Mysticism would seem to be an impulse from which we cannot escape. Its revival in the late nineteenth century, with its séances, fairies and research into extra-sensory perception – all of which absorbed the attentions of leading figures such as W B Yeats and Arthur Conan-Doyle – was both an attempt to bring scientific rigour to the mystical, but also a reaction to rational positivism and what was perceived as the mechanistic, impersonal nature of the industrial age. In factories, people become machines, which felt like a reduction, a step away from humans as connected with their environment, a step away from the “natural”. The same impulse is evident in the revival of Wiccan beliefs, brought to wide audiences by Gerald Gardner with his extraordinary descriptions of Wiccans gathering in the New Forest to fend off Nazi invasion. It would seem evident that, to many people, scientific empiricism and materialism are simply not enough. Might we even suggest that it was more that just snarky japery that prompted nearly 400,000 people to call themselves “Jedi” in the 2001 census? Maybe not, but we’d be brave to pretend that the call of mysticism is not present in the 21st century.
I would suggest there is an irony in this urge. I would argue that it is increasing scientific knowledge that is the well-spring of these revived mystic impulses. Scientific discovery has massively enlarged the universe; from Aristotle’s fixed crystal sphere pockmarked with stars, with the sun and planets revolving around the Earth, we now look up and instead see endlessly broiling, twisting forces that have led to a massively old, massively huge universe. When we look up, we are in fact looking back billions of years, as well as out billions of miles. This monstrously shifted sense of scale has made our traditional value frameworks – religions and such like – feel very paltry and pettifogging. To me, religious explanations and doctrines feel so very, very human sized, so very obviously concocted by people to explain and rationalise small scale human interactions, and not a fourteen billion year old universe accelerating apart at relativistic speeds. With our eyes opened by this wider universe, this literally cosmic perspective, the space for mysticism to reappear is created.
Our sense of what we do with mysticism is also worth exploring. As it manifests, mysticism requires the belief that the extraordinary becomes real. Historically, this was translated through religiosity. Thus St Teresa’s racily erotic testimony is both manifested and understood (both to herself and others) as an expression of her Catholicism. She was not alone; other examples are Hildegard von Bingen and our own Margery Kempe, a fourteenth century Norfolk noblewoman who had visions of her marriage to Christ. It is noticeable that the stories of all these people share, to a greater or lesser extent, the sense that their personal testimony of visions and direct encounters with the divine were regarded with (at best) uncertainty by traditional (male) power structures. The Sufi tradition in Islam has faced similar challenges. Interestingly, scepticism about mysticism remains, except that the framework in which mysticism is understood or mediated has changed. Instead of being seen as a manifestation of religious belief, the tendency now is to frame what might be called mystic experiences as related to poor mental health. Thus the mystic experience of speaking directly with angels or, in Margery Kempe’s testimony, Jesus himself, would probably now prompt a medical response, if there was a belief – on the part of a medical professional, i.e. a new form of power hierarchy, as opposed to a priest – that the expression of such beliefs was likely to lead to harm to others or the individual. It is no coincidence that counter-terrorism specialists work (ominously) closely with mental health professionals to identify and work with individuals whose mystic experiences – my phrase, not theirs – may prompt a desire to take action in an ostensibly religious cause. Though I wouldn’t claim any expertise, there’s also a link here to R D Laing’s belief that what the rest of us might call “delusions”, that is, mere symptoms of unmanaged schizophrenia, are in fact true manifestations of an individual’s lived experience, and have to be engaged with as such. As any hard-edged existentialist will tell you, if reality is merely that which we observe, then a mystical experience has as much legitimacy as, let us say, the data from of the ALMA observatory in the Atacama Desert in Peru, for example. This is, of course, nonsense; a mystical experience, regardless of its intensity, has no predictive value, unlike a well-designed scientific experiment. However, this doesn’t mean that R D Laing’s conclusion – that therapy should address the lived experience of the patient rather than just dismiss it as a symptom – has no value. As the Prevent counsellors working with troubled young people idealising violent extremism will tell you, it is through direct engagement with their beliefs, perceptions and spirituality that change can come about.
Finally, mysticism has a physicality that’s worth exploring. If the mystical is the unearthly becoming real to us, then it is possible to suggest that our own physicality is part of the mystical experience. From this, one can argue that we can each engineer the circumstances in which the mystical is more likely to happen to us. This might connect with Buddhist practices, and as Margery Kempe’s life of pilgrimage and witness undeniably showed, when the Catholic told repeatedly told countless women that their role was to be a “bride of Christ” then eventually someone is going to take you at your word and believe that this is literally the case. The repetition of this ideology must have played a part in its development in Kempe’s mind. Similarly, as Clay pointed out a few episodes ago, if you want to have a mystical experience, just try going without sleep for a few days; classic symptoms include speaking with people no one else can see. The possibility that the likelihood of mystical experiences can be enhanced through our personal physicality prompts the idea that we can, and should, alter our reality through imbibing mind-altering chemicals. Again, heavyweight existentialism comes into play; if reality is nothing more than our observations, if we change our perceptions, that is, our ability to observe, then reality changes too. The belief that altering one’s brain chemistry is desirable – from the lighthearted fetishisation of coffee in the Havana Cafe podcasts, to the grim excesses of a High Street on a Saturday night – is everywhere. I would even be so bold as to suggest that the Islamic practice of fasting during Ramadan aims to link the physical experience to the spiritual. The ubiquity of the desire to change our physicality in pursuit of changed our perceptions would suggest that the impulse we see in mystics – the desire to bring an alternate reality to physical manifestation – is alive and well.