Chapter Summary: This chapter discusses if a scientific religion could ever be an exact science. Various ways of judging a person’s mystical state are explored.
Those who have united with the Eternal Substance have transcended the play of Maya. Since they’re indifferent to pleasure and pain and aloof from the concerns of practical people, such people may seem foolish. Yet since they’re obviously God-centered they’re called “God’s fools” or even “God-men” or “God-women.” Eckhart writes:
That person who has renounced all visible creatures and in whom God performs His will completely—that person is both God and man. His body is so completely penetrated with Divine light . . . that he can properly be called a Divine man. For this reason, my children, be kind to these men, for they are strangers and aliens in the world. ([J03],223).
Such people are consciously united with the Ultimate. Could they help others to union? Eckhart continues:
Those who wish to come to God have only to model their lives after these men. . . . Those who are on the way to the same God and have not yet arrived will do well to become acquainted with these people who have attained. ([J03],223).
Of course, every seeker doesn’t need so advanced a guide. Those just beginning can obtain help and advice from more advanced seekers, or from books. But with all the traps and pitfalls along the path, it’s not surprising an evolved teacher, a spiritual director and advisor, is often recommended.
If a man is unlikely to take an unexplored path without a true guide; if no one will risk going to sea without a skilful navigator; if no man will undertake to learn a science or an art without an experienced teacher, who will dare attempt . . . to enter the mysterious path leading to God, and venture to sail the boundless mental sea . . . without a guide, a navigator and a true and experienced teacher? ([S12],159).
The Hesychast tradition advises a seeker to find a teacher and guide who is
. . . a man bearing the Spirit within him, leading a life corresponding to his words, lofty in vision of mind, humble in thought of himself, of good disposition . . . ([W11],174).
Having found such a guide, the seeker is advised to offer ([W11],174) “total and unquestioning obedience.”
The dangers of such obedience are probably obvious. What if the teacher is misled or corrupt? Wouldn’t such obedience and adulation be liable to corrupt even a worthy teacher? Would disciples find themselves working to advance the fortunes and fame of the teacher rather than their own journey toward gnosis?
Someone whose object is gnosis may avoid dangers and progress faster if they obtain the guidance of a teacher who is genuine, sane, and more advanced—but how can genuineness, sanity, and progress be accurately judged? How can a teacher and guide be identified? What qualities should a teacher have? How can charlatans and fakes be avoided? This chapter discusses these questions.
Just as closeness to a fire may cause a physical object to change, to melt, for example, first-hand experience of God can have powerful effects upon the body.
The spiritual moods arising out of intense love of God . . . cause extraordinary physical changes. ([S01],366).
The phenomena of heat, for example, is mentioned in the Christian medieval The Scale Of Perfection.
Not all those who speak of the fire of love understand properly what it is. . . . [T]he presence of this fire in the soul may produce bodily heat . . . ([H06],38).
A footnote reads “That a feeling of bodily heat accompanies certain mystical experiences is well known.” For example, Schimmel ([S04],170) recounts Islamic and Hindu analogues. It seems it’s possible to control this heat which Tibetan Buddhist call tumo. Tibetan monks sometimes compete to see whose tumo can dry the most freezing wet blankets.
Sometimes drops of blood, like perspiration, come from the mystic as they did ([S01],151) from Ramakrishna, and from Jesus before the passion. Also, Ramakrishna’s
. . . chest appeared constantly reddish and the eyes became sometimes suddenly full of tears. ([S01],142),
a phenomena, perhaps, akin to the “gift of tears,” a spiritual gift considered important by Symeon (213],30-1) and others Eastern Christian saints.
Yet another physical sign is the stigmata, those wounds of Christ evidenced by Saint Francis and, more recently, Therese Neumann and Padre Pio. Therese had the wounds for 11 years, yet they never ([S22],33,233) became inflamed or infected.
Therese Neumann was born in 1898 in Germany. Like Terese of Avila, she is also said ([S22],59) to have levitated, and to have been simultaneously present to different people in different, widely separated, places. The most substantiated claim, however, is that for decades she lived with no drink or food except a daily Communion wafer, a very thin piece of bread, 2 to 3 cm in diameter. Theresa first began eating and drinking less and less. Then
[f]rom Christmas of 1926 she finally refused to take any further nourishment at all. She took only Holy Communion, every day . . . ([S22],27)
and a little water. She continued until September 1927 when she gave up water, too.
From this time until the end of her life, a period of 35 years, Therese Neumann lived without taking any food and any drink: daily Communion was her only nourishment. ([S22],27).
In 1927, Therese underwent medical observation. Experts decided no one could live for more than 11 days without food and water. She was closely observed ([S22],29,228-230) for 15 days by four nurses who took turns watching her, two at a time. The doctor and nurses reported:
In the period from July 14 to 28, 1927, Therese Neumann took no natural nourishment at all, either liquid or solid. . . . Her weight at the end of the examination . . . was the same as at the beginning . . . Neither during the period of examination, nor at its end, did any special states of exhaustion make their appearance. ([S22],228-9).
Therese’s case at the time was well known, so much so that when Germany entered the Second World War and started food rationing, the government decided not to issue ([S22],30) her any ration stamps.
On what then did she survive? One author writes ([S22],29) she replied “On our Savior,” referring to her daily Communion wafer which she believed the actually body of Christ. Another author, Paramahansa Yogananda, writes ([Y02],422) she told him she lived by “God’s light.”
Paramahansa Yogananda was himself a mystic. He was born in India but lived much of the later part of his life in California. After his death in 1952, a Los Angeles funeral director claimed his body remained unspoiled even after 21 days. No drying or decay of tissues was noticed; no mold grew on the skin; no odor was detected. He wrote ([Y02],575) “the case of Paramahansa Yogananda is unique in our experience.”
But it’s hardly unique in the literature of mysticism. Physical effects are common. In fact, Underhill writes that great Western contemplatives,
. . . though almost always persons of robust intelligence and marked practical or intellectual ability . . . have often suffered from bad physical health. More, their mystical activities have generally reacted upon their bodies in a definite and special way; producing in several cases a particular kind of illness and of physical disability . . . ([U01],59).
She attributes such signs to
. . . the immense strain which exalted spirit puts upon a body which is adapted to a very different form of life. ([U01],59).
Indeed, some indication of mystical experience’s strain on the body is that gnosis often renders the mystic temporarily unconscious of the exterior world. Symeon, for example, describes a mystic to whom
. . . a flood of divine radiance appeared from above and filled all the room. As this happened the young man lost all awareness . . . and . . . saw nothing but light all around him . . . [H]e was wholly in the presence of immaterial light and seemed to himself to have turned into light. Oblivious of all the world he was filled with tears and with ineffable joy and gladness. ([S26],245-6).
If the experience is strong enough, the mystic may lose contact with their body as well as the exterior world.
. . . [H]is life force is withdrawn from the body, which appears “dead,” or motionless and rigid. ([Y02],278).
Such “unconsciousness” occurred, for example, in the case of Ramakrishna, and of Teresa whose
. . . ecstatic seizures . . . left the nun seemingly dead to the world . . . ([C10],61).
. . . pulse would almost stop beating, her eyes remain closed or open yet unseeing. . . . Whilst the body remains in this trancelike state, the limbs rigid and impervious to sensation and the pulse scarcely perceptible, the soul seems ‘raised above itself and all earthly things’. ([C10],65).
Sometimes, the mystic’s body eventually adapts to mystical experience. Then the mystic
. . . communes with God without bodily fixation; and in his ordinary waking consciousness, even in the midst of exacting worldly duties. ([Y02],278).
During Teresa’s last seven years, for instance, ([C10],66) trances were rare.
Sometimes, however, the body doesn’t adapt; some mystics can’t bear the strain.
When the powerful flood of divine moods comes on human life unexpectedly, it cannot be suppressed or concealed by thousands of efforts. . . . [T]he gross, inert body very often fails to contain that powerful onrush of divine emotion into the mind and is completely shattered. Many sadhakas met with death that way. A fit body is necessary to contain the abounding surge of emotions born of perfect knowledge or perfect devotion. ([S01],151).
(A “sadhaka” is a spiritual seeker.)
Since it can be so stressful to the body, it’s perhaps fortunate that mystical experience is often
. . . a brief act. The greatest of the contemplatives have been unable to sustain the brilliance of this awful vision for more that a little while. ([U01],331).
However, a sudden achievement of permanent consciousness of union with the Infinite (refer, for example, [T03],10-11) is not unknown.
“Awful,” by the way, is doubly applicable: as we’ve seen, to those who are not sufficiently prepared, vision of the Eternal may be terrible and painful; to those sufficiently prepared, on the other hand, such vision is full of awe. Indeed, some mystics regard such vision as
. . . a foretaste of the Beatific Vision: an entrance here and now into that absolute life within the Divine Being, which shall be lived by all perfect spirits when they have cast off the limitations of the flesh and re-entered the eternal order for which they were made. ([U01],424).
Ramakrishna’s heart and breath, it’s said, stopped during his unitive experience. Did it? Teresa of Avila and others claimed ([C10],63) she floated above the ground? Did she? Did Therese actually live without food? Did Yogananda’s body actually resist decay?
Are the physical phenomena—cessation of heart and breath, living without food, levitation, precognition, healing powers, etc.—which sometimes accompany mystical experience really possible? Some people answer “yes, they are possible” with great conviction, or “they are certainly not possible” with firm certitude. Yet they answer out of faith, not knowledge. Science has a better way: it impartially investigates such claims and rejects the phony. And, if any prove genuine, then science makes room for them and adjusts its theories until they better describe reality. Otherwise it’s not science but just another variety of ungrounded belief. My belief happens to be that some of the phenomena we’ve discussed are possible, even if they’re unexplainable to science today.
But another, more important question is this: are such phenomena significant? Are they important? Religious literature often describes the unusual phenomena which may accompany mysticism as valueless in themselves, and warns against seeking the “miraculous” for its own sake. A story I once heard illustrates.
Two monks were traveling and came to a river. One paid a dollar and was ferried across. The other proudly walked across the river. When they rejoined on the other side, one asked the other how long he’d practiced to walk on water. Ten years, was the answer. So, said the first monk, your ten years of practice have just returned a dollar. A poor return!
In Christianity, St. Paul also points to the worthlessness of abnormal phenomena as a substitute for true love of God.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. ([H08], 1Cor, 13:1-2).
A chess master once advised students to always remember the object is to capture the opponent’s king. The advice is both trite and profound. It’s trite since it’s a basic rule, one of the first rules you learn: capture your opponent’s king and you’ve won. It’s profound since it’s easy to become so concerned with subordinate objectives—controlling the centerboard, building a strong defense, etc.—that the paramount objective is forgotten. If you capture your opponent’s king then you’ve won; at that point, the position of your defense and degree of control of the centerboard are irrelevant.
Similarly, the essential thing in mysticism is experience of and union with God; subordinate objectives are ultimately irrelevant. Suppose someone wishes to fast as an aid to prayer and union with God. Fine. But suppose they become so concerned with fasting, or even praying deeply, that they lose sight of their fundamental objective: union with God. Then they may “win the battle but lose the war.” They may even fast until they’re close to death but find themselves no closer to God. Buddha seems to have experienced this.
A human being cannot, as a rule, walk on water, live without food, generate great quantities of bodily heat, etc. When we die our bodies usually decay. But it’s easy to imagine another species who can do all these tricks and more. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re closer to direct experience of the Ultimate than we are.
So the seeker should always keep in mind That which they are seeking and not let mastering some trick become their goal. To the mystic, extraordinary phenomena are worthless in themselves.
But suppose such phenomena invariably happened to accompany mystical awareness, and suppose they never appear in any other circumstance. Then, although worthless to the mystic, they would have a very definite value for others. If certain physical signs always accompanied mystical evolution, then there would be an objective way of discriminating the genuine mystic from the bogus, the healthy from the unhealthy. A scientific religion could judge not only their statements, but also the mystics and alleged mystics themselves. Supposed mystics could be subjected to scientific verification.
So although the true mystic might ignore any physical signs, see them as worthless, and refuse to become enamored with them, the scientist can still examine them, attempting to determine how well they correlate with mystical enlightenment.
I don’t expect a simple answer. I don’t suppose the Tibetan monk who can generate the most tumo is always the most evolved mystic. But I do expect that any scientific religion would thoroughly investigate this question. In fact, science has already begun to do this. We’ll discuss what it’s found after we examine a more basic question.
Many things once thought unmeasurable are indeed measurable, with the proper instruments. Centuries ago, changes in the position of the sun and moon objectively indicated longer time spans. A day could objectively be defined as sunrise to sunrise, or sunset to sunset. But short time spans—a moment, a second, or a while—probably seemed permanently unmeasurable, subjective quantities. We are all familiar with how slowly time seems to pass when we’re bored, how quickly when we’re entertained. Eventually, timepieces were devised which accurately measured shorter time intervals, and today they are universally available.
The feeling of temperature, too, was once subjective. Many a husband and wife could argue over whether a room was too hot or too cold. Today, thermometers have settled this question. Of course, whether a room feels too hot or too cold is another matter.
So clocks and thermometers have attached numbers to temperature and time, transforming them into purely objective entities. Time and temperature have become operationally defined quantities.
But time and temperature are external to ourselves. Can a person’s inner characteristics be measured too? Family traits are intimate to the person. Once they were entirely subjective; again, many a husband and wife argue over who a child takes after. (Generally, desirable traits descend from one’s self, while undesirable characteristics clearly come from one’s spouse.) Then science discovered genes. Today, many physical traits can be scientifically measured.
Inherited traits, however, are static; they remain throughout one’s life. Is it possible to measure changing emotional and mental states? It seems that it is.
When we previously discussed personal identity, we mentally divided a human being into body, emotion, intellect, and soul. If a person were actually composed of entirely separate parts—body, emotion, intellect, and soul, for example—then emotion and body, or intellect and body, and certainly Consciousness and body, might be entirely unrelated. There would be no reason to expect mystical states, which are states of consciousness, to manifest in the body, emotions, or intellect.
Yet, a human being is a holistic entity, even as we acknowledge in a previous chapter. The division into body, emotion, intellect, and soul is mental, not absolute. The intimate, holistic connection between soul, intellect, emotion, and body offers some hope that there are physical, emotional, and intellectual phenomena which correlate with mystical states.
Let’s begin by discussing some correlates between the body and emotions. There’s a well-known link between emotions and physical signs. Everyone is acquainted with the smile of the happy person, the redden face of the angry one. Indeed,
. . . facial representations of sadness, fear, anger, disgust and other emotions are remarkably constant and recognizable around the globe. ([U05],58).
Recently, scientists have used the EEG to uncover more subtle manifestations of emotions.
. . . [Infants more prone to distress when separated from their mothers show increased activity in the right frontal lobe, as do people with a more pessimistic outlook. People who have at some point in their lives been clinically depressed show decreased left frontal lobe activity compared with subjects who have never been depressed. ([U05],58).
[w]hen people are anxious, cerebral blood flow—a measure of brain cell activity—increases in the area at the tips of the brain’s temporal lobes just behind the eyes . . . When subjects report feeling emotions such as fear and disgust, their right frontal lobes show increased electrical activity . . . Sadness seems to diminish activity in the left frontal lobe as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG), while certain positive emotions like happiness and amusement increase it. ([U05],57-8).
The electroencephalograph (EEG) measures electrical activity in particular portions of the brain—the right frontal lobe, for example, or the temporal lobes. The brain’s electrical activity—its “brain waves”—is roughly classified (refer, for example, [C01],24-5) by frequency. Brain waves seem to correlate with certain mental states. Frequencies higher than about 13 cycles per second (or 13 Hertz, abbreviated 13 Hz) are called beta waves, and indicate attention. Alpha waves are 8 to 13 Hz and correlate with a calm, relaxed state. Theta waves range from 4 to 7 Hz and are associated with the dream state. Delta waves are produced in deep sleep and are below 4 Hz.
There are, of course, other devices which scientists use to measure inner states. The polygraph (“lie-detector”) is a familiar one. It measures certain bodily characteristics believed to vary with truth or falsehood. Other devices are the electrical skin resistance (ESR) meter which, as the name suggests, measures the electrical resistance of the skin, and the electrocardiograph (EKG) which measures heart function. Lastly, the electromyograph (EMG) measures voltages which correspond with muscle tension. One researcher has found the EMG to be
. . . of considerable importance in the development of self-awareness. Early emotional conflicts are often reflected in the body armor a person has built—permanently tense muscles intended as body defense. The electromyograph facilitates specific therapy for these states, and the ability to exercise fine control over muscle tension may be one of the best indicators of the subject’s ability to relax at will, which is the gateway to meditation as well as to improved general health. ([C01],14-5).
With such instruments, science has been able to measure not only physical and emotional states, but intellectual and perhaps spiritual states as well. A few examples follow.
A goal of Zen Buddhism is an increased yet disinterested awareness of the external world. Zen adapts, therefore, should possess such awareness in some degree. It seems that they do.
Imagine someone sitting relaxed in a quiet room. An EEG machine indicates their brain is emitting alpha, indicating their mind is in a quiet, relaxed state. There’s a click, which draws their attention to the room. The EEG machine detects their increased attention and indicates their brain is now emitting beta waves. Soon, however, they’re relaxed again, and the EEG machine indicates the alpha state. A minute later, there’s another click. Again, their mind goes from alpha to beta, but the beta frequency is not as high. The regular clicking sound is moving to the edge of their awareness. As the clicks repeat, they notice them less and less. Eventually they habituate: they no longer hear the click; their minds remain in alpha.
Habituation is a familiar phenomena to anyone who has ever lived near a railroad track. At first, you hear every train; after a month, you rarely notice any.
When a Zen master in a state of Zen meditation, called zazen, was the subject ([K02]) in the experiment no habituation was detected. The Zen master heard each click.
This non-habituation . . . in response to click stimuli during zazen is consistent with the description by one Zen master of the state of mind, cultivated in zazen, of “noticing every person one sees on the street but not looking back with emotional curiosity.” ([F07],118).
In contrast, control subjects—people who weren’t doing zazen meditation—habituated.
Of course, we might wonder if lack of habituation is desirable. Many people living near a railroad track wouldn’t want to hear each and every train, day after day. The point is, however, science appears to have objectively verified a certain type of mental awareness which Zen meditation masters claim to possess. Rather than taking on faith the claim that someone has achieved a certain level of success in Zen meditation, science can test for itself. And anyone who studies Zen might wonder how their teacher would perform in the above experiment.
In contrast to Zen, many types of Yoga advocate quite a different goal, replacement of attachment to the external world with attachment to its eternal Basis, an attachment implying a measure of indifference to the external world. In one study ([A05]), yogis were subjected to various external stimuli such as
. . . turning on a strong light, banging on an object, vibrating a tuning fork, and touching the yogis with a hot glass tube. ([W06],234-5).
They reacted normally, except during meditation when they evidenced insensitivity, i.e., their alpha patterns remain undisturbed. Therese Neumann underwent a similar test (minus the alpha pattern monitoring) with 5,000 watt carbon arc lamps while she was in a mystical state.
The lamps were focused directly on her open eyes during the ecstasies. . . . Therese did not even blink. This was proof that she was completely insensitive to external influences when she was in a state of visionary contemplation . . . ([S22],30).
In another yoga study
. . . two other yogis, who claimed to have developed high pain thresholds, were able to keep one hand in 4 degree C. water for 45-55 minutes with no EEG disturbance or apparent discomfort. ([W06],235).
On the other hand (no pun intended) there’s a type of yoga, kriya yoga, which claims to activate and channel the meditator’s kundalini energy, supposedly a potent, highly active spiritual force. Kundalini energy is worshiped as the divine by its devotees. Although still aiming at detachment from the external world, kriya yogis seek attachment to their own internal, dynamic kundalini energy. They were found ([D02]) to have
. . . extremely fast beta activity (indicative of high arousal) with high amplitude waves (frequency up to 40 hz, amplitude 30-50 microvolts) . . . ([W06],236-7).
. . . various stimuli applied during meditation had absolutely no effect on the EEG. . . The latter finding is again strong evidence of withdrawal from the environment . . . ([W06],237).
Here again, science tested and verified a religious inner state: withdrawn from the external and attachment to some highly active internal energy.
A neurochemical basis involving the pineal gland and conversion of the body’s melatonin into an hallucinogen ([K10],297) has been suggested as the basis of kundalini consciousness. If true, then measurement of brain chemistry might yield another objective measure of this kind of religious consciousness.
In India, “Nirvikalpa” refers to union with God. A swami writes:
. . . a man cannot be fit to realize the eternal peace, till he reaches the Nirvikalpa state through the cessation of all mental modifications and the non-dual state of consciousness becomes natural to him. ([S01],355).
Can science now verify if a person has reached the state of “cessation of all mental modifications”? Perhaps. Could it ever verify if someone has truly reached union with God? I don’t know.
But science could certainly investigate any physical, emotional, or mental phenomena that seem associated with mystical awareness. It might find, of course, that such by-products fail to correlate with mystical evolution: that they don’t always occur in genuine mystics, and sometimes occur in non-mystics. If this was the case, then scientific religions might never be able to become exact sciences.
On the other hand, some reliable physical, emotional, or mental by-products might be found. Some signs might be discovered which always indicate a certain level of mystical insight. If so, objective indicators of mystical states would exist.
Someday, one’s state of mind, be it holy, worldly, or profane, may be objectively measurable. It may be an operationally definable quantity. This would greatly help the identification of true mystics from others, as well as truly mystical declarations from other kinds of statements. Moreover, if these indicators were quantifiable as well, then, perhaps, some sort of exact relation might be found between them. Scientific religions might be exact sciences.
The possibility that, someday, a scientific religion may exist which is not only descriptive and experimental, but exact as well is (to me, at least) exciting. If, however, the nature of things does not allow an exact scientific religion, it should nonetheless be as fully science and as fully religion as possible.