Tag Archives: mysticism

The mystical flip

‘Mysticism’ is for me a term with many positive connotations: though I know that there are some (primarily secularists) for whom it is a term of disparagement. I see it as primarily an attitude that recognises mystery, and thus the extent of our uncertainty and ignorance, very often in the sphere of religion and very often supported by states of temporary integration such as the Buddhist dhyana. I’ve written about the positive qualities of mysticism in a previous blog post, but here I want to focus on a problematic feature that has often accompanied it, and perhaps contributed to the negative views that some have formed. I call this problematic feature the ‘mystical flip’, and I’ve encountered it particularly in Mahayana Buddhism, including Zen, and related emptiness and non-duality type talk, but I’ve been surprised recently also to find it in a Christian context, reading Thomas Merton.

The mystical flip seems to start with refined and subtle experiences, perhaps in contemplation or meditation, where people dwell much more fully than usual in right-hemisphere dominated openness. If you want to know why this kind of state is right-hemisphere dominated, watch this TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor: Bolte Taylor effectively describes a mystical experience that is created by the disabling of her left hemisphere. In this state, we lose the goal-orientation and the belief in linguistic representation that is characteristic of left hemisphere dominance. If they’re not accompanied by the disabling features of a stroke, such experiences can be helpful temporary integrated experiences. However, at some point they must finish, and we must go back to left hemisphere dominance.

In our normal mode, what do we make of this? Well, many people seem to immediately draw the conclusion that they’ve seen a higher ‘truth’. In this higher state there are no goals and no linguistic representations. Nevertheless, of course, back in the normal state there are goals and representations. pancake-tossWhen talking about what they regard as mystical truths, then, the mystics claim that in some ultimate state there are no goals and representations, but when talking normally they flip back to admitting that normally, in the ‘conventional’ state, there are. This, then, is the mystical flip. Other terms for it, in various traditions, could be Nagarjuna’s Two Truths doctrine, or the divine versus human view, or the Spinozan ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ (from the standpoint of eternity) versus the standpoint of time.

The Buddhist Diamond Sutra is a good example of a text that consists almost entirely of constant mystical flips. Here is one example:

Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata [Buddha] conceives the idea: I must set forth a teaching. For if anyone says the Tathagata sets forth a teaching he really slanders Buddha and is unable to say what I teach. As to any Truth-declaring system, Truth is undeclarable, so “an enunciation of Truth” is just the name given to it.  (21)

At one and the same time, such texts constantly insist that they have the truth from one perspective and that they do not from another, but there is rarely, if ever, any attempt to bridge the gap between the two perspectives.

Here is another example I discovered recently in Thomas Merton:

We are plagued today with the heritage of that Cartesian self-awareness, which assumed that the empirical ego is the starting point of an infallible intellectual progress to truth and spirit, more and more refined, abstract, and immaterial…. But in actual fact, Hui Neng says, there is no attainment, and therefore to busy oneself about seeking a “way” to attainment is pure self-deception. Zen is not “attained” by mirror-wiping meditation but by self-forgetfulness in the existential present of life here and now. (Mystics and Zen Masters, 25-6)

Merton here does the mystical flip not so much in terms of ‘truth’ as in terms of ‘self’, being apparently unable to engage with any third alternative between self-obsession and self-forgetfulness.

Of course, I’d rather that people were able to do the mystical flip than that they were just stuck on one side of it or the other. But it is, at best, a transitional stage in recognising and applying the Middle Way, and it certainly seems to me like a big mistake to identify texts, however hallowed, that merely do mystical flips as ones that tell us anything much about the Middle Way. The Middle Way is how you stop doing mystical flips, or at least slow them down or limit them. It requires you to reframe the ways you are talking about ‘absolute’ and ‘conventional’ perspectives so as to avoid getting into such a false duality in the first place.

The key ways I would suggest that we can avoid mystical flips amount to the five principles of Middle Way Philosophy as I identified them in an earlier post and in the first six of my introductory video series. Scepticism, the first principle, tells us why both absolute and conventional positions are uncertain, whatever experiences they may appeal to. Provisionality tells us how we can practically cultivate an attitude that doesn’t identify entirely with either the absolute or the conventional positions. Incrementality suggests ways of breaking down the absolute dualities involved and re-conceptualising them as increments. Agnosticism confirms us in our determination not to be sucked into either of the absolute sets of assumptions. Integration relates these to a process whereby we unite divided beliefs and energies in our experience rather than merely taking the side of one against the other.

In terms of the brain hemispheres, the Middle Way doesn’t just involve flipping from one dominance to the other, but rather using the right hemisphere perspective to inform and integrate the conceptual and goal-driven world of the left. Any spiritual perspective that simply leaves out the left hemisphere is inadequate to the vast majority of our experience and thus unable to transform it positively. But right-hemisphere experience can help us recognise the limitations of any particular set of goals and representations we may have grown accustomed to.

There is no need at all for anyone to get stuck at the stage of doing mystical flips. But unfortunately they seem to be very much reinforced by traditional authority in many traditions, as well as by the perception that there is no alternative. If we can avoid mystical flips we might also manage to avoid ethical flips (between absolute and relative positions) or scientific flips (between absolute belief in scientific results and disparaging science for its fallibility). There is an alternative.



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.