Matter and Mysticism (I)

Matter’s energy is not only the driving force of evolution, it is also the “stuff” of which our organisms are constructed, the vehicle of everything we are, have and do.  We are nothing else.  We are wall-to-wall material energy, the universal homogeneous substrate of this breathtaking cosmos bearing our galaxy with our earth teeming with endless varieties of life including us.  All of it … every last bit … is made of the same “stuff” as I am.  This is astonishing!  What we have here is the basis for the possibility of an experience of oneness that all our cultural traditions are familiar with: mystical experience.

What I mean by mystical experience is based on the knowledge uncovered by science about the focused dynamism of matter’s energy.   Matter’s energy is existential: it is a dynamism with a very limited, very specific goal: to be-here.  It predominates in all the forms it assumes.  Since it is what we are made of, we are constantly in its presence — we swim in it, inside and outside of ourselves at every moment — its character and significance are accessible to everyone all the time whether they attend to it or not. 

There is nothing “mystical” about matter’s energy in itselfWhat is mystical is my reaction to the perception of its presence and relationships; there is the potential for a profound human affective response.  The perception has the capacity to precipitate a “chain reaction,” for all organisms of whatever kind — animals, insects, plants, fungi, bacteria — are similarly constructed and interact with the same material environment.  Viruses, complex organic and pre-organic molecules, the table of elements with their atomic numbers so neatly organized in pyramidal complexity ― we are all made of the same “stuff.

With atoms, we thought we had reached bedrock.  But then the world of sub-atomic particles opens up, and the distinction between “things” and the time and space they occupy breaks down.  The “environment” — the space-time envelope — is itself the fields, the wave functions of what we call, almost metaphorically, “particles” because we really have no idea what they are beyond what they do to our lab equipment.  They are simply further examples of matter’s energy and, in fact, seem to be the invisible building blocks of everything else in the visible universe that we thought we comprehended so thoroughly.  But are they really the ultimate building blocks?  We were fooled once; we are probably better off saying “seem-to-be.”

I contend it is the active and interactive presence of an informed intelligent material organism in the midst of this sea of materiality that generates “mystical experience” — the perception of oneness.  This is classic.  Mystics of all ages and from all traditions, east and west, describe the experience in exactly these terms — oneness, radical common identity accompanied by a reduced sense of “self” and a profound sense of belonging — even though the basis for that unity was understood differently according to history and culture.  This is most often translated as a feeling of universal love.

I want to emphasize:  I am not talking about the experience that initiates the awareness, I am talking about the factual basis for it — the reality that of its very nature provides the possibility and even the likelihood that it will occur.  I mention this because the “kick-off” experience can be anything that triggers the reaction for a particular individual in their own time, place and background.  A precipitating experience “awakens” an awareness that was always there but lay dormant — in the background — because our consciousness, which is designed for dealing with the practical decisions that demand our continual attention, is taken up with survival.

The sense of oneness is not a subjective projection.  It has deep roots in the physical organism and its self-consciousness energized at all times, even in sleep, by the conatus.  The human organism is always connected with the entire material environment in which it lives, and moves and has its being, so the awareness of that connection is always sub-con­sciously present.  Attending to it is an example of the contemplative function; almost anything can bring it forth.  That doesn’t mean it can’t be bypassed, ignored or even suppressed by the distractions of self-preoccupation and the labors of daily survival.[1]

Waking Up

Mystical experience, I contend, is much more available to us than we have been historically led to believe by a Catholic hierarchy determined to restrict all valid religious experience to those who submit to orthodox belief and participate in the official rituals of the Church.  The universality of mystical experience, however, is amply attested by witnesses from every era and every culture, including  those who are not associated with any religious tradition.  A case in point can be found in the recent work of Sam Harris, an avowed atheist and anti-religionist, who pursues “contemplative experience” for its own sake and claims to have had ecstatic moments when he was totally overcome by a deep conviction of the love he bore for all things, a conviction, he assures us, that was not an emotional short-circuit, but an abiding conscious awareness.  He reports the experience in his book Waking Up:

… the general feeling remained one of absolute sobriety and of moral and emotional clarity unlike any I had ever known.  It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. …

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be.  I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in that love.  Love was at bottom impersonal — and deeper than any personal history could justify.  Indeed, a transactional form of love: “I love you because …”  now made no sense at all.

And then he repeats for emphasis:

I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love.  The insight had more the character of a geometric proof.  It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all.[2]

This supports my contention that mystical experience is objective and based in the common possession of material energy.  I can feel a boundless love for other things because there is nothing that can walk through any door that is not, as I am, matter’s existentially thirsty energy.  I AM, in the most objective and scientific sense of the word, THAT … meaning the same as everything that exists … wherever and however it exists.

It is this objective basis of mystical experience that I want to focus on, not whether the experience occurred or not, or what set it off, or whether the person experiencing it was particularly religious, perceptive or esthetically sensitive.  My point is that mystical experience is not a subjective projection, even though when it occurs it is entirely private to the individual and is experienced subjectively.  In the case Sam Harris was recounting, the experience was precipitated by his ingestion of a drug called MDMA also known as Ecstasy.  But, he insists, the drug was a trigger; it did not create the experience nor was the experience limited to the ingestion of the drug.  He was convinced that the drug opened a doorway to the objective reality of his conscious organism-in-the-world, an opening that afterward he pursued and was able to access without its use.

Harris is interested in mysticism because he believes it is the source of one of the most satisfying and personally enhancing experiences to be had during our time under the sun.  As he narrates it, in his case it virtually eliminated personal insecurity:  he lost all concern for himself, envy of others, and any competitive desire to promote his own interests.  It generated feelings of universal love which he acknowledges as unquestionably beneficial to society and therefore objectively desirable for all.

In Harris’ scheme of things universal love and the reduction of personal insecurity are both functions of a dawning awareness that the “self” is an illusion.  Buddhists, of course, have always maintained exactly that, but so have Christian mystics .  Most interpret the feeling to mean a loss of a false ego-consciousness in favor of a “self” that now identifies with all things (in the case of Westerners, mediated by “God”).  Harris means it in a scientific reductionist sense: that there is nothing there besides the organism’s self-awareness; in other words, there is no separable “soul.”  Western mystics, depending on their institutional commitments, might disagree on dogmatic grounds, but please note: not because of the experience.  As far as the experience is concerned all agree with Harris: the self is an illusion.

 The Metaphysical Question

Is self an illusion?  The answer depends on what you think the word “self” implies.  If you think it evokes a separable “soul” able to live without the body and therefore endures after death, I would agree, there is no evidence to support such a thing.  It is the tireless thirst of the conatus that sustains the feeling that there is a ”self” that can be saved from death forever by satisfying the cravings for accumulation and self-protection.  It is an erroneous belief that the Buddhists identify as the “false self,” a mirage that blinds us to the reality: the commonality of all things and of the place of the biological organism within the totality.

The individual human organism is real, objective and consciously driven to keep itself alive.  There is nothing illusory about that nor about the homogeneity of the constituents of all things.  If what you mean by “self” is the awareness of being an individual material organism within an environment of material things by which it continues to survive, then “self” is real ― temporary, ephemeral, highly determined ― but real.  But as something apart from the self-awareness characteristic of all biological organisms, it does not exist.  There is only one “thing” there: the individual material human organism, and its self-conscious­ness is a function of its organicity, not in any way different, separate or independent of it.

And what about the universal love Harris speaks of ?  Is it any more real than the “self”?  He insists that it was an insight that had “… the character of a geometric proof.”  Is the universal love that accompanies “mystical experience” simply a serendipitous surprise ― an immense stroke of luck with no more meaning than that most of us happen to like itOr is there a reason why the “geometric proof” spills out in love?  Are our feelings simply the emotional resonance of some random interaction of organic factors, like neurotransmitters flooding one set of synapses rather than another which, once we identify where in the brain this event occurs and what ignites it (like MDMA), we can reproduce at will?

Asked this way, the question reveals itself to be all too familiar.  How do we explain our enthusiasm for anything that we like or dislike?  It doesn’t only apply to “universal love.”  Esthetic appreciation, literary criticism, political inclination, choice of friends, preference in music, foods, wines, fashions and other matters of “taste” also inhabit those misty regions where we are not quite sure whether what we like or dislike is really there.  It almost seems that even the answer to the question about taste … is itself a matter of taste; but in any case I seriously doubt that we will say the answers to all these questions are nothing but pure illusory projection.

To the contrary, I contend that our enthusiasm for matter’s energy is absolutely objective.  It is rooted in the insuppressible reaction of the biological organism’s conatus which is an innate material drive to survive and thrive on display in the behavior of all biological organisms.  Given the intensity and uninterrupted vigilance  of the conatus with its undistracted focus on material survival, it is hardly likely that the descriptions we hear from mystics of their feeling of love for all existing things would not be connected to the connatural awareness of and enthusiasm for existencematerial energy.  The conatus is an embedded organic function which, because it manifests similar characteristics across all the phyla of living things, even the most primitive, suggests that it must be ultimately attributable to whatever preceded the emergence of life, i.e., the building blocks of life itself.  Thus even though direct evidence that the conscious intentionality to be-here is limited to living things, I believe that the hypothesis that it was present, dormant, non-conscious and unobservable, in the precursors and prior developments of life in matter’s evolving history, is justified.

So we have to acknowledge: material energy plays the role once assigned to “God.”  For not only does it function as creator and sustainer of the cosmic order, but it is also the source and ground of mystical experience.  It is the constituent of the contemplating human subjects … the component elements of the objects of their contemplation … and the link between them.  It explains everything: what we are, what we have and what we do.

(Next post: “The Testimony of the Mystics”)


[1] For an epistemological discussion of the contemplative function of human consciousness see my book The Mystery of Matter, IED Press, Appomattox, VA 2010., pp. 180-190

[2] Sam Harris, Waking Up, Simon and Schuster, NY,  2014, pp. 4-5


One comment on “Matter and Mysticism (I)

  1. saluman73 says:

    Tony, I continue to marvel at the depth and breadth of your vision.I also love your ability to explain so clearly the dynamics of mysticism. I encourage you to keep writing as you just promised. My comments so far: your very clear stand on the self as an illusion has been one of my central arguments for the past 13 years since I wrote “The Day My Ego Died.” I wrote about the dark night of the Ego that I went through after 9/11, realizing that my self was an illusion, and I had spent 40 years practising Ego Psychology to individuate an Ego that did not exist except as a figment of my imagination. Thank G-d/Matter/Energy that I have had “intimations of immortality” as the Poet says, since my early childhood, and have always been able to experience my mystical Oneness with the Universe, despite seminary/ novitiate training in the Tridentine, orthodox Catholic tradition. A second point I would make is the criticism Teilhard always received, that Teilhard and you, ( and I) do not make enough allowance for evil and chaos in the universe.
    Sal Umana

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