Mysticism As A Cultural Remedy

In his Behold the Spirit, A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion, Alan Watts presents a four-part cycle of civilization consisting of the infancy, or thesis, in which a fledgling culture takes its seed from the composted heap of its predecessor, (a la Rome’s appropriation of Greek components), the antithesis, in which the developing culture begins to strain its doctrinal bonds in discovering its unique character through rebellion against traditions, and the crisis, in which

‘The culture exploits its new found power on the physical plane, but in its enthusiasm loses touch with its traditional roots. Imperialism and materialism flourish until they reach their practicable limits or collapse through loss of inner, spiritual meaning’ (Watts, 28).

The rather hopeful rendering of the final stage, synthesis, seems the perfect marriage of the finite and infinite, of youthful vigor informed by seasoned wisdom; a ‘second religiosity.’ It is the aged but well-weathered snow-covered castle in the optimist’s crystal ball whereas the maelstrom darkening the pessimist’s glass concludes in implosion, collapse,and anarchy. With so many lamenting the West’s current state of crisis, it seems appropriate to look forward to the refined twilight of our culture’s consciousness and to speculate as to the role mysticism might play in shaping and informing our mature vision.

The Problem: Ideas as Blinders

I have met many that are confused, in pain, or, most often, repressing the awareness that they are both. I feel that, because there is much agony caused by deeply rooted and typically western and secular thought patterns, there is also much that mysticism can do to open and console modern minds. One of mysticism’s chief boons is its nearly pan-traditional call for flexibility and openness in thought, especially in the Eastern texts. Additionally, mystical ontologies contain much that reminds one that they are a component of a great mystery, which is typically more comforting than the cosmology which holds all-that-is-not-man to be a raw and mindless mass upon which man must inflict his will. Much of our tension as westerners arises from our alienating mechanistic cosmology of merely matter malleable by man, one indirect opposition to a more eastern notion which Joyce termed the ‘mamamatrix most mysterious’. From these separate ontological schemes qualitatively opposite life-experiences emerge.

Materialism has been resoundingly characterized as central to our outlook as westerners. Indeed, in grade school we are handed prefabricated worksheets complete with exercises in comparison shopping, writing checks, and calculating tips. We become comfortable with, or at least very familiar with, its sibling, consumerism, at a young age as the blueprints of our cultural heritage begin unfolding in developing minds. I believe espousing a worldview of which materialism is a core component has several distinct repercussions. There is a tendency to quantify and commodify things that are immaterial, that cannot and should not be conceptualized in terms of goods, services, trades, attainments, as are many things we aim to “get”. Friendships become teeth around necklaces, social connections become currency, and interpersonal relationships become shallow for being subject to the unspoken rules of commerce and the fickle dictation of its markets. Obsessively valuing appearances and status over the underlying substance, we begin to construct ostentatious identities, to become absorbed with a creation of, and an incessant tuning of, a respectable’self’ that can be presented to others in a society that is frenziedly categorizing and relentlessly hierarchical. It is from this specific behavioral oddity that some of our fears relating to impermanence and death arise, for the dissolution or eradication of something so vainly, unceasingly and sisypheanly mounted up as a public ego, into which all sense of purpose and all weight of preserving instinct is dumped throughout a lifetime, is certainly terrifying!

When something becomes as pervasive in a society as materialism is in ours, human interactions are unavoidably influenced by this dominant credo. As quickly as a new status quo is formed from the congealed slurry of a hundred abortive half-thoughts and as many popular trend projections, a new paradigm of perfection is invented; a new grab bag of material status symbols and immaterial personal attributes that must be furiously snatched up and gloatingly displayed. It is, essentially, the wrong kind of madness, bereft of the gaiety and whimsy that opens one’s eyes to possibilities, and full of the banal preoccupations that narrow the mind by repetitive assaults until it has room only for grabby hands, coins, and differentiations.

In the meantime, life suffers. Direct engagements with what can be properly termed life, in all its wildness and diversity and awful unity of forms, are nowhere to be found. There seems to me to be little available space in which to come to explore, in a spirit of honesty, what this mysterious involvement in life could mean, and what one’s place in it might be. All fleeting sensations of life’s unapproachable strangeness, all inklings that it is absolutely, unimaginably strange to be alive (in my opinion the springboard for any worthwhile growth) are subverted, trampled over and ignored in the fearful perpetuation of the western carnival of neuroses.

When one is thusly occupied, when one can chart past occupations and certain future arrangements on a calendar, can touch amassed wealth as the physical representation of tasks completed, one can pardon oneself from the burden of being consumed by metaphysical doubt; of being thrown into chaos by the uncertainty that forever propels and eludes anyone that dares to question.

But what is the consequence of perceiving the world as a dumb garden over which we have partial mastery? Alan Watts seems to suggest that this obsessive materialism penetrates to and taints even the most personal and internal pursuits:

‘God is the most obvious thing in the world. He is absolutely self-evident- the simplest, clearest and closest reality of life and consciousness. We are only unaware of him because we are too complicated, for our vision is darkened by the complexity of pride. We seek him beyond the horizon with our noses lifted high in the air, and fail to see that he lies at our very feet. We flatter ourselves in premeditating the long, long journey we are going to take in order to find him, the giddy heights of spiritual progress we are going to scale, and all the time are unaware of the truth that ‘ God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. ‘ We are like birds flying in quest of the air, or men with lighted candles searching through the darkness for fire.’

Arising from the mechanical cosmology, there is a tendency to look upon another person as a means to an end, as a potential leg-up or as a key piece within a puzzle. In such a view, there is little or no room for any imagination of the other’s awareness as an equal entity; for the realization that each person you meet has a mental life of their own, a history, a future, cares, desires and fears. This paradigm is alienating for both the observer and the observed, for while the observed will not usually be given a fair shake as a human being, the observer also denies himself a valuable lifeline by cheapening his fellow man into another component of the dumb cosmos to be acted upon. He turns against the possibility of companionship. He cannot enter into a meaningful or helpful unity so long as this view of I-It is maintained. However,I do not believe the realization that each person inhabits an individual and insular cell of reality, an image which many people seem to arrive at various iterations of, is sufficient explanation for the widespread feelings of loneliness and separation that many experience. There is something deeper than the demarcations of corporeality that frustrates human intimacy, and it likely stems from the aforementioned carnival of egos and measurements. There is a cankerous aversion to honesty, generated by the frantic desire to maintain a respectable appearance amidst a world of perceived competitors. Wherever there is the possibility for a loss of status, for embarrassment, appearances are held up like shields, and illusion continues to beget illusions. Correlatively, so long as the universe is viewed as coincidental instead of causal, man will feel himself separated from it as from an alien terrain, and the end result is the terror in attempting to grasp the sheer magnitude of it all, the inconceivable amount of unknown space that is unfriendly and not-man.

But if such ideas as those that now plague us are so singularly powerful that they can form a mind in their own image, then their counterparts are also powerful enough to alter what has already been shaped. Many of these problems are due largely to damaging and misguided intellectual phraseology, for a world rephrased is a completely different world, as surely as a song remixed is not the original one. Mystical texts have the capacity to drastically and rapidly shake-up one’s worldview through the sheer peculiarity and outlandishness of their assertions and the methods of their presentation.

Mollifying Mystical Mojo-

We have within our various mystical texts several ideas that could be of great assistance to the ailing western mind. Insomuch as mysticism challenges the ego, relates that life defies categorization, and reminds one that he is an element of something larger, it is a potent antidote to constricting secular egotism. Whereas the west’s damning dualism says start and stop, life and death, young and old, the mystics say ebb->flow,immanence/transcendence in one, individuality/unity for all. Western dualism paints the event of death in far more terrifying a manner, with the precious self being born into a timeline and then dropping off into an abyss of nothingness or uncertainty. It is the aforementioned obsession with categorization and hierarchies that lead many to theorize as to the exact nature of the experience of death, trying to measure the electric outputs of the brains of the dying and gasping out anxious, throat-deep breaths.

Meanwhile, mysticism takes a moment to breathe from its heels and gently remind everyone that they have already well enough weathered the process of cosmic transformation, having already come into existence from nothing; that they are ipsofacto prepared to make whichever changes complete the necessary progression from one stage to another.

But there is something more subtle at work beneath these two different views which gives each its unique life. Whereas the western consciousness is ashamed and outraged that this vast, dumb, unspeaking universe is going to kill him, the mystic is at peace for the realization that the “mama matrix most mysterious” is going to fold him over again, as it has at least once before. This intimation of belongingness is both empowering and relieving. It is this type of intellectual rephrasing that could bring so much relief to those that have locked themselves into the “cold mechanics of moon and stars[1].”

The most important thing that mystical texts and practices can teach someone to do, in my opinion, is to remain bedazzled by the fact of their being. It is something that is easy to hear several times and still dismiss somehow. It is easy to pretend to an understanding of the exhortation: be amazed. I have certainly turned away from the full meaning of the suggestion a few times. But often the mystery of existing will well up in someone involuntarily. In such moments the intellect is shattered, and sights and sounds flood inward with their own urgency. All that is petty falls to the floor like dropped paper, and a distinct sense of homecoming precedes the overwhelming shudder of incommensurable awe. In trembling at the might and color of the universe, one shakes off his accumulated cultural blinders.

The mystical texts are valuable in this regard because their aim is often to invoke this response in their reader, be it through direct statement of the mysterious, or the indirect representation of it through abstract symbols and metaphors. It is often a gently suggesting voice I encounter when reading the texts, and, as someone disinclined to parochial fire-and-brimstone diatribes, I find its method of instruction uniquely tolerable.

For those occupied with the construction and maintenance of a respectable’self’, their task of identity will devolve into an endless game of egotistic tail-chasing without rest or completion. But mystical texts remind one that he who loses his life shall gain it [2], and that the path to selfhood is through selflessness [3]. Despite the distance of time and culture between our world and these philosophies, the mystical messages remain astoundingly applicable today. Therein seems to be rest and sanity for all those that will open themselves enough to be changed by the readings.

But if mysticism is to become more widely accepted, it will have to contend first with misconceptions that it is comprised of what Alan Watts calls “spookery”, meaning levitation and séances, for modern man seems adamantly resistant to superstition. Science’s promise of the eventual triumph of rationality in laying bare nature in all her secretive splendor has primed many to deride all that cannot be scientifically verified. Since there is certainly room for all that man wishes to spin out and pursue in his inquiry, there is also a way to reconcile seemingly disparate disciplines such as neuroscience and mystical theology. In fact, it should be clear that such things must be reconciled, for while mysticism cannot determine the various brain states resulting from different nutritional regimens, neuroscience cannot adequately treat the mystery of the human brain itself, a 3½ lb. watery pulp teeming with lightning that has created all of humanity’s greatest works.

Fortunately, there are excellent studies being done that give equal weight to scientific and spiritual dispositions, such as those that study the neurochemical and psychological aspects of religious meditation. In order for mystical ideas to survive snap judgments, however, many will have to become less attached to the conceit that human life can be without absurdity, mystery and uncertainty.

[1]John Gardner’s Grendel.

[2]Luke 17:33

[3]Chaung Tzu’s Basic Writings