Kabbalah: A neurocognitive approach to mystical experiences

Discussion in 'Comparative Studies' started by Thomas, Aug 19, 2015.

  1. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    A lot of studies have been undertaken on the effects of Buddhist meditation, especially in collaboration with Matthieu Ricard.

    Now neurologist Shahar Arzy and professor of Jewish thought Moshe Idel have collaborated to write Kabbalah: A neurocognitive approach to mystical experiences. The book focuses on ecstatic Kabbalah, an apophatic school of mysticism that emphasises attaining ecstatic experience, much like some schools of hesychasm in the Orthodox traditions.

    The authors speak of such phenomena as seeing a 'second' physical body near one's own physical body, having a sense of self that alternates between the perceived physical body and one's double, or feeling that your self has left the body and is observing from above.

    Personally I don't know of any such experiences recorded in the Christian mystical traditions east or west, so I am assuming these are experiences 'shaped' in accordance with Kabbalistic understanding.

    Neuroscience has already identified certain neurological conditions such as autoscopy (seeing a double), heautoscopy (seeing a double while being unable to localise the self) and the more widely known and discussed out-of-body (OOB) experience. All of these conditions have been noted in people with epilepsy, for example, or some form of neurological damage.

    Similar experiences have been induced by stimulating the brain under medical supervision. The same sort of process was stimulating the 'God-spot' which triggered the impression of someone standing close by, of being watched, etc.

    There is some evidence to suggest that the prophet Ezekiel may have suffered from a neurological disorder. Some Christians mystics seem to have suffered epileptic seizures.

    And, of course, there are those who employ psychodynamic techniques, or psychotropic drugs, to 'force the gates' as it were, and artificially induce what they assume to be a mystical state.

    Arzy and Idel write of Abraham Abulafia, a 13th-century mystic who devised a technique to achieve ecstatic states – a process of chanting, while paying close attention his respiration and head position and, at the same time, he would imagine himself with and without a body, while picturing and rotating the letters in his mind’s eye. The result would often be the appearance of a doppelgänger. This seems quite a complex exercise to me!

    Two things:
    One is that 'mysticism' as it is understood today is radically different to the ideas evoked by the term in its traditional sense. Today 'mysticism' denotes an outlook and an order of experience – it's become a subjective term rather than the traditional understanding which refers to an objective reality – the Mysteries. (The same applies to the contemporary 'religion v spirituality' debate, this is another case of western bifurcation. In the traditional sense the two are synonymous, and in the Orthodox East that is still the case.)

    There is much to suggest, and my belief is such that, authentic mystical speculation in the Christian Tradition is non-experiential. Something endorsed by other traditions, including Buddhism. Meister Eckhart for example, never claimed to any experiential mystical state. The famous case of Thomas Aquinas' 'vision' is presented according to the understanding of his biographer, and not directly in his own words. Knowing, yes. Experience? Not necessarily.

    St Francis, who was observed to levitate whilst in prayer, makes no claim to 'mystical experience' as is understood today.

    The subjective focus and desire for such experience came to the fore with the various 'spiritisms' of the 18th/19th century.

    It's worth bearing in mind that 'mystical experience' is not the goal of religious practice, nor can it be 'done' by the application of some sort of 'technique'. In the Christian Tradition subjective experiences are not a private matter, nor do they transmit some new 'revelation'.

    The contemporary position on 'mystical experience' is the product of the pseudo-spiritual movements that popped up as part of the Romance Movement, and, as ever, the fruit of a consumer- and ego-oriented culture:

    "The privatisation of mysticism – that is, the increasing tendency to locate the mystical in the psychological realm of personal experiences – serves to exclude it from political issues as social justice. Mysticism thus becomes seen as a personal matter of cultivating inner states of tranquility and equanimity, which, rather than seeking to transform the world, serve to accommodate the individual to the status quo through the alleviation of anxiety and stress." (Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and 'The Mystic East', Routledge, 2002)
     
  2. Devils' Advocate

    Devils' Advocate Well-Known Member

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    Another thought provoking post. If I were to sum this up in my words, it would be

    1. that mysticism is not a Christian phenomena; there is no place for such a practice in Biblical canon.
    2. that modern mysticism has no foundation in any religious doctrine; it is a popularization of a wide group of pseudo-religious beliefs in self centered thinking.

    If I summed that up correctly or not, please do let me know.

    And while I will not disagree with either of those positions, it seems to me there is a third that you fail to mention. Which is mysticism as practiced in Eastern philosophy and religions. This mysticism is a horse of a very different color as opposed to Western religious thinking. In this realm, mysticism is an integral part of the spiritual/religious doctrine. No?
     
  3. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    If we're talking about King's 'privatisation', yes.

    'Mysticism' and 'mystic' derive from the Greek mustēs meaning 'an initiate' and muein meaning ‘close the eyes or lips’ and also ‘initiate’. When the word is used in the NT, and the Greek OT texts, 'the mysteries' are that which is revealed in Christ. The Christian Mysteries are not hidden, they are revealed, they are there in plain sight. Whether one believes in them or not is another matter.

    In that sense, Christianity is a mystery religion, because it's all about the mysteries. The Latin term is Sacrament. The Sacraments are Mysteries. The religion is a mystery religion, the believer is a mystic by virtue of that fact, by their baptism they are initiated into the mysteries, the Eucharist is the Mystery of Mysteries.

    (The idea of 'the mystic' such as Eckhart or St John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila is a later and indeed lesser determination.)

    Well, I'd say its foundation is a mis-interpretation of religious doctrine. In the Abrahamic Traditions God is talking to man, not a man. If there is 'a message' made known to an individual, it's given for the benefit of all, not as a reward for the individual.

    I think we'd have to discuss what we mean by 'mysticism' within the context of the particular tradition?

    I recall when I was learning meditation at the hands of Buddhists – Friends of the Western Buddhist Order – the view there was that 'mystical experience' was the ego trying to pull the wool over one's eyes. So I suppose we'd have to discuss just what an Easterner means by 'mystery', 'mysticism', 'mystic', etc.
     
  4. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    I believe the days of fasting.,.deprivation of various types by mystics also are 'activating' that God spot...

    I can't out of hand discount others experiences... But believe much of what is written lately and in the past and in scriptures describe hallucinatory experiences which result from deprivation and or ingestion of something....

    As to reports of folks floating...in two places at once... Some want to be elevated by their peers by agreeing with such things....like all those that signed they saw the mysterious plates of Joseph Smith...
     
  5. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Post withdrawn
     
  6. Devils' Advocate

    Devils' Advocate Well-Known Member

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    This is but my personal belief so make of it what you will. It is difficult for me to take seriously any mystical claims that are based on the imbibing of hallucinatory drugs. Mystic experiences are founded on a clear mind, or a moving away from mind. I don't know how one would separate experiences that are the effect of the drugs versus genuine mystical experiences. Seems to me there is no way to know.
     
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  7. waggindraggin

    waggindraggin Member

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    That makes sense. Visions could be considered signs or miracles, so there is not really any point in pursuing them unless they are part of some kind of improvement in the individual.
     
  8. Hermes

    Hermes Zos Kia Cultus

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    My take is that all religions have their mystics to seek the truth and the "outer layer" comprises of the follower and masses that are controlled by fear and misinformation. All religions have some core commonality that likely stems from the lost continent Atlantis where some survivors apparently managed to save and resurrect fragments of the sacred and vast knowledge Humanity once had but ultimately lost....
     
  9. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    That's my belief also.

    Interestingly there is some research into the idea that sense-experiences – visual, auditory and so forth – might well be the 'overspill' of the Transcendent. It's a given of every Tradition that 'the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao', neverthless the mind and the body will endeavour to process the 'experience' to itself. This on the one hand can explain visual and auditory manifestations, for example, and also explain seizures brought about by sensory 'overload'.

    Whilst the apophatic will assert that all perception is ontologically unreal, God, the Eternal Unspoken Tao, It, the One, whatever, being the only and the ultimate reality, the idea that cataphatic phenomena are therefore unreal, imaginary or illusory is to fall into the dualist trap of assuming the 'I' is somehow other than the whole person. Again, this is from the Abrahamic perspective which is holistic, although it does tend to stumble along, being explained through a Greek and therefore dualistic mindset.

    It always makes me wonder why someone will allow that God made the world, but then deny that God can be in the world in any real way ...

    People undergo 'life changing experiences', and I'm not talking mystical experiences here, but quite mundane ones. Something happens and the see the world differently. This is not just a mental adaptation, their whole being is changed and, I would suggest, so is the world.

    The western mind is educated to see the world in a very specific way. It seeks to impose it's narrative on its experience, to determine the world according to itself, to manipulate nature ... it's no surprise that in the writings of the Age of Enlightenment, 'Mother Nature' was re-presented as a wanton woman needing to be controlled.

    Traditional cultures stand aghast at what the modern mind sees as important, and not-important. We learn more about nature every day, about the nano-cosmos, the distant reaches of space and time, but every day we are further removed from the holistic experience of being in and one with the world and with ourselves ... when we seek that, we look to traditional methods of seeing and being ...
     

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