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What is mysticism?

28/09/2013

You ask, how can we know the Infinite? I answer, not by reason. It is the office of reason to distinguish and define. The Infinite, therefore, cannot be ranked among its objects. You can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty superior to reason, by entering into a state in which you are your finite self no longer—in which the divine essence is communicated to you. . . . It is the liberation of your mind from its finite consciousness. Like only can apprehend like; when you thus cease to be finite, you become one with the Infinite. In the reduction of your soul to its simplest self, its divine essence, you realize this union—this identity. – Plotinus

Another blogger recently recommended an interesting book to me, ‘Rational Mysticism by John Horgan. I’m still only half way through it so it’s probably a little early to do a definitive review, but it has already given me enough food for thought to do at least a blog post about it. So here goes.

Horgan is a very good writer and pretty good journalist – at least when it comes to the usual topics journalists take on. He has a bit of a history writing about philosophy and esoterica but his main area of expertise is science journalism and it shows. What Horgan is definitely not is an epistemologist. He has a pretty shaky grounding in the nature of knowledge, what can be known and how we can know it, and that’s something that repeatedly lets him down in ‘Rational Mysticism‘. He is smart and good at setting aside his own prejudice and giving his interviewees a fair go. When analysing instead of interviewing he makes a much greater effort than most to clarify his own position in a way which doesn’t obscure his subject in judgmentalism but still allows the reader to see how his values might be slanting his writing and try to adjust for it. He is rational, objective, skeptical, reductionist and a thorough researcher – all excellent qualities in a science journalist but not necessarily ideal for the material he takes on in ‘Rational Mysticism‘. The main problem is he doesn’t know when it’s time to set those tools aside.

Perhaps the prime example of this shortcoming in ‘Rational Mysticism‘ is the frequently recurring theme of Horgan’s bum trip, an initially exhilarating but ultimately nightmarish experience with a mystery drug that may have been ‘BZ’ (3-quinuclidinyl benzilate) – a powerful hallucinogen originally developed by the US Army as a chemical weapon. He initially describes the feeling of being many different kinds of beings – animals, an apeman, Adam and Eve – then of being a kind of master of the universe searching for pure pleasure. Finally he goes in search of ultimate knowledge – everything there is to learn about the universe past, present and future – and that’s when things come unstuck. His final question about life the universe and everything is ‘Why?’, but as he is life, the universe and everything there is no-one to answer. He is filled with a sudden existential dread – there is no-one who can tell him why he exists. He could just as easily be nothing. At any instant he could be swallowed by infinite darkness. He fled in horror from his own sense of oneness back into self/otherness, duality.

Apart from temporarily driving Horgan towards a simplistic, negativistic version of Gnosticism it left him with the conviction there are at least two kinds of mystical experiences, Heaven and Hell. Later, after studying various interpretations of the perennial philosophy, he added Illusion to his list of mystical classifications.

To me his experience was the inevitable result of believing he could acquire something from his mystical experience. Seeking the simple experience of bliss isn’t necessarily problematic, bliss is something you can become completely absorbed in, become one with. But by seeking knowledge, especially via the usual perspective of a science journalist, Horgan was dividing the universe into subject and object, observer and observed, acquirer and acquisition. He was reconstructing his ‘self’ from the void.

But under the influence of psychosis or powerful psychedelics the ‘self’ cannot hold. It is under constant threat of ‘dissolving’ into the whole. To enjoy a trip you must jump off the ‘self’ into the void, otherwise you will be enveloped in existential fear of your own annihilation.

Another of Horgan’s follies is his search for an ‘authoritative’ definition of mysticism, which he does by searching for an ultimate authority who can tell him. So far, halfway through the book, none of his interviewees have met his stringent criteria for being an ‘enlightened master’ who can give him the definitive answer in interview format. He has armed himself with several signs of what an enlightened master looks like apparently without questioning whether the sources for his criteria are ‘enlightened’ enough give such answers or whether he would be ‘enlightened’ enough to understand them if they did. Perhaps he needs Ralph Nader to road test his gurus and tell him which ones might be safe at any speed.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Horgan that the English language itself may not be rigorous or flexible enough to definitively pin down something as subjective and inexpressible as the mystical experience. That everyone may be defining it from their own perspective of mutual incomprehension. That there is no definition of mysticism.

But of course I have the correct definition of mysticism. The absolutely authoritative one. The only definition of mysticism there could possibly be.

Perennialism is the belief all religions are expressions of the same ultimate truth. Most contemporary perrenialists believe the mystical experience of unity is the root of this truth and the differences between all the religions of history is simply the different cultural interpretations of that essentially inexpressible Truth.

I am not a perennialist.

To me religions are made up of varying proportions of three main strands. One is Law, the customs and ethics binding the people of a faith into a coherent unit which enables them to live semi-harmoniously and resist assimilation or destruction by neighbouring faiths. The second is Myth, the stories the faithful tell themselves and each other to explain the universe and their place in it and to justify Law. Mysticism is a product of looking inwards for the truth and though it produces insights and inspirations which have found their way into the traditions of all major religions it is usually in creative tension with their other aspects – especially Law. Religious mystics are just as likely to be burned at the stake as heretics as elevated onto a pedestal as saints. Sometimes they are both.

To try to reduce religions to a fundamental core of mysticism is do violence to the depth, complexity and subtlety of their traditions and to insult those who follow them. Except Hindus of course. You can’t insult Hindus about their religion. They think everything is Hinduism. Even insults.

While I’m not a perennialist, I do think all mystical experiences are the same thing, though they are expressed through many different metaphors. I think the mystical experience is Horgan’s ‘Heaven’. The Oneness beyond unity and separation. The Truth beyond truth or falsehood. The thing more Real than reality. The unmediated. The attributeless. That which is. Bliss.

Is it God?
Beats me, I’m agnostic.

But it must be the same for everyone who experiences it because it is without form or attributes. It is independent of the individual who experiences it because the individual cannot experience it. It is the negation of individuality.

Horgan’s Hell is the self when it tries to be a tourist in Heaven. It is the embodiment of ego, separateness and isolation. It is not the mystical experience, it is the failure of the mystical experience.

Horgan’s Illusion is probably not one thing and I am not dogmatic about what it may be. Often the means by which the mystical experience is attained – drugs, psychosis, fever, meditation, epilepsy – have side effects on the mind which may result in hallucinations. They are simply subsidiary noise. They are no more the mystical experience than the rattle of the projector is the soundtrack of the movie. The attempts made by the self to interpret mystical experiences often cause illusions too and I think this is at the root of the different metaphors those from different cultures reach for to describe the experience. They are the interpretation of the movie, not the movie itself.

I believe my experience of Mahakali the Dancer is an illusory manifestation of my separateness from the rest of the universe. She is only as real as I am, not as real as Heaven. We are separate individuals contingent on the illusion that separate individuals are possible. We are each other’s illusion.

But I hope one day to learn the steps Mahakali seems to be trying to teach me. When I do we will dance. When we dance we will both cease to exist. We will be One. We will be Heaven.

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23 Comments
  1. It’s been a long time since I read “Rational Mysticism”, and I had some strong reservations as well, but still enjoyed the read. Ultimately, I didn’t agree with him. One of the problems I had, if I can rely on my memory at all, is that he was looking at the issue as an outsider, (By the way, you might enjoy “Breaking Open the Head” by Daniel Pinchbeck, for the other side of the argument).

    You wrote: “To enjoy a trip you must jump off the ‘self’ into the void, otherwise you will be enveloped in existential fear of your own annihilation.” I think you have “the void” confused with a grandiose swimming pool. If you’ve read “The Bardo Thodol” (“Tibetan Book of the Dead”), than you know that “the void” is not a metaphor, for them, but a place one goes after physical death, and which they spend much of their lives preparing themselves to face. Nobody can “jump into the void” because the ego and the body would be destroyed before one even encountered it. It’s something else that goes bodiless and mindless into the void. Anything that could “enjoy the trip” is in a heap of ashes back in material, consensual reality. You might say it’s something like a soul, husked and peeled of mind and body, that goes naked into the void.

    To say one could enjoy the void is akin to saying one could enjoy being incinerated at the foot of God.

    One who does not have the humility to acknowledge his own insignificance and trepidation in the face of the numinous, is going to take a terrible beating.

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    • Ah, now you’re getting close to another distinction between religious attitudes that I think flows from the interpretation in my post.

      When I say ‘jump off the self into the void’ I am referring to abandoning the self to become the void – because that is what you truly are.

      When I say ‘enjoy the trip’ I am talking about both the blissfulness that comes from being one with the void and the post-hoc dualistic judgement of ‘a good trip’ as opposed to a bum one.

      There seem to be two interpretations of the numinous by mystics. The love of God or the fear of God. I think the second is a manifestation of Horgan’s Hell. It is an attempt to approach God as something that is separate from Her. The love of God is the appreciation that there is no self at all to divide you from God or the rest of the universe. It is why everything is perfect.

      Of course many of those who think the appropriate response to God is fear see those who love God as heretics because they identify completely with the huge, terrifying thing their own self is keeping them separate from. Those who fear God as something separate are also more likely to see Him as some sort of authoritarian law-giver and therefore see God lovers as pretenders to divine authority.

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    • While I’m on such a metaphorical roll I might as well point out that I see no distinction between the void of the Buddhists – nothingness – and the Nirguna Brahman of the Hindus – everything.

      When there’s no light there’s no darkness, no yin means no yang, etc, etc. So it is entirely arbitrary whether you call the base state one or zero.

      If you stare into a blank canvas you can see it as either all foreground or all background. If you stare long and close enough you will begin to perceive slight differences that your mind will resolve into either foreground or background. Congratulations, you have just created maya from Brahman.

      I guess painters create maya by adding to the nothingness while sculptors subtract from the everything.

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      • I wasn’t talking about attitudes, concepts, ideas, or interpretations. It’s not that I don’t understand you, it’s that you don’t understand me.

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      • I’m trying to think of how best to address our differences on these issues. I’ve gotta’ go with a metaphor. We are talking about a great white shark. You are telling me about loving or fearing the shark, and that you are yourself the shark. You talk of jumping into the shark tank and enjoying it. Being devoured by the shark is bliss.

        And I’m saying I have a chunk missing out of my leg that says otherwise. I’m saying the shark isn’t a metaphor. It’s a real thing. You might be one with it, and an inextricable part of the same big picture, but if you think it’s a metaphor, you haven’t been bit.

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        • Yeah, there’s gotta be some sort of incomprehension happening here. It’s not just that I’m the shark – the shark is everything so what could possibly go wrong?

          I’ve had ‘bum trips’ – mostly when I’ve had psychotic breaks at times I just couldn’t afford to ‘jump off’ (because, say, I’m in a crowded shopping centre a long way from home and didn’t want to end up in a locked ward. I once had the experience of being completely terrified but thinking I was holding it together appearance wise until I got on a bus and everyone else, including the driver, got off). I’ve also had brief flashes of terror when I’ve taken something that’s come on much stronger and faster than I thought it would. I always know there’s nothing really to be scared of but that doesn’t make the terror go away.

          But I just don’t get what you’re driving at unless you really believe the experience can permanently destroy you and that’s a real problem.

          One guy I knew was driven permanently, paranoically insane from mushroom tripping on Koh Samui and killed himself as a result but I guess I either never really believed it could happen to me or – if it did – that it really mattered all that much.

          Maybe you really are experiencing something I don’t have access to and perhaps wouldn’t see as a mystical experience if I did. I ‘reverse engineered’ the word mysticism to describe something I was already experiencing before the word entered my vocabulary.

          That Russell Morris song I link to above (“thing more Real”) was the first hint I ever had that other people might be experiencing what I did. Yeah, it can sure look scary, but only from the outside.

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        • There are octopus living near the sea bottom. They live their entire lives under water. One day one of the octopus gets caught on a fisherman’s hook. He tries to hold onto some coral but isn’t strong enough and is dislodged and reeled upwards. Finally he breaches the surface of the water and is slowly pulled higher and higher. The octopus feels wind for the first time, and can’t make sense of it’s surroundings. He also knows he’s somewhere where he can’t survive.

          Finally he is reeled in, the hook dislodged from his flesh, and he’s flung on the on the wooden floor of the peer. What he is most struck by is NOT the rough handling of the fisherman, which he hardly notices at all. It’s the SKY. His lidless eyes are singed by the sun. His moist skin is rapidly drying. He can’t swim or propel himself. He looks at the sky and though there is no familiar weight of the sea upon him, he feels crushed by the immensity of it. He is completely awestruck. As he begins to stick to the wooden floor of the peer, he only sees the sky and loses himself completely.

          The fisherman grabs the octopus and throws it back into the sea. Upon hitting the surface of the water the octopus sinks, but finally regains his equilibrium and navigates back to the sea floor.

          At the sea floor he can’t tell the other octopuses about his experience because they have no framework, and no words or concepts for understanding it. It’s not a part of their world at all. The octopus keeps quiet about it, but now knows that there is another world above theirs. Their world is not the only one or the only way of being.

          Later the octopus finds out that there is some ancient writing, and this world is called “The Sky”. He’s surprised that the descriptions of the blue sky fit his own experience. He knows that this place he went to was the sky.

          Later he meets other octopuses who talk about “they sky”. They say it is in all of them, and that if one can vanquish one’s ego one will be at peace with the sky. He knows that he lost his ego when he couldn’t cling to the coral and was reeled up to the surface of the water, and that was just the beginning. You can lose your ego and still be comfortable in your underwater world. He argues with a few of the octopi, and asks how they can be “The Sky” when they are under water. How can they be the infinitely bright blue Sky when they are dimly lit. The sky is not within them, it is a real place. You can’t know the sky while you are under water. You can’t BE the sky without ever leaving water.

          The other octopi congratulate themselves on their wisdom, and feel superior to the octopus that had been caught by the fisherman. They are sure that he is not as spiritually developed as they are, and too attached to his ego.

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  2. Rex permalink

    I have a very simple way of defining mysticism: a process which transforms our lower nature into higher nature permanently. If God there is, and the dream of unity is real, it is inevitable that mysticism must be a process that transforms man into God. Love is only a vehicle. Experiences are only by products. That rubbing against the body of the Beloved and final attainment of his hues on oneself forever is a worthwhile brand of mysticism.

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    • I guess my definition is less exacting than yours.

      To me the mystical experience (and therefore mysticism) is the dissolution of self into unity – it doesn’t imply permanent change or even that there is a higher nature.

      I guess my definition comes from the fact that I’d been looking for a word to describe my experiences for some time when I came across the notion of mysticism. That seemed a reasonable fit and was less stigmatic than ‘craziness’ which I’d been thinking of it as before. So I stuck the word to my experiences and there it stayed – in my mind at least.

      It wasn’t until many years later that I had my first mystical experience that actually seemed to transform me – though in retrospect I could probably argue they were transforming me subtly from the start. But doesn’t everything?

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  3. Dear Friend:

    I have nominated you for Special Awards that you truly deserve. These are unconditional awards, and to receive these you don’t have to do any additional work. You have already done a great job of offering your great support, camaraderie, and positive feedbacks to the posts by yours truly, and this recognition signifies my appreciation of your kind support.

    Please visit the link below for additional details.
    http://dshenai.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/nominating-10-awards-to-16-superb-bloggers-to-celebrate-super-september-of-16000-visitors/

    Congratulations and Namaste.
    =Deo

    Like

    • I only wish I had a producer, director, screenwriter, drama teacher, tea lady, personal trainer, life coach and favourite breakfast cereal so I could thank them all.

      So I’ll just have to settle with thanking my mum and my two pet rabbits.
      Never forget the bunnies.

      More seriously, thanks for that Deo, and thanks especially for the post where you praise fifteen other bloggers.
      Now I’ve got some checking out to do.

      Like

    • Oh shit. I just realised.
      I don’t have a hairdresser to not thank either.

      That’s the problem with these award ceremonies. You always end up leaving someone out.

      Like

    • I am handing back the awards you gave me Deodatta Shenai-Khatkhate.

      Your recent attempts to use your blog to whip up a lynch mob mentality against a disturbed fourteen year old boy accused of a horrendous crime is an anathema to me and flies in the face of everything I stand for.

      I have no desire to be ‘recognised’ by someone who calls for the ‘maximum penalty of human law’ to be applied against a child.

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  4. Human beings are not evolved to be alone.. The life of a solitary monk is not a thing of nature…if you will..

    Separation is death not life..

    Even in life..

    There is nothing at all appealing about nothingness..it is beyond terror..beyond all fear…

    It only makes one appreciate connectedness..which is the polar opposite of nothingness..

    Separation is simply an existence without emotional connectedness..

    There is nothing without emotions..

    Just my opinion of course..

    from visiting hell

    or nothingness…

    Connectedness is where IT’s AT..

    Connectedness to ALL IS where IT’s REALLY@IF YOU WILL…

    THE GREAT thing about churches no matter what the differences of opinions are…

    In minute details are the human connections of ‘spirit’ they bring.. if you will..

    The LIGHT of connectedness grows higher WHEN there are more humans connected together…

    This is the GREAT thing about IT..the technology IT..that IS…

    IT..really.. as humans can connect vicariously almost as well as in flesh and blood reality..

    Given vision and auditory stimulus shared in a ‘human’ way if you will…

    LIfe is NOTHING without connectedness..

    That is all
    i
    knownow

    Like

    • Yeah, humans aren’t evolved to be alone. But they aren’t evolved for happiness or transcendence either. They’re evolved to live long enough to successfully reproduce. That’s it.

      I don’t think there is connectedness in the mystical experience. It is unitary. There is nothing to connect to or from.

      I also think it’s both more difficult to attain the mystical experience in company – unless everyone you’re in company with has attained it as well – and more difficult to hang onto the perspectives it gives you when you are socialised. I think that’s why so many mystics are either full time semi-hermit renunciates or retreat from society for their mystical experiences (e.g. the Spirit Lodges of Native American peyote users).

      The mystical experience is nothing and everything.

      The mystical experience is death. The death of the only thing that can die. The self.
      It’s not such a bad thing you know.

      Like

      • MOdern science already understands the human decision making process is not even possible without emotions..so without emotions there is no ‘real’ direction in life if you will…

        This is what i see as ‘true’ nothingness..if you will….

        Everything else i understand to be only an approximation…

        To get to this ‘true’ nothingness again..if you will…

        Is not something that any ‘normal’ human being would seek…

        Who would seek ‘human hell’?

        No one i knownow…

        No…

        I totally disagree with you on this…

        As you could not possibly experience ‘this death’ I am talking about..now…

        And ever suggest ‘IT’ is anything but negative….

        ‘Life’ is only positive..

        ‘Death’ is always negative..

        Light is Life…

        Death is Dark…

        But…

        Again…

        IF…

        YOu…

        WILL…

        The death…

        And the dark…

        Can lead to greater levels of LIFe…

        And LIGht…

        As ONE

        NOW

        IS

        IT

        AS far as i…

        Knownow…

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        • But when all is one there are no differences and so nothing to decide.

          Hell is the other. Only the self can experience hell. When there is no-self and no-other there is no hell. Only bliss.

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  5. I do not consider enlightenment anything ‘special’ in the ‘grander’ scheme of things..if you will…

    As human beings are only dust in the wind as everything else is…

    However..what I see as human enlightenment is simply what IS…

    IS…

    LOST…

    Not something that was never gained.. again .. if you will…

    Something we are born with to different degrees of perceptual reality when we are ‘children’…

    Before the trappings of cultural illusions arise…

    The ‘nothingness’..i speak of that is only darkness and death AS ‘only great’…as ‘IT” can separate one from the Cultural Illusions that arise from the byproducts of human collective intelligence…

    IT IS impossible to transfer this information to another human being unless they experience this state of total annihilation of emotions as there are no memories or direction without emotions…

    And It is only a turnstile…

    Again..if you will…

    To greater levels of light and life…

    I personally think that the experience of ALL AS ONE…

    IS…

    The greatest experience of ‘ACTUAL’ CONNECTEDNESS AS ONE…

    TOTAL OPPOSITE…

    FROM THE NOTHINGNESS…

    I SPEAK OF NOW…

    AS NONE

    IN THE PAST…

    INSTEAD

    OF

    ONE

    NOW

    ON

    NOWON

    ON

    NOW

    ONE

    OF

    IS AND ALL SIMPLY…

    IS

    IT

    IS ALL

    IS

    IT

    IS

    ALL IS…

    AND as suggested earlier a state of being that most animals enjoy for ‘free’…

    Except for the only animal that spends most of it’s life in an approximation of a ‘natural’ hell…

    Again..if you will…

    The HUMAN BEING.

    THE CREATURE THAT CREATES ‘HELL’…

    The only one i know of now….

    AS IS…

    KNOWNOW!

    to me.

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  6. I personally think that the experience of ALL AS ONE…

    IS…

    The greatest experience of ‘ACTUAL’ CONNECTEDNESS AS ONE…

    TOTAL OPPOSITE…

    FROM THE NOTHINGNESS…

    There can be no opposite when all is one.
    Brahman and the void are the same thing.

    Like

  7. Well, I’ve read it twice and largely agree with John. That said, I don’t try to hide behind talk of “the One,” or “ineffability” (yes, you didn’t use the exact word, but the idea’s there). With this, to accuse Horgan of epistemological problems is laughable.

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    • What exactly about Horgan do you agree with?

      I’ve finished the book and as far as I can tell he concludes nothing.

      That said, I don’t try to hide behind talk of “the One,” or “ineffability” (yes, you didn’t use the exact word, but the idea’s there).

      Well, it’s nice that you brought your own strawman along so you don’t have to chop up my words to create one.

      But what’s your issue with ineffability?
      Could your internal life be so impoverished you don’t believe it exists?
      If it does exist, might not trying to ‘eff’ it be a fool’s errand, if not intellectual dishonesty?
      Why do you suppose the mystical and philosophical traditions that go beyond classical Greek dualism have to resort to negation to try to delineate the borders of what can be expressed in words?

      With this, to accuse Horgan of epistemological problems is laughable.

      I’d have thought an epistemology incapable of recognising its own limitations is no epistemology at all.
      Just intellectual hubris.

      Like

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