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 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.