The Challenge of Understanding Mysticism


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The Challenge of Understanding Mysticism

by Richard D. Engle

If the mystical truth that comes to a man proves to be a force that he can live by, what mandate have we of the majority to order him to live in another way? - William James

One sometimes hears comments about mysticism that suggest a lack of understanding. There is rarely any meanness in these remarks, but I believe the subject to be more complex than some believe, and wish to consider some generally unexamined possibilities.

What is mysticism?

Mysticism is widely misunderstood. This is due in no small part to the accounts of the mystics themselves. Some mystics—George Fox, founder of the Quakers, comes to mind—were intense and perhaps off-putting to average people.(a)

Recently my Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Nicole Kirk presented an overview of mysticism from the Unitarian Universalist perspective. She contrasted those "heavy hitters" who often scared people out of the pews, with the likes of Rufus Jones, an author and a Quaker mystic who brought "mysticism to the masses" in the United States between the world wars. Prior to that, mysticism was something of a pastime of the wealthy, and its practitioners were seen as "spiritual athletes." Jones, if you will, democratized mysticism. (b)

Let's examine the American Heritage Dictionary definition of mysticism:

1. a. immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God b. The experience of such communion as described by mystics 2. A belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible by subjective experience 3. Vague, groundless speculation.

Objectivism and mysticism

In Objectivism, mysticism generally refers to beliefs that are accepted as valid even though they are not supported by factual evidence. This includes beliefs arrived at through mistaken thinking, tradition, and upbringing. Objectivism says, in effect: Rather than considering the American Heritage definitions 1 and 2, simply refer to number 3. This efficiency of definition often carries more than a hint of reproach.

By extension, the word is broadly applied to all things considered to spring from it: rituals and practices, symbols, the whole of religion, UFOs, reincarnation, prophets, shamanism, superstition, among others. Many Objectivists consider these forgivable, so long as the beliefs themselves are abandoned and replaced with those that are directly tied to reality.

Is there justification for Objectivism's handling of things in such a sweeping manner? How can Objectivism dismiss something as entirely groundless if it is an internal, private process?

Objectivism's view of the mind

I believe this use of 'mysticism' to be too broad. Mysticism, as I am about to delineate it, is the driver of individual religious consciousness, but it is not religion itself. Nor does it necessarily entail every phenomenon lumped with it.

Objectivism seems to rely solely upon its epistemology, as it has few strategic alliances within the field of psychology. Could it be that Objectivist epistemology assumes a fixed model of the mind's capabilities?

I do not believe that Objectivism has produced any of its own great psychological thinkers, outside of Nathaniel Branden. As Branden puts it, the mind is our most powerful tool for survival on earth. It displays stunning vastness, versatility, and raw power. Could it be that while recognizing this, we have relegated the study of its untapped or undefined powers to the back burner? Is the maximum awareness reached after optimizing it via epistemology or ordinary psychology? If we have a well developed state of normal awareness, does that mean this is the only type of awareness?

The tendency of Objectivists to see mysticism this way may owe in no small part to the predisposition of the founder of Objectivism, Ayn Rand. Of her Nathaniel Branden writes:

Like many other people, she was enormously opposed to any consideration of the possible validity of telepathy, ESP, or other psi phenomenon. The evidence that was accumulating to suggest that there was something here at least worthy of serious scientific study did not interest her; she did not feel any obligation to look into the subject; she was convinced it was all a fraud. It did not fit her model of reality. When an astronaut attempted during a flight to the moon to conduct a telepathic experiment, she commented on the effort with scorn—even the attempt to explore the subject was contemptible in her opinion. Now I have no wish to argue, in this context, for or against the reality of nonordinary forms of awareness or any other related phenomenon. That is not my point. My point is the extent to which she had a closed mind on the subject, with no interest in discovering for herself why so many distinguished scientists had become convinced that such matters are eminently worthy of study. (c )

An expanded awareness

Mysticism, as I'm using it, refers to a state of being greatly different from our normal state of awareness. William James' lecture on mysticism may provide some guideposts:

1. Ineffability. The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies _expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. ... The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.

At this point, nearly every mainstream Objectivist I have ever known is having a visceral (and not altogether positive, to indulge in understatement) reaction to this line of thinking.

2. Noetic quality. Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.

If you haven't experienced a mystical state, or maybe did once but couldn't quantify it, you have to simply go with this from the perspective that his observation is drawn from many and varied accounts. These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical, in the sense in which I use the word. Two other qualities are less sharply marked, but are usually found. These are:

3. Transiency. Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.

How long it lasts and what remains shouldn't be much cause for alarm.

4. Passivity. Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. ... They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures.

Gradations and mixtures. This speaks to the complexity involved when examining accounts.

These four characteristics are sufficient to mark out a group of states of consciousness peculiar enough to deserve a special name and to call for careful study. Let it then be called the mystical group.

It bears mention that religious mysticism lays within these parameters as a subset—meaning, the mystical state is not necessarily a religious one. Think about that: mysticism is not reliant upon religion.

What we are talking about, at the core, are various levels of altered, frequently elevated states of consciousness, which may be induced by any number of means, including mental practices, and ingestion of substances like alcohol, psychotropics, and medical anesthetics (hopefully not all at once).

These states, however, can arise in the absence of any of those. There are endless subsets of the mystical experience that can be studied (technically, as many as there are people experiencing them), but it is not necessary for the purposes of this article.

James summarizes his lecture with three conclusions:

  • Mystical states carry authority for him who has them;
  • Such states carry authority for no one else;
  • Nevertheless, they break down the exclusive authority of rationalistic states—they strengthen monistic and optimistic hypotheses. (d)

After studying this and many other aspects of the topic, I kept circling back to two very pregnant questions: How did this all come to be? And, if alternate states of consciousness exist, why are they not readily and uniformly available to everyone? The answer, it seems to me, lies in the survival-critical process of upbringing, socializing, and civilizing that all people experience.

When we are born, we are born pure of mind, the way nature intended the mind to be at onset. Very quickly, though, many people stand in line to write on our clean sheet of paper. They write not only things that are directly pertinent to their present society, but many of the things that have been carried over from those who lived before them.

So, this also speaks to Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. During that process, a person is brought to a day-to-day consciousness that is compatible with whatever society they are living in. This involves a good deal of normalization, modification, and rerouting. Our perceptual processes are normalized into practical, common sense ones. Allesandro Pluchnio speaks of these general conditions in his article Monsieur Gurdjieff and the Neurosciences:

We can imagine that at birth our mind is like a vast plain, without valleys or hills, where the flow of perceptions begins to run freely ... [like] thousands of rivers starting to cut deep channels in that plain, transforming it slowly and inexorably into a completely different landscape ... [where] new flows of perception can no longer run freely, but have to follow the channels already cut, contributing in turn to deepen them ... . (e)

Given that normalization, it is not surprising that altered states of consciousness would be seen as dubious to those not sharing this experience. But their significance should not be dismissed out of hand.

October, 2005

(a) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Fox

(B) http://www.crosscurrents.org/Hedstrom0204.htm

© The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand- A Personal Statement

(d) Monistic in terms of wholeness, the universe as one and the same primal "stuff," optimistic as in the transcendentalist writers such as Emerson and Thoreau.

(e) http://www.quartavia.org/inglese/neuroscenze1.htm

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The reason Rich posted this particular article here is because I invited him to. I was aware of the difficulty he was having awhile back on other forums in getting his idea across, and the arguments were always inflammatory against him, so Rich and I started corresponding off line.

During that time, he wrote this article. However, he decided back then to post it on the We The Thinking site of Nathan Hawking (www.wethethinking.com) to avoid a lot of acrimony. Now the article is here, with due thanks to Nathan for graciously not raising any objections. I am fairly sure that Nathan's spirit is one of being glad that Rich is getting more exposure. As a return courtesy, I encourage people to visit Nathan's site if they are interested in serious off-the-mainstream discussion of important issues. One note: it is not an Objectivist site, nor does it pretend to be one.

I am not sure whether the word "mysticism" is a very happy one when Objectivists are involved. Scratch that. I am SURE that is is a poor choice. It is like "altruism." Ayn Rand used a great deal of her energies and arguments against concepts that are identified by those words.

However, I read the article and think that Rich is starting to arrive at a point where a mystic (in his sense) and an Objectivist can talk about the same concepts, disagree, but essentially know where each one is coming from without erupting into flame wars.

Rich has gone a ways in trying to communicate what mysticism is. I asked for a one line definition and he wrote me back that mysticism is gnosis. Ergggghhhh! Another of those words!

Here is my take. There are mental states that range from deep sleep to full creative concentration. Among those mental states is one, sort of like a trance, where a feeling of peace and observing an undefinable truth is so strong that the one who has felt it cannot deny the fact that he did experience this. He knows that he cannot point to an objective fact and say, "This is what I am talking about." But he cannot turn his mind away from an experience that was extremely vivid to him - or worse, rationalize it as some kind of short circuit in his brain's wiring.

Thus I understand Rich to use mysticism to mean a powerful subjective experience - a mental state, not a formal metaphysical proposition. The "what exists" seems to be a big question mark at this point from the way it is expressed. The "knowing that it exists" seems to be the mystical experience.

Now how does this tie into Objectivism? My own read, once again, is that the evidence of the senses is not being denied, neither are the integrative mechanisms of cognitive thought, nor is the strict use of sensory-based reason. What I see is that Rich is proposing an addition to all that - a subjective one, granted, but one that does not necessarily contradict reason and, apparently, is powerfully experienced by many, each in his own fashion.

When I say "does not contradict reason," I mean just that. I do not think Rich is proposing a new form of cognition, merely identifying an experience that possibly reflects an aspect of reality that is still vague to our awareness. The way this vagueness is manifest is by saying that mysticism deals with "spiritual truth," whatever that may mean (and there seem to be many meanings).

I have mixed feelings on all this, but I do not deny the sincerity of someone like Rich. I believe that he reports what he experiences to the honest best of his ability.

One thing is clear to me. Rand's concept of mysticism, i.e., a doctrine where people believe that faith or whim can alter the reality they perceive by the senses and rationally integrate, is not what Rich is talking about. He is talking about a subjective experience with a high emotional wallop - one strong enough to convince the person that he has experienced something true and real.

I have more thoughts, but I have said enough for now. I am extremely interested in what some of the other highly intelligent people on this forum think about this.

Michael

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Dang, I could've sworn I replied to this yesterday. I think I missed a button... I shall tray again here, I didn't like what I wrote anyway because I was rushing.

Thanks on a number of counts, MSK, you know how deeply grateful I am for the help, and the opportunity you have been so gracious with extending.

Gnosis. Yes, that definitely gets people urpy. But, you know, it's a simple word, it just means direct knowledge of the divine. Gnostics got in real trouble (even more trouble) when Constantine did his corporate mainstreaming job on Christianity.

The argument, for the modern, is that gnosis cannot exist because the divine does not exist. You cannot have direct knowledge/experience of what isn't. I'm pretty much convinced that that argument is not fixable. My interest is in finding a solution for coexistence that both sides find acceptable.

Going back to the debate on gnosis, or the mystical state in general, as I show in my article, we are dealing with ultra-murky waters. The interesting thing is that, while there are many types of plausible non-mystical explanations for the various states (epileptic activity, for instance), in the end there is no way of finding out if the mystic state is triggered by "God," or not. There is an excellent summary on this at

http://skepdic.com/altstates.html

Without going into a lot of detail and citation, there are some researchers who describe brain function and design related to this area as almost as if humans were born with an antenna that is pointed to the cosmos.

It is also fair to say that it is likely that many people have experienced what they have described as a "mystical" state/experience when what it really was was more along the line of a consciousness-raising, a paradigm shift. There might be less argument to be had when talking about the idea that there are different tiers of consciousness in people.

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Yup, that would be gnosis... :)

Well, you were asking me to boil down mysticism, Michael. 8)

Maybe gnosis is not the best choice then, because it points to a particular historical origin. So, on reboil: Direct experience of (The Divine, Spirit...).

Still, the main stick point is and will probably always remain whether or not one believes in what is purported to be experienced.

I do not believe it is possible to prove the mystical experience to someone who has not experienced it, because it is, well, experiencial. It would not matter if I were to go on about how it changed me from head to toe, etc. No argument can be made for it.

Mysticism is a state.

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Rich,

One of the reasons I invited you to post this article is that I intend to go after the mind-body dichotomy a bit - especially as regards the mind-brain connection.

One criticism I have of Objectivism is that there is much mighty and powerful preaching against the mind-body dichotomy, but the vast majority of Objectivists I have interacted with know precious little about the physical functioning of the brain. They treat the mind as if it were something completely separate from the body, yet preach the contrary.

I have to look up (when I get the time!) some experiments on mapping the brain waves of people who go into a mystical trance. That part of the experience can be (and has been) measured and is very real.

Also, I used to fiddle with a freeware program on brain entrainment. It is delightful. It is a very interesting little device that uses the difference between sound waves to prompt brain waves.

How it works is that you use headphones and it feeds one frequency in one ear and another "out-of-tune" frequency into the other. This sensory input results in certain types of brain waves being produced. There is a frequency for focusing, for relaxing, for creativity, etc. I used it and it works in a general manner on me.

One of the states is a mystical state (I don't remember it being called that, though). I never fiddled with that one, though. Now with you on board, it might be interesting.

Just writing about this program reminded me of it. I used to use it to help with translating (Portuguese to English). There is a lot of boring material in the translating business. In about 12 or 13 years, I personally translated over 35,000 pages of text. When the tears would come from sheer boredom and all the horrible writing of the original texts, I would turn this program on, listen to it for 20 minutes or so, then off I would go, cutting through everything and getting the job done.

I will find the program again and get back to you.

Michael

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Rich,

Here is the website for the program called Brain Wave Generator.

http://www.bwgen.com/index.htm

The program is shareware and you can use it for free for a month. Then it costs 40 bucks. (For the really stingy and less principled, there are probably some ways of getting around that by deleting cookies and installing it again or downloading it again or something... That wouldn't be anybody on this forum, though.)

It was made in the Netherlands.

There is some good literature on this site about brain entrainmnet, too.

As I said, I have used it and it has worked in a general manner. (But leave it to an ex-druggie to like messing around with his own brain waves!)

Michael

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Ah, MSK, we resonate greatly...

I've been using that brainwave tool forever, I even bought the licensed version from him a long time ago. I always forget how to spell his name, isn't it (too lazy to go check) like Mikko Norroma, or something?

It is a great tool. At one point I real-time recorded the various presets to a mini-cd format so I could put them by my bedside. It is a great toolbox to have if you have those, and Nathaniels hypnosis stuff, particularly the ones I remastered and offered on CD for sometime.

I have been posting on ROR, regarding what I now call "the problem".

If you are looking at things like bwgen, that means you are aware of the various states of brainwave activity.

Personally, I used to lean pretty heavily on the "sleep replacement" program, which got me few a few rough patches when I came home late from gigs and had to regroup before work. That was worth the price of admission.

You know, Michael, you are getting dangerously close to the gallows when you talk about contemplative states. What I found even more interesting was the reply you wrote to Linz on his new site regarding The Pope<tm>. That had heart.

Back to the tool, well, I kind of pulled back from going into it more because I couldn't rationalize buying the A/V gear, plus, I started thinking I look dopey enough in the first place without being hooked up to goggles and headphones on a regular basis... :)

I think that these kinds of things are healthy and good. But they won't lead you straight to the mystical experience (purported, sorry). They will condition you to being open to it, maybe. It's definitely Big Fun, and to be had for free...

rde

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Rich,

I know you were an Objectivist for a long time and then made the switch to UU. I still don't quite understand why anyone would buy into religion after finding Objectivism. I know how I went most of my life thinking something was actually wrong with me for not getting the spiritual thing. It was all senseless crap packaged in various ways. It made absolutely no sense at all to me and I didn't know another atheist. I kept my doubts to myself, and only my closest friends (pagens) knew I rejected all spirituality and did not believe in a soul and they accepted that. When I discovered Rand, it helped tremendously and the pieces finally fit. I finally fit. Now I am out.

I know our philosophy does not have all the answers, but I would keep searching within the realm of reason rather than religion.

I know you said you had a mystical experience, but on closer examination, could it not be explained away using reason? States of consciousness can altered and attributed to physical, emotional or other causes besides mystical.

Kat

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Hi, Kat!

Nice present you got your boy, here. Isn't he doing a great job with it?

Answers... I will be short right now because I'm a bit hacked from another, er, engagement elsewhere... 8)

My particular "package" is very different. It is the antithesis of other packages. If you were visiting us for some reason, you would be very comfortable, and meet some people that you'd enjoy and value. It is a community that I wouldn't trade for the world. The UU world is for sure the "uncommon denomination".

Could my experience/conversion be explained away? Yes. Will that change me back? No. I am a reasonable, sane man. I know logic as well as the next O'ist. How odd that no amount of chopping logic will ever be able to persuade me. Isn't that something? I can't even do it to myself!

It is too deep, it is permanent, and it is head-to-toe. It is a change in being, consciousness. It's always been frustrating to me when I heard people say things like this. I guess it takes one to know one. Fortunately, in the case of my "conversion," I have enough background that it didn't turn me into an asshole.

best to ya!

r

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Ah, I have another moment, a little more anyhow.

There are many, many descriptions of the religious state. Here is one I like (happens to be creationist, from Starbuck's manuscript collection):

"I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep,--the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone withHim who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect union of my spirit with His. The ordinary sense of things around me faded. For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exaltation remained. It is impossible fully to describe the experience. It was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the listner conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted the He was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two."

There are thousands of accounts like this, I just picked that one because it has the authentic ring of the experience to it. I do not mean to make any proof, that cannot be done. All else I can say to it, Kat, is that it changed my composure for the better, I am much more peaceful now. And, more importantly, it changed my actions. It is very clear that my actions are more moral, and more of them. It is the same in how I treat others now, which is very different than before.

I do not believe that medical materialism can fully address all varieties of mystical experience. And, in any event, sometimes if, say, you're running a fever, it might be a moment where that fever is more condusive for bringing truths out than the normal body temperature... :)

r

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Interesting thing here from Ken Wilber's "Integral Naked" site:

http://integralnaked.org/talk.aspx?id=569

This is Nathaniel talking about a rational reconstruction of transrational mysticism.

Integral Naked is a very strong site, and, while they do charge ten dollars a month, you can get the first month for free.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hello all. The person accused of being a mystic is often only using a very small sample of evidence to support his views. That sample of evidence resonates very deeply with him, and makes sense. Maybe he can even reconcile it with Objectivism. My feelings on this remain as I have stated them before on other forums - I care little for what you call yourself, it is how you LIVE that I am concerned. If only the world were so so very simple that labels meant something eh?

Kat and Michael, I wish you all the best with this conversation and the forum. You know that even though we may disagree on some things, I am very fond of you both.

regards and happy new year,

John

(Note from Administrator: John Newnham asked to be removed from the member list before the forum was transferred to a new program, thus his member name was lost.)

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John,

Thank you very much for that. I was afraid that our differences might have prompted an estrangement. I especially appreciated the following quote from your post:

I care little for what you call yourself, it is how you LIVE that I am concerned.

The old what you say and what you do thing. I full agree. Too many Objectivists say and don't do. And so many people do the right thing and call it something else. (That goes vice versa, but each person will focus on which side as he/she sees fit - I prefer the positive.)

Now, about this doing thing...

Did you know that one of the purposes of this site is to foster creative writing? Hmmmmmmmmm??????!!!!!!....

I will be in touch off line to pester you a bit.

You know you live in my heart, John. In Kat's heart too. (Probably some mystical thing or the other...)

:D

Michael

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Welcome and greetings, John!

Yes, the doing thing. Regardless of how we look at Being, as Joseph Campbell once said: "The action is down here." Being a Unitarian Universalist, I am more concerned with useful purposes in life than anything else...

To reply to your observation about partial evidence:

This is clearly true in some cases. In some of them, there is pathology involved. One reason I wrote this article is because, in Objectivism, at least, the term "mysticism" is a blanket one, and in my view it serves little purpose outside of the O'ist community, where it functions just fine, given the structure of the philosophy. My goal was to focus specifically on the experiencial level, rather than mysticism just being anything that is not "it-science," something that cannot be apprehended on the empirical level, the monological level. So, I found it useful to narrow my focus by not talking about things like superstition, for instance, when I talked about mysticism.

If you are interested in some of what is behind where I am coming from, it is good to know that my conception of reality differs (but includes much of) that of Objectivism, so that when you say "evidence," for me it is something different than only empirical evidence (the "it" view), and includes the interior dimensions (the "I" and "we" views) along with it. I have adopted and am in total agreement with the work of Ken Wilber on this, which can best be quickly represented in his AQAL model, shown here:

http://www.formlessmountain.com/KW-WTC/foo...notes/aqal.html

It is almost impossible to avoid mission creep here, but I will try. In solid debate terms, one place where dialogue with Objectivists shows limitation for me is that, in addition to (in my view) an overly-wide application of the word "mysticism," they also do something similar when proclaiming something to be "irrational," or non-evidence-based. That is because I believe that the process of evolution (any kind of evolution) is one of inclusion, not dissociation. Ideally, it transcends, but includes all the essential elements of that from which it came. Rationality evolved out of the pre-rational state (sensation, imagery, intense feelings), but if it does not embrace or include them, the result is dissociation, a.k.a. pathology. If you look at biology and apply the same example, you will see where this is coming from.

There is no sign that evolution stops, and this is so when we look at the evolution from pre-rational to rational. What comes next would be the "transrational" state, which transcends, but includes rationality.

And here is where I think we get to it- Objectivism, so far as I can tell, does not distinguish between the pre- and trans- rational states. As a matter of fact, it does not recognize the transrational state as existing at all. Rationality is where the line of evolution seems to end with Objectivism.

The transrational state (which could be reasonably and understandably thought of by some as a kind of "mystical" state) is not developed through monological knowing, as useful as that type of thinking is. It is developed mainly through disciplined practices such as meditation (contemplative knowing), at least if one wants something that can be repeatable and experiencally transferrable. But again, even something that is experiencially transferrable does not qualify as "evidence" in Objectivism, because it comes out of the interior dimensions.

A few comments on general perception of things mystical. When talking about mysticism, first pictures people often have involve things they have noticed in the world, the symbology, the art, the writing, and so on. This is the sphere of art, and in human history there has been a lot of it. For the most part, it is pretty exotic stuff- take mandalas, for instance. This is the stuff of the "we" section the interior dimension- what Wilber calls the "Left Hand of the Kosmos." This includes all kinds of "magical" looking stuff, and of course Objectivists, scientific materialists, hardcore moderns in general despise all this and think it is pretty much irrational crap. There is an understanding that can be applied to this kind of art; it is that things such as these are often, very often, designed as tools of contemplation- their purpose is to act as aids toward moving into the contemplative state of knowing.

There are many varieties of mystical experience, but two things they all seem to have in common, as James pointed out, is that they are of limited duration, and something of the experience permanently remains afterward. It might be possible to account for the brief duration by assuming that many, probably most, of the people that had the experiences were not in possession of a tool, a yoga, for achieving the sustained and repeatable transrational state I mentioned above.

Best Regards,

rde

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  • 3 weeks later...

Well, this is an interesting and rather different perspective of "Mysticism" as I've been exposed to. Over time and experiences, I've come to see Mystics as the precise opposite of Scientists.

Science feeds on mystery. Science thrives in the ignorance and the unknown. Mystery – that which we don’t yet know; that which we don’t yet understand – is the mother lode that scientists seek out.

Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a very different reason: it gives them something to do. Maybe we don’t understand yet, but we’re working on it! Each mystery solved opens up vistas of unsolved problems, and the scientist eagerly moves in.

Don't get me wrong here and think that I have anything against mere curiousity and excitement of the unknown, of course - there is a difference between respectful awe and curiousity of "what's out there", and mining mystery for ores of intellectual onanism to alleviate personal dissatisfaction with reality.

With that said, I'm forced to reconsider alternative definitions of the M-word, upon the discovery of Rich's Objectivism-friendly mysticism, if I do understand correctly.. which, perhaps, remains to be seen.

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This brings my mind back to something my Chemistry teacher said while explaining different ways that people learn and think.

According to one theory, there are four types of thinkers who, when you get right down to the bottom of it, ask a certain question. I don't recall the other three, but the one that I (and quite possibly most of you) fall under is the "Why?" category. Tell them to do something, and they'll ask "why?" Not in a rebellious way, but just to understand it better. They react to life in this same way. People of this type are usually deeply religious, or philosophers.

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W.C. says:

Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a very different reason: it gives them something to do. Maybe we don’t understand yet, but we’re working on it! Each mystery solved opens up vistas of unsolved problems, and the scientist eagerly moves in.

This is true of some people. Two flavors come to mind. The first is the time-honored con artist. That trait is in even some of the great and true mystics (Gurdjieff was notorious for sheep-shearing). There has always been a lot of this in martial arts, too. In the end, the only real secret is that there are no secrets.

The other flavor is prevalent in the postmodern world, and I agree with Ken Wilber when he attributes much of it to narcissistic, "me-generation" behavior. Most of that is benign, some of it is obnoxious. I know a lot of people into that kind of head. The benign ones, well, I tend to take more of a Campbellian/Jungian view. Really, I don't care what kind of fabric they drape over it. The hardcore narcissists, there is not much one can do; I usually try to turn them on to Nathaniel Branden books.

I hope you can see why I took the tack of narrowing mysticism down to the mystical experience. I still think that William James covered the most ground there as far as Westerners go, even though his work is nearly a century old.

Rufus Jones made a huge contribution to taking the exotic weirdness out of mysticism.

My interest in mysticism now is mainly directed at sustained spiritual experiences, and there is a technology there, there has been for thousands of years. Various eastern schools of meditation can satisfy broad empiricism (that is, empiricism that is applied to the interior domains as well as the exterior ones), can satisfy scientific method, in terms of the paradigm/analyse results/repeatability-teachability process.

I believe that transient mystical experiences occur frequently and broadly, but sustained ones require a disciplined, methodical approach, namely meditational practice.

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