12.03.2008

A Set-Up for Follow-Ups

An ancient Zen koan that I just invented asks, "What do two Bodhisattvas say to each other when they are alone together?"

...Because the difficulty of talking about mystical experiences is that if you claim to have had the experience, listeners who have not had a mystical experience will hear pridefulness in your words -- they will ask themselves: "Who is he to tell me how to get enlightened?" On the other hand, if you pretend not to have had a mystical experience for the sake of ethos (because psychosis is a more common diagnosis than "prophet," and it's much easier to dismiss) you are vulnerable to the charge of being no more informed than anyone "on the outside looking in." Furthermore, it seems bizarre that you would need to rely on fiction to lead a horse to the Tr-th. It's also possible that you think you've had a mystical experience, but you really haven't. Finally, in speaking about mystical experiences, you run the risk of assuming that almost nobody else has had the mystical experience, when it is very possible that almost everyone has. If, for example, most people have relatively-calm mystical/transformative experiences during puberty but you, for whatever reason, do not have your experience until your late 20s, you may mistakenly believe that no one else has had the experience you have had simply because none of your 20-something friends are having mystical experiences.

-----

Here are three different tellings of a mystical experience:

Here's the first:
But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb's boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip's ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God. (from Moby-Dick, chapter 93)
Here's the second:
I am imagining the outlines of an interesting story, or a novel: It would be a first person narrator, and I would name him after myself, and his childhood would be somewhere between middle-class and spoiled, like my own. It would be about the arrival of a mysterious religious teacher around the time the narrator is 23 or 24-years old – so I would tell about how “I” left home for graduate school in another state at age 23, and lived alone in an unimpressive apartment – about how I took to studying old literatures quite seriously – about how I at first grew fat, then discovered self-regulation – and about how, around that time, a man (probably, tho’ perhaps a woman) appeared on the fringes of my life: perhaps he was a professor at school, or a bum who sat across the street from the bookstore, then later (when he was forced to move for construction), across the street from the new Business and Economics building.

The teacher would move closer to the first person narrator – though he would always remain indirectly influential. His teachings would be elusive at best, or altogether impersonal, but his lesson would come into focus over the course of many months and years. Eventually, the student, the “I” of the novel, would discover the most ancient of all holy and universal thoughts – he would discover the thought that passes all understanding. Guided, purposely or unintentionally by his marginal teacher, he would first begin renouncing the world. He would take no pleasure in objects. He would have difficulty at parties because he would begin to have difficulty with interpersonal communication. The speaker would then enter into a phase where his academic interest became intertwined with a loosely spiritual practice. He would detach further. Eventually he would awake one morning, unable to understand the words “I” and “you” for a relatively fleeting, but psychologically momentous, period of time. All distinction would cease. His dormant Buddha-nature (or whatever) would be awakened, and he would see the Oneness of all things, as all mystics in all centuries and cultures have seen it. He would feel that in that grand moment of Mind, in that moment that exploded all previous experience, he was faced with a choice -- that he must do violence to either himself or to others. And he would recall, later, only that he chose precisely neither, that (instead) on the third of three sleepless nights he lay on his back, next to his fiancee refusing to obey the seeming command to do violence to himself or to her. It would occur to him less than a week after that frightening night that he had chosen correctly (!) -- that he had refused the choice, and in doing so, had essentially proven himself capable of that highest of high thoughts: "Not my will, but thy will, be done."
And here is the third:
When I was in graduate school I started reading a bunch of semi-spiritual autobiographies because I did not find myself moved by what I perceived to be the inherent nihilism of contemporary theory and literature. I don't know how to account for it -- I had been exercising regularly, though eating rather unhealthy, and had recently taken to smoking pot, and had met the woman I would marry -- in any case, though I cannot speculate about the causes, I started feeling less and less "sure of myself." One day at bowling-league an older colleague suggested I look into Kundalini Yoga after I talked to him about meditation and Eastern religion for a couple hours. He burned me a CD and I started doing the Yoga. I should note that after one full-session of the yoga, I had a dream depicting a narrow, low-raised walkway that wove itself between two giant anacondas -- I recognized immediately that although they might eat me (in the dream), they would not kill me. Two weeks later, I finished a chapter of my dissertation related to Race, identity, and Justice (on Harriet Jacobs' autobiographical narrative). The night I finished that, I went over to a friend's house and ate incredible amounts of sugar and carbs (perhaps inducing a pre-diabetic hallucination?), smoked a lot of pot, and quite literally lost my mind -- this part is tough to describe. I felt as though I had taken on all identities available to me: "I'm black. I'm white. I'm gay. I'm straight. I'm American. I'm un-American. I'm a murderer. I'm a pacifist., etc...." -- the whole time fighting myself to keep from proclaiming these things to my friends. No matter what I tried that night, my brain would not stop going -- 100 mph. Finally I turned ghost white and shut up, and worried that I had accidentally killed my brother by breaking some metaphysical law of being.

The next week is a blur -- paranoid thoughts, drawings of strange things like eclipses, fragments of poetry that seem, in retrospect, lunatic-ramblings, photoshopped self-portraits of photographs that misshaped my head into the shape of a questionmark, very little food, no pot, and so on. Then the three sleepless nights, accompanied by three "foodless" days (an unwillful fast, driven by a complete lack of appetite unlike anything I've experienced before). Then a night at the bowling alley with friends (who I believed at the time to be avatars of some of my dead relatives), a moment of public insanity, an unforgettable glance at the stars behind the lights in the parking lot while waiting for my fiancee to come get me... Not sleeping that night, then "waking" in the morning to find that the words "I" and "You" were unsettlingly unfamiliar, utterly confusing, and unintelligible... then discovering that the fact that I couldn't understand "I" and "You" freaked my fiancee out, then wanting her not to be freaked out, because it was freaking me out, then begging my fiancee to use the pronoun "We" so that I could understand what she wanted. Then driving home (as scheduled in advance) to Michigan the next morning, dinner with my family (who I believed were spirits playfully switching bodies throughout the dinner to see if I could recognize them in different forms), a confession to the family that I had been smoking pot, a few other confessions, then finally the greatest night of sleep in my life. Waking to find myself hazy, though completely without physical stress... my limbs loose, my conscience clean as a baby's, my future seeming bright -- and with a whole lot of explaining to do.
So... which is more comfortable for readers? Which will elicit the "vibrating iron-string" response? Which sounds most authentic, most believable? Does it matter if you know the author? If you were present for part(s) of the author's story? Is it possible to be in Pip's presence as he drowns, alone, his "ringed horizon" expanding around him?

I'm still going to do all of my promised follow-ups, but I'm adding a new one to the list: objections to claims of mysticism... because I don't want to leave my readers with the impression that I unhesitatingly believe these psychotic episodes in the lives of others to be trustworthy sources of tr-th.

4 comments:

littlebirdsings said...

personally, I like the "fictionalized" approach. Having it "be you" and not "be you" is a good approach. Like a Dan Millman or something, you're not quite sure what and how much is true and people go into it more open because they aren't reading a biography. They are free to take what they want and be changed by what they're open to being changed by. And as a personal recommendation for your own spiritual practice/mystic cultivation, you might want to look into kundalinicare.com

Casey said...

Will do, littlebird. Then again, what makes you think I haven't made all of this up?

;)

littlebirdsings said...

it wouldn't matter -- Making up assumes there are things unknown or uncreated that the mind makes... but from where do such thoughts arise? Aha!

Gretchen Pratt said...

Yes: what is the difference between imagination and experience? Good.