Mystical Experience or Unitive Seeing? by Cynthia Bourgeault

In my own spiritual practice I m more and more clearly seeing the need to distinguish between two closely related but distinctly different phenomena: mysticism and unitive seeing. Much of the bad rap that mysticism has unfortunately gained in the mainstream Christianity of the West comes from a failure to distinguish between these two terms.

Mysticism means seeing Oneness.

Unitive Seeing means seeing from Oneness.

The first term yields us the familiar mystical experience so beloved and eagerly sought by many spiritual seekers, and delightfully summarized in that old joke: What did the mystic say to the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything. To perceive oneself as one with everything is to directly experience the flow of divine abundance that holds everything together; to know directly (rather than merely deduce) the extravagant Trinitarian joy with which everything is at all times giving itself away and receiving itself back from the molten flow of love at the center of everything. Physically, it creates an ineradicable experience of belonging, and thus is usually accompanied by feelings of bliss, peace, and an overwhelming sense of felt meaning. Sometimes the experience is so strong that it overwhelms the normal circuits of our usual cognitive perception (which perceives through differentiation), and hence results in that ecstatic and even incoherent babbling for which mystics are so celebrated.

Because the emotional content is so delicious, however and given the overall affective and relational bent of Christian metaphysics the tendency is to put the emphasis on the experience itself rather than the shift in perceptual field that it signals. The word mystical is almost always immediately coupled with the word experience, and a mystical experience becomes something that you have or want to have, anyway. It becomes a sign of God s special favor a kind of spiritual peak experience and circumstances promising to deliver that experience are eagerly sought after: from sacred chanting and Eucharistic devotion to Sufi whirling, solitude in the desert, or peyote. In the usual way of looking at things, it is an altered state of consciousness, ecstatic, something that takes you far beyond your usual self, a straight shot into divine consciousness.

What s so bad about that?

Well, nothing, really. But from the point of view of real spiritual growth, it s an immature state a state rather than a stage, in the helpful language of Ken Wilber. A state is a place you go to; a stage is a place you come from: integrated and mature spiritual experience. It s true that a mystical experience can indeed be a sneak preview of what the universe looks from the point of view of non-dual consciousness. And it s true that this consciousness does indeed operate at a higher level of vibrational intensity, which at first can overwhelm our normal cognitve systems. The contemporary mystic Philip St. Romain describes it as being rewired from 110 volts to 220. But the point is not to squander this infusion of energy on bliss trips, but to learn to contain it within a quiet and spacious consciousness and allow it to permanently bring about a shift in our operating system, so that unitive (or nondual) perception becomes our ordinary, and completely normal mode of perception.

I have spoken quite a bit in other places (particularly in my The Wisdom Jesus) about these operating systems: a good metaphor from the computer world to describe the very different physiological undergirdings of our normal egoic consciousness (which perceives by differentiation) and mature unitive consciousnesss, which perceives by instantly grasping the whole. It can hold both ends of a paradox at once and look directly at the Oneness in which all the bits and pieces of our normally atomized field of vision find their whole. What is not normally recognized in discussions of these two distinctly different modes of consciousness is that they do, indeed, operate on different energetic frequencies. Our normal egoic consciousness is a relatively low-level state. Unitive consciousness both requires and confers far greater capacities of spiritual attention, surrender, clarity, and equanimity. What is ecstatic for egoic consciousness is simply the new baseline enstatic for a higher and more mature spiritual consciousness. The love that moves the sun and the stars (in Dante s beautiful words) neither overwhelms the system nor results in chaotic utterance or weird behavior. It is utterly steady on its feet and can communicate, rather than merely indulging in self-expression.

There is a learning curve involved here, of course, which is why some schools of esoteric Christianity speak of ascetic training as a strengthening of the nervous system. But one does not have to resort to esoteric training in order to find the basic teaching explained and developed; the core methodology is right there in classic contemplative Christianity, lurking under the terms humility and kenosis, and 100% grounded in the teachings of Jesus himself.

It is simply: let go. If you would see as God sees, you must flow as God flows.

The contemporary mystical theologian Ramon Panikkar expresses this idea beautifully in his book Christophany (pp 115-16): I am one with the source insofar as I, too, act as a source by making everything I have received flow again just like Jesus. As a foundational principle of Christian theology and ethical conduct, this kenotic principle has long been acknowledged. What is not usually seen, however, is that it is also Jesus s basic and revolutionary principle for the rewiring of consciousness.

When I teach Centering Prayer introductory workshops, the hardest part of the training for most people is the instruction that during the prayer time every thought must be let go: including messages from God and mystical experience. Thomas Keating s teaching around this point is humorous but blunt: If the Blessed Virgin herself should appear to you during prayer time and offer to pluck that wound from your flesh, the answer is Not now, Dearie, I m doing my Centering Prayer. Ouch!!! Many people, trained to use silence as a backdrop for receiving messages, rail against this teaching and positively refuse to follow it. But Thomas Keating is correct here, and in holding the line on this difficult and counterintuitive point again clears the way that leads from mystical experience to unitive perception.

Yes, mystical experiences can be delicious, but they are also a great spiritual trap. As long as we bring them home to our usual self, firmly grounded in the subject/object polarity of self-reflexive consciousness, we will continue to look on them as something we have, which contribute to our insight, illumination, and eventually full enlightenment. But ultimately, we cannot have our cake and eat it, too, and to step into full unitive consciousness requires our letting go of that lesser consciousness that would prefer to revel in its own experience. (Nearly four decades ago the great Tibetan master Trungpa Rinpoche named this attitude spiritual materialism ; it is the fatal sandtrap for emerging unitive consciousness).

To arrive at this unified whole, there is only one route to get there, and it has been known to all the spiritual traditions of the world: dying to self. The consciousness that has mystical experiences must finally be let go, as consciousness steps out into that bare, positionless freedom that is unity.

Jesus is emphatic in his insistence on kenosis (letting go); it is the tie-rod connecting his theology, his practice, and his sacramental self-offering. But the kenosis he has in mind is not a stoic stance against a pitiless reality; rather, it is a direct gateway into a divine reality which can be immediately experienced as both compassionate and infinitely generous as coherent Oneness. Abundance surrounds and sustains us like the air we breathe; it is only our habitual self-protectiveness that prevents us from perceiving it. Thus, the real problem with any constrictive motion (defending, hoarding, accumulating, clinging) is that it makes us spiritually blind, unable to see the dance of divine generosity that is always flowing toward us. In Jesus s teaching, then, kenosis is first and foremost a visionary tool; its primary purpose is to cleanse the lens of perception. For it immediately restores the broken link with the dynamic ground of reality, and ushers us into unitive wholeness. It is an effortless way of strengthening the nervous system.

We all yearn for mystical experience; it is one of the most prized of spiritual consolations. But it does not necessarily mean that one is spiritually advanced or on the fast track to transforming union. There are people who have plenty of mystical experiences but never acquire stable nondual consciousness. And there are people who have never had a mystical experience in their entire lives, who gradually, over the course of faithful kenotic practice, simply come to see from Oneness. I have met many of these people in monasteries; they are the old, usually simple monks in whom humility has gradually carved a heart that can contain the infinite.

In fact, there is a school of Sufism the so-called Silent Sufis who make this enstatic route their entire practice. On the outside, they are simple, ordinary tradesfolks. They bake bread, drive taxis, make small talk with you as they count out your change. Nothing betrays their quiet, alert presence. But inside, their hearts are on fire with divine love and mystical cosmoses whirl all around them. To hold the tension between the two realms gently and unassumingly as seen as the very essence of a mature human being and the highest form of spiritual servanthood.

I believe that many of the greatest of our own Christian spiritual visionaries are really of this ilk. Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Jacob Boehme, William Blake, Thomas Kelly, Thomas Merton and host of others are not speaking in wild, ecstatic babbling. Mysticism is not (as one of my seminary professors insisted) an excuse for fuzzy thinking. It is simply the trans-rational, visionary seeing of the Integral (or non-dual) mind, rather than the plodding and pedantic footsteps of philosophical scholasticism that has dominated Western thought categories for the past eight hundred years. As we ourselves attain to this consciousness, we begin to see how it all makes sense (this is one reason why I like to teach the so-called Christian mystics in the format of silent meditation retreats; people discover that once their normal rational minds have quieted down, they can easily follow the train of mystical thought.) Christianity was founded on this kind of vision and desperately needs to reclaim it as our roots and wings for the twenty-first century. By separating the ecstasy-driven, emotional stereotype of mystical experience from the steady, lucid progress toward purity [i.e., singleness] of heart that underlies all unitive seeing, it becomes possible to reclaim our own highest vision and the path that leads to its actualization.

By | 2012-10-11T12:13:27+00:00 December 20th, 2009|Articles|

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