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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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Today’s Top Tweets – With a bit more commentary than originally intended…

It is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, probably because it’s colder up here and our harvest is earlier than in the US. Today is a holiday but we had our family dinner last night. I’m up early this morning but not really in the frame of mind to make long comments. So I’ll just offer a few one-liner thoughts that came to mind as I looked over these stories:


1 – I always thought that the crucial distinction was between genuine authority, on the one hand, an oppressive authoritarianism on the other hand. This article seems to confuse that:

2 – This is a complicated issue but I think an alternative voice is something to at least consider, even if one does not entirely agree:

3 – I have to admit that I have wondered who was really hacking whom. We cannot know. But at least we can read everyone’s allegations about everyone else:

4 – For many years I’ve felt that the melody in pop tunes is often stronger than the melodies in many classical compositions. And even the arrangement. If one actually tries to do pop, one realizes that it is NOT simple. Even simple sounding songs involve an incredibly complicated process. Same thing with EDM. Some people disparage it as music some guy or gal “creates on a laptop.” Well, let me tell you. You don’t just create songs on your computer by pressing a button. It takes a lot of technical and theoretical knowledge, talent and time. If you don’t believe me, compare the electronic stuff I’ve done so far (a hobbyist who is still learning) with commercial songs. Big difference. So big that sometimes I get discouraged.

5 – To folks unfamiliar with St. Faustina, this final Top Tweet article might appear to be one of those hokey accounts that you see in some sensational books, magazines and web sites. But this is actually different. St. Faustina wrote a diary in the early 20th century that has become popular among Catholics interested in mysticism. I have read most of the diary. I got bored about 3/4 of the way through. But I think I read enough to get the gist of it.

This tweeted article ignores that mysticism and spiritual direction in the Catholic Church are not as clear and simple as the cherry picked passages seem to indicate. Faustina also writes in her diary that she learned not to confess everything to confessors, especially if she felt they were inexperienced. She even made a joke implying how ridiculous her fellow sisters (nuns) were for regularly checking her bed sheets to see if she had been masturbating. Later in the diary Faustina writes (or apparently writes) that she learned it is a great sin to not follow her superiors. She learns the value of “holy obedience.” To the Catholic Church’s credit, these seemingly contradictory passages were not edited out. And they probably could have been.

At times I have felt that Faustina was a naive young Polish woman, easily influenced (and psychologically abused) by some members of the Catholic Church. She suffered a lot, she also saw Jesus a lot whom she says consoled her; then she got sick and died young. My point is that what she calls “holy obedience” might be her putting a bit too much naive trust in a somewhat hypocritical and corrupt religious organization. Or it might not be. I don’t know.

I am just being honest about how I have thought about this issue over the years. It seems a lot of Catholics enjoy and reinforce fairy tale simplicities. But life is rarely like that. And if one really wants to be a mystical saint in the 21st century, I’m not even sure they could be within the rigid and often deceptively simple confines of today’s Catholic world. What I saw while discerning a possible call to the priesthood was a religious culture that cries out against the “evils” of secular society but in actual practice doesn’t really seem any better or worse, morally or economically.


Time is on my side… or is it?

Today I focused on updating an old article at about a Hindu school of philosophy called Samkhya. My update turned toward a partial exposition of my thoughts about how insight and intuition might somehow be integrated with emerging ideas in physics, especially those concerning the relativity of space and time.

One thing absent in the update is the old theological notion that God knows the past and future, and accordingly gives us insight through some kind of direct revelation (i.e. not from the past or future, per se, but from the mind of God). I think this is entirely possible. But today I just emphasized the possibility of intuitive connections through space-time. My entry was already getting complicated enough and I didn’t want to make it worse!

I’ve been blogging about this topic throughout earthpages for at least a decade. But most people, imo, are too constrained by their particular religious or secular world views to really give it much thought. To them, it’s just irrelevant theorizing. Fair enough. This is probably another one of those “we have to get there” issues that humanity won’t really care about for at least another century. But I’m interested now. So I write about it. After all, someone has to be first. But then again, if space-time is somewhat omnidirectional, would that person really be first?  :)

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Today’s Top Tweets – with a dash of humor this time

A little late today. These were gathered this morning but it was laundry day at home, so just getting time to post my favs now.

I like this first one because it reminds me of an ancient Greek play where all the women go on strike in protest of their men going to war, if I remember right.

This one is not scintillating but it does provide good coverage, clearing up some common misperceptions about Catholicism.

No kidding…

A scary thought. Lets hope it’s more hype than fact. One thing no one would consider—all paper ballots and going back to counting votes manually:

I did my doctorate in psychology and religion, so this story is of special interest to me. I think it’s done quite well. Especially as you read through toward the end.

It’s a crap shoot, I guess:

A lot of folks blame Christianity for many social ills. But this article suggests that Christianity has within it the seeds of redemption… not only spiritual but also social.

Pretty self explanatory. Is natural always better? This article asks:

A new twist on the old “monkey at a typewriter eventually coming up with Shakespeare…” if they type for all eternity, that is:

Here’s the song the above points to. I think it sounds like XTC before morphing into the Beatles. But then, XTC did sort of copy the Beatles style at times. Bottom line… people are still better musicians than machines.🙂

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Today’s Top Tweets

Every morning I go through the news in specific categories. I tweet stories that I feel are important because they are often overlooked on the front page. I often react to the stories and would like to comment. But I don’t always have time. So today I thought I’d list some of the top tweets. There are more, listed at right column.