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Mysticism and the spiritual experience

In modern times, the most popular option for spiritual seekers is probably a drug-induced shot at the divine: LSD or, in recent days, the more up-to-date DMT—the latter secured by a mythology around its South American origins, the former rather boringly developed in a Swiss laboratory. The interest in mystical experiences in general can be attributed—insofar as such things can be historically attributed—to Kant. Obviously, Kant was not himself a mystic—though he knew mystics—and he was not interested in drug-augmented exploration either, at least not in practical terms. However, Kant opened the path to modern mysticism because he used his scalpel-mind to cut apart all the old rational justifications for the divine. When his investigations were complete he was left with two routes to the numinous: 1. Morality: we must have God because otherwise there is no morality; logically, we should be compelled to act as if he exists; and, 2. Mysticism: the direct experience of the divine.

When human approaches to the divine were reduced to these two routes, life became somewhat constricted; although, for those, in Nietzsche’s mode, who saw the logical flaws in Kant’s moral justification for God, the possibilities expanded in many ways—a few quite hellish, Hell being a still recognisable fictional, if not actual, realm for such people. Previously, God’s existence was justified by rational arguments; supposedly, Christianity was undergirded—particularly in the West—by reason; yet Kant had cut through Christianity’s reasonable core, he left only morality and mysticism. The reason mysticism—drug-induced or otherwise—has become so popular in the West in recent decades is that it is pretty much the only acceptable way to reach the numinous without interruption from critique in Kant’s style or by the scientific method. The scientific method cannot examine your experience; it can suggest that your experience seems to relate to certain biochemical changes in the brain, but this—as philosophers and mystics will be quick to point out—says nothing about the experience itself.

All questions about mystical experiences eventually loop back to whether there is an external world outside the mind, and whether that world is material or composed of ideas; and since this old philosophical chestnut has never been conclusively answered, the mystical reports remain in an indeterminate zone between truth and falsehood; in a sense, this is typically modern: most people—even modern mystics—are agnostics, neither atheists nor believers.

It is within this grey zone that numinous experience, if not formally organised religion, can survive; and so we see a great many individual accounts—accounts that range from UFO encounters to machine-elf conversations—that cover relatively similar territory, activate the same brain areas, and provide a sense that there is a mystery beyond life. Although each experience overlaps with the others, each is sufficiently idiosyncratic that it is hard to coordinate these experiences into a real religion, a communal activity bound by traditions; unlike the old churches, where people were united by reasonable and apparently unassailable arguments for God’s existence, we exist in an experience patchwork.

Actually, it is not necessary to take drugs to induce a mystical experience; however, as with bodybuilding, it is much harder to succeed without drugs and, in an expedient age, most people choose the shortcut. I have induced these states myself, through prolonged meditation and a commitment to blurt out whatever I thought; although tempted by the drugs, I have a recurrent intrusive thought where I ram a pencil into my eye—naturally, I have a fear that on a hallucinogenic compound I might act that out in reality, such things have happened in the past…and will surely happen again.

The state most spiritual seekers desire is “shamanic”. When formal religion ended, people went right back to the most archaic religious forms possible to look for an answer. For decades, “the shaman”—perhaps pronounced “sharman” for real high-status social points—has been a revered figure in the West—or at least among people who like neon t-shirts. Although Christians might weakly protest that a priest or vicar is a modern shaman, there is a difference: the priest offers rites, the shaman offers gnosis—direct personal union with the divine, as represented by initiation. In line with the democratic paradox, a mass consumer age is obsessed with the most “unique” and “special” experience possible; just as consumers search for an authentic Thai green curry amid endless market replications, so the spiritual seeker is after an “authentic” shaman—often really some bozo in an Inter Milan t-shirt who learned English from Sesame Street at a Catholic mission station up river.

The experience: as I look at the streetlight, its florescence seems to stretch into a path of light. A voice says, “Follow the road,” usually I suppress this mental flotsam and jetsam; now, I obey it. I follow the light until it terminates at a corner shop. I enter the corner shop. On a shelf by the door, there is a ketchup bottle labelled “Tama Ketchup”. The brand name recalls, through rhyme, a kid’s name at my first school; it is a sign—I buy the ketchup. As I walk out the door, I hear a girl in a short skirt, about to set out for the night, say: “…follows from the green.” I see a pub with a green sign, I immediately enter it. I remember that my schoolfriend was from Ireland—Ireland, the green—I order Guinness. When an old man in the corner congratulates me on my choice, it is another sign. I talk to him. It turns out he comes from the same town as my schoolfriend…it is a sign and I am on the true path.

The above roughly describes what it is like to live in what most people call a mystical or spiritual experience. You will notice the similarities to schizophrenia: obedience to “voices” that we all have but that are usually dismissed by consciousness as stray thoughts—mental cottonwool to be ignored, not acted on—and, further, an interest in rhyme and prosody to create unusual meanings. In ordinary terms, the progression from corner shop to ketchup bottle to Guinness to old man makes no rational sense. Why did you go in the shop in the first place? Why did you buy ketchup? Did you need ketchup? Why associate that with your friend’s name—not his literal name, is it? We could imagine a psychiatrist or psychologist engaged in an attempt to get his client to “question his maladaptive assumptions” through the Socratic method, a technique in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, in order to restore a more operative thought pattern.

Yet this approach to life is integral to the spiritual experience—to what people call shamanistic life—since it sees everything in the world as interconnected and linked by rhythms and rhymes, oral or visual. The man on his, to use an antique phrase, circa 1968, “vision quest” is drawn through the world as if in a fugue state—the associations he draws between objects and actions are not reasonable, yet have a certain sense to them; if you are prepared to enter the conceit, and not dismiss it in moralised terms. If he were in a forest and not a city, these patterns might reflect nature herself. The crow lands on a branch, and it is a sign; it is a change in the forest ecology—in the environment. “Father Crow saw me today, he said the deer will come,” says the old shaman to the young shaman. There is a biological explanation for this, but the shamanic sign system adequately captures these events in a roundabout way. After all, cause and effect in the real world are often completely opaque to us. What really caused this? Often, we never know and inquiry only leads to infinite regress, not to useful information.

The scientific view that most people are trained to use precludes this thought pattern. We are not permitted to say, “The stick told me to pick him up.” Someone who speaks this way has edged towards mental illness. Sticks are, by default, inert matter; they do not have intentions or wills, except as a metaphorical joke. You can say, “My car is temperamental today. She’s on the rag. Ha. Ha.” You cannot say: “Yeah, I changed the tires because my car told me to do it, she always tells me when she wants the tires changed. I hear her voice all day…” Phrases and commands that we treat as intrusive thoughts, imagination, or mental leftovers are, for the spiritual seeker, urgent commands and orders; however, for modern man these are to be strictly suppressed. We are trained to formulate our thought and speech in instrumental terms, with a clear subject-object divide and rational (possibly rationalised) purpose. There is a border between the man who thinks that his ice cream resembles Abraham Lincoln and the man who thinks that the telephone poles are arranged in such a way as to give him an important message about his destiny—the divide is not so very thick; and most people think in this way to an extent, even if they zap these thoughts as they emerge.

Despite the “insanity” contained in the spiritual thought form, it is deeply meaningful. To live in this way makes the world alive with meaning; everything has continuity, the experience is embedded in a vivid story—and there are an urgent tasks to carry out. Arguably, this is environmental; to live this way in a forest environment—if we assume you grew up in it—will probably not cause you too much harm. Your associations and rhythms will likely reflect nature herself, and may perhaps guide you about in a useful way. To live this way in a city, a place where everything has grown up through conscious intent as constrained by numerical reason, may very well be actually mad and completely at variance with any reality whatsoever—or perhaps it will turn up a few hidden artefacts here and there, you never know. The concrete world we have created—really a deeply unnatural world that cuts us off from meaning—is dead and static.

Indeed, to even think that a person might have a destiny or purpose sounds hopelessly antique, quite Victorian, or possibly dangerously Hitlerite. No, we make no assumptions; if we see a dead owl on the road it is dead biological matter; it would be quite incorrect, without experimental examination, to infer any other data from it. Our world is, therefore, rather dead and meaningless—our first presumption is that there is nothing more to a person or a thing than we can infer from reason. For some people, not to make any inference based on instinct, intuition, and symbolism is almost a morality; it demonstrates a superior way to interface with the world, completely without prejudice—or interest.

Although drugs remain the most popular way to achieve a mystical state, I have had success as follows: careful meditation before a white wall for eight hours combined with a strict commitment to say whatever I felt and thought—and I mean whatever, with little time to consider the consequences. While drugs obviously produce hallucinations, another important part in the experience is—as with alcohol—that the drugs remove the “censor”, especially the censor trained by rationalistic society to suppress all the instinctual and intuitive thoughts and desires we have. With practice, if a person merely observes their thoughts and instincts, they can follow these through without censorship—it is possible to replicate the imaginative disinhibition created by psychedelic drugs.

For mystical purposes, it is important to follow intuitions through—not only thoughts and emotions—so, for example, you will head off to the garage at 01:00 AM without any reason, simply on the basis that there is important business there because your body—perhaps your soul—wants you there. The overall sensation is to release conscious control and trust that body and soul know where everything is going. Indeed, on a simple level, if you make no conscious plans to wake up or do anything in particular, you will find that you will do things anyway; the conscious control that we emphasise so much has very little to do with our actions and emotions. For the most part, people will remain wedded to drug-based mysticism, but the other option is also available; and, though it is impossible to live in this way in a sustained fashion, it can certainly be done for long time periods—and it is really more natural, closer to our archaic state.

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