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Religion and Mystical Experience

Updated on December 3, 2014

Examining Existence

The difficulties in examining our own existence is not only reflected in our literature but in the way we live our lives. There is no greater mystery to us than that of who we really are and what is the meaning of the world around us. Although our daily lives are couched in routines and habits that leave little time for confronting the deeper meanings, we are still haunted by the mystical and spiritual dimensions that are often scoffed at and ridiculed. Langston Hughes, in his essay "Salvation", describes how at thirteen he was "saved." He was told by his aunt how..."when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside!". Naturally she was talking about God or Jesus, but it is surprising how often "light" comes up when talking about such things as mystical experience and just as often how the experience is so totally personal, happening inside. Angels are supposed to be beings of light, halos of light surround the heads of saints, a tunnel of light is supposed to greet us upon dying, all seem to be symbols that go beyond mere religion and into that more sacred place. Annie Dillard In "Sight Into Insight" tells us how a newly sighted girl is taken to a garden and sees "the tree with the lights in it." and her subsequent quest to find for herself such a tree. Eventually she is successful, but was it her commitment to finding the actual image of the tree or was it reclaiming a sense of herself that she had lost? Her description of the event seems to give the feeling of a surface reality, one that she is struggling mightily to explain but words, in the end, fail. Throughout her piece images are hewn from language to offer a sense of wonder that was life changing, awe inspiring and religious in a deep personal way.

Organized religion

Organized religion, on the other hand, has consistently tried to explain, in terms understandable to people leading ordinary lives of routines and habits, what that strange inner light is, what those feeling of rapture are. Religion is designed to give answers to questions that interrupt our lives, but in order to do that it creates absolutes, strict doctrines that are to be followed. Whether these doctrines are based on the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, or other secular works, they are generally interpretations of meanings initially separate from personal experience. In Randall Balmer's essay "Adirondack Fundamentalism" he describes how a fundamentalist retreat encourages participants to conform to the tenets of a particular religious philosophy. Part of conforming is the sharing of religious enlightenment, an enlightenment based on the guidelines set down by those whose personal ideals are served. Their initial purpose may have been to counteract seeming negative influences as Balmer indicates, "First, the fundamentalists separated out of mainline denominations so they could maintain a theology untainted by liberalism or, in the argot of the day, "Modernism." However, in the long run, their standards are themselves expressed in negative terms..."Don't dance, drink, smoke, swear, or attend movies,". Why people accept these conditions, has a lot to do with their personal attitude towards that mystical dimension. Many don't have a clue that such a thing exists, they are following in the family tradition, accepting the same kind of enlightenment that they see in familiar faces. Balmer aptly states, "We seek above all an experience that will yield the spiritual fulfillment we see (or think we see) in our parents."

Religions popularity may stem from the fact that it offers people control, a way of setting aside that mystical part, compartmentalizing it so that the individual can concentrate on other, more worldly things. No matter how devoutly religious a person may be, or how influenced they have been by those around them, the experience of religion, enlightenment, whatever you want to call it, is a personal thing. A thirteen year old Langston Hughes struggled to conform to the expectations of enlightenment that his religion professed. He waited for a sign, "The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices. And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting - but he didn't come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened." Finally he pretends to be saved because that is what everyone else wanted and it shook his faith to the core. He conformed but was denied the "light" and that special something that was supposed to happen inside.

There are problems with what organized Judeo-Christian religion presents to those seeking to understand their existence. While on one hand such religion offers to take care of our mystical needs, on the other it systematically exerts its power to further its own ends with little consideration for the individual experience. The promise of enlightenment is held like a carrot on a string and only when strict devotion to the tenets of the faith is adhered to, can one possibly experience it for themselves.


Religion, however, does not have to control in order to enlighten. In Gilbert Highet's essay "The Mystery of Zen" he describes a completely different form of enlightenment. Instead of relieving our lives of the burden of the mystical dimension, he describes a philosophy that..."take(s) us toward a way of life which is utterly impossible for westerners living in a western world, and nevertheless has a deep fascination and contains some values which we must respect." It changes the way we live. While the Judeo-Christian religions are couched in traditions, ceremony, and rituals used to explain things to its believers, Zen is based entirely on experience and the unexplainable. Highet talks of a German Philosopher who wrote of his experience studying Zen through the art of archery. "indeed the only way, for a European to approach Zen mysticism was to learn one of the arts which exemplified it." The study of this discipline was arduous and baffling to anyone whose idea of archery was that of shooting arrows. "He was not even allowed to aim at a target for the first four years. He had to begin by learning how to hold the bow and arrow, and then how to release the arrow; this took ages," states Highet. In the end, it wasn't about shooting arrows, it was about a way of life that removed the boundaries between thought and action, between the conscious and unconscious mind. While most Western religions are defined by their dictums, explaining ways of being to their followers, Zen stops explaining and allows the devotee to experience the enlightenment for themselves. The individual uniqueness of such an experience explains why it is impossible for someone to define what Zen is. In Highet's essay he describes how an animal is "instinctively in touch with reality....but it has never had a mind and so cannot perceive the Whole, only that part with which it is in touch." This sentiment is echoed in Dillard's essay when she talks about how sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain, meaning they perceive the universe as it is. Even though Zen does not have all the trappings of religion such as rituals, scripture, prayers, or god, it is still a religion because it's objective is to create a transformation, a direct experience of the world without all the extraneous thoughts our minds put on things. As enticing as such an experience may be, for Western man it is impractical to spend seven years learning to shoot one arrow. We are impatient, we seek immediate gratification, so we accept the ideas and ideals of others who say they have the answers. They may explain that the road to enlightenment is fraught with perils and hardships but we don't bother ourselves so much with that since it seems saying a prayer a few times a day or once a week will do the trick, and that most likely we won't get to experience it until we are dead anyway.

What if, on the other hand, truly experiencing that mystical dimension was as easy as making an observation? Or opening ourselves up to those things around us that we know are there but never really see. When I was younger I used to cut lawns in the summer for extra money. One day as I cut this particular part of lawn near a stand of trees that shaded the sunlight so it came through in irregular splotches, all of a sudden I had this strange sensation of "aliveness" in the grass and was immediately struck with an emotion that seemed to radiate out from that particular spot, a feeling of being connected to it in some way beyond my comprehension. To this day I am not sure what happened, but I was overwhelmed by both a sense of peace and affinity for that place which was completely out of character and foreign to me. The feeling passed and I went about my life, but I never forgot it. Had I, for that one fleeting moment, experienced enlightenment? If I did, then how had it come about? I don't remember doing anything in particular which may have triggered it. Dillard expresses her feelings after a similar experience which she describes in her essay, "But I can't go out and try to see this way. I'll fail, I'll go mad. All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes." Perhaps it was a moment like that described by Highet when the young German Philosopher "forgot himself, forgot that he was learning archery for some other purpose, forgot even that he was practicing archery, and became part of that unconsciously active complex, the bow, the string, the arrow, and the man."

It seemed that my experience fit the definition of being "saved" because something did happen to me inside, but what right did I have to encounter such a thing? It took the German Philosopher seven grueling years to get to that point, while a devoutly religious young Langston Hughes was unable to produce such religious enlightenment surrounded by staunch believers.

Being neither devoutly religious or mystical there were only two ways I could look at the experience - deny it, or realize that is not such a rare event.

In our frantic lives we are torn, knowing there is a deeper meaning but unwilling to let go the safety of familiar things. If, on the other hand, such mystical experiences were familiar then our acceptance of them would not be so hard to take. To the religious my experience was that of an angel or communion with God; explanations that ring with familiar truth. Yet the actual nature of it was beyond pat homilies, it was unexplainable, and the logical Western mind will not accept such a thing. Perhaps that is why similar events are so seldom recorded, because they go counter to our expectations and the way we have chosen to live our lives.

* All essays referenced are from: The Norton Reader ninth Edition, An Anthology of Expository Prose; Linda H. Peterson, General Editor; Joan E. Hartman; John C. Brereton. W.W. Norton & Company, New York - 1996


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