("The Lovers Whirlwind" by William Blake,1824-27)

Natural Mysticism and Its Dangerous Allure

Natural mysticism is mysticism in its earliest form as it was known by ancient societies including the Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus, and Celts. The essence of mystical or ecstatic experience is that of being one with the universe so that you are all and all is you. Apparent union with the natural world is most often experienced when one is alone in nature because the perception of earth, heaven, and ocean symbolically abound with a sense of the unity of all things. 

More recent advocates of natural mysticism have found a home in perennialism. This theory, as it is now most commonly understood, holds that at their highest reaches all religions are the same. Religion in its truest form, according to the perennialists, teaches an awakening from ego-bound ordinary life to a universal oneness. 

As we’ll soon see, natural mysticism has its benefits, but it doesn’t come without its many dangers.

[Read “Alone in One of Nature’s Threshold Places”]

Whether by Meditation or Drugs, It Is the Same

Aldous Huxley, who popularized perennialism, insisted that the final all-inclusive virtue is a mortification of one’s consciousness and personal memory, “to die to self, in feeling, will and intellect.” There is much in Huxley’s perennialism to be admired. In The Perennial Philosophy (1945), he notes: “The man who has learnt to regard things as symbols, persons as temples of the Holy Spirit and actions as sacraments, is a man who has learned constantly to remind himself who he is, where he stands in relation to the universe and its Ground.” On the other hand, Huxley’s philosophy also reflects the limitations of the New Age movement with its tendency to be self-obsessed and disinterested in the concerns of daily life: “The biography of a saint or avatar is valuable only insofar as it throws light upon the means by which, in the circumstances of a particular human life, the ‘I’ was purged away so as to make room for the divine ‘not-I.’” 

To be fair, Huxley did observe that when God is regarded as exclusively immanent, it leads to quietism and lacks a call for the transformation of character. 

There is tremendous diversity in the natural mystical or unitive experience. Psychoanalyst Daniel Merker writes that these episodes are the response of the unconscious to trance states, which can be induced by schizophrenia, mania, epilepsy, hypnotic induction, meditation, or psychoactive drugs. He also believes these experiences are the most intensely pleasurable encounters a human being can have. Perennialists recognize this diversity and advance their theory by claiming an equality between all mystical experiences, which includes ones that are drug induced. In 1954, Huxley published The Doors of Perception, chronicling his experience with mescaline and how this drug, when combined with Eastern meditation, led to a mystical experience. For him, psychedelic drug use is consistent with perennial philosophy. He holds that the most important aspect of all religions is the escape from ego, which allows the individual to become God or “Not-self.” He argues that alcohol and mescaline do the same thing—convey a sense of freedom from ego and must, therefore, be of a similar nature to religion. 

Of note, Huxley’s claims regarding drug use in The Doors of Perception have not been unique. Many others, including religious scholar Huston Smith, are likewise convinced that psychedelics lead to genuine mystical experience. The philosopher Walter Terence Stace argues that the drug experience is not just like the mystical experience, “it is the mystical experience.” This is certainly a widely-accepted view, and the use of psychedelics is currently enjoying a resurgence in the academic and popular press. 

[Read “Our Sacred-Scientific, Psychedelic Future”]

Natural Mysticism as Enlightenment or Diabolical Delusions? 

Huxley’s work provoked a response from R.C. Zaehner, an Oxford don of Eastern religions, in the book Mysticism, Sacred and Profane (1957). Zaehner does not question the reality of what he calls Huxley’s “praeternatural” experience, although he can’t refrain from poking fun at Huxley’s drug-induced description of his trousers: “Those folds in the trousers—what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity! And the texture of the grey flannel—how rich, how deeply, mysteriously sumptuous!” 

Zaehner concedes that drugs can induce a form of natural mysticism in which the soul tends toward union with the natural world. This is a reason for their addicting power. Zaehner believes that Huxley likely had a profound experience like those of many early religions and ecstatic sects, which have used drugs and alcohol in their rituals. Furthermore, Zaehner admits that people occasionally see the workings of nature as a whole through deliberate techniques such as ascetic types of yoga or by taking psychoactive drugs. The experience natural mystics have in common—that you are all and all is you—is the same notion that Huxley expressed of “not only perceiving his chair legs transformed but actually being them, ‘being his Not-self in their Not-self.’” This experience of oneness with nature comes about, according to Zaehner, when people experience the neutral realm of the unconscious, which itself can be enlightening or diabolically delusional.

This kind of mystical experience can vary greatly in significance and it has been known by various names. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung describes it as the collective unconscious; Huxley, the “Mind at Large”; the Mahayana Buddhists, the “reservoir of consciousness.” The German idealist Malwida von Meysenbug interestingly describes the natural mystical experience in Jungian terms, articulating it as a “return from the solitude of individuation.” She continues,

“I was alone upon the seashore . . . . I felt that I prayed as I had never prayed before, and knew now what prayer really is: to return from the solitude of individuation into the consciousness of unity with all that is, to kneel down as one that passes away, and to rise up as one imperishable. Earth, heaven, and sea resounded as in one vast world-encircling harmony.” 

Zaehner argues that Meysenbug’s description would be reactionary to Jungian theorists who see individuation as a process of growth and self-realization. This is where he begins his attack on natural mysticism, which, he insists, limits individual development. In Jungian terms, to reach our full potential requires the integration of the intellect with the unconscious, the male with the female, and the individual with the collective, which come together in a marriage to form a complete person. Integration, writes Zaehner, “is superior to the natural mystical experience because it absorbs it and brings it under control.” According to Jungian theory, if egotism is the expansion of the ego at the expense of its unconscious roots, then madness is the opposite phenomenon where the collective unconscious overwhelms the whole. In Zaehner’s opinion, the natural mystic is briefly experiencing a manic-depressive state: “the individuating, classifying, and thinking ego is overtaken by the irrational, it abdicates and hands over control to the unconscious which, of its nature, is chaotic and uncontrolled.”  

[Read “Hallucinations Shouldn’t Be Stigmatized, Can Lead to Growth”]

Natural Mysticism Evokes Madness and Genius

That Zaehner links madness and mysticism is nothing new. Plato wrote about the relationship between madness and the divine, and many later observers connected madness and depression with genius. William Blake, who was sensitive to this relationship, writes: “Excuse my enthusiasm, or rather madness, for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or graver into my hand.” The strongest proponents of drug use similarly recognize that a bad experience from drugs like LSD can be similar to schizophrenia in which the sense of self is disintegrated.  

The Sufis use the more precise language of “expansion” and “contraction” to explain the two poles the self is subject to in natural mysticism, which corresponds to what we now call bipolar or manic-depressive. The state of contraction for the Sufis is to feel utterly alone, complete isolation and to have the certainty that one is irrevocably damned. The state of expansion is generally a positive experience, but it is chaotic, indifferent to good and evil, and cannot be separated from the contracting depressive side of madness. The works of a manic-depressive writer, John Custance, provide Zaehner with a perfect example of manic-depression as it corresponds to Sufi states of expansion and contraction. Custance describes a manic state in which he sensed himself to be one with God in a passage indistinguishable from nature mystics:

“I feel so close to God, so inspired by His spirit that in a sense I am God. I see the future, plan the Universe, save mankind; I am utterly and completely immortal; I am even male and female. The whole Universe, animate and inanimate, past, present, and future is within me. All nature and life, all spirits, are cooperating and connected with me; all things are possible . . . . I reconcile Good and Evil and create light, darkness, worlds, universes.”

The poet Arthur Rimbaud knowingly embraced the risks and was able to will himself into a natural mystic state by imposing a dissolution of his conscious personality. Zaehner describes him as being able to access this realm through drugs, debauchery, and a highly-sensitive poetic nature that led him to view his path as a kind of martyrdom. Rimbaud discovered the unity behind the ego that he identifies with nature and “universal mind,” but he was also fully aware that his attack on his ego was leading him into madness: “He who reaches the unknown and even though, in his madness, he should lose the understanding of his visions, he will have had them!” Nature mystics, like Rimbaud, tend to identify nature with God because the tremendous reality of the experience of union with nature leads them to believe that it is the ultimate experience. Unfortunately, for Rimbaud, the forces that he relentlessly sought were chaotic and ultimately, unfulfilling, causing him to abruptly give up his poetry before the age of 20. But he remains fascinating because of the vigor with which he sought the mystical experience and his subsequent alienation from what he later saw as the true divinity: “Now I hate mystical transports and stylistic quirks . . . . Joy—to express it, I resorted to all that was most clownish and wild.” 

In My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (2013), the poet Christian Wiman comes to the same realization as Rimbaud when his mystical sense of God-in-nature was obliterated by the intense pain and closeness to death caused by cancer. He writes, “All this is fine until life, or death, comes crashing into you with its all-too-specific terrors and sufferings.”

[Read “Treading Lightly in Thin Places”] 

Moral Relativism Lurks Behind Mystical Experiences

More troubling than natural mysticism’s tendency to stunt individual development and its similarities to manic-depressive states, is its lack of a moral compass. The nature mystic Richard Jefferies manages to maintain some objectivity and finds the utter moral indifference of the experience disconcerting:

“All nature, all the universe that we can see, is absolutely indifferent to us, and except to us human life is of no more value than grass. If the entire human race perished at this hour, what difference would it make to the earth? What would the earth care? As much as for the extinct dodo, or for the fate of the elephant now going . . . . [The experience comes from] a force without a mind. I wish to indicate something more subtle than electricity, but absolutely devoid of consciousness; and with no more feeling than the force which lifts the tides.”

It is not hard to see why medieval mystics and Sufis think the Devil has the ability to counterfeit mystical experiences. They do not believe that a valueless spiritual experience could come from God. Hence, the medieval mystical book The Cloud of Unknowing warns, “For I tell thee truly, that the devil hath his contemplatives as God has his.” The Trappist monk Thomas Keating, who promotes Christian meditation, has also written about the dangers of the most fantastic types of experiences:

“It is hard to believe that they are not communications directly from God, but in actual fact, they are only our interpretation of these communications. It can be difficult to discern whether these ‘gifts’ spring from grace or from the natural energies of the unconscious.”

This is a concern shared even by such a strong nondual advocate as Ken Wilber, who recognizes this same moral neutrality, which, he says, can impede psychological development with delusions of grandeur:

“You get this experience; ‘Oh my God! I am one with God! Oh, this is amazing! Nobody’s ever had this experience in the entire history of the universe!’ But the personality that you had before you got your satori is the personality you’re stuck with. If you’re a geeky little toad, then you’re gonna be a geeky little toad that thinks he’s God . . . . When gurus proclaim themselves to be perfect masters no longer bound by ordinary human ethics things start to get very, very ugly. It happens all the time.” 

Moral relativism is inherent to the natural mystical experience, and religions that exclusively focus on the immanence of God share this same shortcoming. In China, this is most apparent in Taoism, which places a greater emphasis on nature as opposed to the classical strictures and social responsibilities of Confucian thought. The anthropologist Robert Bellah notes, “There is a remarkable absence in Taoist thought of the dark side of nature, of the fact that aggression and dominance are as natural as their opposites.” Relativism also runs “like a quicksilver thread throughout Hinduism,” Zaehner writes, and he gives this example from the Upanishads:

Should the killer think: “I kill,”
Or the killed, “I have been killed,”
Both these have no right knowledge:
He kills not, is not killed.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna is distraught about commencing a war in which hundreds of thousands will be killed, and Krishna consoles him with the following words: “A man who has reached a state where there is no sense of ‘I,’ whose soul is undefiled—were he to slaughter all these worlds—slays nothing. He is not bound.” Zaehner, who never shies away from controversy, connects this attitude of oneness held by “Neo-Vedanta non-dualism” to Charles Manson, who had otherworldly experiences with LSD, and asked, “If God is One, what is bad?”

The French poet Charles Baudelaire gives a warning about the practice of magic which could also apply to natural mysticism: “These unfortunates who have neither fasted nor prayed and who have refused redemption by work, ask from black magic the means of raising themselves, at one fell swoop, to a supernatural existence. Magic dupes them and kindles for them a false happiness and a false light.” It is true that the practices employed by the higher reaches of most religions have much in common with each other and with natural mysticism. These similarities are suggested by the nature mystic, who apprehends the unity of the natural world, but far more significant to the practice of the world’s religions is a mysticism that turns inward. 

We would be wise to reflect upon the potential dangers that accompany natural mysticism before we allow ourselves to become enchanted by its alluring possibilities. As Zaehner concludes, the natural mystic, like the manic depressive, is likely to face an unpleasant awakening: “There comes the uncomfortable realization that perhaps after all good and evil are not so easily reconciled, that to identify oneself with God is blasphemous, and to have the sensation that one is omnipotent is not the same as actually being omnipotent.”

Willis Renuart

Willis is a former attorney, restaurant owner, and frequent contributor to the Front Porch Republic. He lives in Akron, Ohio with his wife, Cheridah, and enjoys long walks with his aging Old English Sheepdog.

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