divine things by their means.”

For each of our three commentators, mystical experience represented a distinct state of consciousness, fundamentally different from the rational consciousness with which we normally navigate our everyday world. Underhill called it “another sort of consciousness.” It was James, a psychologist, who fleshed that out most fully. His work with hypnotism, trance states, and even psychotropic drugs convinced him that “our normal waking consciousness…,” as he put it, “is but one form of consciousness, whilst all about it,  parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” Those forms, he thought, also have their validity: they are not simply illusions; they “have their fields of application and adaptation.”

For Bucke and Underhill, mystical consciousness was the highest state of awareness that humans could attain. Bucke, in fact, saw it as an end point of evolution: Mystics were the advanced guard of the consciousness towards which all humanity was evolving; ultimately, in some very distant future, all people would share in that state of consciousness; all would be mystics.

The bane of religion, though, might be those symbols and images—those “vile and improper” terms, when we try to understand them through ordinary states of consciousness, when we don’t make the distinction between the Reality and the images. In our everyday consciousness, we take the images literally. We make them dogma. We mistake the symbol for the reality, the map for the territory. We attach ourselves to specific symbols and split into camps that identify with one set of symbols or another.

Our three turn-of-the-twentieth-century scholars recognized that the symbols and images had to come from, and speak to, the particular cultures in which the various mystics participated. But in its classic form, they thought that the mystical experience was fundamentally the same, regardless of the particular seer’s cultural or religious tradition. Expressions of it will be influenced by culture, tradition, and temperament; it may be linked to scores of different philosophies and creeds—but the psychological experience is basically one. “[T[he (seeming) diverse accounts,” wrote Bucke, “…are all more or less unsuccessful attempts to describe the same thing.”  In James’s words, “there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity”; “the mystical classics have…neither birthday nor native land.” In contemporary post-modern academia, with its relentless emphasis on cultural formation and difference, this point has become more controversial, but the position still has its defenders: the mystical state of consciousness can be seen as a basic human potential reaching beyond culture and personality.

If it is that, if it is ultimately the same in all traditions, what can we say about its content? Well, since it is ineffable, perhaps not so much, but the unanimity of those utterances perhaps can tell us something. We may not be able to capture the experience in words, but we can talk about the tenor and characterizations that the mystics themselves report. Allow me a vast oversimplification: Classical mystical experiences seem often to involve three perceptions, or better, categories of perception: the underlying unity of all reality; the annihilation of the self; and the cosmic role of love.

The unity of the cosmic order, said Bucke, “is such that…all things work together for the good of each and all….” James described a central insight whose “keynote,” he said, “…is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict makes all of our difficulties and troubles, were melted into a unity….[t]he other in its various forms appears absorbed into the One” (379).

That One is usually seen as divine, whether or not, as in the Christian tradition, we call it God: “It was granted me to perceive in one instant,” says St. Theresa, “how all things are seen and contained in God.” For the mystic, says Underhill—she has Christian mystics in mind—God is the “substance, ground or underlying Reality of all that is.

That divine reality is in us, is in fact, our essential selves, as we are in it. It is, says Underhill, “as truly immanent in the human soul as in the Universe” (127). In the classical mystical experience, we realize our identity with the divine, and the Ego, the smaller, separate sense of self, falls away. It is annihilated, revealed as a superficial construct hiding the deeper reality of who we are. Only with that realization is the mystical path fulfilled. Here is an authority cited by Underhill: “The mystic life…abolishes the primitive consciousness of selfhood, and substitutes for it a wider consciousness; the total disappearance of selfhood in the divine, the substitution of the Divine Self for the primitive self.”

Essentially, the mystical experience is an experience of our oneness with the divine. “In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute,” says James, “and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed.”

The experience of that oneness, finally, is an experience of love—it is, says Underhill, “infused with burning love.” “The business and method of Mysticism,” she claims, “is Love.” Love is not only experienced in that union with the Absolute, it is seen as a principle at the center of the cosmos, the source of creation. “…[T]he foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds,” said Bucke of his own revelation, “is what we call love….” For all three of our authorities on mysticism, a major modern exemplar was Walt Whitman. James quotes from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge

that pass all the argument of the earth…,

And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers

and the women my sisters and lovers,

And that a kelson of the creation is love.

Well, now. Does all this burning intensity and certainty of conviction mean that mysticism, in fact, is true? Mystical experiences may be utterly convincing to those who have them, but does that mean that they should therefore convince the rest of us? Well, no, not necessarily, at least by James’s argument. Intensity and certainty are no infallible guarantees of truth, and even by their own testimony, the words of mystics are untrustworthy. Intense experiences are often quickly attached to limited cultural concepts, and we all have the freedom, and a responsibility, to judge the world on the basis of our own experiences and perceptions.  However, the existence of mystical states of consciousness—this is James’s crucial argument, which I quote—”absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe…. It must always remain an open question whether mystical states may not possibly be…superior points of view, windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world.”

And let me note, as a coda, that this mystical outlook as I’ve portrayed it comports well with the teachings and assumptions behind our practice of Vipassana meditation. We hope to put ourselves more in harmony with an unseen order, through what in Buddhist tradition is called wisdom and compassion. The ultimate unity of all reality is the vision behind the Buddhist teachings of the interconnectedness of all things and the doctrine of karma; awareness of it is an essential component, at least in my understanding, of the ideal of wisdom. The annihilation of self is of a piece with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. And the centrality of love in the universe can be seen as why, in Buddhism, the route to greater harmony is through the ideal of compassion.

August 27, 2012