The Paths of Mystical Experience
It is in fact and by definition an oxymoron (a figure of speech which involves contradictory ideas) to try to “objectively define” an “ineffable mystical experience” – it is ineffable precisely because, in its totality, it does not fit into the cognitive context in which thought and logical language, reason, happen. This is something well recognised by Stace:
“It’s evident that our investigation into whether mystical states have common characteristics is empirical. We cannot expect any universal absolutism as in mathematical models… Any honest writer who is familiar with mystical experiences knows that they are completely irreconcilable with the ordinary rules of human thought, that they break the laws of logic. W.T Stace in “Mysticism and Philosophy”.
Some of State’s reservations about mystical experience are in our view more based on contextual, cultural interpretations and facts than on an investigation of the experience in itself – perhaps in the references which he seems to regard as more “authorised” or traditional.
“We may raise the question as to whether our exclusion of “visions and voices” from the category of mystical phenomena is the result of an arbitrary decision, or whether there are good reasons for this. The answer is that good reasons can be given. The main point is that the most typical, as well as the most important types of mystical experience, are not sensual (unlike “visions and voices”). Christian and Hindu mystics are in complete agreement on this point. W.T Stace in “Mysticism and Philosophy”.
In Stace’s opinion, the presence of images, voices, visions and, by extension, organised colours in the form of sounds, rhythms and music – in other words, what is defined as “the sensual” – seems to cast doubt on the mystical value of the experience – its legitimacy or purity, its intensity, its essence. For him, austerity, silence, detachment and emptiness seem to be more proper signs of mysticism.
For me it seems obvious that this observation is more the result of Stace’s own presuppositions and theistic, monastic, religious influences than of any real evaluation of the phenomenon.
In relation to the experiences themselves, Stace gives a bipolar classification, describing them as either “extroverted” or “introverted”.
“Spontaneous experiences are normally of the “extroverted” type, though not always. Experiences which are the result of training are normally classified as “introverted”, because there are special techniques for this – techniques which differ slightly from culture to culture. As far as I know, there is no equivalent technique for “extroverted” experiences. W.T Stace in “Mysticism and Philosophy”.
It’s clear that the realisation of an experience whose essential point is the breaking down of the subject/object dichotomy necessarily involves the fusion of the cognitive elements (the subjective, inner side) and the perceptive elements (the outer, objective side) of experience. This is a challenge to any attempt to classify experiences in the way indicated by Stace.
It’s interesting that the most spontaneous, most natural and possibly most frequent path to mystical experience is the one described by Stace as “extroverted”. On this point we are in agreement. However, I would stress that Stace’s belief that there are no “extroverted” techniques for provoking such experiences once again shows how selective is the universe of his reasoning.
It’s clear that techniques which begin with the “exterior”, such as techniques of “full attention”, of “contemplation”, and techniques of “action”, are equally capable of being cultivated and of leading to mystical union.
Contemplating distant horizons, landscapes, the night sky, flowers; intense and concentrated focus on what is absorbed by the senses, seeing, feeling, hearing etc; intense involvement in actions like running, touching, swimming, dancing, sexual union etc – all these are “extroverted and sensual” techniques which can be used to trigger a state of flux or fusion between subject/object which has great potential to reach its flowering in mystical union.
As a general practice of induction, perception can be restricted or concentrated, or amplified and dilated. This practice can be put into context and orientated internally or externally.
We can perhaps speak of “paths” or “ways”: on the one hand, the “inner way” of those who meditate, of philosophers, recluses and theists; on the other hand, the “outer way” of contemplative people, artists, naturalists and pantheists.
I use the word “contemplation” in the sense of the absorption of sight and spirit: for example, in the beauty of a flower.
“Running in the orchard, suddenly I came across a lily. I stopped suddenly, fascinated by the shine and beauty of this floral being. The intense blue and yellow of the flower expanded into the sky and sun in the creative universe of the child, all this orchestrated by the song of the thrush and the cricket. Awoken by rain, having forgotten what I was supposed to pick, I turned back to my mother. ‘I saw a flower!’ ‘Go and get radishes, my boy!”