In mystical literature such self-contradictory phrases as ‘dazzling obscurity,’ ‘whispering silence,’ ‘teeming desert,’ are continually met with. They prove that not conceptual-speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth.

—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

William James’s book on religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is of mixed quality. Penetrating insights are buried in mountains of redundant quotations, and a mass of anecdotal evidence is substituted for a coherent system. After putting it down, the only chapter that made a deep impression on me was his chapter on mysticism.

Before that, I had no notion of mysticism as distinct from organized religion; and yet it is quite discrete. Instead of focusing on external rituals, communally observed, the mystic focuses on his own private experiences; and instead of attempting to translate religious experiences into a mythology or a dogma, the mystic more often reverts to poetry or song to convey the intensity of his private rapture. Mysticism is naturally antipathetic, or at the very least indifferent, to organized religion. A mystic needs no clergyman to access the divine. No intermediary clerics, priests, or theologians are necessary to translate the voice of God into profane speech.

One especially striking feature of mysticism is its ubiquity. While dogmas, creeds, rituals, and mythologies vary greatly, the basic notions and motifs of mysticism are encountered across the world. I have encountered Islamic mysticism in Al-Ghazali, Catholic mysticism in St. Teresa, Hindu mysticism in the Upanishads, and Neoplatonist mysticism in Plotinus. The Tao Te Ching of ancient China is full of the self-contradictory phrases described by William James, such as the famous opening: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao. The name that can be named is not the Constant Name.”

The common theme running through these works is that the mystic, through intense focus, can look past the world as we know it and gaze upon a higher reality, a divine vision normally invisible to earthly eyes. Right now I am reading a short book by the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, in which he describes a method for attaining exactly this. Once you experience this higher reality, religious doubts become irrelevant; your religion becomes a matter of experience and not of faith.

So if mystics have experienced the divine, why don’t they tell us about it? The problem is that the vision is ineffable. This is why, as William James points out, mystic poets often resort to contradictory language as a way of evoking this mysterious essence. The mythologist Joseph Campbell says almost exactly the same thing: “The person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don’t render the experience, they suggest it.” St. Teresa of Ávila, for example, had to resort to metaphor after metaphor in her manual on mysticism in order to communicate the experience.

In capturing the mystical experience, visual art would have the same problem as does language, since the artist would be attempting to picture the invisible. Music has the advantage of being neither symbolic nor representative. As sound, it is purely sensuous, perhaps a direct expression of emotion. At the very least sound does not tempt its hearers into confusing the symbol for the symbolized, as language and painting might, and so it can be more safely used to transmit ineffable experiences. Music doesn’t communicate emotions, it evokes them in its audience; it doesn’t represent feelings, it re-creates them in its hearers.

The mystical potential of music was memorably illustrated for me in the autobiography of Bryan Magee. A logical, educated man, and one constitutionally antipathetic to religion, Magee nonetheless describes being so transported by music that he felt he was experiencing another plane of reality, one where there is neither time nor space. This experience was so strong that he felt sure it provided him with some clue about the ultimate nature of reality. But he was frustrated by his inability to translate this feeling into a logical argument. Once again, the mystic insight eludes symbolic expression.

Philosophically, the interesting question is this: to what extent can these intense visions can be trusted? It is beyond doubt that mystics can have ecstatic experiences; the question is what causes them. The sensation of divinity and rapture is so intense that the mystic usually cannot bring himself to doubt its veracity. But this subjective feeling of certainty is a poor guide, to say the least, of what can be safely trusted. This is not just a scientific principle; the Catholic Church was well aware of the unreliability of private visions. This is why Saint Teresa’s book is full of strategies for determining whether your vision is from Satan or God, and careful instructions about how to proceed within the Catholic hierarchy once you have a vision.

Occam’s razor would seem to demand that a naturalistic explanation be preferred for mystic visions. The simplest explanation, and the explanation that most easily harmonizes with our current scientific understanding, is that these ecstatic experiences can be traced to something happening in the brain. Nevertheless, I find it difficult not to sympathize with mystics. If I had an experience that was more intense than anything I’ve seen or heard in my waking live, I think that I would also be unwilling to doubt what I saw.

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