Friday, April 06, 2012

Wilson Van Dusen (2): Entering Reality

A few postings ago I talked about psychologist Wilson Van Dusen's phenomenological observations of madness, which he had many opportunities to see as a therapist in a mental hospital. It would do his explorations a sharp injustice to suggest that his version of depth psychology was centered on pathology. Van Dusen concluded that the "natural depth in man" (after which he titled the book under discussion) was the path to spiritual experience.
In a mystical experience the limited self is opened up, revealing a beyond with a host of new meanings. In mystical experience is the ultimate that the individual can discover. Though it has a considerable range of depths, there is no higher, no deeper, no greater experience than what is found in the surprising union of the individual with his fundamental source.
He acknowledges hesitation writing about this kind of experience, partly for the usual reason that words for normal experience are inadequate to transcendental consciousness. He's also acutely aware that "we touch on realms that are normally considered religious. Some grow deaf and irritated at the mere mention of this. Religion is a terrible baggage of nonsense for them. To them it looks like weak-minded people's wishful thinking."

I know what he means: when I write a post about psychical research I can too easily picture stimulating the gag reflex of some readers. It is so easy for the ignorant to associate the subject with spooky ghost stories, magic rings, spoon benders, storefront fortune tellers, etc. that I feel the need to write a lawyer-like disclaimer -- dead boring.


Undeterred, Van Dusen plunges on.

How do you open to mystical experience? Through ordinary experience -- but pure, unmediated experience, he says. (Zen Buddhism has the same goal.)
In some real ways [ordinary experience] is the most profound of all the possible mystical experiences though it is rarely appreciated as such. The problem is that we are too used it. ... What is missing is amazement at the mystery of ordinary experience.
Suppose you had just this moment been born as a full-fledged adult, with your present mind and understanding. You would be absolutely stunned at the things and people around you. Most of the day would be taken up with "ohs" and "ahs" as you went around feeling things. It would be a frightfully impressive and awesome mystical experience. You would be stunned by the beauty of simple things such as the graceful form of plants. This is one of the hallmarks of the mystical experience, to find things fantastically beautiful and good just as they are.
He might have been remembering Emerson's observation: "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile."


For another level of mystical experience, Van Dusen adopts the word satori from Zen, probably hoping to avoid language weighted with theology. The expression satori was relatively unknown in English at the time he wrote in the mid-1970s, although it is common enough now that I can get away with, "I sat down hoping for a novel experience, but all I could come up with was a short satori."

As a description of the indescribable, Van Dusen's is one of the best modern examples I know of:
The way into satori is quite clear. It is along the lines of the lower levels of mystical experience itself. Instead of departing from reality, the individual enters into it more fully. ... There is a growing feeling of Oneness. This Oneness is alive, real, and immediately present. There may or may not be a feeling that one is dying or dissolving. There is forgetfulness of self. ...
All personal values are suddenly shattered. There is only God. The One and Only then shows itself through all the levels of creation. With painful love the One chooses to create Itself into the individual who gradually awakens again as a person. There are secret understandings exchanged between the One and the individual.
The stunned individual gradually returns again to personal awareness. It is not uncommon for the individual to be dreadfully disappointed at finding himself alive again in the ordinary world.
You got a problem with that?  Well, in glum moods (i.e., most of the time) so do I.

Who wouldn't love to "find things fantastically beautiful and good just as they are"? I'm not trying to be a smart-ass, but what if "things just as they are" is the pain of cancer or a bone crushing blow? Can you find beauty in the moment when all you experience physically is pain? The Stoics believed the greatest good was to be able to rise above anything, conquer one's fears and exert self-control, but they never called it fantastically beautiful.


And of course there is the age-old question, which not even the most high-minded spiritual teaching answers for me: how can God, the ultimate Good, allow the horrors we read about in the news every day? They may be unreal once you are an enlightened guru; in Hindu terms, all suffering may be just part of lila, God's play. But it's hard for us poor sods to get the joke.

As Pliny the Elder said, "Young boys throw stones at frogs in jest; but the frogs die in earnest."

It may be all we can do now is keep faith that we will grow in spirit, someday no longer to be the spiritual children we are now. And not throw stones at frogs in jest.


No comments: