Rationality and mysticism are often seen as opposites. Rationalists use logic and Reason to make sense of the world, while mystics claim to transcend Reason by directly experiencing the “oneness of the universe”. Then, when asked to defend their position, mystics will claim that language is too limited and cannot convey the truths that they understand. Rationalists are left scratching their heads, unsatisfied and unpersuaded.
I’d like to make the case for mysticism. Not because I believe it’s true, but because I think a persuasive, logical argument can be made. In the West, we’re only presented with a Californiaized version of mysticism. In reality, these ideas are well-developed in Eastern philosophy and are extremely subtle and reasonable. Though I don’t believe they’re accurate, every critical thinker must grapple with them.
By “mysticism”, I mean the proposition: when you break down reality to its most fundamental essence, all is one. Because of this conclusion, there is indeed a way to “transcend Reason” without breaking any logical rules or discarding sensibility. And we certainly don’t need to appeal to quantum physics woo-woo nonsense.
The argument is about boundaries, and it’s a natural extension of the argument against the existence of objects. It just takes it one step further. So if you haven’t read that piece, do so before reading this one. I won’t rehash the entire argument, but in a nutshell: what we call “objects” are fundamentally just concepts. Without a mind, they wouldn’t exist. Their constituent parts would – their atoms and particles – but not unified as an independent “thing”. The boundary between “floor” and “chair” is entirely linguistic and artificial. The act of naming “this” and “that” is the function of the mind; it’s useful, but it creates an illusion of living in a world of objects, when we really live in a world of concepts.
The mystic simply applies this idea consistently. All divisions between things have the same quality: they are artificial projections of the mind; merely names. So where is the boundary between myself and other things? Between subject and object – between “the perceiver” and “the perceived”? The mystic profoundly claims: there is none.
If no meaningful boundaries exist, then my being cannot have boundaries either. Whatever is, is everything, which is the only thing that is. Our conception of the human mind is only that – a conception. A word. Nothing fundamental. Without our naming it, it wouldn’t be.
If what I’ve said is true so far, then it also justifies the mystic’s critique of language and Reason. Think about words. What do they do? They distinguish and reference “this” and “that”. They help us navigate the world. But they also make claims about what is. If we want to reference what ultimately exists, what words could we use?
If you’re linguistically referencing something, anything, you’re dividing up the world. And if nature isn’t meaningfully divided, then it’s futile to use language to try to talk about what really is. You can only concretely point out what isn’t. What is the ultimate nature of reality? Well, it’s not this or that, if you can talk about it. It’s not “your mind” or “the physical world”. It’s not any “thing” at all. Not because of magical, cryptic reasons, but because it logically cannot ever be referenced.
This way of thinking also indicts human Reason. Or at least, it seriously deflates its ability. Rationality is an attempt to make sense of the world using our minds. But from the mystic’s point of view, rationality misleads us. It deals with a bunch of words – sentence after sentence of “such and such is this and that”. When really, regardless of how you jumble the words together, you’ll never learn anything about what really is. The tool of language is flawed. It’s like trying to drive from Nevada to Kentucky in a canoe. You’re using the wrong equipment.
So, if language doesn’t get us closer to ultimate reality – or if it actively distracts us from it – is there any way to know the truth? Yes, according to the mystic: silence. When the mind becomes quiet and stops naming things, then you can experience boundarylessness. The oneness that is everything – that’s the real “you”.
And realize, it’s not “you” separate from “not-you”. It’s only you.
Perhaps to the surprise of Westerners, this is where meditation comes from. It’s not for health benefits; the goal of meditation is to quiet the mind’s word games and just be – ultimately resulting in a dissolution of your ego or sense of “self” as separate from the rest of the universe. They claim that when you just are, you experience what is – namely, everything.
I have never experienced this state of mind, but many people have. It can be achieved through advanced practice of meditation, or more popularly in the West, through psychedelic drug use. The majority of mystics I’ve spoken with arrived at their beliefs through a drug-induced psychedelic experience. This does not discredit their ideas. After all, probably more than a billion people on earth believe “all is one” and that the self is illusory; it isn’t some crank philosophy conjured up by a bunch of hippies.
Further in favor of mysticism, consider the implications if all-is-not-one, not just in terms of objects, but in terms of the self. Assume that “the self” has meaningful boundaries – an existence independent of our conception of it. What does that mean? It implies, necessarily, that “the self” is non-physical. If it were physical, it would play by the same rules as other “objects”. So we’re left with a non-physical “being”, separate from the physical particles which make up human bodies. Essentially, we’ve just defined a “soul” – or perhaps a “ghost”. Now, I think a strong case can be made for the existence of souls, but the implications are equally enormous.
I see a clear dichotomy: either everything is one and the self is illusory, or everything is not-one and we live in a world of souls. Not an easy decision either way.
To be honest, most people I’ve met who espouse mysticism don’t have a clear understanding of their beliefs, and they portray them terribly. But, when you dive into the real philosophy underpinning their ideas, the rabbit hole goes very deep. Suddenly, the stereotypical wise old man speaking in paradoxes doesn’t seem crazy; he’s trying to convey an idea which language literally cannot convey. Of course he’s going to sound a bit silly.
Plus, consider the following question: why do so many people believe that their selves have boundaries? Why do people think we aren’t ultimately all the same thing? It’s entirely because of our experience. We (seem to) walk around and experience things from a boundaried point of view, so we conclude that we have boundaries. But what if our experiences were different? If we walked around feeling like we were the entire universe, and the logic held up, then mysticism would seem like the most reasonable conclusion. Countless mystics throughout history have claimed they’ve experienced the world this way. And their claims are usually met with derision.
They say things like “I am God” or “You are in me, and I am in you,” and most people immediately assume they’re insane. At least in our culture. But this is a grave philosophic error. The mystic’s conclusions might be wrong, but the underlying ideas should be treated with the utmost seriousness.