By a single such experience of only a few moments’ duration a man’s life may be revolutionized. He may previously have found life meaningless and worthless, whereas now he feels that it has acquired meaning, value, and direction, or his attitude to life may sometimes be radically and permanently changed.
One summer’s morning, around the age of 13, I was biking down a leafy tree-lined street in my hometown when I happened upon someone I had not seen in awhile. He was a boy a year younger than me, and he had a reputation for being wild. I suspect his reputation was owed more to his frank honesty, though, than to his actual wildness. In that small town, you tended to collect all sorts of reputation — if you were honest.
He and I entwined the handlebars of our bikes — a trick that stabilized the bikes nicely, allowing us to sit them without needing to put our feet down to stay upright. Then we were off telling each other all the news fit to forget. And I have indeed forgotten most of it, but the one thing I still vividly recall came towards the end of our conversation when my friend confided that he’d recently had an experience of indescribable bliss. I had never heard of the word, “bliss”, and had to ask what it was.
As he spoke, his face took on a radiance somewhere between happiness and joy. He told me he didn’t know the right words to describe his experience, but it had to be what adult‘s meant when they talked of being “seized by the Holy Spirit“. Though only twelve, he was completely serious. And he was certain — absolutely certain — he’d discovered life’s greatest and most precious gift.
While I was skeptical of his claims to being seized by the supernatural, I could not ignore his sincerity. Consequently, I hung on every word until the very moment I suddenly recognized he was talking about his having discovered masturbation.
That was the first time in my life I heard someone insist that a non-mystical experience was actually mystical. Of course, it has not been the last. It’s a curious fact that many of us who have not yet had a mystical experience are nevertheless inclined to think our biggest, most moving experiences to date must be — absolutely must be — what the mystics are talking about. I suppose there is something very human in that.
Of course, some of us take it a step further. For political, social, or other reasons, we try to reduce mystical experiences to the absurd or trivial. Jerry Falwell once stated, “I feel most ministers who claim they’ve heard God’s voice are eating too much pizza before they go to bed at night, and it’s really an intestinal disorder, not a revelation.” I presume Reverend Falwell had “important political reasons” for his statement. Or, maybe the churning of intestinal gas was the biggest, most moving life experience he could imagine for himself and others.
Most informed folks say mystical experiences are both far more fun than masturbation and even somewhat more impressive than intestinal gas. If that is indeed the case, then is it any wonder our species of super-ape typically finds them ineffable?
Let’s briefly consider the doggie beyond my window who at the moment is galloping about his grassy yard with a pure, unfettered joy, such as what one might understandably feel when attending a convention of epistemologists. For all his apparent wildness, he is a thoroughly domesticated animal. He is, some field biologists tell us, only about one-third as intelligent as his wild cousins, the wolves. His bite is weaker than theirs, and perhaps even his senses are not as sharp. Though he shares many traits with them, he is by no means a member of their nation.
Yet, it’s conceivable that we might confuse that doggie with a wolf. If we had never seen a wolf, and all we had to go on to identify a wolf were a vague, verbal description of one, then we might think that doggie in the yard was a wolf. Indeed, we might even name him, “Wolf”. “Come here, Wolfie! Come here! People say ‘wolves are wild‘, but mine comes right to me. Silly people.”
On the other hand, a real wolf might be hard to mistake for a dog. I was at a coffee shop, sitting at a sidewalk table one evening shortly after dusk when a young couple with a strange animal on a very long leash rounded the corner.
I’d never before seen a wolf — not even in a zoo — but I did not for even an instant mistake that animal for a dog. It had a demeanor about it that I find very difficult to describe, much beyond saying that it embodied wildness. And by that I do not mean that it was exuberant. Instead, it was behaving as if its senses were overwhelmed, far too sharp for a noisy city; more attuned to the rustle of a field mouse than to the roar of a passing car.
I asked, and the couple told me it was a hybrid — half wolf and half dog. But, if that was a hybrid, then how much more difficult might it be to mistake a full wolf for a dog?
◄The Fun Side of Subject/Object Perception►
I love mysticism — it’s such fun.
Genuine mystical experiences¹, though relatively rare, are at least wild enough that they are not confined to people living in any particular culture, nor to people living at any particular time. Nor are they confined to people professing any particular religion, philosophy, ideology or set of beliefs. The people who have had mystical experiences come from a thousand backgrounds. The only relevant thing they all — or almost all — have in common is that, once they have had a mystical experience, they tend to agree on certain key points.
By almost all accounts I know of, mystics agree mystical experiences are ineffable. For many of us, ineffability is counter-intuitive. We simply assume anything that is real and worth describing can be described. Or, at least, like the wildness of a hybrid dog/wolf, roughly described. But mystics insist otherwise.
They make other counter-intuitive claims as well. For instance: Many of them agree that discrete, separate objects or “things” don’t actually exist on the most fundamental level. Instead, they say things are ultimately an illusion, and the world is really an undifferentiated unity — a Oneness — into which all things are dissolved. Again, many mystics say our commonplace understandings of time and space are illusions. That ultimately, there is no near or far distance, no non-existent past or future time. All exists in the here and now. You don’t often get much more counter-intuitive than that. But what is there about the mystical experience that leads so many mystics to say such horrible things?
To get at that, we should first recall that our normal perception involves our perceiving a subject and an object.
In other words, when I am consciously aware of something, I invariably experience a division between me and it. By “me” I mean the observer (the subject), and by “it”, I mean the thing observed (the object). And that division between me and it can be simply illustrated: Normally, I am not the notebook on my desk that I am looking at. Normally, I don’t perceive that I and the notebook are one. That’s a lot of fun to think about, isn’t it?
But it gets even more fun than that for, apparently, the division of reality into me and it is rooted in neurological processes and events taking place in my brain. Yet, such processes can be interrupted. And, indeed, they sometimes are. When those processes are interrupted, I no longer perceive a difference between me and it. Instead, I experience a Oneness or undifferentiated unity. The notebook and I become one.
◄My Exciting Bug-Tussle with W. T. Stace►
A lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he is talking about.
W. T. Stace, who was a pioneer in the study of mystical experiences, thought that Oneness was their very core. That is, he adamantly rejected the notion that every out of the ordinary, or paranormal, experience was genuinely mystical. To be mystical, it had to involve that Oneness. Thus, he went on to conclude there were two basic kinds of mystical experiences:
One may be called extrovertive mystical experience, the other introvertive mystical experience. Both are apprehensions of the One, but they reach it in different ways. The extrovertive way looks outward and through the physical senses into the external world and finds the One there. The introvertive way turns inward, introspectively, and finds the One at the bottom of the self, at the bottom of human personality. The latter far outweighs the former in importance both in the history of mysticism and in the history of human thought generally. The introvertive way is the major strand in the history of mysticism, the extrovertive way a minor strand.
Moreover, so far as Stace was concerned, the introvertive experience was more complete than the extrovertive experience. Put differently, if during your experience, you were still experiencing nature in all its glory — say, seeing lovely trees, flowers, butterflies, and bear shit — then your experience was a less complete experience than the mystic next to you who was herself experiencing only a pure, undifferentiated Oneness. Stace was something of a hard case, you see.
Frankly — and this is the sort of thrilling confession that many of my long-term readers have come to expect of me — I myself have yet to accept all of Stace‘s views.
To me, the very core of the mystical experience is the as yet unconfirmed — and perhaps even as yet undiscovered — neurological processes and events that somehow result in an abrupt end to subject/object perception while some form of awareness or experiencing still continues.²
Thus, I think the difference between Stace and I might trace back to the fact Stace sees the very core of the mystical experience as an experience of complete unity, while I see the very core of the mystical experience as a brain fart. Stace is focused on symptoms. I am focused on causes. Stace knows what he’s talking about. I am wildly speculating. But I’m sticking to my
brain farts opinions. Hence, I prefer not to call the extrovertive experience less completely mystical than the introvertive experience.
As an aside, I think any rational person must now quite agreeably conclude that I am significantly more likely than Stace ever was to tell chucklesome jokes about the myriad ways in which Sweeney illogically combines an epistemic correlation with an operational definition. Readers who ever even once doubted the kind of party animal I am should perhaps take that fact into due consideration before finalizing their opinion of my fun side.
There might be another reason to avoid calling the extroversive experience less mystical than the introversive. That is, the introversive experience seems often enough artificially induced. As Stace notes:
Spontaneous experiences are usually of the extrovertive type, though not invariably. Those which are acquired are usually introvertive, because there are special techniques of introversion – which differ only slightly and superficially in different cultures. So far as I know there are no corresponding techniques of extroversion. The man to whom a brief spontaneous extrovertive experience comes may never have such an experience again. Or he may have a series of such experiences. But he can as a rule neither induce nor control them.
It seems to me that extrovertive experiences should not be ruled less completely mystical than introvertive experiences to whatever extent introvertive experiences are artificially induced. It may be, as Jiddu Krishnamurti so often suggested, that when we induce or seek a mystical experience we at best get back the experience that we sought — an experience that is in some way merely our expectation of what a mystical experience should be.
◄Raising the Stakes►
The desire for excitement is very deep-seated in human beings. I was a solitary, shy, priggish youth. I had no experience of the social pleasures of boyhood and did not miss them. But I liked mathematics, and mathematics was suspect because it has n.
Let’s ratchet up our fun another notch! A more exciting way to describe the experience of an abrupt end to subject/object perception — more exciting, perhaps, than even to call it “Oneness” — is to call it “god”. And people sometimes — but not always — do call it god. They also call it many other exciting names, such as the Tao, Ultimate Reality, the All, and even Love.
Yet, as it happens, the mystical experience does not wear a name tag stating, “Hello! My name is Shiva.” Or “Yahweh”, “Thor”, “Allah“, “Xaun Wu”, or “Quetzalcoatl”. (Nor does it carry a scroll laying out its theology, prescribing its rituals, or telling what practices, if any, will best lead to an experience of it.) It is not even the case that the mystical experience comes labeled as any god — let alone any particular god. For instance: The Tao is typically conceived of as some kind of ultimate reality, but is not typically conceived of as being a god.
The names given the mystical experience, no matter how exciting they might be, typically don’t matter so much to mystics. As Sixtus the Pythagorean said, “God is not the name of god, but an opinion of him.” Lao-Tzu famously anticipated Sixtus: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name.” And many, many other mystics have scandalously agreed with those two.
I don’t know if he specifically had mystics in mind, but the brilliant and tragic mathematician and epistemologist, Frank P. Ramsey once stated, “What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” There is a profound sense in which it is just as problematic to call the mystical experience the Tao, Ultimate Reality, the All, or even Love, as it is to call it Yahweh, Thor, or Allah. What we can’t say, we can’t whistle either.
Now, that doesn’t mean there is absolutely nothing that can be sensibly said about mystical experiences. But it does mean that we should be quite clear about what we can say and cannot say. Let’s look then at the ways in which they can be talked about.
There are different levels on which we can approach mystical experiences. I will mention here just four of those. First, we can talk about their neurological basis — their causal roots in the brain. Another level is to describe them in cognitive psychological terms, which is what we’re doing whenever we toss out thrilling concepts like “subject/object perception”. A third way of approaching them is as an actual experience. Yet, when we talk of them as “a mystical experience“, we must be clear to distinguish the experience itself from our thoughts about it. The experience itself is ineffable. But our mere thoughts about the experience are not ineffable. And that brings up a fourth way of approaching mystical experiences: How we conceptualize them, such as when we think about them as “an experience of Oneness”, or as “an experience of Shiva”.
I’m not sure why, but our species seems to find it easy in practice to confuse our experience of something with what we say about our experience of something. Small libraries have been published on that one subject alone.
Of course, the distinction is easily enough made on paper. If we were talking about a map, the phrase “a mystical experience” would refer to the actual terrain, while the phrase, “Steve’s concepts of the mystical experience” would refer to the maps made of that terrain. Again, if you yourself were a mystical experience, then the photograph I took of you would be analogous to how we conceptualize or think about the mystical experience. It’s downright easy to illustrate the distinction between, say, you and a photograph, but, strange as it might sound, it often proves difficult for our species of super-ape to avoid confusing the two things in practice.
My second wife, in an act admittedly beneficial to humanity (but which at the time was merely motivated by her being royally pissed at me) once dumped all my poems into the bathtub, then set fire to them. She later confessed she felt she was burning me. On some level, she was confusing my poetry with me, the map with the terrain. She was abusive, yet by no means stupid. When bored, she would pleasantly while away the seconds by solving calculus problems in her head — something I found much more attractive about her than her somewhat alarming opinion of my poems.
Now, I’ve primarily been using the phrase, “the wild god”, to refer to mystical experiences. Secondarily, though, I’ve used it to refer to how we conceptualize mystical experiences. From hereon, I will more clearly distinguish between those two meanings by using the wild god only as a synonym for mystical experiences themselves. When I want to refer to how we think about mystical experiences, I will use such necessary, albeit cumbersome, phrases as, “our concepts of the wild god”.
Since mystical experiences, by almost all accounts, are ineffable, it doesn’t matter what we name them. Anything we call them, including, “the wild god”, or even, “mystical experiences”, should be taken with a decisive shrug. The names we give them are no better, and occasionally no worse, than poetry.
Now, to stir in a dash of raw excitement — as if one is even needed at this point — I promise that in the next post I will propose a name for the neurological processes and events that manifest themselves in our mystical experiences. I would find it quite understandable if you are now gripping your chair in anticipation of that post.
1. I’m largely concerned with only one kind of mystical experience: The kind that involves an abrupt end to subject/object perception. Thus, by “mystical experience”, I do not mean in this series of posts any of the other experiences that are commonly called “mystical”. Such as telepathy, telekinesis, most so-called “religious experiences”, clairvoyance, precognition, visions, voices, insights, powerful dreams, or that time I got lucky with Terri. None of those necessarily involve an abrupt end to subject/object perception. So, nope, I don’t mean any of those.
2. A few days ago, I was told of Andrew Newberg’s and Eugene D’Aquili’s research into the causes of mystical experiences. That is, I was told enough about their findings to get thoroughly excited. Long term readers of this blog can certainly appreciate what that means: It means I dashed off at a stately pace to a quiet bookstore. Although, I have not yet had time to read, Why God Won’t Go Away, it is my understanding that Newberg and D’Aquili provide well-grounded evidence for the notion mystical experiences occur when certain brain processes cease while one is still in some sense aware or experiencing. Be still my beating heart!