A New Intellectual Journey

"Of the reality or unreality of the mystic's world I know nothing. I have no wish to deny it, nor even to declare that the insight which reveals it is not a genuine insight. What I do wish to maintain... is that insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means."

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic

“Do mystical states establish the truth of those theological affections in which the saintly life has its roots?”

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

In the past few days or so, I have been amazed and fascinated by my exposure to a mystical school of thought, the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, and I am undergoing a significant intellectual change of perspective from my previous philosophy. I am extremely curious about these mystic experiences and since it is not my habit to accept blindly, I am definitely eager to explore them on my own. However, it is also very obvious to me that the practice of mysticism requires a certain distance and detachment from the worldly life (albeit not a renouncement), and after some days of confusion I have realized that I am not yet ready for such a distance. I am not done with this physical plane of existence yet, both intellectually and emotionally. At the same time, I am convinced of the validity of mystic experiences, that mystic experiences do have something to tell us about reality, and that the knowledge gained from them cannot be discarded as psychotic ramblings. Once I have accepted this new mode of knowledge, it is also clear to me that it has very significant things to say and add to our understanding of the physical and human world.

So, I have outlined my project of personal learning for the near future: I will attempt to learn how the epistemic admissibility of mysticism can be argued for and philosophically defended, and in what way it affects our understanding of the physical world, and what mysticism has to add to the disciplines like metaphysics, psychology, ethics, aesthetics, sociology etc... and I will continue to explore Integral Yoga and mysticism intellectually until I am ready to undergo the meditations myself.

I realize that even by merely accepting mystic experience as valid, I am risking being alienated from my skeptical-minded philosophical friends, but if life has taught me something, it is that every significant growth in the pursuit of truth brings such risks of estrangement. At the moment, I would just request my skeptic friends to at least have a minimum of faith in my philosophical judgment, that if I am so interested in this subject, there must be something making sense in it that I see, and that I have not lost my mind. Plus, as I explained in this post before, it would be dogmatic even for a skeptic to dismiss something without an honest inquiry.

For the religious-minded readers of this blog, who are quite in abundance, I would like to clarify: No, it does not mean or imply my return to religion. In fact, I believe that the mystic experience itself reveals the falsehood of organized religions and faith-based theologies that we see around us.

In general, however, the blog with its familiar and customary themes will continue on in the usual manner.


ahish said…
You should perhaps explore scientific explanations for mystical experiences first where they are viewed as the net result of partial complex seizures in the brain. Also can you explain as to how you have got convinced of the validity of mystical experiences?
Awais Aftab said…
@ ahish

I am familiar with those scientific explanations. In fact, that's how I used to explain mysticism myself before. But I now think these scientific explanations don't even come close to explaining the sort of detailed and elaborate experiences that have been described.

I got convinced of the essential validity of mystical experiences first through my personal and direct interaction with some friends who have been practicing mysticism, and who have experienced mystical phenomenon that are not merely fleeting and random, but rather enduring and constant, with tangible effects. Being a medical student, I have sufficient knowledge of psychiatry to say with confidence that they are not psychotic or ill, and that their experiences cannot be explained in terms of neurology. Apart from this testimony of friends whom I have great reason to trust, the whole practice and experience of mysticism has been documented in great detail by many mystics through-out the history. There are differences in accounts, but there are also a great degree of similarities on essential points. These accounts, especially the Integral Yoga that I am studying, are so detailed and elaborate, with a particular logic of their own, that I just cannot see how they can be explained away as madness.

Since I have just started exploring and understanding the subject, I cannot endorse without qualification everything that may have been written in mysticism. This is because mystic experiences are never truly objective; they are always influenced to a degree by the person's subjectivity.
So just like with sensory experience, claiming the truth of a raw experience is different from the question "What does that experience mean?" or "How should that experience be interpreted?" Etc. Just like in science, we can observe a particular phenomenon, and come with up several theories for explaining it. We can all see a lunar eclipse, but it automatically doesn't tell us about the astronomical orbits. We have to work that out by analysis. Similarly, I believe that mystic experiences are as real as watching a lunar eclipse. But the question "What can we infer from this experience about reality?" is an entirely separate question. And it is such questions that I intend to explore in times to come.
tehzib said…
Congratulations, Awais. You seem to have the right approach, and I will be here to support you all the way (as will others).

However, you're still in a somewhat skeptical place, as it seems you still listen a bit too much to your protesting ego-mind! But no worries, this too will eventually give way to an innocent love, and when that happens you will be in the company of angels, and love will your nutrition and your abode.

Until that time: good luck, my friend, and your mystic friends will be here if you need them :)
tehzib said…

... will be*

... if you need us*