The maddening thing about Mysticism

April 9th, 2017
by Chris

… is, firstly, that it is possible that it might literally drive you mad. Karen Armstrong records in her autobiography the discovery that her own powerful mystical experiences emanated from her suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Peter Rollins identifies the collapsing of the boundary between self and other as being characteristic of psychosis and Robert Sapolsky talks in his Stanford lecture on the neurobiology of religion about shamans clearly suffering from schizotypal personality disorder.

Granted, those instances serve to show that people with certain conditions commonly considered as “mental illness” also sometimes have what appear to be mystical experiences, not that having mystical experiences can lead to mental disorders. My own peak mystical experiences did not stem from any of the “usual suspects” among mental illnesses, and I don’t seem to have developed any of those conditions in the nearly 50 years since my first such experience.  In fairness, however,  I have since developed diagnosed depression and anxiety, neither of which is linked with mysticism as such, though the “dark night of the soul” talked of by some mystics looks a bit like depression. So, perhaps, you can chalk up “might lead to profound depression” as a “maddening thing”.

But that is to take the title far too literally, and in religion, a literal leaning is a dangerous thing (to quote Dennis Norden, who was not talking about religion…).

The thing which tends to madden other people about mysticism is the apparent inability of mystics to talk in nice, simple to understand, concrete terms about their experiences. As Peter Rollins also says, mystics tend to be “slippery”; there’s a tendency to say something and then say “but it wasn’t like that”. Eastern traditions perhaps do it better, with “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao” and “What is the Buddha nature? The sound of one hand clapping”.  I can cheerfully talk about experiencing being nothing and everything at the same time (and no synthesis seems available) and say that that was being “one with God”, so God is all and nothing simultaneously as well (side note – most mystics could cheerfully say “I and my father are one” were it not for an anticipation of straightjackets these days or impromptu bonfires in times past, without claiming to be a person of the trinity…).

Believe me, mystics find it maddening as well, or at least this one does, and not a few others have written about the difficulty of putting into words what is an ineffable experience.

I should clarify here that I am really talking of the full blown, falling off your horse version of the experience. Lesser versions, which I tend to refer to as having “an edge” of the full experience can be described much more easily; Peter Rollins refers to mystical experience as “oceanic”, which would be a good description of the edge – but not of the full spectrum experience. I do not remotely decry the “edge” experience – it is very good in and of itself, and has served well to assuage my feeling of needing the full version for long periods of time.

The full experience has only come to me on a very limited number of occasions, and while I’ve written of it that it is “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, that is pretty faint praise of something which, when it originally happened to me, changed me utterly and dictated a course of living which I’ve adhered to ever since, as best I could. It’s sufficiently good that many people have given over their lives to its pursuit, sometimes walling themselves up in small cells, sometimes taking themselves off into the desert, sometimes squatting on pillars. The edge is something which you can actually experience while, for instance, walking down the road or doing the dishes, while the full spectrum would result in you walking into lamp posts or needing a new set of crockery.

So another problem, which could madden at least an outsider, is that mysticism pursued vigorously can leave you pretty useless to humanity generally.

The full spectrum version can also be intensely scary – another “maddening thing”. If the overpowering impression of having your “self” extinguished, ground into nothingness in relation to the immensity of all that is were not sufficient, it also not infrequently includes a taking stock of what has gone before – a little like the suggestion that when you die, your whole life flashes past your eyes. My best imagery for it from Christian sources would be that you are judged on the spot, with as much of the attendant hellfire and brimstone as your subconscious has internalised (to me, the Last Judgment is today, yesterday and every other day in history, though most of us aren’t summoned on a regular basis). Relatively few people of my acquaintance are anxious to sit before the Judgment Seat of the Lord today (rather than at some point in the future) – though I can also attest that it comes with a side-order of complete acceptance and forgiveness, at least in my case. Even then, however,  there is an imperative to restore anything damaged by your actions – and I am not fond of making grovelling apologies or striving to repair things which may actually be irreparable. Having your faults and wrongs “burned out of you by fire” is not comfortable.

So there’s also a concealed price. It’s a little as if the best experience I could wish for someone was ringed with electrified barbed wire – you can, perhaps, reach in and grasp it, but you’re likely to end up shocked and torn up a fair amount as well.

Lastly, despite my best endeavours over many years, I can’t turn to you and say “do this and you will definitely have a peak mystical experience”; I can point to many contemplative traditions and say “these give you a very fair chance of having an oceanic experience (a lesser mystical experience) if you stick with them long enough”, but the full spectrum experience? No, that seems obstinately to be an “out of the blue” occurrence with little or no rhyme or reason about why it happens when it does.

And that maddens me, and has maddened quite a few people to whom I’ve waxed lyrical about mysticism as well.

Believe me, if I knew how it happened, I’d be encouraging everyone to give it a try, even with caveats about electrified barbed wire!

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