A few months ago I went to a yoga class. The teacher began the class by saying, “I know, I know, I know. We’re all wondering when the hell this moon cycle is going to end. It is totally messing with us all.” I’d been feeling grand up until that point. I’d had a poem published and had seen an old friend. Suddenly I felt guilty that the moon wasn’t giving me a shit month, because apparently the moon cared enough about everybody else to bully them, but was ignoring me.
Then, still in yoga, I also found myself thinking about how the moon does affect the bodies of water on the earth: and I resolved to Google whether the water in the human body is affected by the lunar cycle (I forgot to Google, but I’ve just Googled it, it seems like it isn’t).
And, also still in yoga, feeling the stretch of hamstrings, I found myself thinking about how one person’s view of the transcendent can send me off in an orbit of my own. I came to yoga wanting to practice downward facing dog, because I have a bad back from a car accident years ago and regular stretching helps lessen the ache in my back. Now I was spinning with questions and frustration.
When I was 15, it was 1990, and George HW Bush had started a war in Iraq. The television was filled with footage of tanks and bombs. I went to a prayer meeting, “This is the direct fulfillment of the following prophecy,” the man leading the prayer meeting said, and then he quoted something obscure and impenetrable from the bible. I was thrilled; I had a clearcut reason that explained everything about a war that would have absolutely no impact on me. Innocence and arrogance matched each other.
Lots of systems propose a grand story: religion especially; but not exclusively. Humanity, so these stories propose, has a singular purpose: to praise God, to get to Heaven, to follow the Law, you get the picture. And God, in these stories, has a particular plan. So, in the face of all the shit that happens to us, there are reasons given to explain what’s happening. I’ve heard everything explained based on these theories: why homosexuality happens; how you can get healed from your infirmities; why you should vote for the xenophobe who calls himself religious; and on and on and on. There’s a thin line between religious certainty and conspiracy theories.
Much of what gets passed as mysticism just dresses such dangerous delusions up in the latest language that seems like it’ll hoodwink the population. While yoga studios aren’t filled with people saying, “God wants you to do Pigeon Pose today,” I’ve heard plenty of talk about The Universe that fills me with discomfort. “Everybody is at this class today for A Reason,” I hear, “The Universe wants you here.” And I find myself wanting to leave, because if The Universe has any desires, I’d like The Universe to sort out climate change deniers and power hungry leaders in industry and politics.
I like yoga. It’s just that it can destroy its own message when it uses an exaggerated story of its own power and insight. Same goes for religion. I find that practitioners of yoga and religion who make vast claims about their affiliation are usually more recent converts, less grounded in the complicated history of their chosen practice, and more like used-car-dealers than a guru. They want to sell me something that will make them feel better (and/or richer) about their own disordered attachment to the ideology that explains everything to them. Real yoga—like real religion—is much more intelligent than the meaningless fantasies of someone who needs their philosophy to explain everything about everything.
Not everything is explainable. Do yoga anyway.
(Or swimming. Or walking. Or whatever keeps the heart beating.)
So in light of all of this, is there any meaning in the idea of the mystic?
Once, I was sitting in mass, and I was thinking of going on a retreat. I was, truth be told, at the end of myself, and the rituals and rhythms I knew were fading in their capacity to contain. I was at the edge. I was scouring every leaflet I could about places of pilgrimage. I wanted to go to this Buddhist monastery, or that Convent, or hear the teachings of that Teacher. The priest at the mass—I have absolutely no idea of his name—said, “Sometimes, when we have reached the end of ourselves, we think we should go further, maybe even on retreat, or find a book that’ll explain us to ourselves. But at the end of ourselves is where we might find something, something of an experience, something where we do not know where we end, or where God begins. Be there. Don’t go any further.”
I was so dumbfounded that, 20 years later, I still wonder if it really happened. I sat for the rest of the mass, knowing that words from a perfect stranger had grounded the perfect strangeness of my life. His words located me, with profound knowing, in a moment that was at once embedded in time, and also beyond time. The priest’s words took me down from the fantasies I was having that some retreat — or pilgrimage or teacher or technology — could offer some solution. I was placed back into myself. I had been running around in the world outside myself, and now to my shock, I was home, at peace, at one, with the imperfection of everything I was feeling. This, I think, is mysticism. That priest might have been a lovely man, or he might sometimes have been a bit of a wanker. It doesn’t matter. Mysticism isn’t a personality type, it’s a moment that holds much. It closes the gap between wisdom and the body, and we know something in the body, and the body knows too.
One of the claims of mysticism—or the transcendent, or the esoteric, or the sublime, or the apocalyptic (they’re all just sounds we make to talk about mystery)—is that it offers some transcendent knowledge. There’s an old word for this: gnosticism. The word gnostic comes from ancient Greek and means knowledge. We use it in English today: if you look for a diagnosis, you’re looking for knowledge. However, I think the truest forms of mysticism offer knowledge that is more than presumptive predictions of certitude. Lazy and loud mysticism claims to offer knowledge that will spell out the mysteries of being and explain everything. It’s appealing, it plays on the desires of the pained for some kind of explanation, but it can often cost: friends, finances, families. Cults are built on exaggerated claims of gnosis. Sign up to our group and you’ll understand the future! Have a theory of everything! Bask in the knowledge of the Universe.
And that addiction to certitudeis one of the serious flaws of false mysticism I think. Mysticism if it means anything, is not about certitude or fortune-tellings; the knowledge that true mysticism offers is knowledge that burrows us deeply in time and place. Perhaps even knowledge isn’t the best word. Wisdom, perhaps—plain and simple and pure and rich wisdom that helps you love more, be more, exist more.
Years ago, some friends were staying with me; a couple and their two children. Their daughter was almost three. She seemed to like me so she attached herself to my side for the week, like a chatty virus in pigtails and princess dresses. She was in the stage of asking the same question over and over. You doing? she’d ask from morning till night. I’d be opening a book, or texting a friend, or searching for my keys. You doing? she’d ask. I searching, I’d say, slipping into her grammar like a drowning man. Once—I remember it was the last day of their visit—I was washing the dishes. She was, as always, wrapped around my leg. You doing? she asked. I washing, I said. Then I thought. You doing? I asked. She shrugged. She looked nonchalant. I asking, she answered. And she was perfectly right; perfectly in the present moment, concerned with neither the past nor the future. She moved me from irritation to presence. She gave no great answers to the questions of life, but she practiced something that was perfectly its own thing, and I have never forgotten her.
Mystics—if they exist—are present in time. They are funny, ordinary, insightful. Some are strange and some are lovely. They have some practices that, if they practice them, help them act wisely in unknowable times. They get it wrong, and they know how to apologise. Mystic, like Genius, is an experience, not an individual.
Saint Francis was a saint, and some say a mystic. He was a worldly man from a wealthy family. But after an experience of prayer, he renounced everything and began a life of spirituality and gardening and rebuilding a broken-down church in the name of reforming a religion he thought had lost its way. He was an extraordinary man, and I imagine many people loved him and many people wanted to murder him. Wise people can be bullheaded. “What would you do if you knew the world was about to end?” a person once asked him in a famous fable. “I’d plant my garden,” he said, an answer pertinent to us today as we think about how ravaging the earth for its resources has grown temporary riches with permanent consequences. Plant the earth. Right now.
I don’t even know if that fable is true. But it’s true anyway.
One of the most mystical people I met was a magnificent nun. A friend of mine was talking to her and told her that because he’d recently turned 30, he now understood why his relationship with his father had been so difficult, and that he was confident that their relationship would be utterly changed as a result of his recent insights. He had, he’d said, been struggling with his relationship with his dad for a long time, but now that he was 30, and wise, and filled with insight, everything would change. “You’re a fucking idiot,” the nun said to him, “you’ll be figuring out your relationship with him for the rest of your life, before and after his death, and up until yours.” She didn’t claim to know the future. Her agnosticism about closure opened him to a reality that grounded him. We love the story about the sweary nun: she’s funny, and real, and respectful in a way that is not insipid. She swore at my friend, but also helped him regularly. She didn’t know the future, but she knew a lot about why my friend needed to figure out his relationship with his dad. My friend grew up in a war; his dad was a soldier. The story of his relationship with his father had a lot to do with politics and greed and power and territory and pride and murder. Mysticism doesn’t give any solutions to these perennial aspects of the human condition, but if it’s real, it might offer some wisdom about how to survive some of them. Mysticism doesn’t make grand claims about how its knowledge will solve all anxieties. But it helps you now. And now. And now. And now.
This issue is part of our Mysticism campaign at Dumbo Feather. For more conversations and essays on the topic, get your hands on a copy of Issue 62 of Dumbo Feather magazine.