I’ve been pondering what I wrote about in my last post—that I’ve never had any mystical experiences. It’s true in one sense and completely false in another sense. For everything is mysterious. Hence, mystical.
Luther Askeland, author of the marvelous book “Ways in Mystery,” helped remind me of this. I’ve been re-reading several of his essays the past few days. “The Way of Unknowing” is a classic. Also “The God in the Moment.”
Heck, his entire book is a classic, one of my all-time favorites. Luther and I have traversed the same territory in our mystical/spiritual readings: Buddhism in general, Zen in particular, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, other Christian mystics, a host of others.
But every time I read “Ways in Mystery”—and it’s been several times—I’m blown away by how Luther peels the onion skin of truth-seeking a level (or two) deeper than I’m able or willing to go myself.
He is utterly dedicated to the pursuit of what lies beyond appearances: mystery. He isn’t content with anything but the real deal, whatever it is. He has played all the spiritual games that I’ve played, yet is able to stand apart from the playing field and analyze the action in a fashion that I’m incapable of.
And yet…we’re brothers. As are we all. Brothers and sisters, in mystery. We pretend to ourselves that we know what’s going on, but we haven’t a clue. Not really. We form religions, philosophies, and sciences that purport to answer the big questions about existence, but they don’t. Not even close.
Where did the universe come from? What will be its end? Is there anything other than the four-dimensional world of time and space that we know now? Does eternity lie on the other side of time, boundlessness on the other side of space? To name but a few questions.
Luther points out that such ultimate queries are the province of the mystic. Scientists and rational philosophers correctly say that those questions can’t be answered with the mental and sensual tools available to us So they turn their attention to more practical investigations.
Alternatively, the average person is preoccupied with living life: raising a family, holding onto a job, pursuing hobbies, keeping fit, watching TV. If he or she considers ultimate questions at all, it is almost always in the context of a religion that provides ready-made answers.
And then, says Luther, there is the mystic:
The mystic is someone who recognizes that the central fact or datum—the existence of the world, of God, or of God and world—transcends our intellect. By way of asking why the world exists, the mystic has discovered that we are part of a reality that our intellect cannot grasp or even properly question. The world has revealed itself to be mystery, or God has been revealed as mystery. Hereafter the mystic’s attention will remain fixed on that mystery.
How one’s attention is fixed on mystery is the big question. Basically it comes down to unknowing, the negative way, via negativa. Luther takes eighty-one thoughtful pages to explore the way of unknowing. It’s hard to do justice to this subject in a few paragraphs. But here’s the kernel, in my own words:
Become the mystery you seek to unravel.
That’s a mysterious statement. I don’t claim to understand it myself. Which is as it should be.
Mystery isn’t something to be understood. It is to be bumped up against, felt, recognized, appreciated, grokked, respected, admired, embraced. Not as something separate and distinct from my own self, but as myself. For just as the “why” of the universe as a whole is mystery pure and simple, so is the “why” of me. And, of course, you.
We like to pretend that, while pondering the dizzying mysteries of the universe, we’re doing so from the solid foundation of a self that makes sense. Yet, in truth the mystery of us is as unfathomable as the mystery of the cosmos. Luther says:
And as my habitual explanations melt away, I begin to see that my acts and my life are not safely enclosed within a sheltering context of explanation and justification. Instead it begins to seem that each of my acts, that my life, is an event that is indescribable, inexplicable and unjustifiable, an act that is just given.
I wrote in Part I that the intellect, having asked, “Why does the world exist?” eventually runs up against the irreducible and impenetrable fact of being. Now, having arrived at the end of our fragile and invariably questionable self-explanations, the intellect finally halts before the inexplicable and irreducible fact of “my life,” and before the impenetrable givenness of each act.
Those are just words. And Luther would be the first to agree that words are just words, not reality. Yet words can point to reality. And to the mystery that lies on the other side of words.
At this moment. At every moment. In this act. In every act. When I’m awake and aware. When I’m asleep and unconscious. Everywhere, all the time: mystery, mystery, mystery.
So I’ve had innumerable mystical experiences, as many as I’ve had experiences of any sort during my fifty-seven years of living. Because mystery is me.
There’s no need to cultivate a sense of the miraculous. All we have to do is open our eyes and see. Every moment is a mystery. The problem with religions and philosophies is that they cover up the miraculous with words, dogmas, theologies, concepts, rituals, beliefs, commandments—all sorts of stuff.
True spirituality is nothing but clearing away all that junk. What’s left is, well, nothing. You can’t pass through the eye of the Mystery Needle until it is free of obstructions.
Which means, you have to be as empty as emptiness, becoming the mystery you seek to unravel. The vacant eye of the needle is threaded with nothing—a subject for another post.