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Mysticism needs a reality check

This is one of the better articles on mysticism I’ve seen in a while. Not only does it gently rebuke those Christian fundamentalists who proclaim that mysticism is “of the devil.” But it also mentions how Evelyn Underhill, one of my favorite writers on mysticism, points out as far back in 1914 that the word mysticism means different things to different people.

To a Zen monk, mysticism might mean stopping one’s thoughts and living in the moment. To a Hindu, it might mean feeling a psychological expansion, making the ego and worldly affairs appear trivial.

Most conventional Catholics interested in or claiming to be mystics seem to frame their approach, experiences and understanding within some – but usually not all – of their Catholic teachings, legends and practices.

Over the years I’ve heard some pretty questionable claims from some self-proclaimed Catholic mystics. One element that unconfirmed mystics seem to have in common is that they believe they have no need for dialog or spiritual direction. In their minds, they are right about practically everything.

English: Evelyn Underhill. Author given as Wil...

Evelyn Underhill via Wikipedia

But who among us is without some kind of human limitation?

Because we are all limited, I believe it is essential for budding mystics to receive some kind of direction from another person or persons. I don’t believe a Catholic must necessarily see a Catholic spiritual director. That may help in traditional situations where everyone shares the same beliefs without question. In common parlance, if it’s a good fit, why change it?

But for Catholics uncomfortable with aspects of the greater Catholic culture, guides and critics from other traditions and with different perspectives might be more appropriate in keeping them real.

This reminds me of another type of mystic I have encountered. I call these creative souls “wildflowers.” Unlike the well cared for “hothouse flowers” of traditional Catholicism, the wildflowers are just out there. I’ve found them in the most unusual places, each different but definitely tuned in.

One had pink hair and worked in a record store, another was a ‘normal’ looking man who owned a milk store. And yet another lived in my apartment building back in my student days. These wildflowers seem to be able to access subtle, interior insights without really having to go to any kind of church or temple.

Sometimes I wish I was more like the wildflowers. But it seems I am something of a hybrid between a wild and a hothouse flower. I need the Catholic Eucharist to stay on top of things. However, I do approach my religion in my own way. I don’t do this to be rebellious. On the contrary, I feel it’s important to approach one’s religion by the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

~ 2 Corinthians 3:6

This is a basic Christian teaching that sadly, I think many Catholics have forgotten with the rules, regulations and hypocrisy that might be turning so many thinking people away from discovering something truly glorious.

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Psychiatry and Spirituality – Even professor “night” can’t stop the sunrise

While doing my PhD at the University of Ottawa, I wrote a paper in 1992-93 that examined the psychiatric diagnostic system, known at the time as the DSM-III-R. I looked at the extraordinary claims of mystics and saints from different religious traditions. Would some historical spiritual figures be viewed as “mentally ill” today? I asked. To ground my paper I offered a summary on postmodern ideas about truth and power. After all, this was a graduate seminar in methodology.

Sadly, it seems the professor hosting the seminar was more interested in getting a paycheck than in trying to open his mind and encourage new research in uncharted territory.

English: The Communist States

The Communist States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He was the type of guy who said in class that it was “hopeless” talking about feminism. I guess he feared that, whatever he said, he would be jumped on.

I wasn’t writing about feminism, per se, for this particular paper. But the professor’s unwillingness or inability to probe anything but his own small, esoteric field in religious studies made him a dreadful brick wall to run into.

I say “brick wall” because for some reason this incompetent, intransigent man had a lot of power at the university. Most everyone seemed to shrink in administrative offices whenever his name was mentioned. I still can’t figure it out. But I had serious problems with him later on when trying to get letters of recommendation (outlined here).

For a while I thought it had something to do with his immigrating to Canada from a communist country. But I have met many immigrants from communist countries who are an absolute delight. In seeming contrast to professor “night,” as I will call him, psychologically healthy immigrants from communist regimes can see both mindsets – authoritarian vs. authoritative – and consciously choose which they like better.

So immigrating from a communist country, alone, wasn’t it. There must have been something else to this man that made him so difficult and, in my case, authoritarian.¹

Published by the American Psychiatric Associat...

Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-IV-TR provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By way of contrast, I wrote a similar paper for another professor at Trent University back in the mid 1980s. He was the “day” to the University of Ottawa’s professor “night.”

The Trent professor was a true humanities teacher. He was a PhD in psychology but also up on literature dealing with the subtle nuances of the psyche. His reading list included works like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Long Day’s Journey into Night and that old psychological classic, Macbeth.

Professor “day” clearly understood where I was coming from and what I hoped to achieve. He also wrote a glowing letter of recommendation that helped me to win a graduate scholarship.

We need more well-rounded professors like that. And hopefully the University of Toronto and Ryerson will continue to encourage quality thinking on this topic. Otherwise, too many people, imo, will be compromised by the system. And they might not even know why.

Having said that, I don’t believe strident, one-sided anti-psychiatry tracts are the answer, as we sometimes see, for instance, at Mad in America. The reality is that the psychiatric system is in place. It has legal power over other perspectives, probably in large part because psychiatric drugs can effectively subdue potentially violent or suicidal individuals (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

In some ways psychiatry does a lot of good. But it does need tweaking. And that’s why today’s tweet is highlighted.

¹ When I asked professor “night” why he changed his mind and would not provide a letter of recommendation perilously close to scholarship application deadlines, he answered that his letter would be “weak.” Perplexed and traumatized, I reminded him that he gave me an “A” in his course and that my academic future was at stake. At this he snapped “I GAVE YOU MY REASONS.” And that was it. End of an otherwise promising academic career.

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A good, non-denominational Sunday read

For a while I tried out doing Christian New Testament commentaries on Sunday. But that didn’t really go anywhere. I find it more interesting to compare different religions than to just write about one.

Today I updated my entry on Ram Dass, someone pretty popular back in the day, and who still has some devoted fans. The update came out pretty good, if I do say so myself. So I thought I’d list it here as “non-denominational” Sunday reading:

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Psychic Spies – If true, they’d have a real edge because most people would think it’s crazy

English: Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld ex...

Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld experiment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Russell Targ is quite well known throughout the parapsychology world. He’s a physicist who does experiments concerning psi phenomena. Targ has observed that results were more significant while conducting research with a pure heart, instead of just trying to make money. This is hardly surprising because, I would argue, any genuine psi (or insight) comes from God.

But there is another possibility. And that is of dark psi.

Could knaves and thieves possess a kind of twisted psi and use that to the detriment of the free world?

I’ve written about this possibility throughout and I still cannot say for sure. Psi is a tricky business. And if a hostile spy from a crummy regime were to try to infiltrate a good country, one of his or her advantages would be that most unsuspecting civilians would think the idea preposterous. And a truly cagey spy would try to make anyone who could blow their cover look crazy. They’d use psychiatric terms or anything else they had at their disposal to try to marginalize those in the know.


Because a hostile psi-spy, if you will, would be desperate and paranoid, like most people under the influence of evil.

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Me, myself and I – A balanced approach makes the most sense

Today’s featured tweet points to a surprisingly good, balanced article about different conceptualizations of the human self. I wrote about this at university but, in all honesty, I don’t think the professor in question understood what I was talking about. S/he immigrated to Canada from a communist regime and the years of military oppression seemed to taint his/her thinking and sense of fair play. Either that, or s/he was just always tainted. I’m not sure.

I say this because I had another professor, quite well published, who came to Canada from the same region, under similar circumstances. And s/he was fair and open-minded.  So it seems some can resist the iron grip of communist ideologies while others don’t really care to—or perhaps they are totally unconscious of it. As Carl Jung would have put it, they’re identifying with an archetype or, if you will, they are children of a lesser god.

But I digress. The point is, politics and psychology may be linked, but not necessarily causally. Natural authoritarians may actively seek out and choose to participate in authoritarianism and not simply be victims of it. Whereas others seem to have a clearheaded openness that acts as an safeguard against authoritarianism.


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Carl Jung – A Complicated Guy in a Complicated World

This morning I came across two tweets that demanded commentary. This is my second podcast. I feel the actual delivery is a bit better than the first but technically, the sound quality is a tiny bit over-driven. If I were an electric guitar that would be okay. But next time I’ll bring the levels down a touch. For years I recorded using analog tape decks, and with those it’s desirable to have the meters go in the red a bit. The sound gets nicely saturated. But with digital recording, it gets clipped. Luckily, the clipping in this recording is acceptable. And one can hear what I’m saying just fine.🙂

For references about Jung in the podcast, follow this link:

  • Synchronicity is “not sought at all but found” – Footote 2, pp. 94-95
  • Jung doesn’t know if UFO acounts are true or false – Footnote 2, p. 87

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From stone cold and lukewarm to beautiful flames of love – you’ll find it all in today’s Catholic Church

“Jesus was a radical who challenged the establishment, while Christianity has been so successful that in much of the world it is the establishment.”

This quote stood out as I went through this morning’s news. It’s from the tweeted article, above.

As a converted Catholic coming from a non-churchgoing Anglican past, I can say that my experience of Catholicism has been layered. On one level the Catholic Mass is a social event, even if you don’t say anything to others. Looks and glaces are exchanged, and anyone who knows the ABCs of non-verbal communication will acknowledged that a lot can be said without saying a word.

Monks have commented on the very real, ongoing relationships they have without saying a word. And I think some parishioners would attest to a similar kind of interpersonal (and sometimes) spiritual dynamic at the Mass.

Others would not, of course. These people tend to make up the chattier, socially visible and physically active layer of the Church. When these folks are nice we call them social butterflies, organizers, leaders, and so on. When they are nasty we call them busybodies, gossips, and backbiters. I have met both types (and combinations thereof) in today’s Church.

On a deeper layer, I always have indisputable spiritual experiences within the Catholic Church. A worldly person might attribute these to “memory,” “association” or “social belonging” but they are dead wrong. The Holy Spirit is strong in the Catholic Church. And it almost instantly enables me to see myself better. But not only only see. The Holy Spirit is also a healer and purifier. Moreover, the heavenly beauty of the Eucharist is something that, sadly, I don’t think all Catholics experience to the same degree. I would venture to guess that it’s their own worldliness, status seeking and the love of prestige that blocks their reception of this heavenly gift.

In a nutshell, if we keep our noses to the ground like animals grubbing in the dirt, we won’t be able to receive gifts from above.

And this is where today’s tweet comes in.

I see humanity as an evolving species. And worldly attitudes, ideas and behavioral routines are a large part of that. I think it was the philosopher Santayana who spoke of well worn paths or psychological channels that humanity trudges along. Almost like rats in a maze or, if you will, horses with blinders, many individuals have erected high walls around their minds. They plod along in the same old direction without thinking about it too much.

This might be necessary to keep things moving in an orderly fashion. But as time goes on, the psychosocial walls, that is, the conventional order, must either fall down or, less drastically, be rearranged or transformed. Otherwise society and the people who comprise it will become blocked, stagnant and fall short of their full potential. — MC