Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Mysticism In Our Time
Dr. Jean Houston has written a really nice piece on spirituality and mysticism and the core stages one experiences. I have edited the article for length, opting to concentrate on the stages she describes, but this first paragraph is really important. The traditional ways of thinking and experiencing religious and spiritual life are undergoing a rapid deconstruction. The path forward seems to point to a form of mystical union heralded by individuals across all spiritual traditions. There is a consistent experiential process to the seeming madness:
Spirituality and the Meaning of Mysticism for Our Time
Dr Jean Houston - Religion - Huffington Post
Mysticism, and spirituality in general, seems to rise during times of intense change and stress. Add the sufficiency of current shadows and the breakdown of all certainties, and we have the ingredients for the current universal pursuit of spiritual realities. We live in a time in which more and more history is happening faster and faster than we can make sense of. The habits of millennia seem to vanish in a few months and the convictions of centuries are crashing down like the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. And yet, the deconstruction of traditional ways of being may invite the underlying Spirit, of which we are a part, to break through.
So how can we birth this miracle within ourselves? How can we foster our natural birthright of spiritual presence? (This idea of communion with the Spirit as a natural birthright is almost the exact opposite of the traditional Christian understanding of the effects of original sin.)
Many have written of the mystic path and tracked its myriad adventures and planes of development. I have found Evelyn Underhill, writing early in the twentieth century, to be one of the finest guides to the experience. In her great work Mysticism, she presents the mystic path as a series of eight organic stages: awakening, purification, illumination, voices and visions, contemplation and introversion, ecstasy and rapture, the dark night of the soul, and union with the One Reality. (As you read the following keep in mind that these are not necessarily sequential stages and that frequently a person revisits stages as they gain further understanding.)
In the first stage, "awakening," one wakes up, to put it quite simply. Suddenly, the world is filled with splendor and glory, and one understands that one is a citizen in a much larger universe. One is filled with the awareness that one is a part of an enormous Life, in which everything is connected to everything else.
The second stage of mystical development is called "purification." Here one rids oneself of those veils and obstruction of the ordinary unexamined life that keep one from the knowledge that one has gained from awakening. One is released from old ways of being and recovers one's higher innocence. In traditional mysticism it can take the form of a very intense pursuit of asceticism. It can also take other forms of trying to create purity and beauty in the world, as, for example, the path of Saint Francis of Assisi, who rebuilt a church as part of his purification, or Hildegard of Bingen, who planted a garden so that God's nose might be engaged. (I tend to see this one as a sort of necessary constant stage.)
The traditional third stage is called the path of "illumination": one is illumined in the light. The light of bliss -- often experienced as actual light -- literally pervades everything. One sees beauty and meaning and pattern everywhere, and yet one remains who one is and able to go about one's daily work. The stage of illumination is also one that many artists, actors, writers, visionaries, scientists, and creative people are blessed to access from time to time. (This is why Jesus states He is the way, the truth, and the light. It helps to remember that light itself is first and foremost a wave of information which is why we literally have vision.)
The fourth stage is called "voices and visions." One sees, hears, senses with more than five senses -- an amplitude of reality including things one has never seen before, such as beings of different dimensions, angels, archetypes, numinous borderline persons, or figures from other times and realms. It is a state of revealing and interacting with a much larger reality -- including those spiritual allies that lie within us. (This stage is very often determined to be pathological in Western psychiatric science. One person's Padre Pio is another persons scary nut job.)
The fifth stage is what Underhill and others call "introversion," which includes entering the silence in prayer and contemplation. It is a turning to the inner life, wherein one employs some of the vast resources of spiritual technology to journey inward to meet and receive Reality in its fullness. It results in daily life as a spiritual exercise, bringing the inner and the outer life together in a new way.
The sixth stage is referred to as "ecstasy and rapture." Here the Divine Presence meets the prepared body, mind, emotions, and psyche of the mystic, which, cleared of the things that keep Reality at bay, now can ecstatically receive the One. It involves the art and science of happiness. (I would also add that the person has given permission for the experience with the very acts of the preparation.)
But, alas, after all this joy and rapture, the next stage, the seventh, is what is termed the "dark night of the soul," obeying the dictum that what goes up must come down. Suddenly the joy is gone, the Divine Lover is absent, God is hidden, and one is literally bereft of everything. Here one faces the remaining shadows of old forms and habits of the lesser self, preparing one to become more available to the final stage. (In many cases people choose to turn off the experiences whether they are aware of this or not, usually because of fears or feelings of inadequacy.)
The eighth and last stage is called the "unitive life." Here one exists in the state of union with the One Reality -- experiencing the Oneness Laszlo claims is the hallmark of deep spiritual experience. One is both oneself and God. For those who enter this state, it seems as if nothing is impossible; indeed, everything becomes possible. They become world changers and world servers. They become powers for life, centers for energy, partners and guides for spiritual vitality in other human beings. They glow, and they set others glowing. They are force fields, and to be in their fields is to be set glowing. They are no longer human beings as we have known them. They are fields of being, for they have moved from Godseed to Godself.
Jean Houston is well worth reading as she truly is a leading light in the field of human consciousness and mysticism. My own interest lies in the area of mystical experiences vs psychopathology. Partly this is due to my own experiences working in the mental health field, but it was given a huge boost in working with Native elders who see Western mental health practices and philosophy as hugely detrimental for their talented mystics. This is especially true for native children who demonstrate mystical stages at a young age. As one elder said, you are drugging our gifted ones into insensibility when you are not locking them up. This same elder said that these children would be much better off if they were left with traditional elders who could give them the training necessary to interpret their visions and voices, but more importantly, the training which would help them develop the boundaries necessary to survive in this reality.
In his world view, psychopathology was not a matter of brain chemistry per se. It was a matter of the person being lost between realities. To accept this view means one has to accept the experiences generated in the mystical realms are every bit as real as anything we experience in this reality. In the most powerful experiences, a person has to accept that what happens in these alternative realities can change matter in this reality. In other words, a seeker eventually has to accept that our general consensus reality is a manifestation of a greater encompassing and interconnected reality. Physicists call this greater reality the quantum field, mystics might use Paul Tillich's idea of the Ground of Being or Chardin's idea of noosphere. It's all of that and probably more.
About six months after this conversation, I'm co facilitating a group for bi polars who tended to be non med compliant. Like many others, they would stabilize on their medications, feel good for awhile, and then stop taking their meds. The group was initiated to explore and deal with this behavior. At first the conversation dealt with the fear of major side effects (totally legitimate) and then progressed to disliking some of the less threatening side effects like dry mouths or sleep issues. Most of this conversation was initiated by the more energetic people, as others were back on medication and displayed little affect and a lot of lethargy.
Then all of a sudden one the lethargic guys said he hated taking meds because they totally stopped his voices, and not all of his voices were bad, in fact, most of them were good and tried to help him deal with the bad command voices. The proverbial dam broke. Every one of the group started telling their stories about how much they hated taking meds for this very reason. They screwed up dreaming. They stopped pre cognition, mental telepathy, dried up creative insight (critical to the artists) and generally turned off the beauty in their world. Yes there were bad voices, visions, and dreams, but the price meds cost them to cut out that part was too high. They wanted to figure out some other way to deal with these issues. They were asking for a way to set better boundaries between realities. We had none to offer them. End of group session.
It was actually the end of the group. The powers that be thought it had gotten out of control and all we accomplished was to feed their delusions and reinforce their med non compliance. All I could think of was that in this medical model Padre Pio would have been seriously medicated if he hadn't been protected by his monastery and their world view. That world view actually encouraged Pio's talent while providing for his needs in this reality. Pio was able to do what he did precisely because he lived in a traditional Catholic monastery which was able to support him in both of his realities. He had what the Native elder described when he talked about gifted native kids being raised in the traditional world view where they would get the support they needed to live and work in both worlds.
One of the problems I have with the Church is that they are not providing for the needs of their talented psychics/mystics. They offer the same two approaches: the western medical model or the Padre Pio model. Neither one is going to work very effectively for most people in the post modern world.
The secularized third path is a hodge podge of New Age thinking and mix and match techniques from other spiritual traditions. We have to come up with something better than this because I suspect most of our gifted lay Catholics are hiding their light under a bushel, searching and learning in isolation, fearing the condemnation of both the medical and traditional Catholic models, and less than impressed with the money driven New Age movement. Fr. Richard Rohr and some others are making a good beginning, but we have a long way to go.
Mysticism is not just some personal head game randomly gifted on rare people. It can be learned if the student is willing to work and sacrifice a great deal. It has real effects on this reality. It can be a source for real hope and real solutions to our very real problems.