I’m going to let you folks in on an important secret about mysticism.
This is long overdue and crucial to the development of our species and both its religions and sciences, so I hope you will pay very close attention and try to really grok the distinction between what I am going to say and any preconceived notions you might have about mysticism.
OK, are you ready? Here it goes: There is nothing mystical about it.
That is, mysticism is a word for an experiential state of awareness that has acquired many false connotations, a noun for which there are many adjectives (the “mystical”) that in no way define the noun itself. The experience does not require an altered state of consciousness, and it has nothing to do with specious claims of certainty about things that are not readily available to everyone. To paraphrase Alan Watts, any mystic who tells you otherwise — who says you must do this or believe that, and conveniently has some kind of program you can follow to get there — is picking your pocket and offering to sell you your wallet in exchange for its contents.
There is nothing extraordinary about the mystic experience –in fact, once you know what it is, you will see that it is the most hyperordinary state of awareness you’ve ever experienced, and “normal” consciousness will seem like the mutation.
If you don’t know if you’ve ever had a true experience of mysticism, I can walk you through one right now, free of charge, using only the mental faculties you presently have at your disposal.
If you would, please choose an object in your immediate environs, preferably something that seems very significant to you and your life. Or if you prefer some emotional detachment from the experience on your first try, you can use mine. This is Hieromonk Crustacean, also known as “Hermit Crab.” (I know that he is more like a blue crab than a hermit, but this is more about his personality than his species.) Hieromonk is my mystic talisman. He doesn’t do much, just sits here on my desk and stares at me while I write, keeping me relatively on task while I daydream my way through an article like this. Your object need not be something that “speaks” to you in such a way or facilitates your creative processes like Hieromonk does for me; literally anything would work as well. I just felt like making a proper introduction.
Now (and here is where you can use this photograph, or turn your attention to your chosen talisman-object), I can focus my attention on Hieromonk and his attributes — physical and emotive, actual or projected, it is all the same stew of “Hieromonkness”– and as I do, I am building a concept of him in my mind that isolates him from his admittedly messy environment on my desk. I am using selective attention to do this, because my senses are also taking in Hieromonk’s environment, but I am deciding that at the moment, Hieromonk is what is important to me and the rest can be relatively ignored. Conceptually, what I have done with selective attention is created not just one but two things: a concept I call “Hieromonk,” and a kind of meta-concept I don’t have a name for but is essentially “non-Hieromonk.” The non-Hieromonk is just as important in defining what Hieromonk is, for without knowledge of that perceptual contrast between them, there is no way to assign attributes to Hieromonk. Defining Hieromonk without non-Hieromonk would be like attempting to make a chalk drawing without a blackboard or a sidewalk, a void instead of some background of “non-drawing.”
Impossible, right? Yet this is what we do on the conceptual level when we try to consider a thing in isolation from its environment. In other words: We only know what something is in contrast to what it isn’t.
Are you with me so far on your object of choice? Pretty simple stuff, right? Well, just wait. We haven’t gotten mystical yet.
The relationship between Hieromonk and non-Hieromonk is often misconstrued as a duality. Understandably so: To our selective attention, they are separate things, and making that distinction is precisely the way we gain knowledge about our physical existence. It is the basis for all scientific inquiry. But that just means selective attention is a useful tool as a conceptual means to an epistemological end. It doesn’t mean the dualistic distinction has any basis in reality. For you will see that we can only hold that distinction together on the conceptual level. In reality, that distinction becomes a very different kind of relationship.
“Huh?” you might be asking. “A useful tool with no basis in reality?” It sounds strange, especially, I imagine, to those with S-type Meyers Briggs personalities, who are oriented to process sensory information and think primarily about the physical reality and concrete facts revealed by that information. But yes, and I’ll restate it for their sake: There are useful tools in our mental toolbox that have no basis in reality, yet bring us into a deeper tangible contact with that which does.
A dream, for instance, can be used to bring sharper focus to an aspect of our waking reality that we might otherwise miss, something perhaps from our remote past or on the fringe of our present attention. There is nothing radical nor pseudoscientific about this, mainstream psychology uses such tools all the time.
And so it is with our dualistic perception: It produces what is essentially a waking dreamstate that we use to filter our reality and gain conceptual knowledge of our environment. But it doesn’t create an actual separation between the perceiver and the perceived, nor between Hieromonk and the non-Hieromonk of his immediate environment. Perception doesn’t alter reality in any way, in other words, and if perception doesn’t then conceptualization, which is one step further removed from reality, certainly also does not.
Consider Hieromonk again and his relationship to non-Hieromonk. As weird as it may seem to human beings so immersed in our conceptualizations, the distinction between them that is so matter-of-fact to our perception becomes something different when we really contemplate the reality of Hieromonnk. His outline, after all, is the “inline” of non-Hieromonk, just like the outline of yang (black) is the inline of yin (white) in the Tao. Together, yang and non-yang make up the environment we call Tao. Their relationship, therefore, is not dualistic, but more properly described as polar –they are contrasting aspects of one singular thing, and they are mutually coarising. One does not exist without the other. There is no North Pole of the roughly spherical earth without a South Pole, and no positive electrical charge without the contrast of a negative.
So it should be clear that, in as much as there is no Hieromonk without a non-Hieromonk, there is no separation between Hieromonk and his environment. I can only maintain a separation between the concept of Hieromonk and his environment, and even so it would be an error to call that relationship a duality — it is emphatically non-dual, like the relationship between Tao and yang. In reality, there is no depth to the separation that is based on mere appearance. This is not to say that Hieromonk is fixed to an immediate environment he cannot leave. I can take Hieromonk off of my desk and throw him onto my bed, but that is just trading one immediate environment for another…and besides, he’s still in the same room….
That last point is crucially important and the key to where we are going with this. The meta-concept of non-Hieromonk is, after all, completely mutable as to scale. It can expand and contract to any context we want to consider. The environment from which Hieromonk is inseparable could be my desk, or my room, or the state of New York, or the Milky Way galaxy, so on and so on. There is literally no limit to the context of non-Hieromonk available for us to consider, and that consideration is also a matter of using selective attention.
And if there is no outward boundary, there is also no inward boundary….
It is also important to remember that the Tao that can be posted on a webpage is not the eternal Tao. It is just a symbol of such, the infinite compacted into a finite scale so that our selective attention can work with it and grok it conceptually. We are already in the thick of the infinite experientially and could do nothing to remove ourselves from what is meant by “eternal Tao.” So it is with what we consider the environment of anything we contemplate. We use selective attention to put a frame around a context of an object’s environment that gives us information useful to our epistemological needs, and ignore the rest. But ontologically speaking, there is no such frame, and the object of our study in reality is an aspect of the total environment that is meant by “eternal Tao.”
Consider again, if you would, the abstraction of a chalk drawing with no background, no non-drawing upon which it is contrasted. The term “divine ground” is one I use often, and is approximated by what the chalkboard is in this illustration. For though it should be clear now that there is no drawing without a background on which it exists, the subtle corollary to this is that the background itself, in as much as we draw our attention to it like the space within the frame of a chalkboard, is a symbol of the total environment, like the Tao compacted into a bichromatic circle. And in the reality it represents, that background of non-drawing includes the drawing; the residue of the chalk is effectively subsumed into its background, paradoxically making the whole thing a monism of “non-drawing.” This is a hint as to why some monistic traditions and philosophies like Buddhism stress the non-existence or non-reality of individual phenomena, rather than their relative or conditioned existence as we are exploring here, and it is analogous to an argument I’ve made elsewhere: the supposed duality of the binary system that digital technology uses is actually the non-dual interplay of finite 1s and infinite “non-1” represented by 0.
It isn’t necessary for the mystic to make that leap if it feels counterintuitive, so it is fine to keep your chalk drawing and Hieromonk and your talisman-object in focus and very much real in the present moment. But it is essential to make the connection that any object’s total environment IS the divine ground of being, and its truest identity is not a name and not just the thing-in-itself (to use Kant’s terminology that has dominated Western rationalism), but a polarity of “object-total environment.” The drawing-chalkboard is a simple example, but it is two dimensional, so it only goes so far in illustrating what divine ground means. It is not merely a background, but a foreground and above-ground and below-ground and within-ground as well. Perhaps “omniground” is a term we should try to use and popularize.
So, to summarize where we are now: both Hieromonk and your talisman-object are aspects of a singular, all-inclusive, total environment, the omniground in which all finite things have their being and from which they are as inseparable as waves from the ocean. To say that this total environment “creates” all things is true, in as much as the ocean creates waves. But it is more completely true to say, as Watts did, “a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” Likewise, any object or finite context we wish to consider is something that the total environment is doing. To realize this is also to see that reality is pre-conceptual, and not a hodgepodge of separate things as our concepts would have us believe, but rather, a single horse pulling the many concepts and distinctions and divisions of our world in its cart. E unum pluribus, not vice versa –but even as we are pluribus, we are still unum in the shared omniground of our total environment.
If this makes sense to you, you are on the verge of the experience of mysticism. But you are not there yet. For mysticism, after all, is experiential –it is not theory about what something else is experiencing. Your experience of mysticism is first and foremost about YOU. It is about recognizing the useful unreality of the conceptual distinction you have made between yourself and the vast “other” of the universe outside of you.
If you are ready to really enter into the mystic, there is one more step: Take everything we just discussed about Hieromonk and your object, and apply it to yourself. All of it. Go all the way with it….Thou art That.
I’m going to give you some space to let that sink in.
One of my favorite one-sentence explanations of mysticism comes from the renowned astronomer and celebrity scientist Carl Sagan, a man not known for supernatural flights of fancy or woolly-headed thinking. But there is nothing in this statement that conflicts in any way with our definition of mysticism as it includes you and all other beings and things in existence:
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
This essentially says that every created thing, every apple pie or Hieromonk Crustacean or YOU, is made via the same process that created the universe. There is nothing in existence that does not trace its being to Absolute Being itself, and is inseparably connected to the same total environment as everything else. Mysticism simply gives you the concepts to understand this and acknowledge Absolute Being without thinking of it as “non-you.” If it stops where you start, it’s not absolute. “Non-you” is infinitely all-inclusive because once you understand what it is, “you” are subsumed into it.