July 9, 2018

Wisdom, Wigs, & Witch Hats

It’s easy to disagree on what a “mystical” experience is supposed to be, and all of the major traditions of the world propose different ideas of what it might entail. But, by understanding the differences between the ecstatic magician, the churchy charismatic, and the misty new-ager, it’s not too hard to see how they’re all fundamentally very similar. Aristotle believed the “Golden Mean”—the perfect middle between two drastic extremes—was where the best of anything could be found. Courage was at the middle point between cowardice and recklessness, for example. Taking that basic idea though, we can also see where truth and virtue lie between extremes like “the materialist [and] the magician,” as C.S. Lewis would say.*

Throughout my younger years, I often swayed clumsily between the stances of arrogant atheism, lazy agnosticism, and even gullible mysticism, much like a freshman college student trying to stumble his way home from the bar. They all have their appeal, especially to our younger sensibilities, when we’re full of piss and vinegar and want to fight on the front lines of... well, anything we can get behind. These fires typically burn out pretty quickly though, in terms of the long haul of life, and the longer the haul, the more we might start to see how folks aren’t really that different after all. In fact, we’re usually just standing in front of a mirror of one sort or another shouting insults at our own shortcomings and defects that we don’t want to look at—the rosacea of our religions, the muffin top of our morality, maybe the beer gut of our bigotry, or perhaps the pimples of our prejudices. Yes, metaphors can be gross.

The churchman criticizes the mystic for indulging in psychosis while the mystic criticizes the churchman for pandering to convention.

But, this article isn’t a political or even a particularly religious statement. It’s a statement about observation and practice. Even if your nose is clean and you’ve never pointed an audacious finger at someone else (and good for you, I guess—go ahead and throw the first stone or whatever), you’ve at least heard of it happening. The ardent churchman criticizes the mystic for trafficking with spirits, or indulging in psychosis or other such things. This is understandable when we look on Youtube and see folks flaunting elaborate costumes and acting out theatrical pageantry in ways that just look sort of silly. But, that’s an extreme. The eccentric mystic also criticizes the churchman for pandering to capitalism and convention. But, when we look at someone with a hundred crystals dripping from every appendage, then look back at the opposite end of the spectrum at televangelists with their equally elaborate hair that looks like a glued-on Pomeranian and multi-thousand-dollar suits, the two might start blurring together.

Just in my playful descriptions of these two paradigms, you’ll notice that it already sounds prejudiced, if not outright degrading. But, the point is this: now that we’ve conjured up images of the exaggerated, we can see that one man’s witch hat is another man’s elaborate toupee. For the moment, we won’t even care as much what they believe as that they believe in something, and believe in it with such enthusiasm that they go all in on it, wear it on their shoulder, and shout it off the mountain. Now, since it’s so easy, and certainly not unfair, to connect these particular colorful characters with theatrics and chicanery, I’ll bring the extreme... extremes, a bit closer to a moderate home that more of us can likely relate to.

They’re seeking a mystical experience that gives their life purpose.

Some of us may look at a person sitting quietly in a church pew, praying a rosary or reading a Bible passage, and see a reverent activity in progress. Others may look at the same event and see a person who is submersing themselves in delusion, be it in “wrong” beliefs or in “wrong” practices. Some of us may look at a person in a Buddhist temple, sitting silently in meditation and surrounded by smoking incense, and see someone reverently seeking enlightenment through mental and spiritual discipline. Others may look at the same person and see someone who has followed “pagan” traditions, or is merely deceiving their senses with chemical stimuli.

These two modest examples are, regardless of their particular theological and philosophical goals, people engaging in fundamentally the same practice. They’re seeking a spiritual or mystical experience—one that gives their life purpose or meaning. I would even argue that the ardent materialist, when engaging in a sociological or scientific endeavor, is engaging in roughly a similar process. Although perhaps not a “mystical” pursuit per se, such a person would still be engaging with all their mental and physical faculties in something that gives their life meaning, or is at least meaningful to them. In any case, the abstract pursuits of our longings don't generally produce measurable results, but nonetheless have genuinely mystical effects on us, whether its praying with scripture, meditating in solitude, performing ancient ritual, singing with a choir, or whatever. So, we can now start to make a more patchwork quilt out of the practices that people undertake and blanket it over a pretty broad variety of stuff.

We’re all just acting out the fact that we are
homo sapiens,
the “wise man.”

Whether you’re trying to reach up to God, reach out to the spiritual forces around you, elevate your mind and spirit to enlightenment, or just acting out your beliefs in more material, perhaps even theatrical ways, we’re all kind of doing the same thing, in a manner of speaking. We’re all acting out the fact that we are homo sapiens, the “wise man.” We’re all seeking wisdom and enlightenment in one form or another. In fact, some people have suggested that since we’re so inclined to the wispy, unexplainable aspects of the cosmos, that we would more appropriately call our species homo spiritualis, or the “spiritual man.” If you’re raising a cynical eyebrow at this notion, just remember two things: 1) it’s a broad generalization of the whole species, and 2) there has never been a civilization in history without religion in some form or another.

It’s in our nature to be spiritual. Our very use of spoken and written language is a representation of our ability and propensity to utilize abstract thought. That being said, whether you’re Lewis’ magician or materialist, or a gullible mystic or a lazy agnostic, you’ve got something in your DNA that pushes you to look up, down, and all around for something a little more than what your regular old senses provide. You want... no, you need some kind of meaning or purpose, and it’s what sets you apart from the moo-cows and kangaroos. However, we live in a big, diverse planet full of different languages, cultures, climates, and traditions. So, the way we search for meaning would naturally be very different, but in a way, still fundamentally very similar in terms of what we're searching for.

The way we search for meaning is very different, but still fundamentally very similar.

In one part of the world where pigs were hard to clean and cookery wasn’t too reliable, it’s understandable that they might have been deemed “unclean” by one tradition, while on the other side of the world, people ate those delicious bacon factories like they were going out of style. In another part of the world, where the climate was cold and gray, it was pretty normal to wear heavy, elaborate robes during worship ceremonies, while in other parts of the world, it was so hot and humid, that worship and ritual was always done outside wearing next to nothing, because no one wants to soak their finest church clothes like they just did jumping jacks in the attic.

Even those things are all details, though. The fundamental similarity is that we all want purpose or meaning. Some of us engage in elaborate rituals in funny hats, while others gather around campfires dancing and beating drums. Some of us spend hours in meditation, clogging up the AC filter with incense smoke, while others pour through ancient tombs and sacred texts, seeking the wisdom of the ancient bearded guys who came before us. And, some of us dance with snakes and babble ecstatically while others simply look longingly to the stars and theorize about what lies beyond the veil of our sensory limitations. We all seek wisdom and think mystically, in one form or another, so we should all take a moment to suspend our more obvious differences and seek out our more elusive but fundamental similarities.

*C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.