Mysticism revisited

There’s a really excellent episode of The Liturgists podcast about Mysticism, which people have been pointing me at for some time, and which I’ve finally listened to. Several of the descriptions of mystical experiences are really very good indeed – though perhaps typically, the one which struck home with me most effectively was the poem by Hafiz. Somehow, poet-mystics seem to be able to capture the experience better than those of us who write prose, and especially than those of us who have training in writing technical prose (such as anything academic, law or science).

There are a couple of aspects of my own experience which vary from those of the Liturgists regulars, however. Firstly, I did very much want to share the experience with others – initially to find a way of talking about it at all (which demanded that I look at the language in which other mystics had written of it, the vast majority from religious traditions – and therefore got this at the time avowed atheist studying religions), and then to get others to share this absolutely wonderful change in consciousness. It was so good, I wanted everyone to have the same feelings… The people on the podcast seem to me to lack any kind of evangelical zeal of this kind, which surprised me, given that most of them had an Evangelical Christian background. Hillary even said she didn’t want to talk about it…

I suppose I can see some merit in that. It is hugely difficult to find words to talk of such experiences, and when you’ve done so, the results (perhaps unless you’re Hafiz) are disappointing, to say the least. It’s probably true, as was mentioned, that talking about it also changes the experience somewhat, and you wouldn’t want to do that – though my own experience indicates that the absolute peak experiences are so powerful that this maybe doesn’t happen. Does it cheapen the experience? I suppose it’s possible to think so, though I don’t really share that feeling. It’s definitely the case that trying to think about the experience while it’s happening is probably the best way of stopping it in its tracks, and possibly recall may do something of the same thing. Though, unless you have a deficiency in your autobiographical memory, recalling it can renew some of the feeling of the original experience – of which see later…

I think they did a fairly good job of conveying how formative mystical experiences are. At least, how formative the first one is – I’ve found myself that repeated experiences just tend to confirm the first one, and don’t produce the same kind of paradigm shift (such as convincing the 14 year old Chris that there WAS a God, for some value of “God”).

I think they’re absolutely right that there’s no way of guaranteeing such an experience, as well. I’ve done a lot of trying to find ways in which other people can get to the same state (as well as trying to find ways I could get back there), and while again I agree that a sound, disciplined contemplative practice very probably increases the chances of having such experience, there is no guarantee. Peak experiences definitely seem to be (feel as if they are) given not earned. Again, they’re probably right in saying that establishing a contemplative practice in order to have a peak experience is likely not to work. It’s my experience, as that expressed in the podcast, that mystical experiences most often occur when you stop trying, and indeed many years ago I gave an aspiring mystic a piece of paper on which was written “try not to try” in a circle. He wasn’t particularly thankful at the time; I do hope the message eventually struck home! I certainly went about things in entirely the wrong way in the first few years after my initial “zap”; I was trying very hard to have a repeat experience, and then to find a reliable way of repeating them (I was, after all, studying physics at the time and the scientific method was part of my intellectual DNA). And that, it seems, doesn’t work; it didn’t work for me, and it hasn’t worked, it seems, for the Liturgists panel either.

What didn’t come over to me from the podcast, though, was quite how good mystical experiences actually are. I’ve regularly suggested that they’re better than sex, drugs and rock & roll. The panel members, along with quite a lot of other people, talked a little about using drugs (particularly psychedelics) to get similar experiences. Such of those as I’ve tried myself in the past, obviously in an attempt to find a quick and reliable way of getting a peak experience, have been pretty uniformly disappointing. Sex is, of course, great, but from my point of view takes you to an entirely different spectrum of experience (other people’s viewpoints may differ – indeed, some definitely do, including a friend who was into Tanra Yoga…). I recently caught a clip of Jordan Peterson suggesting that something of this kind might be had at a rock concert… not for me. I may just not be the type for that; I suffer from an anxiety disorder and have always had a measure of social anxiety, and losing myself in a crowd is never likely to happen. I’m often at my loneliest in crowds. For me, although the presence of lots of other people hasn’t always prevented at least a minor mystical experience occurring, solitude is a far more conducive state – and, if music is to be involved, it will probably be some form of chant or church music (the Allegri Miserere has taken me a lot of the way on a couple of occasions).

All that being said, however, this was one of the best discussions I’ve heard between a set of people who had all had some form of mystical experience. I strongly recommend listening, assuming you didn’t start by doing that!

New Game? Jubilee…

I got pointed at some Jordan Peterson videos recently by a friend who wanted me to respond to them, so I sighed and watched the first of his “Maps of Meaning” videos. I’m not following my normal practice of linking to the original, as I really don’t want my readers to spend hours of their lives listening to him (around two and a half hours for that one). That said, Peterson does regularly come up with flashes of insight – the trouble is, he then either doesn’t do anything useful with the insight or goes in totally the wrong direction (from my POV, at least) far too many times.

But I did get one snippet of insight of my own out of that. Peterson was talking about the inevitability of economics resulting in the strong tendency to produce a smaller and smaller number of “winners” until only one is left. I’ve struggled with this in designing variants to economic games, in which one of the huge challenges is to devise a set of rules which stop a player becoming dominant quickly and then proceeding to use their dominance to eliminate everyone else. Peterson uses the example of a game of Monopoly, in which eventually everyone except the winner is bankrupt. Monopoly is not one of the best balanced games from that point of view; others do keep at least some hope of overturning a dominant player alive for a lot longer, though that may not always be what players want.

Mostly, when I play economic games with my friends, there comes a point where we declare a winner well before we have actually played the thing out to its final conclusion, which avoids the horrors of most of the players being forced to continue to play an obviously losing position for ages, while the inevitable end approaches far too slowly. My friends are pretty well behaved in this; I’ve been in games many times when one of the losing players has swept the game pieces off the table and stormed out, furious (or even hitting another player); I’ve known plenty of other instances when people have just refused to play a game again after they’ve lost (and been condemned to sitting there knowing that, but unable actually to stop playing because they’re too polite).

The “game” of real economies is a lot like this. Sweeping away the pieces and storming out is, I suppose, an analogy of revolution, refusing to play is the equivalent of “opting out” or (as many people seem to do) just not trying any more, as the “game” is stacked against them too much. What it lacks, of course, is the moment when you declare the winner, and if the game has been reasonably enjoyable, clear away the pices and start again with everyone equal.

Peterson, to my intense annoyment, does not develop this line of thinking into anything which might remotely be a solution – he merely rubbishes Marxism as “something which has never worked”, confusing it with command economies, and, it would seem, just goes along with the TINA position – “there is no alternative”.

I don’t criticise him too much for that – I thought the same when I was, say, 14 – but I have actually read some stuff by Marx and by thoughtful Marxists since then… and also discovered that if I take the words of Jesus really seriously, I’ll have to try to practice a kind of communism – see Acts 4. I notice that the Acts  community only held things in common within their own faith community, but I also note that Jesus was very keen that we treat all sorts of people normally regarded as “outsiders” as “one of us”, so I don’t think the answer to putting this into practice is to just do this within our faith community.

What did however occur to me for the first time was that the clearing away of the pieces and setting up a new game where people were again equal looked a lot like the commands that there be a Year of Jubilee in the Hebrew Scripture. All debts are cancelled, all land returned (free and clear) to its original owners. It may well have been Jesus’ intention of setting up a sort of permanent Year of Jubilee when he commanded that we lend without expecting repayment, but he didn’t, as far as I can see, extend this to land – though his followers in Acts 4 seem to have done so. Debts, of course, were supposed to be cancelled more often than every 50 years (the frequency of the Year of Jubilee). Neither Leviticus nor Jesus proposed collecting all the cash (or, I suppose, the flocks and herds in those days) and dividing them equally, but had Judaism taken the concept really seriously and managed to implement it fully in reality (which there’s not much evidence ever actually happened), I’m confident the Rabbis would have got there…

In conscience, I don’t think there’s any significant chance that we can get from where we are economically to declaring “new game” every 50 years (which I think Judaism found out). I think there’s actually significantly more chance that we could set up a really communitarian society which would be along at least somewhat Marxist lines (though without any suggestion of a command economy).

The thing is, I think we are going to have to set up something very different from what we now have, or (in the more social-democratic countries) are being pushed toward. The writing is on the wall, as the 1% are giving way to the 1% of the 1% in having, in effect, all the economic power, and as Peterson can see himself, the concentration of wealth and power is only going to become more extreme. That way lies, probably, revolution (“wrecking the game and punching out another player”).