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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Mystical Moments and Unitive Thinking

Merkur, Dan (1999).
Albany, NY: SUNY Press

ISBN:0-7914-4064-8 paperback
0-7914-4063-X hardcover

Description: paperback, xii + 188 pages

Contents: Preface, acknowledgments, 9 chapters, books cited, index.

Excerpt(s): In developing a psychoanalytic theory of mysticism that speaks not of regression but of sublimation, I have suggested that mystical moments are conscious manifestations of a general type of thinking that also proceeds unconsciously. Unitive thinking may be conceptualized, from a mixed Freudian and Piagetian perspective, as a category of cognitive development, akin to time perception, mathematical reasoning, and moral development. Mystical experiences occur when recent achievements of unconscious unitive thinking manifest consciously as momentary inspiration.

Although the changes that I have urged in psychoanalytic theory are individually small, their cumulative implication places a novel spin on the view, shared by Loewald and Winnicott, that in some sense we are all of us mystics. Working with a theory of infantile regression, they viewed mysticism as natural but irrational. Its conscious manifestation could have only limited value.

A theory of sublimation has radically different diagnostic implications. Unlike symbol-formation, sublimation occurs in the absence of conflict and resistance. It is inherently and inalienably healthy. If unitive thinking is indeed a form of sublimation, psychoanalysis must maintain the view that unconscious unitive has a natural and healthy tendency to manifest as conscious spirituality. The clinical question then becomes the conditions in health and pathology under which unitive thinking manifests, or is resisted and diverted into symbolic compromise formations.

This book is the second part of a project that began as my M.A. work in Interdisciplinary Studies at York University in 1981-82. The Ecstatic Imagination: Psychedelic Experiences and the Psychoanalysis of Self-Actualization discussed the data of LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline experiences. It focused on the psychedelic state and its implications for the theories of the psyche and its integration. Mystical Moments and Unitive Thinking depends chiefly on the additional data of spontaneous peak experiences and meditation states. It addresses the unitive thinking that manifests, albeit with minor differences, in the several alternative states. (pages ix-x)

The Current Debate

Few scholars appreciated the irony that defining the mystical experience as an experience devoid of cognition made the term mutually exclusive with unitive experiences, which involve cognition of union. The common core hypothesis retained general subscription until Aldous Huxley claimed psychedelic experiences to be mystical. Although most writers on the topic agreed with Huxley, several theological writers responded prejudicially by abandoning the ecumenicism that had informed the common core hypothesis. Religious intolerance has since played an important role in shaping academic discussions of mysticism.

The current debate takes its point of departure from R. C. Zaehner's claim that differences among mystics doctrines reflect actual differences in the phenomenologies of their experiences. Scholars had previously treated mystical experiences and religious doctrines as independent variables, with single types of experience accommodating several doctrinal interpretations, and vice versa. Zaehner's first category encompassed mystical experiences of the unity of external physical reality. Not content to characterize the experiences as extrovertive, Zaehner specified that nature mysticism in which all creaturely existence is experienced as one and one as all is a pan-en-hen-ism, meaning all-in-one-ism. It has no theistic content, is improperly termed pantheism, cannot constitute mystical union, but does account for psychedelic experiences. Zaehner next distinguished as monism all experiences of the soul contemplating itself in its essence. Monistic mystical experiences involve a state of pure isolation of ... the uncreated soul or spirit from all that is other than itself. These experiences of detachment ... from all purely physical and psychic, and ... temporal elements contain no theistic elements. Theistic mystical experiences, by contrast, entail the simultaneous loss of the purely human personality, the ego , and the absorption of the uncreate spirit, the self, into the essence of God, in Whom both the individual personality and the whole objective world are or seem to be entirely obliterated. In theistic mysticism, the soul feels itself to be united with God in love. Zaehner reserved the term unio mystica, mystical union, to theistic mystical experiences, for they alone entail the return of the self to God.

Zaehner's methodology, to invent psychological categories on the basis of doctrinal evidence, led him to err on all three counts. Extrovertive mysticism can indeed be theistic. ...

These examples of unitive experiences that were simultaneously theistic and extrovertive establish that Zaehner was mistaken to claim that extrovertive and theistic mysticism are mutually exclusive. His category of monistic mysticism was no less misinformed. The category is fairly applied to experiences of boundless being. However, Ninian Smart rightly criticized Zaehner for treating both Hindu and Buddhist doctrines as monistic when the differences between the two are as great as those between monistic and theistic doctrines. Hindu doctrines can accommodate a variety of experiences, for instance, those of Tennyson, Bharati, and Suso. Buddhism is more restrictive and has historically debated whether nirvana is void of both cognition and affects, or cognition alone.

As for theistic mysticism, Zaehner's methodology did not do justice to the complexity and subtlety of the mystics accounts. ...

... The experience [of impersonal theistic mysticism] may commence quite early in the path to contemplation, while the mystic is still able to perceive external reality. It invariably climaxes in a deep trance, when both external perception of the sensible world and internal perception of the mind have been inhibited. The process commences with the mystic experiencing a faint sense of the invisible presence of God. As the experience progresses, the divine presence becomes increasingly intense and compelling, until, at climax, it is the exclusive content of consciousness. Concurrent with this intellectual and, to some extent, kinesthetic dimension to mystical union is its emotional side. Both the mystic's emotional devotion to God and God's love for the mystic increase until, at climax, God's love alone is experienced. (pages 8-11)

Because Zaehner linked the psychological analysis of mystical union to the philosophical problem of mystics truth claims, he sparked a heated debate among philosophers and theologians. The common core hypothesis had assumed that conflicting theological claims regarding mystical experiences had to be reconciled with one and the same experience. Zaehner instead suggested that there were several different types of mystical experiences. Each supported a different religious doctrine that was consistent with its own category of experience. Panenhenic and monistic mysticism differed both as experiences and as doctrines from the theistic mysticism that Zaehner privileged.

The ensuing debate did not proceed, as I have done, by citing empirical data in order to refute Zaehner. Rather, it addressed methodological innovation at a theoretical level. In the process, methodological issues were brought to the fore. Smart sought to invalidate Zaehner's conclusions by emphasizing that mystical experiences differ from the interpretations that mystics place on them, both during and after their occurrence. H. P. Owen added that the mystics beliefs, practices, and expectations contribute interpretive content to the experiences themselves. James had made these points long before.

Once scholars began to distinguish between mystical experiences and their interpretations, it became possible to make sense of historical teachings in which mystics themselves discussed the issues at stake. (page 18)

I have had other experiences of ecstatic death. My early experiences involved a great deal of panicky fear at the prospect of dying. Over time, my spontaneous and involuntary fear has increasingly diminished, and the most recent experiences have generally been calm and comforting. The experience that I have described is the only instance, however, when I experienced ecstatic death as a manifestly unitive experience.

In his work using psychedelic drugs as an adjunct to verbal psychotherapy, Stanislav Grof (1975, pp. 138-49) found that the cognitive contents of the death-rebirth experience would typically recur until they ceased to be greeted with panic. Over the course of a number of separate drug experiences, a drug-taker would gradually learn to be unafraid when confronted with vivid fantasies of dying immediately. East Greenland shamans, whose practices depended on a combination of sensory deprivation and visualization techniques, similarly reported that their ecstatic deaths gradually changed character through repeated experience. Where they were initially killed upon the attacks of hostile spirits, they came in the end to acquire the spirits as helpers (Merkur). (page 92)

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