- The Mystic Experience: A Descriptive and Comparative Analysis
The mystic experience remains a frontier that bewitches scholarly analysts; no matter how much ink flows, the more obscure it becomes. Jordan Paper has confronted many of the issues in this helpful, highly nuanced book, and you will surely come out of its reading with a new appreciation for the topic. Whether you will be satisfied with the 'descriptions' and 'comparisons,' could well be another matter.
Paper steps immediately into the fray by describing his own unitive experience, which he then uses as a benchmark for evaluating a wide range of mystical data, drawn from such disciplinary sources as world religions (the history of religions), shamanic studies, psychological and psychiatric analyses, and various ancillary explications. Deflating the 'mystical' industry that has grown world-wide (he rejects the word 'mysticism' for the [End Page 294] personally based 'mystic experience'), he cuts to the central contention: mystic experience cannot be bought, cannot be taught, cannot even be sought. It happens. What is it then? He points to 'a definable, human experience with multiple common characteristics, centering on the ecstasy of self-loss' as the phenomenon of the mystic experience.
The key is that so many people (probably 10 per cent according to his estimate) have the experience and they then integrate it into the language of their religious culture. Thus what we are dealing with are various cultural languages that become the operating metaphor for the experience, and these cultural languages arise in the first place from one's own religious or intellectual tradition. Then these traditional sources often turn the experience over to advanced seekers and institutional structures to husband it. This explains why religions take such a proprietary attitude to the experience.
The fact is, contends Paper, that the experience need not be conceived of as religious at all. It is first and foremost an experience of the human mind. It can be broken down into three elements: the loss of self mentioned above, personal effects that are totalizing in significance, and recognition of the limitations of the experience or its application. None of these segments need have religious content.
There may be ground for some scepticism about Paper's approach; after all, a social scientific modus operandi usually operates at arm's length from one's own perspective. Paper is uncowed by this criticism - he warns his reader to go no further in reading if the book's foundation on self-reference offends. Still, why should one's experience be seen to define the crucial parameters of such a world-wide phenomenon? Despite the powerful reality conveyed in his personal description, one wonders what series of losses converged to shape the basic experience as 'self-loss.' Why should self-loss be the bedrock of the mystic experience ... self being a conceptual construct itself? Perhaps self-loss is a social and cultural language that arises in certain circumstances, as he cites in the life of the shaman John Paul and the writings of the Zhwangzi. Indeed, his analysis would seem to relegate the unitive experience that collectivities have - where the many are held to fuse into the one in the mystical moment - to the lesser level of an institutional form. This is doubtful, since not all such experiences are institutionally constructed. In short, it is unlikely that all practitioners will embrace either the book's singular model of the mystic experience, or its comparative conclusions.
Perhaps that does not matter. This is a necessary book, clear, direct, cautious, and cogent. It can be reliably recommended to a wide range of people, from the most fledgling seeker to the advanced scholar in the mystical tradition. All will be challenged by its insights, bedevilled by its conclusions. [End Page 295]
Earle Waugh, Department of History and Department of Classics, University of Alberta