Does Mysticism Prove the Existence of God?
Jay Michaelson

What can we learn from mystical experience?

Mystics from around the world report encounters with the Divine, as well as experiences of body and mind that are highly unusual. They report a certainty of knowing, deeper and more sure than any ordinary perception. They claim to receive insights into the truth of reality. But what do we make of their claims? How can we tell whether the experiences are truthful or delusional, without simply repeating our own pre-set opinions as to the existence or non-existence of God?

These questions long fascinated me, particularly in college and in grad school. I read testimonies, tracts, and accounts of mystic quests; accounts of visionary ascents, ecstatic unions, and divine theophanies. I was entranced by the possibility that "God," that being or reality whose existence or non-existence seemed to be such a critical issue -- after all, some people made it the center of their lives, while others denied its very existence -- could be directly perceived, and, by extension, proven.

Scholars and philosophers have spent a fair amount of time trying to arrive at criteria for evaluating the mystics' subjective, hard-to-verify claims. On a superficial level, the details of mystical experience, naturally, vary from tradition to tradition: Catholic nuns have visions of Christ, Hindus of Krishna. Perhaps some of those experiences or false, or projection -- or perhaps God manifests in a variety of forms, or certain ineffable core experiences are interpreted in religious language by the mystics. Even beyond the details of what is experienced, however, the subjective experience itself -- the so-called "universal" experience of nearness of union, of knowledge that transcends verbal articulation -- even this experience is difficult to verify. How do we know that what the mystic says happens, happens? And how do we know that it isn't all delusion?

In the last several years, I have moved beyond the college and grad school readings of books like "Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis" and have tried the techniques of the mystics myself. Truthfully, what impelled me to do so probably has more to do with love and yearning than with a search for empirical data. However, I have not left behind my empirical mind, sometimes to the detriment of my contemplative practice, and so I have collected evidence myself -- necessarily subjective, but, at least for myself, evidence nonetheless.

Here is what I can report. I can say, in my own, limited, and subjective experience, that if you do what some mystics and contemplatives say, you can experience the results they promise. Obviously, I haven't tried every contemplative path. But I have tried more than one, and have discovered that they do deliver what is promised in mystical and contemplative texts. It is possible to slow down the mind so much that literally watching paint dry (even if it's already dry) is fascinating, beautiful, and interesting. It is possible to scramble the mind with letter permutations and free associations so much that the thinking mind seems to let go and a strong sense of union with the All arises. And it is possible to refine awareness itself so much that the emptiness of things, and the role mental construction plays, becomes a directly apprehended reality.

Moreover, there is a sense of presence in these experiences that is more than a sensation of having one's mind altered. A great love arises, and an obvious certainty that the love is not just arising within the self. Rather than the self containing the feeling of love, the love seems to contain the "self" and everything else within it. When my thinking mind and desiring mind are slowed down enough, this love and compassion arise naturally, without any prodding or effort from me. (I'm very bad at prodding myself to be nicer; for me, the only way that works is to actually become more loving, sincerely.)

In other words, in highly concentrated mental states, I have had experiences that conform almost exactly to mystical testimonies and descriptions -- including many I had not yet read when I had the experience. A sense of union; a feeling of peace; a sense of proximity to the Divine or the Universal. It is all exquisitely beautiful, and it is all experience-able, with only a few weeks of effort.

For many contemporary mystics and "spiritual people," this is enough. It's the answer. Trustworthy, experienced writers promise a glimpse of Ultimate Reality, and an upwelling of authentic love -- and there it is. And for many religious people, it is painfully obvious that what is happening here is an encounter with God -- it fits all the criteria, it leads to expressions of love; what more could one possibly want?

But I was raised a skeptic. The process of education is, fundamentally, that of acquiring the cognitive skills of doubt, of learning to take apart assumptions more critically and carefully, and I have honed these skills for many years. This process encourages doubt, and thus can undermine some contemplative practice -- but surely it is better than the alternative: naive people (including many public figures in our times) convinced that the values they were taught as a child, by people in authority, are absolutely correct -- or so useful for society that we should regard them as such. The power of "faith" in such contexts is remarkably destructive; even though many once-certain ideas -- that white people are superior, that men are superior -- have been undermined and relegated, in some circles, to the intellectual dustheap, the premise that fundamental "values" should still guide our public lives still endures. Education, as I understand it, is the slow process of awakening from this delusion into a more mature, critical stance toward values and claims of authority.

Applied to subjective, mystical experience, critical thinking can be a dangerous tool. "Certain kinds of doubt are necessary to get the process underway in the first place: doubt that chasing riches in the rat-race will really bring you lasting happiness, for example. And along the way, doubt remains a crucial ally, making sure the conceptual mind, or simple desire, isn't filling in the gaps of experience in a way that suits our preferences. For example, there are many, many spiritual seekers who use their own mystical experience as a foundation for all kinds of belief systems. A sense of intimacy, or love, leads to vast conclusions about the nature of reality ("We're all One," for example). But just because you've had an experience that feels really true to you doesn't mean it actually is true -- and while it's easy to dismiss the New Age seeker as harmless, the unjustified leap she is making is not so different from fundamentalists.

But doubt can also undermine the contemplative process itself, because its appearance of rigor can actually mask unjustified assumptions, and leave us perpetually sitting on the fence. An example: recently, at a Seder table, I had occasion to mention the six week retreat I sat last fall. Before I even finished my first sentence, someone interrupted and said, sharply, "You're deluding yourself." "Okay," I said, and proceeded to explain that what meditation practice is, essentially, is seeing clearly. If I could show that I was indeed seeing clearly into the nature of my own emotional makeup, or problems facing me, then isn't it odd that I was seeing so un-clearly into this one aspect of life? "I don't know," he replied, "but you're deluding yourself." I tried again. "Really? For six weeks?" "Well, you're deluding yourself for six weeks."

It was a fascinating, short exchange that illustrates what is often really going on, underneath the patina of healthy skepticism. It's just doubt -- not justified, not useful, just stuck to some beliefs or desires about the world and not admitting that any alternative is possible. There was no dialogue at the Seder table, just a blanket refusal to admit that any meditation practice could yield anything other than delusion. I didn't prod into why, exactly, this belief was so important to my conversation partner. Frankly, I didn't care. But it was clear from the way he interrupted me, and from his categorical refusal to address anything I said, that he had something more at stake than mere intellectual inquiry. In any case, his blind skepticism is as unappealing as blind faith.

Thus, in posing the questions of what we can know about mystical experience, it is critical to also question the questioner, proceeding carefully between blind skepticism and blind faith. With this in mind, I ask again: how do we know that mystical experience is real? And if we can't know, what do we do with it?

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Images of neurons from Laval University (top) and Texas A&M (bottom)

July 2005

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Does Mysticism Prove the Existence of God?
Jay Michaelson

Patrolling the Boundaries
of Truth

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The Wheel World
Dan Friedman

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