“I’m prone to mystical experiences. I’ve had six that were sufficiently intense that I ended up recording them in detail later. And none of those mystical experiences involved any revelation of God. So they weren’t religious experiences – they were irreligious, and I’m still an atheist.“
Not my words, but Eric Steinhart’s, from his article in the SNS Newsletter (January 25, 2018), an exploration of “Mysticism and Beauty”.
I fully identify with Eric’s experience, yet find it almost as hard to use the “A” word as the “G” one. And I never liked “Agnostic” either. I don’t seem to be able to affirm, deny or be truly open-minded about whether or not there is some Person or Force (as powerful, loving, wise, just, or beautiful as any of us can imagine) in the universe. I’ve come to accept that I act and think with the assumption that there is some underlying positive energy (analogous to the force of gravity). Yet I remain unconvinced that it is a solid and abiding reality.
The gravity analogy is quite attractive. It’s not that L-O-V-E has an objective reality apart from (transcending) everything in our world. It’s just that in certain conditions what we call love is present as a welcome, powerful and substantial reality. When the conditions are gone, it cannot be found. If we want love, we must enter or create the appropriate conditions.
However, my consciousness is substantially conflicted. (1) I know of no way of getting an objective assessment of its existence or nature, much less the mystical. All my experience is processed through imperfect and self-serving subjective senses and brain, which makes me incapable of comprehending anything with true objectivity. In fact, my (human) experience is so limited I cannot justify making any absolute conclusions. Even the spiritual and scientific superstars do not have that within their gift, whether or not they think they do. Yet (2), like many people I welcome a transcendental reference point, and often act as though it’s an objective fact. I’ve learned to live with this tension – treating my conflicting working conclusions as two extremes to avoid, as I seek a “middle way” perspective. Somehow this helps me live in a more satisfying and, I hope, more helpful way.
I have noted in myself a common human “need” (desire) to affirm or believe in a fixed and clear source without really experiencing it in the fullness I ascribe to it. I can catch myself giving concrete names and descriptions to my ambiguous and mysterious – and fleeting – deeply satisfying experiences. Better, I think, just to acknowledge what it really was like, even though that will inevitably leave some unfulfilled longing, some sense of incompletion. The alternative is a shallow and constraining surety that does not really reflect the way it was.
What’s wrong with living and dying without ultimate certainties and fulfillments, and acknowledging that one’s spiritual longing has remained out of touch with the ideal in its fullness? A sense of brute honesty brings both joy and peace. My way of processing the occasional mystic moments (and all else) will likely remain a minority choice. But it has its own satisfaction: a sense of authenticity; a kind of sanity.
I appreciate the Buddhist habit of “reverencing” the highest (deepest) realities we long for, yet knowing they are just relative truths, based on partial perceptions and distorted conventions. Although relative truth serves the important purpose of helping us make the most of our opportunities to meliorate and comfort ourselves and others – a base for functioning in the world. Yet the absolute truth alludes us. Even face to face before it, we are simply not equipped to register what it really, fully is. Most people, it seems, prefer a comfortable certainty over an unsettling ambiguity, even if the ambiguous position is more realistic. But I’m part of the minority which welcomes ‘that kind of thing’.
But I also appreciate the conclusion of many mystics that the absolute must remain unnamed and mysterious. To describe and define it – often with the resultant rules and regulations of religion – seems to be turning from, and diminishing its reality.
Although the absolute cannot be grasped or equated with the rational, our reason can be an ally in figuring out what to do with the sense of reality that comes from transcendental experiences. But so, equally, can the arts. In fact the way the arts approach the senses (comfortable as they are with ambiguity, contradiction and emotional thought and action), suits my perception of both imminent and transcendent reality just fine.
Such thoughts lead to a few poems:
I’d walked the route at least a dozen times before,
but never reached the reservoir,
though often I had talked about it,
and planned, prepared the visit.
How we would discuss it!
How I yearned for it!
Once I met three travelers
who had walked the whole way,
there and back,
“It’s not so far ahead,” they said.
“A lovely place.
You should go before it’s dark”
I had the time,
so soldiered on…
until I heard again,
the call to hurry home,
In My Neighbour’s Garden
In my neighbour’s garden:
no flowers planned or planted;
no food cultivated.
It’s never visited by friends;
It seems forsaken.
We look and laugh, aghast,
that such a place of promise is left ignored, untended –
and in a neighbourhood like ours.
Until today, while still abed,
(my neighbour was away at work,
or visiting the sick and lonely,
who seem to draw her out so often.)
I saw a a blackbird
hiding in the jambled, leafy branches
of that thing – we wonder if it is a tree or bush –
noted that it was eating berries;
heard it singing a magic tune;
then, drifting to the ground,
it feasted on a lot of little living things;
and flew away.
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2 thoughts on “Living Without Certainty, With Wonder and Yearning”
These are beautiful Dennis – thanks so much for your thoughts and poems on this 🙂
Thank you for sharing your thoughts here, It’s wonderful to readan essay someone else has written and find oneself saying, “Oh! That’s it!” several times! I;m saving this to read a few more times as I think it will help me understand my own thinking on the topic.