mystic

The Journey of the Mystic

 

As promised, here’s some more on Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill.

The book is a very ambitious effort, which is executed brilliantly and beautifully. Referencing the accounts, writings, and legends of famous Christian mystics, Underhill tries to bring some logical or orderly sense to the mystical process. There is a sort of lyrical quality to her writing, and a humble genius in her reasoning and exposition. The subject matter isn’t really something that lends itself to any definite or rigid bounds. The expression “the herding of cats” comes to mind. But Underhill displays incredible artistry and mastery in assembling these ill-fitting puzzle pieces. 

Originally published in 1911, it is considered by many to be a classic in its field.

She opens the book with the following:

The most highly developed branches of the human family have in common one peculiar characteristic. They tend to produce—sporadically it is true, and often in the teeth of adverse external circumstances—a curious and definite type of personality; a type which refuses to be satisfied with that which other men call experience, and is inclined, in the words of its enemies, to “deny the world in order that it may find reality.” We meet these persons in the east and the west; in the ancient, mediaeval, and modern worlds. Their one passion appears to be the prosecution of a certain spiritual and intangible quest: the finding of a “way out” or a “way back” to some desirable state in which alone they can satisfy their craving for absolute truth. This quest, for them, has constituted the whole meaning of life. They have made for it without effort sacrifices which have appeared enormous to other men: and it is an indirect testimony to its objective actuality, that whatever the place or period in which they have arisen, their aims, doctrines and methods have been substantially the same. Their experience, therefore, forms a body of evidence, curiously self-consistent and often mutually explanatory, which must be taken into account…

Hence, they should claim from us the same attention that we give to other explorers of countries in which we are not competent to adventure ourselves; for the mystics are the pioneers of the spiritual world, and we have no right to deny validity to their discoveries, merely because we lack the opportunity or the courage necessary to those who would prosecute such explorations for themselves.

Then after some explorations of the intersections of mysticism, philosophy, psychology, and theology, we get to the good stuff. Underhill sets out five general stages, or markers, that frame the mystical journey. A lot of these (the first three primarily) will be familiar to modern day spiritual travelers.

(1) The awakening of the Self to consciousness of Divine Reality. This experience, usually abrupt and well-marked, is accompanied by intense feelings of joy and exaltation.

 

(2) The Self, aware for the first time of Divine Beauty, realizes by contrast its own finiteness and imperfection, the manifold illusions in which it is immersed, the immense distance which separates it from the One. Its attempts to eliminate by discipline and mortification all that stands in the way of its progress towards union with God constitute Purgation: a state of pain and effort.

 

(3) When by Purgation the Self has become detached from the “things of sense,” and acquired those virtues which are the “ornaments of the spiritual marriage,” its joyful consciousness of the Transcendent Order returns in an enhanced form. Like the prisoners in Plato’s “Cave of Illusion,” it has awakened to knowledge of Reality, has struggled up the harsh and difficult path to the mouth of the cave. Now it looks upon the sun. This is Illumination: a state which includes in itself many of the stages of contemplation, “degrees of orison,” visions and adventures of the soul described by St. Teresa and other mystical writers. These form, as it were, a way within the Way: a moyen de parvenir, a training devised by experts which will strengthen and assist the mounting soul. They stand, so to speak, for education; whilst the Way proper represents organic growth. Illumination is the “contemplative state” par excellence. It forms, with the two preceding states, the “first mystic life.” Many mystics never go beyond it; and, on the other hand, many seers and artists not usually classed amongst them, have shared, to some extent, the experiences of the illuminated state. Illumination brings a certain apprehension of the Absolute, a sense of the Divine Presence: but not true union with it. It is a state of happiness.

 

(4) In the development of the great and strenuous seekers after God, this is followed—or sometimes intermittently accompanied—by the most terrible of all the experiences of the Mystic Way: the final and complete purification of the Self, which is called by some contemplatives the “mystic pain” or “mystic death,” by others the Purification of the Spirit or Dark Night of the Soul. The consciousness which had, in Illumination, sunned itself in the sense of the Divine Presence, now suffers under an equally intense sense of the Divine Absence: learning to dissociate the personal satisfaction of mystical vision from the reality of mystical life. As in Purgation the senses were cleansed and humbled, and the energies and interests of the Self were concentrated upon transcendental things: so now the purifying process is extended to the very centre of I-hood, the will. The human instinct for personal happiness must be killed. This is the “spiritual crucifixion” so often described by the mystics: the great desolation in which the soul seems abandoned by the Divine. The Self now surrenders itself, its individuality, and its will, completely. It desires nothing, asks nothing, is utterly passive, and is thus prepared for

 

(5) Union: the true goal of the mystic quest. In this state the Absolute Life is not merely perceived and enjoyed by the Self, as in Illumination: but is one with it. This is the end towards which all the previous oscillations of consciousness have tended. It is a state of equilibrium, of purely spiritual life; characterized by peaceful joy, by enhanced powers, by intense certitude. To call this state, as some authorities do, by the name of Ecstasy, is inaccurate and confusing: since the term Ecstasy has long been used both by psychologists and ascetic writers to define that short and rapturous trance—a state with well-marked physical and psychical accompaniments—in which the contemplative, losing all consciousness of the phenomenal world, is caught up to a brief and immediate enjoyment of the Divine Vision. Ecstasies of this kind are often experienced by the mystic in Illumination, or even on his first conversion. They cannot therefore be regarded as exclusively characteristic of the Unitive Way. In some of the greatest mystics—St. Teresa is an example—the ecstatic trance seems to diminish rather than increase in frequency after the state of union has been attained: whilst others achieve the heights by a path which leaves on one side all abnormal phenomena.

Because each individual person is unique, so too are the mystical experiences and openings.

They are very heavily influenced by the individual person’s subconscious belief system, and his egoic patterns (his level of discipline and ability to self-motivate, his relationship to emotional pain and suffering, his resilience, courage and fortitude, his capacity for surrender vs resistance, and how he relates to authority, etc). Underlying religious beliefs also play a huge role in what a mystic will see or experience. (This is why the purgation of the spirit, the subject of my last post, step four in Underhill’s outline, is so important. Until all of these things are cleared out fully, one can’t be sure if he’s really seeing ultimate reality, or just a projection of his own mind.)

The journeys don’t necessarily follow any specific sequence. Some stages occur simultaneously, some go back and forth. The length, depth, and severity of the different stages varies enormously. One of the most often cited determining factors is each individual soul’s life plan – it is either destined for specific levels or it’s not. They either come by Grace, or they don’t. It’s not really negotiable. 

It’s also really really hard to pin things down and label them. Often because the experiences can’t be articulated with words (they happen in a section of consciousness that doesn’t involve language), and the descriptions are so subjective, that being one and the same, two different accounts don’t seem to resemble each other at all. It takes a certain level of experience to understand what you’re seeing and to assemble these things together.

It’s human nature to want to know where one is on the path; to judge himself, or to know if he’s succeeding or failing. But it’s the nature of the spiritual path to be extremely murky without any solid roadmaps. It’s about getting comfortable with being lost. The entire point is to learn how to walk, one step at a time, without a plan, and without judging the progress. It is a development of faith and trust in intuitive guidance, moment by moment, while learning to let go and surrender in the present. This is a lot harder than it sounds. It took me several years to really develop this ability, and I still struggle with it on occasion. 

The rest of the book then goes on to expound on these different stages. (I’m still only about half way through it – it’s too dense to get through quickly). If there’s any more stuff worth sharing later I’ll do another post.

 

For further reading, the book is available here for free. 

 

Gone swimming; mysticism and schizophrenia

 

I read an account recently of a man diagnosed with schizophrenia. He described a sort of break with “reality,” that allowed him to see deeper truths. Sitting on a bus with a friend, he described it like a veil suddenly being pulled back to reveal his friend as evil. He described paranoid persecutory delusions and altered states of consciousness. He described seemingly terrifying physical sensations, and overwhelming emotional swings. He described being overtaken by an outside force (not voices, but the sensation that something else was in control). And while he was grateful for finally getting a diagnosis and medication, he said that it’s a daily struggle for him. He senses a constant presence of this other reality which he is working hard to fight against, so that he could be “normal.” It was heartbreaking to read. Not because of what’s happening to him, but because there is no one to guide, explain, or help him through it. What’s happening to him is not a mental illness, it’s a spiritual emergence. It is a sacred awakening. But rather than having someone to honor the experience and show him the proper way to manage it, he is being pathologized. The mental health professionals that are providing his care are trying to make him “normal.” They are trying to stop the symptoms, using all sorts of medications and therapies, to fight something they don’t understand. And the reason they don’t understand it is because they are unwilling to listen, unwilling to allow for the possibility that there is something western medical science cannot yet explain.

Joseph Campbell is quoted as saying this famous line: “The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”

This statement is more profound than most people realize. The answer to many (not all, but many) schizophrenic cases is spiritual education. That is to say, self-awareness and the spiritual healing processes. This is what the mystic understands that the schizophrenic doesn’t.

The experiences of mystical openings and schizophrenia are really really similar. The difference between the mystic and the schizophrenic is context; spiritual context. The mystic understands that the mental/psychological disintegration is part of the healing process. He leans into it, and through spiritual work, moves through it. Or more accurately, allows it to move through him. He can observe it within him and work with it, without descending into terror. The mystic observes his thoughts and feelings, without acting on them, and curiously investigates them. He brings awareness, love, wisdom, and compassion into the depths of his being. He is delighted in the emotional upswells, because he knows that each one of them is an opportunity for further healing and discovery. It’s not always delightful (it is in fact extremely painful at times), but there is a logic to it. A divine pattern, if you will.

The schizophrenic on the other hand, without a sense of what’s happening to him, without love, support, and proper education or guidance, sinks. He doesn’t see the logic. He feels completely out of control. He believes his thoughts. He acts on his seemingly irrational feelings (which are completely rational in a spiritual perspective). He is told that he’s sick, and broken; he is medicated, and given up on; because our society doesn’t know where to begin to help him. Our mental health models don’t allow for the spiritual context.

But with spiritual context comes understanding, growth, acceptance, and healing. There is a way through it. There is a way to “heal” these symptoms. But it takes a different sort of therapy. It takes a radical shift away from what it currently being practiced.

The “evil” this man observed in his friend is in fact there; but it’s a mis-perception to call it evil. What this man saw in his friend on the bus is the friend’s egoic nature; which, to the lay-person, would certainly appear as evil. A mystic has this same capacity to see into people, and to observe their intense selfishness, their ego-driven words and actions masquerading as love, friendship, and normal relating. The mystic understands this; he understands why this is so, and accepts the reality of it. The schizophrenic is horrified by it. (It is rather horrifying to have this capacity to see inside of people… I’m still learning how to interact in a quasi-normal fashion despite what I can see).

Paranoid delusions, or persecutory delusions, the fear that “they are out to get you” is nothing more than a present day reflection of childhood fear. Sometimes it’s even past life issues that are being digested out. These episodes need to be properly attended to, not labelled and discounted. The person needs to be spiritually guided back to the source of these feelings, so that with awareness and wisdom and compassion these emotions can be properly released. If this is done properly the fear and paranoia subsides.

The experience of being overtaken by an invisible force from within would likely send anyone over the edge. But the mystic understands that this is the divine will moving through him. He becomes a channel for it, and feels relatively safe in surrendering to it. Those with awakened kundalini often report wondering if they’ve been possessed by something demonic. It can feel that way at times. Whether it’s kundalini, or spirit, or the emergence of the higher self (temporarily or permanently), it’s not a pleasant experience exactly. But spiritual forces never ever intend to harm. They are supremely loving (even if rather stoic or ruthlessly honest). (This is not the experience of hearing angry or hostile voices, or being instructed to carry out harmful acts – which also have a spiritual explanation and can be reckoned with and worked through.)

Similarly, altered states of consciousness can be terrifying. The mystic understands that what he sees in these states is a reflection of his own subconscious – his own wounding is being reflected for him to see and attend to. He knows how to navigate through these states because he gets the bigger picture. The schizophrenic is just terrified by it, and without proper names or descriptions or language to explain it, he becomes isolated in that terror. There aren’t words in existence that can describe the experience of higher states of consciousness. Lots of poets and ancient mystics have tried to use metaphors for what it feels like, but as far as I have read, none of them can convey the feeling of it to a person that’s never felt it. To the mystic it is a wondrous state. To the schizophrenic, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office trying to rationally explain what he feels, it’s devastating. To him, these states are an ever-present, uncontrollable, and very scary symptom of his illness.

There are countless examples here of the mistaken conceptualization and mistreatment of “schizophrenic” symptoms. I want to be clear – I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water. I don’t discount that mental illness exists; it certainly does. I also don’t discount psychiatric treatments or the need for pharmaceutical intervention; sometimes it is necessary and helpful. But the current state of western mental health care categorically lumps everything together as disease and dysfunction. It doesn’t allow for the spiritual context (as the new DSM-V leaves out the spiritual emergence classification entirely). And as a result these people are not receiving the kind of care they desperately need.

There is a lot of wonderfully courageous work being done in the mental health arena to shed light and understanding into the darkness. Revolutionary psychiatrists, therapists, and spiritual teachers, as well as those with lived experience, are coming together to make the shift to more integrative and compassionate understanding. But there is still a lot to be done. I don’t know how to bridge the gap between the needs for large scale systematic care and the truths of what I see. I am one person, with an idiosyncratic perspective, without any formal credentialing in this area – no one is going to take me seriously. And yet, I am hopeful that over time, the more that people like me write, and speak, and share their experiences and understanding, the more our larger systems can take heed and evolve.

I’m cautiously hopeful…

 

On becoming a mystic…

I have something to tell you. It’s not going to be easy, but I will do my best.

Since the end of last year, I’ve been undergoing a profound (at times unbelievable) personal, spiritual, and psychological transformation. It is something that spontaneously began happening to me, not something I chose or initiated. I’ve kept the details of this process extremely private; only sharing discretely with close friends and family. Sharing this intensely personal and sacred experience publicly is very vulnerable for me. In my estimation, openly disclosing this will open me to judgment, concern, criticism, and disbelief. Despite all of that, the time has come for me to begin owning this aspect of myself in a public forum.

(more…)