It has been argued, principally by those influenced by post-modernism, that we cannot speak about mystical, or unitive, experience as a single entity because the experience is shaped by the cultures and religions in which it arises.
I believe, on the contrary, that mystical experience is prior to and remains independent of any subsequent shaping.
The experience is "spiritual": the subsequent construction or shaping is "religious". Walter Stace (Religion and the Modern Mind) describes mystical experience as the core of all religion. (I believe there are two central strands, the other being sacrifice/redemption, but that can wait until later in the discussion.)
Typically, there are two claims consistently made about this experience. the first is that it is ineffable. It cannot be contained in any available set of signs or symbols, in any language. Remember that the essence of language is separation. When we name something as X, be it object, action, attribute, we separate it from all that is not-X.
In the heart of the mystical experience there can be no "language" because there is no "other". In fact, the very attempt to use language removes us from the unitive experience and back into our regular "separate" existence.
Despite the inadequacies of language, however, and, despite the truly vast cultural, chronological and geographic separation of the cultures reporting it, and the vast differences between the sets of signs available for reporting it, the reports that mystics have made have been quite remarkable for their consistency.
Walter Stace (Mysticism and Philosophy) deals with this question at some length. (Click here)
The second claim is that the experience is somehow more "real" than regular everyday experience. Whatever is to be understood by the term "real", it is by far the most common and consistent word used for this territory that in scientific or more specifically Darwinian terms simply has no existence. What's going on? Once again, attempts to unpack the word "real" typically meet in failure.
Spiritual beliefs and constructs which emerge from that experience, from God on down, are our attempt to "explain" our experience, or to draw from it some principles which may guide us or be felt as necessary in living our lives, as individuals and members of society. Buddhism, for example, acknowledges no Deity. Christianity, Islam and Judaism insist that God remains separate from any unity thus experienced.
These beliefs and constructs vary widely. They are almost as various as the people holding them. The underlying experience remains remarkably constant and independent of cultural input. Certainly we can talk about it.
In today's world naturalist (scientific) philosophies have all but sidelined the idealist philosophies that underpin most theologies and religious belief systems. As the influence of the great western Churches has waned under this "scientific" assault, the basic mystic experience has continued almost unaffected, though it has become increasingly personal rather than institutional, and the marketplace has, predictably, moved to fill the gap left by the Churches, drawing on all manner of ancient and freshly minted teachings, traditions, and marketing theories, vastly contradictory of each other and mostly asserting the sole title to Ultimate Truth or a direct line to God.
This is the spiritual market-place as we would expect it to be. (See Red Flag Belief #2, below.)
The second claim is that the experience is somehow more "real" than regular everyday experience.
Very early in my own spiritual travels, I arrived at three "red flag" beliefs which have not varied significantly in more than thirty years: (Note: These are beliefs, not experiences.) They are useful warnings that a non-spiritual agenda is present in a belief system.
The first two reflect an over-riding belief that you cannot legitimately "use" God to advance personal power, personal security or personal agendas.
The flag of God has never flown over a battlefield. That includes jihads and crusades and turning your offspring into bombs at one extreme, as well as efforts "in the name of God" to limit or prescribe the behaviour of others with regard to marriage, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, nudity, abortion, sex, recreational drugs, gambling, rock and roll and so forth. It includes Joan of Arc, too, for that matter and the Inquisition, and...and....
The lyrics to Onward Christian Soldiers should be abandoned forever in favour of "Lloyd George Knew My Father". The essence of any battle is separation.
The key phrase that sums up the Sermon on the Mount is "Resist not evil!" This does not mean becoming a victim; it means transcending that "knowledge of good and evil" which had us cast from the Garden in the first place.
Neither good nor evil can exist in the Garden, or in the mystic's unitive experience. They are a function of the Fall, of sin understood as a belief that one is separate from the rest of creation. On this "separation" are founded all notions of good and evil.
The flag of God has never flown over a cash register. Ditto, "Hear the Pennies Dropping". Money corrupts when it becomes a means of controlling the elements of a "separate" world so that they operate more or less in one's favour. But "all things work together for good for them that love God." See also, At The House of Simon the Leper
I believe that we cannot and should not attempt to "use" God to forward our separatist personal and/or social agendas. (We can recognise people who do this quite easily: they are the ones who pick and choose which bits of the Bible they will observe and which they will ignore—and then claim God's authority for the bits they select.)
If you lack primary spiritual experience, no belief system or practice is worth anything of itself in terms of "getting you there". Nor can we buy spiritual experience, or take it by force or skill. We cannot arrive at it by any exercise of moral virtue, or by way of ritual, or by memorising a creed or a chant, or by going to church, or a library or a theological college, or by becoming a hermit, or even by becoming a "martyr". This is summed up in Conclusion #3:
Conclusion #3: We cannot get there from here of our own volition. (see note below)
For most of us, even if we have been searching for years, our primary spiritual experience comes unannounced, or unexpected—nothing that we could have expected—as an awakening to something already inside of us, not a grasping of something external.
It comes as a gift, not a reward: though, granted, we may not at first recognise it as such. For the prodigal son, it came as he stood, hungry, among the swine, in the realisation of his own bankruptcy, and he made his decision to return to his father's house.
If we accept the gift, then, as it did for the prodigal son, it marks a turning of our steps homeward—and inward.
The outward journey of the prodigal son is an exploration in the management of power, in the management of separate existence, in the management of relative good and evil: the homeward journey is an exploration of surrender, acceptance and ultimately of love and union. (These, in effect constitute the "two strands" I spoke about earlier.)
Note: "A gift" suggests a giver, which we have not necessarily established. Perhaps at this point a better term might be, "unearned".
Once we have this primary experience, typically our belief systems begin to form around it as we seek explanations wherever they might be found to hand. Evelyn Underhill, perhaps one of the greatest mystics of the twentieth century, began her search in the Order of the Golden Dawn. I began mine in humanistic psychotherapy and the mythology of the New Age.
If we are to retain any vitality, any authority, any integrity in our spiritual life, any growth, our own experience must continue to be the central touchstone to which we will refer any belief system that we devise, or that is offered to us by somebody else. The trouble starts when our beliefs reach beyond our experience, for whatever reason.
It is OK not to know.
I'll say that again. It is OK not to know. IT IS OK NOT TO KNOW. (ETC)
(It's not a bad idea to characterise our beliefs, insofar as we are incautious enough to make them public, as "consistent with" our experience, or aspects of it. It gives wriggle room as we grow.) It is consistent with my experience that it is OK not to know...
In fact it is almost a pre-requisite for spiritual growth.
This section of the website is a record of my own experiences and explorations in the fields of mysticism—and healing—following on a series of experiences in the late seventies which changed radically the ways in which it was possible/necessary for me to perceive the world.
It contains also selections from writers and singers and poets who have found this path, "between the dawn and the dark of night", and whose work has lighted me along the way, or drawn a delighted smile of recognition.
They range widely, from the purely individual journey set forth by Robert Hunter, through Joel Goldsmith, who refused to found a Church to forward his teaching, or to certify "Infinite Way" healers, to Evelyn Underhill who, especially in her later life, demonstrates a profound mistrust of—and considerable reiterated contempt for—any spiritual journey that is not subject to the guidance of a major religious institution.
I make a repeated distinction on this site between sin, which I describe as a spiritual matter, and immorality, which I maintain is not, except indirectly. Much of what I perceive as problematical in religion occurs because religious—and other—leaders have attempted to make morality, which rules our relationships with others, part of (or deriving from) an experience in which, ultimately, there are no others.
None of this is to say that morality or law is unimportant: every human society, every human group, needs to regulate the relationships of its members in accordance with the needs of its members - or more cynically, in accordance with the needs of its most powerful elements. Just to say that these moral and social codes have no more authority than the groups which promulgate them. We explore this in greater detail later on.
Note (You cannot get there from here): (In this note we divert briefly into early Christian belief and practice as an exemplar of the quest for salvation.)
One of the major schisms in the early church occurred between the Jewish community in which Jesus primarily taught, led by Peter and James, and the churches founded by Paul with an increasing gentile population.
Jesus, in effect taught three things:
(1) within the lifetimes of those listening, the Son of Man would return in glory to destroy the evil that had overtaken the world, and to establish the "kingdom of God"
(2) in order to prepare for the coming apocalypse one should repent of one's sins, cease one's attachment to the things of this world.
(3) one should continue to keep the Jewish law in all its respects - "...not one letter, or even one stroke of a letter, of the law should pass away...." Circumcision, kosher food, sacrifice at the temple, keeping the sabbath etc., etc.
These teachings are the ones emphasised in the gospel of Matthew, written primarily for a Jewish audience. They are central to one group of early Christians known as the Ebionites.
According to Paul, the effective means of salvation in the coming apocalypse lay in accepting the death of Jesus and his resurrection as a final and universal sacrifice. Jesus was the sacrificial Passover lamb of God. (Both Jesus and Paul—at least initially—believed in the imminent arrival of the apocalypse, within the lifetimes of those they taught.)
This sacrifice had become necessary because God's special relationship with the Jewish people had ceased when Moses returned from the mountain with the tablets, and found his people turned to the worship of other gods. From Paul's point of view, keeping the Jewish law was an attempt to earn salvation, and had manifestly failed if one looked at the current state of society.
So Jesus appeared to teach that one could gain salvation by keeping the commandments. One could gain salvation by one's own efforts, and by the purity and sanctity of the life one led.
Paul, as a result of his vision on the Damascus road, his "meeting" with the risen Christ, taught just the opposite: the sole means of salvation was through the death and resurrection of Christ. There was nothing we could add to that on our own behalf. All we had to do was to understand this and believe. Groups such as the Ebionites were declared by Paul to be "heretical".
Note that these heretical groups were not "fringe" to a central "pure" Christianity; they were one of four major expressions of Christianity current in the early church. The major tenets of "orthodox" Christianity were not established as such for several hundred years.
In the end, it appears to have been Paul's point of view that prevailed, though even this was taken to a "heretical" extreme by a large group known as the Marcionites who thrived in Asia Minor for several centuries. The message in both was clear: You cannot achieve salvation by your own efforts.
Elsewhere I take up the notion that even the understanding of the term salvation varied enormously, as we shall see more clearly when we consider the beliefs of the Gnostic group of Christians, who accommodate more closely than the other three many of the experiences of the early mystics.
Jesus, then, appears to have taught about doing something, Paul spoke about believing something, and the mystics about being something, characterised in this quote from Evelyn Underhill: The true demand and invitation of religion, therefore, is not that the human mind shall believe something, but that the human spirit shall be something.
(last edited 25 November, 2011)