The Path of the Mystic

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

"I do not want the peace which passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace."
- Helen Keller

Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.
- Baruch Spinoza

On the fringe of every religion, you will find the mystics. Some are weird holy men in monasteries or caves; some are very public figures, revered almost as gods during their own lives. Some are Christians serving Jesus; some are Buddhists seeking enlightenment.

But they have a surprising amount in common, for all that. They are not satisfied with knowledge that comes from books, with rituals that are passed on for the sake of tradition, or with faith that comes from a conviction that "You really ought to believe in this." What they want, instead, is certainty—the kind of certainty that comes only from direct personal experience.

Many of them claim to have found it. And they claim you can find it too.

Knight: What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren't able? I want knowledge: not faith, not supposition. I want God to stretch out His hand to me, reveal Himself and speak to me.

Death: Perhaps no one is there.

Knight: Then life is an outrageous horror....[My] life has been a futile pursuit, a wandering. But I will use my remaining time for one meaningful deed.

- From Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal

I have been fortunate enough in my life to have worked closely with two serious spiritual seekers.

The first was Marty Soloman, who entered my life when he married my mother. I was fifteen at the time, and the world of adults still held its share of surprises. Although he was a New York Jew (like all my relatives), Marty spoke with adoration of his guru, Sri Chinmoy. He meditated for hours every day, and he taught all us kids to meditate with him for ten minutes a day. He hung out with women who channeled disembodied spirits with strangely Biblical names like Seth and Emmanuel. He talked about reincarnation and karma as simple facts of life.

What Marty exemplified for me then, and still does now, is a unique combination of adventurousness and dedication. His spiritual travels have taken him to join in sacred ceremony with a remote American Indian tribe in South America, to spend thirty days fasting on an island, and to become an active leader and organizer in groups from India to Germany. In the almost-30 years that I have known him, he has always meditated for several hours every day. He seems to fear absolutely nothing and remains completely focused on his goal, while still running a business and being a wonderful husband to my mother, friend to me, and grandfather to my kids.

But Marty, although he is always intelligent and often insightful, is not an intellectual. He is my shining example of how to live a spiritual life, but he could never articulate (and has no great interest in articulating) why anyone would want to. The message to Kenny had to come from a more left-brain think-talk direction, and that is where the second figure stepped in. His name was Augie Turak.

Belief is no adequate substitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously. People call faith the true religious experience, but they do not stop to think that actually it is a secondary phenomenon arising from the fact that something happened to us.
- Carl Jung (emphasis added)

If the only Christianity you know is the type that reduces the Bible to mundane history, you might be quite surprised to read St. Simeon the Younger's description of his own personal encounter with Jesus:

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.
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."

This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.
- Vladamir Nabokov

When I first started working with Augie Turak, soon after I graduated college, Augie's identification and his metaphors all came from Zen. He rarely used words such as "grace" or "God," but spoke often of "koans" and "enlightenment."

But Augie was a modern Westerner for all of that, a businessman who had worked at MTV's early days, and he spoke the language of the 20th-century college student. Augie had a way of saying things that lodged in my head.

I'm tired of other people bullshitting me, and I'm tired of bullshitting myself. I want to know who I really am. Am I a good guy, or a selfish bastard? Am I an immortal piece of the divine, or a machine that's going to decay into the Earth? I don't want the feel-good answer, or the politically correct answer, or the popular answer: I want the truth.
Yeah! That's what I want too, Aug! That didn't sound like any religious people I had encountered before; it sounded more like a scientist. But scientists weren't asking those questions, were they?

Another time:

There's nothing that could happen in this room, right now, that would prove the existence of God.

Let's say a book appeared suddenly on this table, and then it exploded in flames. Then a bird flew out of the flames and up through the ceiling yelling "There is a God! There is a God!" We would all be pretty convinced for about thirty seconds, and then we would start thinking of alternative explanations. It was a mass hallucination. There were drugs in the Coca-Cola. Martian teenagers with a hologram generator are playing a practical joke. Hey, it sounds a bit far-fetched, but no more so than a God, does it?

That one really knocked me backward. I had always assumed that the right way to find God was through some kind of evidence, an empirical proof. If that wouldn't work, what would?

If man's life is even worth the living, it is when he has attained this vision of the very core of beauty. And once you have seen it, you will care nothing for the beauties that used to take your breath away and kindle such a longing in you. For then you would see true beauty face to face.
- Plato (emphasis added)

In his wonderful book Old Path, White Clouds, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the Buddha's enlightenment experience.

Through mindfulness, Siddhartha's mind, body and breath were perfectly at one. His practice of mindfulness had enabled him to build great powers of concentration which he could now use to shine awareness on his mind and body. He saw that every cell of his body contained all of Heaven and Earth, and spanned the three times—past, present, and future.

Gautama entered even more deeply into meditation. He saw how countless beings pass through countless births and deaths. He saw that these births and deaths were but outward appearances and not true reality, just as millions of waves rise and fall incessantly on the surface of the sea, while the sea itself is beyond birth and death. If the waves understood that they themselves were water, they would transcend birth and death and arrive at true inner peace, overcoming all fear. This realization enabled Gautama to transcend the net of birth and death, and he smiled. His smile was like a flower blossoming in the deep night which radiated a halo of light.

At just that moment thunder crashed, and great bolts of lightning flashed across the sky as if to rip the heavens in two. Black clouds concealed the moon and stars. Rain poured down. Gautama was soaking wet, but he did not budge. He continued his meditation.

Without wavering, he shined his awareness on his mind. Gautama felt as though a prison which had confined him for thousands of lifetimes had broken open. Ignorance had been the jailkeeper. Because of ignorance, his mind had been obscured, just like the moon and stars hidden by the storm clouds. Clouded by endless waves of deluded thoughts, the mind had falsely divided reality into subject and object, self and others, existence and non-existence, birth and death, and from these discriminations arose wrong views—the prisons of feeling, craving, grasping, and becoming. The only thing to do was to seize the jailkeeper and see his true face. The jailkeeper was ignorance. The hermit Gautama smiled, and whispered to himself, "O jailer, I see you now. How many lifetimes have you confined me in the prisons of birth and death? But now I see your face clearly, and from now on you can build no more prisons around me."

Your "sifting among many of the world's religions" will not help you unless you recognize that they did not spring from an extension of primitive fertility rites (both sex and agriculture!) but rather, starting around BC 850-500, from INDIVIDUALS who brought direct experience into the various practices so well described by anthropologists. Such INDIVIDUALS were Jesus, Gautama, Lao Tse, Moses, etc.
- Alfred Pulyan (emphasis in original)

A number of writers have echoed Huxley's insight that the mystics of all traditions, although they express their experiences in different languages, have remarkably similar stories to tell. Meditation, fasting, and prayer culminate in a sudden transformative experience. It is not a "learning" in the sense of gradually piling one fact on top of another; it is a "becoming" in the sense that the sense of personal identity is never quite the same. The ultimate nature of the universe is suddenly obvious—it was there all along—my own petty ego was the cloud that obscured the stars.

A Buddhist might say "Once I stopped identifying with craving and aversion, I was able to shift my identification to my true self." Some Christians have said "My own personality moved completely out of the way, so that Jesus can act directly through me." I don't want to fall into the New Age trap of completely glossing over the differences between these two statements, but the similarities are striking as well. It seems to me very possible that both are expressions of the same fundamental experience, something so alien that it cannot be built up from our conventional toolbox of concepts.

Maybe that's the right way to look at it, and maybe not. But here are the core building blocks of a mystical path that seem, at this point, obvious to me.

  1. Right now, I don't have a clue what's going on. I don't have answers to the questions "Who am I?" or "What happens after I die?" or, most importantly, "What is actually worth doing?" So all my actions are based on the most haphazard guesswork.

  2. A lot of people have laid out paths that they claim will lead me to absolute, certain answers to these questions.
If all of these people are wrong, and there is no path to finding answers, then—as the knight said—life is an outrageous horror. It is a rigged game in which our best efforts and our worst impulses may as well add up to the same thing.

On the other hand, if any of these people are right, then following their paths may lead me to one day say, "I know what the purpose of my life is, and how to go about it," and from then on, I will be in a position to do the right things with my remaining time. All my guesses and understanding now are really only stepping-stones until I reach the point where I can say this with confidence.

Or, as Marty said when he read my first essay on this topic, "Why are you wasting time writing these essays? I know a real master: go find him."

This is my second attempt to write an essay on The Path of the Mystic. You can read my first (very different) attempt here.


From: Richard Felder
November 13, 2008

I really like the circle metaphor, but in the last analysis, I believe that my understanding of any of that stuff will come either after my death or as a sudden mystical experiential knowing that transcends anyone's ability to convey to anyone else. I'm willing to believe that through meditation and asceticism and one spiritual practice or another I might put myself in a position of receiving that knowing, but as with the inner child reassurance of the previous paragraph, I also think there's a good chance I could work at it for years and be no further along than I was when I started, and so that's another gamble I'm unwilling to make. (I truly admire people who choose to make it, however.)

From: Kevin Jeffries
July 7, 2009

Hi Kenny,

I was searching the Internet for something and found your article.

I would say I am on the same road as your Dad although maybe not as far along. I love your story and it is pointing in the right direction. A sign points in the right direction but we have to turn the steering wheel to get on the right road. We decide when we are going to move. So let's go.

Thank you for the story I enjoyed it. I am going to print it off and give a copy to a friend of mine.



From: Perry Morrison
April 18, 2011

Logical inquiry, koans, meditation only point.

No-one knows why some see forest and some see trees but recognition is instant, generally profound and unexplainable.

And then there is neither forest nor trees.

The path is pathless. Looking down at the ground there is no rope suspending you, none above you and none between your hands. Then there is no sky surrounding you. Then there is no you.

If you see a buddha on the road, kill him.

Words are poor tools to reach the wordless but that is all we have.

From: Kenny Felder
April 19, 2011

Thanks for your comments! I think one of the biggest effects that words can have, is that they can inspire people to try to look for themselves. Augie Turak's words did that for me. I try to pass it on.

From: Perry Morrison
April 20, 2011

Inspiration or no inspiration, words or just silence. The beauty of nature or the despair of a jail cell.

Who knows?

Bu people ask should i practice? Will it make a difference?

My answer: meditation and practice make you feel better and more balanced.

Beyond that who knows.

Eating makes us feel better and balanced too,

Maybe practice is useful like eating. But some people claim starvation made all the difference.

From: Margarita
July 20, 2016

Intake of breath. This might explain why:

Many thanks, for the science and for showing me that I'm not the only scientifically minded person with a mystic core.

From: Kenny Felder
July 20, 2016

That's amazing and beautiful. Thank you so much!

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