The Validity of Mystical Insight

The understanding we gain by mystical intuition transcends the dualistic mindset and goes straight to the heart of the mystery that characterizes human existence. And those who have true spiritual insights say that they require no proof, no verification. This has been true across millennia: they simply know. For the rest of us, though, there is ample reason to question. If knowledge based on others’ testimony alone cannot be proved or disproved, how can we distinguish it from dogma or the sort of unsubstantiated claims that proliferate in the New Age marketplace?

For those who as yet have no personal experience with the revelations of spiritual insight, perhaps the most convincing confirmation is the extraordinary consistency with which they have appeared in every culture and epoch. As Huston Smith maintains, these spiritual truths “are not the exclusive possession of any school or individual; were it otherwise they would not be truths, for these cannot be invented, but must necessarily be known in every integral traditional civilization.” Joseph Campbell recognizes the same universality, drawing the distinction between the historical nature of culture-specific religious belief and the nonhistorical nature of the mystical experience, which is “to such a degree constant for mankind that we may jump from Hudson Bay to Australia, Tierra del Fuego to Lake Baikal, and find ourselves well at home.” William James is no less convinced. He notes that throughout all mysticism “we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates languages, and they do not grow old.” These three authorities, arguably among the world’s most renowned in the area of comparative religion and human spirituality, individually reached the identical conclusion: there is a form of knowing that transcends the bounds of time and cultures and the dictates of sectarian dogma.

In a modern world that is mesmerized by the wonders of modern science and so often looks to its proclamations for guidance, the unchallenged longevity of esoteric wisdom stands in stark contrast to the relatively brief shelf life of scientific “truth.” Repeatedly over the last five centuries, the models of reality proffered by science’s leading experts as absolute, and widely accepted by the rest of us as such, have been discarded in favor of new constructs. One needs only a superficial grasp of the revolutions precipitated by Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein to realize that in the frame of human history the laws of science have held for no more than a few generations before being turned upside down. All the while, one and only one truth has reigned supreme in the esoteric realm.

The Paradox of Non-doing

Most of us are habitual doers; we want to be in control, get somewhere and have something to show for it. We live in a world where self-improvement is a high priority and our accomplishments are the measure of our worth. When we hear that the very concepts of doer and doing lose their relevance on the mystical path and that practice does not produce transformation, it becomes ever more difficult to comprehend. In the modern world we search unceasingly for answers, experiences, insights, and attainment, so claims that there is nowhere to go and nothing to gain can be baffling. How are we to do anything without doing? Do we make an effort not to make an effort? Can the aims of freedom and an end to suffering be gained without any attempt to gain them?

Mystical practices are designed to shed the light of awareness on the constructs and habitual patterns of thought that imprison us. Paradoxically, though, the techniques are constructs themselves, each including the perception of a doer, prescribed actions for the doer to take, and goals to be achieved with effort and perseverance. By their very existence, these techniques make a distinction between the state from which we begin and the preferred state to which we are directed. In other words, while purporting to open a window to the unconditioned, they are themselves essentially dualistic, the very state we are trying to leave.

The more effort we make, the more we strain to control what happens in our practice, the further away we get from what is. We become so busy doing that we forget being. Always looking ahead, we overlook where we are. We think we can divide and conquer: increasing the good and eliminating the bad, adding this and subtracting that. But every attempt is futile. Such actions are firmly anchored in the world of time—aspiring to be where we are not, looking to the future for spiritual fulfillment. We are like a cat chasing its tail, not realizing that its own movements are keeping the tail out of reach. Effort to change what is, by itself, reinforces the very delusion that we need to unravel: our existence as a separate self.

The principle of non-doing has little currency in Western society, but a sense of it can be found in activities like playing music or sports. We sometimes hear musicians talk about “forgetting themselves” during performances or say that the music “plays itself.” Playing with their eyes closed, and engaged in a long and beautiful piece, they seem lost in the flow of beautiful music. In sports, when players exhibit extraordinary skill and perform above their normal level of play, they are said to be “in a zone.” The key lies in the construct of the doer. When they are no longer self-conscious, no longer looking over their shoulder or second-guessing themselves, life takes over with a naturalness and fluidity that is immediately apparent to all.

Is it by the ocean’s grace that the wave finds the shore or the creek winds its way back to its source? The answer lies in the law of existence, the way things are, what Buddhists call the Dharma. The key to the gateless gate is not turned by our actions or efforts. There is no secret formula, no expedient we need to find, and no “skillful means” that will enable us to cross to the other side of the veil. The entrance is blocked until naked awareness, the beginning and end of the human experience, allows us to see it has never been closed. Nothing needs to be done.

Meaning and Nonduality

In a world that places such emphasis on meaning and purpose, the teachings of non-duality challenge all spiritual seekers who attempt to unravel their paradoxical wisdom. When we hear that our lives have no significance, we can easily start to see life bleakly and nihilistically, as meaningless altogether. When we read in the Tao Te Ching that “the world is sacred. It can’t be improved,” our cherished ideas of progress, improvement, and making a difference immediately come into question. We must understand, however, that our qualms arise because we are looking at all of this from the perspective of the doer in a world of divisions. Without the ego that reigns in this reality, there would be no fear of a meaningless life.

Does a flower have meaning? Standing naked and fragile for the short span of its existence, the flower makes no pretence of playing a role or making a contribution. When we look at its delicate form and catch the light scent it unreservedly shares, we don’t ask what purpose it serves; the question of meaning does not arise. The flower is perfect as it is and need make no apologies. Alan Watts argued that only words and concepts have meaning, because they point to something other than themselves; they are symbols, significant only as a conduit for communication. This is not the case with life. As Watts would say, the flower doesn’t have meaning. It is meaning. Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale would add, however, that the unfolding of a seed to the perfection of a blossom, and its subsequent decay, reveal a deep truth about all life. There is nothing haphazard in the process of nature, and according to Teasdale, the comprehensive purpose reflected in a flower suggests a similar truth embodied in our own spiritual pilgrimage to the source and origin of all that is. As he makes clear, this purpose is not of the parts but of the whole—“the divine drawing all things to itself first by the interconnectedness of everything, then through its cosmic symbolism, and finally through the communion and union of the mystical journey itself.”

People go round and round looking for meaning, never realizing that the seeker is the sought. Meaning is found in being, nowhere else. As long as there is one who is chasing it, the chase will never end. Like the flower, we are meaning. We cannot find it in objects or accumulate it through accomplishments. We can only be it. For this reason, Jesus declared that those things hidden from the wise and learned have been revealed to little children—and watching young children at play shows us just what he meant. They are so fully intent on what they are doing, so caught up in what Zen calls the “isness” of being, that the question of meaning never occurs to them. With the innocence that precedes the appearance of the ego, they are the truth so often repeated: life is in the living. When as adults we can return to this oneness, with the wisdom gained from having thought it lost, we will have closed the circle of life.

Nonduality and the Divine

Seekers who are new to the mystical traditions are often taken aback when they first discover that some of the spiritual paths make no mention of God. But the lack of the familiar concept of a supreme being is not the same as the denial of the Divine found in the theories of some modern thinkers, such as Marx or Nietzsche or Freud. Nondual traditions, lacking any concepts for the holy, nonetheless have no lack of holy awe; they simply explore and interpret the indefinable without attempting to attach labels to it. It reminds one of Victorian author and thinker Samuel Butler’s remark about God, “I cannot tell which is the more childish—to deny him, or to attempt to define him.”

Nonduality is a return to wholeness, going back to the source from which all manifestation evolves. The return entails a perceptual shift from the dualistic reality of our conventional world to the nondual, where boundaries no longer divide what is. In our everyday experience, concepts create in our minds a world of seemingly separate objects and events, which we then organize and make sense of through the framework of space and time and the dynamics of cause and effect. When the dualistic paradigm is applied to the spiritual realm, the deepest feelings and concerns of humanity often find substance in the concept of God. Concepts shape our deepest yearning and intuition into an image of God that is separate from us. The particular image to which we respond depends on our conditioning and capacity, but it is a fundamentally dualistic relationship. There is an unbridgeable ontological divide between the worshipper and the object of worship.

In esoteric traditions, such conceptual schemes are considered a function of conditioning, not an inherent part of what is. Nonduality abides no contrast or comparison, no distinction between this and that, and no sequence of before and after. Beneath the surface play of phenomena, there is a formless, undifferentiated realm invisible to the naked eye; devoid of all parts, there remains only the unceasing flow and energy of life. Any concept of the Divine, therefore, is misleading, as it stands in the way of the deepest insights into the nature of reality. Paul Tillich, one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, expresses it this way: “God is being-itself,” as opposed to a “being.”

Thus, there are no images or descriptions of the Divine in the esoteric literature that play more than a metaphorical role. There is a shared conviction that to name the unnamable is to close ourselves off from truth. Just as assumptions of individual existence dissolve in the ascent to the nondual, the traditional images of God likewise cease to be relevant. When we talk about the source of those aspects of life considered most holy and sacred, those which fill us with profound reverence, joy, wonder and awe, only abstract ideas or terms can convey a sense of their boundlessness. Whether we say the Tao, the Unborn, Being, or any of the numerous other designations, there is no division, either explicit or implied.

Over and over, the mystical teachings tell us that we cannot know the truth intellectually, but we can be it. Experiential as opposed to conceptual, esoteric spirituality has been compared to falling in love—something else that’s impossible to adequately express in words. It is a matter of union with what is—with what we are in the deepest sense. Judgment, good and evil, heaven and hell, and the myriad distinctions that make up our conventional worldview fall away when we realize what is. It comes with the shift from figure to ground. Only when our focus shifts from the external trappings of spirituality can we discern the ground of our being.