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