Mysticism, (Huh), What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing (But Relatively Something)
Jason quotes this passage from Baba Ross D:
[It may be that] something important is being lost as well. By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.
I have a hard time seeing anything other than snobbery here. America is a mass-produced society, the first and the most resolute of the type. You want full-time mystics? We do happen to have those by the dozens. You want a weekend — but only just a weekend — of mystical transport? Heck, we invented that trip.
Whether Ross is being a snob I’m not sure (maybe? partially?); I’ll leave that to the readers to make up their own minds.
But I think a similar or related critique of pop mysticism could be made that wouldn’t be intrinsically snobby.
To wit, Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert), one of the godfathers of the LSD mystical hit turned pilgrimage to India, author of the magisterially trippy (Remember) Be Here Now (from which the above picture is taken), said the real issue was “altered traits not altered states.”
I would further say (contra Ross and seconding Jason) that the American phenomenon of religion, from its inception, is, as Harold Bloom argued, spiritual experientialism: Pentecostalism, Revivalism (out of which grew Joseph Smith and the uniquely American religion of Mormonism), The Great Awakenings, The Shakers, New Thought movements, Esalen, William James and the scientific study of mysticism, pre Vatican II “High” Roman Catholic Eucharistic Adoration and Liturgy, Spiritualism, Billy Graham stadium spectacles, and now since the 60s the entrance of Eastern forms of mystical experience.
America , as Jason says, is a mass-produced society and so we mass produce mystical experiences–whether in sports, sex, even cooking. And of course in various meditation practices, retreats and so forth. (I’m 2 out of 3 on that scale, which, as they say, ain’t bad.). And of course drugs as temporary ecstatic states, technically exogenous mystical states (which I definitely have never experienced). Meditation-induced states are labeled endogenous.
Still, these are all leave open the issue of altered traits, not altered states. As in, a person can have all kinds of altered states but if their traits aren’t altered, what’s been gained really?
This isn’t snobbery but to ask, “What’s the point?” Or in 1980s language, “Where’s the (transformative) beef?” Though I’m not sure that later question will go over with a lot of would be seekers, (of the Eastern-influenced variety), given the popularity of vegetarianism in such circles.
Mystical states are generally higher potential capacities of the human body-mind. I would say they are only “higher” insofar as humans haven’t yet adapted to them as common occurrences as a species. [You might call that view a naturalized mysticism if you like]. That means they have a relative value and can be good things, but they can also be (as mystics of all traditions have long pointed out), just another source of egocentrism–in fact arguably an even more pernicious form of egocentrism as now you are (as a friend of mine once said), “Enlightened yes, but still an asshole.”
But it leaves open the question of an Absolute Awakening (often incorrectly called mystical/spiritual). What Ram Dass above calls Absolute Compassion and therefore a changed way of being human at fundamental levels of identity, emotion, speech, bodily action, and thought. As opposed to temporary groovy experiences or “getting spiritually high” (with or without actually getting high).
More importantly the necessity for such an Absolute awakening to occur in the context of cultures dedicated to life–that’s what I think is missing from the current scene, not that it’s too “bourgeois” or whatever.
To come back to Ross for a second:
The great mystics of the past were often committed to a particular tradition and community, and bound by the rules (and often the physical confines) of a specific religious institution. Without these kind of strictures and commitments, Johnson argues, mysticism drifts easily into a kind of solipsism: “Kabbalism apart from Torah-observance is playacting; Sufism disconnected from Shariah is vague theosophy; and Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming.”
Now the religions will undoubtedly want to hold on to the spiritual technologies; I don’t think you have to be Foucault to see that point. But there is a point I think about the inherent necessity of a tradition, a cultural-social embedding of the practices, the worldview, the experiences, the institution surrounding any such mystical technology. Traditionally we call these formations religions.
The “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon of the contemporary age is just itself another religion and (as a student and practicioner of religion), I think a particularly piss poor one at that. Spiritual but not religious just keeps people increasingly isolated and individualized and therefore increasingly influenced (if not controlled) by larger social and cultural forces. Like arguing how “you’re spiritual but not religious” is some personal choice when it’s really now a cultural meme.
The religion becomes de facto the globalized market which has a tendency to neutralize (over time I would argue) the capacity for spiritually-influenced ethical distinction–if not counterbalanced by other forces that is. This isn’t a Marxist anti-market tirade, but rather a critique of the way in which the market has become the new religion (in my mind). Generally lost is an ability to question the central focus of the self-sense as one’s only and primary identity not to mention any social-prophetic critique of injustice in the world, beyond paeans to “compassion” (as above).
To bring back the American example, how often has all this mystical experientialism caused people to really radically re-think the social order of the United States or its relation to the world? The Abolitionists? The Civil Rights movement? Or otherwise asked, how often does this religious experientialist tradition of America become aligned with the idea of American exceptionalism, of American power, and cement unjust and unmerciful ways of human life?
I mean on one level I get (even believe, even can feel) the notion of Christ as in Compassion to his murderers, however silly it might now seem to us to change the Garden of Gethsemene’s “Father let this cup pass from me, but not my will but they will be done” to “Tomorrow’s the Big Trip”. Still it would also be a help for the religion to say “STOP CRUCIFYING PEOPLE.”
At best a mystical (or even trans-mystical) state reveals a deep Compassion/Love/Awareness of the larger process of Life and its creatures and their inherent moral and existential value. But that glimpse/mystical vista needs to be practiced in the world in some way that actually practically makes that vision become real and concrete. Not just going for another round of such experiences 6 months later when you have a weekend free from work, as a kind of spiritual release valve or “timeout” from the brutalities of existence.
Good God y’all enjoy: