Bhagavad Gītā, Dov Baer, drugs, Meister Eckhart, mystical experience, nondualism, perennialism, phenomenology, Robert Forman, Robert M. Gimello, Roland Griffiths, Steven Katz, Teresa of Ávila, Theosophy, W.T. Stace, Yoga Sūtras
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?
Robert M Ellis said:
My understanding of what unifies mystical traditions is much simpler than this: a shared openness to experience rather than a reliance on dogma. Of course, the consistency of this varies, as does the extent to which mystics (sincerely or otherwise) have accepted the dogmas of the traditions they are part of alongside their immersion in spiritual experience. What matters is not what exactly the experience is (though much light can be shed on what human experiences have in common by neuroscience), but how seriously one takes that experience as something meaningful and valuable in its own right, as meaning rather than as belief. That, at any rate, seems to me the practical significance of mysticism – the reason we should take it seriously, learn from it and allow ourselves to be inspired by it. The scholarly insistence on cultural particularity that you discuss here seems like yet another dogma, and a relativist one at that: why should we value the particularity of cultural expression of a mystical experience over its practical value for humans generally?
Amod Lele said:
I agree that these experiences wouldn’t matter if they were not taken as meaningful and valuable. I actually think that is where the critics of universalism in mystical experience are most likely to have a point: even if the experience is the same, its significance is likely to vary. And I think it’s not merely important that they take it as significant, but what significance they take it to have.
Rick Repetti said:
Nice analysis. Thanks!
Amod, you said: “But without such deeper investigation I also don’t think we can answer it No – which is often what the critics seem to do.”
You may be interested in a recent article in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences that attempted to provide such a deeper investigation, if you haven’t seen it: Toby J. Woods, Jennifer M. Windt, & Olivia Carter (May 2022), “Evidence synthesis indicates contentless experiences in meditation are neither truly contentless nor identical”: “The findings indicate that meditation experiences described as contentless in the academic literature can in fact involve considerable variation, and that in many and perhaps most cases these experiences are not truly contentless. This challenges classical understandings in academic research that in these so-called contentless experiences all content is absent, and that the experiences are therefore an identical state of pure consciousness or consciousness itself.” The authors cite other scholars such as Katz and note that in general the previous publications “provide little detail as to the specific forms of content that may be present, and do not compare the presence of such content across a range of practices said to access contentless experience”, which is what the authors try to do for “135 expert texts from within the three traditions” that they consider.
Like the conclusion of that article, I’m not inclined to give much weight to concepts like contentless experience, pure consciousness, or consciousness itself, for various reasons but especially since I’m always asking how it all works, what’s really happening, what processes are generating the experiences. I can allow myself to just experience in a relatively nonconceptual way, but when it comes time to conceptualize the process of experiencing I think it’s important to consider the mechanisms, i.e., how the human brain (in its environment) constructs experience.
Amod Lele said:
Yeah, I am interested in that article, thanks! One of the more striking things about this debate, in the stuff from twenty years ago that I’m most familiar with, is how often it has seemed to proceed in the a priori abstract. I think this kind of literature review is a more promising way to answer the question.
Paul D. Van Pelt said:
The dark and foreboding is mystifying, in its’ uncertainty. The reptilian brain is still with us, all these centuries later, and in diverse populations, worldwide. Why are we so morbidly fascinated? Well, the first part of these comments gives a clue. Julian Jaynes’ notion of bicameral mind gives another. Insofar as we don’t know what we don’t know, margins for error are titillating. A little like scary movies and the ‘ what if’ factor. That reptile is reactive and never completely goes away. A good book of anecdotal information may yet be in print: Future of the Body, by Michael Murphy. If you can’t solve the riddles, metaphysical mysticism is the next best thing.
Seth Zuihō Segall said:
One thing Stace does is divide his mystical experiences into introvertive and extrovertive types–not all of his unitive experiences are contentless. The Zen enlightenment experiences depicted within the koan literature are nothing like Metzinger’s “minimal phenomenal experience” or like the experiences Jayarava Attwood says are depicted in the Prajñaparamita Sutras. My own experience with over 25 years of meditation practice is that all of it has been mediated. BTW, even newborn’s experience is meditated–if not by language, then by biological preprogramming which makes certain Kantian a priori intuitions of experience inevitable. Katz is right that we can never know reality simpliciter, but only what is like for creatures such as us with our unique perspectives, concerns, plans, and past experiences, and limited by the constraints of our sense organs.
Amod Lele said:
True, I left out the introvertive/extrovertive distinction to make things a bit simpler, but it’ll need to come back in if I pursue this line of inquiry any further.
The point about a newborn’s experience being mediated by biology is interesting, yes. Do you think that Katz includes that in his category of mediation? It would make his argument stronger.
I just looked at Katz’s chapter “Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis” (I hadn’t read it before) that is the source of the “NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences” quote, and Katz alludes to a Kantian transcendental argument for his position, without working it out (p. 59):
This is not a specifically biological argument. To turn this into an argument from naturalized epistemology, one would need to get into the nitty gritty of biological knowledge. Katz shows no inclination to do this in his chapter. But it’s not too much of a leap to get there from his position. On the same page where he mentions Kantian transcendental deduction, he goes on to say:
Here “conditioned” seems to be a synonym for “mediated”, and we could construct a naturalized argument for this by referring to biological knowledge. (By the way, I said something very much like Katz’s “expectation of what will be experienced” in a comment a couple of posts back: “deep cognitive expectancies”.)
The claim that there are “no unmediated experiences” seems to me to be close to the claim that there are “no experiences without a body”—and I agree that Katz’s argument would be a lot stronger if he referred to more knowledge of the body to support this claim. Some people would reject this out of hand because they believe in experience/consciousness without a body. I don’t.
Seth Zuihō Segall said:
Thanks, Nathan, for doing the work of reviewing Katz for me!
Seth, as I was reading Katz, one thought that came to mind was: “It would have been interesting if Katz had connected his arguments to Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy of experiencing.” Today I decided to follow up on that idea by checking Google Scholar to see whether any of the publications citing Katz’s chapter also mentioned Gendlin. At the top of the list of results (and the publication that was, I would guess, the closest to what I was looking for) was your recent chapter “Meditation in the context of a naturalized eudaimonic Buddhism” that you shared with us in a comment on this blog a couple of posts back!
I would also note that after reading Katz’s chapter, I don’t see him making the claim that experiences in multiple cultural contexts could not be the same in some way. It’s true that that he emphasizes the differences between experiences, since the purpose of his chapter is a “plea for the recognition of differences”. But he also identifies something in common in all experiencing, which I called in a previous comment above the “processes generating the experiences” and which Katz calls in a couple of places “epistemological activity” (pp. 60, 62):
These are also the places where Katz seems to come closest to Gendlin’s philosophy of experiencing.
Seth Zuihō Segall said:
Yes. Even in the most “contentless” experiencing there is the ongoing process of sense-making. And sense-making is always from a singular perspective–what this means for me now in the context of my ongoing projects and given where I have come from. In reading the Zen koan literature, I want to contest the idea that each Zen ancestor has the “same” enlightenment experience. Each Zen ancestor had his/her own unique awakening which shared something in common with the tradition that proceeded him/her, but which was also in some ways unique. For example, I am forever perplexed by Dogen’s use of “dropping off body and mind” to describe his enlightenment experience, whereas my own “awakenings” are marked by a more keen awareness of embodyment. One might think “dropping off of body and mind” would be a contentless experience, perhaps, but Dogen has this as a sudden flash after hearing Rujing’s remark, and not as an experience that occurred during a long period of silent concentration meditation, which is what I think a more “subtractive” experience would entail.
By the way, let’s give Katz a break and presume that when he talks about linguistically mediated experience he is talking about adult experience. Are we comfortable with saying that all adult experience is linguistically meditated (along with being the outcome of what Gendlin calls, in a somewhat inelegant and unfortunate way, “eveving”).
“Are we comfortable with saying that all adult experience is linguistically meditated”: No, because the word “linguistically” is too narrow. Gendlin recognized this at the very start of “Thinking beyond patterns”: “My project is to think — about, and with — that which exceeds patterns (forms, concepts, definitions, categories, distinctions, rules, …..).” We would need to change it to “Are we comfortable with saying that all adult experience is meditated by patterns”. But then, before assenting, we would need to clarify that “mediated by” does not mean “determined by”. Gendlin again: “Thinking with more than forms is possible because the assumption is overstated, that concepts and social forms entirely determine — what shall I call that which they determine? — experience (situations, practice, the body, intricacy, …..).” With these Gendlinian qualifications, the proposition becomes more plausible. But I suspect there is a better way of stating it.
Seth Zuihō Segall said:
Nathan, agreed. That’s why I tacked the clause about
“along with eveving” to my reference to linguistic mediation.
Another thought: “Let’s give Katz a break and presume that when he talks about linguistically mediated experience he is talking about adult experience”: I agree that’s what Katz seems to be talking about.
But what we could gain by keeping the newborn’s experience in mind is a human lifespan developmental perspective on bodies and their “epistemological activity”. We could also use that perspective to critique Amod’s emphasis on a possible equivalence between a newborn’s state and an adult’s state, an emphasis which in general would seem to commit what Ken Wilber called the “pre/trans fallacy” (with my usual disclaimer that I’m not a Wilber expert so correct me if I’m wrong). What’s most interesting about the comparison of babies and adults is not the possibility of uncovering some unmediated experience in both but the uncovering of epistemological development as a product of the “epistemological activity” (still using Katz’s term here but substitute your own favorite term).
Seth Zuihō Segall said:
“What’s most interesting about the comparison of babies and adults is not the possibility of uncovering some unmediated experience in both but the uncovering of epistemological development as a product of the “epistemological activity” (still using Katz’s term here but substitute your own favorite term).”
Amod Lele said:
The pre-trans connection is interesting in this regard, but that is a normatively laden concept: Wilber is saying we shouldn’t be valuing a regression to a newborn’s state. He wants to view the states achieved by advanced practitioners as something different and more valuable. Which is quite a reasonable position, but I would still want to see the evidence: in what ways, if any, is a pure consciousness event different from that of a newborn? One way is that those who have not had a PCE can know it through descriptions from those who have had one, which is not possible for a newborn to do. But that difference in describability is not necessarily a difference in the experience itself.
For me the newborn’s experience is important because it shows us that linguistically unmediated experience is possible. Even if a PCE is different from the newborn’s experience, the newborn’s experience should show it is false that there are no linguistically unmediated experiences, and therefore I don’t think we have ground to assume without evidence that PCEs too are linguistically unmediated.
Amod Lele said:
I’m not comfortable saying all adult experience is linguistically mediated, when we are talking about experiences where language drops away, where no language is in the mind of the person having the experience. The interpretation of the experience is of course linguistically mediated, but Stace points out that these are separable: an experiencer can interpret any single experience in multiple ways.
Seth Zuiho Segall said:
Amod, I guess we will just have to disagree here. I don’t think we adults have conscious experiences in which all our prior experience—including our linguistic and conceptual experience–plays no role. I would similarly argue that there is no such thing as “regressing to a childhood state.” All my experience with “child personalities,” for example in dissociative disorders, is that they have an “as if” quality and can be characerized in many ways as adult performances. That’s not to deride them as deliberate charades–they can serve important intrapsychic functions—but it is to point out that however child-like they may appear, they do not function the way real children do.
There’s no going back from where we are to an earlier state of being, or transcending all that we are to attain some state of “pure consciousness” that isn’t from our historic perspective as persons. This isn’t to say that meditative and psychedelic experiences can’t be awesome, life changing, and sources of surprising new meaning. They often are. It’s just that there isn’t such a thing as immaculate perception.
Amod, keep in mind the passage from Katz above where he says “conditioned both linguistically and cognitively by a variety of factors including the expectation of what will be experienced“. What Katz means by “mediated” includes, I assume, everything in that quotation. Even in phenomenologically nonlinguistic and nonconceptual experience, which I agree is possible because I’ve experienced it, the brain is still using knowledge/schemas/models to generate the experience. Katz also said “experience is not analogous to the passive role of the tape-recorder or camera”, which is congruent with a recent metaphor, popular among cognitive scientists, of the brain as a “prediction engine”. Here is how cognitive scientists Lorena Chanes and Lisa Feldman Barrett describe it (“The predictive brain, conscious experience, and brain-related conditions”, in: Mendonça, Curado, & Gouveia (eds.), The Philosophy and Science of Predictive Processing, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 159):
Chanes & Barrett emphasize “experience of the world” in that last line but the same framework applies to inner experience or interoception. I’m not sure how much has been written about this in relation to psychedelics, but a quick search returns a relevant essay by Philip Gerrans & Chris Letheby titled “Psychedelics work by violating our models of self and the world” (Aeon Essays, 2017):
Hey, who slipped some Buddhism into my neuroscience lesson?