Monday, April 09, 2007

One Way Mysticism Challenges Us

Some thoughts from the Bhagavad Gita:


Foolish men talk of religion
in cheap, sentimental words,
leaning on the scriptures: "God
speaks here, and speaks here alone."

...

As unnecessary as a well is
to a village on the banks of a river,
so unnecessary are all scriptures
to someone who has seen the truth.

...

When your understanding has passed
beyond the thicket of delusions,
there is nothing you need to learn
from even the most sacred scripture.


- Mitchell, tans. From Chapter Two.



Mystics the world over have always challenged us to see for ourselves, pointing out again and again there is no substitute for experience.

Because mystics think experience is primary, they often find themselves at odds with folks who think holy scripture is primary. And sometimes, the folks who think holy scripture is primary end the dispute by burning the mystic. (That tendency to burn people at the stake is not reciprocated -- So far as I know, there is not even a single case of a mystic murdering a non-mystic to suppress what the non-mystic has to say. ) It is no longer fashionable to actually burn mystics, at least not in the West, though it is still fashionable to dismiss their claims as hallucinations or delusions.

Indeed, perhaps they are hallucinations or delusions. To paraphrase the Taoist mystic Chung Tzu, "Last night I dreamt I was a butterfly. Awaking from my dream, I now wonder if I am a human dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a human." How are we to know which is the "dream" and which is the reality?

Perhaps psychology, neuroscience, or some other discipline can someday answer that question, but as of now, I know of no body of experimental evidence which strongly supports the notion mystics are hallucinating when they describe experiencing a sudden end to subject/object perception and all that follows from that. Besides, even if mystics are hallucinating at that moment, their hallucinations seem to bestow real benefits on them in the aftermath. For instance, they tend to become much less susceptible than most folks to being manipulated by language and symbols. The mystic challenge to "see for ourselves" might be worth taking up simply to improve our quality of life, without reference to whether mystical awareness is truer than non-mystical awareness.

3 comments:

Mystic Wing said...

Well, you know where I stand on this Paul: it's "normal" perception that's the hallucination, and the mystics who are seeing what is real.

And you're absolutely right in saying that this truth is readily available to anyone who wants to look with open eyes.

The other day, I had lunch with a man who was positively wallowing in misery. He said "I've decided that internal conflict is the natural human condition. and so I no longer get so worried about the fact that I'm unhappy." He said this with absolutely no sense of the inherent irony.

"Ah, I see," I said. "That explains it, then."

"Explains what?" my companion said.

"If you believe in misery, then of course you're going to find it everywhere you look."

Paul said...

Hi Mystic!

I strongly suspect that normal awareness or consciousness is illusionary in so far as it involves an illusionary distinction between subject and object. And that illusion seems to be either absent or ameliorated during episodes of transcendental awareness.

Furthermore, I am aware that nearly everyone who experiences such episodes of transcendental awareness experiences the feeling, sense or perception that what they are experiencing is somehow more real, more true, or at least more vivid than their experience during normal awareness.

I think we must be careful, however, in concluding that normal awareness is entirely illusionary while transcendental awareness is entirely without illusion. It could be that we are merely exchanging one set of illusions for a different set of illusions. Or, it could be we are indeed experiencing an illusionless reality during transcendental experiences. But how do we know for sure?

Whatever the case might turn out to be, it is simply a fact that many, many people who have had transcendental experiences have accrued remarkable benefits from those experiences. So, even if some kinds of illusions are involved in such experiences, it seems they have very certain benefits to them.

For instance, people who have such experiences tend to become, as Brendan puts it, "construct aware". Among other things, that liberates them to at least some extent from being robots of their culture. It also seems to free up a great deal of creativity.

Again, people who have such experiences very often report that having those experiences healed them of some psychological problem, such as a fear of death, or an inability to love.

It seems to me there is actually less doubt that transcendental experiences can be beneficial than there is about whether they involve some kind of illusion. And if they do involve some kind of illusion, it is certainly not the kind of illusion inherent in normal awareness.

Thank you for a thought provoking post!

Brendan said...

Every investigatory discipline reveals the mystic to those with the awareness to recognize the role of their own thoughts in what they observe: physics (quantum mechanics), psychology, anthropology, philosophy, language arts, astronomy, ecology, etc. Like Herman Hesse's "Glass Bead Game," all art, science and philosophy are merely different perspectives on the same process of reality construction. Thus, mystics pop up speaking the symbolic language of different religious traditions, speaking the lingo of different scientific disciplines and creating great works of poetry, visual art and literature, all revealing the same mystic truth to those who can perceive it.