Is There a Universal Mystical Experience?
Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, scholar of Indian religions, argues in "The Personal Experience of God" that the mystical experience is universal, shared by the world's diverse mystics, prophets, saints, gurus, and enlightened beings, the Buddha included. He thinks the differences between the various mystical, spiritual, gnostic, or religious traditions are more of a function of the dualistic nature of language and concepts, which function at the relative or conventional level, than they are a function of any fundamental difference in the ultimate-reality-level mystical experience of Oneness, which is non-dualistic, and thus trans-conceptual. Radhakrishnan suggests that because the experience is non-dualistic and ineffable, it is reasonable to attribute apparent differences in description and subsequent differences in belief to the natural fact that, absent an exceptionally subtle vocabulary for attempting to convey the experience, the (mind-blown) mystic reasonably relies on the extant spiritual concepts, terms, and beliefs that already obtain in his or her spiritual tradition or culture. So, within the Buddhist tradition, for example, given the Buddha's emphasis on a negative characterization of nirvana, that is, in terms of what it is not, or in terms of the realization of emptiness, it makes sense to think that as practitioners enter altered states, they will come out of them and latch onto the vocabulary of Buddhism to describe their experiences, whereas Hindu yogis will come out of it and speak of the unity of atman(their individual existence or self) with Brahman(the One), and so on for Christians and the Holy Spirit or the Christ, etc.
The famous 19th century Hindu saint, Sri Ramakrishna, guru of Swami Vivekananda, claimed that he went through the practices of each major religious path, one at a time, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, and found they all led to the same state of mystical union. Being a devotee of the goddess, the Divine Mother, he (predictably) claimed that all is the Divine Mother.
If there is any validity to this sort of hypothesis, then, to the extent different religious traditions diverge, they arguably move farther away from the ultimate Oneness and farther toward the relative realm of conventional differences, which latter movement is typically viewed as in the wrong direction. If that is correct, then, for example, the advanced Hindu yogi, Zen practitioner, Trappist monk, and Sufi mystic are more in tune with the ultimate reality, and those who quibble about doctrinal differences between this or that tradition are diverting their attention from the Real, so to speak.
A similar, Taoist view might be seen in verse 81 of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching:
Those who know the truth do not argue;
those who argue do not know the truth.
Scholars are seldom the wisest men;
wise men are seldom scholars....
This is the way of the Tao.
St. Thomas Aquinas, too, after his mystical experience, contrasted the mystical experience with all his other voluminous theological and philosophical writings, which he referred to comparatively as mere straw. Similarly, the Third Zen Patriarch Seng-ts'an famously claimed:
Stop talking, stop thinking, and there is nothing you will not
understand. Return to the root and you will find Meaning.
I'm not sure all of these experiences are the same, but I do think they are similar enough to point to something possibly unifying about them all.
Rupert Sheldrake suggested a parallel idea regarding the universality of near-death experiences, which mostly involve a sense of an ethereal body or substance leaving the physical body, carrying consciousness with it, hovering above the lifeless body, then being drawn through a tunnel, emerging to face a being or beings of light, after which point different experiences occur that resemble the religious or cultural expectations of the person having the experience. Rather than reject the validity of these experiences on that ground, Sheldrake suggests that the ethereal body is analogous to the dream body, which arguably sometimes travels in a domain that might be significantly mentally constructed, whatever the metaphysics for that may be notwithstanding, e.g., perhaps it is true of that dimension of experience that it is idealist in the metaphysical sense of being entirely mind-generated, but real nonetheless, somehow, given the otherwise uniform elements of the experience. In any case, what Sheldrake suggests about the divergent experiences resembling believer expectations is that the individual's karmic predispositions, beliefs, expectations, and so on work together in such a way that the individual will interpret the nonverbal encounter with the being of light accordingly. It is conceivable that the encounter with a greater kind of mental being in that realm, or whatever it is that is being encountered, is analogous to the ineffable nature of the experience of mystical union, which, as Radhakrishnan argues, is then interpreted through the lens of one's religion, beliefs, etc. So, for example, a Buddhist might experience encountering a realm of Celestial Bodhisattvas, a Hindu might encounter Yama, the Lord of Death, a Christian might encounter Jesus, Mother Mary, or an angel, and so on. If Radhakrishnan is right, and if there is also validity to Sheldrake's hypothesis about the near-death experience, then perhaps the being of light is some sort of transcendent encounter that is fundamentally transconceptual and the same for all beings, but what each will experience in that encounter is a function of their karma.
The Tibetan Book of the Deadsuggests that there three types of karma encountered upon death. There is karma from the moment and mode of death, from this lifetime, and from all previous lives, the post-mortem experience exposes one to all three kinds of karma, and how one responds to the experience significantly determines how it unfolds and influences the transitional trajectory, possibly into "the clear white light of reality" or, failing that, through heavens and hells, and into the next lifetime. Ram Dass and other psychonauts-turned-yogis claim that the intense psychedelic experience often resembles the sort of transitions described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, insofar as what one experiences under the influence of the entheogens is a direct function of one's karma, dispositions, and so on, possibly leading to ego-dissolution, to demonic or angelic visions, and so on, based on one's mental predispositions and how one responds to their unfolding during the experience. If Radhakrishnan, Ramakrishna, Sheldrake, Ram Dass, the Tibetans, and others are correct, then the post-mortem encounter with the being of light and the mystic's experience of the One may well be very similar encounters, or rather encounters with different aspects of the same thing.
Robert Nozick, in his rich philosophical treatise, Philosophical Explanations, examined this line of thinking from a more critical or skeptical perspective. He made an interesting analogy between, on the one hand, a soundless stereo, with the power on, the speakers humming, the turntable turning, but where the stylus (the needle) is not touching the vinyl (the record), so there's no music playing, and, on the other hand, the yogi in deep states of meditation. Nozick suggests that absent any supramundane beliefs, such as are found in all the above lines of thought, all the mystical state might really boil down to, on analysis, is just the unusual experience of what it is like to damp down the cognitive apparatus, which may be described as the mere hum of our cognitive equipment when it is on, but in neutral gear, so to speak, as opposed to being in drive mode. That is, the mystic is not experiencing theOm, but merely the hum, the humming sound of one mind-body not clapping, so to speak. It is a biting critique, quite a challenge to the sort of faith that Radhakrishnan and others insist anyone who has had the experience can never have shaken.
What Nozick admits immediately after levelling this critique is that what remains relatively inexplicable about who has had this experience is the universally recognized transformation in the individual's ethical orientation: all those who have the experience seem permanently transformed to become altruists in the extreme. John Hick argued along similar lines that the altruism of the saints and the truly devout across all religious divisions counts as evidence that they are all encountering some divine Real, which he suggests is some unknowable noumenal thing in itself that, as Kant might agree, we cannot capture within the necessarily dualistic, limited cognitive categories of our spatiotemporal, embodied, sensory existence in the phenomenal realm.
I struggle with these two ways of conceiving the experience, as an encounter with some greater noumenal Real or as a function of a simply stilled mind. Have I experienced the One, or am I simply experiencing my quiet mind, untied to sensory engagement? I have had many overwhelming mystical experiences, and many experiences that strike me as genuinely precognitive, psychic, gnostic, and so on. They seem to occur much more frequently when my meditation practice is more intense, and I have had many shared precognitive experiences, similarly (when my meditation practice was at its most disciplined), for example, precognitive dreams that others also had. I have had so many of these experiences that I used to say that if I could dole out one each to a thousand skeptics, I'd convert a thousand skeptics into believers in such phenomena. These experiences did permanently alter my disposition toward pro-social and altruistic behavior. I think they were also among the most meaningful experiences I've ever had, and that I would not be who I am were I not to have had them. They largely define me.
However, these experiences led me to philosophy to better understand them, but my training in analytic philosophy has led me not only to be able to imagine ways in which I could be wrong about the nature of my experiences, but to actually seriously entertain real doubts about them. I think this tension significantly defines the philosophical puzzle that is my greatest philosophical interest, trying to figure out how best to think about these things. It is an ongoing process. I fluctuate between faith in the deeper meaning of these experiences and doubt, based on the latest evidence I am exposed to, for and against such views. As I get older, I become increasingly agnostic, in the philosophical sense, while simultaneously sensing a deepening of my faith in their veracity. It's not easy to explain this conflicting pair of perspectives, but one way might be to say that my agnosticism is not so much about the veracity or validity of my experiences as much as it is about understanding the model of reality that might be required to explain them. And the increase in faith, so to speak, might just be a function of acceptance of the fact that I may never be able to form an explanatory model that would fully justify their validity to other skeptics, and a deepening faith in the fact that I need not do so in order to embrace their reality myself.
As Socrates thought, human wisdom consists in recognizing the difference between what you do and do not know, or, put differently, being aware of your own ignorance. I forget the exact source of this wisdom teaching, and I will likely be embellishing on it in a way that goes beyond mere paraphrase (thanks to my foggy memory on the details), but I recall reading about a monk or meditation practitioner, on a long meditation retreat, who asks the meditation Master for advice, during his interview about his progress, stating that while he is going deeper in his practice, all his former, clean-cut categories and beliefs and orderly ways of understanding and interpreting reality seem to be falling away, vanishing into illusions, he feels like the ground he used to stand on is gone, and that he feels like he is just falling, falling, falling. The Master replies, "falling is ok; landing is the problem". As I ripen with age, I am becoming more comfortable with my beliefs falling away, and not knowing, not landing, but I often find myself looking for a place to stand. It's a process.
At the same time, as a philosopher, I find myself leaping into debates, quibbling over ideas, forgetting the implicit advice of the Third Zen patriarch, who said "The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences". I have preferences aplenty, for philosophical views, given my philosophical nature: I aspire to understand everything philosophical. I'm working on viewing the articulation of explanatory philosophical accounts more from the Stoic perspective as "preferred indifferents", things it would be preferable to have, but to be indifferent about not having. Philosophers (like me, anyway) struggle with not getting attached to views, debates, theories, arguments. I should probably convert the Third Zen Patriarch's earlier implicit advice:
Stop talking, stop thinking, and there is nothing you will not understand. Return to the root and you will find Meaning
into my new mantra: "Return to the root. Return to the root. Return to the root..." It's strangely true, because whenever I enter a meditative state, returning to the root, I'm in a place where it is obvious to me that there is a kind of inherent, internal, intuitive, self-validating wisdom, clarity, and luminosity, a kind of "lucid waking" (cf. lucid dreaming) built into just being in that noetic or gnostic mental state, and thus it is clear that philosophically articulating and representing the wisdom of the experience in well-formed explanatory propositions that can convey it to others is an altogether different mode of being (at a much lower order of epistemic magnitude, so to speak), but I forget that when I'm not in that numinous state. I also forget that being unable to convey the experience to others, without actually guiding them into states of meditation, as well as being unable to reliably guide others into that state for themselves, is no reflection on the validity of the experience. Disputing the validity or implications of the experience with others, including my own philosophical ruminations with imaginary characters I conjure in my own mind who think like Nozick, has fueled my forgetfulness. That is why it is essential for me to drink from the mystical well, and return to the root, regularly. When you are in a state of non-dual unity, there is no need for any explanation, theory, argument, or account.
The more I set aside time to return to the root, the more at home I am in ordinary experiences and activities, like washing dishes, walking, eating, sleeping, doing chores, living life. Ram Dass was once asked what he thought was the most valuable thing he got from a lifetime of practicing meditation. He said he noticed the value of meditation more when it was absent in his routines. At such times, he noticed, he found himself walking around with a lot of "undigested experiences." Which leads me to notice that meditation functions as a form of existential digestion. When returning to the root, to awareness itself, without preferences, everything settles, and the soul digests its experiences, processes them, effortlessly. If meditation does nothing more, but at least does that, then it doesn't matter whether it is in hum mode, or Ommode. They are the same. As the famous Zen saying goes, "Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water." I'm definitely in the "before enlightenment" part of that idea. But I'm gradually cultivating faith in the idea that if everything is One, then enlightenment is in the world as much as it is in deep states of meditative union. As the Tibetan mantra, "Om mani padme hum", suggests, the jewel (mani) of enlightenment is in the unfolding lotus flower (padme) of the world, simultaneously in spiritual heart center (hum).
Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum...