Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The Moral Danger of the Mystical

Jordan Peterson:

There’s a miraculously infinite amount of richness everywhere, but you can’t wander around thinking that all the time because you just wouldn’t get anything done. It’s too complex to see everything at once. Take a psychedelic, and you’ll see everything at once, and that’s the beatific vision, but there’s a danger in that because you’ll also see, in some ways, your relationship to that, which is infinite in scope, along with your moral responsibility. And if you realize that simultaneously and contrast that with who you are currently, in your embittered and fragmented partial form, that can produce a moral burden that’s intolerable.

I find this a very interesting statement, not just about psychedelic drugs, but about any spiritual experience. Does it uplift you in a way you can use in your life, or merely make your life seem trivial and pathetic? Many years ago I read an essay by a mountain climber who said this happened to him; on top of his first Himalayan peak he had a vision so powerful he threw away the rest of life, including his marriage, to devote all his energies to getting back to that place over and over on one mountain after another. Nothing else mattered to him any more. 

Some religious mystics are inspired to teach, write, or become the leaders of communities, while others just want to retreat from the world. Many humans are so impressed by that sort of vision and renunciation that many cultures have supported such people, feeding and honoring them in their escape from the mundane world.

But if you want a normal life, you have to limit your exposure to the sublime. It is a dangerous thing for earthbound mortals to play around with.


David said...

FWIW, based on my limited reading, the effects of mystical experience can be mixed, both within and across individuals, as you suggest in your penultimate paragraph. I can see how mystical experience would be disruptive toward what I understand is Jordan Peterson's basic model of males taking responsibility and being effective contemporary-society providers and leaders, etc., etc. In medieval Islam, you find both mystics who take on an antinomian qalandar/dervish model of rejecting social norms, and mystics who become heads of orders and fulfill typical socially-stabilizing functions of legitimizing state power, serving as stabilizing intermediaries between subjects and rulers, and so forth. Since Rumi is a classic example of the stabilizing type, one can't say it's obvious that the order-oriented mystics were false or superficial in their mysticism, mere shills for the Man, or whatever. And often there's a sort of rebel-to-stabilizer transition; the Safavids might be a good example of that; likewise St. Francis for medieval Christendom. The mendicants seem to have plenty of genuine mystics who were rebels, and plenty who were order-imposers or order-conformers. I think it would be merely tendentious to say either Aquinas or Fra Dolcino was the genuine mystic, and the other was not.

David said...

I might add that James' Varieties of Religious Experience seemed to me a compilation of mysticism of the order-favoring sort.

David said...

I guess in the end one could say that's the moral danger of mysticism: mysticism goes its own way, and can't be tamed to serve standard modern dichotomies. Mystics serve what to them is a higher Truth, and they make unreliable allies for typical modern/western rebels or establishments, poor allies for our "disrupters" or for the stodgy, poor supports for Death Metal bands or psychiatrists, poor allies for Left or Right, poor models for youth or working-class rebellion, etc., etc.

A classic fable in this regard is Foucault's interaction with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He started out a huge fan, thinking Khomeini was the perfect antidote to modernity. F. gradually got quieter and quieter about that--though as far as I know he never repudiated the Iranian Revolution entirely. Khomeini, incidentally, was himself a mystic as well as a stern legalist. Go figure.

John said...

@David - that's very interesting about James. Thinking this over I am mostly struck by the respect so many people have for mystics of either type, which people like Khomeini or even Hildegard of Bingen used as a source of authority.

G. Verloren said...

But if you want a normal life, you have to limit your exposure to the sublime. It is a dangerous thing for earthbound mortals to play around with.

I've never needed to limit my exposure to the sublime, because based on an entire lifetime of experience, it does not exist - at least, not for me.

This suggests to me that "the sublime" is not some external facet of the universe, but merely an internal neurological effect that differs from person to person. Some people take drugs to reach "the sublime", and then chase the resultant addiction. Other people push themselves physically, like the mountain climber you mention, and develop an addiction of a different kind. Etc.

Might we not, then, be able to attribute "the sublime" to some form of brain alteration or even damage? We know that hallucinogens have powerful and complex effects on the brain, so that lines up easily there. Then there's the extreme brutal exertion of climbing the largest mountains in the world, suffering from reduced oxygen due to the high altitude, working the human body to its athletic limits... is it possible that a such people suffer minor aneurysms or other exertion related health effects which produce physical changes in their brains?

Compare to competitive runners, for whom the exertion of running can be addictive, creating a sort of "high" that they become addicted to. Compare to all the mystics whose states of "sublimity" involve sustained physical exertion - Quakers, Shakers, Holy Rollers, Whirling Dervishes, etc.

Compare, also, to people who simply naturally hallucinate without the need take any drugs or exert themselves in any way - for example, people who suffer from sleep apnea, seeing demons, angels, ghosts, monsters, aliens, etc. Compare to sufferers of schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis, who struggle to tell apart real people and hallucinatory ones.

Some people, I'm sure, absolutely must limit their exposure to "the sublime" - in the same way that a person with a congential heart defect must limit their heart rate. The difference being that we don't glorify things like heart defects as some sort of mystical state of contact with "divinity", and actively chase the "high" of causing heart palpitations in ourselves.

...or, thinking about it, perhaps we actually do, in a way? What about the various historical cultures where shamanism was linked to physical or mental frailty? Blindness being interpreted as the result of being able to see "the divine"? Or sleep apnea being interpreted as a connection to / attractive pull on spirits? Etc?

David said...


I wonder if there isn't the same problem with that word, "used," as when you say, "people like Khomeini or even Hildegard of Bingen used [mysticism] as a source of authority." That's a very modernist-academic way of putting it. I wonder if Khomeini or Hildegard would recognize in the same way the sort of distinctions such an analysis entails, especially as applying to themselves.

A very interesting reflection on all this Scott Alexander's discussion Daniel Ingram's "Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha." Ingram describes a stage in the mystic's development that leads to a fair amount of narcissism and even exploitation of others. But, the way Alexander conveys Ingram conveys, an analysis that typed this as simply "using" one's mystical status to accomplish non-mystical goals would be a misreading of the situation.

David said...

"the way Alexander conveys Ingram conveys"

Oh, for an editing function!

John said...

@David - my favorite discovery from that Alexander piece was that while many people claim to have become enlightened, their friends and relations did not notice any change in them.

Maybe here is a better model: people who have had powerful mystical experiences may become very certain in some of their beliefs. Others may also believe that they have been shown the truth. So their certainty, or others' reverence for them, or some combination of the two, may give them charisma they can draw on if they wish to become political figures.

But I suspect the average mystic does not become a political figure, and withdrawal from the world is a more common outcome.