Language — A Mystical Voyage to Reality and Back
The human condition is extremely confusing. On the one hand, it is quite astonishing that we are able to know ourselves, as well as the cosmos which we inhabit. We can, for example, build a wooden raft and learn to sail to a distant land, all the while contemplating our fate and life’s meaning. But on the other hand, with each discovery, with every increment in consciousness, we become all the more painfully aware of that which we do not know, and perhaps cannot know; we may realize that the reality we experience is but a tiny fraction of its totality, and that our best attempts at explanations leave us speechless.
It is not surprising, therefore, that all around the world we find human attempts to resolve this confusion; to meet reality with our understanding of it, and to find ways of achieving perfect union with the cosmos. People who have endeavored to do this, and even claimed to have succeeded, call the culmination of this search the ‘mystical experience’. Mystics are those who presumably transcend comparisons. They are said to arrive at a place where there is no more fear, pain, guilt and anxiety, all the while being in a state of indescribable equanimity and wholeness. Some mystics even see it as a union of ‘I’ with reality itself.
This claim may sound a bit strange, and indeed, many shun the idea entirely. They see mysticism as an ancient relic of irrational, religious thinking, which at best offers people false hopes, and at worst diverts them from society’s accepted norms. But yet, it seems that more than ever, our world is saturated with mystical content. Teachers, counselors, lectures, books, workshops, conferences, events and programs; all calling me and you and the thousands of other spiritual seekers to ‘experience reality at its fullest’, ‘to fulfill themselves’, ‘to know the ultimate truth of existence’, and other such alluring promises. So what is mysticism?
The term ‘mysticism’ derives from the Greek word Μυω (Myo) which means ‘to hide or conceal’. In the Hellenistic world, the ‘mystical’ was attributed only to secret religious ceremonies, only later acquiring the sense of ‘mystical theology’ which was intended towards direct experience of the sublime. Typically, mystics see mystical experience as part of a larger mission aimed at human transformation, not an end in itself. Thus, Mysticism in general can be thought of as a collection of distinct practices, texts, institutions, traditions and experiences aimed at human connection with the sublime.
In broad terms, the mystical experience is an experience that affords familiarity with realities or situations that cannot be experienced through normal sensory perception or standard introspection. It is further believed that this experience is that of unity, which means the blurring, dissolving or eliminating of separateness. Examples include experiencing nature as ‘one’, the union with God (as in Christian mysticism), the Hindu experience that Atman is Brahman (that the self or soul are the same as the eternal and the absolute) and more.
But the mystical experience is not to be found strictly in religion and philosophy, but also in art, literature, science, sports, and even in everyday life. This experience can come and go almost instantly, and in the West there has been a tendency to associate its appearance with spontaneity; but over the generations there were also those who tried to obtain it systematically, thus enabling them to talk about it with creative ingenuity.
This creativity is mostly expressed in weaving elements from the mystics’ personal experience into artistic and educational statement about reality. Secluding himself in the forest, the mystic would say that ‘nature is one’; meditating in a monastery, she would call realty ‘empty’; teaching about compassion, he would state that ‘god is love’. A statement which in turn, feeds back into our daily experience and conversation, thus constituting a form of circular creation. As one scholar of mysticism has stated, ‘the best suited person to create the world is the scientist or the artist, but the scientist himself is a master artist, the artist is a mystic and the mystic is a scientist and an artist. Since all are creators, the artists, the scientist and the mystic are basically similar. Their similarity is the smile of the Buddha’.
Some of us had probably ‘tasted’ that smile at one time or another, even if we didn’t know how to articulate it (and maybe precisely for this reason). Perhaps it was during a quiet trip in nature, when suddenly we discovered that there was no ‘one’ looking at the view; maybe it was during a shamanic ceremony full of dancing and peculiar substances, when the sense of separation between the ‘outside’ reality and the inner self dissolved; perhaps it happened while praying or in a near death experience; And maybe it occurred just like that, in the midst of everyday activities such as singing, dancing, playing or running, when suddenly we noticed we have lost ourselves. In this moment, we were everything, and everything happened through us. The choice was simple, and creativity was infinite. We were in a space that athletes and musicians call the ‘Zone’, and psychologists describe as a state of ‘flow’; When the ‘I’ falls away, apart from the action, and still everything was done — at high concentration, total involvement and supreme pleasure, a feeling that this is the ultimate possible experience.
For those who had a peek at this feeling, two important questions usually arise: how can one achieve this longed for experience, this unity with ultimate reality? And more pressingly, why is it that most people, most of the time, do not experience this unity except for a few random glimpses? In other words, why are we not in the ‘zone’ or feel a sense of ‘flow’ constantly, even while drinking tea with a friend or while having an argument with a spouse? And how should we achieve this free and happy state?
Ironically, it is trying to achieve this experience that prevents one from getting it. Just as the attempt to ‘behave naturally’ encourages neuroticism, and repressing laughter only makes it burst out, even so attempting to explain, describe and fix the unified flow of experience interrupts and undermines it. The mere act of talking about the mystical hides and conceals it.
But the mystical experience isn’t a supernatural event standing ‘outside the world’. It is not somewhere beyond reality, only accessible to those who have given up on society’s nonsense, along with everything else. Rather, it is our basic experiential state of being, preceding our attempts to grasp it in words or in action. When the heart beats and the ear listens, without any active effort on our part; when we are swept by music, without knowing how to dance; when the moon rises and thought appears, none happen because of us. “The wild geese do not intend to cast their reﬂections. The water has no mind to receive their image”, says the Zen proverb. It is just the flow of reality, as experienced directly.
This claim, that reality itself precedes our description of it, is found in many traditions. The opening line of the ‘Dao Te Ching’, for example, states that “The Dao that can be expressed is not the eternal Dao.” This suspicion of words is deeply rooted in China’s Lao Tzu and Zhuang Tzu, as well as the in the Indian Upanishads and in the writing of Plato. In all these traditions reality itself is defined as the ‘unspeakable’, the thing that cannot be described. This is the Ineffability claim — which states that mystical experience, the union with reality, simply cannot be put into words.
But does it mean that in order to experience the mystical we have to abandon language completely? Is that even possible? On the one hand, there are monks who vowed to remain silent, nomads who left society and babies whose lives are in seamless continuity. But on the other hand, even the statement that ‘reality itself cannot be fully described in language’ is still a statement. And indeed, the thinkers who argued so said a lot more on the subject. In doing that, they were not necessarily contradicting themselves, but rather expressing the borders of language, thus giving us a sense of the thing defined by them.
In this regard, language is not just a hindrance, but also an essential part of our way ‘back’ to reality; To the same longed for unified experience, which is not somewhere ‘above and beyond’, but rather right here in front of us. For no matter how strongly a spiritual tradition disparages our attachment to the vanities of language, this disparagement is literally expressed in books, tutorials, guidelines, paradoxes, prayers and countless other linguistic utterances, all designed to cope with countless verbal diversions.
These utterances, of course, involve special mechanisms for self-destruction. This, for example, is how Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described the ‘self-destructive’ tendency of his philosophy: “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them… He must so to speak throw away the ladder”. Similarly, albeit more enigmatically, Lao Tzu declares: “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.” And thus, in one of the most famous stories in the Buddhist canon, the Buddha tells us the Raft Parable:
“Suppose”, the Buddha says, “a man is traveling along a path and arrives to a great expanse of water. As he stands on the shore, he realizes there were dangers and discomforts all about. But the other shore appears safe and inviting. The man looks for a boat or a bridge and found neither. But with great effort he gathers grass, twigs and branches and ties them all together to make a simple raft. Relying on the raft to keep himself afloat, the man paddles with his hands and feet and reaches the safety of the other shore. Having crossed and arrived at the other shore, he thinks: ‘This raft, indeed, has been very helpful to me. Carried by it, laboring with hands and feet, I got safely across to the other shore. Should I not put it on my shoulders, and go where I like?
Of course not, says the Buddha, as he explains how his parable is similar to the way his teaching should be treated — his words serving the purpose of crossing, but not possessing. The Buddha’s method is not an official doctrine, one that should be protected and preserved. Such a situation will only cause us to identify again with certain words and positions, to try ‘capturing’ the flow of life, eventually leading us to long-term suffering. The Buddha’s teaching should be understood only as a path to liberation, as means leading to happiness and joy. All metaphysical approaches which we unnecessarily cling to lead to confusion, says the Buddha, and so he asks us to let them aside, and to concentrate only on our immediate experience, that which stands beyond our concepts of it. We need, so to speak, to just flow with the ineffable stream of our mystical life.