Mysticism – Experience over Intellect

Countless words have been written about mysticism but only direct experience will ever be able to convey what it is “like”.

If you were a blind man you would never truly understand colour. Intellectually, you would be able to appreciate that the experience of “red” begins with light waves of a certain frequency, and that information conveyed to the brain by the eyes leads to an experience of the colour.  But without the ability to “see” red, you would never fully understand it on an intuitive level.

So it is with any of the  qualia we humans experience. Mysticism is a “quale” – one of the qualia which (some) humans are able to sense or experience.

There was once a time when I read widely on the topic. I read (in translation) the accounts of many of the Eastern and Western mystics. The Cloud of Unknowing for instance, an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The poetry of Rumi, the teachings of Buddhism, Zen or otherwise. The list goes on – mysticism has been a feature of human life throughout ages.

Anyone not knowing where to start might try the seminal work of Evelyn Underhill “Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness”. Or William James “The Varieties of Religious Experience”.

I can think of no better definition of mysticism than that I found in a comment by Anna Nimm on a website called Materialism, Mysticism and Art

I think of mysticism as direct knowledge of god, whether a personal or a pantheistic god synonymous with nature or a Dionysian life force. And it’s a form of union that is ecstatic, it transports one both beyond the self and also beyond concepts and words; it is a form of knowledge felt by the heart and body (or soul) rather than by the rational mind.

I prefer “nature” or “life-force” to god, but these are mere words to describe the indescribable.

But let me digress a little and think out loud about why Phil Stansfield’s website puzzles me so much.  My puzzlement being the spark which ignited this particular post.

I must suppose that Phil’s interest in mysticism is academic. And a perfectly reasonable approach. Phil is a materialist and he seems to concentrate on the contributions made by “mysticism” to art, philosophy and culture while denying the “reality” of the experience.  He quotes much from philosophers and others who, throughout history, have had something to say on the topic.

Much like the way religion is taught in schools these days – not as a faith but as literary criticism or history.

And then it struck me – I am a “believer” and Phil is not. My interest in mysticism is through personal experience which has become more radical and better formed in recent years, after a lifetime of seeking.

Phil’s interest (and I hope he will forgive me if I am wrong) is to catalog the works of other commentators who over the years have written about mysticism. He sees its influence throughout history but denies that mysticism has any intrinsic reality.

In his concluding words to his first post Phil states:

But it must be asked, what is the price paid in asserting and reflecting a philosophy which advocates flight from the material world and argues for an ‘acousmatic realm’ ………..?

It seems that I tend to get things about faced and it has a great deal to do with my cognitive bias towards transcendence and the apparently non material.  When I see somebody writing about mysticism I mistakenly assume they are “believers” as well.

I must never forget that I myself find religious dogma absurd. I must not ignore my interest in the works of Richard Dawkins and his ilk, and my layman’s passion for the explanatory power of science.

My conviction that there is indeed a wizard of some sort behind the curtain should not blind me to the perfectly reasonable views and interests of those who are equally strongly convinced otherwise.

I do not share Phil’s opinions but I nonetheless find his website a pleasurable and informative place to browse.

 

8 Comments

  1. I’ve been following you for a while now, and I’ve been very happy, because your mood has improved so much. I think you’re wrong, though, on a couple of things, if you don’t mind me saying.

    I think your mood has probably improved mainly from meditation, which is a powerful antidepressant, because so much of our depression comes from our thoughts about what we think is, and because meditation gradually reminds us of what actually is, and that is usually full of amazement, often extremely positive (“I am alive” is pretty amazing). Even things that were pretty dire can improve. The “relaxation response” releases endorphins and reduces cortisol and adrenaline, and the metabolism adjusts to this more chilled state.

    There’s a danger, IMHO, that this amazement and beauty and relaxation cause a person to accept ‘mystical’ explanations. I believe these are illusions. One central pervading idea is that consciousness is a ‘something’ in and of itself, separate from matter or the cause of matter, the spirit, god-related or whatever – you know all the permutations.

    I’ve seen you write a couple of times that science has failed to shed light on the nature of consciousness, and you seem drawn to the belief that it is fundamental. I don’t think that’s the view of many neuro-scientists studying consciousness, or the cyberneticists and the like. Consciousness seems just like most other evolved functions, except for its privacy, its subjective nature, which is what makes it seem strange and unavailable to objective analysis.

    I don’t believe it’s rational to value ‘mysticism’ – whatever that means – over intellect, in refining our world view (by definition, because our world view should be intelligible). Your experience is another matter, but whatever you conclude your experience to mean must be a thought, a proposition (and there are books full of them, and when challenged, the authors say these are just ‘pointers’ towards what there is ‘beyond’ words – they mean ‘without’ words).

    I think meditation does bring more direct perception of reality, if raw sensory impressions are what that is. We are meat, skin and bone, with evolved senses buzzing away. What ‘mysticism’ does is add words, pretending to take them away. Noticing our being, in the moment it’s happening, is extraordinary. But that’s different from ‘meeting the Godhead’ (or whatever phrase one uses for this ‘mystical union’).

    I hesitate to say this, because I want you to be happy. The question is what happiness ultimately comes from. The happiness of ‘mysticism’ and ‘the ineffable’ and ‘god’ and such things, for me, brought diminishing returns. Maybe you’ll find it rewarding. I decided at some point I’d rather have harsh truth (or ignorance) than false happiness, and I tend to think that’s what these mystical ideas are. If there were actually any evidence, rather than just words about how great the lack of words is, that would be different.

    Having said all that, if you can avoid the pitfalls, meditation is a great habit to develop.

    Like

    1. John

      I’m afraid my lenses are photochromatic – I never quite know when the shade will change.

      My “belief” is not in some traditional god but in forces of nature that our science is at present insufficiently advanced to explain or manipulate. I know we have come a long way but what we can describe seems to be certain behaviors of matter and energy and not their intrinsic nature. And certainly not how we can best alter them to our benefit

      I believe that what we currently understand and what we can currently “do” with the forces of nature will come to look primitive in the future. The experiences I talk of are only “indescribable” because we do not yet have the vocabulary. Or indeed the knowledge.

      What looks like magic or the supernatural today will eventually become explainable. The powers of future generations would look to us from our current viewpoint as “godlike”.

      So in a sense my beliefs are secular: that intelligence, consciousness, call it what you may, will eventually be able to reconfigure itself to achieve whatever states it desires. Including bliss and ordinary happiness as well as their polar opposites.

      Which is probably why I keep thinking of Ian Banks and science fiction. Transcendence, if you like, will come through science and knowledge.

      There is of course no evidence for my belief. And yet we may see something of its workings through even today’s primitive exploration of human consciousness given rudimentary experimentation with the likes of trans-cranial magnetic brain stimulation or drugs.

      Yes, our feelings can indeed be altered through physical forces. Or more particularly chemical forces. My contention is that in the distant future we will be able to choose how we feel with great precision.

      Thus the curtain will be drawn aside and the wizard will be revealed. The wizard will turn out to be a currently indescribable power to re-arrange the physical world as we wish. Including our own consciousness.

      And perhaps the pan-pyschists will turn out to have a point – and that consciousness will turn out to be innate in matter / energy.

      So for me the truth probably is not harsh at all – we may simply be getting a glimpse through meditation or other methods of the sort of mental states which are possible. And in the distant future my belief (and it is of course mere belief) is that we will be able to turn such states on or off at will.

      A more sophisticated version of the “glanding” posited by Ian Banks.

      Ray Kurtzweil and the like are probably not so outlandish in their prognostications. That is my hope and my belief.

      Like

      1. I have no problem with your beliefs about potential future psycho-technologies. I think it is probably the mainstream scientific view. We are already seeing the merging of computing and the human brain, and that will probably be enhanced by nanotech and genetic engineering, causing a massive increase in physical and mental well-being…if we get there, if we aren’t subsumed by the impending crisis of global warming and the end of capitalism-as-we-know-it.

        I just that I think it is more mechanics that will be revealed, not any sort of wizard. It is mechanics that is rolling out the changes we see now. It is those that will continue. It will look like wizardry to most of us, but our PCs look like that to us now; those who design and build them know it’s mechanics. They know it’s the weird mechanics of the quantum world, and quantum computing will solve a lot more problems in future (if we get there).

        This seems to be where we differ. You state that your use of certain terms are only because we don’t understand what we don’t yet understand, but you seem to be toying with, or have arrived at, a belief in the non-physical. You seem to think that is what ought to explain, or will explain, the mysteries – in particular, you think neurosience hasn’t touched ‘the nature of’ consciousness.

        If that’s a correct reading of your position, I just worry that you’ve not considered what those terms mean enough (you recently denounced philosophy, too), and are at the beginning of a very long road that is closed at the other end. How would the non-physical interact with the physical? What does ‘physical’ mean in science? Lumps of stuff? No, it means effects that are measurable in some way. Being measured in some way is what you refer to as ‘behaviour’, which is correct. If we investigate anything, we have to describe how it behaves, by measuring it in some way. You’re happy to let all that go on, but complain that there’s something missing, and what that is is a sort of nothing, the ineffable. You just keep pointing at nothing, saying it’s the secret wizardry that makes the boring measurable behaviour of reality bearable, it seems to me.

        Like

      2. In matters of consciousness (which is of course what I am talking about – there is no experience without consciousness) all is up for grabs. There is a vast and widespread array of views and philosophies on offer and none of them are evidence based. They are mere theories, ideas, thoughts, propositions. There are so many cards still on the table – universal consciousness, pantheism, panpsychism, Russellian Monism and on and on. Each main category is split into a myriad of sub categories.

        The physicalists and materialists deride the panpyschists, the latter claim that emergentism is nonsense.

        How therefore should we approach the matter? With patience and the certain knowledge that we have a long way to go to learn how consciousness arises and from where.

        My wizard is not anthropomorphic. My wizard is an incredibly complex interaction of energy/matter and, if you like, “mind”. Perhaps a universal mind.

        It is all up for grabs, there is no right or wrong.

        Far from pointing at nothing, I point at the incredible complexity of reality which one day we may be able to control and untangle.

        We all have “beliefs” – especially the scientists. That the universe may be a holographic projection is a belief held by some. That there exists a multiverse is a belief held by others. Others seriously posit that we may exist as pawns in someone’s virtual reality.

        In the latter case, the designer of such virtual reality would be rightly seen by many as some sort of “god”. God in the sense that he has what to us are incredible and as yet unexplained powers.

        Honestly John, I have every belief that I will not run into a brick wall, that I am not in a cul de sac or dead end. I believe there are such wonders out there that we have seen nothing yet.

        All the terms I use – wizard, god and so forth are mere labels because I can not begin to speculate what is out there. To couch guesses in “religious” terms is for me a mere cultural formality. Its an arty way of speculating on the wonders of reality. Whatever that may be.

        I have no expectation or hope of any “person” or “god” being out there to hold our hands. I have every expectation however that experiences like those I have had are “real” and for all I know we may be offsprings of a universal consciousness. That is my “experience” – or at least that is what it feels like.

        I am saying “who knows”?

        The answer to that question is, currently, “nobody”!

        Like

      3. Hi Anthony,

        “In matters of consciousness (which is of course what I am talking about – there is no experience without consciousness) all is up for grabs. There is a vast and widespread array of views and philosophies on offer and none of them are evidence based. They are mere theories, ideas, thoughts, propositions. There are so many cards still on the table – universal consciousness, pantheism, panpsychism, Russellian Monism and on and on. Each main category is split into a myriad of sub categories.”

        I’m sorry, but you’re simply showing your ignorance on the matter. Of course there are ‘evidence-based’ theories of consciousness!

        “The physicalists and materialists deride the panpyschists, the latter claim that emergentism is nonsense.”

        Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate that their thinking is on an equal par. One lot have evidence. (There are varieties of panpsychism that are physicalist, but either way they don’t really have any evidence to speak of.)

        “How therefore should we approach the matter? With patience and the certain knowledge that we have a long way to go to learn how consciousness arises and from where.”

        Neuroscience is confident it is fairly rapidly answering all relevant questions about it, as I said. My current favourite theory is the Attention Schema Theory of Michael Graziano, already about a decade old. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00500/full#F1 (Note how many references there are to other study papers on consciousness research in that one theory paper.) Russell was a great thinker, but way off on this (but most of humanity has been until lately).

        “My wizard is not anthropomorphic. My wizard is an incredibly complex interaction of energy/matter and, if you like, “mind”. Perhaps a universal mind.”

        Words like “wizard” don’t really help to avoid anthropomorphism. And, when you try a more thoughtful definition, as in the above, it seems you offer only a vague generalization.

        “It is all up for grabs, there is no right or wrong.”

        But there IS right and wrong. Either there is universal mind or there isn’t.

        “Far from pointing at nothing, I point at the incredible complexity of reality which one day we may be able to control and untangle.”

        But again, saying that consciousness is an incredible complexity of reality doesn’t help you or anyone else understand it, and saying that we may be able to control and untangle it one day (a) contradicts the literal meaning of “incredible” – it’s a credible complexity – and (b) ignores the enormous amount already discovered about consciousness.

        ‘We all have “beliefs” – especially the scientists.’

        Science is distinguished as a form of epistemology by its absolute dedication to follow the evidence.

        “That the universe may be a holographic projection is a belief held by some. That there exists a multiverse is a belief held by others. Others seriously posit that we may exist as pawns in someone’s virtual reality.”

        Scientists have pet theories. But any scientist worth their salt will give them up as soon as they have failed empirical test. That’s not quite what your words imply about their ‘beliefs’. What you imply is that they have no right to believe those things, but ‘perhaps universal mind’ (for no reason).

        ‘In the latter case, the designer of such virtual reality would be rightly seen by many as some sort of “god”. God in the sense that he has what to us are incredible and as yet unexplained powers.’

        But then we’d be wrong, wouldn’t we? That’s the whole point I’m making in a nutshell. We do not consider Google to be some kind of a God because they have designed and built a quantum computer. We know there is physics behind it.

        ‘Honestly John, I have every belief that I will not run into a brick wall, that I am not in a cul de sac or dead end. I believe there are such wonders out there that we have seen nothing yet.’

        Of course, but they will be ‘wonders’ that somebody understands enough about to have designed and delivered them, or they won’t materialize.

        ‘All the terms I use – wizard, god and so forth are mere labels because I can not begin to speculate what is out there. To couch guesses in “religious” terms is for me a mere cultural formality. Its an arty way of speculating on the wonders of reality. Whatever that may be.’

        But you do begin to speculate what those wonders might be…

        ‘I have no expectation or hope of any “person” or “god” being out there to hold our hands. I have every expectation however that experiences like those I have had are “real” and for all I know we may be offsprings of a universal consciousness. That is my “experience” – or at least that is what it feels like.’

        There. That’s the problem. “It’s what it feels like” is a very bad argument. It’s important to note that something can be “real” in the sense of existing or having happened in some form, and “an illusion”, where particular interpretations of that event are concerned. My experience of the solidity of the table is “real” when I hit it and it hurts, but it’s mostly vacant space.

        You’re “beginning to speculate” universal consciousness, of which our personal consciousnesses may be “offsprings”. This is hard to distinguish from religion. I accept that you may be imagining that some day it is discovered as a scientific fact, but it’s hard to know how it would be different from proof of ancient religious tenets. It’s hard to know how anyone would approach such a concept other than with worshipful adoration and ultimate gratitude. You seem to have described a metaphysical spiritual father.

        ‘I am saying “who knows”?’

        And then, wisely, you’re equivocating.

        The answer to that question is, currently, “nobody”!

        Nobody knows the answer to anything with 100% certainty, but lots of people know this particular answer with a good degree of confidence, I amongst them. Why? Because I began to speculate Universal Mind about 40 years ago and it’s turned out after long contemplation and not a little study to be highly unlikely, philosophically unsound, almost incoherent. As counter-evidence, it’s also psychologically appealing, just like most of the culturally popular illusions. It is the central tenet of most religions.

        I believe, and it seems evidence is on my side, that the ‘self’ is such an illusion, and ‘consciousness’ (as some entity) is also. There are mental events, of course, but these are almost certainly no more than the correlates of consciousness: a biological machine reporting certain things to itself because it’s useful, and making up the fiction that it is a ‘subject’, a ‘self’, with a unified ‘stream of consciousness’.

        If you prefer another theory – universal mind, say – that’s fine. I just wanted to put that idea in some more perspective, because it can be deeply enticing, and lead to all manner of further ideas and practices that are confirmatory, but through confirmation bias rather than empirical validation. One can start taking herbs to clarify the chakras instead of going to the doctor, or give money to ashrams that line the pockets of some guru or other, or start along all the other varieties of New Age alternative thinking.

        Like

      4. I am sorry that I seem to have caused you distress and irritation by expressing my views . That was not my intention. Let us leave our discussion where it stands and agree to differ. I have frequently mentioned my admiration for Taoist philosophy and try to put it into practice. This is one of those many occasions in life when the best course of action is to let the moment pass and view the situation with detachment. I hope that you can at least agree on that point if no other.

        Like

      5. That’s fine, Anthony. Any distress and irritation I experienced was absolutely negligible, and the distress was due to my concern about irritating you with my expression of contrary views. If you would rather ‘let the moment pass’, no problem.

        Like

  2. “I prefer “nature” or “life-force” to god, but these are mere words to describe the indescribable.”
    Yes. I sometimes use “The Great Everything.” I’ll read the rest of the article later, and expect to comment further. Very interesting stuff and written in a way that is in consonance with my nervous system.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s