Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mystical experience

The following thoughts come from personal experience and reading about mysticism. They are adapted from a letter to a close friend sent in June 1990. Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History Of Mankind, particularly the Introduction, assisted my thinking on the matter.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that human motivations followed a hierarchy of needs – food, security, sex/belonging and esteem. As each level of need is satisfied, behaviour becomes primarily driven by the next level - a simple example of this is the way hunger is well known to destroy interest in sex.

Maslow later suggested that if these needs were met, there is a fifth level, the level of self-actualising - the drive to understand, to know, to create, to solve problems for the fun of it. This is clearly not a matter of intellectual stimulation, though that can function as a proxy. It is much more about having a sense of the world and one’s place in it.

It is fairly clear that the human mind operates on at least two major levels. One is the level of the conscious, ratiocinating self. The other is the feeling, emotional self.

These two levels are by no means necessarily in harmony. Achieving such harmony is basic to the self-actualising level.

Wilson contends, and I agree, that religious and occult aspirations, where not instrumentally directed at lower level needs like sex, esteem, etc., are directed (not necessarily consciously) at achieving harmony between these "selves".

Mystics talk about achieving "unitive" states and "freedom from self" etc.. The unitive states are generally presented as unity with God, or the Universe, but I suggest (following Wilson) that they are better understood as achieving inner harmony: in a sense, unity of the selves.

Having actually had mystical experiences myself, I can testify that such a hypothesis is compatible with the way they feel. I can also agree with the classical authors that achieving a (the?) mystical state aids personality integration.

I achieved a mystical state by accident. I unintentionally followed a traditional path to do so - a new, spartan, environment, solitariness and introspective self-involvement culminating in intense despair (the "dark night of the soul").

Part of the problem in thinking intelligently about mysticism, religion and the occult is that, to an informed, sceptical mind, so many of the metaphysical propositions of such systems are an affront to common sense and/or scientific knowledge and propounded with little grasp of evidence. The logic often leaves much to be desired as well. Much of the way adherents and others talk past each other is due to discussing mystical, religious or occult aspirations in terms of truth claims, propositions about the nature of the world.

This rather misses the key point (and can be quite destructive).

The real point is that there is a point to religious, mystical and occult aspirations, though not the one usually understood. They should not be understood as primarily a means of finding out about the world (i.e. an "alternative" to science) but as a means of exploring and integrating the inner self – which includes achieving a harmonious placing of oneself within a view of the world.

Intellectual stimulation can be a good proxy for self-actualising needs, but it is only a proxy, because it does not address personality integration. Occult and mystical systems are, quite centrally, ways of action and it is in that role that they can be useful. The metaphysics can be dismissed, except as an instrumental tool for concentration, mood-setting, etc..

There is a range of basic techniques. One is to so still the ratiocinating self that the emotional self, freed form external stimulation, also quietens and, in this serene placidity, an inner union can be achieved. Zen is perhaps the example of this technique best known in the West.

Another technique is to place oneself within a new, spartan environment, so as to concentrate on one’s inner states then using humility to beat down the ratiocinating self while letting loose, then deflating, the emotional self. Again, the two halves can be harmonised through achieving a common state. This is the method I (accidentally) used. Both Christian monastics and Muslim Sufis used this method.

A further technique is to become deeply involved in a system of symbolism and allegory which both engages the rational mind while resonating with the emotional self. This is the technique of ritual magicians and non-monastic religious devotion.

Another alternative is to use convention breaking and/or narcotics to break down the rigidity’s of one’s previous mindset and ritualised sexual activity to achieve unitive states. Sex has the advantage of being fun and (in good sex) naturally unitive. As with ritual magic more generally, the ritual aspects ensure the rational mind is engaged in a symbology that resonates with the emotional self. Tantra uses this method. If Crowley, Regardie etc. are correct, so did Western alchemists.

The common elements of each technique are removal from one’s normal mindset and the common focusing of thought and feeling, of ratiocinating mind and feeling self, in some shared state.

(Apart from simple provision of "new, improved" endorphin’s and/or simple suppression of need, much of the appeal of narcotics can be seen in terms of their pseudo-unification of inner selves.)

Note that none of these methods are foolproof: far from it. Nor is the harmony necessarily enduring. If one area of one’s life remains persistently disordered, harmony is likely to be a temporary, occasional, erratic thing. (Jewish mysticism, very sensibly, argues for happy married life as the optimum basis for the mystical path: a well-ordered life for achieving a well-ordered soul.)
Something that the above comments do not convey well is the sense of seeing “beyond the veil of the world”, of glimpsing a profounder reality that lies behind and beyond the every-day world we inhabit. I can well see how such an experience could profoundly change one’s perspective.

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