Mysticism Essay

In this article I would like to bring the findings of my somewhat unusual but
increasingly accepted field ? mysticism? to the discussion, for I think they
may offer some helpful insights about consciousness. Why? When a biologist seeks
to understand a complex phenomenon, one key strategy is to look to at it in its
simplest form. Probably the most famous is the humble bacterium E. coli. Its
simple gene structure has allowed us to understand much of the gene functioning
of complex species. Similarly many biologists have turned to the ?memory’ of
the simple sea slug to understand our own more kaleidoscopic memory. Freud and
Durkheim both used totemism, which they construed as thesimplest form of
religion, to understand the complexities of religious life.1 The methodological
principle is: to understand something complex turn to its simple forms. Mystical
experiences may represent just such a simple form of human consciousness.

Usually our minds are an enormously complex stew of thoughts, feelings,
sensations, wants, snatches of song, pains, drives, daydreams and, of course,
consciousness itself more or less aware of it all. To understand consciousness
in itself, the obvious thing would be to clear away as much of this internal
detritus and noise as possible. It turns out that mystics seem to be doing
precisely that. The technique that most mystics use is some form of meditation
or contemplation. These are procedures that, often by recycling a mental
subroutine,2 systematically reduce mental activity. During meditation, one
begins to slow down the thinking process, and have fewer or less intense
thoughts. One’s thoughts become as if more distant, vague, or less
preoccupying; one stops paying as much attention to bodily sensations; one has
fewer or less intense fantasies and daydreams. Thus by reducing the intensity or
compelling quality of outward perception and inward thoughts, one may come to a
time of greater stillness. Ultimately one may become utterly silent inside, as
though in a gap between thoughts, where one becomes completely perception- and
thought-free. One neither thinks nor perceives any mental or sensory content.

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Yet, despite this suspension of content, one emerges from such events confident
that one had remained awake inside, fully conscious. This experience, which has
been called the pure consciousness event, or PCE, has been identified in
virtually every tradition. Though PCEs typically happen to any single individual
only occasionally, they are quite regular for some practitioners.3 The pure
consciousness event may be defined as a wakeful but contentless
(non-intentional) consciousness. These PCEs, encounters with consciousness
devoid of intentional content, may be just the least complex encounter with
awareness per se that we students of consciousness seek. The PCE may serve, in
short, as the E coli of consciousness studies.4 But the story does not stop
here. Regular and long-term meditation, according to many traditions, leads to
advanced experiences, known in general as ?enlightenment’. Their
discriminating feature is a deep shift in epistemological structure: the
experienced relationship between the self and one’s perceptual objects changes
profoundly. In many people this new structure becomes permanent.5 These
long-term shifts in epistemological structure often take the form of two quantum
leaps in experience; typically they develop sequentially.6 The first is an
experience of a permanent interior stillness, even while engaged in thought and
activity ? one remains aware of one’s own awareness while simultaneously
remaining conscious of thoughts, sensations and actions. Because of its
phenomenological dualism ? a heightened cognizance of awareness itself plus a
consciousness of thoughts and objects ? I call it the dualistic mystical state
(DMS). The second shift is described as a perceived unity of one’s own
awareness per se with the objects around one, an immediate sense of a
quasi-physical unity between self, objects and other people. States akin to this
have been called ?extrovertive-‘ or sometimes ?nature-‘ mysticism; but I
prefer to call it the unitive mystical state, UMS.7 Like the PCE, these latter
two may serve as fertile fields for students of consciousness to plough. To
understand them, I want to introduce the idea of the relative intensity of a
thought or desire. Some desires have a high relative intensity. Let’s say I am
walking across the street when I see a huge truck hurtling at me. Virtually 100%
of my attention is taken up with the truck, the fear, and getting out of the
way. It is virtually impossible for me to think about anything else at that
time. I don’t even consider keeping my suit clean, how my hair might look, the
discomfort in my tummy, or the classes I will teach tomorrow. The fear and
running are utterly intense, we might say, consuming nearly 100% of my
attention. That evening, I come home starved, and rush to the fridge. I may be
civil to my kids and wife, but I have very little patience. My desire for food
is very intense, for it preoccupies most of my consciousness, but it consumes
less of my attention than did jumping away from the truck. Some thoughts consume
very little of my attention. Driving to work the next day, for example, I might
ruminate about my classes, remember the near miss with the truck, half hear the
news on the radio, and think about getting that noise in the car fixed ?
nearly all at once. None of these thoughts or desires is very intense, for none
has a strong emotional cathexis that draws me fully into it. My attention can
flow in and out of any of them, or the traffic ahead, effortlessly. In short the
intensity of a thought or desire tends to increase the amount of my
consciousness that is taken up with that thought or feeling. Conversely, the
thought’s intensity tends to lessen when I am able to retain more attention
for other issues, and for my wider perspective. Now, as I understand them,
advanced mystical experiences result from the combination of regular PCEs plus a
minimization of the relative intensity of emotions and thoughts. That is, over
time one decreases the compulsive or intense cathexis of all of one’s desires.

The de-intensifying of emotional attachments means that, over the years, one’s
attention is progressively available to sense its own quiet interior character
more and more fully, until eventually one is able to effortlessly maintain a
subtle cognizance of one’s own awareness simultaneously with thinking about
and responding to the world: a reduction in the relative intensity of all of
one’s thoughts and desires. This state of being cognizant of one’s own inner
awareness while simultaneously maintaining the ability to think and talk about
that consciousness offers students of consciousness a unique situation. For
these subjects may be both unusually cognizant of features or patterns of their
own awareness and also able to describe them to us: a kind of ongoing microscope
on human consciousness. In short, while not as phenomenologically simple as PCEs,
these experiences may provide us with highly useful reports about the character
of human awareness. Several additional preliminary matters: First, perforce we
will be drawing conclusions based on the experiences of a very few people. Most
of us haven’t had any experiences like the ones I will describe, and some may
sound pretty strange. Yet we often do generalize from the unusual to the
general. Just think how much we have concluded about consciousness from a very
few: epileptics, people with unusual skull accidents or brain injuries, the man
who mistook his wife for a hat, etc. From the pathology of a very few we have
learned a great deal about the relationship of one side of the brain to the
other, of two kinds of knowing, of information storage and retrieval, of impulse
control, etc. Indeed it is common practice to take data about a few unusual
individuals and generalize it to the many. Here again we are studying the data
of a few. But rather than the pathological, we will be studying people ?
Sakyamuni Buddha, Teresa of Avila, Ramana Maharshi, etc. ? who are not
?pathological’ but unusually self-actualized. Should we not be as willing to
learn from the experiences of the unusually healthy as we are to learn from the
unusually diseased? The second matter is definitional: What do we mean by
mysticism? What is generally known as mysticism is often said to have two
strands, which are traditionally distinguished as apophatic and kataphatic
mysticism, oriented respectively towards emptying or the imagistically filling.

These two are generally described in terms that are without or with sensory
language. The psychologist Roland Fischer has distinguished a similar pairing as
trophotropic and ergotropic, experiences that phenomenologically involve
inactivity or activity. Kataphatic or imagistic mysticism involves
hallucinations, visions, auditions or even a sensory-like smell or taste; it
thus involves activity and is ergotropic. Apophatic mystical experiences are
devoid of such sensory-like content, and are thus trophotropic. When they use
non-sensory, non imagistic language,8 authors like Eckhart, Dogen, al-Hallaj,
Bernadette Roberts and Shankara are all thus apophatic mystics. Because visions
and other ergotropic experiences are not the simple experiences of consciousness
that we require, I will focus my attentions exclusively on the quieter apophatic
forms. Finally, I want to emphasize that phenomenology is not science. When we
describe these experiences, we do not gain hard scientific proof thereby. There
can be many ways to explain an unusual experience: one might say it was the
result of what one ate for dinner, a faulty memory, psycho-somatic processes, a
quantum microtubule collapse, or an encounter with Ultimate Truth.* Without
further argumentation, phenomenology cannot serve as the sole basis for any
theory of reality. It may be taken only as a finger, pointing in some direction,
rather than conclusive evidence for or against a particular thesis. This is how
I see my role in this paper. I will simply describe mystical experiences as
accurately as I can, and say where I see their fingers pointing. That is, I will
attempt to coax metaphysical hypotheses out of these phenomenological
descriptions. First-person reports, especially those that are about unusual
experiences are, of course, notoriously unreliable. When an epileptic says that
?the table seemed wavy’, or when a man asserts that his wife is a ?hat’,
these reports are not taken as data about the world, but about their condition.9
One may want to assert that a mystic’s report should be regarded similarly.

But we must be careful here, for first-person reports can also be veridical or
even sources of wisdom. For example, in the kingdom of the blind, the
?first-person’ report of a sighted fellow that ?the mountain peak near the
village is in the shape of five fingers’ may be regarded as the rantings of a
lunatic or as information about the mountains. Similarly, when Woodward and
Bernstein spoke with the Watergate informant ?Deep Throat’, they could have
taken his utterances as paranoid ramblings, data about his developing psychosis,
or as information about the Nixon administration. How can we determine which way
to regard the unusual first-person reports of the mystics? If we were Woodward
and Bernstein, how would we decide? Common sense seems a good place to begin. We
might ask, does Deep Throat, or the mystics in our case, seem unconnected or
delusional? I believe most of us would say no. In fact many regard Meister
Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, the authors of the Upanishads, and others who tell us
of such experiences as unusually wise. Certainly they do not seem utterly
unhinged, physically ill, etc. Secondly, we might ask, do others in a situation
similar to Deep Throat’s describe things similarly? In our case, assuming
reasonable cultural differences in language and detail, do mystics from around
the world describe things largely similarly? Here again the answer is yes. We
shall find a reasonable amount of similarity among their descriptions, a family
resemblance, They tend to confirm each others reports. Finally, is there other
confirming evidence for our Deep Throats’ claims? Here the information is not
in: just how consciousness works, relates to the world or the brain, is anything
but established. In sum, it makes sense to regard the mystics’ unusual reports
about the world as more like those of a Deep Throat than those of an epileptic.

But also, again as with Deep Throat, the information we can glean from them is
not, by itself, reliable enough to base a theory of consciousness solely on it.

It will take the hard-working Woodwards and Bernsteins in the scientific and
philosophical trenches to verify or deny the suggestions of our Deep Throats.

Three Mystical Phenomena and their Implications Pure consciousness events Let me
begin by offering several reports of the first of the mystical phenomena I
mentioned above, the pure consciousness event (PCE). First, from Christian
mystical literature,10 St. Teresa of Avila writes of what she calls the
?orison of union’: During the short time the union lasts, she is deprived of
every feeling, and even if she would, she could not think of any single thing..

. She is utterly dead to the things of the world . . . I do not even know
whether in this state she has enough life left to breathe. It seems to me she
has not; or at least that if she does breathe, she is unaware of it. . . The
natural action of all her faculties [are suspended]. She neither sees, hears,
nor understands (James, 1902/1983, p. 409).11 Several key features of this
experience jump out. First, Teresa tells us that one reaches this ?orison of
unity’ by gradually reducing thought and understanding, eventually becoming
?utterly dead’ to things, encountering neither sensation, thought nor
perceptions. One becomes as simple as possible. Eventually one stops thinking
altogether, not able to ?think of any single thing . . . arresting the use of
her understanding . . . utterly dead to the things of the world’. And yet, she
clearly implies, one remains awake.12 Meister Eckhart describes something
similar as the gezucken, rapture, of St. Paul, his archetype of a transient
mystical experience: . . . the more completely you are able to draw in your
powers to a unity and forget all those things and their images which you have
absorbed, and the further you can get from creatures and their images, the
nearer you are to this and the readier to receive it. If only you could suddenly
be unaware of all things, then you could pass into an oblivion of your own body
as St Paul did, . . . In this case . . . memory no longer functioned, nor
understanding, nor the senses, nor the powers that should function so as to
govern and grace the body . . . In this way a man should flee his senses, turn
his powers inward and sink into an oblivion of all things and himself (Walshe,
1982, p. 7). Like St. Teresa, Eckhart specifically asserts the absence of
sensory content (?nor the senses’), as well as mental objects (?devoid
of’ memory, understanding, senses, etc.). One becomes oblivious of one’s
?own body’ and ?all things’. In short one becomes ?unaware of all
things’, i.e. devoid of all mental and sensory content. The absence of thought
and sensation is repeated in the following passage from the Upanishads when
describing the state these early Hindu texts call turiya, the ?fourth’.

Verily when a knower has restrained his mind from the external, and the
breathing spirit (prana) has put to rest objects of sense, thereupon let him
continue void of conceptions. Since the living individual (jiva) who is named
?breathing spirit’ has arisen here from what is not breathing spirit,
therefore, verily, let the breathing spirit restrain his breathing spirit in
what is called the fourth condition (turiya) ? Maitri Upanishad 6:19 (Hume,
1931, p. 436). Here again one has ?put to rest objects of sense’, i.e.

gradually laid aside all sensations, and continued ?void of conceptions’,
i.e. not thinking. And yet the Upanishads are insistent that one remains
conscious, indeed becomes nothing but consciousness itself. The consciousness
that one reaches in turiya comes to be known in Samkhya philosophy as ?purusha?,
often translated as awareness or consciousness itself, that which
?illuminates’ or ?witnesses’ thoughts, feelings, and actions.13 The
purusha or awareness that one reaches during this experience is described as
?sheer contentless presence (sasksitva) . . . that is nonintentional’
(Larson, 1979, p. 77). Here is a report from the present author’s own
twenty-eight year practice of neo-Advaitan (Hindu-derived) Transcendental
Meditation, which suggests the persistence of consciousness throughout such
events. Sometimes during meditation my thoughts drift away entirely, and I gain
a state I would describe as simply being awake. I’m not thinking about
anything. I’m not particularly aware of any sensations, I’m not aware of
being absorbed in anything in particular, and yet I am quite certain (after the
fact) that I haven’t been asleep. During it I am simply awake or simply
present. It is odd to describe such an event as being awake or being present,
for those terms generally connote an awareness of something or other. But in
this experience there is no particular or identifiable object of which I am
aware. Yet I am driven to say I am awake for two reasons. First, I emerge with a
quiet, intuited certainty that I was continually present, that there was an
unbroken continuity of experience or of consciousness throughout the meditation
period, even if there seemed to have been periods from which I had no particular
memories. I just know that there was some sort of continuity of myself (however
we can define that) throughout.14 In Buddhism such Pure Consciousness Events are
called by several names: nirodhasamapatti, or cessation meditation;
samjnavedayitanirodha, the cessation of sensation and conceptualization; sunyata,
emptiness; or most famously, samadhi, meditation without content (cf. Griffiths,
1990). What is most fascinating about traditional Buddhist explorations of this
state is that despite the fact that one is said to be utterly devoid of content,
according to Yogacara Buddhist theorists one’s consciousness is said to
persist as ?some form of contentless and attributeless consciousness’ (Griffiths,
1990, p. 83). That is, despite the fact that one is not aware of any specific
content or thought, ?something persists’ in this contentlessness, and that
is consciousness itself: ?I, though abiding in emptiness, am now abiding in
the fullness thereof? (Nagao, 1978, p. 67). When discussing this possibility
that one may abide in the ?fulness’ of ?emptiness’, Vasubandu states: It
is perceived as it really is that, when anything does not exist in something,
the latter is empty with regard to the former; and further it is understood as
it really is that, when, in this place something remains, it exists here as a
real existent.15 In sum, the PCE may be defined as a wakeful but contentless
(non-intentional) experience. Though one remains awake and alert, emerging with
the clear sense of having had ?an unbroken continuity of experience’, one
neither thinks, nor perceives nor acts. W.T. Stace (1960): Suppose then that we
obliterate from consciousness all objects physical or mental. When the self is
not engaged in apprehending objects it becomes aware of itself. The self itself
emerges. The self, however, when stripped of all psychological contents or
objects, is not another thing, or substance, distinct from its contents. It is
the bare unity of the manifold of consciousness from which the manifold itself
has been obliterated (p. 86). Now what implications can we draw from the pure
consciousness event about the nature of human consciousness? 1. We have a
pattern here that is seen across cultures and eras. This, in combination with
the reports offered in The Problem of Pure Consciousness, suggests that the
phenomenon is not an artifact of any one culture but is something closer to an
experience that is reasonably common and available in a variety of cultural
contexts.16 2. Thomas Clark and other defenders of functionalism have suggested
that consciousness is identical to certain of our information-bearing and
behaviour- controlling functions, even going so far as to define it thus (Clark,
1995, p. 241). Others have suggested that consciousness is an artifact or an
epiphenomenon of perception, action and thought, and that it arises only as a
concomitant of these phenomena. Our accounts tend to disconfirm this view, which
is generally argued on a priori grounds. Rather they suggest that consciousness
does persist even when one has no perception, thought or evaluation. This
suggests that consciousness should not be defined as merely an epiphenomenon of
perception, an evaluative mechanism, or an arbiter of perceptual functions, but
rather as something that exists independently of them. 3. Some have suggested
that if we can understand how we can tie together perceptions and thoughts ?
the so called binding problem ? we will ipso facto understand consciousness.17
Now, how we bind together perceptions is a very interesting question for
cognitive psychology, neurobiology and philosophy of mind. But even if we
understand how we do tie together perceptions, we will not necessarily
understand the phenomenon of consciousness per se thereby, for according to
these mystical accounts, it is more fundamental than a mere binding function.18
These reports suggest that binding is something done by or for consciousness,
not something that creates consciousness.19 4. Our evidence suggests that we
should conceptually and linguistically differentiate merely being aware or awake
from its functional activities. Accordingly, I propose to use the terms as
follows: (i) ?awareness’ and ?consciousness’ for that facet of
consciousness which is aware within itself and which may persist even without
intentional content; (ii) ?awareness of’ and 1consciousness of’ to refer
to that feature of experience which is cognizant when we are intentionally aware
of something; and (iii) ?pure awareness’ and ?pure consciousness’ to
refer to awareness without intentional content.20 5. Reports of pure
consciousness suggest that, despite the absence of mental content, the subjects
were somehow aware that they remained aware throughout the period of the PCE.

Apparently they sensed a continuity of awareness through past and present. If
they did, even though there was no content, then they must have somehow directly
recalled that they had been aware despite the absence of remembered content.21
This implies human awareness has the ability to tie itself together and to know
intuitively that it has persisted.22 We may want to say that being conscious
seems to entail this sort of direct self-recollection, a presence to oneself
that is distinct from the kind of presence we have to perceptions and other
intentional content. In this sense, the pure consciousness event tends to affirm
Bernard Lonergan’s distinction between our conscious presence to intentional
objects and our consciousness of consciousness itself: There is the presence of
the object to the subject, of the spectacle to the spectator; there is also the
presence of the subject to himself, and this is not the presence of another
object dividing his attention, of another spectacle distracting the spectator;
it is presence in, as it were, another dimension, presence concomitant and
correlative and opposite to the presence of the object. Objects are present by
being attended to but subjects are present as subjects, not by being attended
to, but by attending. As the parade of objects marches by, spectators do not
have to slip into the parade to be present to themselves; they have to be
present to themselves for anything to be present to them (Lonergan, 1967, p.

226, quoted in McCarthy, 1990, p. 234). In sum, the PCE militates towards a
distinction between consciousness or awareness per se and its usual binding,
relational and culturally-trained processes. It suggests that consciousness is
more than its embodied activities. The dualistic mystical state, the peculiar
?oceanic feeling’ The second mystical phenomenon bears a dualistic pattern.

Let us look at a few reports. The first comes from the autobiography of a living
American mystic, Bernadette Roberts, middle-aged ex-nun, mother, housewife, and
author of The Experience of No-Self. She had been in the practice of meditating
in a nearby monastery, she tells us, and had often had the experience of
complete silence we described above. Previously such experiences had sparked
fear in her, perhaps a fear of never returning. But on this particular
afternoon, as her meditation was ending, once again there was a pervasive
silence and once again I waited for the onset of fear to break it up. But this
time the fear never came. . . . Within, all was still, silent and motionless. In
the stillness, I was not aware of the moment when the fear and tension of
waiting had left. Still I continued to wait for a movement not of myself and
when no movement came, I simply remained in a great stillness (Roberts, 1984, p.

20). She became silent inside but, to her surprise, did not emerge from that
silence. She stood up and walked out of her chapel, ?like a feather floats in
the wind’, while her silence continued unabated. No temporary meditative
experience, this was a permanent development of that quiet empty interior
silence.23 . . . Once outside, I fully expected to return to my ordinary
energies and thinking mind, but this day I had a difficult time because I was
continually falling back into the great silence (ibid.). She ?remained in a
great stillness’, driving down the road, talking on the phone, and cutting the
carrots for dinner. In fact that inner stillness was never again to leave her.

She experienced her interior silence as her original ?consciousness’, by
which I understand that she experienced it as devoid of the intellectual
self-reflection that generally accompanies experiences. She describes this new
state as a continuation of what she had encountered when she was in her
meditative silence (PCE); only here she remains fully cognizant of her own
silent awareness even while active. My own previously published autobiographical
report of such a state also associates a permanent interior silence with
consciousness: This began in 1972. I had been practicing meditation for about
three years, and had been on a meditation retreat for three and a half months.

Over several days something like a series of tubes (neuronal bundles?) running
down the back of my neck became, one by one, utterly quiet. This transformation
started on the left side and moved to the right. As each one became silent, all
the noise and activity inside these little tubes just ceased. There was a kind
of a click or a sort of ?zipping’ sensation, as the nerve cells or whatever
it was became quiet.24 It was as if there had always been these very faint and
unnoticed activity, a background of static, so constant that I had never before
noticed it. When each of these tubes became silent, all that noise just ceased
entirely. I only recognized the interior noise or activity in these tubes in
comparison to the silence that now descended. One by one these tubes became
quiet, from left to right. It took a couple of weeks and finally the last one on
the right went zip, and that was it. It was over. After the last tube had
shifted to this new state, I discovered that a major though subtle shift had
occurred. From that moment forward, I was silent inside. I don’t mean I
didn’t think, but rather that the feeling inside of me was as if I was
entirely empty, a perfect vacuum.25 Since that time all of my thinking, my
sensations, my emotions, etc., have seemed not quite connected to me inside. It
was and is as if what was me, my consciousness itself, was (and is) now this
emptiness. The silence was now me, and the thoughts that have gone on inside
have not felt quite in contact with what is really ?me,’ this empty
awareness. ?I’ was now silent inside. My thinking has been as if on the
outside of this silence without quite contacting it: When I saw, felt or heard
something, that perception or thought has been seen by this silent
consciousness, but it has not been quite connected to this interior silence.

(Foreman, date??, p.??) In this experience the silence is explicitly associated
with awareness. It is experienced as ?the I’, ?what was really ?me’,
?my consciousness itself’. Somehow this area in the back of the head seems
to be associated with being aware; as it became silent, a sense of the self or
consciousness itself within became more articulated, and was now experienced as
silent. Like Roberts’, this shift to an interior silence was permanent.26 Thus
we should call it a state, not a transient experience. I call it the dualistic
mystical state (DMS). Descriptions of a DMS are surprisingly common in the
mystical literature. Teresa of Avila writes of such a dualistic state. Speaking
of herself in the third person, she writes: However numerous were her trials and
business worries, the essential part of her soul seemed never to move from [its]
dwelling place. So in a sense she felt that her soul was divided . . . Sometimes
she would say that it was doing nothing but enjoy[ing] itself in that quietness,
while she herself was left with all her trials and occupations so that she could
not keep it company (Peers, 1961, p. 211). She too describes an experience in
which, even while working and living, one also maintains a clear sense of the
interior awareness, a persisting sense of an unmoving silence at one’s core.

Meister Eckhart describes something similar, calling it the Birth of the Word In
the Soul. One of Eckhart’s clearest descriptions is from the treatise ?On
Detachment’. It analogizes the two aspects of man with a door and its hinge
pin. Like the outward boards of a door, the outward man moves, changes, and
acts. The inward man, like the hinge pin, does not move. He ? or it ?
remains uninvolved with activity and does not change at all. This, Eckhart
concludes, is the way one should really conduct a life: one should act yet
remain inwardly uninvolved. Here is the passage: And however much our Lady
lamented and whatever other things she said, she was always in her inmost heart
in immovable detachment. Let us take an analogy of this. A door opens and shuts
on a hinge. Now if I compare the outer boards of the door with the outward man,
I can compare the hinge with the inward man. When the door opens or closes the
outer boards move to and fro, but the hinge remains immovable in one place and
it is not changed at all as a result. So it is also here . . . (Clark and
Skinner, 1958, p. 167; emphasis mine). A hinge pin moves on the outside and
remains unmoving at its centre. To act and yet remain ?in her inmost heart in
immovable detachment’ depicts precisely this dualistic life. One acts, yet at
an unchanging level within retains a sense of something unmoving. One lives a
dichotomous existence. Inside, she experiences an interior silence, outside she
acts. Elsewhere Eckhart describes what this is like: When the detached heart has
the highest aim, it must be towards the Nothing, because in this there is the
greatest receptivity. Take a parable from nature: if I want to write on a wax
tablet, then no matter how noble the thing is that is [already] written on the
tablet, I am none the less vexed because I cannot write on it. If I really want
to write I must delete everything that is written on the tablet, and the tablet
is never so suitable for writing as when absolutely nothing is written on it.

(ibid., p. 168.) The emphasis in this passage is on the achievement of emptiness
within. One has ?deleted’ everything inside; one comes to a ?Nothing’
inside; the tablet is ?blank’. When one is truly empty within, comes to
?the Nothing,’ what goes on ?outside’ is of lesser significance, for it
is unconnected to the inner ?nothing’. Only once this interior ?Nothing’
is established does one truly begin ?acting rightly’. This is highly
reminiscent of the empty interior silence achieved by our other reporters. In
sum, in this DMS the subject has a sense, on a permanent or semi-permanent
basis, of being in touch with his or her own deepest awareness, experienced as a
silence at one’s core, even while remaining conscious of the external sensate
world. Awareness itself is experienced as silent and as separate from its
intentional content. This dualistic mystical state seems to evolve gradually
into another state. First this author’s own experience (cf. Forman, date??):
Over the years, this interior silence has slowly changed. Gradually,
imperceptibly, this sense of who I am, this silence inside, has grown as if
quasi-physically larger. In the beginning it just seemed like I was silent
inside. Then this sense of quietness has, as it were expanded to permeate my
whole body. Some years later, it came to seem no longer even limited to my own
body, but even wider, larger than my body. It’s such a peculiar thing to
describe! It’s as if who I am, my very consciousness itself, has become
bigger, wider, less localized. By now it’s as if I extend some distance beyond
my body, as if I’m many feet wide. What is me is now this expanse, this
silence, that spreads out. While retaining something of the dualistic character,
the sense of the self or awareness itself here seems to have become as if
quasi-physically expanded, extending beyond the felt borders of the usual
physical frame. It is important to note that exterior perception has not changed
here, only the sense of what consciousness itself is. That will change in the
next state. Freud called this a ?peculiar oceanic feeling’, which seems to
communicate both the ineffability and the expanded quality of such a sense of
consciousness.27 Yet at this point this sense of an inner expanse does not yet
seem to ?touch’ or affect the perception of objects. Being in the middle of
an expanse is reminiscent of the well known passage from Walt Whitman. As if
having a conversation with his soul, he recalls, I mind how once we lay, such a
transparent summer morning, Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and
knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth.28 Here the sense of inner
silence, the peace, is experienced as part of the world. But note again that
Whitman does not suggest that the peace is within the world. The sense seems to
be that what one is, one’s awareness itself, is experienced as oceanic,
unbounded, expanded beyond the limits of the body. Here, I believe, a theist
might plausibly associate this silence, that seems to be both inside and yet
quasi-physically expansive, with God. If this is true, then St. Teresa’s
?Spiritual Marriage’ is very much like this one. In it, one is permanently
?married’ to the Lord, . . . the Lord appears in the centre of the soul ..

. He has been pleased to unite Himself with His creature in such a way that they
have become like two who cannot be separated from one another: even so He will
not separate Himself from her. [In other words, this sense of union is
permanent.] The soul remains all the time in [its] centre with its God. . ..

When we empty ourselves of all that is creature and rid ourselves of it for the
love of God, that same Lord will fill our souls with Himself (Peers, 1961, pp.

213?16). To be permanently filled within the soul with the Lord may be
phenomenologically described as experiencing a sense of some silent but
omnipresent, i.e. expansive, ?something’ at one’s core. If so, this
becomes remarkably like the other experiences of expansiveness at one’s core
that we have seen before. (Once again, the expanse is not described as
permeating the world, as it might in the next ?state’.) This sense of an
interiority that is also an expanse is reconfirmed by her disciple St. John of
the Cross, who says, ?the soul then feels as if placed in a vast and profound
solitude, to which no created thing has access, in an immense and boundless
desert’. In sum, the interior silence at one’s core sometimes comes to be
experienced as expanded, as if being quasi-physically larger or more spacious
than one’s body. Now, what might this DMS suggest? It offers several
tantalizing hints about consciousness. 1. Human capacity includes more
epistemological modalities than is generally imagined. It is clear from these
reports that one can be self-reflexively cognizant of one’s own awareness more
immediately than usual. The contemplative life can lead one to the ability to be
aware of one’s own awareness per se on a permanent or semi-permanent basis.

This is not like taking on a new awareness. None of our sources describe this as
a sense of becoming a different person, or as a discontinuity with what they had
been. Rather the descriptions are that of becoming more immediately cognizant of
the awareness they had always enjoyed. 2. We suggested above that consciousness
should not be defined in terms of perceptions, content, or its other functions,
for in the DMS awareness continues even when perceptions do not. Here awareness
is not only not implicated with thoughts and perceptions, but is experienced as
entirely different in quality or character ? unchanging, without intrinsic
form ? than its content. It is also experienced as unconnected with its
intentional content. Even thoughts do ?not quite contact it’. Awareness
itself is experienced as still or silent, perceptions as active and changing.

Therefore instead of defining awareness in terms of its content, we should think
about awareness and its mental and sensory functions as two independent
phenomena or processes that somehow interact. 3. The sense of being expanded
beyond the borders of one’s own body, what Freud called the ?peculiar
oceanic feeling’, is a very peculiar sense indeed. Yet if we take these
wide-spread reports seriously, as I think every open-minded thinker should, what
do they suggest? The phenomenology, simply put, makes room for the suggestion
that consciousness is not limited to the body. Consciousness is encountered as
something more like a field than a localized point, a field that transcends the
body and yet somehow interacts with it.29 This mystical phenomenon tends to
confirm William James’ hypothesis in his monumental Principles of Psychology
that awareness is field-like. This thought was picked up by Peter Fenwick and
Chris Clarke in the Mind and Brain Symposium in 1994, that the mind may be
non-localized, like a field, and that experience arises from some sort of
interplay between non-localized awareness and the localized brain.30 It is as if
these mystical reporters had an experience of just the sort of field-like
non-locality of awareness these theories hypothesize. The heretical suggestion
here is not that there is a ghost in the machine, but rather that there is a
ghost in and beyond the machine! And it is not a ghost that thinks, but a ghost
for which there is thinking and perception. 4. The experience of awareness as
some sort of field allows for the theory that consciousness is more than the
product of the materialistic interactions of brain cells, since it can be
understood in two ways. First it may mean that like a magnet, the brain
?produces’ a field which extends well beyond its own physical borders. The
slow growth of the sense of an experience suggests this. Or, conversely, the
field-like experience may suggest that awareness somehow transcends individual
brain cells and perhaps the entire brain. This suggests a new way to think about
the role of the physical body. Brain cells may receive, guide, arbitrate, or
canalize an awareness which is somehow transcendental to them. The brain may be
more like a receiver or transformer for the field of awareness than its
generator: less like a magnet than like a TV receiver. The unitive mystical
state Our last commonly reported mystical experience is a sense of becoming
unified with external objects. It is nicely described by the German idealist
Malwida von Meysenburg: I was alone upon the seashore . . . I felt that I . ..

return[ed] from the solitude of individuation into the consciousness of unity
with all that is, [that I knelt] down as one that passes away, and [rose] up as
one imperishable. Earth, heaven, and sea resounded as in one vast world
encircling harmony. . . . I felt myself one with them . . . (von Meysenburg,
1900; emphasis mine). The keynote of Malwida’s experience is that in some sort
of immediate or intuitive manner she sensed that she was connected with the
things of the world, as if she was a part of them and they part of her. It is as
if the membranes of her experienced self became semi-permeable, and she flowed
in, with or perhaps through her environment. A similar experience is described
in Starbuck’s 19th century collection of experience reports. Here again we see
a sense of unity with the things of the world. . . . something in myself made me
feel myself a part of something bigger than I . . . I felt myself one with the
grass, the trees, birds, insects, everything in nature. I exulted in the mere
fact of existence, of being apart of it all, the drizzling rain, the shadows of
the clouds, the tree-trunks and so on. (Ref??) The author goes on to say that
after this experience he constantly sought these experiences of the unity
between self and object again, but they only came period-ically. This implies
that for him they were temporary phenomena, lasting only a few minutes or hours.

This sense of the unity between self and object, the absence of the usual lines
between things, is clearly reminiscent of Plotinus’s First Ennead (8:1). He
who has allowed the beauty of that world to penetrate his soul goes away no
longer a mere observer. For the object perceived and the perceiving soul are no
longer two things separated from one another, but the perceiving soul has [now]
within itself the perceived object (quoted in Otto, 1930, p. 67). Again we have
a lack of boundaries between consciousness and object. It is not clear from this
passage if Plotinus is describing a transient or a permanent experience. Yet
some reporters clearly tell us that such an experience can be constant. Though
it is often hard to distinguish biography from mythology, Buddhist descriptions
of Sakyamuni Buddha’s life clearly imply that his Nirvana was a permanent
change in epistemological structure. Similarly the Hindu term for an enlightened
one, jivanmukti (enlightened in active life), clearly suggests that this
experience can be permanent. Notice how different these reports are from our DMS
descriptions of an inner expanse. There we saw no change in the relationship
between the subject and the perceived world. Here ?the object perceived and
the perceiving soul’ are now united. ?I felt myself one with the grass, the
trees, birds, insects, everything in nature.’ One of the clearer descriptions
of this state comes from Krishnamurti, who wrote of his his first experience of
this sort, in August, 1922: On the first day while I was in that state and more
conscious of the things around me, I had the first most extraordinary
experience. There was a man mending the road; that man was myself; the pickax he
held was myself; the very stone which he was breaking up was a part of me; the
tender blade of grass was my very being, and the tree beside the man was myself.

I also could feel and think like the roadmender and I could feel the wind
passing through the tree, and the little ant on the blade of grass I could feel.

The birds, the dust and the very noise were a part of me. Just then there was a
car passing by at some distance; I was the driver, the engine, and the tires; as
the car went further away from me, I was going away from myself. I was in
everything, or rather everything was in me, inanimate and animate, the mountain,
the worm and all breathing things. All day long I remained in this happy
condition. (Ref??) Perhaps the most unmistakable assertion that these shifts can
be permanent comes from Bernadette Roberts. Sometime after her initial
transformation, she had what is clearly a development on her earlier dualistic
sense of an expanded consciousness. She writes: I was standing on [a] windy
hillside looking down over the ocean when a seagull came into view, gliding,
dipping, playing with the wind. I watched it as I’d never watched anything
before in my life. I almost seemed to be mesmerized; it was as if I was watching
myself flying, for there was not the usual division between us. Yet, something
more was there than just a lack of separateness, ?something’ truly beautiful
and unknowable. Finally I turned my eyes to the pine-covered hills behind the
monastery and still, there was no division, only something ?there’ that was
flowing with and through every vista and particular object of vision. . . . What
I had [originally] taken as a trick of the mind was to become a permanent way of
seeing and knowing (Roberts, 1984, p. 30; italics mine). She describes this
?something there’ that flowed with and through everything, including her own
self, as ?that into which all separateness dissolves.’ She concludes with an
emphatic assertion: ?I was never to revert back to the usual relative way of
seeing separateness or individuality.’ Again we have a state, not a transient
episode. We could multiply these examples endlessly. This unitive mystical state
(UMS), either temporary or permanent, is a very common mystical phenomenon. It
is clearly an evolution of the previous sense. First one continues to sense that
one’s awareness is expansive, field-like, and that the self is experienced as
larger, expanded beyond the usual boundaries. One feels oneself to be ?a part
of something bigger’, which is to say, senses a lack of borders or a
commonality between oneself and this expanse. Indeed, in Bernadette Roberts’
case, her sense of ?something there’ followed and was an evolution of her
initial dualistic mystical state. But now this perceived expansion of the self
is experienced as none other than, permeating with and through, the things of
the world. One’s boundaries become as if permeable, connected with the objects
of the world. The expanded self seems to be experienced as of the same
metaphysical level, or of the same ?stuff’, as the world. Despite the
grammatical peculiarities, ?what I am is the seagull, and what the seagull is,
I am’. From this fascinating phenomenon we may note several implications for
our understanding of consciousness. 1. The perceived ?spaciousness’ of
awareness suggests, I said above, that consciousness is like a field. These
unitive experiences reaffirm this implication and suggest that such a field may
not only transcend our own bodily limits, but somehow may interpenetrate or
connect both self and external objects. This is of course strikingly parallel to
the physical energy fields and/or the quantum vacuum field said to reside at the
basis of matter, for these too are both immanent within and also transcendent to
any particular expression, a parallel that Fritjof Capra, Lawrence Domash and
others have been quick to point out. 2. The perception of unity holds out the
possibility that the field of awareness may be common to all objects, and
however implausibly, among all human beings as well. It indicates that my own
consciousness may be somehow connected to a tree, the stars, a drizzle or a
blade of grass and, paradoxically, to yours. Thus these unitive experiences
point towards something like a primitive animism, Leibnitz’s panspsychism and
Griffin’s suggestion of a pan-experientialism, that experience or some sort of
consciousness may be ?an ingredient throughout the universe, permeating all
levels of being’. All this, however, opens up another Pandora’s box of
peculiar questions: most obviously what might the consciousness be of a dog,
flower, or even a stone? Does the claim of a perceived unity merely point to
some ground of being, and not a consciousness that is in any sense
self-reflective like our own consciousness? Or if you and I share consciousness,
can I experience what you do? If not, why not? 3. Not everyone who meditates
encounters these sorts of unitive experiences. This suggests that some may be
genetically or temperamentally predisposed to mystical ability; borrowing from
Weber, the ?mystically musical’. One might suggest that the mystic’s
awareness is categorically different than other peoples’, i.e. that it is
connected to the world in an ontologically deep way that the rest of ours is
not. I find this unconvincing, since every mystic I have read says he or she
began as an ?ordinary’, i.e. non-mystical, person and only came to realize
something of what he or she ?had always been’. Whichever explanation we opt
for, however, it is clear that there is some ability the mystics have been able
to develop ? through meditation or whatever ? that most of us have not.

Conclusions Our three modalities of mystical experiences point clearly towards a
distinction between awareness per se and the ordinary functional processes of
sensation, perception and thought. They suggest that awareness is not
constructed out of the material processes of perception or perhaps the brain,
but rather they suggest a distinction and / or interaction between consciousness
and the brain. Furthermore, they suggest that awareness may have a
non-localized, quasi-spatial character, much like a field. Finally they tend to
suggest that this field may be transcendental to any one person or entity. I
want to end by restating my earlier caveat. Phenomenology is not science. There
can be many ways to explain any experience, mystical or otherwise, and we should
explore all of them. But in the absence of compelling reasons to deny the
suggestions of their reports, we would be wise to seriously examine the
direction towards which the finger of mysticism points. If the validity of
knowledge in the universities is indeed governed, as we like to claim, by the
tests of evidence, openness and clarity, then we should not be too quick to
throw out the baby swimming in the bathwater of mysticism. Footnotes 1 I am
indebted to the psychologist of religion William Parsons, in a private
communication, for this observation. 2 See here Ornstein (1976). 3 See the
articles in Forman (1990) and Section I of Forman (1998). 4 Bruce Mangan (1994)
suggests this when he says that ?mystic[al] encounters . . . would seem to
manifest an extreme state of consciousness’ (p. 251). 5 James’ famous
characterization of mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience states
that a defining feature of mysticism is ?transiency’ (James, 1902/1983, p.

381). My evidence says this is simply wrong. 6 I say typically because sometimes
one may skip or not attain a particular stage. Ken Wilber (1980) claims
sequence. William Barnard (1995), however, disputes this claim of sequence. 7
One key element of the UMS is that it is a permanent shift in the structure of
awareness. ?Extrovertive’ mysticism, a term coined by W.P. Stace, implies
that one has mystical experiences out in the world, while we are
?extrovertively’ aware. Zaehner coined the term ?nature mysticism’ to
describe such paths as Zen or Taoism, which describe mystical experiences in
nature. This he distinguishes from the theistic traditions, among others. But in
the UMS, as I understand this form of life, the sense of being in contact with
the expansive emptiness that extends beyond the self, never fades away, whether
one is in nature or in the city, whether the eyes are open or closed, and
whether one is a Zen Buddhist, a Jew or a Christian. Thus each of these accepted
terms define this experience too narrowly, and thus I coin my own broader term.

8 Cf. Smart (1982). * These may not be mutually exclusive. See, for example,
neurologist Oliver Sacks’ comments on migraines and mysticism in the case of
Hildegard of Bingen (Sacks, 1994, pp. 238-9.) 9 I am grateful for Joseph Goguen,
private communication, for articulating this question so clearly. 10 Forman
(1990) offers a rich compendium of reports of the PCE. I have intentionally
offered here several reports of this experience that are not included there. 11
James is quoting from St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, in Oeuvres, trans.

Bouix, vol. 3, pp. 421?4. 12 The mystic apparently remains conscious
throughout. Although Teresa does not explicitly say the mystic is not asleep, I
cannot imagine anyone spilling so much ink on merely sleeping or blacking out,
or on something like a coma. See below for more explicit statements to this
effect. 13 These two are not quite equivalent. Atman, when seen in its fullest,
according to the Upanishads and to Advaita Vedanta, merges with Brahman, and
thus is experienced as including the object or content of perception. Purusha,
according to Samkhya, is more an independent monad. It thus remains forever
separate from its content. But the two both represent the human awareness,
however differently understood. 14 This account is taken from Forman (1998). 15
Vasubandu commentary on Vs. 1.1 of the Madhyanta Vibhaga, quoted in Nagao
(1978). Vasubandu is here wrestling with just the focus that made Yogacara so
distinctive and clear. In its focus on the alayavijnana, it deals directly with
the question of what remains in ?cessation meditation’. Steven Collins
(1982) believes this is a mistaken view of the nature of samadhi, though
unfortunately he never directly confronts such Yogacara texts. For comparable
analyses from a Zen perspective, with explicit comparisons with Yogacara, see
e.g. Chang Chen Chi (1970), pp. 167?71. 16 See especially Forman (1990), Part
I. 17 This debate goes back at least to Kant’s criticism of Hume’s ‘associationism’
in the eighteenth century. For a discussion of contemporary parallels, see
Hardcastle (1994). 18 If we think in a socio-cultural way here, we might note
that our long western worldview, with its roots in the Judaeo-Christian past, in
the protestant capitalistic history, and in the history of science, would tend
to favour a definition of consciousness in active, masculine, intentional, and
?doing’ terminology. Thus consciousness is, in this view, always vectorial,
intentionally pointing towards this or that. Such a definition fits how people
are expected to act in such a culture. Contemplative traditions and the east, on
the other hand, tend to be more open to defining consciousness as awareness per
se, or just being. In the west we may take these to be too passive, feminine,
but they ?fit’ the more station-oriented caste and natal-status behavioural
patterns. My thanks to Bill Parsons for this observation. 19 Logically:
awareness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for binding; binding is
neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for awareness. 20 This usage
preserves Deikman’s (1996) separation of awareness from the other senses of
?I’, and Chalmers’ (1995) similar distinction. My thanks to Jonathan Shear
for pointing out that I have reversed Chalmers’ terms (he calls awareness in
itself ?consciousness’ and connects its various functional phenomena with
the term ?awareness’). I believe that my usage is in better accord both with
ordinary speech and the traditional scholarly use of ?pure consciousness’
and ?pure consciousness event’. 21 See the extended discussion of this
possibility in Forman (1998). 22 Here language fails us. The awareness is not in
any sense conscious of the passage of time; rather I am suggesting that
awareness ties itself together through what an external observer would note as
the passage of time. 23 William James’ thought that mysticism is
?transient’, i.e. short lived, clearly does not capture Bernadette
Roberts’ experience, nor many of the experiences documented in this section.

24 Here I am struck by the parallel with the rapid shifting of a physical system
as it becomes coherent. Disorganized light just ?shifts’ or ?zips’ into
laser light nearly instantaneously. 25 Writing this, I think of the parallel
between this sense and Bernadette Robert’s sense of having lost the usual
?unlocalized sense of herself’. 26 It is my impression that the awareness of
the specific locations within the body is not essential to this transformation.

27 Freud was employing a phrase from his correspondence with Ramakrishna’s
disciple Romain Rolland. See Parsons (forthcoming). 28 Walt Whitman, quoted in
James (1902/1983) p. 396, no reference. 29 Of course, that implies that one has
some sort of non-sensory sense, the ability to sense one’s own expansive
presence even though there are no visible mechanisms of sensation. But is that
so strange after all? If we can sense our own awareness directly in the pure
consciousness event, why shouldn’t we be able to sense something of its
non-limited character on a more permanent basis?
See Freeman (1994) for a brief report and Clarke (1995) for the full text of
Chris Clarke’s talk. References Barnard, William (1995), ?Response to
Wilber’, unpublished paper delivered to the Mysticism Group of the American
Academy of Religion. Chalmers, David J. (1995), ?Facing up to the problem of
consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (3), 1995, pp. 200?19.

Chang Chen Chi (1970), The Practice of Zen (New York: Perennial Library / Harper
Row). Clark, Thomas W. (1995), ?Function and phenomenology: closing the
explanatory gap,’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (3), pp. 241?54. Clark
and Skinner (1958), Meister Eckhart: Selected Treatises and Sermons (London:
Faber and Faber). Clarke, C.J.S. (1995), ?The non-locality of mind’, Journal
of Consciousness Studies, 2 (3), pp. 231?40. Collins, Steven (1982), Selfless
Persons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Deikman, Arthur (1996), ?
?’I” = Awareness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3 (4), 350?6.

Forman, Robert K.C. (ed. 1990), The Problem of Pure Consciousness (New York:
Oxford University Press). Forman, Robert K.C. (1998) Mysticism, Mind,
Consciousness (Albany, NY: SUNY Press). Freeman, Anthony (1994), ?The science
of consciousness: non-locality of mind’ [Conference Report], The Journal of
Consciousness Studies, 1 (2), pp. 283?4. Griffiths, Paul (1990), ?Pure
Consciousness and Indian Buddhism,’ in The Problem of Pure Consciousness.

Hardcastle, Valerie (1994), ‘Psychology’s “binding problem” and
possible neurological solutions’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1 (1), pp.

66-90. Hume, Robert (trans. 1931), The Thirteen Principle Upanishads (London:
Oxford University Press). James, William (1902/1983), The Varieties of Religious
Experience (New York: Longmans, Green and Co.; reprinted in Penguin Edition).

Larson, J.G. (1979), Classical Samkhya: An Interpretation of its History and
Meaning (Santa Barbara: Ross/Erikson). Libet, Benjamin (1994), ?A testable
field theory of mind?brain interaction’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1
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York: Herder and Herder). McCarthy, Michael H. (1990), The Crisis in Philosophy
(Albany: SUNY Press). Mangan, Bruce (1994), ?Language and experience in the
cognitive study of mysticism ? commentary on Forman’, Journal of
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Memoiren einer Idealistin, 5th Auflage, iii. 166. Quoted in James (1902/1983),
p. 395. Nagao, Gadjin M. (trans. 1978), ?The Culasunnata-Sutta (Lesser
discourse on Emptiness)’ translated as, ?”What Remains” in Sunyata:
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Minoru Kiyota (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii). Ornstein, Robert (1976),
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Roberts, Bernadette (1984), The Experience of No-Self (Boulder: Shambala).

Sacks, Oliver (1994), ‘An anthropologist on Mars’ [interview with Anthony
Freeman], Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1 (2), pp. 234-40. Smart, Ninian
(date??), ?Interpretation and mystical experience’, Sophia, 1 (1), p. 75.

Stace, W.T. (1960), Mysticism and Philosophy (London: Macmillan Press). Walshe,
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