Mystical ideas often come associated with mystical experiences – these experiences have the power to change the lives of those who have them.  The experiences are often of the profound oneness of the universe, or a feeling of identity with God (as in: “I and my Father are one”). These experiences can be induced by various ritualistic practices, many of which involve being alone for some amount of time.

It seems that people usually assume that the reason the experience comes only after being alone for awhile is that one needs a period of trial or cleansing before being worthy of the experience.  I contend that it is the actual state of being alone that causes the experience to happen.  It is only after being alone for a long while that many of us can turn off the internal chatter which is the very barrier to our living our whole lives in a state of mystical bliss.

As we have seen in the discussion in other posts, it is our attempt to process the world in terms of verbal descriptions which causes us to only be able to approximate reality.   Remember, reality is an actual slap on the face, not the word ‘slap.’  When we have been without human company for a sufficient amount of time (which varies by the individual), we stop describing to ourselves everything that happens.  Have you ever caught yourself thinking something in very clear words (as though speaking to a child) which you know you already had grasped?  For example, upon meeting someone for the first time, the following words might flow through your mind: “He has a really large boil on his face.”  Did you really need to tell yourself that?  Or was it patently obvious?  Would you have needed to tell anyone else who happened to be there?  If not, why do you think you need to tell yourself?

We must be careful not to mix up mystical insight with objective knowledge.

In Zen Buddhist meditation, the student is asked to simply allow sense impressions to flow in and out of consciousness without trying to categorize them.  That sound one hears is not a bird tweeting, it simply is the sound that it is.  That feeling one has is not a fly on the skin, it simply is the feeling that it is.  By allowing sense impressions to pass through our consciousness without filtering them, we open ourselves to mystical insight.

The goal of meditation in mystical disciplines, then, is to learn to stop turning the world into verbal symbols – at will. Being able to do this, the adherent begins to see that the distinctions usually made between things (“good”, “bad”, “rabbit”, “un-detached rabbit parts”, etc.) are arbitrary.  The universe is an interconnected web of existence – the distinction between “me” and the rest of it is only a convention.

This is the fundamental power of mysticism.  It enables the mystic to be benevolent because he does not see any distinction between himself and the rest of the universe – “whatsoever ye do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me”.  It enables him to be fearless, because he does not see himself as separate from the universe, and the universe cannot be destroyed – you can destroy the illusion called me, but you cannot destroy the universe.  The mystic can be patient, because the universe has (indeed, is) all of the time in the world. If one must not be conscious of acting like a saint in order to be one, I see no way that any saint must not also be a mystic.

However, we must be careful not to mix up mystical insight with objective knowledge.  One may have the fundamental mystical insight and be very happy – but still have absolutely no idea what is going on.  Thus, in an objective sense, mystical insight is insignificant.  Just as you would not ask St. John of the Cross to program your computer, why would you necessarily trust his theory on the nature of evil?  Sure, he may have been a smart guy, and maybe his ethical ideas are correct – but we shouldn’t assume it just because he was a mystic.  Truth must also stand up to analytical scrutiny.

For example, the Tao Te Ching is widely regarded as a work of mysticism and truth.  I personally believe that it presents a very good, consistent view of the world – as far as it goes. That is, it is consistent in its very silence about certain questions.  By stating that the main principle of the universe – Tao – is undefinable, Lao Tsu takes an end run around almost all issues of metaphysics.  This is not a bad approach, by the way – it may be the only way to create a work like the Tao Te Ching, which is more practical than it is metaphysical.

The Tao Te Ching is consistent in its very silence about certain questions…It is more practical than it is metaphysical.

It may surprise many readers who have read the Tao Te Ching that I believe that the work is more practical than metaphysical.  To see why this is so, one needs only to look at the work with a critical eye. Lao Tsu’s references to the Tao are made to give a basis for his ethical (practical) principles – then he refuses to discuss what exactly the Tao is.  That he believes that he is writing a practical manual is indicated when he writes:

My words are easy to understand and easy to perform,

Yet no man under heaven knows them or practices them.

If his “words” can be practiced, then he must be giving instruction on how to act (ethics), not what to believe (metaphysics).

Contrast this to the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, which is much more a work of metaphysics.  Remembering that metaphysics is a long-standing discipline of philosophy and not the mush-headed twaddle which publishers have taken to printing in the last thirty years or so, the Tractatus is a profoundly metaphysical work.  The author, Ludwig Wittgenstein, starts from some simple premises and builds an entire theory of knowledge and metaphysics.  That the work is dense and written virtually without exposition is of no consequence (except that it kept it off any “best seller” lists).  In the end, Wittgenstein (who, unlike Lao Tsu, we are fairly sure actually existed) concludes that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – ending where Lao Tsu picks up with “Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know.”

Remember that metaphysics is a long-standing discipline of philosophy and not the mush-headed twaddle which publishers have taken to printing in the last thirty years or so.

Thus we have two philosophers, apart in time by pretty well as much as any two people in our history could be (2500 hundred years), who have the same insight.  There is nothing in Wittgenstein’s biography to indicate that he was at all familiar with the Tao Te Ching, although of course this is still a possibility.

reference for Lao Tsu pic: