Mysticism feels good

Back in the 1990s I saw a bumper sticker that declared, simply, “The Truth Feels Good.” I’ve thought about that bumper sticker a lot since then. I think it’s a fascinating declaration. Lately I’ve begun to wonder how it squares with Christian doctrine. Christianity certainly has an ethic of sufffering, victimization and martyrdom, none of which (in my experience) feel so great. But the point is, of course, to seek a higher good than merely one’s own fleeing feelings. It is painful to devote one’s entire life to caring for someone in great need, to the point that it requires the delaying or denying of other goals. But this pain is swallowed up by a commitment to the higher good of working to create a world where everyone receives the care they need.

British theologian Don Cupitt describes mysticism as a strategy for achieving religious happiness. When I think about this alongside the bumpersticker, I’m left with the unlikely notion that “Mysticism feels good.” Certainly there is a long tradition of bliss and consolation as essential elements of a devout life of prayer. But mysticism also has its share of self-denial for the sake of something higher, greater, nobler than mere self-interest. I suppose that such purposeful self-denial provides its own satisfaction and its own reward, maybe not in terms of immediate feelings of happiness or pleasure, but in terms of a more grounded, from-the-heart sense of doing or participating in what is “right.”

Ayn Rand argued that altruism is never a good thing because it involves a violation of self-interest. But I see things a different way: authentic altruism is always an act of self-interest, maybe not on the surface level of appetite or whim, but on a higher level of integrity and conscience. Note that I say “authentic altruism.” Altruism, like anything else, can have toxic as well as healthy manifestations. Toxic altruism is basically that which is not freely given: an “altruism” borne of guilt, manipulation, coercion, control. Such altruism is not really altruism at all. No wonder it doesn’t feel very good.

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  1. There is a fine line one must be careful. Ok so you wanna be a do gooder, like my mom, and instead of putting up in your house a homeless person, you just think someone else ought to do it? Who will do it, if nobody wants and everybody thinks someone else should do it. Would you take a homeless person in your house, or would you pay for a lawyer to help an illegal alien, then why should anyone else be forced to if you don’t?

  2. Thanks for commenting, Suvine, but I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say here. :-)

  3. Carl, is there a typo here?:
    “Not that I say “authentic altruism.”

    Do you mean “Note that I say” ?


  4. You’re right – and it’s fixed now. Thanks for catching it.

  5. Here’s my attempt at a mystical response to your thesis:

    In the beginning, God freely poured Himself out into all His creation, not because He had to (toxically, because of guilt or shame etc.) but because it is His nature to give of Himself, to give Himself up, to give Himself away freely and without constraint or restraint. The Bible passage for this is Philippians 2: 5-11, where Jesus emptied Himself of all His privileges and poured out His love for us. In the Buddhist and pantheistic tradition (rather than pan-en-theist), this out-pouring is if possible even more radical, since those folks don’t distinguish between the creature and the Creator, so that for them the divine has been fully invested in the manifest world…

    What this means for the present question is that there is in us, deep down at the level of our ontology, our origin, a desire, a need, to pour ourselves out freely in love for others. Sometimes this feels great. Other times it hurts like hell. But “authentic altruism” is authentic precisely because it is true to our real self, our deepest self, where we meet God, where we spring from Him. As such it is (as Carl says here) “on a higher level of integrity and conscience” truer to our self-interest than the shallow “if it feels good, do it” ethic that was prevalent when I was growing up in the 60s.

    The bottom line: “Mysticism feels good–deep down where it counts.” And our contemplative exercises are designed to get us familiar with living deep down there so that the joys of the depths become authentically our own experiential joys.

    “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2

    Blessings, peace and love to all,

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