The Many Layers of the Mystical Mind Cake

06 May 2007 // books

This is an old essay that I've updated in light of some head-scratching reconsideration.

I've been fascinated by meditation for as long as I can remember. I grew up to stories like that of the monk Tripitaka, who traipsed his way across ancient China into the buddhist heartland of India, searching for holy sutras to bring back to the heathens in China. Tripitaka used his superior powers of meditation to control his protector, an surly stone monkey who wielded a magic staff and huffed around on a fluffy white cloud.

I marveled at Tripitaka and wondered if I, too, could one day learn how to fly through the air and bilocate, by the diligent application of meditative techniques. That fascination started a life-long exploration of the classic texts of meditation. I discovered books by masters with such tongue-twisting names as Ikkyu, Padhambasava, Patanjali, Gurdjeif and Eckhart. Each would offer a certain practice, often accompanied by suitably cryptic instructions such as "follow the cauldron of the inner strength up the stalk of the inner eye". Each would also claim to have the one and only way. But when you place these texts side-by-side, I started to see regions of broad overlap but also regions of wild contradiction. It became a weird obsession to figure out how to how to cut-and-paste the different systems of meditation into a coherent whole – forming a kind of voltron of mystical practices. This obsession continued for a large part my life, until I discovered that it had already been done. I discovered Ken Wilber.

Ken Wilber is probably the most famous of the transpersonal psychologists. Transpersonal psychologists are psychologists who believe that there are structures far beyond the psychoanalytic ego of Freud. They believe that there exists a logical transition from psychoanalytical structures such as the Freudian libido, to transcendental mystic states such as the buddhist realm of Nirvalkalpa. Transpersonal psychologists naturally mix the hard-nosed double-talk of western psychology with the dreamy language of eastern mystics.

Ken Wilber brings an academic rigor sorely lacking in much of transpersonal psychology. As comfortable discussing the finer points of german rationalist philosophy as he is in demonstrating the shamanic poses of Tibetan tantric yoga, he is an unstoppable reading-machine. Through Wilber's analytical syntheses, I began to get a grip on the different varieties of mystical traditions.

It might seem strange to say that one can study mystical experiences. After all, the american psychologist William James famously said that an essential feature of a mystic experience is its ineffability. Although James was a great psychologist, he was a poor mystic. His peak experience was notably induced by nitirous-oxide. In real mystic traditions such as Zen, there is a great importance placed on the formal interview between teacher and student. Exemplary dialogues have been recorded for posterity, and these form the backbone of systematic theories of Zen. There is something eminently communicable about the mystic experience.

Most schools of meditation would agree that the road to enlightenment is sign-posted by mystic states. Mystic states are moments when the every-day mind dissolves and is reconfigured in a fundamentally different way. Although most traditions identify dozens, if not hundreds, of different states, Wilber has boiled them down to 4 essential flavors, where each tradition typically emphasizes one of the flavors. In this essay, I hope to sample a little bit from each of the 4 types of mystical experiences.

Smack-down the Monkey Mind

Everyone finds meditation difficult in the beginning, and it's not because you've just jammed your legs into the full-lotus position. Sitting full-lotus has little to do with the essentials of meditation except that, perhaps, in this painfully contorted position, your limbs are locked into an painfully upright posture, which helps you stay awake.

The biggest obstacle to simple meditation exercises is the babble of our inner thoughts. Hindu texts call this internal dialogue the chattering of the monkey mind. If you've ever seen monkeys, you'll know that monkeys are constantly in motion, continually grasping something to play with, then chucking it aside, the very next moment, for something new. Our minds, like monkeys, rarely stay fixed on one thing for any length of time – the schizophrenic quality of television being the perfect fodder for the insatiable appetites of our monkey minds.

If it's not being stimulated by things in the outside world then our monkey minds feed on the turmoil of our inner world. Mostly this consists of a stream of internal dialogue – whether it be the replaying of previous conversations or a commentary on the current situation. These voices are not a bad thing. Without them, we wouldn't be able to guess what other people are thinking. Our inner voices incarnate our understanding of other people in our social world. Based on these facsimiles, we can make plans involving other people and anticipate their behavior. These are our inner maps of the social world. They embody our cultural norms.

For most of us, though, these inner voices talk way too much. Even though we need these voices to plan our way around the social world, they have a way of running along with a life of their own. Untrained minds are monkey minds, and our inner monkeys are primed to react to the external world and often set off in familiar grooves.

We are so used to following the whirligig of our thoughts that it takes practice, real practice, to quieten our inner voices. Perhaps as we get older, this kind of obsessional thinking naturally slows down, but the only way to consciously control our inner thoughts is through basic meditation exercises. Controlling the monkey mind, is the goal of beginner meditation exercises.

Beginner meditation exercises are essentially attention trainers. They typically concentrate on body processes such as breathing, a mantra, or a visualization. This is hard but as you get better at keeping your focus on your breathing, as a by-product you will find that your monkey mind will slow down. And as your attention stays on the breathing and away from your internal dialogue, you may even start to disidentify with your internal dialogue. When the inner voices do arise, they do not seize your attention but are perceived as voices to pay attend to, like an interesting PBS show. They say their piece, and then disappear back into your sub-conscious, instead of running riot with a cacophony of self-reinforcing voices.

Eventually, your inner dialogue trails off completely. Then, you will be able to just breathe. In and out. Your physical senses are heightened in the absence of the monkey mind. You see the world around with you with the intensity of a child – looking at things as if the first time.

Perceiving the Unbroken whole

As you learn to put your monkey mind to sleep, you are preparing for the first mystical experience – the rupture of the normal functioning of your attention. It is your attention that divides the world up into pieces, so when your attention dissolves, everything melts together and you perceive the world as a liquid whole. This is similar to the "zone" that athletes experience. Wilber calls this nature mysticism.

Inside our heads, the whole world is never represented completely. How could it be? Instead, the world is represented in fragments — some perceptions ooze into the background, while others push themselves to the forefront of our thoughts. What you see in the world, the foreground, depends on our attention. As our attention skips between objects in the world, our internal world of objects gets filled out.

As you continue beginner meditation exercises, you learn to fix your attention on one thing, and one thing only – the breath, or the body, or maybe a mantra – for a chunk of time. This can only be done if the internal voices diminish as they normally direct our attention towards suitable stimuli. As our attention holds steady on one thing, at some point, the focus of the attention may relax, and even melt away altogether. When that happens, the distinction between foreground and background disappears. The whole world, or nature, is apprehended as a whole. Emerson describes this state of nature mysticism in this famous passage:

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball – I am nothing! I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

The self becomes a transparent eyeball. Even the body feels seamlessly part of the rest of the world. In this state, patterns naturally flow from the macro into the micro, discerned perhaps for the first time. Inevitably, this mode of consciousness leads to a ecological world-view, where all physical processes are seen as inter-connected.

Nevertheless, nature mysticism can feel somewhat cold. After all, it is the integration of the objects observed out there. There is a lack of emotional connect with objects in the world, mainly because it is our normal habit to feel for certain things or people in our world. Without the focus of attention with which we normally apprehend the world, the emotional bonds are broken. This detachment comes through in another quote from Emerson, "The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances – master or servant, is then a trifle, and a disturbance. I am a lover of uncontained and immortal beauty."

The Pre/Trans Fallacy

Here, a word must be said to fend off a certain criticism of mysticism. Freud, for instance, dismissed mystical experiences as child-like mental states. On the other, we also don't want to lose sight of the adult nature of mystical experiences, which is what Jung does, who argues that such mystic states are a direct return to the mentality of child-hood.

Wilber has argued persuasively that the positions of both Freud and Jung are inadequate. They both fall under a fallacy, that Wilber has coined as the pre/trans fallacy, a concept that is perhaps Wilber's greatest contribution to transpersonal psychology. Wilber recognized that although there is indeed a significant overlap between the "oceanic" mode of consciousness of babies with the one-ness state of nature mysticism, there is also a fundamental difference between the two, and that is the interposition of the ego. Babies have no ego, and thus, are not cognizant of the social world that includes other people. The meditation practitioner, assuming she is a functional adult, possesses an ego to the extent that she can competently interact with other people.

The concept of the ego has suffered a rather bad rap in the esoteric studies literature. Some schools have argued that that since mystical experiences are described as transcending the ego, the goal of mystical training is to eliminate the ego entirely. This is a profound misunderstanding, leading to serious pathologies. After decades of Buddhism in the west, it is now recognized that not everyone is ready for meditation. There have been cases of people in whom meditation induced a psychotic break-down. If mystical experiences is about transcending the ego, then, to meditative effectively, you've got to have one to begin with, and preferably a healthy one.

The word, ego, as Ken Wilber pointed out, was a deliberate mistranslation by Freud's English translator. In German, Freud used the every-day term Ich, which means simply I. Instead Freud's translator chose the latin word for I, ego. Ego is the I, or that which you consider yourself. The function of the ego, is defined, ironically, by how the ego relates to others. Ego is intrinsically social.

In terms of meditation, one should hope that the beginner of meditation has a sturdy ego. The health of the ego depends on how you deal with others, how the the ego functions in the social world. We come into the world with social roles handed down to us – by our parents, our peers, our community. As we grow up, we learn how to play roles in different situations. As we switch between roles, our identities fluctuate. Developing a sturdy ego means that we have developed a core that is not fractionally invested in any of the roles. This sturdy core, your ego, transcends the roles that were given to you.

Not until you develop a clear ego identity, can you recognize that others also have an ego, you learn that they, too, have their needs and desires. Before this point, others are experienced as forces of nature, or organs of the social world. After you realize that other people exist, and that you exist independently from them. The ability to experience others as autonomous beings is crucial in mysticism because it is how you come out of a mystical state, as surely you must, that will determine the value of a mystical experience. Is the unity experienced in the nature mystic state integrated into a visceral understanding of ecology, or does it pathologically inflate is it pump up a sickening inflation of a weak ego?

Sliding down the Kundalini

Nature mystics exalt in the world, but forget about the people in them. As they lose sight of the details, they learn not to sweat the small stuff. In short, they become stand-offish exuberant bores. What is missing in nature mystics is a certain intimacy with the things in the world. There is a disconnect between self and other. The next type of mystical state takes aim at rupturing the self/other boundary. Wilber class this deity mysticism.

The types of meditation exercises that aim for Deity mysticism include kundalini yogas, deity visualizations, and mandala meditations. Deity visualizations involve the visualization of intricate images of deities. Mandalas offer up geometric patterns, which is similar to deity visualizations, but with the difference that the geometric patterns in the mandalas correspond more closely to how our perceptual field is neurologically wired. Kundalini yogas involve the visualization of the chakras inside our bodies and the energy lines connecting them. Each of these aim to harness some aspect of the imagination in order to disrupt the normal processes of perception.

Perhaps the simplest meditation that focuses on perception is the old stare-at-the-candle-flame meditation. Maintaining focus on the flickering flame, you will eventually break up the perceptual field – instead of seeing the flame, you see swirling colors and patterns. This may even disrupt the sense of solidity that we instinctively give to perceptions of the outside world. In a similar way, mandala exercises and kundalini visualizations develop the imagination until the visualizations become more real than the objects around you.

These meditation exercises attempt to break down the solidity of the external world, either by disrupting perceptions or strengthening the internal imagination. When this process is mastered then you are ripe for the rupture of the self/other boundary.

Rupturing the Self/Other Boundary

In psychology, it's often said that beyond the five basic senses, there is also a sixth – the sense of knowing where your body is, which is also known as prioproception. If you put your hand behind your back where you eye can't see it, you still know where your hand is. This is sometimes known as the skin-encapsulated ego.

You body sense forms the membrane that separates the inside and outside. Your toes and fingers are intimately part of you in a way that objects in the real world are not. In some types of meditation, you explicitly explore the sense of prioproception by meditating on the different parts of the body, exploring the boundary of your skin-encapsulated ego. Yet this sense is not fixed, it can change. Sometimes your legs fall asleep. When limbs are amputated, the body sense adjusts.

As you master the types of meditations that loosen the hold of perceptions that construct the solid world, you are at the same time, loosening the bonds of your sense of prioproception. The breakthrough of the state of Deity Mysticism occurs when the skin-encapsulated ego melts away, or as the Zen Buddhists say, body-mind dropped. Objects that used to be perceived as part of the external world, like the proverbial meditation table in front of you, are perceived as part of your body. You feel an intimacy with the table, like the toes on your feet. You finally realize that it is only out of habit, that you identify your self with your physical body as circumscribed by your skin-encapsulated ego.

Dissolving the body boundary can happen to different extents. The full deity mystic experience occurs when the mind-body boundary is dropped completely. Everything you see is part of your own body. One flesh, one body. Everyone you see is the Buddha smiling back at you. Intimacy and immediacy is the salient feature, often accompanied by joy and wonder.

As this sense of intimate oneness develops, it is natural that you develop universal compassion, which is known as the boddhisatva vow. Just as stubbing your foot shoots pain straight into your neural cortex, so there is no difference in witness the pain of others, and feeling your own physical pain. This is not an abstract existential pain, but a real physical pain, like the grief that comes when a loved one dies.

The flip side of deity mysticism is the potential for an incapacitating sorrow for the suffering of all creatures in the world. To move beyond this suffering, one moves into Formless Mysticism.

Conscious of Consciousness

In formless mysticism, it is the process of perception itself that is the object of the meditation. The classic Zen approach is to focus on questions that question the nature of observation such as the famous "What is the sound of one hand clapping". These questions, koans, are meant to prod the meditator into the convoluted self-referential process of observing the process of observation itself. Another great koan in another formless mystic tradition is from the Mahirisi, who asked his disciples to meditate on the simple question, "Who am I?".

Ken Wilber has argued persuasively that one of the foundations of western metaphysics is actually a misunderstanding of a classic piece of formless mysticism. Descartes' "cogito ergo sum" is traditionally taken to be a thesis about the unreliability of the external world. It serves as a axiom for a certain type of analytical philosophy. But Wilber argues that 'corgito ergo sum' is a phenomenological description of the formless mystical state.

In accounts of mystic states in formless traditions, an early precursor to a formless mystic experience is the experience of light. As the mind focuses on the origin of perceptions, defined perceptions are prevented from developing. This results in experiences of diffuse light, and music. This simplified perceptions are the results of blocking the development of perceptions received in our sense organs.

The formless mystical state occurs when all perceptions ceases. One is then conscious only of consciousness. Since there are no relative perceptions to keep track of time differences, time, for all and intents and purposes, stops. One steps out of the manifest universe. Meister Eckhart calls this the experience of the Godhead, the underlying fabric of existence. Buddhists call this Emptiness. From this vantage point, all perceptions, which belong to the manifest universe, is an illusion.

No one stays in the pure formless state for long. Arguably, it is the return of the manifest world that is more interesting. When the formless state passes, and perceptions begin to bleed onto the blank of consciousness, the world rushes back in, experienced as a single object. With the differentiable quality of changing perceptions, consciousness of time starts up again. Time and the manifest universe are understood to be illusions flickering across the ground of consciousness.

Mystics who achieve formless meditation sometimes report a very specific form of cosmic loneliness, which is ended by the manifest world rushing back into consciousness.

The Long Road Home

In Zen, the path of enlightenment is described as a two part process where one first walks up the mountain, and then walks down the other side. Meditation exercises leading to the formless mystic state is climbing up the mountain. The state of formless mysticism is the view at the top of the mountain. However, real Zen training is said to begin in coming back down the mountain – that is, to learn to live in the world in a way which can bind these mystical experiences into everyday life, instead of treating it like a voyeuristic memory or a pleasant LSD trip. The enlightened sage is not the one who has had mystical experiences, but one who is constantly experiencing the world mystically – the external world as an interconnected whole (nature mysticism), that our inner selves extends outside our bodies (deity mysticism) and that our consciousness is more enduring than the manifest world (formless mysticism).

Om mani padne hum.