David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
The Mystical Dimension
Transcendental Unknowingness: a visual essay
"The Unattainable is attained through its Unattainment."—Nicholas of Cusa
There is a Mystical Dimension which runs through all aspects of life.
There is a Mystical Dimension which runs through all aspects of life. Eventually every human endeavor directly encounters an impenetrable Mystery. where knowledge turns into ignorance and control into wonder. Indeed, no matter how much science or technology may advance, the essential mystery of life will never change. The reason why is simple: Reality is always greater than our conceptions of it. Thus, contrary to our popular notions of mysticism, genuine spiritual practice is not concerned with increasing knowledge, per se, but rather reconciling man with his fundamental state of absolute ignorance. We are born into a Mystery; we live in a Mystery; and we die in a Mystery. Although we may learn about things, achieving various levels of technical proficiency, we apparently can never know what a single thing is. For instance, what is a ball? What is a thought? What is a self? The essence of everything eludes us because our perceptions are always limited. As the late Baba Faqir Chand, the great sage of Hoshiarpur, once told me personally,
“Nature is unfathomable. No one has ever been able to know it completely. No one has known it. A small germ in a body cannot know the whole body. Similarly (a) human being is like a small germ in a vast Creation. How can he claim to have known the entire Creation. Those who say that they have known are wrong. No one can describe or even know the entire Creation. It is indescribable.”
Often in the philosophy classes I have taught in undergraduate and graduate school, I would bring up this point of "unknowingness.” Pointing to a crumpled piece of writing paper, I would ask the class, "What is this?" Almost in unison, the students would respond, "A piece of paper." Taking this as my cue to lead into a deeper philosophical investigation of materialism, I probed further, "Yes, but what is that?" Catching my drift, one student invariably answered, "Oh, it is actually a transformed sheet of wood."
Not wanting them to stop there, I asked, "And wood is made of what?" "It's comprised of molecules," the more scientifically oriented students would shout. Connecting to the now forgotten inner space ride at Disneyland, which takes one through an imaginary voyage inside a snowflake molecule, I queried, "But what is a molecule made of." By this time we had gotten down to the subatomic level, and our words began to betray our modicum of knowledge (electrons, protons, quarks, lucky charms, superstring).
The final question I asked was quite simple, but given the line of investigation it led to some severe complications: What is matter? Well, it should be obvious to the reader as it was to my class and to myself that there's only one truly appropriate response, "I don't know." Now, this is exactly the response not only of most mystics, but most quantum physicists as well. As Sir Arthur Eddington, the noted astronomer-physicist put it, "Something unknown is doing we don't know what!"
To be sure, mystics have said that the world (or matter) is nothing but consciousness. But, what is consciousness? Not even a sage as enlightened as Ramana Maharshi of South India could answer that question. To such queries, Ramana would often sit in silence. Ultimately, matter leads to consciousness and consciousness to God or Nature (with a capital N) and both to Mystery. However, no matter how you define it, slice it, categorize it, blend it, intuit it, the fact remains that Reality is a Mystery, and nobody apparently (not me, not you, not Einstein) knows what that Reality is. We are sitting right in the middle of the Mystical Dimension.
Yet instead of this Unknowable Realm being the basis for sorrow, it is in truth the foundation for man's freedom and liberation. Because by consciously surrendering to the transformative process of such native ignorance our lives become enlivened and informed by existence. A crude, yet perhaps accurate, example of this new kind mysticism (where science directs religion, and not vice versa) can be seen in the analogy of the ocean and the bubble. The ocean, in this metaphorical case, represents the total reality of all that exists (call it God or Nature or Whatever), whereas the bubble (our self or anything which is less than the totality of what arises) exemplifies a seemingly bound existence. Now as the bubble it has two primary options: 1) surrender to the ocean which is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of its separate life; or 2) recoil and live in the (illusory) belief that as a bubble it has a distinct, autonomous existence. While both postures are not mutually exclusive, the unassailable fact remains that the former option is our necessary end game, whereas the latter position is to some measure our Darwinian necessity. It can be argued that "self” realization is when the bubble intuits its subservience to the ocean and that it has no real life except in relationship with the larger environment.
However, there is one very important catch here: the bubble (self) must be prepared to "burst" in the sea (Nature) from which it manifested. The ultimate physics which brought us into the universe are the same physics which will draw us out of it. The real dilemma, therefore, is not that we will die (that is inevitable, even if we can extend our specific lifetimes), but how we will choose to live in such existential context. In what ways will we confront the Mystery? In what ways will we seek to avoid it?
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about how certain leading edges of science are re-discovering the Mystical Dimension. In physics, we find the strange world of photon entanglement; in neurophysiology, the processes of memory and altered states of awareness; in astronomy, the theory of black holes, antimatter, and inflating universes; and in biology, the intricate code of life--DNA--and the development of forms (morphology). But the rediscovery of that which remains unknown is a changing proposition and reflects more on our own limited cranial capacities than on what the universe or multiverse ultimately portends. In other words, the deep mystery we must first confront is epistemological. We have a tendency to conflate our neurology for ontology, and as such tend to inflate the world around us with our own unrecognized projections, which may or may not be accurate.
And since we are stuck to such map making, we are circumscribed by a logical syllogism that on the surface seems intractable. All maps by definition are less than the territory to which they point (because if the map is exactly as large as the land itself, then such a map would be superfluous) and thus have “gaps.” And if they all maps invariably have gaps, then all such designs are inevitably, even if only partially, mistaken. What this means, of course, is that all the delineations we make about the world around us are potentially wrong because they are not perfect transparencies. This why science always rediscovers the unknowable, because no matter how sophisticated our maps may be they will have a gap in them which will reveal something hitherto undiscovered. This is also why Karl Popper’s notion of falsifiability serves us so well when appraising most scientific theories. We know a priori that human speculations (even if amazingly well grounded in physics or math) are always liable to error. It is this liability which, ironically, allows science to progress. A new technological product, for instance, isn’t accepted as flawless but is rather closely examined by hackers and others to reveal some uninspected flaws. And because of this ongoing dialectic we have seen breathtaking changes in a variety of objects, from computers to cars.
All academic subjects have their epistemological cul du sacs.
All academic subjects have their epistemological cul du sacs. In math, we have Godel’s incompleteness theorem which essentially says “consistency of such a system cannot be proved within the system.” In physics we have Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (or relations) which simply states it is impossible to know with absolute precision the momentum and position of an electron, since the more certain you are about an electron’s position, the less certain you are about its momentum (and vice versa). In astronomy we have the Einstein limit of light which tells us that we can only see so far with our telescopes within the parameters of relativity. And the list goes on. Science will undoubtedly expand our previous limits and horizons, but we will inevitably be stuck with our own neural constraints from the very beginning. And herein lays the great human dilemma: the limits of our skull are the limits of our understanding. Yes, we may augment our brains with artificial devices in the future, but even here we will only confront a new limit in time.
If we don’t know what a single thing ultimately is (even if we can know various things about a material item, we are circumscribed in our knowledge about comprehending all of its various dimensions and interconnections), do we even know where we are ultimately? Yes, I may say something such as I live in Huntington Beach, but that is merely a section in Southern California which itself is part of a state of 50 in the United States which is part of a continent that is located on a planet that orbits a sun some 93 million miles away. However, where is that sun? It is but part of a galaxy which is part of a huge milky way which is expanding in a universe of untold size that some 13.7 billion years ago was collapsed into a space tinier than the 12 point size of the Garamond type on this page. Yet, where is that naked singularity located? Does it make any sense to even use such framing questions at this miniscule level? And, if some theoretical physicists are correct, then this universe of ours isn’t singular at all, but part of a multiverse of unimaginable dimensions. Where are we has a simple answer it appears: We don’t know.
What this means is that even if we forego religion and spirituality and opt for a purely materialistic understanding of what surrounds us, we are still touching moment to moment a mystery that transcends our ability to grasp it.
Which brings us to that most revealing of queries: Who or what is living us right now? Who or what is beating our hearts? Who or what is firing our neurons? Several immediate answers comes to mind, of course, ranging from Jesus to biochemistry, but when we closely inspect how our bodies operate we soon realize that our “I” has very little to do with the day to day functions of our life. We don’t consciously grow the hair on our hands or digest our food. We witness something that supersedes us even as it literally lives us. Whatever that is, of course, is unknowable in its entirety. Thus, we don’t know what a single thing is, we don’t know where we are, and we don’t even know who or what is actually living us. We live in a Mystery, even as we act as if nothing is mysterious.
In fact, the Mystical Dimension (i.e., Ground of Being) is both absolutely immanent and transcendent. Itself being without form, though assuming form; without content, though manifesting content; without structure, though exhibiting structure. The Mystical Dimension is nothing less than paradoxical to the conventional mind, since by definition it both subsumes and transcends all conceptual frameworks. Ken Wilber describes it this way:
“The Absolute [The Mystical Dimension] is both the highest state of being and the ground of being; it is both the goal of evolution and the ground of evolution, the highest stage of development and the reality or suchness of all stages of development; the highest of all conditions and the Condition of all conditions; the highest rung in the ladder and the wood out of which the ladder is made. Anything less than that paradox generates either pantheistic reductionism, on the one hand, or wild and radical transcendentalism, on the other.”
To face this Mystery is truly an awesome task. Imagine being set down in the middle of the ocean at twelve midnight with twenty to thirty foot waves and having no life raft. The infamous surf spot known as Mavericks, located north of Santa Cruz in California comes to mind here. How would you feel? The very idea sparks utter fear in most of us; yet, right at this moment, as you read this page, the situation is not altogether different than that ocean. It is as if we are at an amusement park getting strapped into a new roller coaster ride and right before take-off we are told by the operator that the ride ends in a ball of fire where we all die. Who could possibly enjoy such an attraction? Yet, isn’t this an apt description of our own present circumstance? We are going to end up dead no matter how much we squiggle and squirm and resist. Earthquakes, hurricanes, diseases, accidents, the list is exhaustless even if the final result is the exact same.
So, the real mystical question as we mentioned previously isn’t that we are going to die (that is a certainty, even if we try to pretend otherwise), but how we are going to live in this temporary moment? That is the core of existentialism and, interestingly, the core of all scientific and religious endeavors. The beauty of the Mystical Dimension is that it cannot be prefigured. Or, as I often remarked in my Death and Dying classes, "If there really is a God (or Truth or Ultimate Concern) then He/She/It blows every conception that we have out the door." Yet, it is precisely this unknowability which constitutes our enlightenment. In every single moment of our existence we are seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing the Mystery. The ultimate truth is not simply an Other (although this aspect too cannot be denied), but He/She/It is also This: the chair, the bed, the sky, the toothbrush. And, in the midst of it all, we are natively ignorant. Such is the Mystical Dimension, such is human life. Indeed, the curious irony that awaits us is this:
The more we examine the mystical the more physical it seems; and the more we examine the physical the more mystical it appears.
“Tis all Wonder, Wonder, Wonder; Wonder hath assumed a form”
1. I owe my discussion here to the work of Da Kalki (alias Da Free John; Bubba Free John; Franklin Jones), particularly his books, The Paradox of Instruction (1977); The Way That I Teach (1978); and Do You Know What Anything Is? (1984); Nicholas of Cusa (See Of Learned Ignorance, translated by Father Germain Heron, 1954); and S.L Frank (See his masterpiece, The Unknowable, translated by Boris Jakim, 1983).
2 Quoted from the booklet, The Master Speaks To The Foreigners, edited by Professor Bhagat Ram Kamal (Hoshiarpur: Faqir library Charitable Trust, 1978), page 7, which contains a partial transcript of my interview with Baba Faqir Chand.
3. Not surprisingly this lecture on "unknowingness," which I have presented to thousands of students has proved to be my most popular one. At the very core of our beings. there is both the intuition and the frank confession that we are but little children in the face of a truly awesome mystery (mysterium tremendum).
4 Quoted on the back cover of Ken Wilber's Quantum Questions (Boulder: Shambhala Publishers, 1984).
5 For more about this analogy see the chapter, "The Paradox of Da Free John," in my book, Exposing Culls (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1993).
6. Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye (New York: Doubleday, 1983), page 293.