THE FIRST THING TO KNOW:
Mysticism is not a very nice word.
In a recent post I said that you will not find that word mentioned very often at psnt.net. This is true, despite the fact that negative theology and the third way are closely related to mysticism. My favorite professor and academic advisor at Candler refuses to use the words mystic or mysticism in his classes, although he teaches a lot about mystics and mysticism. I try to follow his example. Why avoid these words so religiously? Because they’re terribly misunderstood. For example, the synonyms of mysticism, according to thesaurus.com, are:
cabala, cabalism, cabbalism, kabala, kabbalism, ontologism, orphism, pietism, quietism, spiritualism, Satanism, black art, demon worship, demonianism, diabolism, magic, necromancy, sorcery, voodoo, witchcraft, witchery, wizardry, abracadabra, alchemy, bewitchment, black art, black magic, charm, conjuring, devilry, divination, enchantment, evil eye, hocus-pocus, incantation, jinx, magic, mumbo jumbo, occultism, spell, thaumaturgy, voodoo, witchcraft, witchery, witching, wizardry
The association of mysticism with Kabbalah, the contemplative dimension of Rabbinic Judaism, is not so troublesome (except for the recent and unfortunate Madonna resonance). But the others? Voodoo? Jinx? Necromancy? Satanism? Good grief. You now see why my professor and I avoid the M word.
But the M word refers to a stream within Christianity that is nearly as old as the faith itself. From Anthony the Great and the Desert Fathers through Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross, all the way up to (and beyond) Thomas Merton, mysticism is a strong and living tradition, despite the recent and steep devaluation of its label.
THE SECOND THING TO KNOW:
Mysticism may be about something really important and really real. It may also be a boatload of hooey.
I have been in a great online discussion with an atheist friend who lives in the small hamlet of Tokyo, Japan. We have been talking about religious experiences — in particular, so-called mystical experiences — and whether or not they should be trusted. (We have not used the M word, but that’s what we’re talking about.) Do they have anything to do with reality? He says no; reason alone should guide one’s actions. Anything else is folly. But I say that such experiences are about something real and can be counted on — in certain circumstances — to guide one’s life. Who’s right? What’s really real?
Is mysticism about something really important and really real, or is it a boatload of hooey?
This is today’s subject. Well, that and William James.
THE THIRD THING TO KNOW:
William James, an old-time bigshot philosopher and psychologist, wrote a famous book about this question — although he worded it somewhat differently — and his opinion is worth mentioning.
James lived back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He had famous family members and hung out with folks like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Philosophers know him as one of the founders of pragmatism, a philosophy centered on the practical consequences of ideas. Psychologists know him for his psychology. But the rest of us philistines know him as the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, an amazingly popular book — it’s still in print — based on the Gifford Lectures that James delivered in 1901-2.
The centerpiece of Varieties comes in Lectures XVI and XVII, which are simply titled, Mysticism. (Perhaps in James’s day the M word had not yet deteriorated beyond recognition.) James says there are four signs of mystical experience. The first two are, in his words, sharply marked; and the other two are less pronounced. They are, and I quote,
1. Ineffability. — The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that it must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.
2. Noetic quality. — Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states are to those who have them also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.
3. Transiency. – Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.
4. Passivity. — When the characteristic sort of consciousness has once set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.
Now it may seem that mystical experience is something that only a few oddball people, of the kind you shut up in the cellar when decent people come over, would have any direct knowledge about. But James says otherwise, and he emphasizes this by placing mystical experiences on a continuum of intensity. He addresses directly four points on this spectrum. These are in order of increasing intensity, and are in the order in which James presents them.
Intensity level 1. James writes: “The simplest rudiment of mystical experience would seem to be that deepened sense of a maxim or formula which occasionally sweeps over one. ‘I’ve heard that said all my life,’ we exclaim, ‘but I never realized its full meaning until now.’” An event like this unfolded before me once in my life as a teacher.
I was introducing the night sky on the first day of one of my astronomy courses and I mentioned a modest fact: Under a dark and transparent atmosphere, with an unobstructed horizon and keen vision, one can see at most about three thousand stars. And if we could remove our home planet from under our feet we could see perhaps six thousand. I began to introduce the constellations but was brought up by a look of near-trauma that had fallen upon a student’s face. He was scarcely breathing. I actually stopped the lecture, such was his appearance. Eventually he explained himself: “It’s just that you said that there are stars under my feet, and I had never really thought of it like that before. Wow!”
The student in question was very smart. Could he have missed something so obvious? It is unlikely. I suspect something more interesting happened that day. I think he was the recipient of an unheralded bolt of intellectual lightning, attended perhaps by mild disorientation and the faint flutter of vertigo. Now, he knew that the spherical Earth was surrounded on all sides by stars. But for years this was just a fact for him, a dry husk encasing a broken-off bit of green actuality. Under certain circumstances the husk may fall away and recovery is possible. The stricken look on his face suggested to me that the stars far beneath his seat became tangible to him in that instant, that the words up and down lost all content. In that short span of time the absolute became relative and the strangeness of the world was recovered in all its simplicity.
Intensity level 2. James writes: “A more pronounced step forward on the mystical ladder is found in an extremely frequent phenomenon, that sudden feeling, namely, which sometimes sweeps over us, of having ‘been here before,’ as if at some indefinite past time, in just this place, with just these people, we were already saying just these things. They bring a sense of mystery and of the metaphysical duality of things, and the feeling of an enlargement of perception which seems imminent but which never completes itself.”
This, of course, is what we have come to call déjà vu (French for “already seen”). I suspect it has happened many number of times to you, the alert reader.
Intensity level 3. James writes: “Somewhat deeper plunges into mystical consciousness are met with in yet other dreamy states. Such feelings are surely far from uncommon, especially in youth.” He goes on to say that these are often experienced in nature. Here is an example from my own life.
When I was about ten years old my dad and I visited the Okefenokee Swamp with others boys and their fathers. It was an overnight canoeing and camping excursion.One morning we were paddling down a canal. As we traveled our canoe drifted to the rear of the convoy. I grew anxious as we fell two, three, then four canoe lengths behind the others. I began to put the full weight of my small frame into my strokes. Then I noticed: Dad was not paddling. He said, “Don’t worry, son. Let them go. Let’s look around.”
“But they’re almost — “
“It’s not important. Let’s look around.”
It worked. I don’t know how, but within a few seconds I relaxed. We rowed and we looked. After some time we rounded a bend and came face-to-face with a young buck, his head raised from drinking, his muzzle dripping, his antlers mere buds. His head swiveled slowly as we drifted past, then he turned and disappeared quietly into the woods. Suddenly I felt happy and secure, there in the swamp with Dad. The great wealth of the place gradually occurred to me. The Okefenokee hummed with pure animal life, but I was also struck by its living silences: its draped Spanish moss and its fluted cypress trunks and its perfect cardioid lily pads. We left the canal and paddled out into the prairie. The sky opened, a great shining ocean full of winged life, and some umbral component of the air seemed to lift. The water shone brassy and clean in response. The swamp shimmered and my happiness turned to joy. I had discovered something enormous but could not name it. I felt like laughing out loud but did not. Instead I filed it all away, unsorted, to be puzzled over later in private.
Intensity level 4. James writes: “A much more extreme state of mystical consciousness is described by J. A. Symonds; and probably more persons than we suspect could give parallels to it from their own experience.”
Suddenly, [Symonds writes], at church, or in company, or when I was reading, and always, I think, when my muscles were at rest, I felt the approach of the mood. Irresistibly it took possession of my mind. It consisted in a gradual but swiftly progressive obliteration of space, time, sensation, and the [many] factors of experience which seem to qualify what we are pleased to call our Self. In proportion as these conditions of ordinary consciousness were subtracted, the sense of an underlying or essential consciousness acquired intensity. At last nothing remained but a pure, absolute, abstract Self. The universe became without form and void of content. But Self persisted, formidable in its vivid keenness, feeling the most poignant doubt about reality, ready, as it seemed, to find existence break as breaks a bubble. And what then? [I apprehended] a coming dissolution, the grim conviction that this state was the last state of the conscious Self, the sense that I had followed the last thread of being to the verge of the abyss, and had arrived at a demonstration of eternal Maya or illusion.
Now this last one in seems nearly pathological, but Symonds was, in the words of James, “a perfect monster of many-sided cerebral efficiency.” It is also mentioned that he had no sign of pathology about him. I know several people who have had such experiences and they too show no signs of mental instability.
THE END OF THE MATTER
What are we to make of this? Is there significance to these “experiences,” or are we just talking about some strange noise (or silence) of the brain? There are, after all, many possible explanations for this. For example, see the Skeptic’s Dictionary for an alternative take on déjà vu. It is always possible, from a certain point of view, to explain away anything that seems to fall beyond the reach of science. But James, by looking closely and systematically at the practical consequences of mystical experience, concluded that:
1. As a matter of psychological fact, mystical states of a well-pronounced and emphatic sort are usually authoritative over those who have them. They have been “there,” and know. It is vain for rationalism to grumble about this. We can throw [the mystic] into a prison or a madhouse, but we cannot change his mind. Our own more rational beliefs are based on evidence exactly similar in nature to that which mystics quote for theirs. Our senses, namely, have assured us of certain states of fact, but mystical experiences are as direct perceptions of fact for those who have them as any sensations ever were for us.
2. Mystics have no right to claim that we ought to accept the deliverance of their peculiar experiences, if we are ourselves outsiders and feel no private call thereto. The fact is that the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content of its own. We have no right, therefore, to invoke its prestige in favor of any specific belief [such as Christainity -pw].
3. The existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe. It is the rationalistic critic who plays the part of denier in the controversy, and his denials have no strength, for there never can be a state of facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more enveloping point of view.
4. Mystical states offer us hypotheses, hypotheses we may voluntarily ignore, but which as thinkers we cannot possibly upset.
Is James’s work still significant today? Or has science progressed far beyond his observations? Where, if anywhere, do we mark the boundary of science? I don’t have an answer for any of this. But I agree with James when he writes in his essay Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907) the following.
Many persons nowadays seem to think that any conclusion must be very scientific if the arguments in favor of it are derived from twitching of frogs’ legs — especially if the frogs are decapitated — and that — on the other hand — any doctrine chiefly vouched for by the feelings of human beings — with heads on their shoulders — must be benighted and superstitious.