IN ORDER TO BETTER ATTAIN the mind necessary to continue writing about what could be called personal mystical experiences, I’ve been reading up on the subject via John Ferguson’s excellent Encyclopedia of Mysticism and Mystery Religions and incidentally discovering that I hate reading about mystical experiences.
It’s like this: There are certain things which sound crazy if you haven’t experienced them — wild and alien and full of fire and beguiling sparks — yet the thing itself is really so simple that any words about it are just gnang gnang gnang. (It’s not just a “mystical” thing: you hear this around veterans, first responders, New Yorkers and all whose lives and jobs bring them into daily contact with Inescapable Reality: There’s just no reason to talk about what everyone knows. The reason why “those who know don’t speak” is because speaking is a waste of breath.)
So one devotee hears choirs and angels and divine appointings, another sees the reflection of the moon in a bucket of water; afterward, a third can heal the sick of heart and body. Different, perhaps, yes? Yet there is a common point that each have touched, or been touched by. It’s as if the fruit has been digested and there’s no need to look at the rind. (Or, maybe that’s just me — after all, somebody keeps buying enough books on the topic of WooWoo Isness to keep the genre profitable.)
All that out of the way, the Encyclopedia (which I highly recommend to the interested) has been very helpful in helping me understand my own experiences (which I’m filing under the tag “Metaphysicatin’ Jones“). What once seemed unique I now learn to be part of a vast, ongoing thread, well-recognized but little known, nothing special insofar as the species is concerned but of literally pivotal importance to the individuals directly involved (and indirectly as disciples, followers, and demagogues). It seems that there are definable qualities particular to the mystical experience — in fact four, according to William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (though some typologists list as many as 12): 1) ineffability or indescribability; 2) a noetic quality, or sense of having learned something; 3) transiency, or short duration; 4) and passivity, or non-volition. There are also varying degrees of “absorption,” from the momentary satori of the Zen Buddhists to the continuous mystical union of Nachman of Breslov and Francis of Assisi. (Depending on how you slice it, my own experiences tend toward the more transient end of the scale, but there have been two or three which … well, they deserve their own posts.)
On another occasion when seeing myself described in black-and-white words — in that case, the symptoms and indications of bipolar disorder — I was depressed enough to believe that was all there was to me. I’ve since worked that through (which sounds easier than it actually was) but seeing Ferguson’s descriptions of contemplation, ecstasy, rapture, satori and mystic union produced a similar effect: although positive instead of negative, life-affirming instead of self-defeating. “I’m not alone” instead of “I’m all alone.”
One final word (for this post, anyway): I said last time that this post would be about visions. Given that I dislike reading about other people’s mystical experiences, I still don’t understand the compulsion to share mine. I can rationalize it by saying I want to reach out to or reassure others who may have had the same experiences, or to lessen the stigma of mental illness, or explain why I write about religion in the way I do (or even write about it at all). But that’s all post-facto pondering: I just dunno. I expect that the reason, if any, will be made clear to me. Or maybe not. Either way, I thank you for reading this far.
Next time: Visions. No, really.