Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Collective Neurosis about Mysticism

Dude, Ganesh!
Dude, Ganesh! Sydney, 2010

Wikipedia defines mysticism as
...the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight.
Zen is a mystical practice, even if most Zennies would probably not phrase it exactly like Wikipedia above. I find it kinda uncomfortable to admit that, and I'm fairly certain I'm not alone in this. The huge public interest in the health aspects of meditation, the medical research about it, and the general movement towards medicalizing it, using it in the context of therapy is, I believe, largely driven by this discomfort with mysticism.

The very word conjures up pretty funky connotations. When I hear someone described as a "mystic," the images that come up are of a naked bearded anchorite sitting on a pillar in a desert, or perhaps some charlatan in a tent with beads and joss sticks and crystal balls. When I hear about mystical insight, the images that come up are of Mohammed reciting the Qur'an, or the Buddha becoming enlightened, or Jesus going into the desert to wrestle with Satan. It all seems very remote and otherworldly and just plain weird.

I wonder if Western culture—based on that other kind of enlightenment—is particularly neurotic about mysticism? Direct intuitive experience cultivated in a systematic way is, after all, just about the diametrical opposite of the Enlightenment ideal of the fully rational man (yeah, usually a man), all of whose thoughts and actions are explicable and describable by the clear light of reason.

People do all kinds of stuff to avoid this discomfort. Some Zen teachers—Brad Warner, for example—get pretty snippy about mystical experiences, although I think he's really more nuanced about it than some of his snippiest quotes may indicate. Other Zen teachers make a huge deal out of it, coming uncomfortably close to the Rinzai caricature of spiritual gunnery sergeants whipping their leatherneck marines of mysticism to ever higher insights for ever greater bragging rights.

All of this—the vehement denials of the value of mystical experiences you get from some Soto Zen quarters, their equally vehement reification from some other quarters, the dissection of meditation under the scientist's MRI scanner—end up making an even bigger a deal out of it. It's either something to be denied, laughed at, or admired, coveted, and awed by. Attempts to demystify mysticism, such as those of the Dharma Overground or Daniel Ingram (Arahant) become automatically controversial. Perhaps Mr. Ingram's abrasive in-your-face style is, in fact, a reaction to the very reticence he wants to break.

What if it wasn't like this?

What if we treated mystical experiences as just another facet of human experience?

What if a mystical practice like zazen was thought of as just as ordinary—or extraordinary—as a physical practice like, say, riding a bicycle?

What if there was a whole range of mystical experiences, from the humdrum to the spectacular, just like there's a whole range of physical experiences, from going for a quiet promenade around the park on a summer's day, to cycling the double century?

I think that'd be cool.

One of the first Zen books I read was Philip Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen. One of the things I liked most about it was the chapter about people's enlightenment experiences. I liked it because it demystified mysticism. These were, basically, ordinary people, our contemporaries, from countries much like ours, who were describing their mystical experiences in detail, as they lived them. Okay, sure, there was some idealistic froth there too, but the point was that these weren't some spiritual supermen or -women, doing extraordinary things or making extraordinary sacrifices. They were pretty much normal people living normal lives. Until I read those, I thought that stuff like that only happens to monks on mountaintops long ago and far away; something to be admired at a distance, but definitely not something that could apply to you or me. I never really imagined that I could take up a mystical practice.

But here I am.

I wish there were more stories like that around. Like this one, for example. I also think it'd be cool to read about less spectacular mystical experiences, not just those earth-shaking, universe-transforming big bangs that make the whole thing seem so awe-inspiring.

Obligatory disclaimer—no, I'm not, and no, I haven't. Er, I think. Thanks.


  1. It's hard to reconcile the mystic to the materialistic. Everything we're taught in modern Western society, including most common religious practice, is focused purely on working for tangible material reasons and rewards, or less tangible but non-mystical social ones. So it's as embarrassing to many to think of the immaterial world or the idea of spirit as it is to undress in public. Some are attracted by that combined vulnerability and attention getting, can handle and enjoy it, some not so much.

    I like your idea of seeing the mystical as just another facet of physical human life. It's always been around in every culture in one way or another, so its obvious it is some real part of us, perhaps one of those kinds of parts which neglected make the whole whirring machine stop, or at least become unbalanced and run the poorer, if we ignore it.

  2. I think one of the problems is that one tends to cling strongly to any kind of "mystical" experience. There is a natural tendency to cherish experiences, try to hang on to them and to confirm their validity. So experiences need to be downplayed somewhat, or a lot, to correct for this.

  3. I agree, that's part of the neurosis I was referring to. Trouble is, I think the downplaying often ends up doing exactly the opposite—making an even bigger deal out of them. I think everybody—or nearly—has mystical experiences every once and again, but we're lacking in means to identify and acknowledge them, so they get misfiled a lot, under pathologies on the one hand, or super-significant "spiritual" events on the other.

    I don't know what, exactly, ought to be done about this. I just think it'd be nice if people could... I dunno, just relax and acknowledge them. "Grüss Gott, wenn du ihm treffst." Maybe the Austrians have it figured out...

  4. Yeah, I guess you are talking about some kind of suppression of experiences, which seems to make them a big deal.

    At the other extreme, aiming to catalogue, identify and report all of one's "spiritual experiences" might not turn out to be very fruitful either.

    And at least in my experience, "relax and acknowledge" works up to a certain level, but then at some point, it's not so easy anymore. Or rather, not so neat and coordinated. That's why we have teachers, I guess.

  5. Maybe there's some, I dunno... middle way there, somewhere?

  6. Very possibly there is. Personally, I'm more biased towards the "forget everything as soon as possible" approach. Maybe that's why I never remember to bring milk from the store.

  7. I don't have that problem. I don't drink milk.

  8. You were after some "less spectacular" mystical experiences.. Having read the Wikipedia definition about mysticism I could claim experiences of beauty, Milky Way seen in utmost darkness under clear sky, breething ocean, coming close great mysteries... Or a view of Petra Treasure... Not to speak about music by greatest masters or mathematical truths discoved... The experience side of all this could be transcendenting...

  9. Perhaps, although I'm not sure that's quite what I had in mind either. Those are exogenous experiences—experiences *of* something. What I had in mind are experiences on another axis, as it were, not "of" anything in particular. And they're not necessarily spectacular at all (although no doubt some of them are).

  10. Good point. Honestly there is no way I can answer in a relevant way your "question".

    What I think I mean is that even if the instigation come of something the mystical part comes from another planet. When Pythagoras found the existence of irrational numbers, a mathematical proof - the intellectual part, the experience was relevatory - there exists another reality hitherto unknown. And as a demonstration of the experience 300 innocents bulls were sacrificed...

  11. The problem with mysticism is it is a direct challenge to the dream world.

    The so-called "real" world emphasizes the "me", accomplishment, a "personal" journey, even if that journey is in search of "spiritual" goals.

    Mysticism is the red pill. We see, to some extent, that the "real world" is not so real after all. That what we thought of as "me" is just a wave upon the ocean, and we are actually the ocean and not the wave. And so the obsessive identification with one particular wave, with a particular body, name, set of contingent traits, merits and accomplishments -- is worthy of laughter or at least a smile.

    That is deeply subversive to the ethos of "me", "progress" and accomplishment. Embracing that means you don't give as much of a shit about buying consumer baubles on credit, jockeying for status increases in organizations, "winning" with a fat bank account, and concurring with the social prejudices and consensuses of the day.

    The threat of mysticism to the egoic structures is why we see varying levels of hostility of established institutions to mysticism, from scoffing and reductionistic "explaining away" (institutional science) to antipathy (traditional religious institutions). Even many "spiritual paths" who ostensibly have a thoroughgoing mysticism as the goalpoint will throw cold water on the mystical experiences of practitioners who have not achieved the proper levels of social recognition and approval within their order. Because why would someone who has seen their own absolute timeless freedom, defer to someone else's 21 point plan for salvation over 10 or 20 or 30 years?

    As Eckhart Tolle said (not my favorite mystic by any stretch, but he nails it here) the end game for that particular "self" is:

    "A dash, one or two inches long, between the date of birth and date of death on your gravestone". But that's absolutely OK. Because that is not what you actually are. Mysticism is seeing / experiencing that reality.

  12. By a happy chance (the people I'm going to tell you about spent a big part of their lives in my little home town), I can mention two mystics that lived in sixteen-century Spain: John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila .
    They wrote about their experiences (think of barebones convent cells, undernourishment, long hours of prayer and meditation), Teresa in prose, John in some of the best (and obscure) poetry ever written in Spanish. In fact, schoolchildren learn about them in literature class.

  13. How are their mystical traditions doing nowadays, do you know? At least in Protestant Scandinavia, Christian mysticism is just about nonexistent. There's a renewed interest in it, but because of the rupture in the tradition, Christians are rediscovering mysticism through Zen. I hear the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden practices zazen, for example. Perhaps Catholic cultures have retained more of it?

  14. Due to a funky connotation (re-read of a certain witcher review, more or less,haha) I ended up in here.
    Just wanted to give some heads up to what seems to be a great blog. Keep it up!

    While I´m in here, a few audios you might like: (excerpt from Górecki´s First)
    (Charles Ives - The Unanswered Question}
    (Arvo Pärt - Tabula Rasa - Silentium ... I know basically nothing about Zen, but this particular track, incidentally my favourite piece of sound all around, sounds uhm Zen-ish sorta :-))
    (this is what I was listening to while writing this very note)

    Anyway, rule on!