Evelyn Underhill

Practical Mysticism

Chapter 2: The World of Reality

Evelun Underhill THE PRACTICAL MAN may justly observe at this point that the world of single vision is the only world he knows: that it appears to him to be real, solid, and self-consistent: and that until the existence — at least, the probability — of other planes of reality is made clear to him, all talk of uniting with them is mere moonshine, which confirms his opinion of mysticism as a game fit only for idle women and inferior poets.

Plainly, then, it is the first business of the missionary to create, if he can, some feeling of dissatisfaction with the world within which the practical man has always lived and acted; to suggest something of its fragmentary and subjective character.

We turn back therefore to a further examination of the truism — so obvious to those who are philosophers, so exasperating to those who are not — that man dwells, under normal conditions, in a world of imagination rather than a world of facts; that the universe in which he lives and at which he looks is but a construction which the mind has made from some few amongst the wealth of materials at its disposal.

The relation of this universe to the world of fact is not unlike the relation between a tapestry picture and the scene which it imitates. You, practical man, are obliged to weave your image of the outer world upon the hard warp of your own mentality; which perpetually imposes its own convention, and checks the free representation of life. As a tapestry picture, however various and full of meaning, is ultimately reducible to little squares; so the world of common sense is ultimately reducible to a series of static elements conditioned by the machinery of the brain.

Subtle curves, swift movement, delicate gradation, that machinery cannot represent. It leaves them out. From the countless suggestions, the tangle of many-coloured wools which the real world presents to you, you snatch one here and there. Of these you weave together those which are the most useful, the most obvious, the most often repeated: which make a tidy and coherent pattern when seen on the right side.

Shut up with this symbolic picture, you soon drop into the habit of behaving to it as though it were not a representation but a thing. On it you fix your attention; with it you "unite." Yet, did you look at the wrong side, at the many short ends, the clumsy joins and patches, this simple philosophy might be disturbed. You would be forced to acknowledge the conventional character of the picture you have made so cleverly, the wholesale waste of material involved in the weaving of it: for only a few amongst the wealth of impressions we receive are seized and incorporated into our picture of the world.

Further, it might occur to you that a slight alteration in the rhythm of the sense would place at your disposal a complete new range of material; opening your eyes and ears to sounds, colours, and movements now inaudible and invisible, removing from your universe those which you now regard as part of the established order of things. Even the strands which you have made use of might have been combined in some other way; with disastrous results to the "world of common sense," yet without any diminution of their own reality.

Nor can you regard these strands themselves as ultimate. As the most prudent of logicians might venture to deduce from a skein of wool the probable existence of a sheep; so you, from the raw stuff of perception, may venture to deduce a universe which transcends the reproductive powers of your loom. Even the camera of the photographer, more apt at contemplation than the mind of man, has shown us how limited are these powers in some directions, and enlightened us as to a few of the cruder errors of the person who accepts its products at face-value; or, as he would say, believes his own eyes.

It has shown us, for instance, that the galloping race-horse, with legs stretched out as we are used to see it, is a mythical animal, probably founded on the mental image of a running dog. No horse has ever galloped thus: but its real action is too quick for us, and we explain it to ourselves as something resembling the more deliberate dog-action which we have caught and registered as it passed.

The plain man's universe is full of race-horses which are really running dogs: of conventional waves, first seen in pictures and then imagined upon the sea: of psychological situations taken from books and applied to human life: of racial peculiarities generalised from insufficient data, and then "discovered" in actuality: of theological diagrams and scientific "laws," flung upon the back-ground of eternity as the magic lantern's image is re-flected on the screen.

The coloured scene at which you look so trustfully owes, in fact, much of its character to the activities of the seer: to that process of thought-concept-cogitation, from which Keats prayed with so great an ardour to escape, when he exclaimed in words which will seem to you, according to the temper of your mind, either an invitation to the higher laziness or one of the most profound aspirations of the soul. "O for a life of sensations rather than thoughts!"

He felt — as all the poets have felt with him — that another, lovelier world, tinted with unimaginable wonders, alive with ultimate music, awaited those who could free themselves from the fetters of the mind, lay down the shuttle and the weaver's comb, and reach out beyond the conceptual image to intuitive contact with the Thing.

There are certain happy accidents which have the power of inducting man for a moment into this richer and more vital world. These stop, as one old mystic said, the "wheel of his imagination," the dreadful energy of his image-making power weaving up and transmuting the incoming messages of sense. They snatch him from the loom and place him, in the naked simplicity of his spirit, face to face with that Other than himself whence the materials of his industry have come.

In these hours human consciousness ascends from thought to contemplation; becomes at least aware of the world in which the mystics dwell; and perceives for an instant, as St. Augustine did, "the light that never changes, above the eye of the soul, above the intelligence." This experience might be called in essence "absolute sensation." It is a pure feeling-state in which the fragmentary contacts with Reality achieved through the senses are merged in a wholeness of communion which feels and knows all at once, yet in a way which the reason can never understand, that Totality of which fragments are known by the lover, the musician, and the artist.

If the doors of perception were cleansed, said Blake, everything would appear to man as it is — Infinite. But the doors of perception are hung with the cobwebs of thought; prejudice, cowardice, sloth. Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond: too arrogant to still our thought, and let divine sensation have its way. It needs industry and goodwill if we would make that transition: for the process involves a veritable spring-cleaning of the soul, a turning-out and rearrangement of our mental furniture, a wide opening of closed windows, that the notes of the wild birds beyond our garden may come to us fully charged with wonder and freshness, and drown with their music the noise of the gramaphone within.

Those who do this, discover that they have lived in a stuffy world, whilst their inheritance was a world of morning-glory; where every tit-mouse is a celestial messenger, and every thrusting bud is charged with the full significance of life.

There will be many who feel a certain scepticism as to the possibility of the undertaking here suggested to them; a prudent unwillingness to sacrifice their old comfortably upholstered universe, on the mere promise that they will receive a new heaven and a new earth in exchange. These careful ones may like to remind themselves that the vision of the world presented to us by all the great artists and poets — those creatures whose very existence would seem so strange to us, were we not accustomed to them — perpetually demonstrates the many-graded character of human consciousness; the new worlds which await it, once it frees itself from the tyranny of those labour-saving contrivances with which it usually works.

Leaving on one side the more subtle apprehensions which we call "spiritual," even the pictures of the old Chinese draughtsmen and the modern impressionists, of Watteau and of Turner, of Manet, Degas, and Cezanne; the poems of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman these, and countless others, assure you that their creators have enjoyed direct communion, not with some vague world of fancy, but with a visible natural order which you have never known.

These have seized and woven into their pictures strands which never presented themselves to you; significant forms which elude you, tones and relations to which you are blind, living facts for which your conventional world provides no place. They prove by their works that Blake was right when he said that "a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees"; and that psychologists, insisting on the selective action of the mind, the fact that our preconceptions govern the character of our universe, do but teach the most demonstrable of truths.

Did you take them seriously, as you should, their ardent reports might well disgust you with the dull and narrow character of your own consciousness. What is it, then, which distinguishes the outlook of great poets and artists from the arrogant subjectivism of common sense?

Innocence and humility distinguish it. These persons prejudge nothing, criticise nothing. To some extent, their attitude to the universe is that of children: and because this is so, they participate to that extent in the Heaven of Reality.

According to their measure, they have fulfilled Keats' aspiration, they do live a life in which the emphasis lies on sensation rather than on thought: for the state which he then struggled to describe was that ideal state of pure receptivity, of perfect correspondence with the essence of things, of which all artists have a share, and which a few great mystics appear to have possessed — not indeed in its entirety, but to an extent which made them, as they say, "one with the Reality of things."

The greater the artist is, the wider and deeper is the range of this pure sensation: the more sharply he is aware of the torrent of life and loveliness, the rich profusion of possible beauties and shapes. He always wants to press deeper and deeper, to let the span of his perception spread wider and wider; till he unites with the whole of that Reality which he feels all about him, and of which his own life is a part.

He is always tending, in fact, to pass over from the artistic to the mystical state.

In artistic experience, then, in the artist's perennial effort to actualize the ideal which Keats expressed, we may find a point of departure for our exploration of the contemplative life. What would it mean for a soul that truly captured it; this life in which the emphasis should lie on the immediate percepts, the messages the world pours in on us, instead of on the sophisticated universe into which our clever brains transmute them?

Plainly, it would mean the achievement of a new universe, a new order of reality: escape from the terrible museum-like world of daily life, where everything is classified and labeled, and all the graded fluid facts which have no label are ignored.

It would mean an innocence of eye and innocence of ear impossible for us to conceive; the impassioned contemplation of pure form, freed from all the meanings with which the mind has draped and disguised it; the recapturing of the lost mysteries of touch and fragrance, most wonderful amongst the avenues of sense.

It would mean the exchanging of the neat conceptual world our thoughts build up, fenced in by the solid ramparts of the possible, for the inconceivable richness of that unwalled world from which we have subtracted it. It would mean that we should receive from every flower, not merely a beautiful image to which the label "flower" has been affixed, but the full impact of its unimaginable beauty and wonder, the direct sensation of life having communion with life: that the scents of ceasing rain, the voice of trees, the deep softness of the kitten's fur, the acrid touch of sorrel on the tongue, should be in themselves pro-found, complete, and simple experiences, calling forth simplicity of response in our souls.

Thus understood, the life of pure sensation is the meat and drink of poetry, and one of the most accessible avenues to that union with Reality which the mystic declares to us as the very object of life. But the poet must take that living stuff direct from the field and river, without sophistication, without criticism, as the life of the soul is taken direct from the altar; with an awe that admits not of analysis. He must not subject it to the cooking, filtering process of the brain. It is because he knows how to elude this dreadful sophistication of Reality, because his attitude to the universe is governed by the supreme artistic virtues of humility and love, that poetry is what it is: and I include in the sweep of poetic art the coloured poetry of the painter, and the wordless poetry of the musician and the dancer, too.

At this point the critical reader will certainly offer an objection. "You have been inviting me," he will say, "to do nothing more or less than trust my senses: and this too on the authority of those impractical dreamers the poets.

Now it is notorious that our senses deceive us. Every one knows that; and even your own remarks have already suggested it. How, then, can a wholesale and uncritical acceptance of my sensations help me to unite with Reality? Many of these sensations we share with the animals: in some, the animals obviously surpass us. Will you suggest that my terrier, smelling his way through an uncoordinated universe, is a better mystic than I?"

To this I reply, that the terrier's contacts with the world are doubtless crude and imperfect; yet he has indeed preserved a directness of apprehension which you have lost. He gets, and responds to, the real smell; not a notion or a name. Certainly the senses, when taken at face-value, do deceive us: yet the deception resides not so much in them, as in that conceptual world which we insist on building up from their reports, and for which we make them responsible.

They deceive us less when we receive these reports uncooked and unclassified, 'as simple and direct experiences. Then, behind the special and imperfect stammerings which we call colour, sound, fragrance, and the rest, we sometimes discern a whole fact — at once divinely simple and infinitely various — from which these partial messages proceed; and which seeks as it were to utter itself in them.

And we feel, when this is so, that the fact thus glimpsed is of an immense significance; imparting to that aspect of the world which we are able to perceive all the significance, all the character which it possesses. The more of the artist there is in us, the more intense that significance, that character will seem: the more complete, too, will be our conviction that our uneasiness, the vagueness of our reactions to things, would be cured could we reach and unite with the fact, instead of our notion of it.

And it is just such an act of union, reached through the clarified channels of sense and unadulterated by the content of thought, which the great artist or poet achieves. We seem in these words to have come far from the mystic, and that contemplative consciousness where-with he ascends to the contact of Truth.

As a matter of fact, we are merely considering that consciousness in its most natural and accessible form: for contemplation is, on the one hand, the essential activity of all artists; on the other, the art through which those who choose to learn and practise it may share in some fragmentary degree, according to their measure, the special experience of the mystic and the poet. By it they may achieve that virginal outlook upon things, that celestial power of communion with veritable life, which comes when that which we call "sensation" is freed from the tyranny of that which we call "thought."

The artist is no more and no less than a contemplative who has learned to express himself, and who tells his love in colour, speech, or sound: the mystic, upon one side of his nature, is an artist of a special and exalted kind, who tries to express something of the revelation he has received, mediates between Reality and the race.

In the game of give and take which goes on between the human consciousness and the external world, both have learned to put the emphasis upon the message from without rather than on their own reaction to and rearrangement of it. Both have exchanged the false imagination which draws the sensations and intuitions of the self into its own narrow circle, and there distorts and transforms them, for the true imagination which pours itself out, eager, adventurous, and self-giving, towards the greater universe.

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1906 - The Miracles of Our Lady Saint Mary

1911 - Mysticism

1912 - Introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing

1913 - The Mystic Way

1914 - Introduction: Richard Rolle - The Fire of Love

1915 - Practical Mysticism

1915 - Introduction: Songs of Kabir

1916 - Introduction: John of Ruysbroeck

1920 - The Essentials of Mysticism, and other Essays

1922 - The Spiral Way

1922 - The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (Upton Lectures)

1926 - Concerning the Inner Life

1928 - Man and the Supernatural

1929 - The House of the Soul

1933 - The Golden Sequence

1933 - Mixed Pasture: Twelve Essays

1936 - The Spiritual Life

1943 - Introduction to the Letters of Evelyn Underhill
by Charles Williams


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