Bad Religion and False Satori – Practical Mysticism #006

There’s a natural mystic blowin’ through the air
– Bob Marley, Natural Mystic

Image under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license from Vincent Le Moign, via Wikimedia

It has been pointed out by a few folks that #005 was a bit abstract. I had a choice of stretching it out over a bunch of posts, risking folks losing the plot between posts, or writing it up in a single one in compressed form. I chose the latter. Hopefully, the framework discussed there can be productively unpacked over time in subsequent articles such as this one.

It has also been pointed out that I often fail to connect the dots. That comes from thinking about something enough so that things that are obvious to me aren’t necessarily clear in any objective sense. Fixing that is going to be my primary writing improvement objective for the next while.

So then…


One result of considering ‘the mystic’ as a naturally evolved capacity maintained under selective pressure is that it’s unpinned from being the Voice of God.

In fact, it doesn’t even have to be the perfect secular analog for the Voice of God.

Things evolve limited by the potential of where they start. Things are then maintained under selective pressure because they are good enough, not perfect. And once they hit good enough status, progress (if that’s even a good term for evolutionary change) tends to stop.

A picture helps explain this.

  • Below, you see a modeled terrain with a bunch of hills.
  • The highest one will have to pass for perfect; within this terrain, it’s clearly higher than the others.
  • Think of this as a map of possible evolutionary solutions to a challenge, with higher being better and successfully adapting to the challenge as moving uphill from wherever you start.
  • But if you end up on top of one of the less perfect ones, you’d need to go downhill before you’d be able to get higher.
  • Evolution doesn’t do downhill–only uphill. A random mutation might pop you far enough away from one top so that things move towards some other local maxima, maybe even the ‘perfect’ one, but that’s the exception. A random change is more likely to simply break things.
If evolution is a gradient that moves upward toward improved fitness, it’s always a movement from a very specific location on the map of all possible solutions and thus heads uphill to the closest local maxima.

Given that, here are a couple of suboptimal mystic phenomena…unfortunate cases of local maxima, as it were.

Bad Religion – always look a gift horse in the mouth

I was in college in the early 1970s, an era of widespread ontological disquiet. One Monday, after weekend field trips looking for answers, two friends joyously described having found The Answer while undergoing the same classic religious experience: white light, resolution of doubt, “heart strangely warmed,” etc. The results: one converted to born-again Christianity, and the other became a devotee of Guru Maharaj Ji, the 15-year-old perfect master.

Both were absolutely certain that they’d found The One True Answer.

Back cover of the book, Who is Guru Maharaj Ji?

My immediate conclusion: Be careful! Folks will jump in and try to convert you at a particularly vulnerable moment–right after you’ve been saved. They might even honestly believe their answer is The Answer.

Stepping back, while not common, the white light experience is not particularly rare either, especially for people suffering from a significant inner crisis nearing a breaking point.

I view it as part of our human birthright.

Set and setting can be manipulated to make it more likely–that’s what my friends had experienced.

Another example: the Cathari had a ritual called Consolamentum that signaled a celebrant’s once-in-a-lifetime break with their secular life. It involved laying on of hands–an initiator pressing their palm on the forehead of the initiate–and was specifically aimed at triggering this sort of ecstatic experience, one culturally primed to occur. (More on them below.)

Cathari rock art, sort of. I was trying to recreate an image I remembered from somewhere and failing (the palm should be down), but I did get a cool image. - Hand over concentric circles carved into rock.
Cathari rock art, sort of. I was trying to recreate an image I remembered from somewhere using ChatGPT and failing (the palm should be down), but I did get a cool image.

This type of experience is at the near-tend of the mystical experiences pool, relatively close to the everyday experiences of awe, wonder, and the type of ecstasy available through dance or immersion in nature.

It can often appear when, for example, someone is battling addiction and is in a war between ego and their wider situation and is self-medicating to blunt the pain of being only an ego trapped in their everyday life. This experience pops them out of their ego-built cage while providing a grounding in intense, immediate awareness. The conversion experience is often parodied: I used to be fucked up on false drugs, but now I’m fucked up on the real thing: the Lord!

Based on what I’ve read and observed, these experiences should be treated as gifts. The best advice on these and related phenomena is to let the package open and unfold. Don’t let someone jump in and tell you what’s in there instead.

Second, treat them as a natural phenomenon, part of an ongoing process, and not the last word. This is the critical shift provided by using an evolutionary rather than a religious framework to understand what’s going on. Meaning has been created, not delivered from on high. The creative process will continue.

(It’s a fair question to ask why I feel qualified to have an opinion on any of this! After trying to finangle any sort of response from The Lord during high school, I went the false drugs route in college. There I read the usual suspects (Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Underhill, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, etc.), and most relevant to this, Stan Grof‘s Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research (1975). Grof was one of the earliest LSD researchers, and this book and subsequent work established him as the Linneaus of non-ordinary experience. Based on thousands of trip reports, he laid out a classification system grouping the reported experiences. Added to that, I’ve done a few hundred group workshops using Grof’s post-LSD system to induce non-ordinary states: three hours of fast and deep breathing to loud music. Part of the workshop: folks conclude the day with descriptions of their experiences. With an average of 12 participants per workshop, I’ve heard something like 200 x 12 or 2400 ‘trip reports’ myself. In some cases, this was with the same individual over repeated sessions, allowing me to see their experiences as part of an evolving process. And I still read a lot.)

Perhaps it’s my Viking heritage–a culture that found a peak experience in combat and killing rage–but non-ordinary experiences are no more worthy of absolute trust than any other. If the neighbor’s dog, Sam, is telepathically instructing you to kill the postman, you need to reflect. Even if the neighbor’s dog is telepathically instructing you to call your boss and quit RIGHT NOW, it’s time to hit pause. Tomorrow or next week will be good enough for that if the dog should happen to be right.

One problem with being in a culture that doesn’t really work well with this sort of stuff is that folks are often left flailing. That does seem to be changing a bit recently. There are people who can be a resource, are familiar with these experiences, and can help unpack them in an individual context rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all interpretation: transpersonal psychologists, folks in Grof’s spiritual emergency network, Jungian analysts, bartenders, etc. There are also a wide variety of integration exercises that can help.

False Satori

Satori: sudden enlightenment and a state of consciousness attained by intuitive illumination representing the spiritual goal of Zen Buddhism
– Merrian Webster online dictionary

Carl Jung called attention to mandalas as images of an integrating journey. He noticed them emerging spontaneously in therapy sessions. Often, dream figures would appear in conflict in a dream narrative, and then, as the conflicts resolved, they would appear in an image that put all the figures represented into relation to each other within a bigger whole. Typically, the pattern had a framework with four parts. (Four is sort of a magic number in Jungian therapy, signaling a big integrating shift in the psyche.) That led to his ongoing interest in mandalas in religious art and his adoption of the Sanskrit term to describe these images.

Mandala of Jnanadakini, Tibetian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Now, look at the mandala on the left below. It fits the criteria: a quaternity of figures arranged around a center in four sections. The image is called the Tetramorph, with the four figures representing the four apostles. It dates from the 2nd century and was kept current as a numinous symbol through the years, appearing in the book of Kells (c. 800) and in the 20th century in Sister Aimee McPherson‘s Foursquare Church, famous for involving tens of thousands in public faith-healing demonstrations.

Medieval Christian mandala and a card from the Crowley/Harris Tarot deck

But what’s wrong with this picture?

If the mandalas are images of numinous integration (as Jung claims, and as this seems to have been), where’s the feminine side?

The answer, of course, is nowhere…which pretty much matches the patriarchal history of the West. (Crowley’s Tarot deck on the right uses the Tetramorph to show his deck’s version of the Pope. He’s illuminated from within by the Goddess (points to Crowley), while the card clearly displays tradition’s patriarchal nature.)

If my hypothesis is correct, mandalas are images from a psyche’s system that provide experiences that transform personal and cultural conflicts. In individual cases, that typically occurs with a convincing emotional pop that recenters the individual in a broader context. They are a mechanism that deals with deep conflict…but they only work with what’s given. There’s no ‘perfect’; no Voice of God–only a local maxima.

In other words, if you have an experience that resolves four conflicting ways of being a dick, you emerge still a dick. If the feminine is not part of your internal struggle, the feminine side of wholeness is still excluded.

This is what I’m terming a false satori. The resolving experience has to be convincing or it’s ineffective– but the resolution only works with whatever the individual is struggling with. (This queues up the next installment, #007 – The Bigger the Headache, the Bigger the Pill.)

In the sense that all such experiences are some version of a local maxima, all are less than Nirvana, or Full Illumination, or the Voice of God, or whatever the brass ring is called on the merry-go-round you’re riding.

Back to Cathari

My issue with what I’m calling bad religion and/or false satori is the misguided assumption of certainty both can provide–with often dire consequences. Here’s a classic example.

The Cathari were Christians with a gnostic theology that Rome declared heretical. They were intense dualists and believed that God created the world but departed, leaving it ruled by the Demiurge, i.e., Satan. That explained the existence of pain, death, sin, and why things are obviously so screwed up. It also left a bit of spirit in each of us trapped in the matter of our bodies. Through knowledge and practice (gnosis), one could release the spark back into the Godhead. Christ was born to show us the way out.

At one point, the Cathari made up a large part of southern France’s population. Most of them were murdered by Pope Innocent’s armies during the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) or the subsequent Inquisition. This was the most extreme example of Christian-on-Christian Crusader violence, topping even the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. One of the first actions in the Crusade was the siege of Beziers, a city of 15,000 people mixed between Catholics and Cathari, which ended in the murder of most of its population. When asked how to distinguish between the two groups, the Papal legate and commander, Arnaud Amalric, ordered, “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”

Bad religion and false satori, indeed!

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Bad Religion and False Satori – Practical Mysticism #006”

  1. Wow!

    Um, wow!

    As you know, I don’t believe in masculine/femine as, archetypes, or whatever the term is. But this is a great article — extremely thought provoking.

    And it’s always great to be reminded of Christianity’s history of peace and luv. Keep ’em coming, Al.

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