On Mysticism

First, a few words about what mysticism is not. Calling the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange “Master of the Mystic Arts” is inaccurate; he should actually be called “Master of the Magical Arts.” There’s nothing magical or supernatural about mysticism, as I understand it. Since mysticism is about union with God, this may seem counter-intuitive or paradoxical. I suggested in my last post that the potential for mystical experience seems to be hard-wired in our brains, and elicited by certain identifiable stimuli. That means it’s natural, not supernatural. I’m an agnostic and, to me, the  question of whether there “is” or “is not” a God is a matter of definition. If you say that God is love, then I believe in God. If you say that God has a gender or a preferred name, I don’t. I believe that if there’s a God, it’s beyond human comprehension.

Mystics are people who seek, or experience, union with the Divine. Some religious people who have a mystical experience might call it a religious experience and, for them, it is. (I don’t have the philosophical authority to label or judge other peoples’ anomalous experiences.) But I’ve read accounts of atheists who remained atheists after having an experience of Divine union. The existence of mystical experience isn’t proof of the existence of any given deity. Not everyone is going to have a mystical  experience in their lifetime. Many people – even atheists – have reported having an experience of the Divine while under the influence of psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin or mescaline. Back in my hippie days, a common question asked of people who had just  come down from a psychedelic trip was, “Did you see God?” It was a popular jest.

Accounts of mystical experiences have been recorded in cultures all around the world,  throughout history. Triggers include physical agony or ecstasy, asceticism/sensory deprivation, continuous prayer and fasting, deep meditation, and the ingestion of high doses of psychedelic substances. Indeed, mystical experiences are so common on psychedelic drugs that some people refer to them as entheogens – “God-inducing” substances. I’ve had mystical experiences, and don’t think of them as proof that there “is” a God that has a name. Like psychedelic consciousness, mystical experiences are ineffable: words can’t do justice to them. My experiences haven’t involved identifiable deities from any religion, but rather a profound feeling of one-ness with the universe, or being in the presence of something holy, that’s impossible to put into words.

One of the great Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth-century Dominican friar, taught that we can – if we do the requisite preparation – experience God directly, within ourselves. The Roman Catholic establishment of the day considered the teaching heretical. However, Saint Francis of Assisi had written something similar: “What you are looking for is what is looking.” Centuries later, philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche had a darker metaphor for this idea, writing “When you gaze into the Abyss, the Abyss gazes back at you.”

The key to union with the Divine, according to Meister Eckhart, was letting go of all worldly things, all desires and preconceptions – even one’s conception of God. Paradoxically, in order to know God directly, one must first un-know everything one thinks about God. The Divine is unknowable in the usual sense of knowledge. He wrote, “We should learn not to give God any name, for God is above names and ineffable,” warning that “if you think of anything he might be, he is not that.” He also  wrote, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” and “the eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me.” Among the things a seeker must abandon is his or her conception of self. Meister Eckhart taught that from this emptiness, this silence, one’s soul could be re-born in the direct experience of the Divine.

This message is echoed in the mystical teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta Hinduism, Jewish Cabalism, Sufism, and other spiritual traditions. Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki called Meister Eckhart “the one Zen thinker of the West.” In modern terms, the direct experience of the Divine requires the annihilation of the ego. One seeker wrote, “At my worst, I see myself being at the center of the universe; at my best, I see myself as one cell in the body of the Divine.”

The poetry of Sufi mystics such as Rumi and Hafiz reflects this point of view over and over in its metaphors.  Rumi likens himself to a hollow reed made into a flute by the breath of God. He wrote, “We are like lutes once held by the Beloved. Being away from his divine body fully explains all yearning.” Hafiz wrote, “I have learned so much from God/that I can no longer call myself/ a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew. . . .Love has befriended Hafiz so completely/it has turned to ash and freed me/of every concept and image/my mind has ever known.”

In my last post I wrote about the Vedanta Hindu concept of Brahman: there is nothing that is not God. It is expressed in the Sanskrit affirmation tat twam asi – “thou art That.” (i.e. You are one with the Divine.) I’ll close on a light note, with a short verse I’ve attributed to my alter ego writer and philosopher, Philbo T. Woldercan:

You want the key to the Mystery?                                                                                                       The Holy Grail?                                                                                                                                      The essence of the Buddha?                                                                                                                 You’ve known it all along, Bozo!                                                                                                         (tag) You’re IT.

The mystery of consciousness

In this post I’m going to depart from my usual subject matter to explore something related to psychology, but belonging more to the study of philosophy. Somewhere down the road in this blog I intend to explore topics not directly related to psychotherapy, such as the effects of language on consciousness, the traps of language, and even what “is” is.

Psychology is a relatively young science. Some of the earliest psychologists thought that consciousness should be the primary focus of psychology; but it can’t be observed and measured. Behavior can, so psychology is now understood as the study of human behavior. Consciousness clearly exists in the universe, or I wouldn’t have written this and you wouldn’t be reading it.

Although consciousness is self-evident, science can’t account for it, and it’s relegated to the realm of metaphysics. American psychologist and philosopher William James (who had experimented with the effects of nitrous oxide and ether on consciousness) had this observation: “Our normal waking consciousness . . . is but one special type of  consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different . . . . No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question . . . . At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

James clearly believed that the mystery of consciousness is a vital piece of the cosmic puzzle. But I need to comment on his phrase, “Our normal waking consciousness.” The whole notion of the term “altered states of consciousness” rests on the assumption that there’s a standard, or normal, state of waking consciousness – which I don’t think is the case. To my way of thinking there’s a spectrum of  “normal” states of consciousness (SOCs). I’m in one SOC when I’m engaged in a debate, another when I’m solving a math problem, another when I’m absorbed in a story, and yet another when I’m dancing. All of these are normal states of waking consciousness. This range of normal experiences can be altered in profound ways by drugs, meditative practices, symptoms of mental illness, and other life experiences.

I’ve already written about ways to change your experiences by changing the way you think. But before I expand on non-drug consciousness alteration, I need to be candid about my own psychedelic experiences. (I actually met both Dr. Humphrey Osmond, who coined the term “psychedelic,” and Dr. Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD.) It’s not my intention to promote the use of psychedelic substances to anyone, but I do think more research needs to be done on their therapeutic use. There are many factors to be considered before taking a psychedelic drug, including the possibility of mental illness, dosage and purity of the substance, as well as one’s mental set and the setting in which the drug is taken.

I haven’t taken a psychedelic drug in years, but in my hippie days I “tripped” many times – mostly on LSD, but also on peyote and psilocybin mushrooms. I’ve never had a “bad trip,” and I believe that my philosophy has benefitted from having experienced SOCs so discontinuous with my “normal” experience that I can’t find words to do them justice. In psychedelic consciousness both perception and cognition are altered in a way that’s unimaginable without experiencing it first-hand. Almost all of my trips had a strong spiritual element, unattached to any specific religious tradition. Especially on high dosages, I felt a oneness-with-the-universe that’s beyond description.

I may never get answers to all of my questions about consciousness, but it’s my Grail Quest. Some books have helped me along the way. After reading William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I went on to read Daniel Goleman’s Varieties of Meditative Experience and Masters and Houston’s Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. I’ve also read much of Varieties of Anomalous Experience, published by the American Psychological Association, which explores the scientific literature on such purported phenomena as near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations, lucid dreams, mysticism, “psychic abilities,” and reincarnation. All of these books explore aspects of consciousness, and I recommend them all to any readers who share my fascination with the topic. The best book I’ve ever read on the psychedelic experience was Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cosmology.

What consciousness “is” depends on who you ask. Some philosophers have a materialist frame of reference and view consciousness as a byproduct, or epiphenomenon, of biological existence. From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness arose in complex organisms, allowing them to detect and avoid threats in their environments, enhancing their odds of survival. Science favors a materialist viewpoint. Philosophers with an idealist frame of reference view consciousness as a (or the) fundamental underpinning of the cosmos, or as the cosmic glue that holds everything together – much like The Force in the Star Wars movies. Many religions have an idealist frame. For instance, Hinduism holds that the material world is an illusion – the veil of maya that hides the true, non-dual reality of Brahman.

This post will serve as a point of departure for some future posts about the mystery of consciousness. I won’t be blogging next week, as I need to focus on another writing project. I wish you Godspeed and good fortune in the New Year!