I remember it like yesterday. During the spring break in 1999 my wife and I decided to visit my father, Gail Owens Ingram. Dad lived in deliberate simplicity in the high desert surrounding Joshua Tree, California. Our first day ended in Redding, California some six hundred miles south on Interstate 5 from our home in Tacoma, Washington. I had just turned sixty the previous week, and when I called him to keep him posted on our progress he teased me about turning into an old man. “You think that’s bad,” I said, “How does it feel to have a sixty-year-old kid.” We laughed and then he told me to drive carefully.
When we pulled into his driveway late the next evening, the house was locked tight, the curtains drawn, the barking of his dog the only sound. Something was wrong and I called the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s office, who sent an officer to check out the house. He had to break in through a back bedroom window. After a short time, he unlocked the front door and told me, “I have bad news, Your father seems to have died in his sleep.” So my two brothers and I and our wives spent the remainder of the week going over his house and making funeral arrangements for his burial beside my mother, Katie Lucille Ingram, in Inglewood Cemetery.
The week was incredibly difficult and busy, so busy that I didn’t have time to grieve. I’m the eldest brother and my brothers decided I was to “take charge” of the funeral details as well as offer a homily for Dad’s memorial service. I remember being unusually calm through it all up to the day of the memorial service. But just as my father’s casket was brought into a rather generic, non-denominational cemetery chapel my composure began to dwindle, and when his coffin was open for viewing, I lost it; I ran out of the chapel, with my wife, Regina, trailing behind. And then it happened: a calmness flooded over me like refreshing rain, and the color of the trees and the blueness of the California sky deepened to an exquisite beauty I had never seen before, nor have seen since. I remember feeling or hearing—I’m really not sure which—“Your father’s fine. Don’t be afraid.” I lost track of time, but things returned to normal by the time my wife caught up with me and asked, “Are you OK.” Yes,” I said. Let’s do this.”
My father’s funeral was on a Friday, and I needed to start driving back to Tacoma the next morning. I had Monday classes to teach and Dad, a survivor of the Great Depression, would have wanted me to focus on my work rather than on him. So we arrived home that Sunday evening. But on Monday, around 6:00 am, something else happened. During that moment between deep sleep and wakefulness, when in half awareness you don’t know where you are, I felt something like a hug, but more than this, something like the hug my father gave me when I first left home on my own for college—and my clinging to my father dropped away as I awoke into the clarity of full consciousness. Of course, a psychiatrist grounded in the dominant materialist worldview would reduce my experiences to biochemical reactions occurring in the neurons of my brain because of my grief—which explains away rather than explaining my experiences. Certainly, biochemical interactions in the brain make all experience possible, but such experiences point beyond themselves to realities objective to these experiences. Nor do I see what happened to me as “proof” of the existence of God. In fact, all any “experience” proves is that we’re having an experience. That is, all experience is interpreted experience. So a better, more coherent explanation is that two interdependent mystical experiences happened to me without conscious preparation through disciplines like meditation or contemplative prayer. Which, as it turns out, is the way mystical experiences happen to most people.
Mystics are known cross-culturally. They are people who have vivid and frequent, and on rare occasions, constant subjective experiences of another dimension of reality, the “way things really are as opposed to the way we conventionally hope or think things are.” These experiences usually involve non-ordinary states of awareness which take a number of different forms. Sometimes, there is an experience of entering another dimension of reality, which is the classic experience of shamans. Sometimes there is a strong sense of another reality, as in the expression, “The Spirit fell upon me.” Sometimes, the experience takes the form of a journey to another reality, illustrated by Mohammed’s night journey to Heaven to receive further revelations to bring to his people. Sometimes, the experience is of nature or an object within nature momentarily transfigured by a Sacred presence named differently in different traditions: bushes burn without being consumed; the whole earth is experienced as filled with the glory of God (where “glory” means “radiant presence)” The scholarly name for such experiences is “cataphatic” experience.
But there exist mystical experiences in which the sense of self drops away in an overwhelming non-dual unitive oneness. Examples abound; the experience of “living without a why” described by the beguine mystic, Marguerite Porete, in the thirteenth century; the “great identity” of the Upanishads, “Brahman equals Ātman;” the oneness (tawhīd) with Allah sought by Sufi mystics. The generic scholarly name for such experiences is “apophatic” experiences, experiences in which all distinctions between self-other, good-bad, Sacred-Profane, God-world, God-humanity disappear, usually for short periods of time. Generally speaking all mystics seem agreed that what they experienced is not reducible to or describable in words. Some mystical experiences are profoundly scary, as was Martin Luther’s experience during a thunder storm. Others, like my experiences of my father’s death, are powerfully uplifting and bring clarity to one’s life in times of anxiety or fear.
According to Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, a central fact about the historical Jesus is that he was a mystic, a “spirit person,” and “mediator of the sacred, one of those persons in human history to whom God was a constant experiential reality. I had not thought much about this before and it took me a long time to see it as applicable to the historical Jesus The realization came to me because of my study of non-Christian religious Ways, particularly the Buddhist Way in my work as historian of religions and my participation in Buddhist Christian dialogue. Mystics are “spirit persons” and they are known cross-culturally. They are people who experience vivid and frequent experiences of another dimension of reality that is, in Luther’s language, “in, with, and under” the realities of conventional experiences of the world. In other words, what all mystics share is a strong sense that there is more to reality than the tangible world of our ordinary experiences. They share a compelling sense of having experienced something” real” and feel strongly that they know something they didn’t know before. As William James noted over a hundred years ago, their experiences are “noetic” and involve not just simply a feeling of ecstasy, but knowing. What mystics know is the Sacred, as generically named by historians of religions, but which, for example, the Upanshadic Sages identified as Brahman, my Zen Buddhist friends identify as “Buddha-Nature” or “suchness,” the Daoist and Confucian sages named “the Way;” Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystics identify as God; and the Lakota people as wankan-thanka, “the Great Spirit” or “the Great Mystery.”
A common characteristic of mystics is that they are mediators of the Sacred. They do so in numerous ways. Sometimes, they speak of the word or will of God. Sometimes they mediate the power of God through healing and/or exorcisms. Sometimes they function as game finders or rain-makers in hunting-gathering and early agricultural societies. Sometimes they are charismatic warriors or military leaders. What they all share in common is that they become conduits for the power and wisdom of the Sacred to enter this world. That is, they are delegates of a community to another layer of reality, mediators who connect their communities to the Sacred.
What is important to note is that the experience of the Sacred presupposes an understanding of reality very different from the Cartesian image of reality dominant in the contemporary Western world. This worldview, derived from the Enlightenment, sees reality in material terms, as constituted by the world of energy and matter within the space-time continuum described by the physical sciences. But the experiences of the mystics populating the world’s religious Ways like salt suggests that there is more to reality than this—that there is, in addition to the tangible world of our ordinary experience, a nonmaterial level of reality interdependent with, “in, with, and under,” the conventional world of ordinary experience. The modern worldview assumed by the majority of human beings is one-dimensional; the worldview of mystics is multidimensional. But here’s the hiccup: the Sacred experienced by the mystics, here again in all religious Ways, is not “somewhere else.” Instead it is all around us, flowing over us and everything else in the universe like a waterfall. As William James wrote, we are separated from it only by flimsy screens of consciousness. When ordinary consciousness momentarily drops away, direct experience of the Sacred occurs. A mystic is one for whom ordinary consciousness is unusually permeable, compared with most of us, who seem to have hardened boundaries of consciousness of the conventionally ordinary.
Some mystics seem to be in a state of permanent awareness of the Sacred. Their interactions with the Sacred seem intentional and rooted in the practice of disciplines like meditation and contemplative prayer: the historical Jesus, Gautama the Buddha, Mohammed, the Jewish sages whose collective wisdom is the foundation of the Talmud; the Confucian and Daoist Sages, the sages whose wisdom created the Upanishads. And in more recent history Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hahn, and the Sufi Sages dancing with Allah. But the vast majority of mystical experiences happen unexpectedly, as a surprise for which one has done nothing intentionally to prepare. Often these experiences bring a sense of calm in times of grief, sometimes joy or surprise, as when one momentarily perceives the interdependence of all things and events, sometimes the experience is one of deep sadness and loss, occasionally the experience is terrifying, as it was for Luther caught in a thunderstorm.
But there is something else to wrap around our minds. Nearly all mystics wrestle with the inadequacy of language. That which lifts us out of time and space, even for brief unexpected moments, just cannot be fully grasped. The object of mystical experience is, as my Zen teacher, Abe Masao, said, “beyond words and letters.” That is, what mystics experience is ineffable, and language simply breaks down when the object of mystical experience is “described.” This seems to be a conclusion that runs through all religious Ways. “The dao that can be talked about is not the Dao,” declares the first chapter of the Dao De Ching; “When I say ‘darkness,” the unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing declares, “I mean a privation of knowing . . . . which is between you and your God;” or closer to our own time, “the mystical a priori” is unutterable and nourishes a mistrust of language. But here’s the thing. Mystics still speak about what they experience. There is no such thing as linguistically uninterpreted experience because experience never interprets itself. Which means the language of mysticism, like all good theology or philosophy, when all is said and done, symbolically points to an object experienced as “Sacred,” but never fully or adequately. The object of mystical experience can indeed be spoken about, but never literally or completely because, as Paul Tillich put it, “God” is “beyond God.” Mystical theological reflection is never fundamentalist reflection.
For me, mysticism and transformation are always interconnected. Without economic and ecological justice—in Christian language, without God’s preferential preference for the poor and the sentient beings with whom we share life in this planet, mystical experience in all its expressions seem to me an “atomistic illusion,” as Dorothee Soelle put it. At all times and in all places, mystical experience has a much larger goal than to teach positive thinking or to put to sleep our capacity to think critically or to suffer or to be socially engaged. As in ages past, three states are engendered by the ebb and flow of mystical experience: amazement, letting go of the delusion of separate selfhood, and resistance against conventional religious, social, and political orthodoxies used by powerful minorities to oppress the majority. Or restated, the more we let go of our ego-centered desires and needs, the more room we make for amazement in day-to-day life. We also come closer to living one’s farewell to the customs and norms of one’s culture. The fact that the mystical way in all religious Ways begins with amazement changes our relation to everything. And we are pushed into the rough-and-tumble struggle to establish just, compassionate community, as the prophet Micah put it in the eighth century BCE. (Micah 6:6-8). In Christian language, experiencing oneness with God shares itself and thereby realizes itself in resistance because mystics find themselves unable to live the way conventional human beings live.
We have lots of rainbows in the Pacific Northwest, which provides a wonderful symbol by which to conclude this essay, because the rainbow is a sign of creation that does not perish but continues to shine in sowing and harvesting, day and night, summer and winter, birth and death. But only in the most unexpected places.