The Path of the Mystic

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

This was my first attempt to write an essay on "The Path of the Mystic." The second and better attempt is here.

In every religion, we find the ones called the "mystics." We find them among the Sufis and the Yogis, the Zen Buddhists and the Kabbalists, Catholics and Protestants. Like Bergman's knight, they don't want to hope or believe in the truth: they want to know. They want to switch their identification to a part of themselves that has always been there, and has always known. The teaching that they pass on is not the truth itself, which cannot be taught or expressed: it is the path, the steps that have led others to find answers for themselves.

This essay is not about that path. It is an attempt to explain why—for me—everything comes down to religion, and all religion comes down to the path of the mystic.

The question

If we're going to launch into religious inquiry, we're going to start with the most important questions. What are the most important questions? Here are a few good candidates. Feel free to add your own. I find that, no matter what question I start with, the train of thought quickly leads to religious matters. But for what it's worth, my personal favorite question is: As an example, suppose you discovered with certainty that there is a God: an omnipotent guy who created the universe and had a human-like personality. But you didn't know whether He wanted you to pray as a Christian, or meditate like a Buddhist, or become a hermit, or help the poor, or even if He cared at all what you did. After the initial thrill of answering the question "Is there a God?" wore off, wouldn't you be back where you started?

So in that sense, I think many of these questions are stand-ins for my "What should I do?" The only decision you ever get to make is what you are personally going to do, and you want help with that one.

The problem with the question

"What should I do?"

There is a problem whenever you invoke the word "should": it doesn't seem to have any intrinsic meaning. You can ask "What should I do if my goal is to win this chess game?" or you can ask "What should I do if my goal is to help the poor?" Both questions have experts who can give you, if not a perfect answer, at least a better one than you would have come up with yourself. But who's to say that the second question is "more important" than the first? What expert can answer "What should I do if my goal is to live the best possible life?"

Logically, there can be no answer to that question beyond "You have to define what you mean by 'best' for yourself." But I need you to really imagine that universe for a moment. A bunch of little robots are programmed, perhaps by evolution, to act as if "This configuration of sand is best, and that configuration of sand is worst." They attempt to increase the "good" configurations and decrease the "bad" which are defined only in their arbitrary programming. They could just as easily be programmed to believe the converse.

In such a universe, it is meaningless to talk about a life well spent, or a life wasted. If one robot diligently creates many "good" mounds of sand, another robot bucks the system and looks for a "deeper meaning" (a quest doomed to failure since there is none), and a third robot runs around in circles until it runs out of power, none of them has done any better or worse than the others.

I reject that model. I choose to assume that there is a cosmic "should," a "good" or "bad" that transcends my own personal beliefs. I furthermore choose to assume that it is within my grasp to find this higher meaning, and to know it when I have found it. I choose to assume these things, not because they are probably true, but because there is literally no reason to assume anything else. I choose to try to find that highest answer.

You could say it this way: if I'm wrong, I have still done the best thing you can possibly do, which is to create my own meaning ("finding the answer") and spend my life pursuing it.

But I prefer this formulation: if I'm wrong, then Nothing Matters At All. The idea of "creating your own meaning" seems like patent nonsense to me, sugar-coating around the bitter pill of ultimate meaninglessness. If there is no absolute "should" then there is nothing to gain or lose, nothing to do right or wrong, no mistakes, no learning from your mistakes, no growth and no progress.

On the other hand...if there is some absolute "should" out there, then I need to find it before I can figure out what else to do. Hence, the act of assuming that the question is meaningful at all automatically supplies you with the answer.

The right tool for the right job

Let me try to clarify where I am at this point. I am looking for a real answer to the question "What should I do?" I don't want to simply accept an answer: I want to know it, with absolute certainty.

Logic says "You just can't have that." I therefore choose to reject the notion that logic is the only tool in my shed. I need to find a part of myself that is fundamentally different from logic—as different as reason is different from physical strength—and that, unlike logic, is capable of absolute certainty.

I find the beginnings of such a faculty in consciousness. (See here for a longer discussion of that term.) When you see a red book, you can doubt that there is actually a red book there. But you cannot doubt that you are, at that moment, seeing a red book. Even if you are dreaming or hallucinating, you are still seeing red. The experience itself is undeniable, even if any conclusions we draw from the experience are suspect.

And why is the experience undeniable? Well, because...because it just is, that's why. You can't logically prove it, and you can't share your experience with anyone else, but you know for sure that you are having it. Consciousness is, it seems, a faculty beyond logic, and one that is capable of some measure of certainty.

Another example that I have discussed before is the intuition that leads us to believe in logic in the first place. Why do you believe that A=A? You cannot prove it logically, but you are quite certain that it is true. So there seems to be some built-in intuition that also transcends logic and provides certainty.

Now, here comes the real mind-bender. Consider the following human faculties:

No one of these faculties can be created by any combination of the others. You can have thinking entirely without seeing (a blind-from-birth person), and seeing entirely without thinking (a camcorder). If you had never had an emotional response of any kind, you would never extrapolate from everything else to conceive of emotions.

So, isn't it possible that we have other faculties which are different from these? Not "like thought, only clearer and better." Different from thinking in the same fundamental way that thinking is different from seeing. Entirely different realms of knowledge and entirely different ways to know.

Of course you can't conceive of such a thing, really. But can you grant the possibility, in principle? And can you see how much more extraordinary such a thing would be than all the wonders of science fiction and fantasy?

Yeah, but is it really true?

What if it turned out that we do have a faculty that is completely beyond sensory experience, thought, and emotion: something capable of directly apprehending truth with certainty? If we gained access to that faculty, we would experience something that could not possibly be explained, or communicated, to anyone who had not had the same experience, because it could not be built up from existing and familiar parts. (You can't explain "red" to a blind man.) As Asimov said about discovering a sixth sense, there are no words for it: there are not even any concepts for it.

But this is where it gets interesting, because we find descriptions of just such experiences, in almost every culture. Consider the following quote from St. Simeon the Younger, a first-century Christian.

I saw Him in my house. Among all those everyday things, He appeared unexpectedly and became unutterably united and merged with me, and leapt over to me without anything in between, as fire to iron, as the light to glass. And he made me feel like fire, and like light. And I became that which I saw before, and beheld from afar. I do not know how to relate this miracle to you. I am man by nature, and God by the grace of God.
Is Simeon describing an experience of "seeing Jesus" standing in front of him, plain as day, as a Christian might expect? Not at all. What Simeon experiences can only be described through vague metaphors to fire and light. Most significantly, Simeon doesn't learn something new: he becomes something new. The experience is transformative and transcendent. It does not have to prove itself to be as real as a table, because a table's reality is dubious by comparison.

St. Thomas Aquinas may have had a similar experience on December 6, 1273. He stopped all work on his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica: "All that I have written seems to me like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me." He never completed that book, nor did he ever try to explain his new revelation in writing.

Blaise Pascal, famous as a mathematician and philosopher, was overcome with tears for two hours during the night of November 23, 1654. He wrote these words and kept them with him for the rest of his life: "Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and not the God of the philosophers and scholars."

I deliberately chose three Christian sources above, because I think people expect to find such writings in the works of the Buddhists or Hindus. Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Ken Wilber, and others have collected hundreds of similar writings from every religion.

Of course, people interpret these experiences through the lenses of their own beliefs. Where a Christian says that his own personality stepped aside so that Jesus could act directly through him, a Buddhist might say that his ego made room for his higher self. These two men have completely different cosmologies, different structures of rational thought. But they seem to have had very similar experiences. Like the near-death tunnel of light, these experiences are described by people who have no way of knowing about each other, no way of knowing that they are describing something that has been described by many other people in many other times and places.

I am not offering this as a "proof" of anything. These experiences may be a conscious attempt to explain some universal aspect of the human subconscious, blah blah blah. I have argued many times (here for instance) that you cannot logically prove anything about absolute truth.

But I think it lays down a pretty good baseline of hope. The experience that I so desperately want to believe in—the experience that would offer certainty, purpose, and transcendence—may really be out there. And what's better news, those who have been there before me may have given me some valuable hints as to how I can get there myself.

This brings me round, full circle, to the path of the mystic. It attempts to codify why I listen to Eckart Tolle instead of classic rock, why I meditate for half an hour in the morning, why I work with the Self Knowledge Symposium and try to introduce people to the works of Augie Turak.

What is required for the path of the mystic, as I see it, is not faith. You don't have to believe in any doctrine, any cosmology, any teacher, or even any path. You do need to accept these fundamental premises.

  1. It is really, really, really important to find out what's really going on.
  2. I don't know yet.
It's very hard to hold both of those in your head at the same time. But once you do, it's almost impossible to ignore.

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