Sunday, May 4, 2008

Are You Experienced? "Mysticism is the Art of Union with Reality"

If the doors of perception were cleansed,
Everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things
Through the narrow chinks of his cavern.
~~ William Blake

Evelyn Underhill wrote an essay to persuade readers that each of us can experience what are called mystical experiences, that many of us have had mystical experiences -- and perhaps even that we can be mystics. In her book, _Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People_, she defines mysticism with the phrase we have made the title of this blog:

"Mysticism is the art of Union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or lesser degree; or who aims at it and believes in such attainment." (p.3)

I am attracted to this simple phrase as a way of exploring mysticism, both in experience and scholarship. First Underhill invokes the term "art." This analogy or perhaps literal description implies the mixture of skill, inspiration, experience, study, and observation that mysticism and art share. (In a May 2 post on my blog I examine mysticism especially as presented by Annmarie Schimmel who applies another aspect of Underhill's work.)Art and mysticism are related in the sense also that Underhill writs, "contemplation is ... the essential activity of artists." (p. 27)

Underhill presents us with the practice and achievement of union as phenomena we all have experienced in some way or degree:

"We know a thing only by uniting with it, by assimilating it, by an interpentration of it and ourselves...The great Sufi who wrote that 'Pilgrimage to the place of the wise, is to escape from the flame of separation,' spoke the literal truth. Wisdom is the fruit of communion." (p.4)Real knowledge, she asserts always involves an "intuitive sympathy." (p. 4) In this sense we have all had experiences of union with some phenomenon. Possibly what we achieved "communion" or "intuitive sympathy" with became what Paul Tillich, attempting a comprehensive and inclusive definition of religion called our "ultimate concern."

I find it helpful that she frequently takes up the case of America's 's great mytsic poet, Walt Whitman. "We see that the claim of a poet as Whitman to be a mystic lies in the fact that he has achieved a passionate communion with deeper levels of life..." (p. 9)

Underhill's ability to invite us into this reality reminds me of moments with Thich Nhat Hanh's presence though his writings and record presentations and meditations:

"It would mean that we should receive from every flower, not merely a beautiful image to which the label 'flower' has been affixed, bu the full impact of its unimaginable beuaty and wonder, the direct sensation of life having communion with life..." (pp. 23-24)

Reality she encourages us is within the reach of each of us. Taking her lead from Blake, Underhill writes:

"If the doors of perception were cleansed, said Blake, everything would appear to man as it is -- Infinite. But the doors of perception are hung with the cobwebs of thought; prejudice, cowardice, sloth. Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy and suspicious to respond: too arrogant to still our thought, and let divine sensation have its way." (p.19) Using a metaphor from practical experience, she calls this a "spring-cleaning of the soul." (p. 19)

Reality can belong to anyone because, as Underhill writes:

"As the beautiful does not exist for the artist and poet alone -- those these can find it in more poignant depths of meaning than other men -- so the world of Reality exists for all; and all may participate in it, unite with it, according to their measure and to the strength and purity of their desire." (p. 12)

The understanding of mysticism as art of course extends to music. As a musician who feels and reflects on the link between the musical and the mystical, I especially appreciate this passage:

"The 'Simple Ear' [i.e., pure and clear] which discerns the celestial melody, hears that Tone in which all music is resumed [i.e. has its source and re turn]; this achieves that ecstatic life of 'sensation without thought' which [the poet John] Keats perceived to be the substance of true happiness." (p. 37)

This blog essay introduces Evelyn Underhill's simple, yet profound and comprehensive insight into the nature and meaning of mysticism. Her restatement is illuminating: "We said at the beginning of this discussion, that mysticism was the art of union with Reality: that it was above all a Science of Love." (p. 168)


Underhill, Evelyn. _Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People_. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1915. (I thank Professor Gregory Spinner of Skidmore College, recently my colleague at CMU, for lending me a copy of this book that he had been given by University of Chicago History of Religions scholar Professor Joseph Kitagawa)

A recent paperback edition on Amazon [ISBN: 978-1-4346-9485-0] begins its chapter 1 on p. 15 (rather than in this earlier printing on p. 1]. My citations above come from the 1915 edition.