Mystical experiences were on my mind today, after someone left a comment on a blog post inquiring about whether I'd gone inside while meditating or heard sacred sounds.
I replied. But then I thought, "What's the big deal with supposed mystical experiences?"
Most religions, forms of spirituality, and philosophical systems don't pay much attention to them. Most Christians or Buddhists aren't out to see fantastical scenes of the astral plane, or bliss out on a supernatural light and sound show.
Their goals are to become better people; to learn what reality is all about; to be of service to humanity; and other thoroughly non-mystical aspirations.
I don't agree with most of Christian dogma, and much of the Buddhist viewpoint. However, I've come to appreciate that if any good is to come from pursuing an organized form of spirituality, it should manifest as evident goodness in how the practitioner relates to other people and the outside world.
For many years I was a member of an India-based organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), which emphasized meditation aimed at hearing divine sound and seeing divine light. Quite a few other offshoots of the Sant Mat movement preach the same gospel.
I had a few experiences along those lines, but I can't say they had any spiritual significance.
Lots of people hear bell tones, ringing, and such inside their head. They're tinnitus sufferers. And even if inner sounds or lights arise from some other source, like sensory deprivation via lengthy meditative withdrawal from perceptions of the outside world, what's the big deal with them?
When I was in college during the 60's (decade, not my age), I had many mystical experiences. You can too. Just find some LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, peyote, or other psychedelic substance, ingest it, and wait a little while.
I experienced amazing insights into the nature of existence. (See here and here.) So what?
Did those experiences have any lasting effect on my personality, my character, my relationships, or anything else? No. Likewise, do non-drug-aided mystical experiences have any similar lasting effects? Sometimes, it seems, judging from the number of "I almost died and saw Jesus" books on the market.
However, those almost died and went to heaven purported experiences are much different from meditating and hearing some sounds, or seeing some lights. In my thirty-plus years of talking with lots of fellow RSSB meditators, I can't recall anyone who said he/she had become a markedly different person after a mystical experience(s).
My observations of high-ranking RSSB disciples bore this out. Those who had been in the organization the longest, and who presumably had the most meditation to their karmic credit, didn't demonstrate laudatory qualities lacking in ordinary people.
This included the guru himself, who is considered to be the very essence of divine light and sound. I found him to be an interesting, charismatic guy, but not any wiser, ethical, or compassionate than countless other human beings.
Again, what's the big deal with mystical experiences if there's no sign that those who purportedly have had them are any different from, or better than, ordinary folks?
David Chapman makes this point in his typically creative fashion in "Wholeness, Connection, and Meditation: Competing Visions." Excerpt:
And as for connection:
- Monism promises “total connection with the Absolute Infinite” (or with “the whole universe,” as though that were a single thing). But meaningful connections can only be made with specific, finite beings in this here-and-now world.
- To achieve unity, internalizing meditation deliberately cuts you off from everyday reality, which is supposedly a distraction and not spiritual enough.
- You are supposed to “turn inward,” to find a “profound inner experience” that connects you with the divine reality. This is nonsensical. Experiences are not connections; connections aren’t inside you; you can’t connect yourself with all things by cutting yourself off from them.
- In practice, monists’ relationships with other people, and with their physical environment, usually become godawful messes. Monist practice makes you self-obsessed, unreliable, and unwilling to deal with mundane practicalities.
I think there are spontaneous perceptions/intuitions that clarify Reality. These intuitions/apperceptions can result in a fundamental and permanent "spiritual" change.
I don't know how or why this occurs or what anyone can do about it. Sometimes this happens at a times of stress, exhuastion, deprivation or transition. Perhaps at these times the cocoon of our conditioning breaks down sufficiently that we see differently.
Hallucinogens can be a fast track to this, but are entirely unpredictable, imo. Might be worth a try.
Posted by: tucson | March 19, 2012 at 11:51 PM
"One of the strangest delusions of the Western mind is to the effect that a philosophy of profound wisdom is on tap in the East. I have read a great many expositions of it, some by native sages and the rest by Western enthusiasts, but I have found nothing in it save nonsense. It is, fundamentally, a moony transcendentalism almost as absurd as that of Emerson, Alcott and company. It bears no sort of relation to the known facts, and is full of assumptions and hypotheses that every intelligent man must laugh at. In its practical effects it seems to be as lacking in sense and as inimical to human dignity as Methodism, or even Mormonism..."
-- Minority Report, H. L. Mencken's Notebooks 
Posted by: Jim Jones | March 20, 2012 at 09:36 AM
Jim...ooh, "even Mormonism." Waded into modern political territory there. Actually, I don't know why Mencken says "even." To me Mormonism is even more lacking in sense that traditional Christianity, and that's saying a lot.
I agree that many people who are appropriately skeptical of Western religions buy into Eastern philosophies without the same skepticism. I did that myself for many years.
Yesterday my fellow Tai Chi classmates and I had an interesting discussion of "chi/ki" when our instructor was absent because of an illness, and we self-taught the class. My attitude toward chi is that if it exists, it is a subtle natural energy, not something supernatural or transcendent.
Mostly my classmates seemed to agree, but I can tell that some have a more "mystical" understanding of chi. For example, I doubt that it's possible to transmit a seemingly physical force onto someone without touching them, but this is a common belief among some Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and other martial arts practitioners.
Posted by: Brian Hines | March 20, 2012 at 09:52 AM
re: one of the linked prior articles "The universe is a paper bag turned inside out",
in the comment section, "tucson" disagrees, saying that the universe is a plastic bag.
i have to agree with tucson here. in fact, the universe plastic bag is also alive!! and here's proof:
The Majestic Plastic Bag - A Mockumentary
Posted by: sgl | March 20, 2012 at 12:37 PM
Hello Brian. I am half way through your book "God's Whisper," which I am enjoying. I thought I would check you out on the web and was surprised! to see the position you hold and that you left the RS movement (I am also "churchless" but was never a member of RS... I grew up in the Jewish practice and became enamoured of Jesus, but mostly to the Quaker; I also really enjoy Sufi, and Khrishnamurti was a strong influece...but so was/is Mel Brooks). But I am responding to this blog post "Mystical experiences. What's the big deal with them?" because although I agree with you about what happens to many and with your assessment of the popular interpretation of "mystical experiences," I was fortunate/cursed/blessed enough to have several which changed my life in an ethical manner..In short I had no "ground" (epistemologically) and when the "Other" reached out and "touched me", my life changed.. As you know the hallmark of Noesis is ethical change..it didn't happen overnight.. it has taken many years.. but the fountain became activated, a heart for righteousness was planted, and a new mind a new sense of my place in the universe (Reality) happened..As a result of these experience I have tried to become a better, kinder person. I wound up changing my very reactive behaviour (still working on it..I was extremely abused and had some neurological problems) and getting actively involved in trying to heal the world through action. You can look me up on the web C.D Mazoff. I acquired a hunger for knowledege and a passion for justice and this resulted in a return to university and teaching and political activism (social justice) and quite a few publications.. Anyways: I will be checking back here.. Maybe one day we can banter at each other. I'm in Victoria BC. Would be nice to see your face.
Posted by: Dr. C.D. Mazoff | March 20, 2012 at 05:15 PM
Honorable sir unable to beat natures Kung flu with vaunted Chi...so sad
Posted by: Dogribb | March 20, 2012 at 07:46 PM
Ask any dead person what it is like to be dead. They will always give you the correct answer.
That is the ultimate mystical experience.
Posted by: Willie R | March 21, 2012 at 07:38 AM
"it has taken many years.. but the fountain became activated, a heart for righteousness was planted, and a new mind a new sense of my place in the universe (Reality) happened."
Oh god, testimony.
Self-loathing wears the clothing of self-righteousness.
Posted by: cc | March 21, 2012 at 06:03 PM