Mysticism is commonly thought of as the esoteric practice of religion for the inner circle of initiates who seek enlightenment, which is to say freedom from suffering and an awakening from mundane experience. Enlightenment is said to be achieved by an inner discovery that the mind isn’t our true self, that our egocentric thoughts and feelings mislead us into identifying with the illusory world of material things. Our true self isn’t our personal one which distinguishes each of us from everyone else and indeed which drives us to compete, to dominate and inevitably to suffer and to cause others to suffer. The deeper self is supposedly impersonal conscious awareness, a way of perceiving that transcends everything that can be known with concepts and rational methods. Through pure consciousness we intuit the true nature of reality, including the timelessness of consciousness and thus the divinity of our true self. When we identify with our ego, with our personal mind, including our stream of thoughts, memories, and reactions to stimuli, we’re distracted from the fact that there’s another self that underlies those mental states, namely their conscious observer. That observer is God himself or at least ultimate reality, which the mystic discovers through an inner transformation, a detachment from the mind and a direct experience of pure awareness (awareness of nothing in particular) which shifts the mystic’s perspective. No longer craving positional goods in the animalistic struggle for material gain, the mystic has peace of mind since she’s found her home outside of space and time. She learns to identify not with her physical body but with divine consciousness which stands apart from all particular mental states and thus from any disappointment.
Eckhart Tolle: Optimystic
This is the mystical teaching, for example, of Eckhart Tolle, a popularizer of Buddhist and other ancient mystical traditions for Western, exoteric audiences. See, for instance, this interview with him, in which he explains spiritual awakening:
So what is it that we awaken from when spiritual awakening occurs? We awaken from identification with our thoughts. Everybody who is not awake spiritually is totally identified with and run by their thinking mind—the incessant voice in the head. Thinking is compulsive: you can't stop, or so it seems. It is also addictive: you don't even want to stop, at least not until the suffering generated by the continuous mental noise becomes unbearable. In the unawakened state you don't use thought, but thought uses you. You are, one could almost say, possessed by thought, which is the collective conditioning of the human mind that goes back many thousands of years. You don't see anything as it is, but distorted and reduced by mental labels, concepts, judgments, opinions and reactive patterns. Your sense of identity, of self, is reduced to a story you keep telling yourself in your head.
Tolle goes on to speak of how he came to interpret his personal enlightenment:
Years later, I realized that the acute suffering I felt that night must have forced my consciousness to withdraw from identification with the unhappy self, the suffering “little me,” which is ultimately a fiction of the mind. This withdrawal must have been so complete that the suffering self collapsed as if the plug had been pulled out of an inflatable toy. What was left was my true nature as the ever present “I AM”: consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form. You may also call it pure awareness or presence.
“When you become present in this way,” he says, “the judgments, labels, and concepts of your mind are no longer all that important, as a greater intelligence is now operating in and through you. And yet the mind can then be used very effectively and creatively when needed.” The reason unawakened egotists suffer is that they ignore the Being of the present moment. Their pride leads them to atomize themselves, to think of themselves as separate individuals who thus inevitably come into conflict.
The false self lives mainly through memory and anticipation. Past and future are its main preoccupation. The present moment, at best, is a means to an end, a stepping stone to the future, because the future promises fulfillment, the future promises salvation in one form or another. The only problem is the future never comes. Life is always now. Whatever happens, whatever you experience, feel, think, do—it's always now. It's all there is. And if you continuously miss the now—resist it, dislike it, try to get away from it, reduce it to a means to an end, then you miss the essence of your life, and you are stuck in a dream world of images, concepts, labels, interpretations, judgments—the conditioned content of your mind that you take to be “yourself.” And so you are disconnected from the fullness of life that is the “suchness” of this moment…The amazing thing is: Life, the great intelligence that pervades the entire cosmos, becomes supportive when you say “yes” to it. Where is life? Here. Now. The “isness” of this moment.
This kind of mysticism is purportedly for spiritual insiders, for the elites among us who have the courage to give up the illusions that provide a false and doomed sense of personal security. But this mysticism is nothing of the sort. It’s based on the same delusion and fallacy that gives rise to all theistic religions, which is anthropocentrism. All forms of theism are grossly exoteric. Thus, there are no enlightened mystics as long as they persist in anthropomorphizing ultimate reality. Mystics like Tolle maintain that the mind lives in illusion while pure consciousness presents the Truth. But this is false for several reasons. The mind is the source of true enlightenment, of the modern Age of Reason which has shown us the nature of reality. Enlightenment begins with philosophical naturalism and thus with atheism. Only the objective, curious, power-hungry mind could have been driven to survive by a pragmatic conquest of the material world, and thus have arrived by trial and error at the scientific methods of inquiry. Only minds focused on ideas (and eventually, hypotheses) and on their logical relationships could have reasoned their way to discovering the mechanisms at work throughout nature. Only progressive thinkers could have had the courage to see past religious dogmas and to search for the facts themselves. So Tolle’s mysticism is refuted by the single word: science.
Tolle and other optimistic mystics may be correct when they say that detachment from a narrowly-defined personal self is possible. Perhaps there are conscious states which seem to lack any object, mental association, or background noise of cognitive processing. There is the danger here of the homunculus fallacy, of saying that within the personal self is the impersonal self of pure consciousness, since this could lead to a slippery slope of questioning whether a yet deeper self lives in that supposedly pure, final consciousness. If a conscious observer is needed to witness the ego’s thoughts, shouldn’t another observer be needed to witness the mystical oneness of pure consciousness? Moreover, if pure consciousness isn’t aware of anything in particular, what makes this a kind of consciousness at all? (According to the philosopher Brentano, all mental states are intentional in that they’re directed towards some object, which means the states have content. Maybe mystical consciousness isn’t mental in that respect, but it’s hard to imagine what it could be, because it’s supposed to be ineffable.) In any case, even if there are peculiar states of consciousness, this doesn’t mean that consciousness is part of fundamental reality, that, as Tolle says, there’s a “great intelligence that pervades the entire cosmos” and thus chooses to benefit those who live in the now. Even if the ego is part of a larger self, what we know now, thanks to the science that followed from the Enlightenment, is that consciousness depends on the brain.
So however you want to define yourself, whether you include your mind or just your raw ability to perceive anything, you are one not with all reality but with that squishy, squiggly, dreadful mess of neurons that sloshes in your skull. You can extend your identity to encompass the health of your body, the technologies you rely on, the family, community, or nation you’re proud of, or even the whole world that awes you if you can think in such a universal, relatively selfless way. This is a well-understood process of making your use of an extended phenotype second nature to you, such as when you learn to drive by familiarizing yourself with the car. Likewise, we can shrink the self, disassociating from aspects of our character, forgetting some of our unpleasant experiences or editing the memories, or even quieting what mystics call the mind, the natural flow of thoughts spoken in our inner voice. But all of that inner activity is generated by the brain, not by any supernatural realm. To equate God with pure consciousness is just to resort to the god-of-the-gaps fallacy, of fulfilling our wishes by hiding what we find to find in a place that science hasn’t yet fully naturalized.
The mystic’s peace and freedom from suffering, then, are sustained merely by different delusions from those that enthrall the happy masses. All happiness, in the sense of contentment, is delusory. Peace of mind isn’t a worthy goal for enlightened people, nor is freedom from suffering. Knowledge and thus enlightenment bring suffering. The mind (the personal self) knows reality (nature) through science and other kinds of reasoning, and what the mind learns is that the mind inevitably conflicts with the rest of nature. People prefer a world that fulfills their ideals, which is why we exchange the real world (the wilderness) that’s utterly indifferent to us, for the personalized world we imagine nature to be and for the artificial world into which we transform pristine nature. Natural reality is the wilderness that includes the collision of particles, the all-powerful fusion reactions within stars, and the struggle of organisms to spread their genes. That’s the real world that we know now exists, and no sooner had people evolved from our protohuman ancestors than they began walling themselves off from that harsh reality—first with their imagination, myths, modest tools and social hierarchies, then with organized religions and the labour, bureaucratic and military megamachines, as Lewis Mumford calls those social systems, which produce the colossal structures that are the backbones of our artificial microcosms. Because the real world isn’t safe for us, let alone preferable, as we learned from the Ice Age and from the dangers of hunting for food, we chose to put our intelligence to work to detach from reality and to immerse ourselves in the collective hallucination that is indeed mass society. In the premodern world, we worshipped our autocratic rulers and now, thanks to the modern awakening, which theoretically transferred power to the masses, we worship ourselves. The more science reveals nature’s impersonality, the more we apply that knowledge to build a substitute world, a heaven on earth, to escape from the abhorrent reality of nature.
The difference between the modern escape and the theist’s mythical one is that the latter begins with delusion, whereas the former is at least consistent with naturalism. The mystic leaps from the fact that she can experience an altered, decentralizing state of consciousness, to the theistic overgeneralization that the real world is essentially conscious, that consciousness (or intelligence or love or justice) pervades everything. Instead, undead particles and creative forces pervade everything. Consciousness is, at best, an accidental emergence, as is now scientifically known to be true. By contrast, consumerism or any other mass secular delusion is manifestly an escape from the wilderness, because such a delusion is part of the secular enterprise to build an artificial oasis. Our mass delusions exist not just in the mind, because they’re externalized in the meaning we assign to the walls we physically build to block out any sight of the undead world that terrifies us. Pagan holdovers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins descry street light pollution that prevents our beholding the majesty of the Milky Way. But any such nightly vision would humiliate us and ultimately drive us to self-destructive worship of fascist saviour gods and to lose ourselves in work in the megamachine so that we might forget the fact that if our sun is just one of billions of other stars, we are in fact accidents of evolution and all social interactions are absurd and tragic games.
Seeing the Light Side of Dark Mysticism
Seeing the Light Side of Dark Mysticism
This is not where natural enlightenment ends, however. Dispensing with the false comfort of any form of anthropocentrism, including most ancient kinds of mysticism, is a perquisite for taking the step towards true awakening. That’s the step of accepting naturalism, the science-centered worldview as your philosophical starting point. That worldview entails atheism and cosmicism, the nonexistence of supernatural gods and the humility to affirm that human beings are thoroughly insignificant in the unfolding of the cosmos. The real world is fundamentally impersonal and unconscious, and thus we aren’t at home in it and sentient life is tragic. Again, that’s why for thousands of years we’ve built our makeshift artificial homes, to struggle against the tragedy of our animalistic heritage. First, we built our minds, through language and the self-control established by our higher-order thinking. Then we conceived of our social identities and constructed our extended phenotypes, our outer shelters and civilizations. We civilized and deified ourselves, but all of that historical labour testifies to the fact that wise people have no business being happy. As Leo Strauss pointed out, the wise permit the masses to be happy, by codifying their delusions, so that the elites can privately revel in their decadence or their asceticism, depending on their aesthetic sensibility. The dream of happiness is for the sleeping herds. They’re the ones who seek peace in their ignorance of the fact that they’re standing not in a world hugged by God, but in a zombified corpse of matter and impersonal energy that decays to no humane end. True, the distracted masses suffer from unfulfilled cravings and even from anxiety and depression, owing to their servility in the modern megamachines. But they’re also sufficiently ignorant of the horrors of nature to entertain the utopian ideals of happiness and peace. Those ideals are fit for sheep, not for tragically awakened rebels whose knowledge only commits them to the realization that even their elevated life is ridiculous.
What’s conventionally called mental health is little more than social functionality (utility). This is made explicit in the DSM’s definition of “mental disorder.” What’s crucial to disorder is that some suffering impairs a person’s ability to carry out her social functions, such as her ability to participate in family life or to work at a job. From the darkly mystical perspective, however, those social functions are themselves parts of the great tragicomedy of civilization. We’re socially useful only when we ignore the philosophical implications of naturalism. To play our social games we must suspend our disbelief, meaning our sense of those games’ greater absurdity. Only within a game’s confines does the game seem meaningful and even imperative. Modern objectivity, as established by the scientific paradigm, permits us a debilitating detachment even as it forbids a retreat to any form of theism. Thus the modern trend is for “healthy,” automated betas to graduate to alpha status, whereupon they’re beyond good and evil and free to practice their latent sociopathy with impunity, as in the case of the American plutocrats on Wall Street; alternatively, these betas drop out and become alienated outsiders (gammas, deltas, or omegas). Both the alpha rulers and the omega outsiders may content themselves with some form of dark mysticism, while the middleclass betas are squeezed in more than just economic terms. In the West there’s currently a loss of faith in the secular myths of modernity which were supposed to replace the archaic myths of anthropocentricity and supernaturalism. Intellectually average citizens face a stark choice, then, between myths that promise happiness but that fail to convince or inspire in our postmodern age, and a more tragic perspective that ennobles the individual by inuring her to the suffering that’s due to the curse of knowing that the real world is the undead god.
Again, peace for the unenlightened masses, which include pseudo-esoteric, cryptotheists like Eckhart Tolle, is based on delusions, including anthropocentrism which ought to be replaced by cosmicism; self-destruction, as in “mystical” dissociation from the mind or some other form of self-induced lobotomy; or world-destruction, as in the civilized enterprise of replacing the wilderness with our artificial, human-centered worlds. If you seek inner peace, your spirituality will make you existentially inauthentic and ignoble. As you achieve that peace, you’ll betray the naturalism that’s the starting point of late modern enlightenment. You’ll degrade yourself with primitive preferences for a humanized world, instead of coming to grips with the tragic nature of being alive in the form of a fly in the decaying corpse of the undead god. The mark of postmodern enlightenment isn’t to identify with the God within; instead, it’s to fear the undead god. God is the mysterium tremendum, the overwhelming mystery. That mystery is hardly found in imagining that a person has created the universe, since we’re quite familiar with the mental creativity we’ve displayed throughout history. Instead, the divine mystery is the horror that cosmic creativity is due to zombie forces acting on impersonal matter. The mystery is how the undead god could create itself—which gives rise to the secondary mystery of how sentient creatures within that god can overcome their horror.
Contrary to theistic mystics, the enlightened, which is to say the properly horrified mind isn’t an illusion. Tolle speaks of the personal self as “possessed by thought, which is the collective conditioning of the human mind that goes back many thousands of years.” But this evolution of our capacity for thought is the very process by which the true god, which is the set of natural forces and elements, has created us. God isn’t just empty consciousness subsisting in a supernatural vacuum. The idea of such a quasi-personal God that interacts with us, favouring the enlightened ones with bliss and punishing the ignorant ones with suffering, is a projection of our desire to be at home in some society. But society is our refuge from the undead reality. Whereas a magician deity might snap her fingers and in a flurry of creativity, create something wonderful, the undead god must labour for eons, stumbling from one dead end to the next, because the true god is an idiot that creates anything only because it creates absolutely everything, whether in this outrageously large universe or in the megaverse of all realized physical possibilities. Before the emergence of highly intelligent life on Earth, there were all manner of creatures thrown up by the genes to mechanically fill a variety of niches. When our species is extinguished, life will likely continue to evolve as if none of us had ever lived and proclaimed our all-importance.
The point, though, is that minds are as real as the natural process that made them. The undead god fashions birds and insects and reptiles and clever primates, among many other organic forms. We primates are thinkers and our intelligence liberates us from our older programming. That’s why we’re not enslaved to any niche, but can create our own worlds even as we consciously struggle against the underlying natural world we late modernists know all too well. It’s the mind that’s free, not any vacuous, supernatural consciousness. To be sure, the mind isn’t free from suffering; on the contrary, an enlightened mind is one that understands not just the necessity but the glory of suffering in our struggle with nature, without the crutch of any delusion. Mystics may be free from egocentric letdowns but they’re not free from their brain, from the theistic delusions and fallacies, or from the clammy grip of the undead god. To renounce the mind and our personal qualities, including our capacities for abstract thinking, for science, art, and so on is to renounce our chief weapons in our tragically heroic struggle with the monster that lies all around us, even in our brain and our atoms. That monster is the god that creates and destroys us all, and that lacks any power to explain itself—even if only as Yahweh pretends to answer to Job. The tragic hero is the informed person, not some carefree player of theistic word games or peddler of religious pablum for profit and mass infotainment. The hero makes the best of naturalism as she struggles with angst, dread, and despair; she creates not to avoid engaging with the undead foe but to maximize the irony that gives pleasure to those with refined aesthetic taste. The irony is that the undead god creates persons who can create to spite that god instead of honouring it; put mythically, the irony is that God creates angels that can fall from grace and usurp the divine power of creativity and use it to their personal ends. Existential authenticity, the will to live without delusions, gives ethical and aesthetic meaning to that irony, and that’s the esoteric meaning of human life.
Dark mysticism is the idea that our best heroism is nevertheless tragic, because despite our personal transcendence from our animalistic past and despite our existential rebellions, we’re one with the undead god. There is no permanent escape from undeadness. Our personhood is a reprieve from the insensateness that belonged to our atoms before they assembled our fetal form, and that will be ours again when we die and our atoms are recycled for the next round of “divine” creation. We were zombie atoms and we will be disassembled into them again when our body decays. In the interim, there’s sentience, personhood, and the possibility of an honourable life. This honour is nothing to the utilitarian who thinks value is found only in certain results. The ultimate ends are all dismal, so there’s only relative value in utilitarian ethics, which is to say no real value at all. The utilitarian says that giving money to charity is good, relative to the desire to fulfill our obligation to maximize happiness, because that action helps to achieve that goal. This makes the action instrumentally rational, but the hedonic axiom itself is quite unjustified. Again, happiness is for sheep, not for people as such. All value is subjective and thus dependent on desires, but some values are implicit in the objective state of things, as in the case of beauty which is destined to be acknowledged as such by creatures with fitting cognitive paraphernalia. When authentic naturalists struggle against nature, from the aeries of their brain and specifically the perches of their higher-order thoughts which give them limited autonomy, they close a cosmic circuit, waging an ironic war against the gods at the end of which there will be no victory march or peace treaty. The existential war thus has no instrumentally rational justification or at least none that’s decisive, since naturalists are free to rationalize their creative urges. Still, the war is a magnificent natural development, a partial unwinding of nature through our conscious labour, a monster’s beholding of itself through the mirror of our mind which shatters part of the monster, not necessarily the mirror. Would that there were more sturdy mirrors!