I used to work hard at meditation. I did a lot of mantra repetition, several hours at a stretch. This was supposed to get me into an elevated state of consciousness where mystical sound and light phenomena would appear.
Now, my approach is to do as little as possible when I meditate each morning. I think of it as the lazy guy's way to enlightenment (assuming enlightenment exists -- a whole other question).
It's nice to know that a noted student of mysticism, Robert K.C. Forman, says that I'm on the right track.
The word mysticism, like religion, truth, and modernity, is pivotal but murky. It can denote the unintelligible statements of an illogical speaker, a schizophrenic's vision, someone's hallucinations, a drug-induced vision, the spiritual "showings" of a Julian of Norwich or a Mechthilde of Magedeburg, the unspoken, silent experience of God that Meister Eckhart called the "Divine Desert," or the Buddhist Nagarjuna's empty shunyata.
...Roland Fischer has put forward a "cartography" of states of conscious arousal which includes all of these so called "mystical" states. Hallucinations, acute schizophrenic states, and the visions and auditions of a Julian of Norwich fall on the ergotropic side of the chart. These are states of hyperarousal: cognitive and physiological activity are at relatively high levels.
On the trophotrophic side are hypoaroused states, marked by low levels of cognitive and physiological activity: here we find HIndu samadhi, mushinjo in zazen, the restful states associated with The Cloud of Unknowing's "cloud of forgetting," or Eckhart's gezucket.
...I propose reserving the term mysticism for trophotropic states. I will call ergotrophic phenomena such as hallucinations, visions, auditions, etc. "visionary experiences."
Forman is interested in exploring the nature of consciousness. He used to be (and maybe still is) the Executive Editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, a well-respected publication that I once subscribed to.
The contents of consciousness are different from consciousness itself. This seems almost indisputable. I've been conscious of countless different things throughout my life. Throughout, though, these things have appeared in a seemingly single consciousness.
As many "ergotrophic" mystics have said, if we reduce or eliminate the contents of consciousness, then consciousness pure and simple (or at least purer and simpler) will be evident.
Many people, including some commenters on this blog, place a lot of importance on what happens during meditation. Someone recently said that if you're not hearing inner sound or seeing inner light, you're not experiencing the Real Thing.
Others, and increasingly I'm among them, consider that it doesn't really matter what phenomena pop up in one's consciousness, because this doesn't lead to a genuine realization of what consciousness itself is.
And clearly consciousness is King when it comes to understanding the nature of reality, because if we aren't conscious of something, it doesn't exist for us.
Here's how I started off my previous post about Forman's book:
It’s astounding, really. We all confidently say, “I think…,” “I believe…,” “I feel…,” “I see….” Yet we don’t know who or what the “I” is. So how confident should we be about all those statements we make, to others and to our own self, when the nature of the statement-making entity is a mystery?
Do we construct reality or discover it? In some sense both, most likely. Forman says that modern philosophical constructivists and the ancient Buddhist scholar Paramartha agree on quite a bit.
But -- and this is the critical point -- on the fundamental claim that experiences are constructed by language, concept, and past experiences, they agree profoundly: every ordinary experience of an object is in significant ways shaped, delimited, and controlled by our previously learned, habituated perceptual and cognitive categories. And this, it goes without saying, is the key claim in the modern-day constructivist's account of mysticism.
How many devout Christians have a vision of Buddha while meditating?
When I was a member of an India-based spiritual organization, initiates were instructed to meditate upon the face of the guru. If some being appeared within one's consciousness during meditation, and it wasn't accompanied by the guru's form (the reality of which was to be tested by repeating a mantra), then that being was supposed to be ignored as a fake.
This is a good example of constructing reality out of concepts and expectations. The scientific method is a way of determining the relative extent to which a purported truth has been manufactured, or discovered.
However, when an experience is personal and one-of-a-kind, it can't be subjected to a research study.
So Forman's goal is to demonstrate that mystical knowledge isn't subject to constructivist criticisms. He does a good job of this.
To summarize the argument so far, we have said that constructivists claim that mystical experience, like any experience, results from prior shaping of expectations. This shaping, they say, is of the intentional object. But, we noted, there is no mental or sensory intentional object in the pure consciousness event and thus nothing to shape.
...Mystical experiences don't result from a process of building or constructing mystical experience, we've suggested, but rather from an un-constructing of language and belief. It seems to result from something like a releasing of experience from language.
Fairly frequently, commenters on this blog who subscribe to a particular belief system call me a quitter for having forsaken my faith in certain spiritual dogmas. That's absolutely wrong, given Forman's definition of mysticism.
By letting beliefs, expectations, effort, and such go, what remains is consciousness pure and simple (or like I said before, purer and simpler).
A frequently-heard adage is "self-realization before god-realization."
My churchlessness has adapted this to "self-realization, then see about realizing god." Meaning, we're going to have a much clearer view of reality if we get straight who we are before we start jumping to conclusions about a possible external divinity.
And this self-realization doesn't take any effort, according to Forman. It's right in front of our eyes. In fact, it is our eyes -- along with everything else we are.
Really, we know our minds, and indeed we know what it is to be a thinking, feeling conscious being, by virtue of the fact that we have a mind, or are conscious. It is a peculiarly diaphanous element, consciousness: hard to define, hard to contact, hard to know.
But it is only by virtue of our firsthand, first-person acquaintance with this ineffable and sui generis phenomenon that we know anything at all, and certainly know anything at all about our own minds.
We do not know it as we know the color of the desk or as we know another's fears. We know it in a peculiarly direct way: by virtue of being it.