Photo: Susannah Stubbs, Associate Editor, Open Horizons
Eight Kinds of Mysticism
Most of us are mystics. We may be water mystics or friendship mystics or music mystics or basketball mystics. Or all of the above plus more.
We may or may not have particular mystical experiences, but we have mystical sensibilities. These are feelings and intuitions we have, beyond words, of something real and important.
In these feelings we experience awe and wonder. We know that there is more to the life than meets the clinical eye or the bifurcating intellect. As these feeling unfold there is a dropping away of the private ego and awakening into something deeper and wider. We no longer feel trapped by boundaries of our own making.
Process Philosophy offers a way of interpreting and appreciating eight mystical sensibilities. We might call them eight kinds of mysticism. Here they are:
1. Mysticism of Inter-Connectedness.
This is an intuitive sense that everything is connected to everything else in a vast web of causal dependence. It can also involves a feeling that each particular reality in the universe -- each star, each planet, each blade of grass, each person - is a place where the whole of the universe is gathered into unity.
Mysticism of inter-connectedness takes Whitehead's idea of relativity and makes it a feeling, not just an idea. Whitehead's idea of relativity is that everything is present in and dependent on everything else. This kind of mysticism feels the truth of this mutual presence and calls it the universe.
2. Mysticism of Local Community.
This is a localized verson of the mysticism of interconnectedness. It is a feeling of at-oneness or solidarity with a family or community of people. It can take the form nationalism, allegiance to a sports team, or a heightened moment of ecstasy at a rock concert. It can also take the form of a sense of belonging to a local place: a bioregion, for example,
3. Mysticism of Creative Energy.
This is a feeling that there is an energy - a bottomless creative stuff, albeit active rather than passive -- of which all events and actualities are particularized manifestations. It can be combined with a sense that all things emerge out of the abyss in their moment of occurence and return into it when their subjective immediacy passes away. The creative abyss is an abyss because it has no special form or shape, and it is endless. It is, in Whitehead's words, a creative advance into novelty. And it is creative because it is in fact a creative advance into novelty. The creative abyss is not a creator and it does not have preferences. Some people call it the Godhead; Whitehead calls it Creativity.
4. Mysticism of Divine Archetypes (the realm of timeless potentiality)
This is an intuitive sense of a realm of pure potentiality -- a realm of timeless potentials -- which are seen in the patterns which unfold in the universe but which also transcend those patterns. The realm of pure potentiality is what Whitehead calls the primordial nature of God. It is similar to Plato's realm of the Forms, except that, for Whitehead, it is not more real than the actual world and it is not normative. Nevertheless it is real, and it is that realm of existence which mathematicians explore in higher mathematics and which artists explore when they entertain potentialities for shape and color, thought and feeling, in their imagination. It is the mind of God.
5. Mysticism of Divine Love.
This is an intuitive sense that the unfolding universe, and each entity within the universe, is embraced by a love that transcends all finite realities and that cares for each and every being on its own terms and for its own sake. This universal yet particularized love is what Whitehead calls the consequent nature of God.
Mysticism of divine love can be generalized and graciously diffused, as it is more many of us or much more particularized and erotic, as seen in the poetry of Rumi or the ecstatic visions of Teresa of Avila.
And it can have two forms: (1) a sense of being cared for and loved just as you are and (2) a sense of being guided in a non-coercive way toward what is good and true and beautiful. Both of these forms are expressions of what Christians and others call grace.
6. Mysticism of the Collective Unconscious.
This is a sense that each moment of experience somehow includes the entire history of the universe within its being, combined with a recognition that conscious experience is but the tip of an experiential iceberg. It involves a recognition that we human beings carry within us memories of the personal and collective past which are the very substance of our lives, and which contain within them energies and archetypes which can nourish and enliven our souls, if only we awaken to them. Those among us who partake of this mysticism are often quite sensitive to dreams and to worlds of the imagination.
7. Mysticism of Shamanic Journeying.
Similar to mysticism of the collective unconscious, this kind of mysticism involves a sense of journeying into invisible realms of existence, inhabited by archetypes and energies and intelligences which have power in their own right. But in the case the powers are not memories from the past actual world, but rather living personages who inhabit realms of their own.
In a Whiteheadian context these realms are regions within the extensive continuum: a continuum which includes an infinite number of regions, including those within three dimensional space but also regions far beyond three-dimensionality, which can be inhabited by others kinds of actual entities. Mysticisms of shamanic awareness involve immersion in the non-three dimensional worlds and receiving communications from the entities that inhabit them.
It should be noted that the "entities" which inhabit this regions may or may not be beneficent. They may contain angels but also demons. While the mindset of western modernity neglects or dismisses these dimensions, Whitehead's notion of an extensive continuum opens up the possibility that entities exist within them; and it also opens up the possibility that, after death, a soul journeys into and through the other regions. In this sense the Whiteheadian perspective is post-modern rather than modern.
8. Mysticism of Ordinary Life
This is a feeling that there is something absolute, and irreducibly beautiful, about ordinary life itself: this face, this cup of coffee, this moment. It does not matter that the moment passes away. The beauty is in the moment, and it would not be so precious if if did not pass away. These kinds of mysticism find their home in the sacrament of the present moment.
There are many kinds of mysticism of ordinary life, and they extend a principle in institutional religions which is sometimes neglected. This is the principle that this very world, rightly understood and rightly related to, is the very place of the sacred. Many Jews and Christians understand a mysticism of ordinary life as an extension of the principle of incarnation. God is found in flesh, and in moments, and in shared suffering, and in laughter.
Taking Stock of Mysticism
All of these forms of mysticism reveal something about reality, and all can be valuable in certain contexts.
Indeed, even though all are not about God, all can be forms of experience into which God lures human beings, and all can add to divine glory. When they take the form of momentary revelatory experience, they have a beauty of their own.
Make no mistake. Mysticism can be evil, too. If a concern for mystical sensibilities leads people to foreclose honest questioning, including questions about mysticism itself, it becomes evil. And some kinds of mysticism can truly lapse into the demonic: as occurs when forms of localized mysticism lead to violence and indifference to others, or when sensitivity to the creative energy of which all things are expressions becomes an excuse not to care about the vulnerable.
This is one reason by mysticism of divine love is so important. It becomes an antidote to potential liabilities of the other. Nevertheless, preoccupations with divine love are short-sighted if they lack sensitivity to inter-connectedness and the beauty of the earth. In the house of mysticism there are many mansions and we need them all.
But the heart of the matter lies in how flashes of insight, such as are contained in the moments of healthy mysticism, become abiding light in daily life. If they do not become woven into daily life, their wisdom gets lost in the forgetfulness of ordinary life and they lose their potency.
This transformation of insight into the fabric of daily life is best facilitated by cpmmunity, ritual, and acts of lovingkindness. Institutionalized forms of religion can be important contexts in which one or some combinations of the mysticisms noted above find their ground.
Interwoven Mystical Sensibilities
Of course these forms of mystical experience are often woven together, albeit with some in the background and some in the foreground of a person's consciousness.
Nevertheless, they can also be separated. People can undertake shamanic journeys without having a sense of divine love; they can have a sense of divine love without realizing the inter-connectedness of all things; they can enjoy a mysticism of local community but lack compassion for the wider world.
Mystical sensibilities can unfold consciously or unconsciously in a person's life. Some of them -- mysticism of inter-being and mysticism of ordinary life -- can be enriched and evoked by science as well as religion. What is needed in the modern world is an openness to mystical sensibilities with help from science.
Perhaps this is where the philosophy of Whitehead is so helpful. He offers a way of recognizing the many facets of reality: the inter-connectedness of all things, the value of felt relationships, the ultimacy of creativity, the mind and love of the divine; the primacy of the present moment; the absoluteness of the particular. And he recognizes that these various realities can be known and felt directly, with help from words but in wordless ways, too.
Mysticism is sensitive to the wordless ways. Let there be more mysticism in our world, and let it serve the needs of love.
Postscript: A Note on Atemporality
Some people associate mysticism with God alone. I do not. My views come from 39 years of teaching the world's religions to college undergraduates and coming to see that the various religions partake of different kinds of mysticism: potentially complementary not contradidory.
From what I've said above, I hope it's clear that I think God can be the "datum" of some kinds of mysticism but not others. The word 'datum' ought not suggest an isolated region in space or a particularized object of visual experience, but rather the broader sense of 'something felt.' These other data -- these other somethings that can be felt -- can be ultimate in their respective ways. (See "Beyond the idea of a single 'Ultimate' Named God.") People can have mystical experiences or mystical sensibilities around the interconnectedness of all things, the collective unconscioius, or the ultimacy of the present moment. These are not "God" but they are real and in their own ways transcendent.
Still, there are indeed forms of God-centered mysticism. Truth be told there are many kinds of God mysticism: apophatics and kataphatic. Many who feel awakened to such mysticism, either apophatically or kataphatically, awaken to a side of God which is non-temporal. They feel, they sense, they know, a timeless side of God.
One of them, for example, is Chris Eyre, the editor-in-chief of Energion Publications. He feels this sense of God's timelessness and yet, at the same time, recognizes that God is in process, because the future is unknown, even by God. He is influenced by the view that God is not -- and cannot be -- a controlling God. See his blog: improvising on the theme of atemporality.
From my point of view, he feels God as a loving presence who is responsive to the world in a temporal way: not hearing prayers until they are uttered, not knowing human decisions until they are made, not suffering the pain of creatures until the creatures feel the pain. But he also knows there is a side of God which is, in some very important way, beyond the flux and flow of the world and, for that matter, the universe. He writes:
I need to find some way of squaring the mystical revelation of atemporality with an inability to see the future (perhaps because the future does not yet exist to be seen), and at the point of writing, I don’t have that. But it seems to me that there has to be some way of doing it...
I hope that what I've said above offers that 'way of doing it.' I suggest that Chris' mystical sensibility -- and those of many, many others like him around the world -- do indeed experience a side of God which is atemporal, namely the realm of pure potentiality which is God's mind (but not God's complete life). Whitehead calls it the primordial nature of God. It is indeed a timeless datum of mystical experience, even as the experience of it comes and goes, and is temporal.
When it comes to thinking about the God who loves the world and is not in complete control, let there be atemporarity, too. in the house of mysticism there are many rooms, all of them compatible with the sense, important to Chris Eyre and many others, that God is self-giving and world-receiving in a loving way: kenotically loving.