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The Mystical Experience: A Question of What's Beyond

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Several months ago, as I was riding on the New York City subway, I glanced up at the usual band of advertising that ran over the windows and noticed something unusual: a small square poster that contained the logo of the New York Public Library, along with the following quote: "If we had keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat, and we should die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence." From Middlemarch, by George Eliot.

I had not read Middlemarch (or any George Eliot, for that matter) and didn't know the context, but I was immediately drawn in to this beautiful sentence, with its description of the dulled state in which most of us live and the yearning to peel back this dullness in order to experience the powerful presence of life itself. This quote struck me because I, like countless others, had briefly and partially heard this "roar", had seen the place on the "other side of silence", and had felt a kind of dying. These encounters showed me that there is a purposeful presence that underlies all creation, and that there is a oneness to everything. The experience of this presence is often called "mysticism," and Eliot's sentence is an astonishing evocation of the mystic's journey.

All mystics share a similar understanding; that there is a presence, which goes by many names (and that I will refer to as God), that creates and animates everything, from the squirrel's heartbeat to the spinning of galaxies, and that we can, through our own consciousness, connect to this presence, which is a deeper and truer reality than the one that most of us experience in our everyday lives. And through this encounter we are transformed.

When exploring mysticism, there are four essential questions that naturally arise:
1. How can one access this deeper reality?
2. What does this have to do with religion?
3. Is this "deeper reality" real, or just a biochemical reaction or delusional state?
4. Why should one care about accessing this deeper reality?

These are difficult questions to answer accurately (and briefly), because the mystical experience, like an aesthetic response to a painting or the pleasures of sexual union, transcends and resists words. So mystics, like poets, always talk in metaphor and allusion. For help in these answers, then, I will turn to quotes from a diverse, and perhaps unexpected, group of mystics:

1. How can one access this deeper reality?
Mystics, like Eliot, know that our usual experience of reality is dulled, incomplete or illusory. As Eliot notes, though, this dullness is actually a protection that keeps us from being overwhelmed by the power of the true nature of things. Mystics, however, yearn to lift this dullness, and to experience the force of life as directly as possible. In order to experience this we must, as Eliot writes, penetrate to the "other side of silence". In other words, we must first quiet the constant mental chatter that dulls and distracts us, and once the mind is quieted and there is inner silence we can begin to perceive the "roar" that lies beneath. This is the meditative practice, which is the mystic's doorway to experience God's presence. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the early 20th century Supreme Court Justice, described this dynamic, in terms very similar to Eliot's, with his yearning to transcend normal perception and arrive at a truer, more powerful reality: "I wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity."

2. What does this have to do with religion?
We can -- and much too often do -- argue about the different teachings of various religions and their many attempts to describe the nature of God. But the true purpose of all religions is to help facilitative a connection to this deeper reality, and the mystical experience is the original spark that informs religions. Because religion often gets hijacked by those who seek power or control, we may loose sight of this mechanism, but, as Henri Bergson, the French Philosopher who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921, wrote: "Religion is to mysticism what popularization is to science."

The mystical experience, however, is by no means limited to the realm of religion and does not require the life of a pious ascetic. And one certainly does not need religion or a proscribed belief structure in order to experience this presence. Mahatma Gandhi affirmed this with his simple aphorism, "God has no religion."

3. Is this "deeper reality" real, or just a biochemical reaction or delusional state?
The mystical experience is, I assume, a measurable biochemical phenomenon. This does not diminish or negate it, though, because everything that we experience, from the feeling of love to the perception of the apple in front of us, is some form of biochemical reaction in our bodies. That's how we operate. And just as we can explore the tangible qualities of the apple, we can also explore the intangible qualities of love -- and of the mystical experience. Mystics know, however, that they have glimpsed only a small part of the whole, because as human beings we are limited by our five senses, our level of development, and our cognitive abilities. But their descriptions are remarkably consistent across cultures, times and places, and give us a sense of the qualities of this deeper reality, with the recognition of an omnipresent consciousness that is the actual "material" of all existence. The 17th Century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza saw this clearly, and in his treatise "The Ethics" wrote, "Besides God no substance can be granted or conceived."

Scientists who have peered deeply in to the essential nature of reality have also seen this presence. Max Planck, the founder of Quantum Physics, famously observed, "All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force ... We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind."

4. Why should one care about accessing this deeper reality?
Plato addressed this question more than 2,300 years ago in his famous "Allegory of the Cave." In this allegory, Plato imagines a cave in which people are bound motionless in front of a wall, staring at shadows of cut-out images which, lit from a fire and natural light behind them, slowly move across the wall. These people come to believe that these shadows of shadows are all that there is to reality, and debate endlessly about the nature of these fleeting two dimensional images. One man, though, is freed from his chains and stumbles to the light at the mouth of the cave. As he slowly adjusts to the brightness he is able to see the sun and feels its warmth. Plato writes, "He would understand that the Sun is the source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing."

For the first time in his life this man experiences freedom, as he sees that he had been living in a cold dark cave, separated from his fellow prisoners and ignorant of his true nature and reality. This is an experience of God's presence, in which the sense of separation and the desires of the ego are clearly seen as foolish and dangerous illusions that keep us bound and ignorant. The impulse to seek this presence is to know ourselves, each other and our world as clearly as possible in order to live at the highest level.

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