Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Schuon on Islamic Esotericism

The Islamic religion is divided into three constituent parts: Īmān, Faith, which contains everything one must believe; Islām, the Law, which contains everything one must do; Ihsān, operative Virtue, which confers upon believing and doing the qualities that make them perfect—in other words, that intensify or deepen both faith and works. Ihsān, in short, is the sincerity of the intelligence and the will: it is our complete adherence to the Truth and our total conformity to the Law, which means that we must on the one hand know the Truth entirely, not only in part, and on the other hand conform to it with our deepest being and not only with a partial and superficial will. Thus Ihsān opens onto esoterism—which is the science of the essential and total—and is even identified with it; for to be sincere is to draw from the Truth the maximal consequences from the point of view of both intelligence and will; in other words, it is to think and will with the heart, hence with our entire being, with all we are.

Ihsān is right believing and right doing, and it is at the same time their quintessence: the quintessence of right believing is metaphysical truth, Haqīqah, and that of right doing is the practice of invocation, Dhikr. Ihsān comprises as it were two modes, depending on its application: the speculative and the operative, namely, intellectual discernment and unitive concentration; in Sufi language this is expressed precisely by the terms Haqīqah and Dhikr or by Tawhīd, “Unification”, and Ittihād, “Union”. For Sufis the “hypocrite” (munāfiq) is not merely someone who gives himself airs of piety in order to impress people, but it is the profane man in general, someone who fails to draw all the consequences implied in the Dogma and Law, hence the man who is not sincere since he is neither consequential nor whole; now Sufism (tasawwuf) is nothing other than sincerity (sidq), and the “sincere” (siddīqūn) are none other than Sufis.

Ihsān, since it is necessarily an exoteric notion as well, may be interpreted at different levels and in different ways. Exoterically it is the faith of the fideists and the zeal of the ritualists; in this case it is intensity and not profundity and thus has something quantitative or horizontal in it when compared with wisdom. Esoterically one can distinguish in Ihsān two accentuations: that of gnosis, which implies doctrinal intellectuality, and that of love, which requires the totality of the volitive and emotive soul, the first mode operating with intellectual means—without however neglecting the supports that may be necessitated by human weakness—and the second with moral and sentimental means. It is in the nature of things that this love can exclude every element of intellection and that it can readily if not always do so—precisely to the extent it constitutes a way—whereas gnosis on the contrary always contains an element of love, doubtless not violent love but one akin to Beauty and Peace.

~Frithjof Schuon

[Sufism: Veil and Quintessence]

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dan Merkur on Mystical Experience, Reification


Underhill's effort to translate a type of religiosity into a discrete psychological state was widely imitated. Prophets, spirit mediums, and shamans were each defined by reference to a distinctive religious experience. The general paradigm was tidy, but it flew in the face of the facts.

The idea that mystics must conform with a modern definition of mysticism, or are not to be counted as mystics, is a criterion for assessing authentic and inauthentic mysticism. It privileges certain experiences over against others. Mystical union has been treated as the essence of mysticism. Visions, by contrast, have occasionally been noted, but have regularly been treated as an afterthought, an addendum, a peripheral concern. It privileges certain experiences over against others. Mystical union has been treated as the essence of mysticism. Visions, by contrast, have occasionally been noted, but have regularly been treated as an afterthought, an addendum, a peripheral concern. Important as normative value-judgments may be for theologians, they express sectarian desiderata for the future. They are not impartial descriptions of the past. Historians, who define mysticism on historical principles, must instead consider the actual practices of people who have traditionally been considered mystics (pneumatics, kabbalists, sufis, yogis, and others). What the mystics of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam traditionally or presently consider to be mystical, may not be a sufficient or complete account of mysticism. But no approach to mysticism that is less extensive can pretend to adequacy. Mysticism may entail more than what the traditionally recognized mystics have practiced, but it certainly encompasses nothing less. With saints and sinners, the orthodox, heterodox, and heretical, normative and eccentric, mainstream and marginal all counted in together, we find a tremendous diversity among mystical experiences.
Comparative perspectives are not necessary to establish this point. Consider the evidence of Western Christianity alone

Interior visions are dreamlike experiences that may involve images, beings, sceneries, events, and so forth. As in dreams, the mental presentations consist primarily of visual images, but auditory or other sensory representations may occur as well.

Ecstatic religious traditions do generally favor certain experiences over against others. However, the favoritism is not the product of access to certain varieties of experience, as distinct from others. Conscious choices are made for a variety of historical factors: ideological, socio-political, economic, ecological, and so forth.

This circumstance has important consequences for historians. If the "common core" hypothesis were correct that mystical experiences are everywhere one and the same, it would no more be possible to write a history of mysticism than a history of sense perception. Histories would be restricted to beliefs and theories (philosophies, theologies, and so forth) about mysticism, but mysticism as such would be a topic for psychologists.

Because mystical experiences are various, however, it is possible to write a history of the very practice of mysticism. Just as complex mystical doctrines must be learned in order to be transmitted, so too must techniques for the induction and direction or control of mystical experiences. Choices among techniques influence the content of the resultant experiences and so contribute to mystics' doctrines.

Mystical experiences are religious uses of otherwise secular alternate states of consciousnessor more precisely, alternate psychic states. What makes an alternate state experience a religious one is its personal or cultural valuation.

In order to develop a crosscultural formulation that reflects the autonomy of contemplations, I define ecstasy as any state of involuntary belief in the reality of the numinous. Like sense perception during normal waking sobriety and dream hallucinations during sleep, the autonomous contents of an ecstasy have a compelling psychic reality for at least the duration of their occurrence. The ecstatic is then convinced that the numinous is real--as real or more
real than the perceptible world. In contrast with sober faith in the numinous, which requires an act of will, ecstatic belief in the reality of the numinous is involuntary. Whether or not the occurrence of ecstasy was voluntarily sought, once the experience is underway faith in the reality of the numinous is not subject to volition. Doubt can be entertained, but it cannot be sustained for the duration of the experience. Uniquely among the varieties of religious experience, ecstasies have the power not only to confirm religious faith that already exists, but also to induce conversions from unbelief to belief.

Catholic accounts of the scala contemplationis divide trance into a number of steps (e.g., four or seven) that commence with normal waking sobriety and culminate in intense states of trance. However, current scientific thinking endorses Ronald Shor's proposal that traditional concepts of trance depth confabulate what are in fact three independent factors.

The mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever of its own. It is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies, provided only they can find a place in the framework for its peculiar mood.

Introspective unions involve no experience of any actual union, uniting, or joining; neither is there a process in which subject-object distinctions disappear. There is simply and suddenly the experience that self is the unique or solitary existent, that the subject is infinite, eternal, and alone. Mystics who are theists experience introspective union as the selfhood of God. Postexperiential interpretations of the experience are much more various.

Psychoanalytic theory explains the differences among the three types of unitive experiences in developmental terms.

A psychoanalytic approach to unitive experience is reductive, but it is not necessarily inconsistent with a negative theology

The repression of the ego's reality-testing function makes it impossible for the person in trance to determine whether mental presentations are nonrepresentational. By inhibiting reality-testing, trance serves to reify whatever may be its contents. Mental presentations are assumed to represent perceptible realities, whether they do or not.

Most religious doctrines accommodate the process of reification. The unwillingness of religions to come to agreement with physical science has generally its basis in fantasies that have been reified, sometimes by trance states, and otherwise by the weight of received tradition. Reified fantasies are scarcely less than a mystical stock-in-trade.

In a few cases, the reification of fantasies by trance states is particularly noticeable because efforts have been made to struggle against it. In the Buddhist tantra of Tibet, novices are taught to meditate on topics whose very absurdity provides an object lesson of the illusory nature of the gods

Stace's formulation was inadequate to the mystical phenomena that he sought to describe. There is no such thing as "pure consciousness," "zero experience," or any such comparative construct. These formulations misrepresent the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is not analogous to a radio or television that may be on, even though no program is being received. There is no homunculus, no little person within the mind, observing the play of perceptions, memories, fantasies, and ideas as though on a movie screen. Such a postulation would imply yet another homunculus, inside the first, and so on in series through an infinite regress.79 Consciousness instead occurs when a mental presentation becomes sufficiently important to attract attention.80 In the absence of mental contents, there is no consciousness whatever.

These formulations are unacceptable, however, because they imply a homunculus. They also fail to explain why the observing self, which experiences nothingness, is experienced as the Self of an Other (atman, nirvana, keter, God, and so forth). In keeping with my general theory that autonomous trance phenomena are superego manifestations that compensate for the general repression of ego functions by the trance, I understand the experience of nothingness as an awareness of absence, specifically, the superego's awareness of the ego's absence.

The historical debt of the study of mysticism to the practice of Yoga has meant that the occurrence of ecstatic states that are not trances was unimagined until the 1950s and even today remains little acknowledged.

from Gnosis

Monday, February 14, 2011

in defense of Twitter for students of philosophy and religion (from FB)

I see lots of spam, but I get a ton of useful input on Twitter. It's changed my life--having a writing community like I have long felt was missing from my life. Much of the traffic is kinda mindless, but much of it is golden, especially if you make sure to unfollow the ones that turn out to be boring. I've hooked up with lots of interesting folks who've asked penetrating questions about my work, started up correspondences, shared many a hearty link. Don't understand what people are talking about when they call it silly. It's easy to filter out the silly stuff, but hard to justify overlooking the opportunity without good reason.

got ten blogs, archive the tweets on my Livejournal. addicted to convenient web publishing formats. writing a shit ton. I don't agree there's diminishing returns. working is always better than not working. I just post stuff, archive it, forget about it. excellent practice. my readers tell me what is the best stuff by responding and retweeting.

Or, to put it quickly, "folks love one-liners."

The question comes up of whether it's worth doing this writing on Twitter, since most of the time people don't even see or reply to the post. Why put myself through the pain of rereading and editing if it's just writing practice? I don't see twitter writing as something that should be held to any kind of high standard--why not just make an appropriate demand?

I honestly don't see what is wrong with this. maybe I'm wasting my time, but it sure seems like it's helping me become a much better writer. I never had anybody reading my stuff who understood it before. everybody I know personally tells me "wish I could read it but don't care." but tons of people in the net esoterica community are eating it up. like a stand up comedian, no matter how good the material, got to have the right audience. my alchemy blog is up to 400 hits a day. things are starting to look good for me as a writer, although I just bombed out of the GTU's cold-hearted abejctly unsupportive MA process and was stressing and despairing about my failure in academia. So tell me, why do you have a negative impression of Twitter?

email me ted.hand@gmail.com if you'd be interested to see a thousand pages or so of archives of the twitter conversations, I have them archived as pdf via this great service Tweet Book

one more thing I'll mention that I really dig about Twitter -- the opportunity to popularize the research of my friends and favorite scholars.