Open Philosophy: Building a 21st Century Worldview

The Phenomenology of Mysticism 

(From Chapter 5 of God, Science and Mind)
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    Here “mystical experience,” primarily means contentless noetic exper­ience.  Visions, voices, etc.  are not mystical in this sense.  Plo­ti­nus sees mysticism as an intellec­tual experi­ence, indeed the intel­lectual experience par excel­lence – not a flight from truth into emo­tion­al reverie.  He dis­tin­guishes two intel­lectual ac­tivities: to noein, to know, in which the intellect sees its con­tents, and to me noein, to know not, in which it looks beyond its contents to the One.  Accordingly, Plotinus’ recipe for entering a mystical state is to empty one’s mind of all empirical content including the inner dialogue.  The Cloud of Unknow­ing, by an anonymous 14th century English cleric, and St.  John of the Cross (1542­-1591) use the same recipe.  It also enters the ganz­feld protocol.

    Bucke experienced mystical ecstasy spontane­ously in 1872, and saw it as the third stage in the evolution of con­scious, after sensory re­sponse and normal human awareness.  His instant of “cosmic conscious­ness” was marked by sud­denness, a subjective light, intellectual enlightenment, losing his fear of death and gain­ing a sense of immortality, and moral ele­vation with loss of guilt.  It showed him the uni­verse as vital instead of lifeless. 

    William James had no mystical experiences, but knew Bucke.   For James, myst­ical ex­perience is characterized by inef­­fability, “no ade­quate report of its contents can be given in words,” and noetic quality, “states of insight into depths of truth un­plumbed by the discur­sive intel­lect.”[i]  He also notes trans­iency, the ex­perience fades quickly in the face of daily life, and passivity.  Mys­tics often report it beyond their power to cause a mystical experience.

    Rudolf Otto writes of the non-rational (as opposed to irrational) and non-sensory character of what he calls “the numinous.”  It is non-rational because it is not the result of discursive, step-by-step, reasoning but is a direct, non-sensory mode of experience.

    Mystical experience is not an aberration of a few underdevel­oped or de­ranged minds.  In the early 1970’s The National Opinion Research Center polled 1500 representa­tive Amer­i­cans, asking, “Have you ever felt very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?” Ap­proximately 40% acknow­ledged having had at least one such experience.  Those who “often” had such ex­periences were

dispro­portion­ately male, dis­propor­tion­­ately black, disproportionately college-educated, disproportion­­ately above the $10,000-a-year income level, and dis­proportionate­ly Protestant.[ii]

    The respondents were given the Brad­burn test for psychological well-being.[iii]  The “the relationship between frequent ecstatic ex­periences and psychological well-being was .40, the highest correlation, according to Bradburn, he has ever observed with his scale.”[iv]  A similar British survey showed “at least a third of British adults claim to have had a direct mystical” ex­peri­ence.[v]  Mys­­tical experience in modern Anglo-American culture compares to sexual­ity in Victorian cul­ture: both greatly affect our lives, but discussing it is socially unac­cept­able.

Stace made a detailed cultural and phenomenological study of mys­ticism.[vi]  He found two types of mystical experience sharing com­mon charac­teris­tics across cultures and religions, viz.  introvertive and ex­tro­ver­tive. We first met introvertive experiences in Vedic mysticism, then in Buddhism, Plotinus, and Jewish, Sufi and Christian mys­ticism.[vii]  It is characterized by the absence of any sensory content or image, by a sense of unity, profound psychological satisfac­tion, and a conviction that words are inadequate to the ex­peri­ence.  The extrovertive type differs in including sensory data.  In it, sensory exper­ience is intensified and accompanied by a sense of the unity of all things, even though individual entities remain identifiable.

    The characteristics Stace found to be cross-culturally shared are, in the case of extrover­tive mysticism:

1.   The unifying vision, expressed abstractly by the formula “All is One.”  The One is, in extrovertive mysticism, perceived through the physical senses, in or through the multiplicity of objects.

2.   The more concrete apprehension of the One as being an inner subjectivity in all things, described variously as life, con­sciousness, or a living Presence.  The discovery that nothing is “really” dead.

3.   Sense of objectivity or reality.

4.   Feeling of blessedness, joy, happiness, satisfac­tion, etc.

5.   Feeling that what is apprehended is holy, or sacred, or divine.  This is the quality which gives rise to the inter­pretation of the ex­perience as being an experience of “God.”  It is the specifically religious element in the experience.  It is closely intertwined with, but not identical with, the pre­viously listed charac­teris­tic of blessed­ness and joy.

6.   Paradoxicality.

Another characteristic may be mentioned with reserva­tions, namely,

7.   Alleged by mystics to be ineffable, in­capable of being described in words, etc.[viii]

For introvertive experiences, points 1 and 2 become:

1.   The Unitary Consciousness; the One, the Void; pure conscious­ness.

2.   Nonspatial, nontem­poral.[ix]

    Stace’s picture of mysticism, while help­ful, is inadequate to advanced mys­tical experiences.  In his work on John of the Cross,[x] Steven Payne criticized Stace’s characterization as insufficient to St.  John’s experi­ences.  Payne observes that

The four Sanjuanist passages cited as evidence for the “universal core” hypothesis in chapter seven of Mysticism and Philosophy are drawn from a section of Ascent [of Mount Carmel] II which deals, not with the most ad­vanced spir­itual illuminations, but with the first beginnings of contemplative prayer.[xi]

Stace sys­temat­­ical­ly rejects data evidencing a unique ele­ment in the Chris­­tian mys­tical experi­ence: love.

    R. C. Zaehner notes a distinction made by the Flemish mys­tic John of Ruysbroeck (c.1293-1381) between a natural state of mystical emptiness, meeting Stace’s criteria for a “core” mystical experience, and a “supernatur­al” ex­peri­ence with the additional ex­per­i­ential element of love.[xii]  Stace writes this off, discounting the love element as “emo­tional.”[xiii]  Strangely, he does not say this in dealing with the “feeling [italics mine] of bless­edness, joy, happiness, satis­faction, etc.” which he claims as essen­tial marks of mystical ex­perience.  Further, on Stace’s analy­sis the intro­vertive ex­per­ience, in which Ruys­broeck is admitted to share, is de­void of sensory content.  Surely, the emotion of love is sen­sual, so Stace is incon­sistent in seeing the love experi­ence as an emotion­al overlay on a quintessentially intellec­tual ex­perience.  The only consistent interpreta­tion is that the love experience reported by Ruys­broeck occurs at an intentional level. 

    Stace’s methodology calls for credit­ing the mystic’s report of his experience, while possibly questioning his interpretation.  Yet, here he chooses to ignore his methodology.  Ruysbroeck reports different experi­ences which he labeled “natural” and “supernatural.” While Stace can consistently claim that Ruys­broeck’s inter­pretation is inap­propriate, he cannot consistently accept Ruys­broeck’s report of the “core” experience while denying his report that other mystic events are distinguished by love.  The existence of this dif­ference, what­ever its proper inter­preta­tion, falsifies Stace’s claim that all intro­vertive experi­ences are essentially the same.

    Stace admits, “that love is emphasized by the Christian mystics but not in Vedantic monism,” then methodically ignores that datum.  Thus, we cannot accept Stace’s assertion that Ruysbroeck’s mystical ex­periences are point by point identical with those in the Mandukya Upanishad.[xiv]  Stace is put off by the Trinitarian interpretation Christian mystics give deeper ex­peri­ences.  Failing to see that orthodox Chris­tianity affirms the essential unity of God as absolute, Stace feels Trinitarian doctrine is incom­patible with the ex­perience of undifferentiated unity claim­ed by all mystics.  Stace need not accept Trin­itarianism as a prerequisite for a philosoph­ical inves­tigation of mystical ex­perience.  Still, before ven­turing to criticize Christian mys­tics’ Trin­itarian interpretation of their own experience, it would be well to under­stand the meaning and implica­tions of their lan­guage.

    The essence of Trinitarian theology[xv] is that, while God is essential one, that unity has internal relationships arising from God’s Self-know­ledge (the Procession of the Son), and Self-acceptance (the Spiration of the Spirit).  This intentional, relational structure is the basis of the Christian understanding of a Trinity of “Persons.”  It is the very structure of love: Mind, Knowledge and Acceptance.  Thus, the experience of the Trinity is not an experience of three faces somehow merged in a single Godhead, but of God’s internal loving-knowledge.  So, when Ruysbroeck claims love in his experience of God, he adds nothing by saying he has penetrated God’s essential unity to find a Trinit­arian nature.  “Trinity” bespeaks God’s immanent, personal love.

    The claims of Christian mystics to have experienced the loving aspect of God is not the simple addition of an accidental, emo­tional note to Stace’s core ex­perience, but a claim to having been admitted to God’s inner life.  One can choose to accept or reject this claim, but one cannot dismiss it as an accidental embellish­ment.

The deficiency of Stace’s analysis of mysticism is not confined to Ruys­broeck, but is general. Earlier, we saw that Payne found it inadequate to St.  John of the Cross’s experiences, but the loving, Trin­itarian experience is not confined to Christian mystics.  It is attested to in Buddhists by Daisetz T. Suzuki. He relates the Trinitarian interpretation of Elkhart’s mystical experience to the Buddhist’s prajña-intuition.[xvi]

    So, Stace’s “core” intro­vertive experiences lie at the foot of path of progressive contempla­tive perfection.  That path can lead to the spiritual mar­riage, a continuous state of deep mystical awareness or union (opposing William James and Stace’s claim of essential transi­ence).  While Plotinus and others suggest a technique for entering the mystical state, there is a general sense that the higher stages, at least, of mystical ex­perience are not deterministic conse­quences of the mystic’s preparation, but result from a gracious and unforeseeable initiative by God, uncompelled by human work. 

    In sum, Stace’s phenomen­ology describes a unique human experience, i.e.  mystical enlightenment.  His phenomenology ignores the distinc­tion between loving and non-loving experi­ences, as well as advanced, contin­uing mystical states described by writers in the Chris­tian tradition.  Stace succeeds in show­ing that the “core” exper­iences are cross-cultural, but not in showing that they are entirely culturally indepen­dent.  Instead, we can trace the diffusion of mystical technology from its Vedic roots to its Christian, Moslem, and Buddhist practitioners.  Like any tech­nology, mysticism works because there is an aspect of the cosmos, a physis, which may be effectively engaged by human intentionality.  Still, in some measure at least, mystical technology differs from others in that even its most adept practi­tioners cannot effect it with deter­minate reliability.

[i] James (1902), p. 293.

[ii] Greeley and McCready (1975), “Are We a Nation of Mystics?  ” Greeley (1974), Ecstasy: A Way of Knowing, and McCready (1974), “A Survey of Mystical Experiences.” According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the 1970 median income was $6,670 for males and $2,237 for females.

[iii] Bradburn (1969), The Structure of Psychological Well-Being.

[iv] McCready (1974).

[v] “Mystic Moods Move British,” Boston Pilot, June 17, 1977, p. 5.

[vi] Stace (1960a), The Teachings of the Mystics.

[vii] Cf. Inge (1899) and Underhill (1930).

[viii] Stace (1960), p. 79.

[ix] Ibid., p. 131.

[x] Payne (1990), John of the Cross and the Cognitive Value of Mysticism. See the review by D. F. Polis (1993a).

[xi] Payne (1990), p. 96. (References Stace (1960), p. 103, and Ascent II, 12, iii; 13, iv; 14, xi; and 12, vi.)

[xii] Zaehner (1957), Mysticism: Sacred and Profane, pp. 170-4.

[xiii] Stace (1960), p. 97n.

[xiv] Stace (1960), pp. 95ff.

[xv] Cf. S T I, qq. 27-43.

[xvi] Suzuki (1957), Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, p. 29f.

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"All men by nature desire to know." Aristotle, Metaphysics A, 1