Back when I was in college, I loved stuff by Robert Anton Wilson. In case you’re not familiar with him, he was a writer and occultist who recorded all sorts of interesting things from mystical traditions all over the world. It would be as nothing for him to relate something of Crowley’s to an old Sufi parable which was really a metaphor for something the Buddha said about quantum physics.
Although he is most famous for his fiction books like Illuminatus, he also wrote a lot of non-fiction. On the one hand, it was the ultimate insight porn, with a new seemingly-revelatory epigram from a new tradition on every page. On the other, it was filled with very vague nod-and-a-wink promises that if you genuinely understood it you would break into a new level of understanding in which you would stand taller, have a more melodious voice, and finally be able to get that one cute girl/guy to pay attention to you. It was seductive and I was successfully seduced by it.
This is in no way a complaint against mysticism. I think it’s quite possible that there are forms of mysticism which successfully fulfill the promises Wilson made both in terms of insight-into-reality and improved-life-success. Meditation probably does. Yoga (the real type, not the contort-your-body-for-exercise type) might. If your goals are simple, you can certainly get some quick mental rearrangement (not necessarily of the positive variety) by doing drugs, or improve your social presence through something like the Alexander Technique, both of which seem in the spirit of Anton-Wilsonism.
Better I should compare it to my interest in physics as a high schooler. This interest took the following form: I would read Scientific American articles about bosons, then go around saying “Did you know there are several types of bosons, with mass of such-and-such?” Maybe I would vaguely long to go to CERN and see the Large Hadron Collider (a wish I eventually fulfilled). I read some biographies of famous physicists and I could point out the position in the sky of several leading black hole candidates.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this; it was a better use of my high school days than taking drugs or watching reality shows. But the problem is I thought I was Learning Science. I had this idea that Science was great and admirable, and that people who knew Science could predict eclipses and split the atom, and I was going to be one of those people, and all I had to do was read a few more Stephen Hawking books and then when I became an adult I could receive my Certificate of Scienciness and start splitting atoms. But that wasn’t remotely how it works and although I could charitably be said to be learning about science this has very little in common with learning science.
(this is why I get a twinge of worry about how vocal identification with Science has become a badge of honor in geek culture, by the way)
There are certain fields where it’s really obvious to everyone that learning about the field is different from learning the field. There are probably historians of music who have never picked up an instrument, and they don’t fancy themselves musicians. And political scientists don’t delude themselves into thinking they would make great politicians.
Mysticism is not one of these fields (rationality isn’t either, but that’s a different blog article). Because so much of mysticism revolves around the idea of the gnosis, a specific kind of knowledge, it’s easy to mistake knowledge of mysticism for the knowledge that mysticism tries to produce. This means Robert Anton Wilson and his ilk can cause at least three different types of failure.
First, as I mentioned before, they provide a false sense of reward. If you are actually enlightened, it’s pretty hard to demonstrate this to someone short of shooting them with a chi bolt from your third eye. On the other hand, if you’re knowledgeable about mysticism, it’s really easy to demonstrate this. I would talk to my mysticism-interested friends, and we’d be like “Oh, this reminds me of something the third Zen patriarch said about this subject”, and then we’d feel all cool and mystically advanced. And just as slacktivism sates your desire to do good without requiring any hard work, so this sates the desire to associate with the neat cause of mysticism without requiring any hard work beyond reading lots of books, which for a certain kind of person is the sort of thing they’d do anyway. So this sort of scholarship trades off against actual results.
Second, they encourage you to think in terms of conspiracy. Quick, what do Buddhism and the Illuminati have in common? Okay, fine, nothing. So how come they’re both part of Anton Wilson’s repertoire? My guess is that mystics say weird things all the time like “Ultimate holy reality is emptiness” or “Spend a while thinking about the sound of one hand clapping”, and people view this as a sort of puzzle. Like mystical traditions are jealous guardians of some kind of secret knowledge, and they’ve let slip a couple of clues, and it’s our Da Vinci Code-esque job to piece together what this secret knowledge is and pierce through the conspiracy. Which I think, despite the fact that many ancient mystery cults did jealously guard secret knowledge, is totally the wrong way of looking at things.
Instead of mystics talking about one hand clapping, let’s go back to my physics example. Physicists also frequently emit bizarre and puzzling statements like “Faster objects have more mass than slower objects”, or “Time and space are really just aspects of a more generalized spacetime.” If you try to understand these statements – really understand them on a gut level – by watching Carl Sagan specials, you will fail. One hypothesis here is that Carl Sagan is part of a conspiracy, where he will tantalizingly tell you a few pieces of the clues but guards the really juicy bits for himself, and you need to piece together the real thing using Sagan, 12th-century alchemical texts, the Windows source code, and a pattern of moles on Neil Tyson DeGrasse’s left cheek. Another hypothesis is that this is the sort of thing which no amount of learning about science will be able to illuminate, but which is relatively straightforward once you learn science and can solve the equations that describe them – and that this knowledge cannot be translated into terms people who haven’t learned science can understand in any way more satisfying than the old “Well, imagine a really taut sheet with some objects upon it…”
Third and most important, they promote dabbling, which is fatal. “Why limit yourself to one tradition when you can take insights from all the different traditions and invent your own tradition that combines the best wisdom of them all as well as your own special touch?”
Well, because until you know at least a little of what you’re doing, you don’t know how to do it. This is a form of Chesterton’s Fence, except that instead of a fence in a field it’s like a twelve-dimensional pulsing image in an unexplored region of Dimension Q’qaar and you have no idea what it is or what it does or where you’re going. Oooh, I know, let’s remove the part of Daoism where you don’t drink whiskey and hire hookers every night! That won’t change the underlying state of mental peace at all.
This brings up the related issue of Schelling fences: once you let yourself change things, do you really trust yourself to remove only the chaff and not the parts that are annoying or hard or inconvenient? Yes, 3000 year old forms of practice are inconvenient and laden with superstitious baggage, but Bringing Buddhism To The West was like the state pastime of California for several interesting decades back in the mid-20th century. Surely you could latch onto one of the adaptations created then instead of trying to invent your own?
But the most pernicious issue here is that – at least if my college age self is typical – you will end up spending so much time refining and polishing and admiring your new collection of spiritual beliefs that you never actually bother putting them into practice – or if you do, you will change them every few weeks and never get the solid consistent base you need to be good at them.
If I get into mysticism again – and I think I should, it seems like one of the highest-value areas for me – I am going to force myself not to read any books about mysticism except extremely sparse how-to instruction manuals. One at a time. Without even so much as glancing at Step Eight before I’ve finished Step Seven.