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mysticism

On mysticism and metaphor

02003_hiresLast weekend I went to Wilderness festival and gave a couple of talks. It was a magical festival – the musical acts weren’t that stunning, but there was lots of marvelous, weird, dreamy stuff happening that I wandered into, like a Mardi Gras parade and a mock fertility ritual with a man dressed as a penis and a woman dressed as a vagina. It was all very Dionysian.

I was there at the invitation of Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, and gave a talk in their Sunday service  to around 1200 people – on the benefits of spiritual ecstasy! It felt an unusual topic for a humanist church, but good on Sunday Assembly for inviting me and embracing what I said, and even asking me back! The only time I’ve ever been invited to speak by a Christian church was to say how amazing the Alpha course is (I went down like a sausage at a bat-mitzvah when I started talking about Greek philosophy).

After that high-point, I went to do a talk at the Now mindfulness tent, which was full of people mindful-meditating, mindful-dancing, mindful-running, mindful-knitting, mindful-colouring, mindful-sleeping, and so on.

In my talk I asked whether there’s such a thing as western contemplation, and if it’s worth reviving. I noted that when I went to the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies last year, there were over 100 presentations, but only one on Greek philosophy, and one on Christian contemplation (and that was cancelled). All the other presentations were on non-Christian contemplation – probably 70% Buddhist, 20% yoga, and the rest Taoist and Sufi. Is it not odd, at a western conference, to so completely ignore the 2500-year-old indigenous traditions of western contemplation? Is that not a regrettable act of cultural forgetting?

In my talk, I tried to paint a brief history of western contemplation, starting with the Greeks – Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the NeoPlatonists – and then looking at Christian contemplation, and how it played a central role in the thought of the Church fathers (Augustine, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and others) and then in later mystical thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, St Theresa, and so on. It wasn’t a great talk at all – the material is too new to me, plus my practice is woeful – but you have to start somewhere.

51bKLoudTdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My knowledge of Christian contemplation (or mysticism) is not very advanced, but it’s been hugely helped by two books. Firstly, Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism (1995), which is a wonderful collection of writings by the Church Fathers from the late fourth and early fifth century AD. Their writing is so beautiful, poetic and radiant with love and spirit, it’s been a revelation to read it. For example:

In the house of God there is never-ending festival; the angel choir makes eternal holiday; the presence of God’s face gives joy that never fails.

So sings that well-known raver, St Augustine. And here’s Gregory of Nyssa – another of the greatest theologians of the church:

The soul then says: ‘Bring me into the banqueting house. Spread over me the banner of love’ (Song of Songs 2.4)…Her thirst has become so strong that she is no longer satisfied with the ‘cup of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9.2). The whole content of the cup poured into her mouth no longer seems able to quench her thirst. She asks to be taken into the cellar itself and apply her mouth to the rim of the vats themselves that are overflowing with intoxicating wine. She wants to see the grapes squeezed into the vats and the vine that produces these grapes, and the vinedresser of the true vine who has cultivated these grapes…That is why she wants to enter the cellar where the mystery of the wine is performed. Once she has entered she aspires still more highly. She asks to be put under the banner of love.

Who knew those old Church Fathers could dance with such abandon! But then, they did invent the concept of perichoreisis, or the cosmic dance of love.

I particularly liked the excerpts from Origen and St Isaac of Nineveh. Origen was never canonized, because he believed in reincarnation and was therefore a Bad Thing, but he’s acknowledged as one of the most influential thinkers on Christian theology. Interestingly, both Origen and Isaac had great faith in God’s mercy and love, so much so, they believed it was possible that all would be saved, even Lucifer!  ‘As a handful of sand in the boundless ocean, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with God’s providence and mercy’, writes Isaac. Origen agreed: ‘For the Almighty nothing is impossible, nor is anything beyond the reach of cure’. And Gregory of Nyssa wrote: ‘Our Lord…heals the inventor of evil himself’. Odd that the God of those stern Church Fathers should be so much more merciful and loving than the God of the modern church.

The other book that’s been really helpful and enjoyable is Bernard McGinn’s Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. It’s like Clemont’s book – a collection of extracts, organized by themes like ‘rapture’, ‘dereliction’, ‘mystical itineraries’ and so on. But McGinn’s book goes from the Church fathers all the way to modern contemplatives like Thomas Merton. It’s been very helpful for giving me an overview of the history of mysticism, something McGinn has explored at length in his seven-part history of mysticism (he’s written five parts so far). He makes the convincing case that mysticism / contemplation, far from being something on the dodgy fringes of Christianity, is or should be a central part of it.

51etjs4EaCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The book is full of treasures, but a particular treat has been discovering the mystic philosophy of Nicholas de Cusa, a 15th century humanist and papal envoy whose scientific discoveries included the idea of measuring the pulse as an indicator of health, and also the idea (before Galileo and  Copernicus) that the earth is not the centre of the universe, that it is likely that intelligent life exists on other planets, and that planets do not move in perfect circles. He saw no contradiction between his scientific and his mystical investigations, writing such Zen-like wonders as ‘What surpasses all reason involves a contradiction…the opposite of opposites is an opposite without opposite just as the end of things finite is the end without end.’

I’ve already written too long, so let me make three quick observations from my research so far.

First, the more one reads of the mystics, the more one realizes how deeply Christianity is influenced by Greek philosophy – the Stoics, Aristotle, and particularly Plato and the Neo-Platonists. As a lover of Greek philosophy, I feel much more at home in the writings of the early church than with modern Protestant theology, because there’s so much more Greek philosophy in the Church Fathers and in medieval mystics like Eckhart. Nietzsche went as far as to suggest Christianity was Platonism for the masses, but I’d rather put it like this: Christian culture is like a 2000-year-old musical improvisation, a fusion of Judaism and Greek philosophy, in which successive musicians explore different themes – the nature of Christ, identity, the  Feminine, God’s unity and trinity, the problem of evil, and so on – and perform calls and responses to each other over the centuries. That improvisation is ongoing – McGinn suggests one of the ‘new themes’ in modern mysticism is the body and sexuality, and their incorporation into the mystic life, as seen in Donne, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Blake, DH Lawrence or Pentecostalism.

One of Hildegard of Bingen's illuminations
One of Hildegard of Bingen’s illuminations

Secondly, many of the classic Christian mystical texts are by women. This is in contrast to Buddhism and Hinduism, where almost all the classic texts are by men. In Sufism there are some great female saints, but I think Christian mysticism is more female-dominated. Christian mystic women were cultural pioneers – the first book in English by a woman was by Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English nun; the first autobiography in English was by Margary Kempe, a 14th century lay-woman. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12-century German nun, is particularly remarkable, as one of the earliest-surviving female composers and female artists in Europe. They were also politically active, establishing and running nunneries, reforming movements.

Does this mean mysticism is gendered, that it’s a particularly feminine capacity to surrender one’s soul into ecstatic union with Christ? That was certainly argued by 19th century psychiatrists looking to pathologize ecstasy as ‘feminine hysteria’. I’ve sometimes wondered if perhaps women and gays are more into visualzing ‘the kiss of the mouth’ from Jesus than heterosexual men. But in fact, what strikes me about mystical experience is that it’s gender-bending. Look at Tiresias, the Greek prophet, with both male and female genitalia. Look at Dionysus, the cross-dresser, how he made King Pentheus dress up as a woman. Or the followers of Cybele, also cross-dressers. Look, in medieval mysticism, at the gender-bending, where the soul is now described as the female bride awaiting the bridegroom, and now as male suckling at the breast of Jesus the mother or embracing Lady Wisdom.

This suggests to me that our soul –  our fundamental identity – is not essentially male or female, but rather both, or neither…a dancing flickering fire of Being. It doesn’t surprise me that one of the proponents of mystical cinema – Larry Wachowski, director of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas – recently changed sex and became Lana. My soul is not male or female, introvert or extrovert, intellectual or emotional. It is all these things and more.

Third, and finally, what strikes me about Christian mystical books is their use of metaphor. They offer a dazzling array of metaphors for the soul and its transformation: the soul as mountain, the soul as mansion or castle, the soul as garden, the soul as mirror, the soul as ladder, the soul as ark, the soul as bride.

Mysticism is a collection of metaphor-maps to memorize information, structure thought and emotion, and explore and expand consciousness.
Mysticism is a collection of metaphor-maps to memorize information, structure thought and emotion, and explore and expand consciousness.

This makes me think that metaphor is crucial to consciousness-exploration and inner work. We live in such a rational, empirical and literal era, when metaphor is seen as something slippery and suspicious. And there are those, like Sam Harris, who want the science of altered states to deal only in ‘empirical facts’, stripped of all ritual and metaphor. Harris writes: ‘Mysticism requires explicit instructions, [with] no more ambiguity in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower.’

This is ultra-Protestantism: do away with all metaphors and symbols, leave just the facts! But, as the great consciousness-researchers Julian Jaynes and Owen Barfield both explored, it is very difficult to talk about consciousness except through metaphor. And the metaphors we use for consciousness are not just descriptive, they are creative. They create new ways of thinking, new realities, new worlds. Among Jesus’ greatest gifts to us were new metaphors for the soul – it’s like a mustard seed, it’s like buried treasure. These were not just descriptions but creations. In the beginning was the metaphor!

The mystics likewise used metaphors as ways of remembering information, structuring thought and emotion, and exploring and expanding consciousness. Metaphor-maps play a crucial role in guiding the soul to new forms and realizations.  One could think of mysticism as a forge where new metaphors are created, new ways of experiencing the inexhaustible play of Being. And the clash between the institutional and the mystic wings of religion is in part a clash over metaphor – the institutional wing wants to fix God into particular metaphors and insist they are true forever, rather than a way of putting it.

The central role of metaphor in experiencing and shaping consciousness is one reason why religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal is right that the humanities have a central role to play in consciousness-research – they help us to explore the metaphors and stories by which we structure and expand consciousness. Neuroscience is also very helpful in that process, but the metaphor of ‘brain as computer’ can only get us so far.

Plotinus, Inception and the levels of the self

I’ve been reading Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus. It’s marvellous – only 100 pages long, yet so much wisdom and poetry in it. My favourite passage in it is when Hadot talks about the ‘levels of the self’.

Plotinus’ hierarchy of reality

Plotinus believed in what Hadot calls ‘the hierarchy of realities’: at the top of the hierarchy is the One, God, the source of everything. Then comes the ‘Nous’, the intellect or Mind which rules all things. Then comes the psyche, or soul, which connects the intelligence to the world of matter, and then finally matter. Plotinus believed that the lower stages of the hierarchy flow down or ‘emanate’ from the upper stages, becoming progressively less simple, perfect and real. They owe their existence and their reality to the One, while the One is itself simple, perfect and self-sufficient. He was the opposite of a materialist, then – he thought matter owes its existence to Mind.

I don’t completely understand this either, to be honest. But let’s press on.

Hadot tells us that these ‘levels of reality’ also refer to ‘levels of the self’. The construction of the self mirrors the construction of cosmic reality. Our selves have multiple levels – matter, the psyche (which connects body and mind), the Nous or discriminating intelligence, and finally the One, the spark of God within us. Our consciousness usually exists only at the lower end of this hierarchy – in the realm of matter, and of material desires. But nonetheless, the upper levels of our self are still there, connected to God, even if we’re not conscious of it.

It’s an amazing thought – right now, a level of my self is in heaven. But I only become conscious of this divine level in my self in very rare moments of ecstasy. In such moments we don’t actually reach anywhere ‘new’ – our consciousness simply steps out onto the glorious penthouse of our self, as it were. We realize ‘oh, I’m home!’  The upper level is blissfully familiar to us, because we all came from the One, but forgot and got caught up in the lower levels.

Plotinus writes: ‘Not everything in the soul is immediately perceptile, rather it comes through to ‘us’ when it reaches percetion. Yet as long as a part of our soul is active but does not communicate [this fact] to the perceptual apparatus then the activity does not reach the entire soul.’

Hadot explains this passage thus:

Consciousness is a point of view, a centre of perspective. For us, our ‘self’ coincides with that point from which a perspective is opened up for us, be it into the world or onto our souls. In other words, in order for a psychic activity to be ‘ours’, it must be conscious. Consciousness then – and along with it our ‘self’ – is situated, like a median or an intermediate centre, between two zones of darkness, stretching anove and below it: on the one hand, the silent and unconscious life of our ‘self’ in God; on the other, the silent and unconscious life of the body. By means of our reason, we can discover the existence of these upper and lower levels.

This reminds one very much of Ken Wilber and his integral philosophy. Wilber also speaks of a hierarchy of realities, or ‘great chain of being’, which exists both in cosmic reality and in the self (pictured on the left). Wilber’s philosophy is, in fact, quite influenced by Plotinus. However, there’s a big difference between the two. With Plotinus, the ascent of the soul from the lower realms to the higher realms comes by trying to ‘forget’ the lower levels – forget the body, forget the emotions, forget sex, forget memories or the unconscious, forget the things of this world, forget everything except God. Wilber’s integral philosophy instead tries to include and integrate the lower levels in the ascent to the One – include the body, include the emotions, include sex, include the unconscious. Because if you try to forget this stuff or deny it, it will come back and haunt you, and block your ascent.

So the modern neoplatonism of Wilber and others is much more Jungian, one could say. It tries to integrate the lower and the higher levels of the self, including the unconscious.

I thought of Plotinus, Wilber and Jung when I was at a conference on psychedelics earlier this month, and a philosopher called Dave King talked about the spectrum of consciousness. He used this diagram to illustrate his point:

Threshold of consciousness.001

Most of these ‘levels of the self’ happen beyond our conscious awareness, although they’re always ‘running’. Sometimes, our consciousness moves down the spectrum and we can access these lower levels – when we fall asleep and start dreaming, for example, and we are able to access unconscious desires, habits and memories.

King suggests that spiritual techniques like psychedelic drugs or meditation can help us to move the ‘threshold of consciousness’ down, to unlock lower levels of the self, and to intervene. We can learn to consciously access and alter levels that are usually autonomic and unconscious, for healing purposes.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example, we learn how to consciously access and alter automatic belief patterns. But we may be able to go deeper than that through more contemplative or ecstatic practices – unlocking and altering deep repressed memories, or autonomic processes like our immune system. King gave various examples of people who had managed to change auto-immune illnesses like allergies or even multiple sclerosis using psychedelics. Perhaps we can even go down and alter our processes at the cellular level – becoming conscious of our DNA or the chemical constituents of plants.

Now in Plotinus’ model of the ascent of the soul, we forget the lower levels. They exist only to be disciplined, silenced and ultimately expunged as the soul flies up the One. But compare this to Plotinus’ most famous student, St Augustine. In his Confessions, Augustine plumbs the depths of his memories, his desires, his body, in order to remember who he is, in order to rediscover the deepest level of his self, which is God.

Where Plotinus flies up and tries to forget the lower levels, Augustine goes down, and tries to remember. That is a much more modern approach – the way up is the way down. Take the elevator down, all the way down, even into the limbo level, to try and remind oneself, that this is all a dream, that there is a divine reality which we have forgotten and left behind.

This was meant to be a blog about how these ideas play out in the film Inception, which seems influenced by some of these neoplatonic ideas. In Inception, Cobb rides the elevator of consciousness all the way down, through memories to the unconscious, in order to try and wake up.

The film is about one of the great risks of the Platonic mystical journey – how do you know, in your attempt to leave this world and ‘wake up’ to a higher spiritual reality, that you are not in fact merely leaving one dream for another? How do you know you have actually woken up?