HOW TO BECOME A MYSTIC IN THREE EASY STEPS
1. Adopt the belief that there is a reality other than ordinary reality. At this point it does not matter much how you conceive of the other reality. It could be ghosts, UFOs, orgasm, or the Conspiracy. Given that you are a human being, you are at first likely to think of the other reality in the form of ancestor spirits and/or anthropomorphic deities. The earlier Hindu poetry, for example, is largely concerned with the nature and worship of gods with names like Agni, Soma, Indra, Varuda, and Visnu. As you progress, your conception of the other reality will change in a predictable way: it will shed, one by one, the attributes you ascribe to ordinary reality. First to go will be those nasty material needs: gods rarely go to the bathroom. At a more abstract level, since particularity and multiplicity are the most obvious general features of ordinary reality, the other reality will increasingly emphasize generality and unity. A Hindu, for example, will progress from a chaotic polytheism to some variant of monotheism. This will show up at first as henotheism, or the tendency of making whichever god you happen to be talking about sound like the best and the only one. It will end with a notion of the Brahman, or pure spirit, as the source of all divinity. What you take to be the chief attributes of ordinary reality will, of course, determine the progress of your concept of the other reality. As a Buddhist, for example, you will probably stress the notion of the self, or ’self-ish-ness’, as a characteristic of ordinary reality, and so you will imagine a real reality without selves.
In this stage of your development, you will tend to utter lots of cosmo-babble. If a Hindu, you will probably start to think of certain individual gods as material elements, like earth and fire. As a Chinese from a certain region, you might be tempted to describe the origin and process of the world in terms of two basic forces, say, Yin and Yang. Later on, as your notions become more abstract, the other reality will be described in terms of being, non-being, and variations on that theme.
In distinguishing between worlds, you will also want to distinguish between wisdom and mere knowledge. Wisdom is knowing the Tao, the real way of things, or whatever you choose to call it, while knowledge is mere book-learning, or useless facts. Who cares about the molecular structure of corn or the number of pistons in a car engine? What matters is the structure of ultimate reality. Details are mere knowledge; but sorting out the details which together make up a picture of the whole is wisdom.
The evidence for adopting the belief in another reality is by definition insufficient. Evidence is part of this reality. Anything which could be conclusively proved — as opposed to merely suggested or indicated — would necessarily become a part of ordinary reality. So why adopt the belief? Typically, you will be motivated by a certain dissatisfaction with ordinary reality. You are unhappy that you cannot control rainfall, and so your livelihood seems precarious. Or, you get the feeling that life sucks and then you die. You might just be bored: the stars are much more interesting if you imagine them as fallen heroes or glorious gods. Or, you might be ambitious, want to become a god yourself. Running through all these is a general concern with the meaning of life: why am I here? why am I at all? who’s in charge here anyway? At this point, your motivation for adopting the belief in another reality is not terribly important. It will color your concepts and determine the speed of your progress, but you will still move predictably to step #2. Do not forget this motivation, however, for it will become important after step #3.
2. Describe the other reality as indescribable; or, just say No. This follows rigorously from the belief adopted in step #1. As you meditate on the matter, you will grasp that the source of all distinctions, and hence all descriptions, lies in ordinary reality. Sense-data, language, and the intellect itself all relate to things, like corn and automobiles, and are therefore all ordinary. The other world cannot be sensed, nor spoken of, nor even conceived. You are now on the via negativa of the medieval theologians, the road which passes through all eastern mysticism and leads to God through negation: He is not a mere mortal being; He is not merely an immortal being; He is not merely a being . . .
The Upanishadic poets, for example, will ask you to think of the other reality according to the principle of neti neti, meaning it’s not this, nor this, etc. But be careful: this does not entitle you to claim an understanding of the other reality. According to the Sanskrit sages, those who say they understand the other reality do not, and those who say they do not do, since it is by definition incomprehensible. Like Aquinas on his God, the poets conclude that the only statement one can make about ultimate reality is the ‘He Is’. The Taoists call their ultimate reality the Tao, meaning the ‘truth’, or the ‘way’, but then immediately insist that it is The Unnamable. The Tao of which we ordinarily speak is not the real thing. A Buddhist will refer you to the ‘Void’. Alternatively, he may call it the ‘Suchness’ — a remarkably general, hard-to-define, quasi-indexical notion. Like the Hindu theologian, he may limit what one can say about Nirvana to the bare assertion that ‘Nirvana Is’. Perhaps the most determined followers of the via negativa are, as usual, the Zen Buddhists. If you follow the Zen, you will find yourself rejecting all doctrines simply because they are doctrines — and this includes Buddhism and Zen itself. To understand the Buddha is not to understand, and not to understand is to understand, said one Zen Master. (Someone once beat a Zennie with a stick, or so the story goes. When asked why, he replied: ‘to beat is not to beat, and not to beat is to beat’.)
In brief, in order to grasp and affirm the meaning of the other, ultimate reality, you will have to say No to every possible representation of it. In other words, No means Yes. Let’s practice: No, it’s not a chair; No, it’s not a spirit; No, it’s not a candy bar; No, No, No . . . (Continue this on your own time.)
As you progress in your mysticism, you will notice some related developments. You will, for example, develop an acute aversion to all forms of opposition. Wherever two things are distinguished, set beside or against each other, there you know is no ultimate reality. As a Hindu sage, you want to be beyond pleasure and pain, beyond good and evil, beyond self and other, and beyond all possible oppositions. So also says the great Taoist Chuang-Tzu.
Now you will begin to wonder if wisdom, as opposed to mere knowledge, can ever be taught (even by such a handy guide as this). If ultimate reality is a bunch of Nos, then having-no-knowledge, as the Taoists put it, is an honorable goal. As a Taoist, in fact, you might even regard forgetfulness as a virtue. As in the Upanishads, you will deny that the poetry can ever convey the teaching, and insist on the uniqueness and importance of the individual relationship with one’s guru. Like a Zen master, you may have to adopt some unusual teaching techniques. When a student asks for the teaching of the Buddha, you beat him with a stick. You will probably conclude, like the Zen, that the knowledge of ultimate reality is not a philosophy or a religion, but an experience. Like the reality of which it is an experience, the experience itself is indescribable, incommunicable, incomprehensible . . .
3. Assert that the other reality is the only reality; or, that All is One; or, just say ‘Om’. This is it. The real thing. Mysticism puro. The other reality is the only one. What you thought of as the ordinary reality is a merely a part of an indivisible totality. Ordinary reality is a derivative, a manifestation, an expression of the inexpressible real reality. It is a collection of signs which all point to the One truth. Everything is interconnected, interdependent, in virtue of the One. Of course, this is also where it gets tricky, since in declaring that the other reality is the only reality you have eliminated the distinction which was necessary to make sense of the belief you adopted in step #1, that there is a reality other than ordinary reality.
If in the Chinese tradition, you will tend to think of the unity of reality in terms of ultimate principles. You might define the Tao (provisionally), as that by which things become what they are. In this you may be borrowing from the Confucian notion of Li, or principle. The Hindus before you thought of the All as Atman, meaning something like ’self’, or ‘cosmic self’ (and etymologically related to ‘breath’). Their great synthesis was expressed in the formula, ayam atma brahma, the self is the brahman, i.e. ultimate reality. When you have reached step #3 with us, you will say with the Hindu, tat tvam asi, you are that (i.e. that ultimate reality). In joining the cosmic self you will have achieved what the Buddhist achieves by dissolving the self altogether: you will have become one with all reality. You will have attained Nirvana. Since, according to step #2, ultimate reality is not supposed to have a name, you might want to adopt the Hindu ‘Om’, which is intended to serve as a vocalization all of reality.
Practical exercises. Try this at home: Ommmmmm. (I believe it is supposed to be a Sanskrit rendition of a cow’s moooooo.)
You will be happy to note that your encounter with reality also places you outside of time. Past, present and future, in basically all mystical traditions, is merely a derivative manifestation of the ultimate, timeless reality.
WHAT TO DO NOW THAT YOU’RE A MYSTIC
Careful readers will have noticed a certain obscurity in the logic of mysticism as outlined above. Mysticism begins with a distinction between two kinds of reality, and the implicit assumption that the other reality is knowable in some way. It next denies the knowability of this other reality, and then further denies the very distinction between kinds of reality. The paradox remains even when one tries to avoid the term ‘knowledge’ by using ‘experience’, or some other Zen-like term. For in any experience, or any form of consciousness, there is surely an experiencer and something which is experienced. And yet it is this very distinction between self and world which is supposed to be overcome in mystical experience. Then again, perhaps one should not expect too much logic from what is basically a disposition to believe what cannot be described, expressed, or even understood — in short, to believe in the unbelievable.
Still, let’s suppose that you’re already a mystic. What do you do now? Aye, there’s the rub. While the programs put forward by different groups are often reasonably similar, many are incompatible with each other. Given that mysticism always follows the three steps mentioned above, the differences in results are worthy of note. The reason for these differences is really quite simple. I will call it:
The Indeterminacy Principle. Mysticism determines no particular philosophy.
Proof. The fundamental mystical proposition that All is One can lead deductively to absolutely no logical or practical consequences. If All is One, any action I choose to take and any thought I choose to have are still part of that One. In fact, if All is One, neither I nor my actions are real in any sense, so there’s no point in talking about what ‘I’ should ‘do’ (or what is the case).
The flip-side of this principle is:
The No-Point-in-Preparing Principle. No form of teaching is guaranteed to prepare an individual for mystical experience.
Proof. You can shave your head and go live in the mountains, or you can go out and party every night: there is no way of knowing whether one experience or the other will lead you ‘beyond experience’.
In light of these principles, your options as a mystic can be roughly divided according to the following four-part scheme. Your choice of option may not be determined logically, but it may well be determined emotionally. So it is a good thing that you remembered your original motivation for believing in an extraordinary reality, as I recommended in step one above.
A. Run away. As in: from the senses, from the self, from consciousness, from particulars of any sort, from any kind of commitment or involvement which reminds you of ordinary reality. Go live on a mountain, stare at your nose, breath deeply, and avoid sex. This is the preferred option of hard-core mystics around the world, especially among Buddhists and Hindus. Some, like the Jainists in India, pursue a rampant asceticism. Others, like more mainstream Buddhists, believe excessive asceticism to be counter-productive, and advocate a more moderate course of frugality without mortification. Most mystics conceive of option A as an escape from particular sensual experiences. The Zen Buddhists, however, conceive of it as an escape from particular thoughts. All thoughts, they seem to think, are merely partial re-presentations and divisions of reality, and obscure the union with totality. The goal of the Zennies is therefore to ‘empty the mind’. Once the mind is empty, the theory goes, you are hooked up with reality. (Of course, you might also be dead.) A more general form of option A would be to escape from particularity as such. What is not particular is universal, and what is universal is a concept or idea. Which idea in particular, you ask? Well, none in particular, of course, except possibly the idea behind Plato’s idealism, the Idea of the Good, which is the Idea of the Idea . . .
The ‘logic’ behind option A is simple: our entanglements with ordinary reality make it more difficult for us to experience the other, real reality; so, no more sense-experience for us, please. The illogic is equally straightforward: if All is One, then why can’t our sense-experiences count as a part of this One?
B. Go with the flow. The value of experiencing the unity of all things can also be construed as a better ability to grasp your own nature and place in the world. It allows you to ‘get in touch with yourself’ and ‘go with the flow’ of the world around and within you. Instead of retreating from the world, as in option A, you remain active in ordinary reality, but in an unctuous and harmonious way. The best expressions of this notion, I think, are in the Chinese philosophies. The goal of Tao is a spontaneous ‘action without effort’. An old proverb, which came out of Chinese philosophy, says that one should ‘lean neither forward nor backward’ — that is, don’t push or pull, just move with things. Not merely a mountain guru, the Chinese wise man is expected to be ’sagely within, kingly without’. In a more radical form, the Chinese go-with-the-flow idea was expressed in the Neo-Taoist concept of feng liu, formed from words meaning literally ‘wind’ and ’stream’. The advocates of this concept favored the ‘natural’ course (which for some meant reason, for some sentiment) over the dictates of morality and so on.
Hinduism and Buddhism have set precedents for option B as well. In the Bhagavad-Gita, for example, the god Krishna counsels the warrior Arjuna to prosecute his war, despite his misgivings. In ‘action without regard for consequences’, Krishna argues, Arjuna can still realize his virtue. The Zen project of emptying the mind is also sometimes construed as a preparation for really getting into an activity. Thus, the Zen archer unites with bow, arrow, and target to hit the bullseye every time.
The logic behind option B is simple: if you’re in touch with the One, you’re in touch with everything else, so you’re bound to be a pretty good archer, king, or whatever. The illogic is also pretty simple. Going with the flow presupposes the possibility of not going with the flow. But if all things flow from the One, then there can be only one flow. So how could you ever be out of the flow?
C. Indulge thyself. Go ahead. Fulfill your innermost desires. Just do it. Whatever it is. Only a few, marginal sects have selected this option: the sentimentally-oriented Neo-Taoists of the Chin period mentioned above; the so-called ‘Yang Chu Chapter’ of the Taoist renegade Lieh Tzu; and the Indian Carvaka school. Those who do choose this option are subject to abuse from mainstream sects in the form of humiliating parables. They are described as sharing their wine with pigs, being incontinent, and generally living like slobs.
Nonetheless, the logical position of option C is the same as all the rest. On the pro side, you can say that all your desires are part of the One, so the One is happy when you get what you want. On the contra side, why should the One care at all about your particular desires, and besides, how are you going to choose which desires to fulfill?
D. Continue reading this book. If the Indeterminacy Principle is correct, then you may as well continue with whatever it was you were doing. From a logical point of view, option D is just as viable as the rest. If the No-point-in-preparing Principle is correct, then at least we can be sure that this book won’t do you any harm. So, on we go.
WHAT DOES MYSTICISM HAVE TO DO WITH PHILOSOPHY?
Good question. The belief in unbelievable things, whether ghosts or cosmic minds, is incompatible with our most basic understanding of philosophy. Philosophy is the love of knowledge, not superstition. I contend, however, that much of what passes for philosophy is in fact mysticism. Mysticism, in my view, is based on an abstraction from our ordinary, healthy way of knowing things. It is a natural dysfunction of our cognitive apparatus. Philosophy, when understood as something other than a general and favorable disposition towards knowledge, that is, when viewed a specific project and the source of privileged sort of knowledge, is just this sort of mysticism.