Experience and Continuum

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Do existing methodologies encourage religious experience as a form of spiritual materialism?
Core Unit

Mike King

April 1995

Experience and Continuum

It is important to be clear as to what is meant by experience in this essay, and in particular what is meant by religious or mystical experience. Fine-grained distinctions between different types of religious experience have been proposed, for example:

1. philosophical

2. creative

3. aesthetic

4. elemental

5. psychical

6. mystical.1

These are all essentially complex internal experiences, as opposed to the simple sensory experience, say of the colour red, that cognitive scientists examine. In this essay we shall only be considering the category of mystical experience, and taking the term experience to mean a discrete experience somehow standing out from the normal stream of consciousness, having a beginning and end. Maslow refers to these as peak-experiences.2
In contrast to mystical experiences so defined, which we can find examples of in the lives of most, though not all, the mystics, there is what one could call a 'ground' of being or state of consciousness that mystics permanently possess, and which non-mystics do not, or are not aware of. D.T.Zuzuki says of enlightenment that it is 'grey', indicating that enlightenment is not a continual repetition of peak-experiences, but a neutral state of some kind that is nevertheless highly valuable. The term mystical continuum or just continuum will be used in this essay to indicate this state.
Karen Armstrong says in her introduction to 'A History of God' that, as a nun, she had held before her the religious experiences of the saints as an example, and eventually quit because she felt she could not 'achieve' the same3. It is more a 'hunch' on my part than examples like Armstrong's that leaves me slightly uneasy about the emphasis on experience as opposed to continuum in the lives of the mystics. This is not to deny that this focus has been valuable and productive in the scholarly activity to date, but rather to try and articulate problems that this approach may bring, and to suggest other approaches.

The academic discipline and the practice of mysticism

It is not clear that studies in mysticism have evolved anything as formal as 'methodologies', but there are clearly different approaches to the subject, and perhaps a body of important questions that delineate it. To the extent that there are a unique body of questions and debates around the subject I think it is valid to call studies in mysticism a discipline, even if many of the approaches to it are borrowed from such diverse areas as psychology, philosophy, literature and religious studies, and therefore bring with them established 'methodologies'. If we may call it a discipline for the purposes of this essay, there exists the important question of the relationship of the academic discipline to the practice of mysticism. A scholar of mysticism may not be a practitioner, or tell us that they are, but there are examples of scholars who are explicit about their practice, such as Agehananda Bharati4 and Georg Feuerstein5. There may be some scholars for whom practice is perhaps primary, such as with Frithjof Schuon6. Lastly, there are countless mystics who cannot be called in any sense a scholar, even where they have a first-class analytical mind, for example Jiddu Krishnamurti7. As the discipline of studies in mysticism is predicated on, and owes its existence to, the mystics themselves, how in turn can the academic discipline serve mysticism? Clearly, academics serve an important function in this area, as in any other, of engaging in dispassionate scholarship and the constant endeavour to be free from cultural and confessional bias, and on this basis may answer the above question by saying that it cannot and should not serve mysticism. The danger of this is that the academic discipline can become divorced from its subject matter, so I would suggest that academics should at least be explicit about their understanding of the goals of mystical practice, and the degree to which their work is sympathetic to these goals.

Let us leave this question for a moment and consider what precisely constitutes the body of material that scholars of mysticism examine. It is primarily texts, some by and some about mystics, and secondarily interviews of mystics. However, few scholars of mysticism have much access to living mystics, so we rely mainly on texts. Clearly there is a whole body of basic scholarly activity that revolves around texts: primarily authentication and translation, but also involving the fundamental pre-exegetical tasks of placing a text within a tradition and biography of the mystic. Beyond this scholarly 'spade work' there lies the real work of the discipline of studies in mysticism – but what is its real work? What have scholars to date been most concerned with in looking at authenticated, well-translated, and culturally and biographically contextualised texts? The answer seems to be some attempt to get at the experience of the mystic – to look at mystical experience.
Katz reminds his readers of what the main legacy of the mystics are, in much the same terms as above, and goes on:
2. Their literary remains, in their variegated forms, necessarily and inescapably include "interpretive" structures. Neither mystics nor we, their readers can overcome this fact. What we have are the already encoded experiences now reported – this and this alone is what is available for study.8 (my italics)
That Katz is a contextualist is not apparently his reason for believing that encoded experience alone is what is available for study: this assumption also lies at the heart of the work of perennialists such as Stace and Forman for example. Katz merely makes more of 'encoded'. It may be useful here to provide a brief and rather subjective listing of some scholars of mysticism and the degree to which they emphasise experience in their work. It is subjective because it is offered without any formal justification for the rating (on a 0 to 10 scale) such as could be derived from a word or paragraph count, but should be useful because it provides the reader with an opportunity to challenge one of the premises of this essay.
Table 1. The emphasis on experience in the work of scholars of mysticism






gives criteria for the mystical status of the person, not the experiences



gives criteria for the mystical status of the experiences



expands James' criteria, but overall emphasis not on experiences



would like to rank experiences, but no undue emphasis



also wishes to rank experiences



this perennialist position depends overly on experiences



the contextualist position is dependent on experiences



this counter-contextualist is also dependent on experiences



uses the terms mysticism and mystical experience almost interchangeably



states that a single 'zero event' experience can define the mystic

What grounds do we really have however for assuming that mystical experience should be the prime focus for scholarly activity in this subject? In the available texts, that under a broad scholarly consensus are termed mystical, does description of experiences, page for page, constitute the greater part? Clearly no. Do the mystics (those agreed on under a broad scholarly consensus) emphasise their experiences above all else? Clearly no. Indeed they often caution against the seeking out of specific experiences. How then are we to characterise the bulk of the mystical writings (which do of course contain many descriptions of mystical experiences, but which do not form the bulk of them)? I would suggest that they are (by bulk) clearly teachings.

More than teachings, mystical texts are exhortations, from the mildest form of wishing to share with the reader their felicitous state, to clear-cut instructions about the nature of being and the individual's place in the universe, and prescriptive statements regarding practice. Clearly, the teachings of the mystics derive from their experiences, but our primary data forming the bulk of our texts are teachings and not descriptions of experiences. The texts are intended as transformational, and the role of description of experience in the texts can be seen as illustrative of the transformation in the mystics themselves, or transformation in general. The current approach to studies in mysticism is, I would suggest, bogged down in the problem of somehow reaching a consensus on mystical experience from the scattered references to experience in the texts, with all the accompanying questions of verification and interpretation, while ignoring the bulk of the texts which constitute our primary data: the teachings and their transformative role.

James vs. Bucke

In table 1 the first two entries are for R.M.Bucke and William James, and indicate respectively a smaller and a greater emphasis on experience. Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness preceded James's Varieties, and is quoted in it, and yet it is James's work that has arguably set the tone for studies in mysticism to this date. James's reputation as psychologist and philosopher, and his academic weight coupled with a robust humour and obvious sympathy to the subject may be partly the reason. Bucke, as an alienist (psychiatrist), and with none of the academic credentials of a James is derided by Zaehner as 'fatuous'11 and 'silly'.12 That Bucke places the emphasis on transformation rather than experience is shown in several ways in his book. Firstly he gives the following criteria for the 'cosmic sense' which is a state, rather than an experience:

The subjective light

The moral elevation

The intellectual illumination

The sense of immortality

The loss of the fear of death

The loss of the sense of sin

The suddenness, instantaneousness of the awakening

The previous character of the man – intellectual, moral and physical

The age of illumination

The added charm to the personality so that men and women are always (?) (sic) strongly attracted to the person.

The transfiguration of the subject of change as seen by others when the cosmic sense is actually present.13
James, by contrast seeks to define mysticism through mystical experience, which he characterises with these four marks:
1. Ineffability

2. Noetic Quality

3. Transiency

4. Passivity

The second reason for concluding that Bucke focuses on mystical transformation, rather than mystical experience, is his emphasis on the transition, pointing out for example that in many known cases it takes place in the person's early thirties. He goes to some length to demonstrate that the life of the mystic before and after the transformation is radically different.
We have in the contrast between Bucke's and James's approach, ignoring for a moment the difference in academic stature, also a difference between a scholar and a practitioner. It is not claimed here that Bucke was in some way comparable to the great mystics, but he claims at least one important mystical experience (though gets it in the neck again from Zaehner for daring to extrapolate from it14), whereas James confesses:
Whether my treatment of mystical states will shed more light or darkness, I do not know, for my own constitution shuts me out from their enjoyment almost entirely, and I can speak of them only at second hand.15
It probably is a fair criticism that Bucke based his analysis more on his own experience than dispassionate scholarship; for example his criteria (for the Cosmic Sense) are tailor-made to fit Walt Whitman, the contact with whom we can reasonably assume led to Bucke's experience. However, it is instructive to note that Bucke places much less emphasis on experience than James (who claims none), preferring to dwell on the transformation in the life of the individual. It must be said that James does devote two chapters of The Varieties to conversion experiences, defining conversion in these terms:
It makes a great difference to man whether one set of his ideas, or another, be the centre of his energy; and it makes a great difference, as regards any set of ideas which he may possess, whether they become central or remain peripheral in him. To say that a man is 'converted' means, in these terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral in his consciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual centre of his energy.16
These are religious conversions however, and not necessarily related to the transformation that takes place in the being of the mystic.

Spiritual materialism

Before looking at how scholars could approach the teachings of the mystics rather than their experiences, and how this academic endeavour in turn could relate to the goals of the mystics let us examine another criticism of the focus on experiences. This criticism can be summed up by saying that the focus on experiences can lead to a form of 'spiritual materialism' - a phrase given currency through Chögyam Trungpa's book entitled Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism17.

Trungpa's account of spiritual materialism can be summarised in terms of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the three 'Lords of Materialism'. He points out that it is not a matter of creating the awakened state of mind (which terminology we shall use as shorthand for the goal of the mystic), but of burning out the confusions that obstruct it, i.e. it already exists but is obscured. If it were something created, then it is firstly dependent on some conditions for creating it, and secondly could be uncreated. The Lords of Materialism are the Lord of Form, the Lord of Speech, and the Lord of Mind; they maintain the ego – which must disappear – as it forms the basis of the obstruction to the awakened state of mind. The Lord of Form is a neurotic drive for physical wealth and a secure life situation in a fluid and uncertain universe; the Lord of Speech is the interpreting bent used by the ego to protect itself from hearing the truth; and the Lord of Mind is the subtle process of mentation that creates the illusion of a 'solid' self.
Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices are meant to help the individual see through the Lords of Materialism, and lessen the power of their ego-creating workings. However, according to Trungpa, those entering the spiritual path can become skilful actors, pretending to loosen the grip of the three Lords through practice, but in fact simply transferring their action into the spiritual realm - hence spiritual materialism. The 'materialism of form' is translated into an acquisitiveness of spiritual knowledge and experience; the 'materialism of speech' is translated from an ignorant defensiveness against the truth (in this context the Four Noble Truths and other Buddhist concepts) to a learned defensiveness; and the 'materialism of mind' is translated into a form of meditation that creates (for example) endless 'levels' of spiritual achievement that create a subtle and hence more elusive ego. In this context 'conversion', of the Jamesian type referred to above, can be merely a shift of materialism from the secular to the spiritual.
That religious and mystical experiences can play a decisive role in the development of a mystic is not in question here, but what could the result be of an undue emphasis on experiences? Clearly, from Trungpa's point of view, it could be detrimental to practice if we can understand this emphasis as a form of spiritual materialism. The scholar, however, has no obligation to avoid scholarly work that could be detrimental to a practitioner: if a case is to be argued against the emphasis on experience it needs to also have a scholarly basis.
I would present the scholarly case as the argument by volume: the texts are in bulk of a pedagogical nature, dealing with the transformation of the individual; transformation may include a change in the capacity for certain types of experience, but is more reasonably expressed as change in the continuum of the individual.

Experience, Continuum and Orientation

If we accept that an over-emphasis on religious or mystical experience may be inappropriate firstly because the bulk of our primary data does not deal with it, secondly because many mystics warn against this emphasis, and thirdly because of the spiritual materialism inherent in this approach, how then could one counter-balance it? I argue that mystical continuum rather than mystical experience may deserve more attention, but what, in more detail do I mean by this? Bharati points out that no mystic lives permanently in the 'zero state' (equivalent to Forman's pure consciousness event) where even the basic discursive functions are suspended. Bharati's thesis, that apart from these moments the mystic's life is largely unaffected, is probably untenable, though Bucke's insistence on an instantaneous and radical transformation (including the moral elevation) is almost as difficult to demonstrate. Bharati cites himself, Huxley, Leary and Ginsberg as modern mystics: he is simply casting his net too wide to make a convincing argument. While Huxley's Perennial Philosophy is a sensitive reading, Huxley betrays a complete lack of real understanding of anything he wrote or quoted in it by writing the appalling 'mystic' thriller Island. Mary Lutyens tells us that Huxley would have swapped all his drug-induced experiences for a single glimpse of the mystical state that Krishnamurti (his good friend) lived in18. Let us consider instead the more widely accepted mystics like Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi.

Rolle is a love-mystic and tells us only briefly of the onset of what he calls the 'fire of love', an almost-physical sensation in the heart that set him on his path19. We can characterise his experiences as the 'love of God'. It is relatively easy to subtract out the Christian 'codification' of this writings, as he talks more often of God than Jesus, which terms he uses interchangeably. The distinction between experience and continuum is apposite in Rolle's case, as his prose indicates much more about the latter than the former. If we are to approach his work as telling us about his continuum, then we can look at it in terms of an underlying impulse or orientation towards God, the corollary of which is his rejection of materialism. With Julian of Norwich it is much harder to subtract out the Christian, as she deals explicitly with a series of visions of Christ. Nevertheless, by focusing on her impulse or orientation we can avoid vexing, and possibly fruitless, problems about her 'experience' (not forgetting, of course, that she was exceedingly ill at the time). The proper place for discussion of experience, it can be argued, is in its role in changing the orientation, or maintaining it, as in these two examples, towards God. In Trungpa's terminology the questions are about the role of experience in removing or reinforcing the obstacles to the awakened mind.
How can one characterise the orientation and continuum of the awareness-mystic? The orientation is towards emptiness, nothingness, the Void, or any other similar term used in the specialist mystical sense which does not denote merely the absence of things, existential vacuum, hollowness, angst, or any other meaning that the West often conflates with the Eastern term nirvana. (Jung's complaint that nirvana represented to him an amputation is one of the most famous and detailed statements of this fundamental error20). The zero-experience may be seen as an early encounter with nirvana, and may change the impulse and orientation of the practitioner. After repeated experiences of it, which are discrete and have a beginning and end in time, the mystic makes it his or her continuum. Bharati is probably right in saying that a total immersion or abandonment to it leaves the mystic, for its duration, incapable of discourse, or anything much else, but the argument here is that the true awareness-mystic seeks a permanent state of nirvana, while living, from which the demands of life are either accommodated or in fact re-evaluated and celebrated. Using a Zen-Buddhist term this type of mystic essentially lives from a state of no-mind, where mind is only used where appropriate. The distinction here is between a permanent state of pure consciousness, where thought, when indulged in, is merely a part of the content, like perceptions of trees or flowers, and a pure consciousness event, where the mystic is no longer aware of any content, abandoned entirely to the bliss of consciousness itself. The love mystic, one could argue, has an analogue in the state of abandonment to love; whether these states are in fact analogous, or identical is a matter for further research.


The question asked in this essay is, strictly, not a permissible question, as it assumes that scholars in mysticism accept the validity and importance of the goals of the practitioner. However, it has proved a useful focus for examining the role of experience in the lives of the mystics, and leads to suggestions that the useful, though possibly over-emphasised, work done by scholars on experience could be complemented and extended by looking at questions of impulse, orientation and continuum in relation to the pedagogical or transformative nature of the bulk of the writings of the mystics.


1 Peter Moore, lecture notes.

2 Maslow, A. Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences, Harmondsworth, Penguin Arkana 1970

3 Armstrong, Karen, A History of God, London: Mandarin, 1994, p.2.

4 Bharati, Agehananda, The Light at the Centre - Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, Ross-Erikson / Santa Barbara 1976

5 Feuerstein, Georg. Holy Madness, London: Arkana, 1990

6 For example: Schuon, Frithjof, Esoterism as Principle and Way, Perennial Books, 1981

7 For example: Krishnamurti, J. The Awakening of Intelligence, Victor Gollancz, London, 1973

8 Katz, Steven Mysticism and Language, Oxford University Press 1992, p.4.

9 Forman, Robert K.C. (Ed.), The Problem of Pure Consciousness, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990

10 Bharati, Agehananda, The Light at the Centre - Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, Ross-Erikson / Santa Barbara 1976, p.46

11 Zaehner, R.C. Drugs, Mysticism and Make-Believe, Collins, London 1972, p. 60.

12 Ibid, p. 63.

13 Bucke, R.M. Cosmic Consciousness - A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, Olympia Press, London, 1972, p.71

14 Zaehner, R.C. Drugs, Mysticism and Make-Believe, Collins, London 1972, p. 61.

15 James, W. The Varieties of Religious Experience, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1986, p. 379.

16 Ibid, p. 196.

17 Trungpa, C. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Shambhala, Boston and London, 1987.

18 Lutyens, M. The Life and Death of Krishnamurti, Rider, London, 1991, p. 92.

19 Rolle, Richard, The Fire of Love, London: Penguin 1972, p. 45.

20 Jung, C.G., Memories, Dreams, Reflections, London: Fontana 1993, p. 306

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