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There are likely a number of religious-studies scholars who would cringe and groan at Roland Griffiths’s studies of drug-induced mystical experience. I haven’t gone into their literature in a while, but I think it would be easy for them to say Griffiths is setting the study of mysticism back many decades. Because Griffiths’s stated conception of mystical experience is one that many religionists would already have considered very dated – even when I was studying them twenty years ago.

I say this because Griffiths’s first groundbreaking study, in indicating that many psilocybin volunteers had mystical experiences, measures mystical experience using a questionnaire based on W.T. Stace‘s Mysticism and Philosophy, published in 1960. And when I was in grad school twenty years ago, Stace’s work was often considered impossibly backward.

Stace had many critics – Steven Katz, Wayne Proudfoot, my teacher Robert Gimello – who savaged Stace for ignoring the cultural context of mysticism, for being too hasty in proclaiming “mystical experience” is one thing everywhere. And clearly, Arjuna’s vision of Krishna is not God calling to Moses from the burning bush is not Teresa penetrated by the angel, and none of these is the nondual state of consciousness described in the Maṇḍukya Upaniṣad – the latter being central to Stace’s account of mystical experience. Gimello pointed out in class that the category of “mystical experience” grew out of élite nineteenth-century movements like Theosophy: these movements viewed themselves as having a truer understanding of the world’s “religious” traditions than those traditions themselves did, because (they thought) the heart of those traditions was a mystical core that they had access to, with the rest being mere accretion.

The force of Gimello’s critiques were not lost on me. It’s easy to see that Theosophical influence in Ken Wilber’s work: as my article on him notes, it is a remarkably confident move to say that you understand the world’s traditions better than their practitioners understand themselves; to go there, one had best provide evidence for it, which Wilber effectively does not. A while ago I posted here a paper I’d written for Gimello where I noted how even a noted scholar like Ninian Smart would jump to conclusions about experiences that noted philosophers described, assuming that those philosophers themselves must have had those experiences even when they do not themselves claim to have had them.

But it’s possible that that critique went too far. Stace himself did not go to the extremes of the Theosophists: when Stace spoke of a universal core to mystical experience, he had excluded “visions and voices” from the category. He knew that nobody has a vision of Jesus who has not already heard of Jesus, and likewise for Krishna; you’re likely going to look silly if you strive to identify a common core in all these experiences. We could question Stace’s definition, but even if we still wanted to categorize visionary experiences of divine beings as mystical experiences (which I think is a reasonable thing to do), it’s not hard to make a division within them between “hot” mystical or visionary experiences like Arjuna’s and Teresa’s, and “cool” mystical experiences of the sort Stace describes. And the latter may yet turn out to have more cross-cultural commonality.

Such “cool” experiences are impersonal, usually wordless and often nondual. They often take the form of what Stace’s defender Robert Forman calls a “Pure Consciousness Event” (PCE), “defined as a wakeful though contentless (nonintentional) consciousness.” (8) I think it would be difficult if not impossible to establish that PCEs are universally present across humanity, but it seems quite plausible that they occur in multiple cultural contexts, not always in contact with one another. Essays in Forman’s book highlight several places that seem to describe such an event: The Yoga Sūtras describe a samādhi (meditative or trancelike) state in which mental fluctuations (cittavṛtti) cease and there is “unity among the grasper, the grasping, and grasped.” The German medieval mystic Meister Eckhart describes a state called gezucken (rapture), where “a man should flee his senses, turn his powers inward and sink into an oblivion of all things and himself.” The Ukrainian Hasidic preacher Dov Baer says that one must “forget oneself totally”; thereby “one comes to the state of ayin [nothingness], which is the state of humility.”

Obviously the interpretations of the experiences described in such texts are different; Eckhart and Baer identify this state of consciousness as a unity with God, as the Yoga Sūtras would not. But is the experience itself the same? That’s a trickier question, and in order to answer it Yes we’d need to dive deeper into their descriptions than the capsule presentation I’ve just given. But without such deeper investigation I also don’t think we can answer it No – which is often what the critics seem to do. Katz’s claim seems to be not merely that these experiences are not the same, but that they could not be. And there I think he is on shaky ground.

Katz’s famous chapter says: “let me state the single epistemological assumption that has exercised my thinking and which has forced me to undertake the present investigation: There are NO pure (unmediated) experiences.” The emphasis is in the original, and the combination of italics and capitals suggests one who doth protest too much – especially when this strong claim is taken as an assumption, rather than the conclusion to be proved. Katz, his critics note, doesn’t even define “mediated” or “unmediated”!

Indeed the claim seems suspect to begin with: what about a newborn human infant who has not yet encountered language of any kind? Surely it has something that can be called experience, and surely this experience cannot be linguistically mediated, at least – and if Katz means by “mediated” something other than that, he doesn’t tell us what it is. In identifying states that might count as Pure Consciousness Events, some mystical thinkers (like Baer) urge a “forgetting”, a dropping away of the things one has learned – suggesting a possible return to the newborn’s state. And if the newborn can have an unmediated experience, why can’t we?

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.