I am a person who seems to have a natural inclination towards mystical experiences. There are so many definitions of ‘mysticism’ these days that the word has almost become meaningless but when I use the word ‘mysticism’ or ‘mystical’ I tend to be referring in very broad way to ‘inner spirituality’ or to ‘inner wisdom’ traditions. In exploring ‘inner spirituality’ I drew my ‘inner spiritual’ philosophy or theology from the contents of my own experiences but nevertheless I found a resonance with thinkers within Islamic, Hindu and Christian traditions. You can see this mystical theology on this blog by clicking the tab at the top of the page.
My interests in spirituality began within the Christian tradition, a Calvinist one to be precise, but after a while, I began to find increasing problems with what many would call a ‘Christian Fundamentalist’ position, and which other people might call a ‘conservative evangelical’ perspective. One result of this was that I increasingly began to explore ‘mystical’ experience and theology both within and outside of the Christian tradition. Many of these explorations and studies can be found in my book ‘Behind the masks of God’. ‘Inner spirituality’ was particularly my focus since the millennium.
Very often when it comes to different theories and perspectives, such as those within psychology or politics for example, a particular perspective seems to fit the bill very well initially. Then after a while, a few problems arise and with them, a certain discontent. If the discontent becomes strong enough then a person may change their perspective – they may move from being politically left wing to being right wing for example, or they may even create a new perspective or orientation. This new or changed perspective usually seems to address the problems encountered in the previous orientation and certainly for a while at least, all seems well. Then, the same thing may happen again – a certain rising discontent may rear its head once more. ‘Inner spirituality’ seemed to deal with some of the problematic issues that arose for me from the Christian fundamentalist perspective, but then some issues began to arise from within the ‘inner spiritual’ tradition itself.
Firstly, try as I might, I could not reconcile ‘inner spiritual’ theology with Christian theology. Sure, I know – there are a number of respected Christian mystics – Meister Eckhart and Jan Ruuysbroeck to name but two. But all of these Christian mystics use a metaphorical and analogous interpretation of Bible verses and passages in such a way that meanings are drawn out of these passages that they do not actually contain. If we read a verse that says ‘Jesus entered a house’, then these mystics draw out of this phrase concepts to do with the spirit of Jesus entering the heart or soul of the believer and so on. When I read the Bible, I am constantly reminded that it has it’s roots in real, objective, historical events – it does not lend itself to these kinds of speculative spiritualizations.
Secondly, there was the problem of moral debt. It is an unfair world – innocent people suffer injustice and violence; corrupt and violent people are not always brought to justice and so on. The ‘inner spiritual’ tradition deals with this in various ways, according to its context. Within the Sufi tradition of Islam, there is a belief in resurrection and a form of purgative existence whereby a person pays their moral debts over a long, sometimes a very long period of time. Ultimately of course, God is Merciful. Within Hinduism there is the concept of reincarnation, of a long period of birth-death-rebirth cycles in which the quality and status of a person’s rebirth depends upon the moral nature of their behaviour in their present incarnation. Eventually, with diligent effort, a person reaches a sufficiently high spiritual level as to escape this cycle and attain union with the Divine. In some ‘inner spiritual’ traditions, such concepts of purgative resurrection and reincarnation are simply transcended. In these cases, the person’s True Self, the Ground of their being, is seen as being one with and the same as Transcendent Spirit – Atman and Brahman are One. Hence there is a focus on the ‘Inner Light’. Here, there is no Judgment, no heaven or hell, but rather a transcendent boundless return to Undifferentiated Oneness. The bounded, objective, material universe is transcended altogether. Hence also, the material world is seen as undesirable, even evil – a place to retreat from, a place to transcend. I have never been persuaded of the concept of reincarnation and if I rejected the concept of resurrection then I was left with this transcendent return to Essence. But this left moral debt unpaid. The response to this objection was that it was seen as synonymous with immature thinking. Concerns with moral debt and a Final Judgment would simply be rendered useless – irrelevant as transcendence took place. To think in terms of Final Judgment and moral debt was seen as thinking in a narrow, ignorant, delimited way – to fall for an illusion that the material world is Ultimately the only Reality. Sure – the material world has substance – but it is temporal and finite. But no matter how I tried, this sat uneasily with me.
Thirdly, ‘inner spiritual’ experience was Immediate, Vital and Real. It had a sense of Immediate Truth and of clear perception. It had a sense of Closeness, Unity and even Union with Spirit. But was it what it seemed to be? Mystical experience seems to be found in all religions and there is some commonality of experience to be found in all these traditions. There are also significant differences between them. This is due to the different starting points of individual spiritual adepts – they belong to different times and cultures and they frame and inform their transcendent experiences using cultural forms such as language and the religious ideas that they are familiar with. There is a difference between the Essence of the experience and the forms used to express and describe it. There are also different levels of attainment and as the spiritual adept goes the ‘higher’ and ‘deeper’ the perspective changes, such that what they may have embraced earlier, they may now reject. Ultimately, a form of apophatic or negative theology is adopted, where everything is a delimited expression of the Spirit but Spirit is Essence is Unknowable – God is ‘not this, not that’. Despite all this, the niggling doubts remained: was I really experienced what I thought I was experiencing?
‘Inner spiritual’ experience is an individual, personal, subjective, introspective or inward-looking experience. The attention and focus is directed inwards based on the concept of having the ‘Light within’ or ‘God within’ as Essence. As the adept progresses to deeper and deeper levels of introspection, they approach what is perceived as the very ‘ground of their being’, to be aware of their essential ‘isness’ – a level of receptive awareness present beneath the overlay of bounded conceptual forms, language and active, rational cognitive processes. Indeed, they seek to set aside active conceptualising, boundary making, analyzing and logic, in order to allow the ‘isness’ of things simply to be. This means that a more holistic, intuitive mode of perceiving or knowing comes to the fore – a mode that has always been there ‘under the surface’, but which we tend to be less aware of and which tends to be subsumed under our active analytical, conceptualising and rationalizing processes. This holistic, less differentiated, intuitive mode of perception carries with it a sense of Immediacy because the adept’s ‘knowing’ is no longer filtered and mediated through their conceptualising and analyzing processes, or at least, this is engaged less than usual. The Immediacy of this subjective experience carries with it a sense of Depth, Reality, Truth and so on. However, it does not therefore follow that such intuitive experience is in fact True or Real. For example, the intuitive experience of many people is that the sun revolves around the earth – it rises, it courses across the sky, it sets – but we know that in fact it is not the sun that revolves around the earth, but the earth revolving on it’s own axis that gives this effect. The less differentiated and more holistic quality of the adept’s experience means that boundaries and forms begin to seem irrelevant, they fall away giving rise to a subjective sense of expansiveness, even of Infinity – a sense of Boundlessness and Unity or Oneness with all that is. At this depth of introspection and surrender the practitioner of ‘inner spirituality’ still has a subjective sense of their own bounded self as the experiencer and perceiver of ‘what is’.
The internal subjective sense of the bounded self as a focal point or locus of perception and experience is sometimes called the ‘ego’. The ‘ego’ is a subjective mental ‘structure’, an emergent subjective quality that arises primarily from biological processes in the brain. In the physical, material world of bounded objects, our body provides a physically bounded point of perspective and relationship to other bounded physical objects. Even in the mind, in non-material fantasy and imagination, a person’s ‘ego’ provides a similar focal point or locus of perspective and relationship. However, further, deeper introspection and surrender by the person practicing ‘inner spirituality’ can lead the practitioner to the ‘isness’ of their being and a level of undifferentiated perception or knowing that exists as it were beneath the ‘structure’ or focal point of the ‘ego’ – and thus the adept can enter an ‘egoless’ state – where the division, separateness or boundary between observer and observed is lost and the adept attains a subjective sense of timeless Oneness with all that is, a sense of becoming Expansive Pure Light Emptiness or the Silent Desert in Undifferentiated Oneness. Subjectively, the adept is still perceiving, experiencing and ‘knowing’, but the sense of self, the point of focus, the locus for these experiences – the ‘ego’ – has itself been surrendered or transcended as the adept receives perceptual experiences beneath the level or mental structure of a bounded sense of self or ‘ego’. At the same time, active analysis, conceptualization, labelling and differentiation has also been surrendered. In this state of being there is the perceptual experience of there being no ‘God’ and no ‘self’ – because the boundaries between subjective and objective are being lost – self is merged with Godhead as the Ground of Being of all that is – which is simultaneously Transcendent of all that is.
This level or state of perception is sometimes referred to as the ‘divination of the self’ – Atman and Brahman are perceived and experienced as One – the adept is God and God is the adept. The adept may experience a sense of merging into Formless Transcendent Omniscient Omnipresence. Because the usually active processes of differentiation and conceptualization have been surrendered and let go of, this experience carries with it a sense of Immediacy and therefore, to the practitioner, it seems Vitally Real and True. But it is important to remember that all of this is subjective – if the adept were to be hit by a falling tree or collapsing building then they would die or be injured like anyone else – they have not objectively or materially transcended into boundless undifferentiated Oneness. All of this subjective experience is grounded in properties that are emerging from the adept’s biological base – from activity and biochemical reactions taking place primarily in their brain.
In this state, the mediation of language, concept, form, image and sound is no longer operating or hardly operating at all and the point of focus, the sense of differentiated or bounded selfhood or ‘ego’ has been surrendered, let go of or penetrated. Despite this ‘egoless’ state and the loss of the focal point of subjective experience, the adept is still subjectively experiencing – but the experience is being processed in a non-usual way. Wherever the adept’s perception goes, they are subjectively there – but in the adept’s intuitive, holistic, undifferentiated mode of perception this gives rise to a sense of Omnipresence: ‘Wherever you look, there I am’ – and ‘I am you and you are me’ – the ‘inner spiritual’ adept, like everyone else, subjectively fills their own universe.
This lack of differentiation between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, this loss of the sense of self as being distinct from other selves and objects, is an important consideration in the light of a process called reification. Reification occurs when a person projects the contents of their subjective experience ‘out there’, as though these contents have real, objective or substantial existence quite independent of the person who has experienced them. The loss of the subjective/objective differentiation coupled with the sense of Immediacy, Truth and Reality means that adepts of ‘inner spirituality’ are particularly prone to this error. Indeed, they may place such subjective experiences and knowledge above the conceptualized, differentiated knowledge of the objective universe. Thus it is that adepts in some traditions talk about the universe and the objective world as being ‘an illusion’ and only secondarily real in comparison to the Godhead that is Ultimately and Finally Real.
In returning to a more usual state of actively processing their subjective experience, the adept resurfaces out of the depths and their cognitive/conceptual overlay becomes active again. The person begins to actively attempt to try and make sense of what they have experienced – they place value on it, categorise it, conceptualize it, describe it, give it form and shape, relate to it and so on using their memory and shared cultural symbols such as language. The ‘inner spiritual’ adept, like everyone else, conceptually constructs his or her own universe and overlays a set of conceptual categories on their experience. Such conceptual constructions are subjective and relative. However, because their subjective experience surrendered the subjective/objective boundary, surrendered the bounded sense of self and carried with it a sense of Immediacy, there is a strong sense of it being Real and True. It remains very easy for the adept to reify their experience and regard the content of their experience as being objectively true. The adept may have a strong sense that the contents of the experience – as they have conceptualised them – are objectively Real. Even when they return to this more usual state of perception, because of this sense of Immediacy, Reality and Truth, it is very easy for the adept to place their subjective experiences in a primary position – as the main source of spiritual, theological and philosophical information – and to relegate other, mediated and even objective experiences or sources into secondary positions. Thus, when it comes to Christianity, ‘inner spiritual’ experience may take precedence over objective events. This is a major difference between Christianity and paths of ‘inner spirituality’. Christianity emphasizes the real, objective historical events of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is grounded in the objective, historical events – not in subjective experiences, hallucinations or empty fantasies of the imagination. Christianity answers the problem of moral debt and the reality of the universe: it promotes the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, a restored creation where death, decay and corruption are defeated, together with a bodily resurrection and a facing of a Final Judgment.
Here is the main contrast between ‘inner spirituality’ and Christianity. ‘Inner spirituality’ evaporates into insubstantial subjective experience – into empty imagination. Christianity stakes its base in objective, material reality, both historical and in a proposed future. Christians are bound for a physical, bodily resurrection in a restored, material creation in which there is a new order – with God as King and Lord. In the light of the insubstantial nature of ‘inner spiritual’ experience, this is what I have come back to.