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. 


  1. How does this connect with the request by women religious at the LCWR conference to learn more about mysticism, prophecy and discernment? It seems that they were trying to reach out to grasp a reality beyond the inane demands that they change the externals of dress and schedule to better witness to the Divine.

  2. Problem with the RCC is the "two track" system, whereby depth spirituality is for monastics and the laity should pray the rosary etc. In the east there is no division. Same spirituality for all. A sense that the outer liturgy must connect with the inner liturgy of the heart. Plus a sense that "authority" does not come from above but instead is spoken within the hearts of believers, integrated within the Eucharistic community.

    The RCC has gone down the path of a corporation. Instead of the body of Christ, it's become an institutionalized sweat-shop, where the worker bees toil for the continuation of the institution as an end in itself.

    I don't need to lay this all out. But naturally those laity and those religious who truly enter into an authentic prayer life where they unite with the TriUne God of Love become threats to the sweatshop mentality, their prophetic voices branded as heresy.

    Anyone following a mystical path should be very careful and follow only those paths which have a long, long tradition - hundreds and thousands of years long. It's all too easy to be preyed upon - by false gurus of any type. If one embarks upon such a path, be advised to take care. As great a care as you might take in entering into marriage. Caution and second-guessing are necessary components, even of authentic spiritual experience.

  3. Since I have just re-read Theresa of Avila's The Interior Castle, translation by Mirabai Starr, this is a welcome blog entry by you, Colleen. Mysticism is not often discussed as part of the spiritual, as well as creative journey that one may be experiencing. Creativity and spirituality seem to go hand in hand if you ask me, and that energy or light will be manifested in the world with the right conditions and support.

    Underhill's stages sort of dovetail those of Theresa's. I agree that the Western world would diagnose some things as requiring meds as there are a lot of misconceptions or no conceptions at all in the understanding of western science when it comes to the mystical life. In a period in which I can only describe as the dark night of the soul, for some people I know they started taking anti-depressants. I have no such trust in western medicine as I tend to believe that a lot, if not most interior problems arise from the inner depths and in a lot of cases it is a sign to take stock of one's life and the direction one is going. If one masks these states or stages with meds, I'd be concerned for their spiritual growth. I believe it is from that point, the dark night of the soul, that all the other stages are interconnected. When reading Theresa's book I could discern these overlaps of stages.

    Diagnosing everything that is out of the ordinary as strictly biological or psychological is not the answer. One can miss out from entering into the other developmental stages of mysticism if one is prevented by medication, as the study you were in engaged in seems to prove. That's not to say there are no meds for serious mental conditions. Not at all. Maybe there is just the tendency to over-medicate in the world today for anything deemed not "normal."

    I've come to understand that in giving up all notions of success in this world, one is free to be successful. That perhaps is a state of bliss that only a mystic would understand.

    The heart of the difficulty today in being a mystic is that it is not really understood or accepted, except perhaps in a monastic setting. In today's political climate in the RCC hierarchy, the danger exists for even monasticism's extinction. It is good to hear right here that it is not quite extinct yet.

  4. "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."

    These are fascinating ideas! As a Kleinian analyst, I would refer to the pathology of the Borderline core or the psychotic islands in all personalities. While Bipolar personalities are fascinating in of themselves, and the study of these individuals and the psychotic personalities of the schizophrenic are very important and in fact life encompassing works for any analyst or medical health worker, they do not express the norm. The contrast of the Borderline for the extreme both creativity and loss of the ability of actual thought process in illness encompasses the need for a 24 hour support system that can only be found in a family or family group. It is true of most psychotics, that in the end they hate the use of medications because these drugs take away their feelings an lead to a stuporous state. Yet most of these patients, even with good family support seem to need to titrate these drugs to a survival dosage. Sometimes it requires amounts of drug, but sometimes it allows these patients to be off drugs for long periods of time! The idea of little or no drugs for long periods of time completely contradicts the medical pharmaceutical culture or model particularly as psychiatrists for some reason believe that they are pharmacologists without ever obtaining a degree in pharmacology. It at times becomes the blind leading the blind because the need for familial type support is not really part of the model. The mental hospitals are now gone and the neighbor hood support clinics were never built. Society put all its money into under educated pharmacology --the drug companies and psychiatrist that were trained only to use drugs with little ability to use or even understand good psychotherapy. For the seriously psychotic person, in the preponderance of cases, the jail becomes the only support system left in our society. This is a most interesting use of resources as the jail cost 2 to 3 times the amount of a hospital. (cont. to next post)

  5. (Continued from last post)

    But what of the people without these diagnoses? What of the norm in society? We all seem to have our inner Borderline personalities and/or islands of psychosis. As we try to understand these states, there is a tremendous ability to grow and develop. For this reason, I have had over my life time 2 separate analyses with 2 different analysts. I would be in analysis still today but unfortunately, my last analyst died and with my own medical diseases, I have not been either able to find the time nor the person for a third analysis. Why would I want to continue. Well the workings of the unconscious is so very large that I as an analyst could always use the help. Most people do not understand this and would call it an addiction to analysis. I call it my epistemological instinct or the love of knowledge that continues to allow me to grow and develop. To understand more my own psychosis and my own borderline states allows me to continue to grow and develop in my abilities to be a creative and loving family member for my nuclear unit, neighborhood and for what Freud called the inter consecutiveness of the whole world. For me, continuous growth coupled with increasing understanding of unconscious feelings is key to any spiritual reality. Yes spirituality is the relying on ones self to live well emotionally with others and it has both the needs to withdraw inwardly but also the need to live the Jesuit life of learning as much as possible and actively participating in this knowledge in the world. It requires each of us to build these family support groups that we all need for survival no matter how serious our psychotic states. It requires the development of sound egos that are not self centered as well as the ability to center the self in silence and understanding.

    Just some thoughts-- I do not want to ramble on now. dennis

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. rdp, seems to me if you unite your first and second comments, then, in a sense you are saying that we all need these supportive communities - that analysis for you has been part of that support. And I agree entirely that to do in depth analysis - one needs that sense of a community, even if it is one other person, whether one's analyst or a trusted consultant.

    And that brings me back to the Eucharistic community - the communal back-up par excellence. Or it should be. The God-given community of the Body of Christ. And within that communal structure one is "held" and one grows and develops, whether psychologically or spiritually. That in a sense the "mystic" is never alone, but always interconnected - both within the Divine Life of the Trinity and within the corporate worshiping community of the Body of Christ. That authority and truth flow within this communal structure - and not "down" from some self-anointed infallible, individualistic pope. (I'm currently reading Zizioulas, an Orthodox theologian on exactly these issues.)

  8. Part of that analysis and spiritual maturation also calls for occasionally being in conflict with supporting groups, a point that John McNeil makes in his current series of posts.

  9. Colleen, It is in the times of conflict with community, that there often is personal and community growth. There are for instance times I do what my wife tells me to do because she does know the situation better, there are times that I do what she wants because even though I believe i know a little more, I wish to promote her ego and there are times that we disagree because we must. To be able to disagree with respect often allows for a third way or a shift in positions.

    Your next section about homosexuality is a point well to consider. I was just reading this morning that the former Arch Bishop of Omaha, Elden Curtis, publish a condemnation of two Creighton University Professors because of their book "THE SEXUAL PERSON: TOWARD A RENEWED CATHOLIC ANTHROPOLOGY" Heidi Schlumpf describes it in the National Catholic Reporter. She gives references in her mainline note that can be referred to. This note can be seen on the following page, if you copy and past it to your browser.: THE SEXUAL PERSON: TOWARD A RENEWED CATHOLIC ANTHROPOLOGY

    I am in the process of going through all this information now, but it appears that former Arch Bishop Curtis's condemnation is not at all open to conversation but once again takes an authoritarian stand that we bishops know what we know because we are Bishops and every argument you use suffers from "relativity." It accuses the theologians of using circular arguments, but the condemnation itself is full of such circular argumentation.

    It makes the point that what is natural or natural law is so because we say so and it has always been this way. Meanwhile most serious scholars will understand the futility of the Bishops comments and the futility of discussion with him.

    The big question is as this type of authoritarianism continues to raise its ugly head, what will the academic Institutions such as Creighton do. They can not remain Institutions of higher learning in philosophy, theology or science if they bow to these types of condemnations that forces many of their better scholars to leave for more tolerant institutions.

    I think I see the day when these Institutions will or must begin to advertise of Institutions steeped in centuries of Catholic thought but fearless to progress into a real present and hypothesize about the future. if these institutions do not make some sort of break from the authoritarianism of these clerics, they can only be understood as catechetical centers not interested in pursuing the present revelations of the Holy Spirit or not willing to tolerate hypotheses that are in need of working and re working. There thus could be no scientific method or careful theological consideration for progress. No reevaluation of thinking!!

  10. I agree Dennis. Reading the Creighton material is on my to do list for later on today.

    I actually worked on Eldon Curtis's installation when he was named Bishop of Helena following Hunthausen's transfer to Seattle. He was a change from Dutch to put it mildly.

    One does wonder if the push in Catholic education is designed to turn out reflexively conditioned worker bees, and force out all the thinker bees--which would then leave all the thinking to the 'queen' bees.