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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Blogger crystal said...

Oh, this is really interesting.

My spiritual director said once that theology is what people do after they have a religious experience, to help understand it - the same idea, I guess.

I think Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises are about this. The retreat is set up to foster religious experience and the "discernment of spirits" is supposed to help people figure out what happened and evaluate it.

What I'd wonder is how a person decides what the "correct view" that they use for evaluation is.

12:12 a.m.  
Blogger William D. Lindsey said...

Prickliest, this is such clear and valuable commentary. I like the sane emphasis on coupling religious experience with study and knowledge to interpret and refine the experience. So much harm is done by those who have raw experience but who lack (or refuse) the tools to interpret that experience, before they try to make it normative for others.

9:52 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I think that's basically correct, or at least it should be.

I don't know much about Ignatian spirituality, which is somewhat surprising (to me) given the number of books by Jesuits I have on my shelves.

As far as deciding what the "correct view" is, most people tend to assume it's whatever "view" they currently hold. Everyone has some notion of what it means to know, and of what is real. They have, then, some at least implicit epistemological and metaphysical framework.

In the Christian tradition, philosophy has historically been subordinated to theology, and "right view" has been identified with doctrinal orthodoxy. But the doctrines that are emphasised as particularly important tend to be largely irrelevant. Actually, I'm going to be writing something about that very soon.

Thanks for your comment.

8:00 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I agree 100%.

I think the mystical/experiential/raja-yoga side of religion tends to attract a certain type of personality, while the rational/philosophical/jnana-yoga type attracts another, and most people who are naturally attracted to one tend not to be so attracted to the other. But there has to be a balance, and this probably means making a concerted effort to learn or practice something one isn't naturally inclined towards or attracted to.

8:12 p.m.  
Anonymous Henry said...


This, and your previous post, are very thought provoking and something I am pondering, especially as related to my own experience.

A quick observation and two quick questions for now:

1. Ken Wilber’s assertion that 'right thought' always precedes 'right meditation reminds me of the fact that the Eastern Fathers often infer that a firm grasp of kataphatic theology is critical before one moves onto the transcendent qualities of apophatic theology. Would you agree?

2. Have you read the writings of Teresa of Ávila or St. John of the Cross on this subject? There are other mystics I could have chosen but these are the most popular.

3. You are very taken by Fowler's writings, what is it about them that helps you in your relationship with Christ?

More to follow.

Pax Christi,


2:27 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Henry, thank you for your questions.

1. I wouldn't necessarily say that it's critical, no. A lot of what falls under the category of "kataphatic theology" is largely irrelevant to the Gospel message, as I understand it. I'm going to be talking about that soon in a couple of different posts, or maybe one post if I can fit them together.

2. I've read The Interior Castle a couple of times, but apart from that I'm not particularly familiar with St. Teresa. (Actually, I quoted her a couple of times in an earlier draft of this very post, but it was getting off-topic so I cut it.)

St. John of the Cross is one of my very favourite writers. I read The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night every January and have done so for the past eleven years, so his work is very important to me. I'm planning on writing more about him in the near future, actually.

3. A better and more pertinent question would be, how does it help me understand the Gospel? As I understand it, the Gospel--which is to say, Jesus' message about the "kingdom of God"--is ultimately about transformation, development, growth, both individually and corporately (and these are mutually reinforcing). Precisely how I came to understand the Gospel this way is a complicated story, involving to a large extent my own conversion experience when I was an undergrad, and my subsequent study of the New Testament, and of the historical Jesus in particular. Eventually I came upon the idea that religious differences are, to a large extent, the product of a series of differentiations of consciousness (transformations, if you will), and this struck me as having tremendous explanatory power. I found this idea in the work of Bernard Lonergan, but that was not really based on empirical research. When I discovered that Fowler had done research that supported this, and explained it in great detail, it was very exciting.

As I see it, people need to grow spiritually and morally. This is what religion is for, more than anything else. It can promote growth, but it can also discourage it, and if it's not doing one, it's doing the other. In order to know how we need to grow, we need to understand what growth actually entails, how it works, what kind of obstacles there are, and so on. I find a lot of help answering these questions in Fowler and other developmental researchers.

1:12 a.m.  

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