Understanding Mysticism

By Hayes, Linda J. | The Psychological Record, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Understanding Mysticism


Hayes, Linda J., The Psychological Record


Behavior science occupies a unique position in the constellation of intellectual disciplines. Its uniqueness lies in its subject matter, namely behavior, which includes the behavior of all those who count themselves among the intellectual workers of our culture. Among the materials available for analysis by behavior scientists, therefore, are the verbal actions of those holding views regarded as incompatible with those of behavior analysts. Mystical conceptualizations of human experience are one such example.

Mystical views are not as incompatible as they might first appear however. In fact, many of the issues with which mystics have struggled have begun to present themselves to physicists, who have, oddly enough, articulated similar understandings. It seems likely, therefore, that behavior analysts may at some point find themselves addressing some of these same issues and, in being forewarned, may be better prepared to do so. It is toward this end that the mystical conceptualization of human experience is presented in the following pages.

The philosophical category of mysticism encompasses many different traditions. What distinguishes these traditions is not the end to which they are aimed: All mysticisms are inevitably drawn to the same end. Neither do they differ in their fundamental premises, however implicitly these may be contacted. Instead, they differ in the extent to which those premises sustain a consistency throughout; and this in turn reflects their positions along the path to the end.

Providing an understanding of mysticism, therefore, entails more than merely characterizing the end to which it is aimed, or to that which is referred to as "mystical experience." Required, as well, is an understanding of the path by which it may be approached. It is difficult to make sense of a path when its destination is unclear, however. Hence, my plan is to first depict the destination. From this source, I will attempt to illuminate the path. To do so, it will be helpful to derive the underlying premises of mysticism as a philosophical system; and in articulating the systemic aspects of mysticism, it will become obvious that mysticism shares features with other philosophical systems, including those underlying contemporary physics, and science more generally. These commonalities, as well as their points of departure, will be addressed as they arise. Finally, I will point to the value of this exposition for behavior scientists.

What is Mysticism?

From the outset it should be noted that mysticism is not a fully elaborated philosophical system. It is, instead, a loosely organized collection of premises, held to be self-evident. The evidence comes from experience; which is to say, the foundation of all categorical concepts is believed to be simple, unsophisticated experience (Suzuki, 1964, p. 33). It is for this reason that mysticism is always characterized, in its most basic form, by reference to direct experience. Mysticism, in this sense, shares a commonality with phenomenology and existentialism. The existential focus on existence rather than essence reflects this same understanding of evidence (Hammond, Howarth, & Keat, 1991, pp. 133142; Merleau-Ponty, 1967).

Mystical Experience

Mystical experience, that is, the end to which mystics aspire, is depicted in a number of interrelated aspects, as described below.

The All-Inclusive Whole

The most distinctive aspect of mystical experience is the appreciation of all phenomena as manifestations of a basic oneness (Capra, 1976, p. 117). As the Avatamsaka philosophy teaches: "The One embraces All, and All is merged into One. The One is All, and All is the One. The One pervades All, and All is in the One."

Though there might be differences in its expression, this is not an unfamiliar premise to contemporary scientists of every variety (Wheatley, 1992). Physicists, in particular have operated on the premise of unity-as-reality for many years (Capra, 1976; Zukav, 1979). …

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