Is mysticism really mysterious?The states and stations of the mystical path may have their qualities and dimensions of mystery, but the methods are fairly straghtforward ... namely, to purify the self from anything which would distort or undermine one's capacity to engage the truth in as objective and unbiased manner as possible.
Mysticism: A Rational Exploration - Part 3
Shortly after making the claim that
mystical consciousness is incommensurable with sensory-intellectual
consciousness and, in the process, excludes visions and voices from the
former kind of consciousness, Stace states:
"This is the reason why mystics always say that their experiences are "ineffable". All words in all languages are the products of our sensory-intellectual consciousness...".5
There is a very important sense in which the foregoing statement of Stace is not true, for it tends to entirely leave out of consideration the idea of sacred language. Whether one chants the "Om" of Hinduism, the prayer of the heart which is recommended in the Philokalia, the Buddhist "Namu Amida Butsu", or some appropriate Quranic phrase, one is engaging an aspect of language which extends beyond the level of sensory-intellectual consciousness - even while the purely relative and contingent linguistic medium is a vehicle for this Transcendent influence. The sacred words are points, so to speak, at which the finite and the Infinite are said to mysteriously �touch� and intermingle.
In Hinduism, manifested existence is said to have issued forth from the sacred syllable or sound of "Om". In Islam the Qu'ran is considered to be the Eternal and Uncreated word of God. In Christianity, Christ is referred to as the Logos of God, and in Judaism the adherents to the Kabbalah say that God's Light or Hakhmah is hidden in the Torah.
Some have argued that, originally, language was a Divine gift to man which provided a means of communication not only horizontally (i.e., amongst human beings) but, and more importantly, between man and the Absolute. Unfortunately, through spiritual degeneration (of which the Biblical account of the tower of Babel can be seen as a symbolic representation), language was separated, so to speak, from its spiritual dimension, and the horizontal possibilities were emphasized, for the most part, to the exclusion of the vertical possibilities.
In short, language became secularized and merely a function of man's sensory-intellectual consciousness. Yet, for those with spiritual discernment, language still retains its sacred aspect and is still capable of providing a medium of adequate expression, within certain limits, for the Transcendent realms. This applies not only to sacred words, phrases and texts upon which has been conferred the power of spiritual alchemy, it applies, as well, to the descriptions given by mystics about various aspects of their transcendental experiences.
This last reference to the descriptions given by mystics about their experiences brings one quite naturally to the issue of ineffability and mystical experience. Before going on to discuss this topic, however, certain matters concerning the use of sacred language still need to be clarified, especially with regard to Stace's comments on Tennyson and the manner in which the repetition of certain words could bring on or induce a mystical experience.
That many people give what may be unwarranted scope to the application of the term "mystical experience", is unfortunate. For instance, Tennyson's non-ordinary experiences which occurred periodically, from childhood onward, are said to be mystical. James' experience with nitrous oxide is often described as mystical. Wittgenstein, supposedly, had a spontaneous "mystical" experience upon hearing a particular passage from a play. Hitler is often described as adhering to a mystical doctrine and, if one can believe Pauwels and Bergier in The Morning of the Magicians, Hitler is sometimes said to have had mystical experiences.
While an attempt has been made in this section to broaden the scope of mystical experiences beyond the boundaries set by Stace in The Teachings of the Mystics, one should not suppose that mysticism can serve as a catch-all container into which any kind of anomalous, non-ordinary experience can be thrown with equal claims of legitimacy or appropriateness. A great deal of caution must be exercised before attributing the word "mystical" to an experience or doctrine.
Without wishing to disregard the stipulation that "the Spirit bloweth where it listeth", one might argue, nonetheless, that not all non-ordinary experiences are necessarily mystical, even if they convey a sense of undifferentiated unity to the one undergoing the experience. Non-ordinary experiences can originate from "below" (the Satanic, nether world) as well as from "above" (the realm of Light).
In addition, non-ordinary experiences can originate with the finite mind in the way of purely non-transcendental psychological "happenings" such as psychotic episodes or through the ingestion of various psycho-active substances such as LSD, peyote, mescalin, and so on. Moreover, non-ordinary experiences can occur through engaging the 'occult' which, though hidden from normal perception, may still be of a non-transcendental phenomenon.
Mysticism, at least in the context of this essay, refers to the doctrines, practices and experiences which concern the Transcendental Realm (whatever the ultimate designation for this Realm may be: e.g., The Absolute, The Void, God, The Self, etc.) and the essential, inherent possibilities concerning the Transcendental Realm within human beings.
James' or Wittgenstein's experiences may or may not have been mystical in the above sense. Moreover, merely through the repetition of his own name, Tennyson may, or may not, have undergone a mystical experience in the foregoing sense.
Stace, however, goes on to draw some rather questionable conclusions:
"Mystics who following the procedure of constantly repeating a verbal formula often, I believe, tend to choose some religious set of words, for instance a part of the Lord's Prayer or a psalm. They probably imagine that these uplifting and inspirational words will carry them upwards toward the divine. But Tennyson's procedure suggests that any nonsense words would probably do as well... It doesn't seem to matter what is chosen as the single point of concentration."6
Notwithstanding the issue of concentration as an important part of mystical practice, Stace entirely misses the reasons for choosing "some religious set of words" as the focus of concentration. Many mystics maintain that such words are portals, if you will, of spiritual transmission which have a power that is capable of constructively transforming one's spiritual condition.
Consequently, the spiritual efficacy of the formulae is not just a matter of being uplifting and inspirational in a conceptual/emotional sense. They are described as having a transcendental depth to them that carries the individual in a spiritually vertical direction, much like thrust in a rocket helps to overcome the pull of gravity .
Remembrance - through the use of certain spiritual formulae - is one of the means by which impure, dross metals are converted to precious metals. While concentration, in and of itself, may have a role to play, it is certainly not sufficient.
What is sufficient, and absolutely so, is Transcendental intervention. Furthermore, one way in which such invervention manifests Itself is through the way sacred words and phrases are saturated, so to speak, with the power to transform an individual spiritually.
If Tennyson's experiences were actually mystical and if, in fact, the repetition of his own name was capable of invoking such a condition, Stace may have made the mistake of projecting a particularized and isolated instance onto the whole framework of mystical practice, doctrine and experience. In short, there seems to be little reason why one should feel compelled to accept Stace's conclusions over the words of those who speak from within the mystical tradition and who are putting forth a perspective that runs contrary to the one which Stace is constructing in his book.
Stace might claim that the mystics are only lending an interpretation to their experience. However, if, with one hand, Stace is going to grant mystics an insight into the very Essence of Being (as he seems inclined to do), there seems to be little justification for trying, with his other hand, to take away the authenticity and accuracy of such insights - especially when his wish to withdraw endorsement is rooted in a limited, finite process of conceptualization that, by Stace's own admission, is incommensurate with the Transcendent Realm.
Returning, now, to the issue of ineffability mentioned earlier, the fact that mystical literature (as Matson rightly points out in the chapter on "Mystical Experience" in his book The Existence of God) is not exactly devoid of descriptions - however inexact and provisional these may be - with respect to the nature of mystical experiences is relevant to the present discussion. Such descriptions may suffer inadequacies due to the inherent limitations of a given language (the aforementioned considerations of spirituality that run through a language notwithstanding), yet, descriptions do exist.
Moreover, a mystical description may be engaged at more than one level. For example, one easily might suppose there would be less difficulty of communication between two mystics than between a mystic and a non-mystic. Whereas a non-mystic lacks the necessary spiritual realization or experiential framework (the term "framework" is somewhat misleading since it suggests form where there may not be any) to understand (in a transcendental and not a cognitive sense) the essence of what is being said by a mystic, another mystic may be quite capable of knowing what is being referred or alluded to by the other mystic because of having had similar experiences.
It seems to follow from the foregoing considerations that language is as much a function of the understanding (in both the finite and transcendental senses) of those who use it, as it is a function of its own general nature. Furthermore, accepting such a conclusion does not preclude the possibility that, ultimately, mystical states are, indeed, ineffable. Rather saying things in the foregoing way is only an attempt to emphasize the importance of context and perspective when analyzing the notion of ineffability with respect to mystical experience, and the epistemological perspective of a listener can be a significant consideration in the mystical context.
Matson, in the previously cited work, puts forth an argument that he apparently feels some people might adopt (and it may be an argument that Matson himself is willing to accept) in the process of criticizing mystical claims:
"The non-mystic is put into an exasperating situation. Here he is being solicited to adopt an exotic metaphysic, on no better evidence than the say-so of certain persons who claim to have reasons, but who decline altogether to produce them,- saying that language - which is adequate enough to describe quantum theory and relativity - is incapable of expressing those reasons."7
Matson fails to point out that it is not word language that is capable of doing most justice to the description of quantum or relativity theory. Mathematical language is necessary for such descriptions.
Word descriptions can provide an approximation of the various theories through an "unpacking" of the mathematics of physical theory, but such descriptions are not capable of handling the more intricate aspects of, say, quantum physics which requires a mathematical medium if excessive distortion and oversimplification are not to occur. Thus, when translating from mathematical language into word language, something of the precision and subtlety of the mathematical expression is lost. Even on a relative level, there can be a kind of ineffability.
The problems of communicability are substantially increased if there is not a shared frame of reference and experience of some minimal sort. For all practical purposes, a scientist who has experiences in the physics lab which she or he attempts to communicate, in mathematical language, to someone who shares neither the type of experiences nor the language, will speak from an understanding which has a considerable ineffable quality to it in relation to non-physicists. Even if approximate translations into word language were possible, the experiences would still remain largely ineffable with respect to those who had not had similar experiences.
Beyond the foregoing considerations - which are, to a certain extent, peripheral - there is a more important and essential point. The above discussion has been based on the provisional acceptance of an assumption implicit in the quote taken from Matson�s book, namely, the belief that quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity are, somehow, the same as, or on the same level of reality as mystical experiences. However, simply because language is capable, in some sense, of describing aspects of phenomenal existence, this in no way means it should necessarily be adequate under all circumstances to that which transcends the phenomenal realm.
Yet, the implication of Matson's statement seems to be that if language is capable of describing something as 'sophisticated and complex' as quantum theory, etc., then, it should be fully capable of encompassing the transcendental realm. Many mystics, on the other hand, tend to agree that the Transcendent order is, in some respects, entirely other than, and beyond, the physical realm - a realm in which quantum mechanics and relativity are thoroughly entrenched.
Matson, himself, indicates as much when he notes:
"... mystics pretty generally agree that their experiences reveal the reality of an order of being distinct from, and in some sense higher than, the world perceived through the senses."8
Matson, however, has a habit of bouncing around during his argument such that one is often not quite sure what his actual position is - that is, whether he is stating a position: (1) for the purposes of argument from which one may gain a sharper delineation of the issues involved in a given problem, or (2) because he is subscribing to a particular line of argument that is used to defend a position or attack it. By and large, he seems intent on pointing out the weaknesses (as he supposes them to be) of the mystical claims about the nature and meaning of their experiences.
For example, Matson presents a 'straw-man' argument which he believes a mystic might put forth to counter various anti-mystical criticisms:
"You (i.e., the non-mystic) refuse to believe anything not 'publicly verifiable', as you put it? Very well. You say that physics is publicly verifiable, though admitting that to understand physics one must become a physicist. Surely then it cannot be unreasonable for us mystics to tell you that the way to understand mysticism is to become a mystic."9
Shortly after presenting the above 'argument', Matson lists what he takes to be three objections to the above analogy:
"(1) Physicists, if they cannot talk to laymen, can still talk to one another without difficulty. But there is no technical vocabulary of mysticism enabling mystics to converse about their experiences in a precise manner even among themselves.
(2) There is an agreed curriculum for the study of physics. There is no agreed road to mystical illumination.
(3) The discipline required of the would-be physicist is entirely intellectual. At no point in the proceedings is it made a condition of progress that he "have faith", reform his morals, or anything of that sort. It is otherwise with the mystic path.
Here we have a very serious objection. To lay it down that one must �believe in order to understand� is nothing less than
to refuse to play the rational game. So-called evidence that counts as evidence only to believers is just not evidence at all...."10
Each of these objections is rather weak and substantially biased, almost to the point of complete blindness in some instances. To begin with, Matson is just plain wrong when he says there is no technical vocabulary of mysticism.
No doubt, the extent of the vocabulary will vary from tradition to tradition. One could undermine his first point by making reference to any number of, for example, Sufi texts which are filled with technical terminology concerning doctrine, practice and mystical experience, such as: al-Hujwiri's Kashf al-Mahjub or ibn al-�Arabi�s Meccan Openings, and so on. If mystics choose not to converse with one another, it has little to do with the absence of a technical vocabulary.
Matson's second point is based on two false premises. First, there is no one curriculum in physics. The curriculum varies, to some extent, from: university to university; school of physics to school of physics; generation to generation, and specialty to specialty.
To be sure, there is a great deal of overlap in what is taught in the way of mathematics and physical theory, but there are also differences of emphasis, technique, instrumentation, and focus from field to field. The notion of a monolithic superstructure guiding all of physics and the idea there is unanimity amongst physicists are fabrications. Indeed, one only has to examine the state of particle physics, gravitational theory, astrophysics, interpretations concerning the nature of quantum phenomena, and evolutionary theory, in order to gain some degree of insight concerning the lack of unanimity within different areas of science.
Secondly, although techniques may vary from one mystical tradition to another, all mysticisms are concerned with assisting the individual to die to one�s passions and attachments in order to escape from the world of forms and contingencies into the realm of Essential Reality. If the mystical curriculum displays more variation than does that of the physicist, this is only because the Infinite is more subtle and complex than the finite and, as a result, requires a curriculum that reflects this subtlety.
Finally Matson's third objection is hard to take very seriously, even though Matson seems to think it is well worth serious attention. To "believe in order to understand" is at the heart of every rational game.
If one does not believe in the underlying assumptions, definitions, methodology, and so on, of a given rational theory (physical or otherwise), then, one will not understand what is derived from those beginnings. This is precisely the sort of point being made by such people as Norwood Hanson and Thomas Kuhn - though each does so in his own way.
There is no rational system, including physics, which is based on a presuppositionless methodology, and the search for one has proven as fruitful as the quest for a perpetual motion machine. One's perception is always theory laden, to one degree or another, and the very criteria which are the basis for establishing evidence, validity, consistency, logicalness, etc., are not a priori absolutes but values based on arbitrary choice. One's choice may be correct, or it may be false, but rationalism has no patent on discovering truth.
In fact, a mystic might claim that the rationalist is placing his or her entire faith in that which is impermanent, finite and which cannot lead, even when done well, but to suffering, whereas the mystical aspirant is placing her or his faith in that which is abiding, infinite and which cannot lead, if done well and if Divinity wishes, but to bliss and fulfillment.
The glory of rationalism is science and technology. The glory of mysticism is its Prophets and Saints. Both sides represent a dimension of human possibility and activity.
On page 14 of The Teachings of the Mystics, Stace states:
"... there is not the least reason to suppose that the mystical consciousness is miraculous or supernatural. No doubt it has, like our ordinary consciousness, been produced by the rational process of evolution."11
Not only does Stace fail to put forth any proof to substantiate this sort of claim, but, in addition, it is difficult, though not impossible, to imagine a statement that could be more at odds with the stated position of mystics from almost all traditions. Certainly such a statement would meet with clear-cut opposition from any of the monotheistic traditions.
Moreover, within the mystical currents running through, for example, Hinduism (i.e., the various schools of Yoga), surely, the Absolute Self or Brahman is, in no way, considered a product of the world of forms but, rather, is the metaphysical ground which makes contingent forms possible. It is Brahma considered through the aspects of Purusha and Prakriti that generates the various levels of manifestation, whether formless or with form.
In the words of Martin Lings:
"In the Uncreated Principle Substance, which Hinduism terms Prakriti, there is perfect equilibrium between the upward, the expansive, and the downward tendencies, sattva, rajas and tamas. The creation itself breaks this equilibrium, being in a sense a "victory" of tamas over sattva. This is inevitable, for creation means separation, and tamas is the tenebrous downward separative pull of manifestation away from the Principle."12
Creation occurs through the way in which Purusha, the active masculine principle, acts upon or 'organizes' Prakriti, the passive feminine principle. There is nowhere talk of the lesser producing the greater as Stace suggests is the case.
Furthermore, even in Buddhism which is often, erroneously, considered to be atheistic (The correct term is �non-theistic� - that is, its chosen mode of expression is characterized by descriptions that do not conform to a theistic framework, yet, nonetheless, are not necessarily inconsistent with, or in opposition to, such forms.), one finds the following:
"There is, monks, an unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, and were it not, monks, for this unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, no escape could be shown here for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded. But because there is, monks, an unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, therefore, an escape can be shown for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded."13
Once again, Stace's contention that mystical consciousness is, like normal consciousness, merely a product of evolution does not seem at all consistent with what the mystics themselves understand. This seems somewhat like a lay person trying to tell a physicist what physics is about.
Interestingly, the foregoing quote comes from within the Hinayana vehicle which tends to adopt the most rigorously non-theistic modes of expression of any of the various schools of Buddhism. Consequently, one is somewhat mystified why Stace should select an excerpt from the Udana Sutra and not consider the implications of the Sutra with respect to his own thesis.
That quite a few scientists have come to believe science is, necessarily, in opposition to spirituality and mysticism, is unfortunate. This opposition has manifested itself in a variety of ways, but, generally, a common denominator among them centers on the attempt to reduce the transcendent realms to the purely physical/ material principles of scientism and rationalism.
However, even with respect to Buddhism, which some secular minds like to champion because of its apparent opposition to anything hinting of the Divine, one must remember that Buddha, himself, is reported to have said:
"Profound, 0 Vaccha, is this doctrine, recondite, and difficult of comprehension, good, excellent and not to be reached by mere reasoning, subtle, and intelligible only to the wise." 14
The obvious question is the following. If the doctrine is "not to be reached by mere reasoning", what is there within human beings that is capable of comprehending the Buddha's doctrine?
Oddly enough, Stace, on the basis of his statements that mystical consciousness is a product of evolution, evidently believes that the answer to the question is a psychological one. This thesis is strengthened: (1) by the fact that Stace suggests mysticism should "be assigned to the sphere of abnormal psychology" (p. 14 of Teachings of the Mystics); and, (2) by the manner in which he consistently treats mystical discipline as a psychological enterprise of emptying the mind of contents such that mystical consciousness can take the place of ordinary consciousness. He often tends to create the impression that the process occurs within the mind of the phenomenal world.
While one may undertake a spiritual discipline in order to quiet the mind, this process is not a matter of removing one set of contents and replacing them with another set of contents. The discipline is undertaken as a means of being placed in a position to be transformed, as it were, completely through dying to oneself (that is, to one's attachments, passions, and delusions) in order to be born again and become aware of the on-going Presence of Divinity through Self-realization.
This Transcendent realm is not merely a matter of the neurobiology of mystical consciousness, but of Mind (or Heart, or Essence, or Spirit of Self) whose very nature is mystical consciousness. Nothing is left of finite contingencies.
As Meister Eckhart indicated: "there is something in man which is uncreated and uncreatable" (the similarities with the excerpt from the Udana Sutra are hard to ignore). This something is referred to in various ways by different traditions.
For instance, in Hinduism one refers to the "lotus of the heart" or the "third eye". In the Christian Philokalia, one comes across constant references to "Prayer of the Heart". In the Sufi path, the Heart retains a central metaphysical position as that geometric point (in the Euclidean sense) which marks the end of the human self and the beginning of the Transcendent Self.
This raises a further question. How does one account for the transition from contingency to Transcendency?
This question becomes a mystifying puzzle when one considers the following:
"... symbolism, signs, rites or preparatory methods of any sort have no other function... (but as) supports and nothing else. But some will ask, how is it possible that merely contingent means can produce an effect that immeasurably surpasses them and that is of a totally different order from that to which the instruments themselves belong? We should first point out that these means are, in reality, only fortuitous. The results they help to attain are by no means consequential. They place the being in the position requisite for attainment and that is all." 15
Apparently, method is not sufficient to 'produce' attainment. And, this is quite clear in the monotheistically rooted mysticisms which emphasize the notion of Grace, for, through Grace and Grace alone is one carried one across the mysterious boundary separating (and, yet, uniting) contingency and transcendence.
In fact, much of the theistic oriented mysticism tends to argue that Grace is what awakens one to the possibility of transcendence. Marco Pallis points this out aspect, quite well when he remarks:
"Given the incommensurable gap apparently fixed between enlightenment and the seeker after enlightenment - ignorant by definition - it is self-evident to anyone who thinks at all... that such a seeking on the part of a human being with his necessarily imperfect vision and limited powers does not really make sense when taken at its face value alone. Enlightenment (or God for that matter) cannot possibly be situated at the passive pole in relation to man's endeavor; it cannot per se become object to man as subject." 16
In other words human beings are not the ones who initiate the seeking of Enlightenment, God, or the Absolute. Rather, Reality is, forever, seeking out human beings.
Reality calls us to the Path. It establishes one on the Path. Reality provides one with the doctrines, practices, guides and spiritual community. Reality watches over the seeker (in the form of a teacher, guru, shaykh, or master) during the spiritual journey, and, finally, Reality provides the vehicle of realization through which the mystical quest is brought to fruition.
The aspirant merely contributes one�s ignorance and willingness to submit oneself to the possibilities inherent in the Grace that has been bestowed upon the individual. However, one might even question how much of the individual's "willingness" was completely self-generated.
This mysterious relationship of seeker, Sought, and the Path that leads from one through to the Other is lyrically captured in the following portion of an epic mystical poem by Farid ud-din Attar:
"All you have been, and seen, and done, and thought,
Not You, but I, have seen and been and wrought:
I was the Sin that from Myself rebell'd:
I the Remorse that toward Myself compell'd:...
Sin and Contrition - Retribution owed,
And cancell'd - Pilgrimage, and Road,
Was but Myself toward Myself:
and Your Arrival but Myself at My own Door." 17
5.) Water T. Stace, ed., The Teachings of the Mystics, p.72. [Return to Text]
6.) Ibid., p 19. [Return to Text]
7.) Wallace I. Matson, The Existence of God (New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University, 1965), p 24. [Return to Text]
8.) Ibid. [Return to Text]
9.) Ibid., p. 27. [Return to Text]
10.) Ibid., pp. 27-28. [Return to Text]
11.) Walter T. Stace, ed., The Teachings of the Mystics, p. 14. [Return to Text]
12.) Jacob Needleman, ed., Sword of Gnosis, "Signs of the Times" by Martin Lings, p. 109. [Return to Text]
13.) Walter T. Stace, ed., The Teachings of the Mystics, p. 72. [Return to Text]
14.)Ibid., p. 77. [Return to Text]
15.) Jacob Needleman, ed., Sword of Gnosis, "Oriental Metaphysics" by Rene guenon, pp. 47-48. [Return to Text]
16.) Ibid., "Is There Room For �Grace� in Buddhism?" by Marco Pallis, pp. 277-278. [Return to Text]
17.) Farid ud-din Attar, Conference of the Birds, translated by Edward Fitzgerald in Letters and Literary Remains, edited by Aldis Wright (New York, Harper Row, 1889). [Return to Text]