Mystical experience across cultures

There are likely a number of religious-studies scholars who would cringe and groan at Roland Griffiths’s studies of drug-induced mystical experience. I haven’t gone into their literature in a while, but I think it would be easy for them to say Griffiths is setting the study of mysticism back many decades. Because Griffiths’s stated conception of mystical experience is one that many religionists would already have considered very dated – even when I was studying them twenty years ago.

I say this because Griffiths’s first groundbreaking study, in indicating that many psilocybin volunteers had mystical experiences, measures mystical experience using a questionnaire based on W.T. Stace‘s Mysticism and Philosophy, published in 1960. And when I was in grad school twenty years ago, Stace’s work was often considered impossibly backward.

Stace had many critics – Steven Katz, Wayne Proudfoot, my teacher Robert Gimello – who savaged Stace for ignoring the cultural context of mysticism, for being too hasty in proclaiming “mystical experience” is one thing everywhere. And clearly, Arjuna’s vision of Krishna is not God calling to Moses from the burning bush is not Teresa penetrated by the angel, and none of these is the nondual state of consciousness described in the Maṇḍukya Upaniṣad – the latter being central to Stace’s account of mystical experience. Gimello pointed out in class that the category of “mystical experience” grew out of élite nineteenth-century movements like Theosophy: these movements viewed themselves as having a truer understanding of the world’s “religious” traditions than those traditions themselves did, because (they thought) the heart of those traditions was a mystical core that they had access to, with the rest being mere accretion.

The force of Gimello’s critiques were not lost on me. It’s easy to see that Theosophical influence in Ken Wilber’s work: as my article on him notes, it is a remarkably confident move to say that you understand the world’s traditions better than their practitioners understand themselves; to go there, one had best provide evidence for it, which Wilber effectively does not. A while ago I posted here a paper I’d written for Gimello where I noted how even a noted scholar like Ninian Smart would jump to conclusions about experiences that noted philosophers described, assuming that those philosophers themselves must have had those experiences even when they do not themselves claim to have had them.

But it’s possible that that critique went too far. Stace himself did not go to the extremes of the Theosophists: when Stace spoke of a universal core to mystical experience, he had excluded “visions and voices” from the category. He knew that nobody has a vision of Jesus who has not already heard of Jesus, and likewise for Krishna; you’re likely going to look silly if you strive to identify a common core in all these experiences. We could question Stace’s definition, but even if we still wanted to categorize visionary experiences of divine beings as mystical experiences (which I think is a reasonable thing to do), it’s not hard to make a division within them between “hot” mystical or visionary experiences like Arjuna’s and Teresa’s, and “cool” mystical experiences of the sort Stace describes. And the latter may yet turn out to have more cross-cultural commonality.

Such “cool” experiences are impersonal, usually wordless and often nondual. They often take the form of what Stace’s defender Robert Forman calls a “Pure Consciousness Event” (PCE), “defined as a wakeful though contentless (nonintentional) consciousness.” (8) I think it would be difficult if not impossible to establish that PCEs are universally present across humanity, but it seems quite plausible that they occur in multiple cultural contexts, not always in contact with one another. Essays in Forman’s book highlight several places that seem to describe such an event: The Yoga Sūtras describe a samādhi (meditative or trancelike) state in which mental fluctuations (cittavṛtti) cease and there is “unity among the grasper, the grasping, and grasped.” The German medieval mystic Meister Eckhart describes a state called gezucken (rapture), where “a man should flee his senses, turn his powers inward and sink into an oblivion of all things and himself.” The Ukrainian Hasidic preacher Dov Baer says that one must “forget oneself totally”; thereby “one comes to the state of ayin [nothingness], which is the state of humility.”

Obviously the interpretations of the experiences described in such texts are different; Eckhart and Baer identify this state of consciousness as a unity with God, as the Yoga Sūtras would not. But is the experience itself the same? That’s a trickier question, and in order to answer it Yes we’d need to dive deeper into their descriptions than the capsule presentation I’ve just given. But without such deeper investigation I also don’t think we can answer it No – which is often what the critics seem to do. Katz’s claim seems to be not merely that these experiences are not the same, but that they could not be. And there I think he is on shaky ground.

Katz’s famous chapter says: “let me state the single epistemological assumption that has exercised my thinking and which has forced me to undertake the present investigation: There are NO pure (unmediated) experiences.” The emphasis is in the original, and the combination of italics and capitals suggests one who doth protest too much – especially when this strong claim is taken as an assumption, rather than the conclusion to be proved. Katz, his critics note, doesn’t even define “mediated” or “unmediated”!

Indeed the claim seems suspect to begin with: what about a newborn human infant who has not yet encountered language of any kind? Surely it has something that can be called experience, and surely this experience cannot be linguistically mediated, at least – and if Katz means by “mediated” something other than that, he doesn’t tell us what it is. In identifying states that might count as Pure Consciousness Events, some mystical thinkers (like Baer) urge a “forgetting”, a dropping away of the things one has learned – suggesting a possible return to the newborn’s state. And if the newborn can have an unmediated experience, why can’t we?

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

2 Replies to “Mystical experience across cultures”

  1. Thanks for an interesting post! I read Stace when I delved into this topic years ago. I remember really liking his book and wondering what it must have been like for him in the extremely narrowly analytic field of philosophy in Britain and North America at the time.

    While I appreciate critiques of Stace’s perennialism, I agree that it’s hasty to completely rule out the possibility of non-linguistically mediated experience. Maybe I’ve read too much Dignāga and Dharmakīrti on nonconceptual awareness, but this type of experience has always seemed plausible to me. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses where he modestly says that understanding vijñaptimātra is beyond his capabilities, and only Buddhas, with their non-dual experience, could be said to fully understand it.

    I made a similar point about Śrī Harṣa (who I have read as something like a skeptical mystic, albeit coming from the Advaita tradition). I’ve also gotten some inspiration from Matilal’s interesting work The Logical Illumination of Indian Mysticism.

    I wonder if the fact that “cool” mystical experience is supposed to be ineffable (in some sense) means that we can’t say much about it. And if we can’t say much about it, how much less can it be subject to philosophical analysis, which typically involves a lot of saying things?

    This is a question I’ve thought about, even while engaging in philosophical analysis of my own. But in my thinking about philosophers who have thought more (and perhaps experienced more) than I have about this topic, I suspect the best we can do is to leave open the possibility of a certain type of unmediated mystical experience. And maybe that’s as much as we can expect concerning this topic? I’m not sure, but thank you for giving me a chance to dust off some old thoughts!

  2. The Sūtra you quote, 1,41, is met in commentary with poetry and mythic images, as if from the very roots of the tradition. So it’s a good place to start a journey of meditation, and indeed I find that you can restore an ancient Yoga Sūtras in four parts of 50 lines each, each properly sealed with ‘iti’, by starting at 1. 40.

    Yet as with ancient things, the line proves difficult to the modern sensibility. The term samāpatti gets variously translated as ‘enlightenment’ or ‘transformation’ or ignored, in which case a mind is assumed as subject, and the language becomes awkwardly self-conscious, a stiff chatter about how to keep a tidy mind, which is totally alien to the real immersive experience.

    Translation has failed here, either resorting to pre-packaged notions like enlightenment, as in Theosophy, or trailing the injunctions of Mīmāṃsā, in a quite different tradition. Meanwhile, pattai, patti is a Hittite verb, where Sanskrit has patati, so the Buddhist usage on which comentary now siezes, is built on a loanword, with parallels in Jain Prakrit! Now daring to place an ancient Patañjali on the Puranic Mt Sumeru in Hittite Sumeria, I can recover the jyotipatti of the Siddhanta sine table, as a Indian response to Plympton 322, in the archeology, the enigmatic table of Pythagorean triples, ranked just by the angle described!

    That’s a puzzle for another 48 years nursing a sore neck. What I can contribute here is the sense of Buddhist and Jain traditions growing around rather than out of the Sanskrit background, out into wider cultural spaces. That breadth of vision, it seems to me now, helped Buddhist practice to reach deeper into the common ground of consciousness.

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