Friday, November 30, 2012
Mystical Union And Sneezing: A Brief Hermenutic Of Mysticism
I should note that I define mysticism as a separate entity to contemplation. Contemplation treats an object, text, or activity Iconically. To treat something Iconically (that is in the same manner as the Eastern Christian tradition treats Icons) is to take that thing as pointing to something beyond itself rather than as an object taken in itself and to pursue or contemplate the thing beyond. Great value as well as great foolishness can come from this approach to things. Simultaneously, the same value and foolishness is manifestly true of the non-Iconic treatment of the same things.
Mysticism pursues union, the sense of being fully taken up, a sense of direct connection.
My deep thinking on this began when I was living in India and Nepal. Naturally I was exposed directly to a wide variety of traditions and understandings of reality. Something that caught my attention was the striking similarity in the form of experience described my the mystical branches of the various religious traditions. Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, all these traditions have mystical branches. Each use language and images from their conceptual universe to describe their mystical experience. But, they all describe an experience that involves a loss of distinct selfness where the practitioner feels as though their existence ceases to be distinctly separate from anything else in space or time, they feel as though they absorb into the infinite. Muslims will use Muslim words to describe the experience. Christians will use Christian words. Hindus will use Hindu words. And so on. But, they are all describing exactly the same experience.
I then found that I was not the first to observe this. I discovered that there have been many voices within the mystical paths of the various religions that have observed this striking similarity of experience across traditions and took that to indicate that all paths lead to the same place. They take the common mystical experience as evidence of the truly unified ultimate foundation all the religious traditions.
I became more curious about what this experience is. I noted the strong similarities of practices among the different traditions. Looking past what the traditions said their techniques meant they all had the same form. All the traditions engage in some collection of repetitive action, extreme treatment of the body, practices of focus/centering/meditation. I started to get familiar with the neuroscience research on mystical experience. There is quite a bit. What it shows is that the similar practices lead to the same effects in the brain. In particular they affect the sections of the brain that produce our sense of self. Either by deprivation or over-stimulation those sections of the brain lose the ability to clearly define our selfness to our consciousness. This results in the sense of release and union with something beyond our self. Mystical union is a brain state. It is a physical response to the techniques used my those earnestly seeking that experience just like a sneeze is a physical response to irritation in the nasal passage.
Some have linked the beliefs of the "all paths" school I just mentioned to this neurological research to say that all religion is a response to this brain-state. I don't think that this is the case, and dealing with this is not my purpose here.
What I find interesting is the way in which the mystical experience takes on meaning. The experience takes on the meaning attributed to it by the person working to achieve it. When a Christian engages in the mystic disciplines they are seeking a union with Christ. When they achieve the brain-state they experience it as union with Christ. When a Zen Buddhist achieves the same state they experience satori as that is the meaning they brought to it with them.
Now, it would appear that the experience itself can better be understood as an Icon. This would place mysticism as a sub-set of contemplation where the thing in itself is the brain-state and what is important or truly meaningful is the thing beyond that it is taken to point to. The difficulty is that the thing in itself is an internal physical state rather than a painting on a board so it is far more difficult to make the separation between it and the thing it points to. This is why the meaning brought to the experience has historically been conflated with the experience itself.
This conflation has given rise to theological problems in Christian mysticsm. There is a consistently Gnostic flavor to it. Thinking about it has been directed toward escaping the mundane physicality of this world to experience a more purely spiritual reality. This has significant theological problems. Primarily, we were created as bodies with Spirit put into us to make us alive and not as spirits trapped in bodies thus it denies the absolute goodness of our bodyness. It is a force that relativizes our presence in this world that we were created to live in and bring to completion. It takes away from the true experience of union with Christ through participation in his redeeming work in the blood and dirt of this world.
However, I do not reject the disciplines that lead to the brain-state. If for no other reason than that they are demonstrably therapeutic, bringing a calmness of mind, having beneficial effects on blood pressure, as well as on several other body systems. Moreover, when taken Iconically the experience can function as a deep heuristic for internalizing the reality of the union already established in the incarnation and of the full loving adoption by our Heavenly Father.
The difference between prophecy and mysticism is pretty clear to me. Prophecy is the concrete calling of the people of God to God by God with specificity. Mysticism is founded on a particular feeling of spatiotemporally disconnected floatyness that is produced by a specifically identifiable neuro-chemical brain-state that is caused by particular intentional practices. Prophecy must in itself have positive truth content, and must be effectively specific even if it is not entirely lucid. Mysticism is, strictly speaking, neither true nor false but is meaning-absorbing while prophecy is meaning-excreting. Mysticism takes on whatever meaning or content is given to it while prophecy looks you in the face with it's own meaning. While prophecy, if it is true, is always valuable, the value of mysticism lies in what we bring to it.