Mysticism In this article I would like to bring the findings of my somewhat unusual but increasingly accepted field mysticism to the discussion, for I think they may offer some helpful insights about consciousness. Why? When a biologist seeks to understand a complex phenomenon, one key strategy is to look to at it in its simplest form. Probably the most famous is the humble bacterium E. coli. Its simple gene structure has allowed us to understand much of the gene functioning of complex species.
Similarly many biologists have turned to the memory of the simple sea slug to understand our own more kaleidoscopic memory. Freud and Durkheim both used totemism, which they construed as thesimplest form of religion, to understand the complexities of religious life.1 The methodological principle is: to understand something complex turn to its simple forms. Mystical experiences may represent just such a simple form of human consciousness. Usually our minds are an enormously complex stew of thoughts, feelings, sensations, wants, snatches of song, pains, drives, daydreams and, of course, consciousness itself more or less aware of it all. To understand consciousness in itself, the obvious thing would be to clear away as much of this internal detritus and noise as possible. It turns out that mystics seem to be doing precisely that. The technique that most mystics use is some form of meditation or contemplation.
These are procedures that, often by recycling a mental subroutine,2 systematically reduce mental activity. During meditation, one begins to slow down the thinking process, and have fewer or less intense thoughts. Ones thoughts become as if more distant, vague, or less preoccupying; one stops paying as much attention to bodily sensations; one has fewer or less intense fantasies and daydreams. Thus by reducing the intensity or compelling quality of outward perception and inward thoughts, one may come to a time of greater stillness. Ultimately one may become utterly silent inside, as though in a gap between thoughts, where one becomes completely perception- and thought-free. One neither thinks nor perceives any mental or sensory content. Yet, despite this suspension of content, one emerges from such events confident that one had remained awake inside, fully conscious. This experience, which has been called the pure consciousness event, or PCE, has been identified in virtually every tradition.
Though PCEs typically happen to any single individual only occasionally, they are quite regular for some practitioners.3 The pure consciousness event may be defined as a wakeful but contentless (non-intentional) consciousness. These PCEs, encounters with consciousness devoid of intentional content, may be just the least complex encounter with awareness per se that we students of consciousness seek. The PCE may serve, in short, as the E coli of consciousness studies.4 But the story does not stop here. Regular and long-term meditation, according to many traditions, leads to advanced experiences, known in general as enlightenment. Their discriminating feature is a deep shift in epistemological structure: the experienced relationship between the self and ones perceptual objects changes profoundly.
In many people this new structure becomes permanent.5 These long-term shifts in epistemological structure often take the form of two quantum leaps in experience; typically they develop sequentially.6 The first is an experience of a permanent interior stillness, even while engaged in thought and activity one remains aware of ones own awareness while simultaneously remaining conscious of thoughts, sensations and actions. Because of its phenomenological dualism a heightened cognizance of awareness itself plus a consciousness of thoughts and objects I call it the dualistic mystical state (DMS). The second shift is described as a perceived unity of ones own awareness per se with the objects around one, an immediate sense of a quasi-physical unity between self, objects and other people. States akin to this have been called extrovertive- or sometimes nature- mysticism; but I prefer to call it the unitive mystical state, UMS.7 Like the PCE, these latter two may serve as fertile fields for students of consciousness to plough. To understand them, I want to introduce the idea of the relative intensity of a thought or desire.
Some desires have a high relative intensity. Lets say I am walking across the street when I see a huge truck hurtling at me. Virtually 100% of my attention is taken up with the truck, the fear, and getting out of the way. It is virtually impossible for me to think about anything else at that time. I dont even consider keeping my suit clean, how my hair might look, the discomfort in my tummy, or the classes I will teach tomorrow.
The fear and running are utterly intense, we might say, consuming nearly 100% of my attention. That evening, I come home starved, and rush to the fridge. I may be civil to my kids and wife, but I have very little patience. My desire for food is very intense, for it preoccupies most of my consciousness, but it consumes less of my attention than did jumping away from the truck. Some thoughts consume very little of my attention. Driving to work the next day, for example, I might ruminate about my classes, remember the near miss with the truck, half hear the news on the radio, and think about getting that noise in the car fixed nearly all at once. None of these thoughts or desires is very intense, for none has a strong emotional cathexis that draws me fully into it.
My attention can flow in and out of any of them, or the traffic ahead, effortlessly. In short the intensity of a thought or desire tends to increase the amount of my consciousness that is taken up with that thought or feeling. Conversely, the thoughts intensity tends to lessen when I am able to retain more attention for other issues, and for my wider perspective. Now, as I understand them, advanced mystical experiences result from the combination of regular PCEs plus a minimization of the relative intensity of emotions and thoughts. That is, over time one decreases the compulsive or intense cathexis of all of ones desires. The de-intensifying of emotional attachments means that, over the years, ones attention is progressively available to sense its own quiet interior character more and more fully, until eventually one is able to effortlessly maintain a subtle cognizance of ones own awareness simultaneously with thinking about and responding to the world: a reduction in the relative intensity of all of ones thoughts and desires. This state of being cognizant of ones own inner awareness while simultaneously maintaining the ability to think and talk about that consciousness offers students of consciousness a unique situation.
For these subjects may be both unusually cognizant of features or patterns of their own awareness and also able to describe them to us: a kind of ongoing microscope on human consciousness. In short, while not as phenomenologically simple as PCEs, these experiences may provide us with highly useful reports about the character of human awareness. Several additional preliminary matters: First, perforce we will be drawing conclusions based on the experiences of a very few people. Most of us havent had any experiences like the ones I will describe, and some may sound pretty strange. Yet we often do generalize from the unusual to the general. Just think how much we have concluded about consciousness from a very few: epileptics, people with unusual skull accidents or brain injuries, the man who mistook his wife for a hat, etc.
From the pathology of a very few we have learned a great deal about the relationship of one side of the brain to the other, of two kinds of knowing, of information storage and retrieval, of impulse control, etc. Indeed it is common practice to take data about a few unusual individuals and generalize it to the many. Here again we are studying the data of a few. But rather than the pathological, we will be studying people Sakyamuni Buddha, Teresa of Avila, Ramana Maharshi, etc. who are not pathological but unusually self-actualized.
Should we not be as willing to learn from the experiences of the unusually healthy as we are to learn from the unusually diseased? The second matter is definitional: What do we mean by mysticism? What is generally known as mysticism is often said to have two strands, which are traditionally distinguished as apophatic and kataphatic mysticism, oriented respectively towards emptying or the imagistically filling. These two are generally described in terms that are without or with sensory language. The psychologist Roland Fischer has distinguished a similar pairing as trophotropic and ergotropic, experiences that phenomenologically involve inactivity or activity. Kataphatic or imagistic mysticism involves hallucinations, visions, auditions or even a sensory-like smell or taste; it thus involves activity and is ergotropic. Apophatic mystical experiences are devoid of such sensory-like content, and are thus trophotropic. When they use non-sensory, non imagistic language,8 authors like Eckhart, Dogen, al-Hallaj, Bernadette Roberts and Shankara are all thus apophatic mystics.
Because visions and other ergotropic experiences are not the simple experiences of consciousness that we require, I will focus my attentions exclusively on the quieter apophatic forms. Finally, I want to emphasize that phenomenology is not science. When we describe these experiences, we do not gain hard scientific proof thereby. There can be many ways to explain an unusual experience: one might say it was the result of what one ate for dinner, a faulty memory, psycho-somatic processes, a quantum microtubule collapse, or an encounter with Ultimate Truth.* Without further argumentation, phenomenology cannot serve as the sole basis for any theory of reality. It may be taken only as a finger, pointing in some direction, rather than conclusive evidence for or against a particular thesis.
This is how I see my role in this paper. I will simply describe mystical experiences as accurately as I can, and say where I see their fingers pointing. That is, I will attempt to coax metaphysical hypotheses out of these phenomenological descriptions. First-person reports, especially those that are about unusual experiences are, of course, notoriously unreliable. When an epileptic says that the table seemed wavy, or when a man asserts that his wife is a hat, these reports are not taken as data about the world, but about their condition.9 One may want to assert that a mystics report should be regarded similarly.
But we must be careful here, for first-person reports can also be veridical or even sources of wisdom. For example, in the kingdom of the blind, the first-person report of a sighted fellow that the mountain peak near the village is in the shape of five fingers may be regarded as the rantings of a lunatic or as information about the mountains. Similarly, when Woodward and Bernstein spoke with the Watergate informant Deep Throat, they could have taken his utterances as paranoid ramblings, data about his developing psychosis, or as information about the Nixon administration. How can we determine which way to regard the unusual first-person reports of the mystics? If we were Woodward and Bernstein, how would we decide? Common sense seems a good place to begin. We might ask, does Deep Throat, or the mystics in our case, seem unconnected or delusional? I believe most of us would say no.
In fact many regard Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, the authors of the Upanishads, and others who tell us of such experiences as unusually wise. Certainly they do not seem utterly unhinged, physically ill, etc. Secondly, we might ask, do others in a situation similar to Deep Throats describe things similarly? In our case, assuming reasonable cultural differences in language and detail, do mystics from around the world describe things largely similarly? Here again the answer is yes. We shall find a reasonable amount of similarity among their descriptions, a family resemblance, They tend to confirm each others reports. Finally, is there other confirming evidence for our Deep Throats claims? Here the information is not in: just how consciousness works, relates to the world or the brain, is anything but established. In sum, it makes sense to regard the mystics unusual reports about the world as more like those of a Deep Throat than those of an epileptic.
But also, again as with Deep Throat, the information we can glean from them is not, by itself, reliable enough to base a theory of consciousness solely on it. It will take the hard-working Woodwards and Bernsteins in the scientific and philosophical trenches to verify or deny the suggestions of our Deep Throats. Three Mystical Phenomena and their Implications Pure consciousness events Let me begin by offering several reports of the first of the mystical phenomena I mentioned above, the pure consciousness event (PCE). First, from Christian mystical literature,10 St. Teresa of Avila writes of what she calls the orison of union: During the short time the union lasts, she is deprived of every feeling, and even if she would, she could not think of any single thing.
. She is utterly dead to the things of the world . . . I do not even know whether in this state she has enough life left to breathe.
It seems to me she has not; or at least that if she does breathe, she is unaware of it. . . The natural action of all her faculties [are suspended]. She neither sees, hears, nor understands (James, 1902/1983, p. 409).11 Several key features of this experience jump out.
First, Teresa tells us that one reaches this orison of unity by gradually reducing thought and understanding, eventually becoming utterly dead to things, encountering neither sensation, thought nor perceptions. One becomes as simple as possible. Eventually one stops thinking altogether, not able to think of any single thing . . .
arresting the use of her understanding . . . utterly dead to the things of the world. And yet, she clearly implies, one remains awake.12 Meister Eckhart describes something similar as the gezucken, rapture, of St. Paul, his archetype of a transient mystical experience: .
. . the more completely you are able to draw in your powers to a unity and forget all those things and their images which you have absorbed, and the further you can get from creatures and their images, the nearer you are to this and the readier to receive it. If only you could suddenly be unaware of all things, then you could pass into an oblivion of your own body as St Paul did, . .
. In this case . . . memory no longer functioned, nor understanding, nor the senses, nor the powers that should function so as to govern and grace the body . .
. In this way a man should flee his senses, turn his powers inward and sink into an oblivion of all things and himself (Walshe, 1982, p. 7). Like St. Teresa, Eckhart specifically asserts the absence of sensory content (nor the senses), as well as mental objects (devoid of memory, understanding, senses, etc.). One becomes oblivious of ones own body and all things.
In short one becomes unaware of all things, i.e. devoid of all mental and sensory content. The absence of thought and sensation is repeated in the following passage from the Upanishads when describing the state these early Hindu texts call turiya, the fourth. Verily when a knower has restrained his mind from the external, and the breathing spirit (prana) has put to rest objects of sense, thereupon let him continue void of conceptions. Since the living individual (jiva) who is named breathing spirit has arisen here from what is not breathing spirit, therefore, verily, let the breathing spirit restrain his breathing spirit in what is called the fourth condition (turiya) Maitri Upanishad 6:19 (Hume, 1931, p. 436). Here again one has put to rest objects of sense, i.e.
gradually laid aside all sensations, and continued void of conceptions, i.e. not thinking. And yet the Upanishads are insistent that one remains conscious, indeed becomes nothing but consciousness itself. The consciousness that one reaches in turiya comes to be known in Samkhya philosophy as purusha, often translated as awareness or consciousness itself, that which illuminates or witnesses thoughts, feelings, and actions.13 The purusha or awareness that one reaches during this experience is described as sheer contentless presence (sasksitva) . .
. that is nonintentional (Larson, 1979, p. 77). Here is a report from the present authors own twenty-eight year practice of neo-Advaitan (Hindu-derived) Transcendental Meditation, which suggests the persistence of consciousness throughout such events. Sometimes during meditation my thoughts drift away entirely, and I gain a state I would describe as simply being awake.
Im not thinking about anything. Im not particularly aware of any sensations, Im not aware of being absorbed in anything in particular, and yet I am quite certain (after the fact) that I havent been asleep. During it I am simply awake or simply present. It is odd to describe such an event as being awake or being present, for those terms generally connote an awareness of something or other. But in this experience there is no particular or identifiable object of which I am aware.
Yet I am driven to say I am awake for two reasons. First, I emerge with a quiet, intuited certainty that I was continually present, that there was an unbroken continuity of experience or of consciousness throughout the meditation period, even if there seemed to have been periods from which I had no particular memories. I just know that there was some sort of continuity of myself (however we can define that) throughout.14 In Buddhism such Pure Consciousness Events are called by several names: nirodhasamapatti, or cessation meditation; samjnavedayitanirodha, the cessation of sensation and conceptualization; sunyata, emptiness; or most famously, samadhi, meditation without content (cf. Griffiths, 1990). What is most fascinating about traditional Buddhist explorations of this state is that despite the fact that one is said to be utterly devoid of content, according to Yogacara Buddhist theorists ones consciousness is said to persist as some form of contentless and attributeless consciousness (Griffiths, 1990, p. 83). That is, despite the fact that one is not aware of any specific content or thought, something persists in this contentlessness, and that is consciousness itself: I, though abiding in emptiness, am now abiding in the fullness thereof (Nagao, 1978, p.
67). When discussing this possibility that one may abide in the fulness of emptiness, Vasubandu states: It is perceived as it really is that, when anything does not exist in something, the latter is empty with regard to the former; and further it is understood as it really is that, when, in this place something remains, it exists here as a real existent.15 In sum, the PCE may be defined as a wakeful but contentless (non-intentional) experience. Though one remains awake and alert, emerging with the clear sense of having had an unbroken continuity of experience, one neither thinks, nor perceives nor acts. W.T. Stace (1960): Suppose then that we obliterate from consciousness all objects physical or mental. When the self is not engaged in apprehending objects it becomes aware of itself.
The self itself emerges. The self, however, when stripped of all psychological contents or objects, is not another thing, or substance, distinct from its contents. It is the bare unity of the manifold of consciousness from which the manifold itself has been obliterated (p. 86). Now what implications can we draw from the pure consciousness event about the nature of human consciousness? 1. We have a pattern here that is seen across cultures and eras. This, in combination with the reports offered in The Problem of Pure Consciousness, suggests that the phenomenon is not an artifact of any one culture but is something closer to an experience that is reasonably common and available in a variety of cultural contexts.16 2.
Thomas Clark and other defenders of functionalism have suggested that consciousness is identical to certain of our information-bearing and behaviour- controlling functions, even going so far as to define it thus (Clark, 1995, p. 241). Others have suggested that consciousness is an artifact or an epiphenomenon of perception, action and thought, and that it arises only as a concomitant of these phenomena. Our accounts tend to disconfirm this view, which is generally argued on a priori grounds. Rather they suggest that consciousness does persist even when one has no perception, thought or evaluation.
This suggests that consciousness should not be defined as merely an epiphenomenon of perception, an evaluative mechanism, or an arbiter of perceptual functions, but rather as something that exists independently of them. 3. Some have suggested that if we can understand how we can tie together perceptions and thoughts the so called binding problem we will ipso facto understand consciousness.17 Now, how we bind together perceptions is a very interesting question for cognitive psychology, neurobiology and philosophy of mind. But even if we understand how we do tie together perceptions, we will not necessarily understand the phenomenon of consciousness per se thereby, for according to these mystical accounts, it is more fundamental than a mere binding function.18 These reports suggest that binding is something done by or for consciousness, not something that creates consciousness.19 4. Our evidence suggests that we should conceptually and linguistically differentiate merely being aware or awake from its functional activities.
Accordingly, I propose to use the terms as follows: (i) awareness and consciousness for that facet of consciousness which is aware within itself and which may persist even without intentional content; (ii) awareness of and 1consciousness of to refer to that feature of experience which is cognizant when we are intentionally aware of something; and (iii) pure awareness and pure consciousness to refer to awareness without intentional content.20 5. Reports of pure consciousness suggest that, despite the absence of mental content, the subjects were somehow aware that they remained aware throughout the period of the PCE. Apparently they sensed a continuity of awareness through past and present. If they did, even though there was no content, then they must have somehow directly recalled that they had been aware despite the absence of remembered content.21 This implies human awareness has the ability to tie itself together and to know intuitively that it has persisted.22 We may want to say that being conscious seems to entail this sort of direct self-recollection, a presence to oneself that is distinct from the kind of presence we have to perceptions and other intentional content. In this sense, the pure consciousness event tends to affirm Bernard Lonergans distinction between our conscious presence to intentional objects and our consciousness of consciousness itself: There is the presence of the object to the subject, of the spectacle to the spectator; there is also the presence of the subject to himself, and this is not the presence of another object dividing his attention, of another spectacle distracting the spectator; it is presence in, as it were, another dimension, presence concomitant and correlative and opposite to the presence of the object. Objects are present by being attended to but subjects are present as subjects, not by being attended to, but by attending. As the parade of objects marches by, spectators do not have to slip into the parade to be present to themselves; they have to be present to themselves for anything to be present to them (Lonergan, 1967, p.
226, quoted in McCarthy, 1990, p. 234). In sum, the PCE militates towards a distinction between consciousness or awareness per se and its usual binding, relational and culturally-trained processes. It suggests that consciousness is more than its embodied activities. The dualistic mystical state, the peculiar oceanic feeling The second mystical phenomenon bears a dualistic pattern.
Let us look at a few reports. The first comes from the autobiography of a living American mystic, Bernadette Roberts, middle-aged ex-nun, mother, housewife, and author of The Experience of No-Self. She had been in the practice of meditating in a nearby monastery, she tells us, and had often had the experience of complete silence we described above. Previously such experiences had sparked fear in her, perhaps a fear of never returning. But on this particular afternoon, as her meditation was ending, once again there was a pervasive silence and once again I waited for the onset of fear to break it up.
But this time the fear never came. . . . Within, all was still, silent and motionless.
In the stillness, I was not aware of the moment when the fear and tension of waiting had left. Still I continued to wait for a movement not of myself and when no movement came, I simply remained in a great stillness (Roberts, 1984, p. 20). She became silent inside but, to her surprise, did not emerge from that silence. She stood up and walked out of her chapel, like a feather floats in the wind, while her silence continued unabated.
No temporary meditative experience, this was a permanent development of that quiet empty interior silence.23 . . . Once outside, I fully expected to return to my ordinary energies and thinking mind, but this day I had a difficult time because I was continually falling back into the great silence (ibid.). She remained in a great stillness, driving down the road, talking on the phone, and cutting the carrots for dinner.
In fact that inner stillness was never again to leave her. She experienced her interior silence as her original consciousness, by which I understand that she experienced it as devoid of the intellectual self-reflection that generally accompanies experiences. She describes this new state as a continuation of what she had encountered when she was in her meditative silence (PCE); only here she remains fully cognizant of her own silent awareness even while active. My own previously published autobiographical report of such a state also associates a permanent interior silence with consciousness: This began in 1972. I had been practicing meditation for about three years, and had been on a meditation retreat for three and a half months.
Over several days something like a series of tubes (neuronal bundles?) running down the back of my neck became, one by one, utterly quiet. This transformation started on the left side and moved to the right. As each one became silent, all the noise and activity inside these little tubes just ceased. There was a kind of a click or a sort of zipping sensation, as the nerve cells or whatever it was became quiet.24 It was as if there had always been these very faint and unnoticed activity, a background of static, so constant that I had never before noticed it. When each of these tubes became silent, all that noise just ceased entirely.
I only recognized the interior noise or activity in these tubes in comparison to the silence that now descended. One by one these tubes became quiet, from left to right. It took a couple of weeks and finally the last one on the right went zip, and that was it. It was over. After the last tube had shifted to this new state, I discovered that a major though subtle shift had occurred. From that moment forward, I was silent inside.
I dont mean I didnt think, but rather that the feeling inside of me was as if I was entirely empty, a perfect vacuum.25 Since that time all of my thinking, my sensations, my emotions, etc., have seemed not quite connected to me inside. It was and is as if what was me, my consciousness itself, was (and is) now this emptiness. The silence was now me, and the thoughts that have gone on inside have not felt quite in contact with what is really me, this empty awareness. I was now silent inside. My thinking has been as if on the outside of this silence without quite contacting it: When I saw, felt or heard something, that perception or thought has been seen by this silent consciousness, but it has not been quite connected to this interior silence.
(Foreman, date??, p.??) In this experience the silence is explicitly associated with awareness. It is experienced as the I, what was really me, my consciousness itself. Somehow this area in the back of the head seems to be associated with being aware; as it became silent, a sense of the self or consciousness itself within became more articulated, and was now experienced as silent. Like Roberts, this shift to an interior silence was permanent.26 Thus we should call it a state, not a transient experience. I call it the dualistic mystical state (DMS). Descriptions of a DMS are surprisingly common in the mystical literature.
Teresa of Avila writes of such a dualistic state. Speaking of herself in the third person, she writes: However numerous were her trials and business worries, the essential part of her soul seemed never to move from [its] dwelling place. So in a sense she felt that her soul was divided . . .
Sometimes she would say that it was doing nothing but enjoy[ing] itself in that quietness, while she herself was left with all her trials and occupations so that she could not keep it company (Peers, 1961, p. 211). She too describes an experience in which, even while working and living, one also maintains a clear sense of the interior awareness, a persisting sense of an unmoving silence at ones core. Meister Eckhart describes something similar, calling it the Birth of the Word In the Soul. One of Eckharts clearest descriptions is from the treatise On Detachment.
It analogizes the two aspects of man with a door and its hinge pin. Like the outward boards of a door, the outward man moves, changes, and acts. The inward man, like the hinge pin, does not move. He or it remains uninvolved with activity and does not change at all. This, Eckhart concludes, is the way one should really conduct a life: one should act yet remain inwardly uninvolved.