Mysticism

Following my post on dhyana last week, I thought I would expand this into a discussion of mysticism. Mysticism is a phenomenon that has been misunderstood and treated with prejudice on many sides – particularly by scientific naturalists and by traditional Protestants, who often seem to use it as a pejorative term. For these people, ‘mysticism’ often seems to mean something like ‘supernaturalist obscurity’. Presumably they see mystics as cloaked dogmatists who confuse the issues through too much emphasis on ambiguity. For me, however, the term ‘mystic’ is overwhelmingly positive. Mystics are the heroes who have stood out against dogma and continually laid the emphasis on genuine experience in all the world’s religious traditions.

Mysticism begins with dhyana-like sublime experience, a type of experience available to anyone and not at all tied to religious beliefs of any kind. Here is an example from the autobiography of Jane Goodall (the chimpanzee expert), ‘Reason for Hope’:

Many years ago, in the spring of 1974, I visited the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. There were not many people around, and it was quiet and still inside. I gazed in silent awe at the great Rose Window, glowing in the morning sun. All at once the cathedral
was filled with a huge volume of sound: an organ playing magnificently for a
wedding taking place in a distant corner. Bach’s Tocata and Fugue in D Minor. I
had always loved the opening theme; but in the cathedral, filling the entire
vastness, it seemed to enter and possess my whole self. It was at though the
music itself was alive. That moment, a suddenly captured moment of eternity,
was perhaps the closest I have ever come to experiencing ecstasy, the ecstasy
of the mystic.

This is a modern example, but experiencesAngel like this have been recorded across cultures and religions. In Hinduism and Buddhism mystical experience is actively cultivated in meditation and is part of the mainstream tradition. In Islam it is an important part of the Sufi tradition, and in Christianity you can read the experiences of a succession of mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Richard Rolle and Jacob Boehme.

What these people had in common was that, having experienced temporary integrated states, they could see beyond the rigidities of metaphysical belief. Often this put them into conflict with the metaphysical mainstream of their religions (for example, the persecution of Sufis has been a regular feature of fundamentalist phases in Islam). More often, however, mystics have been happy to pay lip-service to the metaphysical pieties that surrounded them, whilst actually being largely indifferent to metaphysics. At the same time they have earned a far more profound respect from those who experienced their genuine degree of integration, and the wisdom and compassion that flowed from that.

Mystical experience is sometimes treated as a subset of religious experience, or sometimes identified with religious experience as a whole. I am more inclined to the former, as there are many types of experience that can be called ‘religious’. Some other forms of religious experience are also recorded by mystics – particularly visions. Visions, however, like dhyana-type experiences, can be recognised as powerful and valuable experiences without being attached to metaphysical beliefs. The significance of a vision can be implicitly or explicitly recognised as archetypal rather than conveying representational truths-out-there.

Of course, mystics in the theistic religions have often talked about God. However, for them God seems to have been an experience of uncertainty rather than the dogmatic basis of certainty that assertions about God and his revelations seem to have been for others. Where they express apparent certainty, it usually turns out to be a recognition of how far their lives had been changed by mystical experience, rather than any assertion about propositional ‘truths’ behind that experience. Where mystics have written about their experiences, they have often used language that may appear vague. They were writing, after all, about the cloud of unknowing (the title of a fourteenth century English mystical text of anonymous authorship), so their degree of vagueness was entirely appropriate to their subject matter. When it comes to advice on mystical practice, on the other hand, they are quite capable of precision. It is those who write about uncertain matters with a misleading amount of precision that we should be more suspicious of than of the mystics.

The mystical traditions of the world offer a huge resource of inspiration for the practice of the Middle Way. Of course, past and present mystics are each limited in their assumptions by their historical and religious circumstances. They can also be one-sided because their openness is so much concentrated towards the emotive end of the spectrum of meaning, so that they are not very likely to show deep critical thought or an investigative attitude to the world. Nevertheless, the mystics have absorbed and kept alive an important element of the spirit of agnostic scepticism through the ages, and we can still benefit from that spirit today.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

11 thoughts on “Mysticism

  1. Hi Robert

    I agree with much of what you are saying here. Mystical experiences, like some night terrors, are often (and understandably) explained in the context of the culture that they appear but that does not mean that the experience itself should be disregarded as some kind of primitive superstition. There appears to be something much more fundamental going on, that transcends dogmatic belief.

    My only issues with your post lie with this statement:

    ‘For me, however, the term ‘mystic’ is overwhelmingly positive. Mystics are the heroes who have stood out against dogma and continually laid the emphasis on genuine experience in all the world’s religious traditions’.

    My first concern is that by regarding the term ‘mystic’ as ‘overwhelmingly’ positive, one is disregarding the possibility that the manufacture of mystical experience can be employed to manipulate individuals (and even entire populations) for purposes that might not be entirely beneficial to those that are being manipulated. Obvious modern examples include Charles Manson and Rasputin, although the malignancy of the latter is often disputed.

    These examples aside, the shaman, druids (both historical terms that have been distorted by modern use) or medicine men found in tribes throughout human history and geography, have likely guarded their secrets jealously from others in their respective societies. There may be many good reasons for this and I am by no means saying that these mystics were all malign, I would think that in most cases the opposite is true. Nevertheless, the secrecy and power that these individuals held/ hold is bound to have, in some cases, lead to exploitation and harm, and may continue to do so in the future.

    The second issue is the claim that mystics are heroes that have stood out against dogma. This might be true for some and not for others – this type of positive stereotype can be as unhelpful as a more negative alternative, such as, ‘Mystics are villains that have upheld and perpetuated dogma’.

    For me, both of these assertions can be interpreted as being, uncharacteristically, romantic, unbalanced and even dogmatic.

    Rich

    1. Hi Richard,
      Your issues seem to me to depend on how you define ‘mystic’, and whether you allow a distinction between genuine and fake mysticism. I certainly didn’t have druids or Rasputin in mind as instances of mysticism: rather the great Christian mystics, Sufis, Buddhist saints etc. I don’t know how far Rasputin or the druids were genuinely mystical, and I’d only suggest that they were heroes against dogma to the extent that they were genuinely mystical. Just using or manipulating mystical concepts doesn’t make one genuinely mystical.

      If people use mystical ideas to support power, then they have moved away from mystical experience and attached metaphysical ideas to it. Just as the Church tried to appropriate mysticism by turning mystics into saints and martyrs, others might appropriate mysticism to support a particular belief about oneself, a political ideology etc.

  2. Hi Robert,

    My definition of a mystic, relating to your post, would describe an individual with the ability to achieve a ‘mystical’ state, who might also enable others to have similar experiences.

    These individuals can be found in many cultures and traditions and I would argue that the shamanesque members of various societies (some of which survive today) can be regarded as being mystic, alongside the various heroes of Christianity and Buddhism. I would not say that they were fake. These individuals serve many purposes such as healing and performing various civic ceremonies (marriage, for instance) and an aspect of their role is often the inducement of trance like states that, sometimes, enable them to gain deep insights. These experiences, to my mind must be related to the states that the Christian mystics achieved. The means to achieve these states (psychoactive substances, sleep deprivation, deep concentration, repetitive sound and movement etc.) is often known only to them (or a select few), and so there is obvious opportunity for abuse.

    I think that it could be argued that Charles Manson was a mystic, just as it can also be argued that he challenged dogma, albeit with his a dogma of his own. Rasputin is probably more complex – I am not sure that he achieved the states that we are discussing and might be an example of a ‘fake’ mystic.

    I am interested in what you would regard as being ‘genuinely mystical’.

    Rich

  3. Hi Rich,
    I’m not suggesting that there’s an absolute dichotomy between genuine and fake mysticism, but there is a continuum, which I’d consider to be an aspect of the continuum of objectivity. One could make a comparison with scientists: some scientists are investigating the universe with more integrity than others, even if they’re all investigating it to some extent. Similarly with mystics. More objective and more genuine mystics in my view would be ones that achieve more integrated states.

    I don’t think the kinds of abnormal brain states than can be achieved by sleep deprivation or psychoactive substances should be confused with such integrated meditative states as have been achieved by mystics. These kinds of states are not states of temporary integration so much as states of temporary disintegration. People who subject themselves to sleep deprivation or psychoactive drugs are more likely to fall apart than improve their lives in the longer term, and only those who were quite integrated already have generally benefited from taking drugs. It’s very easy to bunch everything weird together just because it’s weird, but there are decidedly better and worse ways of being weird. ‘Mysticism’ does not just mean being weird, or even having spiritual aspirations – it’s a much more precise term than that.

  4. Hi Robert,

    I agree that there would be a continuum between ‘false’ mystics and ‘real’ mystics, just as there might be with ‘good’mystics and ‘bad’ mystics. This is why I am struggling with your view of mystics being being overwhelmingly positive. You have said that ‘one could make a comparison with scientists: some scientists are investigating the universe with more integrity than others, even if they’re all investigating it to some extent. Similarly with mystics’. Which seems to support my argument.

    I would not group all of the experiences that I mentioned together, or put them on an even footing (although it did appear that was what I was doing), but I would not consider any of them as weird or wholly negative. I wouldn’t say that the Native American use of hallucinogens is bad and I am not in a position to state whether their experiences are more or less insightful than anybody else’s.

    With all of the other examples that I cite, I am sure there are people that have experienced profound visions that have had positive and transformative effects on their lives and I am at a loss as to how one might differentiate these from the visions that somebody like Jacob Boehme had. Of course, most of the examples that I used can be very harmful, and more often than not, perhaps they are, but I would still not disregard the positive experiences that some claim to have had.

    My personal view is probably formed, in part, from my experiences and study of Buddhism, and I suspect that the Buddha’s advice that one should avoid of many of these extremes is a more likely to be productive, fruitful and safe – if a little slower. So it looks like the Middle Way for me then!

    I think that there might just be issues with the term ‘mystical’. Were as the term ‘dhyana’ seems to describe something quite specific, mystical can mean many things to many people and I am not sure how we can accurately asses each case effectively.

    1. Hi Rich,
      I don’t get the impression that we disagree on anything substantial here. We seem to agree that some states or figures that have been labelled ‘mystical’ are more objective and integrated than others. We also seem to agree that most use of psychoactive substances tends to have negative effects in the long-term, but this, too, is on a continuum and some of it may have positive effects.

      What might be causing the issues in my use of the word ‘mysticism’ is that I am using it prescriptively – I think it’s a useful label for more integrated states and approaches in the context of religious or aesthetic experience, where it is mainly desire that is integrated rather than meaning or belief. As with my use of terms like ‘objective’, that can cause confusion because people use the term in different ways, but nevertheless I reserve the right to stipulate for practical reasons. Talk about ‘genuine mysticism’ is similar to talk about ‘genuine objectivity’ or ‘genuine integration’.

  5. I’m not sure, from my reading of the headline article, what mysticism is.

    Robert writes that it “begins with dhyana-like sublime experience, a type of experience available to anyone and not at all tied to religious beliefs of any kind”, which I think is non-specific; and continues with an illustrative experience by Jane Goodall which is summed up with the tautology “the closest I have ever come to experiencing…..the ecstasy of the mystic”. Both leave me none the wiser.

    I admire Rich’s spirited defence of unconventional (and conventionally unpopular) avenues to altered states such as the use of hallucinogens, and therefore I was disappointed to see what seems to me to be his uncalled-for back-pedalling as in, “of course, most of the examples that I used can be very harmful, and more often than not, perhaps they are….”. Come on, Rich! That reads like caving in, and quite unnecessarily too.

    I don’t lay claims to mysticism, but I’ve had a lot of experience in facilitating altered states (trance states) in others, and of experiencing altered states (trance states) myself. I’ve perhaps mentioned before that I undertook professional training in regression and integration in the late 1980s, based on techniques developed and taught by Stanislav Grof, Frank Lake, William Emerson and others.

    These didn’t involve the use of hallucinogens, but did usually give rise to transformative experiences, some slightly, moderately or very disagreeable, some might have been characterised as ‘ecstatic’, some as ‘mystical’; the words used by people to describe their experiences were idiosyncratic and personalised. The techniques used, and various experiential ‘cartographies’ are available (and of interest) to open-minded enquirers. I’d recommend “Realms of The Human Unconscious” by Stanislav Grof (1975) Souvenir Press.

    Where I’d agree is that techniques (e.g. of trance induction) can be ineptly or clumsily applied, the experience of individuals in altered states can be mismanaged, poorly or incompletely integrated, and subject to fanciful or manipulative misinterepretation. But I wouldn’t consider that the approach was intrinsically wrong or harmful in any way. I would tend to regard it as mystical only in the sense that I think mystical refers to knowledge that is inaccessible to the intellect, although the intellect may go some way to articulating it ‘after the event’ (of non-intellectual knowing) has occured.

    Some similar discussion (of non-intellectual knowing) took place around Eugene Gendlin’s focusing technique, which seemed to win general approbation when it first came up on the Middle Way pages. I’d be happy to pursue that thread again (practically/experientially) if we can organise it.

    1. Hi Peter,
      I didn’t mean to imply that trance induction is intrinsically wrong, if that is how you read me. Rather I’d suggest that such techniques can be used in better and worse ways, and form part of a continuum. I’d be interested to hear more about your experience of altered states and their benefits or otherwise.

      Where I was trying to make a useful distinction is between dhyana-like states and other altered states of consciousness. Let’s put it this way: dhyana-like states seem to be reliably integrated states, though of course the integration is temporary. Other kinds of altered states of consciousness are not necessarily integrated, and some of them may be seriously disintegrated (e.g. effects of cocaine or heroin, as far as I can tell without having experienced them directly). Where I think there is a major confusion is when some writers (including some psychologists) lump dhyana together with other altered states, either to idealise them or castigate them. In most cases this seems to be because they just haven’t experienced dhyana, and the study of Buddhist sources about it is not incorporated into Western study. The very idea that dhyana can be translated as ‘trance’ (as it is in some early translations of Buddhist texts) is part of this. I suspect this is related to the dismissal of meditation by some early Western psychologists as ‘self-hypnosis’. These kinds of misunderstandings can have long-term effects, because they have shaped a lot of the vocabulary in which we end up discussing these things.

      I’m afraid I’m not going to be able satisfy your desire for a very clear definition of mysticism, Peter, beyond describing it in terms of dhyana-like states and relating it, as I have above, to objectivity and integration. That’s because my understanding of it is synthetic with these other concepts, not based on an analysis that separates out mysticism from them. I think a degree of direct experience, a recognition of prescriptive rather than just descriptive elements, and a synthetic approach all need to play their part in understanding mysticism. I would strongly suggest reading a variety of accounts of mystical experience to gain a more direct impression, rather than searching too closely for a tight definition. http://www.bodysoulandspirit.net is an excellent resource for this.

  6. Hi,

    I should clarify my position on methods of inducing trance like states, such as hallucinogens, as my initial statement appears a little absolute and a tad ‘don’t do drugs kids’. My thanks to Peter for pointing this out.

    I said that ‘most of the examples that I used can be very harmful, and more often than not, perhaps they are.’ The examples I gave were psychoactive substances, sleep deprivation, deep concentration, repetitive sound and movement and I would say that only the first two are likely to ever be harmful – so ‘most’ was an exaggeration on my part. Having said that both the use of narcotics and sleep deprivation aren’t inherently bad or harmful. The effects of drug use vary significantly from person to person, but in excess they can be physically and psychologically harmful (this also varies from substance to substance). Nevertheless there are many people that take various drugs with seemingly little adverse effect, I would even go so far to say that those that have come to harm (I count my self among these!) are in the minority. There are some substances that are an exception, but as Bill Hicks once said, the news never reports a positive drug story (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX1CvW38cHA – not for the easily offended). Again, sleep deprivation is fine if not done to excess.

    I would not argue that these activities lead to mystical or transformative states but they appear to make people more receptive to them, and as Peter says, in the right hands might be very useful, although the active pursuit of these experiences might be counter productive in some way – which is certainly the Buddhist view.

    Robert, we are all free to use words as we like, as I do with atheism, but I do feel that the word ‘mystical’ might be problematic. It is an old and widely used word that has many connotations – a problem that I do not feel a word such as ‘objectivity’ has.

    It would be easier if you could provide some guidance of what a mystic or mystical state is by your use of the word, so that we can differentiate between plain old euphoria, psychosis and mystical. If you are unable to provide a definition, perhaps you could think of some rudimentary criteria?

    Rich

  7. Broadly speaking, mysticism is the culture that is inspired by temporary integrations of desire, as found in dhyana or some sublime aesthetic states. But please don’t treat this as an absolute definition.

  8. To revive this thread on mysticsism, I’ve recently listened to this three part podcast interview with Hokai Sobol where he gives his take on mysticism from a “post traditional” perspective.

    https://posttraditionalbuddhism.com/2017/07/21/11-5-imperfect-buddha-hokai-sobol-answers-listeners-questions/

    The link above is to the third, where (by answering listeners’ questions that came up after the first two interviews) Hokai gets as close as he can to defining what he means by ‘mystical’, and if there might be more helpful terms that could be used.

    His broad suggestion was that there are three loosely separated domains relating to the (for want of a better word) spiritual life: the religious, the therapeutic and the mystical. Religious is mainly about community, belonging to a group. Therapeutic is stuff that makes a positive difference to one’s life, that which makes us better. Mystical is another, less well trodden path, perhaps where there is no path at all, as the outcomes are not pre-supposed.

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