Mindfulness and Mysticism

The essence of the mystical experience is this---to see, feel, or otherwise know that you are or have become one with all that is. One with the ‘wholly other.’ The mystical experience involves more than just feeling. It usually takes the form of some direct and immediate and unsolicited apprehension of something wonderfully immanent or transcendent (or both) that is both self-sufficient and of ultimate significance (at least to the recipient of the experience if not others as well).

Plotinus, that great Neoplatonist philosopher of the ancient world, expressed it this way:

‘For how can one describe as other than oneself that which, when one saw it, seemed to be one with oneself.

‘It is not possible to see it or to be in harmony with it, while one is occupied with anything else. The soul must remove from itself, good and evil, and everything else, that it may receive the One alone, as the One is alone. When the soul is so blessed and is come to it, or rather when it manifests its presence, when the soul turns away from visible things … and becomes like the One … And seeing the One suddenly appearing in itself, for there is nothing between, nor are they any longer two, but one, for you cannot distinguish between them, while the vision lasts. … When is this state, the soul would exchange its present condition for nothing, no, not for the very heaven of heavens … .’

Rudolf Otto was one of the most influential and original thinkers and writers about religion in the first half of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known for his analysis of what he saw as the underlying experience of all religion, namely, a sense of the ‘numinous’ or ‘holy’. In his wonderful book The Idea of the Holy Otto expressed his opinion that, at the heart of the so-called mystical experience, there was this sense of the numinous or the holy. The numinous experience was, according to Otto, ‘inexpressible, ineffable’. Otto saw the numinous or holy as a mysterium tremens et fascinans, that is, a ‘tremendous’ (read, awe- and fear-inspiring) and ‘fascinating’ mystery. The experience of the numinous or holy is, according to Otto:

‘a unique experience of confrontation with a power … “Wholly Other,” outside of normal experience and indescribable in its terms; terrifying, ranging from sheer demonic dread through awe to sublime majesty; and fascinating, with irresistible attraction, demanding unconditional allegiance.’

Further, the experience, writes Otto:

‘grips or stirs the human mind. … The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane,’ non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strongest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering.’

Conversion experiences and so-called mystical experiences often involve one or more of the elements identified by Otto. In a similar vein, Carl Jung wrote that religion involves ‘a careful and scrupulous observation of what Rudolf Otto aptly termed the ‘numinosum,’ that is, a dynamic existence or effect not caused by an arbitrary act of will.’ He went on to say, ‘The numinosum is either a quality of a visible object or the influence of an invisible presence causing a peculiar alteration of consciousness.’

Mindfulness involves or requires, or at least generally results in, a certain reverence for life that carries with it an emotional intensity that can only be described as spiritual. Now, I am not talking about anything supposedly ‘supernatural’, whatever that word means. (I ask you, how could there be higher or lower levels of reality? As the Scottish-Australian philosopher John Anderson used to say, any talk of such things is simply ‘unspeakable.’) I am talking about an experience that transcends the intellect, the emotions, and the will---indeed, it is other than those three things, although the feelings, as well as elements of cognition, are involved. This experience is transformative, as you come to see all things of life differently. All things become new and fresh as if you were seeing them for the very first time. ‘Behold, I make all things new’ (Rev 21:5). Suddenly, and increasingly so over time, the so-called ordinary things of life seem ‘extraordinary.’ No, they remain ordinary, but you see them in a new light---the light of mindfulness. You have undergone a psychological mutation.

Is it a mystical experience? It can be. The experience can certainly ‘grip’ or ‘stir’ the mind, to use Otto’s words, and, yes, the feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide or burst in sudden eruption. The important thing we learn from our practice of mindfulness is this---whatever happens, we simply note and observe. If we stop to analyse the experience, it dies on us---instantly. All momentary experiences do, of course, whether we stop to analyse them or not. Our experience of life will always be moment-to-moment and somewhat fragmentary. It is always ‘new’ and ‘fresh,’ and only becomes stale and dead when we step back from the experience and start to analyse it, judge it, and evaluate it.

Now, the ‘One’ of which Plotinus wrote is comprised of the ‘many,’ and our experience of the many can be, and is, an experience of the ‘One’ (and the ‘Other’) when we really ‘see’ it and are ‘in harmony with’ the very livingness of life as it unfolds from one moment to the next. I like Plotinus’ words---‘The soul must remove from itself, good and evil, and everything else.’ As I see it, we must stop judging (as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ or whatever) the content of our moment-to-moment experience of consciousness and simply ‘know’ and ‘feel’ that we are ‘one’ with that experience. Not one in the sense that what is happening is ‘us’ or that we own it, but one in the sense that there is no separation in time or space between the happening of some occurrence and our direct and immediate apprehension of that occurrence. The moment we stop to analyse, judge, condemn, or evaluate the occurrence there is something between us and the experience, something that puts an impenetrable wall or barrier between us and the experience such that the experience dies on us. Worse still, for so long as we are engaged in the process of analysis, judgment and evaluation we cease to be aware of what is now before us in consciousness. It’s a fate worse than death.

The bottom line? You are one with the ‘Wholly Other,’ whether or not you are aware of that fact. In a very profound sense, there is no ‘Wholly Other,’ rather it is the direct and immediate but heightened experience of choiceless awareness of the very livingness and oneness of life as it unfolds from one moment to the next. Know it. Thrill to it. It is a tremendous and fascinating mystery.

Note. The substance of this article first appeared on the author’s own blog on October 16, 2013.