Friday, June 09, 2006

Mysticism in an academic context.

Initially, the idea of studying mysticism in an academic context presents a problematic that to be understood, has to synthesize mysticism and academia. Western culture and the university as it exists today is influenced by scientific, objectivist thinkers such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626). The scientific method which is often co-opted and imitated by other fields of inquiry betrays its subject and lays claim to results. It advocates an understanding which uses the rational, discursive faculties of the mind. This pseudo objectification and implied distancing stand in contrast to a more intimate, direct understanding. Indeed, the over rational prevents an intuitional understanding and unfortunately, rationality sometimes becomes opposed to knowledge in the academic setting. Studying mysticism involves a development of the intuition, and furthermore a development of an intuitional understanding of knowledge. In an academic setting, for a study of mysticism to be valid, it must know knowledge. The problematic is understood and resolved by the realization that epistemic activity is mystical.

A definition of mysticism has been attempted by scholars of the past. Robert S. Ellwood gives us this definition: “It (mysticism) may be regarded as itself the cardinal means toward ultimate transformation; it may be interpreted simply as a contact with the deity or plane that offers it through other means. But in any case, a mystical experience is a state of consciousness whose dominant symbols and structures of thought, behaviour, and expression relate to ultimate transformation of self and world, and whose same symbols and structures derive from or construct a system with theoretical, practical, and sociological components also pointing toward ultimate transformation. These three…forms need not, of course, be present explicitly in the experience, but they would be implied by the terms, the symbols and structures, through which the mystic experiencer interpreted the experience to himself/herself and others.” And “Mystical experience is experience in a religious context that is immediately or subsequently interpreted by the experiencer as encounter with ultimate divine reality in a direct nonrational way that engenders a deep sense of unity and of living during the experience on a level of being other than the ordinary.” It is important to note that by “religion”, Ellwood means “systems of human culture that combine theory, practice, and sociology, and in all these employ symbols of process, absoluteness, and transcendence that indicate the system is intentionally a means of ultimate transformation.”

Ellwood’s definition is echoed in Evelyn Underhill’s attempt at pinning down this enigma. “Because it is characteristic of the human self to reflect upon its experience, to use its percepts as material for the construction of a concept, most mystics have made or accepted a theory of their own adventures. Thus we have a mystical philosophy or theology -- the comment of the intellect on the proceedings of spiritual intuition -- running side by side with true or empirical mysticism: classifying its data, criticizing it, explaining it, and translating its vision of the supersensible into symbols which are amenable to dialectic.” This idea of being “amenable to the dialectic” is very important and will be discussed later. Underhill further illustrates using more esoteric terminology: “Now we have said that the end which the mystic sets before him is conscious union with a living Absolute. That Divine Dark, that Abyss of the Godhead, of which he sometimes speaks as the goal of his quest, is just this Absolute, the Uncreated Light in which the Universe is bathed, and which -- transcending, as it does, all human powers of expression -- he can only describe to us as dark. But there is -- must be -- contact "in an intelligible where" between every individual self and this Supreme Self, this Ultimate.”

Furthermore, Jess Hollenback gives us this: “From the moment we awake until the moment we fall asleep, the vast majority of us spend our time silently talking to ourselves. A few individuals whom we call mystics have mastered the difficult art of shutting off this habitual interior dialogue. This inner silence that mystics cultivate cannot develop unless the individual first learns how to tightly focus his or her attention so that the mind and imagination no longer wander aimlessly from one subject, thought, or feeling state to another. When this mental background noise ceases as a consequence of the mystic's successful endeavours to focus his or her attention, a dramatic change in the mystic's mode of consciousness takes place, a metamorphosis that is just as radical (sometimes even more so) as that transformation that occurs during the shift from the waking state of awareness to the dream state. This dramatic metamorphosis of the waking consciousness caused by simultaneously focusing the attention and quieting the mind, together with the responses in both thought and deed that it generates, is what I call "mysticism."

It is clear from this description that mysticism incorporates two important elements: a distinctive mode of experience or consciousness and the individual's responses to that unusual modality of experience. It is evident, then, that the term "mysticism" is not synonymous with "mystical experience," for the latter refers only to the first of these two elements. "Mysticism" is instead a comprehensive term incorporating both the mystical experience and the individual's response to it. Because of this dual reference inherent in the term "mysticism," a study of this phenomenon must accomplish two basic tasks. First, it must shed light on those particular attributes that distinguish the mystical mode of consciousness from other modes of consciousness. Second, it must delineate the manifold ways that men and women have responded in both thought and deed to those extraordinary types of experience.

Can delineating be a mystical experience?

Studying mysticism gives rise to the need for the “unusual modality of experience”. Any study of mysticism must start with the “mystical experience”. The individual’s response, if it is to remain valid, must be mystical. The student must know. Furthermore, the delineating of the mystical experience must be a mystical experience. The academic context, with its emphasis on utilitarianism has issues with these mystical texts, for if the texts and delineations are to be understood, they have to be understood on their own terms. A wilful objectification that discards any part of the text and refuses to “simultaneously focus the attention and quiet the mind” will not understand the text. The administrative and bureaucratic powers that be often cannot see the value of such texts, and the explicit study of mysticism is often excluded.

The contrast between academia and mysticism is further outlined by understanding the principles upon which the modern university operates, in opposition to the principles upon which the university was founded. Those operations find their origins in early scientific thought and the assumptions implied by an embracing of modernity. Modernity and science owe a great deal to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the “great instautator” of modern science. Despite his insistence on direct observation, his contribution was to distance man from nature by insisting that knowledge was to be sought for only practical purposes. Bacon’s goal was to “extend more widely the limits of power and greatness of man”, and he further criticised past thought for neglecting our God-given right to know and thereby conquer. He coined the phrase “knowledge is power”, and believed in man’s responsibility to exercise full power over nature. Again bacon insists, “the true end, scope, or office of knowledge, which I have set down to consist not in any plausible, delectable, reverend or admired discourse, or any satisfactory arguments, but in effecting and working, and in discovery of particulars not revealed before, for the better endowment and help of man’s life.” Indeed, man’s relationship to nature advocated by bacon is strictly a utilitarian one. The west no longer sought to discover, only to conquer.

Louis Dupre further investigates Bacon’s assumption that nature possesses no purpose of its own. If nature has no purpose or meaning, this places the entire responsibility for conveying meaning and purpose to the world entirely on the human person, the only creature endowed with purposness. Bacon asked of everything, “What purpose does it serve”? Human activity became mere problem solving; a discursive activity. The unnecessary logical conclusion of which is nihilism. Furthermore, Bacon’s method filters what is observed. The method prompts the observer to restrict the investigation to what will lead to reliable results. The observer selects what it desires to learn and discards what is considered irrelevant.

This rational method, while being cast in a negative light, has given many advances in medicine and quality of life. Its success in every aspect of contemporary life cannot be ignored. Science has had considerable success and as such is an influential force within not only academia, but society as well. The university has increasingly become a place to learn problem solving skills and achieve reliable results. The logical conclusion leads the university to not only train the student to engage reality in a distanced relation, but engages the student in a distanced relation as it prepares the pupil to become a purposeful member of the work force.

A more explicit determination of what the university deems valid must occur; this determination can be made by looking at the foundations upon which the first university was founded. All too often, a developed intuition is replaced by a skill set. The university seen as a place to train workers for the workforce is in opposition to the university that develops the intuition, i.e. that ability to hold two or more “things” in the mind at once and see the relation between the two. It is also the ability to see deeply into a single thing. It is the ability to see meaning and order where there was none before the act of looking. Intuition is the faculty to grasp a thing as it is in itself, without comparison, concept, image or analogy. Mysticism is the study of the highest intuitions, the loftiest insights, the act of knowing, and the source of knowledge. If mysticism, profound insight, and knowledge/knowing are one and the same, then the university requires a re-evaluation. What the university deems valid must be 1) its students and 2) development of those students intuition.
The first university established was Plato’s Academy in 387 B.C., and this precedent gives insight into the original purpose of the university. Plato’s well known allegory of the cave along with other texts such as Meno set forth notions of escape from illusions to higher order apprehensions. If the Academy he established had any relation to his philosophical writings, then we can assume that the Academy and Universities were intended to be places of knowledge and insight.

Although the scientific mindset endeavours to construct an accurate re-presentation of the world and by implication distances viewer and object, the great scientific thinkers have all had well developed intuitions. The notable scientist has shown great insight in their fields that has not necessarily been the goal of a method that seeks to re-present through observation, description, experiment and theory. It would seem, despite the emphasis on discursive, rationalist thought, that knowledge and knowing is gained by a non-objectification, a more personal identification with the subject. Despite the tendency to try and re-present everything, science implicitly is mystical. We can see evidence of this by the actions and ideas of historical figures science holds as models for emulation.

The university then does not have to undergo such a radical shift in thinking to resolve the problematic as one might assume. It was originally established as a place for the training of the intuition. The university has moved away from that over the years, but it isn’t a large step for an institution that is fundamentally scientific to explicitly train the intuition and foster higher order thinking that has been traditionally labelled mystical.

The idea of having a methodology in the study of mysticism poses a unique challenge, for if one seeks an end, the battle is already lost. The student will remain forever distanced, seeking knowledge through a method whose means fail to yield to encounter. If the student of mysticism is to truly understand the subject, the orderly accomplishment of successive steps to reach an end does not approach the subject sufficiently. However a method is assumed to be present in any field of study as random efforts would be hardly classifiable as study. The essential aspect that cannot be left out of any mystical methodology is contemplation. There must be a fundamental, elemental meeting between the person with intuitional capabilities to what is. Student and subject must become one.

The university is a social place. It is a gathering of people and as such our methodology would need to take this into account. This fundamental premise sets the method in opposition to a solitary method. This method is commonly known as a dialogical or dialectic method. The collective method emphasises collective activity and argument to foster understanding or revelation with the goal of achieving the highest levels of understanding, or anagogic understanding. The question itself, along with the teacher’s joint exploration of the subject with the pupil is characteristic of this method. The teachers become very important as they have achieved a level of understanding that enables them to lead others. The university without teachers of anagogic understanding ceases to be a university.

The dialectic itself is a method by which to develop the intuition. The student is asked a question, and required to give a truth. This first hypothesis, along with admissions from the student, is logically shown to be false. The state of confusion is essential in this process, as the desired effect is to show that initial appearances are not what is to be looked at, and a more careful meditation is in order. Confusion tightens the intuitive strings of the mind and readies the pupil. The teacher then carefully guides the student to an insightful, meaningful understanding.

Dialectic has been most notably defined by Hegel. His thought was based on the primacy of negativity. The anti-thesis is described as “the path way of doubt”, and a “loss of immediate certainty”. Hegel further levels a general criticism that applies to the mindset that sees mysticism in an academic context as problematic. His broad assessment that self-identity without negativity is “death”, is an indictment against the prosaic mindset that lacks a true understanding of the purpose of the university. To assert any proposition without scepticism is essentially a lie, as the proposition does not accurately re-present the subject at hand. Hegel further claims that by articulation and self-identity one “makes concrete” negativity. Self-identity makes the negation, thereby illustrating the dialectic within the dialectic.

Furthermore, Hegel’s dialectic is a process that each new intuitive determination points to a further determination. The intuition of the student engaged in dialectical exercises becomes more fully developed in successive re-construction. It is essentially training the student how to “be” through a process of thought that “loses itself in” and becomes “entangled in the contradiction”. Hegel also saw the need for perseverance, to "work out in itself the solution to its own contradiction", and therefore the need for adequate instructors rises again; those individuals that can act as guides for others.

It is important to illustrate certain misunderstandings that can arise when speaking of the intuition or things not necessarily easily seen or demonstrated. Hegel addressed the issue of scepticism, “the far-seeing power [of thought] which is requisite in order to recognize the determinations of negation and opposition everywhere present in everything concrete and in all that is thought", and its devolution into nihilism. Scepticism and negation does not necessarily and should not find itself leading to nihilism. The point is that the "reciprocal dependence" of the opposites, their mutual negation, should not result in neutralization, but a "completer notion," in a concrete unity of the opposing terms.

To illustrate the dialectic as it exists today, we can look at a contemporary introductory physics course. The typical course begins with introducing “Newtonian” physics and ends with quantum, atomic, and nuclear physics. The student looks at simple one and two dimensional motion, then force, work, energy, momentum, circular motion, and waves. All of this is based on a mechanistic view of nature, that every thing has a cause and to understand the effect, one has to look causally. The typical course then spends time on modern physics which isn’t necessarily mechanistic. The understanding of the student is undermined, as physical reality is shown to not be mechanistic. Previous hypothesis are destroyed by observable phenomenon. That the hypothesis is destroyed cannot be denied by the student. Confusion and anxiety can be part of the process as it readies the intuition to receive a higher understanding of the subject at hand.

To illustrate the importance of the intuition in science and by implication the university, one can look at the achievements of science closely. The first such achievement I will bring to attention is the Pythagorean Theorem. We know very little of Pythagoras, but we can say with certainty he was a brilliant geometrician that believed mathematics lied at the centre of reality. By looking at the well known theorem, Pythagoras shows us the relation between the legs of a triangle. Side A squared is equal to side B squared added to side C squared. If intuition is the ability to see relationships and order where there was none before, then Pythagoras had a developed intuition. If the theorem is one of the most important discoveries of science, then important discoveries of science result from a developed intuition.

Another achievement (among many) that illustrates the importance of the intuition in gaining knowledge, is that of Sir Isaac Newton and his laws of motion. Specifically, the second law demonstrates an ability to see motion as it is in itself. The minds eye, in this instance, was able to see beyond the sense perception of motion and entered into a closer relationship with motion. It could be argued that this insight and knowing is more “real” than the ordinary observation of sense perception. The second law demonstrates an ability to recognize relationships between separate entities, namely Force, mass, and acceleration. Newton’s insights also led him to discard the common sense notion that motion requires force. His proximity to motion allowed him to draw profound conclusions that dispelled erroneously held re-presentations.

Antoine Lavoiser examined the nature of combustion. His achievement was to discover the law of the conservation of matter. By simply observing that the mass of the material remained constant before and after combustion, he penned an insight that became a foundation of physics. That insight, however seemingly trivial, held implications for the understanding of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics.

There are many examples in science of the role that intuition plays. The intuition, despite serving science and its agendas, is essentially the same tool that mystics have used to describe reality. It is no surprise that science is now reaching a critical point. Scientific thought has sufficiently reached a point of development that has lead the scientist to draw many analogous conclusions to ancient mystical texts. Indeed, contemporary science often finds itself unable to demonstrate through observable phenomenon its discoveries. Science’s attempts at describing an outside reality are increasingly finding itself located firmly within the mind.

Contemporary physics struggled with the issue of the dual nature of light. Under Newtonian physics, light must either be a particle or a wave. The issue was further inflamed when both sides of the camp could demonstrate experimentally that light was both a particle or a wave. This apparent contradiction could only be resolved by those researchers whose insight penetrated deeply to allow for the apparent contradiction to be resolved. Somehow, light had to be particle, wave, and mutually exclusive. Its resolution lied in the dialectic.

The relation between observation and discovery is not under question. What is under question is the assumption that observation through sense perception fosters discovery. The dedication of science to empiricism should not waver. Absolute empiricism is only possible through a direct knowing as certain intuitions that seem to exist only in the mind are often more “real” than ordinary perception.

A dialectic of mysticism and religious experience would be seen as a process. The student would continually be asked to define something; to differentiate and articulate that thing against all other things. The method would be then to force the student to bring to bear, and be cognizant of the contradictions to the previous articulation. This process would continue indefinitely, as it would develop the intuition and train the mind to be sensitive to those subtle insights that is the goal of a study of mysticism and religious experience.

A community of likeminded scholars could provide support and guidance during the dialectical process, as students often need encouragement during those periods of confusion before the student comes to terms with the oppositions. A rigorous dialectic helps the student transition from lower, base understandings and intuitions of reality to higher, more accurate and truthful intuitions.

The oppositions must be framed so that neither can be judged to be more valuable than the other, thus allowing the student to “cop-out” of the dialectic. The student must not be allowed to disregard either side and render the exercise invalid. The dialectic as outlined by Hegel, carefully articulates the thesis. Then, it carefully articulates the anti-thesis. The thesis separates the subject from its surroundings, while the anti-thesis prepares for the synthesis. The mysticism and religious experience course in the context of an academic setting could be thought of as being dialectic. Whatever subject that is at hand could be explored in a dialectical fashion.

Now we have the university, whose rationalist leanings are pressed forward through critical thought, becoming a place that indeed fosters knowing and transmittance of knowledge. Science, while keeping its sacred doctrine of observation intact, is exorcised of its need to rationalize and objectify. Science and the university are explicitly institutions of knowledge.
Nature indeed has purpose and meaning. We only need to look with sensitivity to discover and know purpose and meaning. Reality and nature are the source of meaning, and science, when looking at reality is looking at the source of all knowledge.

If we remember Ellwood, and his definition of religion as “systems of human culture that combine theory, practice, and sociology, and in all these employ symbols of process, absoluteness, and transcendence that indicate the system is intentionally a means of ultimate transformation.”, then science and the university become a religion. The problematic of mysticism in an academic context is understood by the university becoming a setting for the religion of science.

The scientific method and knowledge.

The scientific method is a method for developing belief based on evidence. The fist step is observation of “phenomena”. It is necessary for the first step to be “objective”. It is assumed that all biases can be transcended at this stage, or previous knowledge can be ignored while observation of phenomena takes place.

The second step is a formulation of a hypothesis. Here, the belief is made explicit. Previous hypothesis or vague rules of thumb that the experienced scientist has in the back of the mind come into play as it orients the hypothesis in a certain direction. Successful hypothesis’s that were formulated in the past can play a role in this stage.

The hypothesis is tested in the third step. If the hypothesis predicts the existence of new phenomena or predicts quantitatively the results of new observations, then it is held to be justified.

The fourth step is to recreate the experiment independently by more than one scientist.
It is held that this method is justified based on the evidence given through technology, or applied science. The promise is a longer, suffering free life. One would be hard pressed to argue that a short, miserable existence is superior to the one being offered. Methodological materialism is often justified in this manner.

This puts any claims that mysticism has of knowledge at risk of being invalidated. Mysticism historically has not made claims to applicability. The claim of mysticism is that of being a pure knowledge, one that is ontologically justified and the thought of any pre-disposition towards a goal excludes the pure knowledge being attainable. Those steeped in the tradition may cringe at even asking what application mysticism could have. They would seem to be mutually exclusive.
Firstly, the scientific method should maintain its reliance on observation. Secondly, an acknowledgment that it is not possible to be “objective” and previous knowledge cannot be ignored. The neurobiological process of visual observation itself is interpretive. While visual observation is not discarded, epistemology cannot be ignored even in this seemingly direct act. What should be discarded is the implicit idea that what we are observing has no meaning other than what we as observers give it through hypothesis.

Because we always maintain our epistemology, the task is then for us to observe directly. Mysticism accomplishes this task by giving us pure knowledge. The only truly objective observation comes from the mystic. Knowing is not bound by matter. Mysticism has always laid claim to what actually is, and because it is ontologically justified, it has remained non-justified by a scientific tradition that held a false claim to objectivity. Now that science has proven to itself through its own process that interpretation always occurs, the charge is to observe without interpretation.

Because we know that it is impossible to observe without interpretation, it becomes very important to establish as our epistemology, a pure epistemology. Only by previously knowing directly can we possibly do it again. It is the task of the university to foster knowledge.

The second step in the scientific method is a formulation of the hypothesis. A point to consider is that the hypothesis is often in written form, and for the word to actually describe the observation, it must be the observation. The scientific method wishes to test everything, and as the observation is only ontologically justifiable, this may seem to be impossible. To validate the hypothesis, the phenomena or the hypothesis should be observed. If there is a correlation between the observation of the third party and the previous observation and the hypothesis, then it is validated. The task of the hypothesis is to share the observation with others. For others to objectively evaluate the observation, they must step out of their own epistemology. It is important to realize that this is not a new idea as any new discovery comes from observation, and science has had instances where observation did occur, such as those illustrated previously.
For those sceptics that choose not to observe for themselves because of a refusal to look objectively, the fact that mystic traditions have come to the same conclusions throughout history could provide the evidence needed to evaluate what one knows.

Despite claiming that the search for knowledge should be pure, the issue of applying knowledge will not be forgotten. The notion that pure knowledge does not achieve results is false. Indeed, only through knowledge can we achieve appropriate results. Observing must be done if we wish to know what course of action to take. In the case of medicine, the correct course of action is possible if it is based on observation, and because of the written word, previous observations are not lost and can allow humanity to continually increase in knowing and achieving appropriate results.

Knowledge and the future of science.

Today science is moving in the direction of acquiring pure knowledge. We have seen brief instances of this, but it is in danger of being misled. Most of the previous examples have focused on methodological materialism. Psychology and the behavioural sciences have grown from an assumption of the primacy of matter. The starting point is matter, and consciousness as well as behaviour is explained from this. It must be noted that science cannot explain consciousness despite terminology that would lead one to believe that is the case. Psychological explanations are justified by evidence in the past, and never approach the now of consciousness.

To evaluate psychology, one has to move from the material methodology and “step into one’s self”. Claims of psychology can only find evidence through behaviours. Psychology exists in the past. The psychic structures which it claims exists cannot be seen empirically or even consciously. We do not experience them directly. Certain psychic structures are accepted because of “looser” evidence. We often believe that these psychic structures exist because of behaviours we perform are supposedly due to those structures. What we often see is that everyone who has a certain “psychic structure” does not behave in a certain fashion, which at this higher level of evidence renders the belief unjustified. Psychology continues to increase accuracy when predicting behaviour, and fewer and fewer behaviours fall outside of each new model developed. Because of this, and other findings in biology, it is often claimed that consciousness is an illusion.

Where science is in danger of being misled is not the issue of consciousness as illusion, but instead forgetting that each new model is not consciousness. Instead of continuing on the path illustrated above towards knowledge, it is possible to confuse these increasingly accurate descriptions of behaviour and false claims of consciousness with actual consciousness and observation.

In the effort to re-establish mysticism in the academy, we have looked at the issues of objectivity, knowledge, and practicality. We now have a clearer idea that objectivity is seeing what actually is and how knowledge is implicitly bound with observation. It is no longer appropriate to classify mysticism as a “pure knowledge” that has no bearing to practical matters. The initial problematic no longer has any place as the academy was originally envisioned as a place of knowledge, and despite the lack of knowing present today, we can see glimpses that act as way markers for us currently involved in academia.


Robert S. Ellwood. Introducing Religion From Inside to Outside. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Evelyn Underhill. Mysticism. Oxford: Oneworld, 1999.

Jess Byron Hollenbeck. Mysticism, Response, and Empowerment. Pennsylvania: PSU Press, 1996.

Francis Bacon, Lisa Jardine. Francis Bacon: The New Organon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Louis Dupre. Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. London: Yale University Press, 2002.

Georg W. Hegel, Frederick G. Weiss. Hegel: The Essential Writings. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Jerold Touger. Introductory Physics: Building Understanding. York: Von Hoffman Press, 2006.

Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library: An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras and Pythagorean Philosophy. Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1987.

Frederic Lawrence Holmes. Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life: An Exploration of Scientific Creativity. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

Gribbin, John. In Search of Schrödinger's Cat. New York: Bantam Books, 1984