On the Mystical Experience of the Sacred
Part of my series “A Satanist Reads the Bible,” in which I explore the Bible, Christianity, and other religions and their sacred texts through the lens of Satanism in order to reinvent religion for myself.
Skeptics of all stripes will rightly scoff at the word “sacred.” It has often been used over the course of history as a hollow justification for the rationally unjustifiable. But taken in its proper context, its reality and relevance to our lives is unavoidable. Who would look at the world of earthly life, all descended from a single common ancestor and manifesting the same process of Being, and say that they do not see themselves reflected in a million billion facets, connected with forms of such unstatable multitude and breadth as would put any poet’s words to finite insufficiency? And who would look up at the night sky and not see themselves isolated and alone, perhaps themselves manifesting an immeasurable complexity, but yet alone in the face of so many stars and worlds spread across infinite realms?
This is the experience of any who would look out unto the world and see it for what it is with themselves as part of it, and this is all that I mean by “sacred” or “divine:” That there is an order to which we are contingent and infinities in which we are immersed; and that our experiences thereof, which I and James call mystical experience, are by no means unlike the sense-data that comes in our noses or our ears or our eyes or skin, or by our senses of position, of location, of equilibrium, or by any other means by which we acquire knowledge or verify truth.
Even the most rigorous skeptics speak of this. Carl Sagan, who nominally denounced mysticism, said:
The Cosmos is all that is, or over was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the Cosmos stir us. There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.
1980, Cosmos, “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean”
Which sounds to me like something that Rumi would write, or Saint Teresa of Avila, if they were speaking from a scientist viewpoint rather than a religious one: Sagan speaks of the Cosmos much as Rumi and Saint Teresa speak of God. And Sam Harris, who eschews religiosity at every turn, nevertheless openly embraces mysticism:
Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial — at once full of hope and full of fear — of the vastitude of human ignorance.
2004, The End of Faith
Harris — having had his own mystical experiences under the influence of drugs and intense contemplative practice, much as I have — understands the mystical, but simultaneously seems strangely unable to see the degree to which religion, though not without substantial problems, is a necessary and desirable result of mysticism. If we are to deny religion, properly conceived, a place in the world, we may as well deny ourselves poetry and music and every artifact or expression of culture that we have ever produced. Wittgenstein said that we are to remain mute regarding mystical experience because we cannot speak of it (1921, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), and he is correct in part: ultimately, we can say nothing of these experiences, no more than we can say of anything at all, no more than we can convey exactly how we experience the color red. But this does not negate the possibility for expression of these experiences. We are capable of making direct connections between our experience of the world and potential expressions thereof. We understand intuitively that two symbols may overlap significantly in terms of their fields of reference; this is the very nature of understanding, to have made connections between the sign or experience and the metaphors and related signs by which we signify meaning.
Along with Harris, I condemn any ideology which does not acknowledge what he calls “the vastitude of human ignorance.” I think that such a vastitude may be broader than either of us suspect, but I will only ever condemn those who say they are certain except to such a degree as they are certain of their own pure experience. I am not certain of the age of the universe because I am not intimate to the experience thereof. 13.7 billion years is both a numerical and a spiritual approximation; in what way does time have meaning for me if I’m not there to experience it? In a sort of vague, relative way, certainly, to the amount of time that passes by me in a day or a year or at least most of my lifetime, but I cannot say 13.7 billion years and mean 13.7 billion years in the same way that I mean that I am the age that I am or that I have been writing this essay for the last three hours. If I am expressing what I experience of the time that passed before I was born, as opposed to what I know of it factually, “6000 years” is just as meaningful as “13.7 billion years.”
And so religion is an expression of our mystical experiences. Religions are true insofar as they correspond to the world, and as the world constrains our understanding of it by its imposition of the correlation between understanding and survival, we cannot say that there is not truth to them, in the same way that we might say that there is truth in Hamlet or the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There is truth to religious beliefs insofar as they have survived to this point, among so many other beliefs and belief systems, because they are not incoherent and because they correlate to at least some degree to our other beliefs, which have also survived the constraints of the world. When the Bible says “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,’” (Genesis 1:14, NRSV), I understand what is meant by the words and their morphology and arrangement, and that correlates with other successful meanings of which I am aware, and in that way at the very least, the Bible expresses truth. I wish that it went without saying that we err when we mistake these truths for scientific, cosmological facts (the physical origin of the earth can no more be explained by religion than weddings can be explained by chemistry, no more than chemical reactions can be explained by the epic poetry of Northern Europe), but obviously there is some lingering confusion on this matter.
Experience cannot deny other experience. Sorrow cannot deny happiness nor happiness sorrow, and our mystical experiences cannot deny that, for example, the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old, because the method by which we have learned this is the same method by which we have progressed to this almost ludicrous point where the span between the first computers and the current state of technology is less than a human lifetime. So when a text says that the world is six millennia old or some other number that we now know not to be consistent with what else we know, the means of interpretation is simple: look to what the authors knew and make an educated guess. If we’re sufficiently honest in our inquiry we’re likely to be right (as much as we can be in anything), as we are in most things in which we apply our inquiry honestly, our continued survival and even apparent progress being considerable evidence to that. The ancient Hebrews lived in a time when recorded history was still in its infancy and archeology and geology were not yet formal systems of study; but still to them the world seemed ancient relative to their short lives, and this is how they expressed that feeling of ancient wonder and mystery.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James, one of history’s foremost experts on mysticism as a field of rational inquiry, describes the following four characteristics as being definitive of mystical experience, the first two being primary and necessary, and the second two being secondary and very common, though not universal:
- Ineffability: “The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.
- Noetic quality: “Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.
- Transiency: “Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day.”
- Passivity: “…when the characteristic sort of conscious once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”
In 2013 I was immersed in the study of Zen Buddhism and had undertaken my first sesshin, an intensive meditation retreat. The whole of each day was devoted to meditation, with a minimum of other activity, such as eating and walking, to support that work and prevent injury. It was both physically and mentally tortuous. In addition to the physical strain of sitting still for such extended periods, I was wracked by the most intense boredom I’ve ever experience, combined with the experience of memories, nightmares, and traumas that had arisen during the practice, including some that I had thought long forgotten.
Some of the participants would continue sitting through the night, eschewing even sleep. I attempted this on the third night, and the next day found myself in complete exhaustion and misery. It was all I could do to keep myself from falling backward off my cushion or forward onto my face; in either case, I think I would have been able to instantly fall into a deep and comfortable sleep, which at that point seemed the highest heaven.
At some point in the early afternoon, sleep overwhelmed me and I started to fall forward. I caught myself, and when I straightened my back, I was perfectly awake. Motes of dust hung suspended in a beam of sunlight that was shining in through a crack in one of the high windows. Although I remember it vividly, I have no way at all of conveying what the experience was like, as it did not exist in the context of my experience of myself as a subject experiencing the world. I think if someone had asked me my name in that moment, I would not have been able to answer. Not only would I not have remembered my name, I would not have remembered that there was even an “I” to have a name. Looking at the experience in retrospect, I have a sense that I was experiencing myself in a new and more fundamental way than that under which I typically operate.
Connecting this experience to James, I can say that the experience definitely matches the first criteria of ineffability. The state I was experiencing was pre-linguistic: I was not experiencing my experience in terms of concepts or signs, so signs cannot in any way convey what I was experiencing. And as well the second criteria of noesis: the sense remains with me still that I was experiencing the very ground of my being, the substrate upon which my identity has been constructed. As well the third, transiency: although I don’t remember coming out of the experience, I think that it lasted somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes, although its revelatory effects remain with me still. I do not think that the fourth criteria, passivity, applies to my experience. Perhaps in a sense, as I did not feel at the time that there was any self to be active in my perception, but still the word “passive” does not seem applicable. But as James said, only the first two characteristics are needed to define an experience as mystical.
So what is the relationship between mystical experience and religion? Again, we turn to James and The Varieties of Religious Experience:
Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. The words have now perhaps become mere polished surfaces for us; but lyric poetry and music are alive and significant only in proportion as they fetch these vague vistas of a life continuous with our own, beckoning and inviting, yet ever eluding our pursuit. We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility.
James correlates mystical and religious experience with that of the arts, and I myself see religions as being essentially artifacts of cultural artistry on the grandest of scales. Paintings have the subject matter of object; music the subject matter of sound. If one hundred painters painted a vase, we would not expect that all the paintings would turn out the same, but we would expect to be able to recognize the vase in the painting to various degrees. For the purpose of seeing the vase in a more objective way, we have photography (and it remains that even photography, and even looking at the vase in the world with our own eyes, frame and interpret their objects); paintings give us visions of experiences of the world. Religion does not concern itself with a single object as with paintings of a vase, but is rather a medium within a domain of objects, just as painting is a medium within the domain of space and music is a medium within the domain of time. Religion is an expansive, culturally collaborative medium; a religion is constructed not by a single artist in a single lifetime but by millions or billions across millennia. Nevertheless, as there are often overlaps in subject matter, so are there correlations between different religions and different expressions within the same religion.
One of the first thing I learned in experimenting with psychoactive drugs is that our experience of consciousness, which seems a simple and unavoidable default, is in fact only a modality of possible conscious experience. As our reality is funded by our experience, so do different modes of conscious experience reveal different aspects to reality, just as the different sciences reveal different aspects of the natural world.
Art is similarly intended to bring about an experience of consciousness in its audience. And likewise, religion, properly conceived, is not a framework of facts that we are to know about the world as we know the multiplication table or the names of chemical elements, but rather a vehicle for these kinds of mystical experiences. As poetry or music might bring us into a certain state, so might the visage of Christ on the cross, or so might the figure of Satan the Adversary in torment in hell in the engravings of Gustave Doré. As we might gather for an art exhibition or a concert, we might gather for the mass, or whatever similar institution the Satanist might wish to erect. And in each case we encounter the world, and ourselves in the world.
Originally published at asatanistreadsthebible.com on December 15, 2018.