Lecture Four: Mysticism 4.1

4.1 Introduction


The guiding theme of these lectures is that the self is constructed in order to master uncertainty. In Lectures One and Two we explored what it means to posit the self as a construction and see the self as a constitutively relational phenomenon. Hard naturalistic accounts of the self offer a peculiar way of mastering uncertainty, in which it is regarded in a purely third-person perspective and the self is dismissed as illusory. This reductionist solution is one pole on the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self that we are exploring. Naturalism is based on a form of strong embodiment, in which the self is understood as essentially dependent upon an individual living (human) body.

In Lecture Three we moved one step away from this assumption, by exploring the possibility of weak embodiment. This view is presupposed by a rather broad, and probably ancestral way of constructing the self and its world, namely, shamanism. Not only is shamanism not a homogeneous phenomenon, but it is surely not reducible (or even analogous, for that matter) to a ‘philosophy’ in the contemporary Western sense of the term (a discipline concerned with rational and argumentative analysis of various domains of experience). Nonetheless, shamanism does come with its own cosmology and with a set of practices, which are all strongly connected with a specific set of views and ideas about how the world works and how individuals operate within it. These views might not be explicitly stated in their own right, but they are constantly operationalized and interwoven in shamanic cultures and practices. The weak embodiment upon which shamanism is predicated entails a peculiar notion of agency (the communitarian model of agency previously described), which has direct consequences for how the self is constructed.

Although naturalist accounts (especially the more liberal ones) do acknowledge the importance of social relations in the constitution of the self, they tend to conceive of these relations in rather general terms, as ways in which individuals are bound to other individuals. The shamanic view takes social relations in a stronger sense, as relations within a specific local group, usually a small-scale community in which all (or most) members know each other directly and define their own agency and identity in this kinship. We can observe that this stronger value attached to concrete communitarian bonds goes together with a relatively weak understanding of embodiment. The individual self, understood as an agent, is no longer something to be confined within the boundaries (i.e., skin) of one particular human body. The same body can host multiple agents, and an agent might occasionally leave a certain physical body. Weak embodiment (as introduced in Lecture Three) entails a form of ‘extended’ embodiment, in the sense that the same agent can be located or travel through the whole environment, and all elements that constitute the environment can be interpreted as sources of agency if they show irreducible activity. This view renders agency something shared throughout the spectrum of experience, including the whole of animal life and other non-human forces. If strong embodiment (which ties the self to an individual body) defines the naturalist project, then shamanism represents a worldview that is not-naturalist.

In this lecture, we move to the other end of our spectrum, exploring yet another way of constructing the self which is at odds with both naturalism and shamanism. Using a term that is not ideal but is nonetheless by now established in existing scholarship, we shall refer to this other pole as ‘mysticism.’ Mysticism can be defined as the dissolution of the self in what is experienced and interpreted as the ultimate, transcendent ground of reality. Four important remarks are in order.

First, mysticism entails both a certain experience and a certain interpretation of it. The experiential component is what one directly witnesses, feels, and to some extent (often limited) can relate to others. The interpretation consists in the meanings given to this experience, which are framed within existing and previously accepted views. Interpretation attributes further values and implications to the experience itself. Given a certain theistic framework, a mystical experience will be expected to entail, and will be then experienced as entailing, an encounter with the ‘God’ posited in that same tradition. A Christian mystic inevitably encounters the Christian God, although it might be possible for some individuals to draw more universalistic consequences from their experience (thus changing its interpretation). But one cannot encounter any god if the notion of ‘god’ is not already formed or accepted to some extent, even if only in an inarticulate way. Mystical experiences have an unavoidable conceptual dimension (which might or might not be fully spelled out or articulated) insofar as they presuppose a certain understanding of experience in general, and what can be expected to occur within it (remember Thompson’s observations about conceptuality we briefly discussed by the end of Lecture One, and Taylor’s notion of articulacy mentioned in Lecture Zero).

Second, mysticism can be seen as a dissolution of the ordinary, empirical, biographical, daily self. This dissolution does not lead to annihilation but to some form of subsumption, reunion, or reintegration with the broader ultimate reality that is encountered. One of the most common ways mystics frame their experience is by referring to it as a union with what they identify as the supreme or unconditioned principle (God, the One, the Self, or anything else that plays this function), or even as the uncovering of the fundamental identity with it.

Although this experience is traditionally seen as mystic, it can also be studied from a more empirical point of view as the occurrence of a specific form of consciousness that is available in the spectrum of conscious experience. This approach has been taken by Gamma and Metzinger (2021), whose working hypothesis has been the following:

there exists a form of “minimal phenomenal experience” that lacks time representation, spatial self-location, agency, autobiographical self-awareness, and a phenomenally experienced first-person perspective. This can be understood as an unstructured form of global content that is also devoid of perceptual, motor, affective, conceptual and propositional content.[1]

Gamma and Metzinger based their analysis on the reports of 1403 experienced meditators belonging to various traditions, but most of them familiar with a Buddhist background. They distinguish twelve factors concerning the experience of pure awareness, which can all play a more or less dominant role in defining the meditator’s experience. Commenting on the role of several of these factors, they show that an important one is associated with what they call ‘self-knowing,’ which addresses the question: ‘Did the experience have a quality of knowing itself?’ In this respect, they notice that the association of pure awareness with this factor entails that

‘pure knowing’ also lacks the phenomenal experience of personhood, a conscious representation of being a rational individual possessing specific personality traits or any form of autobiographical narrative. Phenomenologically, pure awareness simply knows itself, timelessly. The interesting discovery is exactly that there is now empirical evidence for a non-egoic, homunculus-free form of self-awareness. (Gamma and Metzinger 2021)

What is captured in this study is the possibility for certain practitioners to suspend the experience of their own ordinary, biographical self (the one who acts, feels, and interprets experience as the experience of this particular person, me, who has this particular story, and so forth). In other words, it is possible to have an experience that does not ‘feel like’ (i.e., does not have the qualitative flavour of) being ‘mine’ in any way. This is not a pure experiential blackout, and yet is a ‘minimal phenomenal experience’ in the sense that barely attests the fact that something is happening, without further qualifications. As we shall see, one way of interpreting mystical experiences is by seeing them as aimed at the approximation of this state of ‘minimal phenomenal experience’ (or ‘pure awareness’ as it is phrased in certain traditions), while interpreting it more or less explicitly as the reaching towards a more fundamental, universal, and ultimate reality (which can be interpreted variously, in personal or impersonal, theistic or non-theistic terms, and so forth). The dissolution of the ordinary empirical self is a more general and shared feature of mystical experiences than the way in which this is further interpreted and contextualized in various theoretical and soteriological frameworks.

Third, mystical experience usually entails an overcoming of ordinary sensory-based experience. Mystical experience is not reached by an intensification of the visionary power of imagination (although this might play some instrumental role), but its pinnacle is the emptying of experience of all sensory contents. For this reason, we shall consider the deliberate process and practice aimed at achieving this experience as a form of trance, but unlike the shamanic trance aimed at a particular kind of vision, mystic trance is better understood as a form of anaesthetic trance, in the sense that it aims at stopping sensory perception (an-aesthesia) in order to uncover the deeper and more fundamental connection that lies between the self and the ultimate reality. This process remains ‘deliberate’ in the sense that it is intentionally undertaken by the individual who is involved with it, even when (paradoxically enough) this deliberate involvement entails a complete surrender to the experience itself. Deliberately surrendering to experience is still a way of dealing with it, and still counts as an intentional attitude towards experience (we shall come back to the idea that ‘inaction’ is still a form of ‘action’ in Lecture Six).

The ordinary self is part of the world of sensory experience. The ordinary self is a patchwork of various sensory impressions, memories, and so on. Mystical experience culminates with a relinquishment or temporary suspension of this ordinary self, and finally with its dissolution. In come cases, the extreme output of anaesthetic trance can be compared with the experience of deep dreamless sleep, a completely intransitive form of awareness, which has no object, and hence cannot be defined or specified in any way (hence the ineffability usually associated with mystical experiences).[2]

Fourth, compared with both naturalism and shamanism, mystical experience entails a shrinking of the social dimension of experience and a form of disembodiment. When the self is dissolved, this clearly prevents social ties from playing any significant role. And yet, mystics often retain a flavour of sociality in the rarefied and sublimized form of a feeling of love or similar affects towards the supreme reality in which they feel a part. As a result of their experience, mystics often develop universalistic and philanthropic attitudes towards their own near fellows, or even towards the whole of humanity. Sociality is not erased entirely, and even the most solitary mystics will retain some way of thinking about their life in the context of a relation with an Other, and others. But this form of sociality is radically different from the ordinary sociality discussed in naturalist theories, or even from the communitarian embeddedness found in shamanic cultures. Most crucially, since anaesthetic trance entails a cessation of ordinary sensory-based experience, it precludes any form of actual engagement with the world or the environment. As this experience receives the highest value, it will be interpreted as a transcending of the world, because in the union with ultimate reality the world is simply no longer there as part of experience. The body is what roots the self in the world and what mediates one’s relations with the others. For the mystic, as the world is transcended, the relation with others is transfigured, and one’s identification with the physical body is severed.

This quick overview should give a sense of the gulf between mysticism and the views discussed so far. At this stage of our exploration, the goal is to identify certain distinctive and apparently irreducible ways of constructing the self in order to map the whole width of our spectrum. With mysticism, which defines the most radical alternative to hard naturalism, we come to the opposite extreme of this spectrum. If hard naturalism dissolves the self by reducing it to its individual physical basis, mysticism dissolves the self by subsuming it into a reality that transcends any physical basis and that is by its very nature eternal, immutable, absolute, and beyond any uncertainty. Both poles are extremes exactly because they entail, in different ways, a dissolution of the self. In this sense, they represent two divergent forms of reductionism. Liberal naturalism and shamanism would then stand in the middle of these two extreme poles. Constructing these views as a spectrum is a way of both articulating major alternative ways of constructing the self, and also appreciating the possible continuity that could lead, through a series of variations and alterations, from one to the other. To put it negatively, the idea of a spectrum avoids the misleading blending of all differences, as if all views could be reduced to more or less the same amorphous insight, but also the problematic idea of radical incommensurability, as if differences arose across isolated and incommunicable worlds with no relation to one another. With this lecture, we shall thus try to reconstruct the extreme pole of our spectrum that is opposite from the point of departure we took in Lecture One. The subsequent set of lectures will investigate more specifically some historical examples in order to explore the interplay of variations and problematizations through which one could travel through this spectrum.

For our purposes, William James, in his series of lectures published under the title The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (originally delivered in 1902), offers a very helpful guide through these waters. James’s overall concern in his lectures is to vindicate what might be called the ‘existential’ value of religious experience, or what he might be more inclined to call its ‘pragmatic’ (James is a paradigmatic ‘pragmatist’ philosopher) value, namely, how religious experience has palpable and positive effects on the lives of those who undergo it. James seeks to distinguish and disentangle religious experience from a series of pitfalls. He tries to reject overly rationalistic interpretations of religion, coming either from philosophy or from science, while also avoiding sheer relativism when confronted with the variety of ideas and forms that religious experience takes.

Talking about religion is tricky. Various groups, at various times and places, have invested significant efforts and developed more or less explicit agendas (cultural, contemplative, and political) to establish what religion should be. Unsurprisingly, the term ‘religion’ and its cognates has been often shaped around the religious paradigms that have been or still are dominant in the West. James’s emphasis on ‘religious experience’ already signals an effort of moving away from these particular and politically embedded debates and towards something more cross-cultural. Whether James succeeds in this respect might be matter of contention. But we shall leave this debate aside in the following discussion and simply use the term ‘religion’ and ‘religious experience’ in keeping with James’s own usage of these terms, to keep things as simple as possible in the discussion that follows.

More generally, we shall make selective use of James’s discussion in order to highlight some core features of mystical experience, and how it relates to the construction of the self and its attempt at mastering uncertainty. Although James makes several passing references to Hinduism (especially Vedanta), Buddhism, and Islam, his discussion is mostly focused on Christian sources, most often from the Lutheran reformation period onwards (including then both Catholic, Protestant, and smaller groups). He seems aware and informed about non-Christian and Indian views, but usually he takes the similarities with his Christian samples as self-evident and in need of no further specification.[3] Moreover, James tends to bracket social and ritual dimensions of religious views and practices, focusing on the experience of particularly emblematic (or idiosyncratic) individuals. In this context, James considers the religious experiences he discusses qualitatively different (and seemingly more profound and mature) than so-called ‘primitive religions,’ including shamanism. These are all aspects of James’s treatment that might call for criticism, given that religious practices are largely unintelligible when abstracted from any social context.

However, for our purposes, these limitations can be turned into resources. The paradigmatic role played by Western and Christian forms of mysticism ties in with our interest for better understanding how the self has been shaped and created in the West (following up on Taylor’s analysis introduced in Lecture Zero); it will prove a good ground for comparing both ancient and non-Western forms (which we shall discuss in Lecture Six); and it will provide the background to our discussion of criticisms of this approach in the last part of this series (from Lecture Eight onwards).[4] As mentioned above, in mystical experiences social relations shrink to the bare minimum. James is sensitive to the social implications of mysticism, and he does emphasize how the preliminary social and intellectual context provides to the mystic the basic hermeneutic matrix that they will use for conceptualizing experience. In this sense, James’s discussion is not entirely abstracted from social dimensions, although he is right in emphasizing that mysticism entails a complex relationship with the social world, a relationship that is often constructed in adversarial terms, aimed at overcoming or transcending the world. James’s emphasis on this point is convenient for our purpose of picking out (a form of) mysticism as one extreme pole in our spectrum.

James is also right to contrast mysticism and shamanism, and several scholars of shamanism (including Eliade, Rouget, DuBois encountered in Lecture Three) would agree with this distinction. However, the distinction might be traced for the wrong reasons. James seems to subscribe to some form of genealogy or evolution in religious thought, which sees shamanism as more ‘primitive’ and ‘immature’ than mysticism. More recent scholars instead tend to stress a practical difference, based on the idea that the shaman is someone who travels outside, to the spirit worlds, while the mystic is someone who moves inside. Discussing Taylor in Lecture Zero, we noticed how this notion of inwardness is historically constructed. We also saw that the shaman’s traveling remains entirely within the cultural and even physical boundaries set by the community to which it belongs. And reflecting on the most common aspects of shamanic culture, we observed how most of them derive from a communitarian account that fits best small-scale societies. But being small-scale has nothing to do with axiological judgments about being ‘primitive’ or ‘immature’ because the evolution of a small-scale society should be judged on the basis of what a small-scale society can actually be or give rise to, and not on the basis of its potential for becoming something entirely different (a large-scale society). For these reasons, contrasting shamanism and mysticism either in terms of evolution (from primitive to developed) or in terms of direction (going inside or outside) might be misleading. Here, we shall build the contrast rather in terms of different forms of trance that these two practices entail: while shamanic practice is poietic (it is an attempt at deliberately cultivating and sustaining the visionary powers of imagination that produce new contents of experience), mystic practice is anaesthetic (it attempts at deliberately emptying experience from any content, by stopping the activity of imagination to the point that experience becomes entirely intransitive). For our purposes, shamanism and mysticism also differ in terms of the main strategy they provide for mastering uncertainty (and thus for the sort of self that they enact): while shamanism is aimed at the domestication of uncertainty without uprooting it, mysticism is aimed at completely transcending uncertainty by reaching a domain of reality that is absolute and eternal.

  1. Alex Gamma, Thomas Metzinger, ‘The Minimal Phenomenal Experience questionnaire (MPE-92M): Towards a phenomenological profile of “pure awareness” experiences in meditators’ (2021).
  2. In making this generalization, two important caveats need to be taken into account. Several practical accounts about how to cultivate a mystical state usually entail a form of progression, which moves smoothly towards ultimate anesthesia, without implying that it should occur at all stages. As we shall discuss in Lecture Six, ancient Indian instructions suggest a progressive quieting of the senses first, and of the inner faculties later, which is a procedure echoed by some Christian mystics like Teresa of Ávila. In the ancient Buddhist context, meditation stages are sometimes presented as progressive forms of ‘cessation’ (Pāli nirodha), but only the nineth (and last) stage genuinely entails a complete cessation of all experience. In this respect, the reference to anesthetic trance is used to indicate a trend or a directionality, more than a categorical state. Second, in different traditions the actual state of cessation of all experience is interpreted differently. To quote Gamma and Metzinger (2021) again: ‘For many centuries, meditators have reported states of direct perception, the experience of seeing what is. Seeing what is out of a state of pure awareness often reveals another particular and interesting, phenomenal quality, namely the experience of “suchness” or “thusness,” the ineffable uniqueness and particularity of any individual instance of non-conceptual content. This suggests another evidence-based, phenomenologically grounded reading of the “purity” of pure awareness, not as the absence of perceptual content, but as a complete lack of conceptual overlay and cognitive penetration, including time experience and judgements as to the “existence” or “non-existence” of what is perceived.’ Mystical states might be defined more broadly and thus be associated with this sort of new understanding of contents of experience once they are freed from conceptual overlayers. However, for present purposes, we shall take a more restrictive notion of mystical states that connects them with the (more or less complete) cessation of perception, rather than just a reinterpretation of it. The sort of reinterpretation described in the quote from Gamma and Metzinger is quite typical of certain strands of Buddhist thought and practice. A final caveat concerning non-conceptuality: the fact that any mystical experience is subject to interpretation and decoding already shows that any non-conceptual element that might be entailed by that experience is organically reintroduced in a conceptual framework in order for the experience itself to make sense and be relatable. But since ‘conceptuality’ itself is a concept and is thus subject to definition, the experience of any ‘non-conceptual’ element is also subject to definition. If by ‘concept’ one understands a way of structuring contents of experience, then any experience that is not purely intransitive (that is not a pure black out) but is about something, does entail a minimal conceptual layer (in which ‘something’ is recognized as different from a pure black out). This point is made explicit in the early Buddhist taxonomy of meditative stages, in which the penultimate stages (‘the base of no-thing-ness’ and ‘neither-perception-nor-non-perception’) are recognized as extremely subtle, almost entirely void of conceptual contents, and yet not entirely void, but still constructed to some extent. Only the ‘cessation of perceptions and feelings’ is considered to be entirely void of conceptual content, but then it occurs in the form of an experiential blackout during which the practitioner is no longer aware of having this experience. The conclusion is that for as long as there is the slightest form of experience, there is a correspondingly slight layer of conceptuality involved, and when conceptuality ceases entirely, experience also ceases with it (despite Gamma and Metzinger’s interpretation of their data).
  3. Edward F. Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly, Adam Crabtree, Alan Gauld, Michael Grosso, Bruce Greyson, Irreducible Mind: Towards a Psychology of the 21st Century (2007), chapter 8, provides an updated discussion of contemporary debates on mysticism, especially in the domain of psychology. The chapter offers a good synthesis of James’s views, addresses further evidence gathered by more recent scholars, and potential methodological objections to the idea of seeking a common ‘core’ of mystical experiences across various traditions. The more encompassing evidence discussed does not significantly alter the core elements of James’s analysis that we shall present here. Concerning the methodological objection, it is claimed that since all experiences are culturally embedded and constructed, they cannot be genuinely compared for uncovering some ahistorical essential core. This form of constructivism is a radicalized version of the idea that all experience is conceptually constructed and thus culturally and historically indexed, which we already introduced at the end of Lecture One. But insofar as it leads to a strict form of nominalism, according to which no valid generalization can be made on the basis of data coming from different cultures, it is also problematic. First, it assumes that cultures are historically impenetrable to mutual influences. This is often not the case, as we shall see with respect to mystical experiences across ancient India and Europe, especially in Lecture Six. Second, generalizations and models can still be methodologically fruitful in order to single out the aspects or features of these experiences that are most dependent on local conditions, versus those features that would be expected to occur in a broader range of possible situations. Third, in the case of deliberately trained and cultivated mystical experiences, we do have access to a number of training manuals, instructions and traditions, and we can compare cross-culturally the sort of practices that were considered (and still are) as leading to the achievement of certain states. Kenneth Rose, Yoga, Meditation, and Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks (2016) offers an extensive discussion of the scholarly debate around mysticism in different cultures and defends the possibility of identifying common structural features in the meditation practices (he discusses mostly concentration practices) of different traditions, such as Theravāda Buddhism, classical Yoga, and modern Christian mysticism. Barrett and Griffiths provide a review survey of current research on the connection between mystical states and hallucinogens. They connect several of the core phenomenological qualities of mystical states to alterations in the functioning of brain areas, which might also be induced through meditative practices. They suggest: ‘the experience of unity that is central to mystical experiences involves a decrease in self-referential processing. There is compelling evidence for a network of brain areas (i.e., the nodes of the [Default Mode Network]) that are involved in self-referential processing and maintenance of a sense of the self in space and time. Decreased activity in these areas has been observed using multiple imaging modalities, both after administration of classic hallucinogens and during meditation practices’ (Frederick S. Barrett and Roland R. Griffiths, ‘Classic Hallucinogens and Mystical Experiences: Phenomenology and Neural Correlates,’ 2018, 422.
  4. It should be noted, though, that Christianity is far from being a homogeneous and coherent entity, and there are tensions between different Christian ‘mysticisms’. One interesting way of framing this issue is provided by Foucault in his lectures On the Government of the Living (2012), delivered in 1979-1980. In his sixth lecture, commenting on the way Tertullian reconceived the sacrament of baptism, Foucault observes: ‘This idea that baptism must be prepared for with fear and maintain the Christian in a state of fear basically dismisses the theme that was so important throughout Antiquity, the Hellenistic period, and the first two and a half centuries of Christianity: the theme of the pure, the perfect, the sage. To tell the truth, it is not a definitive dismissal because the whole history of Christianity, even of Western Christianity, will be constantly traversed by the return, the recurrence of this theme, or, if you like, by nostalgia for a state of wisdom to which one might gain access through a particularly intense purification, a particularly effective ascesis, or quite simply by the fact of election and being chosen by God. The whole debate with the Gnosis, with Manichaeism, with the Cathars in the Middle Ages, with quietism in the seventeenth century, the debate, also, throughout Christianity with any form of mysticism, will be nothing other than the recurrence or reappearance in these different forms of the debate between anxiety and purity’ (Foucault 2012, 126). Mysticism, with its promise of granting the individual a direct experience of divine reality in this life, relies on a model of original purity that is shared by other traditions, Western or not, but that is at odds with the idea of an inherently corrupted nature that also begins to gain traction in early Christianity. For present purposes, it is important to keep this tension in sight, so as not to take the discussion of Christian mysticism as somehow normative or representative of Christianity as a whole.


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