Question: How can mystical experiences direct us to the world and its needs?
Publication Month: June 2013
The question is well formulated. Mystical experiences do not always have this effect. Some seek in mysticism an escape from the complexities, difficulties, and pressures of life in the world. And there are experiences that do constitute such an escape. In sweeping generalizations we could say that whereas the prophetic tradition directs its adherents to the problems of the external world, mystical traditions either offer inner serenity within the world or participation in something quite other than the world. The question I am asked here is one I often ask of others. It is a question that is being asked today among leaders of the mystical traditions.
Some of the answers appear to be that mystical traditions can incorporate aspects of the prophetic traditions. My chief conversation partner from the side of Zen Buddhism encouraged his Buddhist followers to study Christian social ethics. Gandhi remained always a Hindu, but he was deeply inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Sri Ariyaratne, a Sri Lankan Buddhist, has adapted Gandhi’s vision to Theravada Buddhism. It is clear that those in mystical traditions can incorporate a prophetic element into their thinking and practice. It is clear also that their inner work of freeing themselves from egoism improves their social action. This is already a great achievement. But it does not quite tell us that the experiences achieved by Buddhist meditation and various Hindu disciplines direct practitioners into such work in the world. It may show us instead that our hope lies in a creative synthesis of two traditions.
Nevertheless, I hope for a deeper unity. I had the privilege of directing two dissertations by Buddhists on social ethics. One was on Zen social ethics and the other on Pure Land social ethics. I believe that both showed at least the possibility of deriving a strong social ethics from their traditions. But I do not consider myself competent to judge what further work needs to be done.
One distinction among types of mysticism in both Indian and biblical traditions is between personal and impersonal views of that with which one experiences unity. I find Whitehead particularly useful in clarifying this situation. He affirms both God and creativity. They are intimately connected. God is an instance of creativity, and creativity is the ultimate. However, there can be no creativity without God. So God is not hierarchically subordinate to creativity.
Experiences of creativity usually culminate in realization of identity. At the deepest level, all that I am is nothing more – or less – than creativity. In classical Vedantic formulation Atman is Brahman.
Those who seek to realize their relation to God as the personal ultimate end up with intimacy rather than identify. They find themselves in God and God in them. They have no existence or identity apart from God, but they do not experience themselves to be God.
My personal view is that the mysticism of communion with God more readily points one toward the world than the mysticism of identity with creativity. But personally-oriented mystics may find the experience so rich in itself that it becomes all-absorbing. And the mystics who experience their identity with the ultimate may recognize that in that identity they are one with all things and become deeply concerned about all things.
I am organizing a major conference June 4-7, 2015. It will be the tenth International Whitehead Conference and the Ninth Ecological Civilization conference, and I want it to show that a turn from a culture based on Cartesian dualism and materialism to one based on Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is both possible and urgently needed. One track is asking much the question with which I am struggling here. What are the actual effects of practicing various spiritual disciplines? How should we evaluate them in terms of the current desperate needs of the world? Chris Chapple is organizing that track. I hope he can show that the effects of some forms of mystical experience do lead, or can easily lead, to concerned involvement in responding to the current threat of global disaster.
I have been using the term “mysticism” broadly to include Buddhist experience, but it can also exclude this. My first real encounter with mystical thinking was reading Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy on a troopship, shortly after the end of World War II. I was deeply moved. I still think it is a profoundly perceptive book. But later I was startled to notice that although the quotations that make up much of the book came from many traditions, there were none from Buddhist writers. For Huxley, mystical experience was an experience of something real. Buddhist enlightenment is the realization that there is no reality to experience. Whether this difference matters in relation to our specific question I am not sure.
Although my use of “mysticism” is inclusive of Buddhism, it is not inclusive of what is often called “nature mysticism.” That term in turn covers a variety of experiences. Many of us have, at least occasionally, felt a sense of ecstasy in a wilderness context, feeling that the life that is ours is part and parcel of the life that is all around us. Or we have been overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and majesty of great mountains studded by glaciers. Or gazing into the heavens we have shed our sense of self importance in the vastness of space. Whether this should be called “mysticism” I do not know. But it can certainly awaken deep appreciation and fellow feeling in relation to the natural world. It can lead to revulsion at the brutal exploitation to which we humans are subjecting it.
The prophetic tradition can focus so strongly on matters of justice for the poor that it can be quite insensitive to the natural world. “Nature mysticism” can lead to misanthropic feelings that can turn attention away from rectifying injustices in social relations. But both types of experience direct us toward the world. The understanding of nature as God’s good creation can keep the prophetic tradition open to moments of nature mysticism.