I've been enjoying the recent comment conversations between some of the Church of the Churchless regulars. Meaning, frequent visitors to this blog.
Having featured a comment from "Appreciative Reader" in a blog post a few days ago, I generally find myself agreeing with this person's perspective.
Which I'm not going to attempt to summarize, since that perspective is nuanced.
Instead, here's my take on a theme that features in the above-mentioned comment conversations: how someone can tell the difference between genuine and spurious mystical experiences.
My first assumption -- which seems inarguable to me -- is that while mystics and mystic-sympathizers like to say that mystical experiences can't be put into words, that's the case with all experiences.
Every experience is had by a subjective consciousness. I have my experiences. You have yours. Other people have theirs.
None of us has direct access to anyone else's experiences. They are directly experienced by the experiencer alone. This direct experience means there's a huge difference between saying "I ate a raspberry" and experiencing the sensation of eating a raspberry.
No amount of words ever add up to a direct experience. I can feel happy and say to myself, "I'm happy today," but those three words don't begin to capture my experience of happiness.
So let's put to rest any notion that mystical experiences are special in regards to their ineffability, their inability to be described to others in anything but an abstract manner. Again, this is the case with all personal experiences, without exception.
Further, I don't consider these sorts of experiences to be genuinely mystical:
Feeling at one with the universe; being awestruck at the wonder of existence; having a sense that all is right with the world; intuiting that death is not the end of the road, but a turn in a never-ending journey.
Lots of people have profound experiences that alter how they look upon life. Heck, probably most people do. We humans are meaning-making creatures. Finding meaning is a favorite thing to do.
Let's turn then to the question of what distinguishes a genuine from a spurious mystical experience.
The way I see it, mysticism rests on this hypothesis: there's a realm of reality apart from this physical universe, or if you will, the physical cosmos -- since there could be much more to physical reality than our single universe, as unimaginably vast as it is.
Thus a genuine mystical experience would occur through contact with a realm of reality separate from the physical universe.
If mysticism simply led to an experience of a different aspect of physical reality, this would mean little or no difference between mysticism and science.
For example, if it were possible for a human mind to have ESP, Extra Sensory Perception, this capacity wouldn't be mystical, since it would occur via the physical brain and operate in this physical world.
That discovery of ESP would be groundbreaking, really big news. However, it would add to the store of knowledge of how humans experience the physical world, not a non-physical "spiritual" realm.
So based on my own personal experience of pursuing a mystical approach to meditation for thirty-five years (an approach I now have discarded), I can confidently say that the goal of mysticism is to experience a new reality, a reality beyond the confines of physical existence.
The question then becomes, how is it possible to tell whether such a "spiritual" reality exists, and if it does, whether someone has experienced it?
Words such as "I saw and heard God" aren't enough, obviously. Even if those words are uttered sincerely, people can be mistaken about what they experience -- the familiar "mistaking a stick for a snake" analogy.
Further, psychotic people can see and hear God. People who have taken LSD or some other psychedelic can see and hear God. People who are deeply religious can see and hear God.
This doesn't prove that God exists. It proves that people have experiences that lead then to believe God exists.
Similarly, people have experiences of a realm of reality beyond the physical. This doesn't prove that such a realm exists. It proves that people have experiences that lead them to believe the realm exists.
Thus it seems to me that if a mystic claims to have found a new reality, that person needs to provide some solid proof of that discovery before it can be taken seriously. Otherwise, that person is just one more of countless humans who have claimed to experience a realm beyond this physical universe.
Excuses won't cut it.
"Impossible to put into words." Again, all experiences are impossible to put into words. So not being able to describe a mystical experience doesn't make it genuine.
"Can't bring anything back from that reality." OK, I can't bring anything back from the dreams I have at night either. That doesn't make dreams anything more than my subjective experience.
"It's a matter of faith, not of proof." Fine, have as much faith as you want, tons of it. Just know that I have no faith in your faith as a guide to reality. Faith leads people widely astray when it comes to knowing what is real.
I'll end by saying that I'm absolutely fine with people trying to have mystical experiences. I've been there and done that -- for thirty-five years.
I'm also absolutely fine with people talking about their mystical experiences. I've read countless (almost) books along this line, enjoying each one.
Just know that talk is much different from proof.
In my first book about relating the new physics with ancient mysticism, I observed that the Nobel prize committee would laugh at someone who wrote to them saying something like:
"I've discovered the Theory of Everything that others have sought for but never found. I'm unable to provide proof of my discovery, so you'll just to believe me. Nobel Prize, please!"