An Incarnational Mysticism

An Incarnational Mysticism March 1, 2012

In Pilgram at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes a mystical experience in nature:

“When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw ‘the tree with the lights in it.’ … one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.  I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.  Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

Dillard then goes on to discuss the nature of the experience.  She begins by quoting Stephen Graham in The Gentle Art of Tramping:

He wrote, ‘And as you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.’ That great door opens on the present, illuminates it as with a multitude of flashing torches.

“I had thought, because I had seen the tree with the lights in it, that the great door, by definition, opens on eternity. Now that that I have experienced the present purely through my senses—I discover that, although the door to the tree with the lights in it was opened from eternity, as it were, and shone on that tree eternal lights, it nevertheless opened on the real and present cedar. It opened on time: Where else? That Christ’s incarnation occurred improbably, ridiculously, at such-and-such a time, into such-and-such a place, is referred to—with great sincerity even among believers—as ‘the scandal of particularity.’ Well, the “scandal of particularity” is the only world that I, in particular, know. What use has eternity for light? We’re all up to our necks in this particular scandal. I never saw a tree that was no tree in particular; I never met a man, not the greatest theologian, who filled infinity, or even whose hand, say, was undifferentiated, fingerless, like a griddle cake, not lobed and split just so with the incursions of time.”

What Dillard is describes is what I call “incarnational mysticism”.  I first came across the idea of an “incarnational mysticism” in Alan Watts’ Behold the Spirit.  The central insight of an incarnational mysticism is that, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, we must seek the beyond in the midst of life.  The beyond in the midst of life is Dillard’s tree with the lights in it — the tree which was nevertheless a real and present cedar.  Where mysticism generally teaches that we are not fully aware, an incarnational mysticism teaches that we are not fully aware of what is right in front of us.  As someone with a tendency toward solipsism and intellectual escapism, an incarnational mysticism was what I needed (and still need).

Over time I collected more ideas from various sources which I felt were related to this central concept.  In addition to Alan Watts, other important influences were Anne Rice and Annie Dillard.  I made the list of “tenets” below before I became Pagan.  I recently went back and looked at the list again and realized how these concepts were a foundation on which I was to subsequently build my Pagan experience.

Tenets of an Incarnational Mysticism

1. Ground your reasoning in the lives and experiences of individual human beings.  Don’t put ideas before real people.  “Beware the thing that has no flesh.  Beware the spiritual when it is divorced from the material, from the lesson in one beating heart and one bleeding vein” (Anne Rice).  Ideas (abstractions) divorced from real, tangible human experience are dangerous, in that they can be used to justify terrible evil.  In your thinking, do not linger long in the realm of abstract ideas for long without returning to the concrete world of substance and experience.  Define your good and evil in very practical terms. “The hungry man is not free” (Adlai E. Stevenson).   “Pain is deeper than all thought” (Elbert Hubbard).  All other philosophy is a bourgeois luxury.

2. Listen to your body.  “Let the flesh instruct the mind” (Anne Rice).  “Listen to the teachings that your blood whispers in you” (Hermann Hesse, Demian).  Remember, you are not here to have a spiritual experience, but an embodied experience.  The body is the door that leads out of the prison of your mind.  Do not seek to transcend or escape human experience, in books or meditation or any other way.  All truth and all fulfillment are found in the flesh, in human experience.

3. Don’t seek to transcend the human.  Seek God in what you know, not in what you don’t know.  “God is the beyond which is found in the midst of life” (Bonhoeffer).  Approach the divine by becoming more fully human  (Buber).  Remember that “trying to see God is like trying to look at your own eyes”  (Alan Watts).  “The instrument through which you see God is your whole self”  (C.S. Lewis).  All that can be known of God is known through the flesh.

4. Do not make religion something “special,” separate from your everyday life.  Practicing religion does not consist of special acts or performances, but going about your life in a certain way.  But beware lest your “religion” become mere worldliness.  (Alan Watts)

5. Knowledge is not power.  Knowledge will not empower you in the ways you most need.  Remember that “armchair warriors often fail” (Don Henley).  “Learning takes us through many stages of life, but fails us utterly in the hours of danger and temptation” (Gandhi).  True wisdom comes from within, from the way in which we live.  It comes when we live in a way that invites wisdom.  (David Cooper, God is a Verb)

6. You are not your mind.  You are not one thing at all.  You are the whirlwind. You are many, seeking to become one.  “No man has ever been entirely and completely himself. Each man represents a road toward himself” (Hermann Hesse, Demian).  Listen to your many voices.  Endeavor to act in a totally centered way.  This is power.  Don’t permit any drive or influence to compel your decisions in isolation.  Seek freedom and power in a totally centered act of the personality, an act in which all of your “voices” are brought into a centered unity.  (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology)

7. Don’t create great systems of thought within yourself to justify or control your life.  (Anne Rice)  Don’t systematize this list.  Such systems, though seemingly too complex to ignore, are built on a foundation of nothingness.  (Anne Rice)  Beware of theologizing.  Don’t limit the IS with your ideas.  Don’t attempt to mask the contingency of human experience by reduction, possession, mastery, or totalization.  Don’t seek the whole.  Never arrive.  Resist closure.  Don’t insist on the finality or completeness of any one picture of the world or of God.  (Life’s Little Deconstruction Book)

8. Let go.  Renounce control and go with the mystery and chaos.  Accept a new posture and new world in which man is not supreme and must wait expectantly while believing in cruel miracles. (Stanislav Lem, Solaris)

9. Love and respect what is right before your eyes.  (Anne Rice)  And strive constantly to see what is right in front you.

10. Tarry and enjoy.  It’s already right here right now. Meditate daily on the givenness of God’s love.  This is the meaning of the Incarnation: God loves you unconditionally.  The purpose of your life is not to obtain forgiveness or heaven, but to express God’s love.  Stop trying to achieve God and stand still and enjoy his presence.  (Alan Watts, Behold the Spirit)

11. No man is an island.  Seek quiet, but not isolation.  If the body is the door that leads out of the prison of your mind, then that door opens to the Other.  Treat each person as “a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature” (Herman Hesse, Demian).  Each person’s story is sacred.  “In each individual the spirit has become flesh, in each man creation suffers, within each on a redeemer is nailed to the cross” (Herman Hesse, Demian).

12. Seek Beauty and Care over Justice.  Embrace violence only where it is creative.  Nature is beautiful and savage.  (Anne Rice)  Remember the “truths of blood and violence” — that nature is one bloody and painful cycle of some fleshy creatures eating other fleshy creatures.

13. Beware of false forms of intimacy, those that are wholly intellective or solipsistic.  These are artificial and ultimately unfulfilling imitations of true experience.  They inhibit true intimacy.  Beware also of cheap stimulation as a substitute for genuine living, which can be more subtle, but is more enduring and more enriching.  Beware of all forms of escapism.

14. Grow roots. You have sought to “pick up God’s rhythms” (Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It), to “sail on solar wind … to hone and spread your spirit till you are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).  But in order to do this safely, you must be rooted or grounded.  Consider the kite which must be grounded to the earth in order to fly.  In order to ground yourself, you need to stand still.  Mentally “stand back from your natural fussing and fretting, and listen for that other, larger, stronger, quieter life”  (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).  Confidence lies in the stillness.  (Robert Fulghum)  This is how you achieve fudo shin, the dynamic stability of mind that mirrors the physical techniques of Aikido.

15. “The erotic and the wholesome are not mutually exclusive” (Anne Rice).  Don’t condemn pure sexual arousal, which is natural and good.  But don’t make the opposite mistake of confusing vulgar commercialization (bad art) with (good) art.  Bad art is art in which nudity or sexuality are barriers to appreciating, rather than vehicles for expressing, the subjectivity of the person depicted.

16. Happiness comes from the capacity to feel deeply.  But the need to feel, feel anything, is behind much pathological, self-destructive behavior.  “We bleed just to know we are alive” (Heart’n’Soul).  It is the instincts that move us, and make us creative, perceptive, and wise, but they also make us stupid, and drag us down with their own weight.  (Nietzsche?)  Learn to discriminate. Encourage your instincts when they are life-enhancing, and re-channel them when they can be life-stultifying.

17. Get in touch with your body by exercising, chewing your food and tasting it, and practicing self-love, being intimate with you body, rather than using it as an object.

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