Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Is mystical experience the final goal?

This question refers to a point made in the last post and, by implication at least, touches on the important matter of what the self, if it exists, is actually for.

Q. Can you elaborate a bit on why you say that mystical experience is not the goal of the spiritual life. You said that in your book and you also mentioned it in a recent post. Surely once a person has attained full unity consciousness there is nowhere else to go? If enlightenment, which I am taking as the summation of all mystical experience, is not the goal then what is?

A. Let's get our definitions in order first. Can we agree that the basis of mystical experience is usually said to be the withdrawal of attention from all external objects and created things, outer and inner including oneself, and the subsequent focus on pure being? There are other, perhaps lesser, forms of mysticism, such as nature mysticism or one-pointed devotion to a deity, but when one talks of mysticism in the context of the search for enlightenment, this is what we are talking about. The entry into pure being. The advanced mystic (that is, one who has not just touched this state but fully embraced or been embraced by it) might come back into the phenomenal world but henceforth his unique focal point is the undifferentiated oneness of uncreated reality. 

Some call this the experience of God, others the essence of our own true being, and many mystics maintain that there is not much difference at this stage. But is the attaining of this state really the whole object of the spiritual journey? As I have said before, at one time I might have thought it was, and, as far as I can see, it is for Buddhism and advaita Vedanta. But there is a problem. Even if one comes back from this state and preaches its virtues to other spiritual enquirers there is still a whiff of solipsism about it. The enlightened one wants nothing and nobody. He may have a blanket universal compassion for all living beings still caught up in the illusions of this world, but he himself in himself is remote, distant, uninvolved, detached. He resides in eternity and so cannot really relate to anyone else. For some this may imply completion but others might see an inner solitariness like this as a kind of limitation.

What I am feeling my way towards here is that whatever is behind this created world and our created selves (which, for ease of reference, let us call God) did not just send us out into phenomenal existence for us to come back no different from when we started. What would be the point of that? He (and I use that pronoun a) because I believe God to be personal, and b) because I think the masculine pronoun most accurately describes the nature of the Creator, see here for why) had a purpose. That purpose was not for individual units of consciousness to be absorbed back into pure being with their individuality dissolved but for them to become living Sons and Daughters of God themselves. And this, crucially, does not demand a return to original being with all experience gained from this world just thrown away because it is meaningless, but the full integration of being and becoming with the soul made perfect not just, for want of a better word, binned. Not the abandonment of the Many for the One or of difference for sameness but the recognition that both are part of the whole, two sides of the same divine coin, and only through the perfected union of both can the Good, the Beautiful and the True take form and be known. So the spiritual journey, once it leaves the plains of conventional religion and outer worship and begins to climb, may start its ascent with a quest for inner enlightenment and personal oneness with God, or life as the impersonalists would have it, through the emptying or denial of self. But it is not complete until the mystical path becomes the path of holiness and perfection, and self, instead of being regarded as unreal, sinful, the product of ignorance or an impediment, is seen as a gift to be voluntarily offered up in love as the vessel for grace once it is fully purified of all worldly stain and egotism. 

Therefore, in contrast to Buddhism and similar philosophies, in 
this scheme of things the individual self is not rejected but renewed. To be sure, the old self, the personal or separate self, must die but selfness lives on as the means through which God's grace and glory can be made manifest. For just as abstract reality can only properly be revealed through concrete form so the Universal requires the Individual in order to manifest and to make itself known. God is a combination of the two and so must we be. This melding of absolute and relative is what I mean by the integration of being and becoming, and its necessity in the overall pattern of spiritual unfoldment is why I think of advaita and Buddhism as being but stages on the road to God or godliness not the true goal. Advanced stages, certainly, but not the full destination because they have a one-sided view of ultimate reality.

Through mystical experience we can cure ourselves of the idea that our selves are absolutely real in themselves, and enter into the knowledge of oneness. But we must then use that knowledge or realisation not to dismiss the self but to adorn it and make of it a house fit for the Lord to dwell in. The non-dualist must take his non-duality and, with it, re-enter and re-embrace duality. For self is not an illusion or unreal but the very purpose of existence, and the goal of the spiritual life is not enlightenment but theosis or the divinization of the self which, after full purification, is transformed by grace and made utterly new.


Robert said...

This is a part of a prayers (unknown author) that agrees with much of what you said.
"Oh, God, make me a hollow reed, from which the pith of self hath been blown so that I may become as a clear channel through which Thy Love may flow to others."
The little self is gone but I still exists and has a new job.

William Wildblood said...

I think that's right. There are grounds for thinking that the only true individual is one no longer limited to his little self. He has become undivided in himself and so can serve as a vessel for God but do so in a way that is unique to himself.

David Balfour said...

A Boddhisatva?

William Wildblood said...

Maybe but I have a theory about that. I think that the idea of the Boddhisatva came into Buddhism via Christianity. Either directly through Nestorian Christians who some believe influenced the form of Tibetan Buddhism with regard to some of its external practices or (more likely for me) through a kind of spiritual influence that spread throughout the world as a result of the Incarnation. An influence on the plane of ideas that descended into the minds of all those spiritually sensitive enough to respond to it. So a Boddhisatva could be a Christianised Buddha. Not everyone will go along with that of course but the dates are right!