Reason and Contemplation

That discursive reasoning cannot attain contemplative wisdom or enlightenment is obvious enough. As I mentioned in my last post, if it this was possible, enlightenment could be attained in much the same way one follows a reasonable argument in a book. But enlightenment is not attained in this way; the great mystics of every tradition are unanimous on this point. It follows an experience, and one cannot simply "think" one's way into the experience.

Nevertheless, mysticism cannot be irrational, though some people see it this way. This is true both of detractors of mysticism as well as some who embrace it.

Ken Wilber writes, "all true mysticism is transrational and never antirational; 'right thought' always precedes 'right meditation.'"1 He is alluding here to two elements of Buddhism's Eightfold Path.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, a high-ranking teacher in the Tibetan tradition, make a similar point about "right view," or "correct view," as he calls it.

Traleg Rinpoche notes that a lot of Westerners who are interested in Buddhism are very into meditation, but become resistant when it comes to studying the philosophy of Buddhism. I think this is true of a lot of people interested in contemplative spirituality in general: they want to meditate, but they don't care for philosophy.2

Traleg Rinpoche notes that many Western Buddhists believe "that meditation is all about getting rid of views or that all views will hinder us from attaining our spiritual goal." On the contrary, he says, "It is only incorrect views that we need to overcome. The correct view is to be cultivated with great diligence."3

The reason this is so important is that the experience of a higher state of consciousness is simply that: an experience. It is not itself knowledge. It has to be understood, and it will be understood within a particular framework. Taking care to ensure that the framework is adequate—that is, to make sure we have the "correct" or "right" view—is of great importance if our experience is going to be translated into authentic wisdom. As Traleg Rinpoche says, "We cannot simply practice meditation and hope for the best; we need a conceptual framework that is based on correct view."4

For people at the "Synthetic-Conventional" stage (or earlier), the framework in which they understand their experience will be one that is largely, if not entirely, unexamined. If someone at such a stage has a vision, there is a good chance they will take it at face value. So if I am at this stage and I have a vision of Mary or Jesus (or Krishna or Kuan Yin, or whoever) I will probably understand it quite literally as being that person or deity (or bodhisattva, or whatever).

A more rational perspective will recognise that the sensible content (visions, auditions, etc.5) of such an experience is likely drawn from the imagination of the one having the experience. It's not an accident that it's usually Catholics who have visions of Mary and Hindus who have visions of Krishna.

Even higher mystical states that do not feature any kind of sensible content have to be understood or interpreted. The understanding then has to be judged (which is to say, reasonably affirmed) for it to count as actual knowledge. The adequacy of this understanding and this judgment will depend on a large extent on the adequacy of our prior conceptual framework, even as this framework will likely undergo some changes as a result of the experience.

So I would say that rationality plays two very important roles in mysticism: first, in cultivating a correct view, which is to say an adequate framework in which the experience will be understood; and second, in judging whether the insight that results from the experience is itself correct.

The implications of this, as I see it, are twofold: First, you should not embark on the contemplative path unless you are willing to also learn philosophy and cultivate a correct view; you will not be able to properly understand your experience otherwise. Second, you should not simply assume that whatever insight occurs to you during the experience is correct. It is quite possible to have a mistaken insight during such an experience, and the powerful quality of the experience can too easily convince the person having the experience that the insight is correct.6

Cultivating a correct view, of course, is not simply something that happens before the experience, but also after. So it is not as simply as, "philosophise now, experience later." Wisdom, I think, is refined through an ongoing dialectical process of thinking and experiencing, thinking more, and experiencing more.


[1] Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 179.

[2] One reason for this, I think, is that a lot of people become interested in this kind of spirituality when they reach James Fowler's Stage 5, the post-modernist "Conjunctive" stage, which corresponds with Wilber's "green altitude." For more on the relationship between Fowler's stages and Wilber's "altitudes" see "The Colours of Spiritual Development."

People at every level tend to be very resistant to certain tendencies that are characteristic of the previous level. The previous level in this case would be the modernist "Individuative-Reflective" stage, at Wilber's "orange altitude." The orange stage is characterised by what the green stage sees as a too-strong emphasis on rationality.

The next stage, Wilber's teal-altitude Integral stage, seeks to correct this by reclaiming rationality against green, but correcting the error of orange, which generally rejects the idea that valid knowledge can be attained in non-normal states of consciousness. I've written about this stage before in "The Problem is Orange." Note that Wilber's understanding of teal-altitude spirituality is quite different from Fowler's sixth (and final) stage, the "Universalizing" stage. A number of critics have found Fowler's Stage 6 problematic, as it is not based on the same kind of empirical evidence as the previous stages. See, for instance, Romney M. Mosely's "Forms of Logic in Faith Development Theory," in Christian Perspectives on Faith Development, Jeff Astley and Leslie J. Francis, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992: 169.

[3] Kyabgon, Mind at Ease, 25.

[4] Kyabgon, Mind at Ease, 26.

[5] I use the term "sensible content" to refer to things that do not literally involve the senses, but which are described as though they were. So one does not actually use one's eyes when one has a vision, but it nevertheless has a visual character.

[6] Traleg Rinpoche says,
"Some meditative experiences may have the appearance of being genuine, but in reality are false and misleading. Such experiences can be deceptive, giving us the false conviction that we have attained a particular meditative state when in reality we have simply gone astray or fallen victim to fanciful thinking. To separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and to endeavor to find out whether anything genuine has occured, we must make use of conceptual tools that steer us in the right direction. That way, we can purposefully continue with our spiritual practice by critically examining and refining our views." (Mind at Ease, 26)
The failure of some people to recognise this, I think, stems from the erroneous belief that knowledge is attained simply through experience, which is sometimes called "naive realism": I saw it, therefore it's real.

Others might assume that whatever "insight" they had from the experience is necessarily true, apart from (or prior to) any kind of reasonable affirmation. This likely happens because the experience of having this mystical insight is so powerful that whatever one understands from it is simply accepted without question. It seems to me that the monistic non-dualism of the Advaita Vedanta tradition probably originated in this: I experience myself as "one with everything," so everything is "one," and so multiplicity is illusory. That’s kind of a complicated topic, though, so I won't go into it right now.

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Wisdom 9.13-18

Undoubtedly most homilies yesterday focused more on the Gospel reading (Luke 14.25-33), in which Jesus tells large crowds that they must hate their families, "and even life itself," if they wish to be his disciple. It's an interesting passage to be sure, but the first reading was, for me, maybe a little more interesting. In this post I'm going to try clarify some of the words used in the text, and in my next post I'll reflect on the meaning of the passage in a broader context. Here is the NRSV text, which is used in the Canadian lectionary:
For who can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills?
For the reasoning of mortals is worthless,
and our designs are likely to fail;
for a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
We can hardly guess at what is on earth,
and what is at hand we find with labor;
but who has traced out what is in the heavens?
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus the paths of those on earth were set right,
and people were taught what pleases you,
and were saved by wisdom.” (Wis 9.13-18)
It's a quite a good translation of the original Greek, but there are some words that I think require clarification.
...the reasoning of mortals is worthless...
Here "reasoning" translates the plural noun logismoi, the singular of which is logismos. This word appears elsewhere in the Wisdom of Solomon. The word is not negative in itself, but in this book logismos is always modified by a negative adjective or otherwise disparaged.1

Here the reasoning of mortals is "worthless" (deilos).2 We cannot come to know the will of God with our limited reasoning.

The next part attempts to explain why:
...a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
Here the NRSV's "thoughtful" is somewhat problematic. It translates the unusual term polyphrontida, which appears nowhere else in the Bible. The problem is that "thoughtful" has a rather different meaning than "full of thoughts," which is what is called for here. The NAB, which is used in the American lectionary, provides a more adequate translation of this particular phrase: "the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns."

Some commentators detect the influence of Platonic dualism in this verse, but I don't think this is necessarily the best way to interpret it. The mind weighed down by "many concerns" reflects a life oriented toward merely human problems. There is an analogy here, I think, with Paul's distinction between living "according to the flesh" and living "according to the spirit." It's not that flesh is bad and spirit good. It has to do with how we orient our lives.3

The answer to the question at the beginning of the passage comes toward the end, in the form of another question:
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
It is not, then, by our limited reasoning that we can learn God's "counsel," but only when God has "given wisdom." Such wisdom is not taken, but received, as a gift.

This speaks to something I've been giving a lot of thought to lately. On the one hand, it's clear enough that we cannot reason our way into enlightenment. Were this the case, enlightenment could be attained through a process similar to following a philosophical argument in a book. It just doesn't happen like that.

So the higher states of consciousness that we associate with wisdom or enlightenment (words I use interchangeably) are often called "transrational," and this is appropriate as far as the attainment of the experience is concerned.

And yet, "transrational" is different from "irrational." Reason cannot be discarded entirely. So what role does reason play? I think the confusion over this stems from the word "reason" being used to denote too many things.

I'll explain why I think that in my next post.


It says near the beginning, "For perverse thoughts (skolioi gar logismoi) separate people from God" (1.3). A couple of verses later it says "a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts (logismōn asynetōn) behind" (1.5). Later we find reference to "foolish and wicked thoughts" (logismōn asynetōn adikias; 11.15). It says that the "way of thinking" (ho logismos) of the ungodly "will never change" (12.10). Later, "fear is nothing but a giving up of the helps that come from reason" (logismou; 17.10). Finally, it speaks of a "foolish decision" (logismon anoias; 19.3).

For deilos the NAB has "timid," the Jerusalem Bible "unsure," and the NJB "inadequate." To use "timid" or "unsure" is defensible, but this meaning would normally obtain when deilos is used to describe a person. In this instance I think "worthless" or "inadequate" are superior, as they more closely parallel "likely to fail" (episphaleis, lit. "dangerous" or "unsafe").

[3] I've written about Paul's distinction between living "according to the flesh" vs. "according to the spirit" here.
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