Defining Mysticism

Commentary on Andrew Greeley's
"Ecstasy - A Way of Knowing"

~Sandra Stahlman

Andrew Greeley presents the notion that the mystical (or "ecstatic") experience is a natural form of knowledge. Analogous to the creative process, the cognition experienced with a mystical experience is non-discursive; Greeley explains it as a deeper level of "knowing," when the "preconscious" is permitted into awareness (p.52-54). Thus, the ecstatic experience is similar to the creative experience in that they are both types of cognition that are of a different level of consciousness than our "normal" experience of cognition. Greeley's research supports the assumption that the mystical experience is a universal, natural one. His preliminary findings show that a substantial percent of the United States population have experienced a mystical states; he notes that reported experiences range from mild to intense, rare to frequent. Greeley includes experiences of ecstasy induced by drugs. He explains that there is " reason to deny that drugs can trigger the operation of a person's capacities for the..." mystical form of knowledge (p.13). Greeley defines the experience as "something like Maslow's peak-experience, that is, a feeling of intense unity with the universe and of one's peace within that unity"(p.12) He stresses that mystics describe the experience as more of an experience of cognition than of feeling; the mystic comes to know something previously unknown.

Greeley writes of the relationship between schizophrenia and the ecstatic experience. He notes that until the past few decades, the ecstatic experience was often assumed to be a form of schizophrenic episode. However, Greeley asserts that although mystics may sometimes appear badly disoriented, one should not equate the mystical experience with schizophrenia. He explains that the ecstatic experience is not something totally different from ordinary consciousness, but that it falls at one end of a spectrum which can be described as a continuum of nondiscursive insight into the nature of the real. (p.81) Similarly, as Greeley defines it, schizophrenia also falls upon this continuum; but, it is a level of cognition different from both ordinary and ecstatic experiences. Although a person with a badly integrated personality may be pushed "over the edge into schizophrenia" because the "clarity of vision" of a mystical knowledge is too much to handle, it still does not follow that "mysticism and schizophrenia are one and the same" (p.81-82).

Greeley does not seem to sufficiently support this assumption, nor does he explain where upon the continuum the schizophrenic experience falls in relationship to the mystical experience. This is not indicative of the whole essay, however; his definition of the mystical experience is argued at length. This bias seems to stem from his religious faith. During his discussion of mysticism and how it relates to schizophrenia, Greeley notes that the underlying message of the mystics' accounts is that "love" is at the core of the universe (pg.79). It appears he distinguishes the "negative" experience of schizophrenia from this "positive" love. Although he may be correct in his assumption that the two experiences are different, the negative/positive distinction does not sufficiently explain the difference. Greeley never explains how cognition during a schizophrenic episode differs from that of a mystical experience. He does note that the schizophrenic, unlike the mystic, cannot control "either his breakaway or his reentry" from normal consciousness (p.47); but this distinction, as well, does not explain the difference in cognition that would place it at a different level on the spectrum of non-discursive cognition.

Greeley, Andrew M. Ecstasy A Way of Knowing. A Spectrum Book: Englewood Cliffs, 1974.

Written by Sandy Stahlman, 1992, at the University of Rochester

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