GAP Report on Mysticism (A Review)

Arthur J. Deikman, M.D.1

   Group For The Advancement Of Psychiatry. Mysticism: Spiritual Quest or Psychic Disorder? Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, New York, 1976, 120 pp. Paperback $4.00.

   The report by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry entitled Mysticism: Spiritual Quest or Psychic Disorder? is intended to supply the psychiatric profession with needed information on the phenomena of mysticism, of which most psychiatrists have only a sketchy knowledge. Certain of the sections, especially those on Christian and Hindu mysticism, show an objectivity and scholarship that are quite commendable. As a whole, however, the report displays extreme parochialism, a lack of discrimination, and naive arrogance in its approach to the subject.

   From the point of view of scholarship, the basic error lies in the committee's ignoring the importance of the distinction made by both Western and Eastern mystics between lower level sensory-emotional experiences and those experiences that go beyond concepts, feelings, and sensations. Repeatedly, the mystical literature stresses that sensate experiences are not the goal of mysticism; rather, it is only when these are transcended that one attains the aim of a direct (intuitive) knowledge of fundamental reality. For example, Walter Hilton, an English mystic from the 14th century, is quite explicit about this distinction:

    . . . visions of revelations by spirits .... do not constitute true contemplation. This applies equally to any other sensible experiences of seemingly spiritual origin, whether of sound, taste, smell or of warmth felt like a glowing fire in the breast . . . anything, indeed, that can be experienced by the physical senses" (7, pp. 14, 15).

   St. John of the Cross, 18th century, states:

    "That inward wisdom is so simple, so general and so spiritual that it has not entered into the understanding enwrapped or clad in any form or image subject to sense, it follows that sense and imagination (as it has not entered through them nor has taken their form and color) cannot account for it or imagine, so as to say anything concerning it, although the soul be dearly aware that it is experiencing and partaking of that rare and delectable wisdom" (3. p. 457).

   A similar distinction between lower (sensate) and higher (transcendent) contemplative states may be found in Yoga texts:

    "When all lesser things and ideas are transcended and forgotten, and there remains only a perfect state of imagelessness where Tathagata and Tathata, are merged into perfect Oneness . . . .” (5, p. 322).

   Western mysticism, from which the authors derived most of their examples, constitutes only a minor segment of the literature in the field of mysticism, and its basic contemplative tradition actually derives from Eastern sources, as acknowledged in the report. Yet the goal of Eastern (Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sufic) mysticism  — "enlightenment"  — is not visions of angels or Buddhas but the awakening of an inherent capacity to perceive the true nature of the self and the world. Over and over again, these texts warn that the type of mystical experience on which the GAP report focuses is not the goal of the mystical path. Such visionary experiences are regarded as illusions and, at worst, snares for the poorly prepared or the ill guided. An example from the Zen literature follows:

    "Other religions and sects place great store by the experiences which involve visions of God or hearing heavenly voices, performing miracles receiving divine messages, or becoming purified through various rites . . . yet from the Zen point of view all are morbid states it devoid of true religious significance and hence only makyo (disturbing illusions)" (8, p. 40).

   In the Sufi literature, we find many explicit statements that Sufism is a science of knowing and is not a religion in the way that term is ordinarily understood.

    "The Sufis often start from a nonreligious viewpoint. The answer, they say, is within the mind of mankind. It has to be liberated, so that by self-knowledge the intuition become, the guide to human fulfillment" (11, p. 25).

   The Sufis regard most mystical experience as being essentially emotional with little practical importance  — except for the harmful effect of causing people to believe they are being "spiritual" when they are not:

    Sahl Abdullah once went into a state of violent agitation with physical manifestations, during a religious meeting.

    Ibn Salim said, "What is this state?"

    Sahl said: "This was not, as you imagine, power entering me. It was, on the contrary, due to my own weakness."

    Others present remarked: "If that was weakness, what is power?"

    "Power" said Sahl, "is when something like this enters and the mind and body manifests nothing at all" (12, p. 182).

   Despite these clear warnings in the mystical literature, the GAP publication emphasizes lurid, visionary phenomena which lend themselves readily to standard psychiatric interpretations. Because of this, the authors have failed to come to grips with the fundamental claim of mystics: that they acquire direct knowledge of reality. Furthermore, the authors follow Freud's lead in defining the mystic perception of unity as a regression, an escape, a projection upon the world of a primitive, infantile state. The fact is, we know practically nothing about the actual experience of the infant, except that whatever it is, it is not that of a small adult. No one who has read carefully the accounts of "enlightenment" can accept this glib equation of mystical = infantile. An infant mind could hardly have had the experience that conveyed the following:

    "The least act, such as eating or scratching an arm, is not at all simple. It is merely a visible moment in a network of causes and effects reaching forward into Unknowingness and back into an infinity of Silence, where individual consciousness cannot even enter. There is truly nothing to know, nothing that can be known.

    “"The physical world is an infinity of movement, of Time-Existence. But simultaneously it is an infinity of Silence and Voidness. Each object is thus transparent. Everything has its own special inner character. its own karma or 'life in time,' but at the same time there is no place where there is emptiness, where one object does not flow into another" (8, p. 268).

   To confuse lower level sensory-emotional experiences with the transcendent "Knowledge" that is the goal of mysticism seriously limits the usefulness of the report and tends to perpetuate in the reader the ignorant parochial position that was standard in most psychiatric writings before the GAP publication and now, unfortunately, is likely to be reinforced.

   This naive reductionism is all the more striking in the context of the numerous reports from physicists indicating that the world is actually more like the one that the mystics describe than the one on which psychology and psychoanalysis are based. Contemporary scientists have ample evidence that the world of discrete objects is an illusion, a function of the particular scale of our perception and time sense. For them, it is commonplace that the phenomena of biology and physics point to a continuous world of gradients, not a collection of objects. Percy Bridgman, Nobel Laureate in physics, comments:

    "It has always been a bewilderment to me to understand how anyone can experience such a commonplace event as an automobile going up the street and seriously maintain that there is identify of structure of this continually flowing, dissolving and reforming thing and the language that attempts to reproduce it with discrete units, tied together by remembered conventions" (1, p. 21).

   What is missing from the GAP report is any acknowledgment that the mystic who has completed his or her development may have access to an intuitive, immediate knowledge of reality. The authors assume that the known sensate pathways are the only means to acquire knowledge of what is real. In fact, studies of how scientific discoveries were actually made show in almost every instance that this is not the case at all. Another Nobel prize-winning physicist, Eugene Wigner, has remarked:

    "The discovery of the laws of nature requires first and foremost intuition, conceiving of pictures and a great many subconscious processes. The use and also the confirmation of these laws is another matter . . . logic comes after intuition" (6, p. 45).

   "Intuition" can be considered a lower order example of the latent capacity to which mystics refer.

   The eclectic ignorance of the authors has led them at one point to lump together Einstein, Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, biofeedback, Vincent Van Gogh, and St. John of the Cross. Interestingly enough, if the authors had pursued the case of Einstein alone, they might have come to the epistemological issue that is the core of mysticism  — and paid proper attention to it; for Einstein's modern discoveries, as well as the discoveries of natural philosophers thousands of years earlier, were based on an intuitive perception of the way things are. Such perceptions are the source of our greatest advances in science. Michael Polanyi, at one time Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Manchester, made an extensive and thorough study of the actual process of scientific discovery and found that the revolutionary ideas of geniuses such as Einstein had "come to them" by some form of direct intuition, often presented as imagery (10). Polanyi was led by his data to propose a theory of knowledge and human consciousness that is clearly "mystical." Furthermore, at least two books have been published recently documenting the strikingly close correspondence between the scientific conceptions of physicists and the insights of mystics (2, 9).

   Thus, it is truly remarkable to have a group of psychiatrists issue a report in 1976, in which the only comment they make on the mystic perception of unity is that it represents a "reunion with parents." Nowhere is the report do we find a discussion of the possibility that the perception of unity occurring in the higher forms of mysticism may be correct and that the ordinary perception of separateness and meaninglessness may be an illusion, as mystics claim. Clearly, mystic perception could be true whether or not a particular mystic might wish, in fantasy, to be reunited with his or her mother.

   The GAP report states:

    "The psychiatrist will find mystical phenomena of interest because they can demonstrate forms of behaviour intermediate between normality and frank psychosis; a form of ego regression in the service of defense against internal or external stress; and a paradox of the return of repressed regression in unconventional expressions of love" (p. 731).

   How totally provincial our profession has become if this is a summary statement from a group that claims W be devoted to "advancing" psychiatry!

   It is interesting that the only place in which the authors are able to allow themselves to think in positive terms of mysticism is when they discuss the concept of "creativity." Apparently, creativity is OK. In this section of the report, the authors venture to speculate:

    "At the same time, intense or external perceptions may be heightened, and this sensitivity may open a path to hidden aspects of reality"” (p. 795).

   Unfortunately, that one sentence, like a lonely ray of sunshine, is soon swallowed up by a return of the monotonous clouds of reductionism. The very next chapter, entitled "Case Report," concerns a woman in psychotherapy who reported having had the sort of low level, sensate mystical experience on which the authors focus. The report provides the following conclusion:

    "Her interests were reinvested in the fantasy universe, representing God, in which such problems do not exist, and she felt herself united with this God-Universe, a substitute for an unavailable or rejecting parent. The mystical union made up for the rejection she feared from her father, now represented by the therapist in another man . . . so, while a psychiatric diagnosis cannot be dismissed, her experience was certainly akin. to those described by great religious mystics (!) (emphasis mine) who have found a new life through them" (p. 806).

   In the last paragraph it becomes even more presumptuous and confused:

   "The mystical state itself provided the illusion of knowledge. But unlike many mystical states in which the search ends with illusion, it stimulated her to seek further knowledge and led directly to the disappearance of her inhibition to serious reading (!) This continued search is characteristic of those in whom mystical states contribute towards creative activity" (p. 807).

   The authors of this report are intelligent, educated, sincere men. It is hard to believe that they would display such provincialism, carelessness, and bias if they were discussing schizophrenia. Judging by this and other, similar psychiatric discussions, our profession, when it comes to mysticism, does not feel the need to ask serious questions about its own assumptions, nor to take the devil's advocate's position toward its too-easy conclusions. Ironically, the authors are capable of painting out the problem in others. In discussing "the naive Western observers of the Indian scene" they say:

    “Confronted by such common symbols as that of the representation of the divine activity in sexual form, and bewildered by the profusion of deities in the Hindu pantheon, they could impute to Hinduism a 'decadence' following from its essence, and they fail to apply to that religion the discrimination between enlightened and superstitious observance which they would be sure to demand for their own" (p. 747).


   In trying to understand the phenomenon of the GAP report itself, I am led to two principal considerations. First, in order to understand and have some appreciation of "mysticism," it is necessary that psychiatrists participate to some extent in the experience. When it comes to its own discipline, the psychiatric profession is unwavering in its requirement that one must "know" through experience, not just description. Who can really understand "transference" without experiencing it? Actual experience is necessary because the position of the outside observer has its limits, particularly in areas not well adapted to language. I can give an example of the necessity for participation from my own research on meditation and mysticism. In surveying the literature, I had noticed that contemplation and renunciation were the two basic processes specified for mystical development by almost all mystical authors, East and West. I proceeded to study the effects of meditation in the laboratory and, naively, assumed that renunciation meant giving up the things of the world in a literal sense. It was only later, when I both studied and participated in Soto Zen training, that I came to understand that renunciation refers to an attitude, not to asceticism, per se. That understanding enabled me to formulate the hypothesis of "bimodal consciousness," based on motivational considerations (4). The hypothesis, in turn, enabled me to understand a wide variety of unusual states of consciousness.

   Perhaps by stating that I have, myself, practiced meditation, I will automatically disqualify myself in the eyes of some readers as having any credibility in these matters. I refer those readers to the paper by Charles Tart, wherein he presents a compelling case for the development of "state-specific sciences"  — sciences whose mode of investigation is specifically adapted to the area it is investigating (13). Indeed, participation by scientists in these areas of mysticism would result in an understanding that is less exotic and less religious  — and would help rid ourselves of the clap-trap associated with mysticism that constitutes a burden to scientist and mystic alike.

   Unfortunately, such participation is not likely to occur because of the other basic problem confronting psychiatrists when they approach this field: arrogance  — reflecting the arrogance of Western civilization. In this connection, it is interesting that the fundamental requirement for participating in any of the mystical traditions has been, and still is, humility. This is so, not because humility is a virtue, something that earns one credit in a heavenly bank account, but because humility is instrumental  — it is the attitude required for learning. Humility is the acceptance of the possibility that someone else or something else has something to teach you which you do not already know. In crucial sections of the GAP report, there is no sign of humility. It seems to me that in our profession we display the arrogance of the legendary British Colonial who lived for 30 years in India without bothering to learn the language of the inhabitants, because he considered them to be inferior. Perhaps medicine's long battle to free itself from religious control, from demonology and "divine authority," has left us with an automatic and costly reaction against anything that bears the outward signs of religion. In point of fact, mystics outside the Western tradition tend to share our suspicion and describe their disciplines as a science of development-not a religion, as ordinarily understood.

   The authors of the GAP report have selectively ignored the central issues of mysticism and have made traditional interpretations of the secondary phenomena. If our profession is to advance, we must recognize our defenses against ideas that would change our assumptions. Mysticism, studied seriously, challenges basic tenets of Western cultures: a) the primacy of reason and intellect; b) the separate, individual nature of man; c) the linear organization of time. Great mystics, like our own great scientists, envision the world as being larger than those tenets, as transcending our traditional views. By not recognizing our defensiveness and by permitting our vision to be narrowed so as to exclude the unfamiliar, we betray our integrity as psychiatrists, showing no more capacity for freedom from prejudice than persons totally ignorant of psychodynamics  — perhaps less.

   Psychiatry's aversion to things ecclesiastical should not blind the profession to the possibility that "real gold exists, even though false coin abounds." It is unfortunate that the GAP report carries us little further toward gaining for ourselves that wider base for human fulfillment that we need. The attitude reflected in the report is myopic and unnecessarily fearful of an avenue of human endeavor, aspiration, and discovery thousands of years old-one productive of outstanding achievements in science and literature that we are only now beginning to recognize. Yet, if we learn nothing more from mystics than the need far humility, they will have contributed greatly to Western culture in general and to the profession of psychiatry in particular.

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