Saturday, November 23, 2013

Inducing mystical experiences: potatoes, not mushrooms

It helps,
putting my hands on a pot, on a broom,
in a wash pail.

I tried painting,
but it was easier to fly slicing

— رابعة العدوية القيسية

This snippet of poetry comes from Daniel Ladinsky's playfully luminous Love Poems From God. Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī was an 8th century Muslim Sufi poet and saint.  She left behind no writings, but like the Christian desert ascetics of the 4th and 5th centuries, her sayings and stories were kept alive.

My class has been arguing about the validity of mystical experiences.  Not so much does anyone have them, the conversation centered more around whether mystical experiences that are deliberately sought out are "real"?  Is it a mystical experience if you took psilocybin (with the intent of triggering a mystical experience) or mescaline or LSD or...?  What about fasting?  or meditation?  or the sleep deprivation of long vigils?

Or working in the kitchen?  Doing the dishes as Teresa of Avila or slicing the potatoes?

Is it acceptable to put yourself in the way of God?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Mystical tests

My class on contemplation is discussing mysticism these days.  We've read John of the Cross and Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī; Margery Kempe and anonymous Carthusians -- not to mention William James.  Along with the classic literature, we've been reading modern psychology papers that try to quantify and characterize mysticism. Can you identify mystics using various scales?  How can a mystical experience be assessed?  

We used the Hood mysticism scale to assess various of the mystics we read (citing evidence from their writings).  But can you circumscribe, qualitatively or quantitatively, what is by definition an indescribable experience?  Can you eff the ineffable?  Along the way we ran across a paper (which we were surprised and delighted to find was co-authored by Patient Spiritual Director) which used the Hood scale, along with scales about narcissism and ego-grasping, to discriminate between psychosis and mystical experiences.  

We had a terrific conversation on Wednesday with psychologist Sidney Callahan, a Bryn Mawr alum and the author of Women Who Hear Voices:  The Challenge of Religious Experience (and 11 other books) about the interplay between mysticism and psychopathology.  Can you have a mystical experience that is apart from a religious tradition?  What role does priming and expectancy bias play? And perhaps for me the most interesting question she raised was, are we hard wired to be contemplatives? Thomas Merton rather thought so, or at least he thought it was part of the standard toolbox of the prayerful.  

Today I found this quiz for figuring out your "spiritual type" — I, and it seems everyone I know, is a mystic.  Maybe Merton is right, we are all mystics.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Boundary conditions

A few weeks ago my class on contemplation in the west looked at the floor plans of a series of monasteries dating from the 5th century through the 16th, and read several rules for monastics (beyond the iconic Rule of St. Benedict).  We talked about the ways in which the structures, physical and canonical, created boundaries.  Boundaries between work and prayer and recreation.  Boundaries between sacred and secular.  Boundaries between the silence and the noise of the world.

It's been making me think about the boundaries I set up in my own life, and the ways in which I sometimes let them be breached.  After far too many working evenings and weekends, I'm feeling like St. Anthony's bow:

A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him,
"Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it."
So he did. The old man then said,
"Shoot another,"
and he did so. Then the old man said,
"Shoot yet again,"
and the hunter replied,
"If I bend my bow so much I will break it."
Then the old man said to him,
"It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs."
When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.

Could I find a way to stop pulling on the modern day equivalent of the bow - my work email - and meet some of my needs (like laundry!)?  So I set up a virtual cloister for my college email on my computers, a physical separation between the incoming arrows and the generally life-giving correspondence from the other corners of my life.  I suspended the app that checks my work mail on my iPad.  Will I, like the brethren, be strengthened? Let us pray...