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.