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Evelyn Underhill - Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness

I'm just going through a book by Evelyn Underhill entitled "Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness," which is a book on Connection.  In chapter one, "The Rod, the Root, and the Flower," she suggests "mysticism" as a philosophical position is superior to materialism, idealism, and pragmatism, all philosophical positions which she discusses, but which dismisses as inadequate, not only as representations of truths, but as "ladders to the stars," by which she means a path to Connection. It's actually quite a fascinating argument that pushes the reader towards consideration of the importance and reality of Connection Experience, and higher more "transcendent" realities, which she says are reflected in the artist's sensibility and expression, in the "perceptions and experiences are those which we connect with religion, with pain and with beauty." "Beauty," said Hegel, "is merely the Spiritual making itself known sensuously."

Her first chapter is interesting because she suggests that actual connection experiences is often the motivation for a shifting of perspective and change of life direction away from the "practical" towards apprehension and appreciation of the connected.  For a moment we touch "something more" and it is this that sets us on The Path.  In her chapter, she speaks of the Glimpse and the Peak Experience. She says.

Most men in the course of their lives have known such Platonic hours of initiation, when the sense of beauty has risen from a pleasant feeling to a passion, and an element of strangeness and terror has been mingled with their joy. In those hours the world has seemed charged with a new vitality; with a splendour which does not belong to it but is poured through it, as light through a coloured window, grace through a sacrament, from that Perfect Beauty which "shines in company with the celestial forms" beyond the pale of appearance. In such moods of heightened consciousness each blade of grass seems fierce with meaning, and becomes a well of wondrous light: a "little emerald set in the City of God." The seeing self is indeed an initiate thrust suddenly into the sanctuary of the mysteries: and feels the "old awe and amazement" with which man encounters the Real. In such experiences, a new factor of the eternal calculus appears to be thrust in on us, a factor which no honest seeker for truth can afford to neglect;

Is there a reality to such an event? Should we take it seriously? Should we descend down the rabbit hole to follow the implications? She goes on.

Why, after all, take as our standard a material world whose existence is affirmed by nothing more trustworthy than the sense-impressions of "normal men"; those imperfect and easily cheated channels of communication? The mystics, those adventurers of whom we spoke upon the first page of this book, have always declared, implicitly or explicitly, their distrust in these channels of communication. They have never been deceived by phenomena, nor by the careful logic of the industrious intellect. One after another, with extraordinary unanimity, they have rejected that appeal to the unreal world of appearance which is the standard of sensible men: affirming that there is another way, another secret, by which the conscious self may reach the actuality which it seeks. More complete in their grasp of experience than the votaries of intellect or of sense, they accept as central for life those spiritual messages which are mediated by religion, by beauty, and by pain. More reasonable than the rationalists, they find in that very hunger for reality which is the mother of all metaphysics, an implicit proof that such reality exists; that there is something else, some final satisfaction, beyond the ceaseless stream of sensation which besieges consciousness. "In that thou hast sought me, thou hast already found me," says the voice of Absolute Truth in their ears. This is the first doctrine of mysticism. Its next is that only in so far as the self is real can it hope to know Reality: like to like: Cot ad cot loquitur. Upon the propositions implicit in these two laws the whole claim and practice of the mystic life depends.

Underhill's response here is understandable only in the context of her criticism of materialism, idealism, and pragmatism, but she's basically saying the mystical apprehension and Reality is more accurate than the materialist, more practical than the idealist, and less absurd than the pragmatist. She makes an interesting case, which I don't disagree with.  But I think we shouldn't put aside concerns with the mystic's apprehension of reality either.

Comments? Thoughts?

It is quite an interesting argument


Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. New York: Dover Publications, 2002.

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Very interesting.

To be honest, I have had the very same idea, concerning the philosophical position. "Mysticism" truly can be understood as a philosophical position. It is a position that is incredibly holistic. It manages to put together the wildest "contradictions". At least seeming contradictions. Of course, all contradictions that appear in philosophical literature are created by that same literature, because assumptions are consciously, or unconsciously adopted that are untrue. In order for this critique to have traction, a revised understanding of the concept of "truth" would be needed. A concept that requires truth to be a continuum. A concept that requires truth to be utterly dependent on perspective. Truth without perspective makes little sense in my humble opinion.

The interesting part is, that while the "mystical position" manages to encompass a huge amount of phenomena and explanations it also avoids reduce itself to complete generalities. It has actual content, that is palpable, experienceable, logial and ressourceful.

While studying philosophy, I was deeply dissatisfied with just about every philosophical position that I came to encounter. The reason for this was its lack of tangency with the world.

I would wholeheartedly agree that mysticism is a philosophical position. One that perhaps needs concentrated scientific effort to map out more exactly and applied on reality. On politics, economy, lifestyle, civics, science, philosophy, you name it.

Yup. speaking of a map. Here is the LP Map.

We don't use the term mysticism to refer to connection. I actually don't think the term is all that useful. We need a new term, materialism, idealism, pragmatism, ????? to encompass the philosophical position.

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Idealism, Materialism .... Holism?

(hahaha it's also fitting cuz phonetically it is not so far away from the term "holy".

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