CHAPTER 1: CULTIVATING A NEW WAY OF SEEING
Mysticism asserts that there is a seldom-used faculty available to all of us, one that some might consider independent of ordinary senses, emotions and rational thought. It is an expansive type of perception-cognition, evidenced in nearly every spiritual tradition, which provides holistic and dynamic insight into personal and Universal truths. Sounds pretty heady, doesn’t it? To further complicate things, because the information we receive through this faculty is often paradoxical, inexpressible, and inaccessible by any other means, it has sometimes been labeled esoteric, magickal or otherworldly. But it is nonetheless available to most everyone through conscious effort. Different belief systems describe this mystical awareness in different ways: “penetrating the veil of illusion,” “experiencing an ultimate reality,” “tasting the divine,” “submerging ourselves in non-being,” “wordless rapture,” “entering perfect stillness,” and so on. And although each of these could be a distinctly separate experience, our imperfect language has trouble nailing any of them down succinctly. So here I have grouped all types of mystical awareness under a broad umbrella of spiritual cognizance – perhaps because I tend to spiritualize the language of mysticism, but also because this type of perception-cognition has been fairly resistant to categorization.
There are a number of different methods to stimulate spiritual cognizance, each uniquely suited to diverse personalities, cultural values and life experiences. These mystic activators may fall into different categories, but all of them are designed with one end in mind: to suspend habitual thought processes – and the constant stream of input our physical senses provide – in order to induce spiritually receptive being. Through modes of practice apposite to our personal tendencies and current phase of development, we can free our minds and hearts and nurture ourselves on many levels. Some mystic activators reform consciousness with rigorous concentration or repetition. Others are a deliberate supersaturation or overstimulation of our psyche to trigger alternative states that transcend self-absorption. Still other techniques gradually reduce or order the content of our thoughts and feelings until a quiescent stillness blossoms. All of these methods require explicit qualities of self-discipline and deliberate intention.
What awaits us at the end of these differing paths? A mystical union; a dissolving of Self in All; a vulnerable intimacy with the Sacred; a direct experience of infinite interconnectedness; a nondual consciousness we could call a gnosis of the Absolute. I use the term gnosis because I view this process as a sort of intuitive apprehension of All That Is, including nothingness. And although there are many intermediate experiences full of colorful and compelling content – many transitions into that ultimate intuition – the end state is completely empty of any constructs, differentiation, sensory input, emotional intensity or self-referential cognition. It is, rather, a state of awareness without an observer and without an object, while at the same time rich with meaning and import for our own well-being and the evolution of the Whole. In one way, it is a re-creation of the non-being from which all things originate, and from which we can create infinite possibilities. For me, gnosis has defined what it means to be “spiritual.”
What about meditation? It is frequently a part of mystical practice, but it is a misunderstanding to equate the two. Meditation is one avenue of mental training, but what is so vitally important in all schools of mysticism is an ability to channel internal and external stimuli – however that can be achieved. If we are forever being overwhelmed by reactive emotions, by physical urges and appetites, by the obsessive cycling of our own thoughts, or by anything peripheral to inner quietude, we will have trouble remaining sensitive to subtler input. Being preoccupied with the random, we will seldom encounter our most extraordinary capacities and precious inner wisdom. Being attached to the illusion of our individuality and its sensorial experience of the moment, we will not experience the unity of All Things.
For most of us, our corporeal form, with all its complex chemistries and vast capacity for receiving and generating all kinds of information, tends to hold our immediate interest, always clamoring for our attention. And we often reinforce and amplify this clamoring by seeking to gratify our desires without a thought for the broader context of our existence or the meaning of our lives. Mystical practice is not about suppressing, coercing or forcing what is happening inside or outside, but it recognizes that we are the source of our own perception-cognition and of every want or whim that demands our consideration. We are a fount of endless desires. We can either shape this process actively or allow our environment and habitual propensities to shape it for us. Mysticism encourages us to remain perpetually conscious and awake, instead of relying on impulse, momentum or conditioning. The mystic’s way consists of fully appreciating who we truly are, what we are doing here, and why we make the choices we make.
The following are the four main categories of mystic activators found among major mystical traditions. Each approach tends to resonate with different people – or with the same person in different stages of being – and is often designed to support a particular underlying belief system.
Detaching from emotions, thoughts, and sensory experience in order to restructure consciousness and make room for mystical awareness. Often this is achieved through a systematic disassociation of subject and object – Self from other, mind from body, unconscious process from conscious process, being from doing, this from that – which sets our consciousness free. Sometimes, detachment is merely a byproduct of singular focus or a merging of subject and object. Expanded perception-cognition tends to be more incremental as a subtractive practice deepens, though epiphanies can also be surprisingly sudden.
Seeking to arouse a highly energized or blissful state that actuates mystical insight. This is frequently devotional in nature and usually employs physiological means of accelerating the letting go of habituated consciousness. Ecstatic induction can also result in what the ancient Greeks called mania, “possession by deity,” a form of trance where self-awareness is greatly or entirely attenuated. Supersensory experiences tend to be more sudden and extreme than with other techniques.
Symbolic and Synchronistic Ritual
Procedures that are esoteric or symbolically abstracted, sometimes associated with devotional worship and sometimes not, which purposely invoke natural, energetic and/or spiritual forces. Mystical awareness can be an unintentional byproduct of these practices, or the goal. A key difference between this and other activators is that such rituals usually invite external agents or forces – which may or may not coincide with a particular quality of internal effort – to help generate transpersonal experience.
The Perfection of Love
A refinement and intensity of love that reforms our awareness. Once again, mystical perception-cognition is sometimes an intended goal, and sometimes a side effect of the central journey. The object and expression of love may vary: a deep compassion for the suffering of others; or fervent devotion to a transcendent presence; or intimate worship of deity. But the nearly universal outcomes are a surrendering of personal ego, new certainties and convictions (often imbued with a sense of holiness or awe), an aligning of personal will with the object of love, and a passionate desire to translate conviction into action. A transformative union with the Sacred, however that is defined by the tradition, is usually the primary objective of this path.
As varied as these methods – and our subjective perceptions of them – may be, they all attempt to cultivate the same result: a letting go of ordinary perception-cognition, and inviting an inner stillness that makes room for spiritual cognizance. A new way of seeing. Increasingly, my own mystic activator preference combines the perfection of love with subtractive meditation. However, I believe it is important to stimulate and nourish different aspects of Self through ongoing exploration, and I fully expect that, over time, other approaches will be better suited to different objectives or new phases of my growth. We must all find our own way. Examples of assorted mystic activators will follow each chapter, and a comparison chart of activators found among various traditions is available in the Appendix.
Transitions Through Gnosis
There is a commonly occurring sequence of sudden shifts in awareness brought about by mystical practice. These transitions through gnosis have three distinct traits, which are perhaps the primary features of all spiritual cognizance: a riveting absorption in, and appreciation of, the present moment; increasing clarity about personal purpose and Universal truths; and a radical departure from previous understanding. A predictable progression of these transitions suggests a peeling away of abstractions and a gradual freeing of the mind from its attachment to aesthetic and reasonable appearances – especially regarding what initially seems to be incredible or incomprehensible data. At first we might encounter the mystical through emotions, as imagery, or even as physical sensations. But eventually we experience an unmediated contact that reforms all of our previous constructs or removes them altogether. This progression is not rigid, and we should be careful not to evaluate the quality of our mystical awareness as an indication of spiritual achievement. In fact, the more sincere our effort, the less meaning all comparison will hold for us. Nevertheless, unless our practice culminates in a gnosis of the Absolute, we have not reached even the beginning of the end of our mystical journey.
Here are some of the transitions through gnosis commonly experienced by mystics of many different traditions:
- Journeying outside of the body in the physical realm or to other planes of existence
- Communicating directly with other spiritual intelligences
- Prophetic visions, inspirational voices, automatic writing and other forms of revelatory knowledge
Merging of Self with Divine
- Complete openness and seamless union with a Sacred Presence or Vital Continuum, often coinciding with a fathomless embrace of transcendent love
- Pervasive joy beyond comprehension; a bliss exceeding our capacity to contain it; an awakening of agape love-consciousness, where unconditional adoration and compassion for All Things consumes our being and directs our will
- Direct, unmitigated contact with the Divine Spark within us – our transcendent nature, our True Self
Dissolution of Self
- Infinite awareness, expanding inward and outward, incomprehensibly encompassing all time and space, transfixed by a unity of existence that has no discrete components or differentiating characteristics
- An awe-inspiring – and sometimes terrifying – submersion in emptiness, nothingness, or a state of unknowing free of all concepts, emotions or sensations, and ultimately devoid of any self-conscious awareness
- A complete, unconditional surrender of Self to these unitive states
If we remain watchful, mindful and aware, diligently applying all that we learn through mystical practice with intentions informed by a broader purpose, we will eventually arrive at a holistic gnosis of raw, unadorned reality and all its numinous truths. Then the most dramatic transformations can begin, with irrefutable benefits to ourselves and the world in which we live. If we resist applying what we come to know, or otherwise avoid accountability to our newly discovered inner Light, our mystical journey will be of little benefit to anyone and we will become forgetful tourists in the land of Self. So both intentionality and follow-through are crucial to viable mysticism. But what might “spiritually profitable intentions” look like? And what is a proposed broader purpose for the mystic? That is what we will discuss in the following chapter.