Throughout history and across religious traditions around the globe, communities have turned to their mystics and masters as the great exemplars of spirituality. While in our culture today, the Buddha or Hindu gurus might come to mind first when we think about this phenomenon, it has historically been true of Christianity as well, whether East or West, or whether staid like St. Gregory of Nyssa, wild like St. Hildegard of Bingen, bright like St. Seraphim of Sarov, or dark like St. John of the Cross. According to Integral thought, this universal human tendency stands to reason, since mystical and meditative experiences are the most accessible forms of ‘state training‘ for us, and therefore also a helpful paradigm for understanding how we grow spiritually.
As all the hyperlinks in the previous paragraph might suggest, these are themes I’ve written a lot about already in this space. So this post will mostly be a refresher for regular readers. But, I think, that will also make it a useful place to begin, thinking less about the ‘what’ of mysticism and meditation and more about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the changes they can create in us.
To begin, it’s important to define our terms. Mysticism and meditation are related but different ideas. Both involve accessing different cognitive states, but where mysticism experiences this altered state as an experience of something, meditation experiences it as nothing. To put it another way, in a classical mystical experience, the mystic — whether through intentional prayer or through a theophany, vision or dream — has an encounter, has sensations (of light or sound, etc.), or an experience that is something beyond sensation. The meditative adept, by contrast, through consistent practice, experiences an altered state of peaceful witness. (The analogy that has been most helpful for me with this is that if we think of normal thinking life as being caught in the waves of the sea, the witnessing state is like watching the waves from a pier.)
These states, whether given and dynamic as in mysticism or trained and tranquil as in meditation, expand our awareness of the world. They allow us to see more than, or see differently from, what our ‘normal’ conscious state allows us to see. As a case study for this, I’d like to use Marcus Borg, a scholar known for his general skepticism when it comes to the supernatural. He’s a helpful example both because of the way he has reflected on his experiences (related in chapter 3 of his 2014 book Convictions), but also because his reputation as a twentieth-century liberal theologian makes him something of an unlikely suspect for this sort of experience. Borg’s story begins one day in his early thirties; he was driving in the countryside when suddenly everything around him transformed before his eyes:
Everything glowed. Everything looked wondrous. I was amazed. I had never experienced anything like that before … At the same time, I felt a falling away of the subject-object distinction of ordinary everyday consciousness—that “dome” of consciousness in which we experience ourselves as “in here” and the world as “out there.” I became aware not just intellectually but experientially of the connectedness of everything. I “saw” the connectedness, experienced it. My sense of being “in here” while the world was “out there” momentarily disappeared.
That experience lasted for maybe a minute and then faded. But it had been the richest minute of my life. It was not only full of wonder but also filled with a strong sense of knowing—of seeing more clearly and truly than I ever had. (Convictions, Chapter 3)
This was just the first of many similar experiences he had over the course of a few years that changed how he understood the world and his place in it.
When we first encounter something that challenges our preconceptions of the world, our first reaction will likely be to deny it. This is because of what is known as cognitive dissonance, a disconnect between the facts before us and the framework of the world we have built. The more we encounter that is disconnected from our belief system, the more we will be pushed to expand our understanding of what is possible. This could happen quickly, or we might go through stages of processing the new truth: denial (What I saw is impossible and therefore I must not have actually seen it), rejection (What I saw is wrong and I will not accept it), hedging (I don’t have to accept this, do I?), anger (If this is true, why didn’t I see it before?), before finally accepting and integrating it. This process of coming to integrate a broader understanding of the world is what Integral theory claims is the primary mechanism for our cognitive and spiritual growth. And few things can get our attention in this way like the altered states of religious or spiritual experiences.
To return to our case study, Borg reported that before his experiences, his beliefs were grounded in rationalism and right-of-centre political and economic theory, with little understanding of how God might fit in. This commitment to the primacy of reason and a political optimism grounded in ideals of meritocracy (along with the bracketing of God into a religious sphere disconnected from the rest of life) were hallmarks of the Modernist culture (the ‘orange’ meme in Integral jargon) in which Borg was raised. But, his mystical experiences changed his outlook, as he processed them and integrated them into his worldview. He writes: “They weren’t the product of thinking, even though over time they have greatly affected my thinking, perhaps more than anything else has. And they made God real to me.” He describes a shift away from what he called a “parent theism” to an understanding in which God is no longer “a being separate from the universe, but to a reality, a “more,” a radiant and luminous presence that permeates everything that is.” (This understanding of God is called ‘panentheism‘ and was the predominant understanding of God within Christianity until the late Middle Ages.) Borg also notes that his mystical experiences resolved the conflicts between reason and faith he had experienced before. This is precisely the type of transition that James Fowler identified in his landmark study of spiritual growth as the move into “conjunctive” faith, in which the angst and struggle and either/or thinking of early adult faith is replaced by a larger perspective that allows for paradox and is more suspicious of the ability of words to capture spiritual and religious truths. So we see in Borg’s example how his mystical experiences helped him grow into a deeper faith that allowed him to integrate far more into his understanding of the world, and especially of God.
This is what Ken Wilber referred to as religion’s function as a “conveyor belt,” providing the faithful with not only opportunities (through rituals and practices), but also permission to move from one stage of thinking and believing into the next. While mystical experiences like Borg’s are given and cannot be forced, meditation, in its quieter way, can have the same sort of impact and it is something that can be intentionally cultivated. And of all the sacred practices and therapeutic modalities studied, meditation has been demonstrated as being the most consistent in its ability to transform thinking. As Wilber summarizes it:
[T]he more you experience meditative or contemplative states of consciousness, the faster you develop through the stages of consciousness. No other single practice or technique … has been empirically demonstrated to do this. Meditation alone has done so. (Integral Spirituality, 196f)
He estimates that people who have meditated regularly for four years are nineteen times more likely to progress into a recognizably integral way of thinking than the general population.
So, what can we do to encourage this sort of growth? Here are some concrete suggestions for reflection and action:
- Have you ever had a ‘peak religious’ (mystical or contemplative) experience? If so, describe what it was like. Did it change how you see the world? If so, how?
- Read the writings of a mystic.
- Set five or ten minutes aside each day for meditation or contemplative prayer.