Mysticism is the doctrine that the hidden wisdom of monistic theology, according to which all souls are united with God, can be proved by direct experience of that unity, through meditation or an altered state of consciousness. If we define “God” loosely, to cover the pantheism that identifies God with nature’s impersonal creativity, we see that atheistic mysticism is possible; indeed, Buddhism is another kind of atheistic mysticism. But besides the difference between theistic and atheistic mystics, there’s that between what I’ll call optimistic and pessimistic ones. The former promises a happy ending for all, while the latter laments the fact that our time on the stage of life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and that our grand finale is ignominious extinction along with the clueless animal species. I’ll explore here the ramifications of this latter distinction.
Mystics claim to have secret knowledge of the world’s unity. Buddhists, for example, say that everything is interdependent and thus united, from an enlightened perspective, whereas without that perspective, everything appears independent and that illusory disunity is the overall cause of suffering. When we recognize that what seems a highly heterogeneous world is actually united by causal and logical relations, for example, we no longer draw absolute distinctions between the self and the rest of the world, or between selves. Those apparent differences are mere illusions, and when the mystic replaces that naive perception with an experience of reality’s oneness, she feels bliss instead of disappointment, alienation, or the many other forms of suffering.
In practice, though, optimistic mysticism takes two forms, depending on whether the oneness of reality is identified with the individual ego or with the underlying state of the unconscious. In the former case, mystical monism becomes a kind of obnoxious solipsism, such as we find in feel-good, materialistic New Age ideologies. Oprah Winfrey’s cult, for example, based as it is on the alleged spiritual law of attraction, according to which we get what we most want (because our desires are like magnets that attract what complements them), is individualistic in the Western, American sense. In this comedic mysticism, reality consists of the infantile ego and its toys, all else being illusory nuisances. So the chief virtue is Ayn Randian selfishness and this pseudo-spirituality becomes propaganda in the service of the beastly economic competition that naturally produces oligarchy.
An Eastern (Hindu or Buddhist) mystic would contend that “materialistic mysticism” is an oxymoron, that individualistic, solipsistic gurus are charlatans who pander to people’s spiritual inclinations, to hawk their books and other paraphernalia, and that true mysticism, based on an actual experience of the world’s unity, leads to the opposite lifestyle of asceticism. According to this more traditional variety, the ego is an illusion, meaning not that our mind or personhood doesn’t exist but that it’s not what it seems; in particular, no person is a self-sufficient, Randian superhero. Thus, to feed the appetite for self-enrichment or self-aggrandizement is to betray a lack of mystical wisdom, and materialistic mysticism is doubly comedic since the last laugh is on the spiritual capitalist for being a fraud. Far from rationalizing infantile selfishness, the mystic should be detached from her instincts and desires for her private welfare, since those (genetically-determined and often culturally-conditioned) mental states trap the unwary into an unenlightened state of awareness. Moreover, a true mystic is altruistic, helping others escape the suffering produced by their ignorance. The reason for this selflessness is that the mystic regards all people as metaphysically one, so that just as we wouldn’t normally wish to harm ourselves or any part of our body, we shouldn’t wish to see other people suffer.
I want to emphasize the main mystical argument against existential angst and the tragic perspective on life. Again, the argument assumes radical monism, the oneness of everything through the interdependence of all forms. According to this argument, angst is a form of suffering produced by ignorance of that unity; that is, the sufferer is misled by the apparent difference between the self and the rest of the world, which can cause loneliness, alienation, and fear. Far from ending with our biological death or even with the likely extinction of our species, we’re all one with the underlying flow of natural forces which evolves more and more illusory stages, levels, and other patterns within itself.
What, then, is pessimistic mysticism? Whereas a spiritual optimist says the values that best correspond to metaphysical reality are love, peace, and so forth, the pessimist says that the hidden wisdom calls for melancholy. Instead of cheerfully loving your neighbor as yourself or prophesying the ultimate vindication of human values, the pessimistic mystic shuts herself off from the world that doesn't live up to her wistful ideals.
We should be careful not to overstate the difference between the two types. Spiritual optimists must concede two points: first, all can be one only metaphysically, which allows for the many rational distinctions between illusory appearances; second, as an empirical fact, enlightenment is rare, so that most people are trapped by ignorance and suffering. The optimist replies that reason isn’t as trustworthy as direct experience, and the pessimist agrees, affirming that reason is a curse that brings us sorrowful knowledge of what the mystic calls the merely apparent world. But the pessimist reminds the optimist that, according to the second concession, even mystics are seldom fully enlightened, which means that hardly anyone is liberated from our instincts and culture which drive us into the world of rationally-distinguishable illusions. For example, even the mystic has a sexual instinct which causes him or her to distinguish between men and women. An enlightened person overcomes the force of that instinct, which in turn requires detachment from sex-obsessed cultures.
The point, though, is that if full, permanent enlightenment is very rare, so that even spiritual optimists have only fleeting experiences of our metaphysical unity before those optimists are plunged once again into the profane mode in which everything seems to be a tragic multiplicity, even the optimist must concede that a mystic should grieve for the majority whose delusions lead them to fail, to debase themselves, and to suffer. The optimist can reply that what happens at the naïve level of consciousness, at which the world seems a multiplicity, is insignificant compared to what happens at the deeper level, which is that those differences dissolve. This fatalism is tantamount to saying, though, that suffering doesn’t matter because it’s unreal in the first place, which raises the question of why anyone should be motivated to seek to escape that suffering through enlightenment.
No, mysticism in general assumes that enlightenment is better than the naivety which causes suffering, and that bliss is better than the disappointments caused by foolishly selfish grasping after hallucinations in the matrix. But again, this means that even the optimist must concede that most waking hours lived by intelligent creatures are tragic and absurd, meaning that they’re full of pointless suffering and that they don’t lead to enlightenment (since most people die unenlightened, meaning that their consciousness is never fully attuned to metaphysical reality). The optimist’s final rejoinder, as I see it, is that reincarnation ensures that everyone will eventually be so enlightened, so we have a happy ending after all. This, though, is a retreat from the mystic’s empiricist criterion, which is that direct experience is more reliable than abstract reasoning; reincarnation is a dubious theological doctrine that must compete with scientific theories.
Should we be optimistic at least about those few who are fully enlightened or who enjoy moments of freedom from ignorance and suffering? Not in a way that brings any comfort to the majority with their profane delusions. Enlightenment means complete detachment from the personality, character, and intellect with which we instinctively and emotionally identify. A liberated mystic doesn’t identify with anything that the majority cares about, including the individual’s fate, cultural distractions, social networks, or political or work-related obligations. As I say in Buddhism, this is a paradoxical sort of happy ending for the mystic that looks a lot like epic failure. In Hinduism, preparation for moksha is supposed to be the priority for the forest dweller who shuns society only after that dweller has run a household, contributed to society, and thus succeeded in profane terms. This is like the rock star who parties nightly with scores of women, pickling his liver with alcohol until finally in his old age, when he can no longer afford such decadence, he sees the light, becomes a born-again Christian and preaches asceticism as the ultimate ideal. The logic, I take it, is that you won’t appreciate asceticism until you’ve exhausted your wrongheaded cravings for worldly things. But there’s still the appearance here of hypocrisy: this all seems too convenient for the mystic, since she gets to enjoy the benefits of foolishness, only to cheaply repent on her death bed. Moreover, her spiritual rebirth can’t be perfectly tested, since she can’t take back her previous life of relative luxury. Of course, this hypocrisy is irrelevant from the enlightened perspective, since it applies only to the individual’s merit which is of no consequence in the greater scheme.
In any case, I raise this case of the elderly ascetic’s double standard to illustrate that while profane success is trivialized from the enlightened perspective, the feeling is surely mutual: a life of poverty and renunciation of worldly pleasures is a paradigmatic failure, from the unenlightened viewpoint. So enlightenment isn’t exactly a cause for celebration. Enlightenment is what Schopenhauer calls the denial of the will to life, meaning the devaluation of everything we’re naturally selected and culturally pressured to prize; this enlightenment isn’t the freedom to do what you want or to enjoy an eternity of pleasure in heaven, but is instead the end of the personal self and the replacing of it with nothing at all, that is, with a state of nirvana. Here, freedom means escape from the world’s seductions, as opposed to the libertarian’s egoistic, infantile freedom to pursue your cravings with no impediments. The upshot is that there’s something tragic even about enlightenment itself, the latter being the mystic’s ultimate good. Not only must the mystic’s success look like failure to society at large, but the mystic’s so-called bliss or spiritual pleasure is entirely negative: the liberated mystic feels the peace that comes from having no concerns or responsibilities at all, no ties to the apparent world which cause stress. Spiritual bliss or peace of mind, which depends on an enlightened view of our metaphysical situation, is what it feels like to lose everything that can be categorized.
The Horror of Mysticism
Let’s return, finally, to the main objection to pessimistic mysticism, that there can be no such thing since pessimism requires the limited, egoistic perspective and thus ignorance about everything’s oneness. I think it’s true that standard existential angst, horror, and rebelliousness require the distinction between the personal self and the world that’s indifferent to that self. Thus, if mysticism has no room for that distinction, existential mysticism makes no sense. As I said, however, the optimist’s monism does include that distinction and merely reframes it so that instead of having to be preoccupied by the gulf between what we’d prefer and how things really are, the optimist can reassure herself that that distinction is only “illusory” and ultimately overcome by the substantial oneness of all illusions. And as I’ve also said, that ultimate overcoming would happen only for someone who is completely enlightened and thus divorced from all naturally selected and most culturally sanctioned forms of life. The rest of us are forced to identify at least partly with our mind and our personality, and are thus doomed to follow reason to the existential dead end, retreat to some ignoble delusion, or transcend angst by some means other than enlightenment, such as by adhering to some cosmicist religion.
Now, as I’ve discussed in Buddhism, linked above, and in Postmodern Religion, I doubt that the only path to angst is through that Cartesian distinction between the thinking self and the unthinking world. In particular, I question the basis for the enlightened mystic’s bliss. Assuming the mystic’s experience of everything’s oneness is possible, why should this experience necessarily comfort rather than horrify the mystic? Our reaction to that experience should depend on the nature of that underlying oneness. While Lovecraft’s cosmicism needn’t be monistic, his view does illustrate how transcendent wisdom can unsettle the recipient and even render her insane. For one thing, what the mystic should learn is that all the goals we think are justified by our genetic instinct and mainstream cultural indoctrination are woefully narrow-minded and diametrically opposed to what we ought to want. For example, instead of perpetuating nature’s hold on us, by sexually reproducing and thus replenishing the victims of natural forces, we ought to be denying the will to live in all its manifestations. Far from comforting the mystic, her condemnation of the ignorance that generates the entire world of so-called illusions should terrify her, since she’s effectively abandoned most of her humanity, trusting that her altered state of consciousness will elucidate how she ought to act while still in the belly of the beast, that is, while still imprisoned in a body that’s configured to present her with the false world of the matrix.
In any case, there remains the contradiction between wanting to be enlightened, to escape suffering, and learning when enlightened that the instincts to prefer pleasure to pain and to empathize with those who suffer are parts of the world that ought to be abandoned. Presumably, from the enlightened viewpoint, there is no natural empathy, pity, or utilitarian weighing of pleasures against pains; instead, there’s a vision of the world that transcends all of our natural and politically correct expectations. Again, I ask why that vision should reassure rather than horrify. Why, when we discover that our meager personhood counts for nothing, that natural and cultural forces have probably led us astray though we’ve relied on them from our infancy onward; when the mystic’s metaphysical reality must be impersonal and inhumane, to have evolved the disastrous world of illusions (samsara) in the first place--I ask, why be tranquilized by such facts? Why turn then to New Age happy-talk instead of ranting from the rooftops, proclaiming your disgust with that vision? If there is music of the spheres, why should that music sound pleasant to human ears, no matter how enlightened the listening mind?
Of course, the mystic can always say that you’ll never know until you directly experience the unity for yourself. But because any mystical experience must be processed by the human body, and because that body evolved to service the genes as opposed to being intelligently designed in the furtherance of a benevolent agenda, I’m disinclined to give the spiritual optimist the last word on this point. There is, after all, a skeptical interpretation not just of the charlatan’s variety of optimistic spirituality, but of the genuine, mainly Eastern kinds. How do we know the mystic is accurately or even honestly reporting her transcendent experience, when she assures us that that experience is entirely encouraging? Perhaps her optimism is one more delusion to which she resorts to deny the deeper wisdom of cosmic horror. And perhaps ascetic detachment is a sign of existential numbness and shell-shock, after a union with otherness that undermines all human modes of judgment, and thus that must obliterate her feeling of self-worth as an embodied, natural creature. Perhaps the ascetic detaches from natural and social cares not just because they cause her suffering, but because she learns that human nature is disgusting from the mystical viewpoint of eternity. And instead of dealing honestly and creatively with that revelation, she endures a more ambiguous form of suffering, avoiding her natural angst only by practically lobotomizing herself, by means of excessive mental detachment. In this case, pantheistic existential cosmicism, such as the sort I explore in this blog, would be the more authentic metaphysical vision of mysticism, calling at least initially for a melancholic appreciation of the tragedy and absurdity of our natural predicament.