The Quale of Mystical Experience

The phenomenological character of mystical experience is not that hard to understand, at least in principle, and as a matter of abstract theory. Withdraw attention from all particular things and their qualia – including oneself – as all mystical disciplines insist their students should do, and in the limit the only quale remaining will be that of sheer being. But to experience sheer being is to experience something of what being is like for God, who is Being as such. Being is the basic good, the good of which all other goods are portions; so the feeling of being as such is blissful.

Being as such is not nothing, NB. On the contrary, it is the only category that comprehends everything. Thus mystical experience does not necessarily involve paucity of apprehension, a dwindling or diminution of the richness of experience, or its detail, or its breadth, or depth. It is not less than quotidian experience, but far more – not just sublime and panoptic, but superlime, synoptic, spacious, and scient to the degree that it is pure and simple. As the experience of the most basic truth, moreover, it is the experience of God, who is Truth: to feel the utmost basis of one’s own being is to feel God, of and in and by whom all things exist.

In practice, of course, it is quite difficult to understand mystical experience; to try to understand it in practice is rather to miss the point of the mystical project, and thus to frustrate it; for one of the things the mystic must set aside is the effort to understand. It is hard furthermore to forget particular things, and once having done so, and achieved simplicity, it is then impossible to parse it in particular terms – the only sort available to us.

9 thoughts on “The Quale of Mystical Experience

  1. You hit the nail on the head, where you say “to try to understand it in practice is rather to miss the point of the mystical project, and thus to frustrate it;” indeed, the point is that you cannot understand it, so effort expended trying to understand it is a waste of time and even, as you also say, counter-productive.

    But this is not because we do not value knowledge, or do not think that contemplation will impart knowledge – indeed, it does. St. Benedict saw all the world revealed in but a ray of this divine light. The saints have always mentioned how a man can be caught up by this contemplation, can see things which are ineffable in their number, intensity and profundity. Their frustration with attempting to parse this, upon returning, is not so much that their simplicity disallows parsing the particulars, but that the integrity of their vision, and the transcendent, super-rational content of what they had seen, is not adequately described by any number or selection of words. I think of St. Thomas, after attaining the gift of such contemplation near the end of his life, looking back on all his work and thinking it would be better used as kindling.

    What does such a man see? What does he know? If we had the faintest idea, we would never give ourselves rest, striving to attain it.

    • St. Benedict saw all the world revealed in but a ray of this divine light.

      This is quite a common feature of the mystical ascent. Apprehending Being himself, we apprehend the whole of him at once; for, as simple, he is holographic, so that all of him is to be found in any aspect of him (such aspects being all, NB, mere creaturely particular perspectives on the perfect, perfectly general). So seeing him, we see everything he sees, all at once, in a single ray. This is the pearl of great price.

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  3. Our benighted age does everything it can to prevent people from apprehending the whole. My students, for example, have been taught in high school how to read for information, which, once they have transferred it by the mental equivalent of cut-and-paste into their paragraphs, they immediately forget. They have also been taught that reading is only ever “for” something. They have never been taught simply to read, not “for” anything, but in the manner of striking into the territory to see how the land lies. Consequently they have no big picture of the world or their lives, no intuition of transcendence, and when I ask them about the meaning of things, they stare at me blankly, with their mouths open.

    I am not blaming them – I’m blaming the wicked system that lames them. Whereas it is not their fault, it is nevertheless their problem although they cannot even suspect the problem. It is also our problem, of course. It is the deliberate diminution of the world.

  4. I was just wondering when there would be a new Kristor article.

    Not being able to perceive at least some intimation of Pure Being seems to me to be a contemporary plague. I’m not sure what to call it, but I’ve heard it referred to as “spiritual autism.”

    The more honest atheists, like Nietzsche, aren’t afflicted by it, but it seems to be becoming increasingly common. The earliest modern I can think of with this disease is Freud, who said he had never experienced any feeling of eternity so common in other men.

    This is probably a clue as to why spiritual truths that appeared almost self-evident to every man of prior ages are only won after the most arduous struggle now. Men today not only lack the vocabulary but even the capacity to begin.

    • “Spiritual autism” is Proph’s term, and extraordinarily apt. The malady is widespread these days because of the collapse of catechesis and the resultant collapse in church attendance and lay spiritual life – the daily office of prayer and liturgy, fasting, tithing, etc. These rites no longer pervasively sanctify life and order it to its transcendent ends, so that men are lost, bewildered, disoriented, and incapable of understanding as such the spiritual experiences that, as natural to all men, still overtake them from time to time. Something is happening to them, but they don’t know what it is. They want to understand it. Thus the perennially effervescent demand for spiritual writing, preferably of a worldly, vague, noncommittal sort.

      • I knew a few people who had the experience of what can be called “nature of Being”. Some did believe in God, others not. My personal observation is that those mystics with inclination to Zen-buddhism or Taoism do not believe while those with affection for Indian religions often do believe. In other words a less religious person does not believe in God while more religious does. The mystical experience itself is probably not decisive to this question.

        It also means there are different kinds of mystical experience. At least some of them are available to us through some effort or discipline like zazen or yoga or even by chance. Question is if such experience is good for us if it can’t bring us closer to religion.

      • It’s an important question. Even more important is the question whether mystical experience brings us closer to True religion. Like most other things, it seems amenable to many different interpretations. And if you get caught up in the interpretations – the particular terms we finite creatures are doomed to use – you go off the rails. The peculiar virtue of Zen and Taoism is their insistence on the incapacity of terms to parse Reality in its wholeness – on the necessity of pulling our minds away from our maps of Reality and looking him square in the face.

        Nevertheless we are stuck with them, and with the nisus to use them to understand what we have experienced. This is one reason why the descent from ecstasy to normal life is felt as tragic (albeit beautiful and blessed): what one has experienced cannot fit into terms, cannot fit into finite things of any sort – cannot fit into this world.

        So one must transcend the terms, insofar as is possible.

        The Buddhists are not wrong, e.g., in calling the Ultimate nirvana, “no wind.” But then Christians are not wrong either in calling it the Holy Ghost, “whole wind.” The two perspectives seem contradictory, prima facie. But upon reflection, we realize that both are caught up and reconciled in the Thomist actus purus: what is wholly in act is complete, and motionless; yet it is a living *act.* So nirvana is not nothing, but rather everything; and the Holy Spirit is not rushing about doing this and then that, but rather inspiring all things at one fell swoop, or rather swoosh.

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