Part Four: Wandering the realm of the non-ordinary
What does a mystic look like?
Addiction, attachment, and frugality
The "evil force"
Love as a stumbling block
Be as selfish as possible
Side effects from meditation
What does a mystic look like?
Some think of a mystic as a solitary ascetic, someone who is celibate and uninvolved in "the business of the mundane." Such descriptions are not useful. Living a solitary and celibate life is equally likely to be a manifestation of spiritual weakness. It is not what specific activity the mystic is doing, or what life style he is leading, that makes him a mystic. It is how intimately engaged he is with both his inner and outer worlds.
One of the reasons we go to a circus, a movie, or sporting event, is that we enjoy being surprised by unusual skills and other strange phenomena. The mystical vision opens us to a perspective where we are astonished by each mundane moment of experience; we are able to perceive a sublimely numinous thread of surprise as again and again it weaves another coincidence of challenge and opportunity. We catch glimpses of its full radiance as sews an amazing fabric from the randomness of fate. We become both the audience and the event itself, we are witness to a continuing miracle that pervades our entire perceptual field. I myself am able to see it now and then; I have never seen a spectacle like it.
"I know that Nietzsche said whatever doesn't kill you helps you. But how much damn help do I have to inflict upon myself?" Rawley Creed
I would dare to make one peremptory statement regarding the cultivation of apophatic mysticism: without a broad sense of humor there is little chance of much success in the endeavor. In case you are unable to find anything humorous about mysticism I will make a few suggestions:
The would-be mystic will attempt to transcend self-reference and self-perspective, but must realize that his fundamental motivation will always be selfish. He needs to become extremely attached to non-attachment. He has to learn to be meticulously disciplined at the art of flexibility. He must learn how to be happy for no apparent reason. And he must put great time and effort into a project that is only good for the moment.
Addiction, attachment, and frugality
"I have three precious treasures: compassion, frugality, and not anticipating fate." Lao Zi
Attachment/addiction is the norm for us human beings. Addiction, at its most fundamental level is addiction to a world view. One's primary addiction consists of an attachment to a particular view of one's world, and to one's dogmatically held conclusions about how this world works. One has become attached to a habitual pre-conceptualized method of handling one's daily needs and in pre-defining these needs. With addiction one has a fixed vision of what one needs to do to make the world best serve one's needs, and moment to moment, one is deeply attached to this solution. Addiction requires a constant fixed agenda and a narrow conception of what a "good outcome" may be.
As an addict, I am addicted to a fantasy, the idea that my routine approach for securing my satisfaction, or reducing my distress, is the singular best. Or it is at least the only feasible method that I can take right now. Addicted, I constantly feel driven, I feel the need to get something done immediately about my internal tension. I am sure I must take action, whether this action is shooting up another 10 milligrams of a drug, or writing another essay on "The nature of spiritual tranquility." In both of these cases, the underlying morbidity is not in the heroin or work-a-holism. The primary disease is my intransigent faith in my "methodology," I am certain that if I can only execute some prescribed method I will get what I deeply need. The name of the idol I worship is "technique."
Helplessly dependent, I routinely fall into my habit, my habitual assumption about how my world works and therefore what I need to do. I refuse to stop and closely observe the reality around me, to wait and empirically observe the subtle but definitive signs it is giving me. If I had enough patience I would wait for these indications to appear, and only then would I respond. I would always respond frugally, never doing more than is indicated by each successive disclosure, never anticipating the next in the endless series of revelations. I would be frugal about delineating reality, and frugal about prematurely acting on my descriptions and prescriptions. Doing so, I would escape from my life-limiting agenda.
But with my level of anxiety I cannot wait, I must continually run from this horrid anxious feeling. I feel the need for immediate action. I doubt that anything but running for some device, or perhaps running itself, will work. Or if there is something else, some theoretical possibility of deliverance, I doubt that I could accomplish it. Not me, no way! I hate my anxiety as deeply as I insist on my doubt, and so I incessantly take action prematurely.
If I could only embrace my anxiety, if I could sit patiently with it and keep it company, like a friend visiting with a sick comrade: then, the heavens themselves would rush in and wait on my every need. Intervening with the natural flow of life--seldom and frugally-- all treasures I need would be at my disposal.
A pragmatic apophatic is not hesitant to make
use of prayer, the idea of a numen, the visualization of gods,
or any other practice that proves effective. These methods can
often bring the psyche to the threshold of the mystical state.
Once over the threshold, the methodology and conceptual content
of mystical practice quickly fade to the background.
On the other side of the threshold is a space that is conceptually impoverished. At first glance it seems as though there is nothing here. Then after a sufficient and intense waiting, the fullness of a remarkable manifestation is felt within both mind and bone. In this "empty fullness" the perplexed heart paradoxically grasps the certainty of having returned to its true home. A resplendent and yet sober luminosity pervades the psychic field. Calling the experience of this ecstatic serenity by the name "God," "ultimate reality," or any other word, may be quite insufficient.
Not calling it anything works quite well.
The "evil force"
There are powerful unseen forces both within and external to the human personality. However, as far as I can tell, there are no independent unseen forces outside the personality that are disposed to purposely attack it for no natural reason. There are no evil extra-natural entities lurking about the world looking for victims to haunt.
A major challenge for the self is the dispensation of harmful natural internal and external forces. The random patterns and complex mixing of these unruly forces present a daunting problem for the mind. It is easy to become vulnerable to these volatile agents if they are not correctly sensed, assessed, and then dismissed or safely integrated.
A self-perception that one has an unusual incompetence to deal with the vagaries of life is a type of attitude which can cause major problems. Although most of us realize that we are often barely competent to deal with the random events of human life, we know we are probably doing as well as most other people. And some of us are aware that when we are feeling overwhelmed, there is almost always available some form of outside assistance or other factor we have overlooked. But there are some who come to believe they are fundamentally helpless and that their vulnerability is beyond the reach of outside intervention.
And even more morbid than a belief in extraordinary personal incompetence is having the added belief that there are independent evil forces impinging on the self, powers which cannot possibly be defended against. When the mistaken idea of an invisible and willful external attack joins forces with the richly inventive creativity of the normal human subconscious mind, it provokes psychological havoc. The idea that an irrepressible satanic force is able to invade one's inner sanctity easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Such a delusion can be lethal to one's physical and mental being.
Each of us possesses a subconscious mind that is highly competent to invent delusions that can inflict disaster upon itself.
Love as a stumbling block
The thought that one must "love God" is a huge stumbling block for many who might want to cultivate mysticism. Especially for those who do not believe in the idea of a "God." Another stumbling block is the misconception that one "should" love others and that one can make no spiritual progress unless one does love.
Whatever force put (or is putting) the world together, it made the structure and dynamics of the universe in such a manner that love is not part of the initial formula required to begin a practice of mystical growth. The student of mysticism best not start his discipline by attempting to increase the ability to love. Universal empathy is one of the products of, not one of the prerequisites for mystical growth. A skillful farmer has calluses on her hands, but it would not be wise for me to try to develop calluses in an attempt to become a successful farmer.
The only thing initially needed to cultivate mystical aptitude is to have a deep dissatisfaction with the conventional way the human being approaches reality. Spurred by dissatisfaction one can begin to uproot habitual views and cultivate a commitment to openness and to a purely empirical exploration of meditative techniques. As I have said elsewhere it is useful, but not necessary, to either believe in or imagine an external spiritual force, and to petition that force for assistance with this emptying process. But one does not beforehand have to have any affection for such a entity, nor a particular level of compassion for other beings.
Forget about love, and each moment move out onto your mystical path with headstrong passion. If you apply great intensity and open minded sincerity to this endeavor, it will not be long before you find it difficult to despise anything under the sun. There will be a vacuum in your heart where hatred and displeasure used to abide, and into this empty house will pour in a deep regard for everything that exists. This spontaneous and effortless compassion for all beings will be your freely given gift, not your burden. It will be your prize, not your entrance fee.
See also: Attar: An answer of Jesus
Be as selfish as possible
The mystic subordinates self-aggrandizement in order to become an agency of forces that are vastly more powerful.
Unfortunately, most of us have organized the structure of our personality with an architecture that is designed to fortify the perceived stature of the self. We tediously build an unnecessarily aggrandized notion of self. And then it is difficult to change this personality that one has so meticulously constructed, and holds so dearly and tightly together. A person often becomes severely mentally destabilized during an attempted disassembly of the being he has pretended to be.
The mystic moves ever forward with the hazardous process of disassembly, not because he devalues the self, not because he is unselfish, and definitely not because he wants to "extinguish the self." He puts his limited agenda aside in order to benefit from a larger field of engagement and opportunity. With self-agenda subordinated, one is able benefit from an intimate encounter with every other being in this world. Along and within that engagement, the mystic finds intimacy with the very ground of his being. The world outside holds treasures that become available to him when he takes a leap beyond the borders of his normal protected personality.
The mystic undertakes personality disassembly because it is in his self-interest to do so. Outside the limited concept of a "me" and "mine" he can manifest remarkable aptitude. Such a level of skill is normally well beyond the reach of human capability.
The mystic continually pushes aside his self-aggrandizing agenda and waits for the arrival of something much greater. The mystic is no less selfish than the rest of us, his is simply a more enlightened selfishness.
'They told me, "Too soon old, too late wise." I hit the old part quite awhile back. Now when does the wisdom kick in?' Rawley Creed
Masters, the ones who have grasped the essential working relationship that exists between the soul and the ground of its being, are the last ones who would tell you that they could teach you this grasp. They can and will point out the false paths. They can and will tell you how to get to the threshold. They will tell you that you must take the plunge through the gate yourself in order to get where you want to go. They cannot give you an accurate description of the other 99% of the unspeakable territory you will experience on the other side.
A useful teacher does not try to give you the equipment for mystical experience; she who is adept is simply one who is able to convince you that you already have it. All of us are both students and teachers, in our teaching we would be well to follow the examples of the masters.
In meditation you focus attention inward until you obtain a unified experience of immediate awareness. This unified awareness is concentrated within a subtle but clearly recognizable psycho-visceral sensation. You attempt to hold this singular sensation, and you return to it each time it slips away.
What you feel (viscerally-emotionally) during the perception of the singular point of attention has been called the "numen." For a natural mystic the numen is simply an index; it is a psychic marker that indicates one is in the unitive state. For the theist the numen is the manifestation of the presence of God or a god.
"By using it (dao) its pivot becomes manifest. Amid the volatility of circumstances, there is no event one cannot effectively respond to."
From the Huainanzi
Spiritual sovereignty is a state where the
psyche is dominated neither by the emotions, the somatic perceptions,
nor conscious intellectual processes. Instead, the myriad psychic
(mind/body) activities are reined into dynamic balance by attentiveness.
Attentiveness, a state of pre-articulate mentation, can establish
sovereign rule over all other psychic activities. Attentiveness,
when intense, spontaneously and effectively integrates the cognitive
and affective processes. It is "spontaneous" in that
the integration occurs without conscious mentation, the mind does
not have to "figure out" how to execute the process.
When attentiveness rules the psyche, it is in a condition that is called "being at the pivot." At the pivot one's fundamental level of satisfaction is entirely under one's control. At the pivot all events and circumstances can be intuitively leverage toward advantage; and thus intellectually and affectively incorporated in manner that fulfills one's natural need for satisfaction. (cf. Zhuang Zi: "One makes a springtime of everything.") This psychic condition is called "non-contingent contentment;" here no material event can impinge on one's psychic equilibrium. In this state one achieves spiritual sovereignty.
Side effects from meditation
One of the occasional side effects of meditation is depression. Depression can occur because the mystical state produces a psychic condition that can be described as being paradoxically both extraordinarily full and profoundly empty. Tilting the psyche too far in either direction can pose big problems.
As the mind slows down into a more serene state, it loses a number of defense mechanisms that used to keep it so busy that it did not question the nature of its existence. When one empties out the old meanings of life that one has accumulated, and before new approaches have taken root, there is much opportunity to be left high and dry. If an aspirant is not informed that this dryness is a quite typical stage of the journey, (and that it usually reappears periodically), he can easily lose hope.
If understood, depression can be positively employed as a cleansing process; but it can also turn into a morbidly fruitless condition. Prayer and emotional affirmations are effective strategies for attenuating the untoward side effects of meditation, unfortunately many meditators do not appreciate their usefulness. In any case, when one becomes depressed it is additionally wise to have someone, human, non-human or imagined, to talk with.
See also: Depression
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section last edited: 7/27/02