Some thoughts on mysticism
April 19, 2022
Computers are useless. They only give you answers.
— Pablo Picasso
Mysticism seems to focus on the questions, on wonderment and awe. In world religions, mysticism stands in contrast to fundamentalism. Not its opposite, for I don’t believe mysticism opposes anything. It would be inclusive in its wonder, but there is a contrast between asserting dogma and a receptive state of attentiveness. (I am composing this on a computer, Pablo.)
Mysticism takes a lot of a person’s time. All of it, actually! And dang, it can look like you’re doing nothing. People who take up the call of mysticism make noticing their primary employment: noticing their interior life, noticing the environment and then noticing themselves in their environment. This last task is called consciousness.
There are many portals into the mystic state. For some it is overwhelming beauty. For some it is biochemically altered states. For some it is sitting in prolonged silence. What seems necessary is the abandonment of the ego’s agenda in order to allow something else to happen. It seems the ego sometimes mistakes itself for life itself. It’s not in its nature to share the stage.
The words “mystic,” “mystical” and “mysticism” are related and have no place, really, in describing weather or landscape. While it is true that some mystic traditions flourished in certain geographies, (for instance among poets and artists in the Skagit Valley), it likely has more to do with the possibility of finding a bit of solitude, beauty or quiet for the rather monkish lifestyle that mystics prefer.
There are cultures which foster the mystic path and cultures which are hostile to it. You can figure out what kind of culture you live in. Notice your relationship to time. If all your time is scheduled, you live in a culture which fears what you might notice if you weren’t mowing the lawn or struggling to manage the incessant demands of modern life.
Art and mysticism have long been bed partners. In the visual arts sometimes what can be seen alludes to something that is invisible and only intuited to exist. Mystical phenomena have been perceived throughout prehistory and history and have been found to be reliable, though both science and religion often deny it, the former by requiring proof, the latter by burning books on the craft and in many cases, people themselves.
This has had an effect on all of us humans. Jung spoke of a collective unconscious and buried in that mound of memory are centuries of trauma. Speaking of unverifiable intuitions can cost you your life, or worse, banish you from your tribe.
An artist who is following a mystic path does not usually say so on her resume. Mystics are difficult sometimes to identify, but quite often they have made a hard turn off the beaten path of academia and the pursuit of MFAs. Listening to a different drummer sometimes requires leaving the mega concert and cacophony of daily life. It is ever so much safer to stay in the middle of the pack and concentrate on your career and legacy and risk, instead, a serious midlife crisis.
In hopes of a better world,
Excerpted from Wilder’s forthcoming book “Far from the Centers of Personal Ambition: The Work & Life of William Slater.”