“No spiritual development begins without that person having a mystical experience,” claimed my friend Hans in recent conversation. We had been discussing mysticism and he made a few points that made me pause. He continued, “Mystical experience connects a person to the higher states of being. Without this, no one make any serious progress on the spiritual path.” I thought this was a rather provocative statement and asked him to clarify. He said that only once someone has tasted the ultimate can they really begin to direct themselves and their actions towards it. Until then it is like trying to create a trail with no guide or point of reference in sight.
I must admit I was taken aback by such a frank assertion, one he was quite adamant was universal. Additionally, I take seriously Aleister Crowley’s warning about the ways mysticism can delude a person and have thus always been suspicious of it.1 I pointed out how Crowley noted that mysticism was all subjective and lacked any kind of objectivity. Hans countered that this is wrong and that all true mysticism connects to a universal higher reality to which all humans share access. Humans, he claimed, were “wired” for these mystical states. He then pointed to all the great religions and mystics and said they all went up different paths to the same mountain peak.2
I asked then, why did each of these mystics have such different responses to the same experience. Why did Jesus appear as the sole son of God after his time in the desert while the Buddha, Mohammed, Theresa Avilla, and so many others had different responses? He claimed they were simply interpreting the experience in light of the culture they were living in. His reply made me think of a joke I heard early into my own spiritual path. An acquaintance joked that if Jesus had lived in India instead of Palestine and claimed that he was the son of God, others would have replied, “Yes. Good job figuring it out. We are all the sons and daughters of God.” But instead, in Palestine, they built a religion around him.
At the end of the conversation I was not totally convinced Hans was right. But his argument was attractive. It also seemed to me that the old debate of what is inherent in humans (nature) and what was cultural (nurture) was at its core. I personally lean heavily in the direction of culture, our surroundings, as the primary influencer on who we are. I can’t imagine John Dee and Edward Kelly living in China and scrying the Aythers in Chinese talking to Bodhisattvas instead of Angels. The kinds of questions they were asking and experiences they were having come straight out of Christian apocalypticism. That said, Hans is not the first to say there is a perennial, universal higher reality.
Of course there is no final answer in the debate. To say it is only biological is to be too reductionist like the scientists in the recent report on the experience of astral travel.3 But to say it is all cultural is to again render the experience as impersonal and already predetermined by cultural forces. Both of these, too, ignore possible realities that are transcendent. Is there one universal higher truth? Are there multiple higher state of being or realities? What are the relationships between these higher states of being and our biology or culture? When I have encountered astral beings through ritual practice they have always spoken English. Is that only because I can speak English? If I spoke Chinese, would the astral entities know Chinese? It may sound like a funny question but it occurred to me watching the movie City of Angels with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan. While Cage is an angel he can speak any language with any person. But when he becomes human to be with Ryan’s character, he can only speak English. Is it the speaker to the entity that determines the language of the conversation? Similarly, is it the culture that we live in that determines the interpretation of the divine encounter?
A lot of things are taken for granted in magical practice, and a lot of assumptions are made. The conversation with Hans made me aware of some of the expectations we carry — including a few of my own. I find the questions interesting but also troubling. Should spiritual practitioners interrogate these assumptions?
Image credit: Kennington Fox.
- See Crowley’s essay “The Dangers of Mysticism.” [↩]
- He did not know he was referencing a metaphor first articulated in America by Vivekananda nor did he care . [↩]
- The fMRI study of astral projection can be found here. [↩]