Starting Points

Start from the Top or Begin from the Bottom
Some of the most general differences among scholars of mysticism follow from different kinds of starting point. One kind we might call the "deductive" or the "top-down," and the other we might call the "inductive" or the "bottom-up" starting point. As a simple thought-experiment, let's follow this distinction a little way.

Take It from the Top

An instance of a "top-down" or "deductive" approach might be a scholar who describes and interprets Christian mystics and mysticism from a standpoint within Christian faith and within Christian authority-structures. A great 20th century example of this kind of approach is found in an early book by the late Thomas Merton. He was a convert to Roman Catholic Christianity who became a Trappist monk and then in addition a priest (given the name Father Louis) and he was an accomplished essayist. In an early book called The Ascent to Truth (1951), Merton distinguished false from true mysticism on the basis of a set of what might be called "deductive" assumptions.

He wrote (on pages 67-68): "In the abstract, false mysticism can fall under two characteristic headings. Both of these situate the private mystical experience in an incorrect relation to the Truth which God has revealed publicly to the Church. One of these incorrect definitions says that the mystic has no need whatever of any conceptual knowledge of God, revealed or otherwise.

"I have described the first kind of false mysticism, which literally substitutes ignorance for knowledge. The second kind of false mysticism is much more common: it claims to arrive at special supernatural knowledge by means other than those normally ordained by God. This kind of thing is of course flattering to human nature. Fallen man loves to elevate himself above his fellows and soar aloft on wings borrowed from the angels. The most common illusion of well-meaning religious souls is to imagine that they hear heavenly voices, see visions, fall into ecstasies and swoon away with rapture when in actual fact they are fabricating these experiences by the work of their own imagination. However, a distinction must be made. Locutions, visions, ecstasies, and other extraordinary experiences can quite easily be supernatural. Such things can and do come from God, although not every vision is from heaven. The important thing to remember is that even when they are supernatural, these experiences are not of the essence of true mysticism."

According to Merton, experience is not the source of authority -- even if its content is true, supernatural visions. In The Ascent to Truth, the central, most important source of authority is the Church -- by which Merton clearly and understandably intended the Church under the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

The book was published after receiving the nihil obstat and imprimatur that indicated it had been read and evaluated with a view to its consistency with Church doctrine, and had been found not objectionable and not inconsistent with the authoritative teachings of the Church.

The starting point for understanding and evaluating mysticism from which that book began makes it an example of a "deductive" interpretation of mysticism. Merton began by defining himself, defining his topic of study, and defining the limits of the phenomena he would consider 'true' in relation to the institutional structure of the (Roman) Church and the "great chain of being" -- assumed to begin with the Creator and to end (for the purposes of the book's argument) with the boundaries of the explicitly-defined dogmas and doctrines of the Church. In short, Merton's was a deductive procedure, an insider's perspective, and a faithful and obedient believer's version of truth. Certainly there is nothing wrong with that, and the purpose here is simply to delineate two contrasting kinds of starting point for the study of mysticism.

Up from the Bottom

To find an obvious contrast to Merton's approach in The Ascent to Truth, let us consider the approach taken by Colin Wilson. Born in 1931, he came from a working class family, left school at sixteen, remained intellectually active and actively self-taught. During his adult life, he has supported himself by writing.

His first successful book was The Outsider (1956). Wilson's interest in awareness or consciousness, and his view that most of us are most of the time "asleep" or on "automatic pilot" was later given clearest expression in books such as The War Against Sleep (1980), Frankenstein's Castle - The Right-Brain: Door to Wisdom (1980), and Access to Inner Worlds (1990).

He is also the author of Poetry and Mysticism (1970), a book that best suits our thought-experiment here. It includes the following chapter titles: Absurd Good News, The Robot, The Relationality of Consciousness, and The Automatic Gearbox. He analyzes and interprets the work of Rupert Brooke, W. B. Yeats, A. L. Rowse, Nikos Kazantzakis, and others.

Wilson uses several different terms to refer to the factor that makes the difference in whether we are really awake, alive, aware, and present at the center of our own experience -- or not. One of his most used terms for what makes the difference is simply Faculty X. The culprit he has called "false fatigue." You might call it boredom or lack of motivation or Generation X syndrome or the slacker factor. Traditional mystics in the West have called it acedia -- spiritual torpor.

Throughout his long career, Colin Wilson has written about many sublime and many weird topics. Nevertheless, he has remained a down-to-earth, practical, and naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic thinker. He is, however, optimistic -- a Promethean popular science writer. And what he wrote at the beginning of Poetry and Mysticism has held true for most of his life:

"Ever since I was thirteen, I have been obsessed by the question of the nature of mystical experience. This 'quest of the mystical' began as a devotion to poetry, developed into an interest in comparative religion -- with the emphasis on the east -- and in recent years has become the scientific pursuit of the psychological mechanisms of the 'intensity experience'. I am convinced that at some point in his evolution, man will achieve complete control over those floodgates of inner-energy that create the mystical experience. I also believe that he will do this by a learning process, exactly as he might learn to play Beethoven sonatas or drive a helicopter. I do not believe that there is any useful short-cut to mystical experience -- either psychedelic drugs or so-called yogic disciplines. I am not denying that these are both means of achieving states of 'intensity consciousness', any more than I would deny that you can 'play' a Beethoven sonata by putting on a gramophone record or working the pedals of a player-piano. But if you want to learn to play the Beethoven sonata in the real sense of the word, you would have to start at the beginning, doing scales and learning to sight-read music. Where mystical experience is concerned, we have the equivalent of 'scales' -- i.e. practical exercises -- in yogic disciplines. But what we most emphatically do not have is the equivalent of a musical score -- the detailed objective knowledge of what goes on in states of 'intensity consciousness'. In my own investigations, I have preferred the careful, plodding attempt to create a kind of mental 'musical notation' to the mystical vagaries of some writers on 'cosmic consciousness'."

Start from Somewhere and get to Somewhere

By his contrasting example, Wilson raises a question that is relevant to our thought-experiment. What approach, what point of view, or what assumptions are likely to prove most appropriate and fruitful for an exploration of mystical experience and mysticism? And: Is our interpretive situation enriched by having more than one kind of plausible or potentially fruitful interpretive framework available to us?

Wilson proposes that what might be considered a naturalistic or scientific approach is most likely to be fruitful -- a neutral, objective, plodding approach of an outsider who is nevertheless interested in the subjective gain or rewards of obtaining knowledge about these matters. He further assumes that there are skills that are potentially learnable and would bring mystical experience (at least as 'intensity experience') wholly within the power of human beings.

Wilson attempts to achieve the status of a independent writer, a "scientific investigator" of sorts, one who is interested in the "generic" (general, perhaps universal, un-labeled) characteristics of mysticism as a human endowment or human possibility. In short, we might say that Colin Wilson starts with an "inductive" or "bottom up" approach to mysticism.

Go with the Flow

Another "inductive" writer whose work might be generally relevant to the study of mysticism is the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who has written several books and has developed workshops on the topic of what he has called "flow" experience. Consider, for example, a passage from his recent book, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997, 29):

"These exceptional moments are what I have called flow experiences. The metaphor of "flow" is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as "being in the zone," religious mystics as being in "ecstasy," artists and musicians as aesthetic rapture. Athletes, mystics, and artists do very different things when they reach flow, yet their descriptions of the experience are remarkably similar."

Like Colin Wilson, Csikszentmihalyi assumes that mystical ecstasy is an instance of a more general (probably universal) phenomenon, and neither the sole property of an exclusive category of human beings (whether one considers them to be a virtuoso elite class or a pathological problem category) nor something that exclusively arrives from a realm well beyond human possibilities.

Start Where?

The kind of distinction that we have been considering -- between deductive and inductive assumptions, or top-down and bottom-up approaches, or even insider and outsider viewpoints -- in relation to the study of mystic experience may help us to identify our own characteristic orientation and type of interest with regard to mysticism. Each of these ways of designating (or putting a label on) some kind of starting point can help us by calling attention to specific features (as well as to differences among) various perspectives and procedures that already have been followed by others in their study of mysticism and/or religious experience.

Where do you start, how do you locate yourself, in relation to phenomena called 'religious' or 'mystical'?

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