William James asked two relevant questions when it comes to examining mystery and mysticism. They are: Is a person warranted in thinking that his or her experiences are veridical or have evidential value? Secondly, Are “we,” who do not enjoy mystical experiences, upon examining the evidence of such experiences, warranted in thinking them veridical or endowed with evidential value?
In the fifth program in his series, Richard Holloway examines the nature of mystery and looks at the experience of three medieval mystics Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and Al Ghazali (1058-1111).
Mystery is simple and doesn’t need to be problematic unless it creates a tension or conflict in the demand for it to be resolved. It is essentially anything that is not explained or understood, or anything that is hidden or not revealed, deliberately or otherwise.
So the question, to the above three mystics, two Christian, one Muslim, discussed in the program, and to every other mystical person is: Does your experience reveal any objective universal truth that can be inependantly verified?
Just as all religions claim revelatory content, they all have their cadres of mystics who have mystical experiences that purport to reveal theological ‘truths’ of their own religion.
However if what is experienced by these people, in different times and places and from different religious traditions, contains little in the way of agreement about the nature or content and quality of the reported experience, then what they experience cannot tell us anything about the veracity of what the experience purports to show. It is indistinguishable from an altered brain state brought about by inherent, or induced psychosis, deliberate conditioning of the brain i.e. by long, intensive exposure to religious discipline and practice, fasting, isolation, sleep deprivation, drugs, intense fear, hyper-suggestibility, meditation, mental illness and so forth.
Neuroscientists are examing the brain activity that occurs during mystical experience.
“Through cutting off of neural input to the pre-frontal area of the brain, (d'Aquili and Newberg 1993 and 1999), claim an event of pure consciousness occurs. The patterns set up in the brain create an overwhelming experience of “absolute unitary being.” If reinforcement of a certain hypothalamic discharge then occurs, this will prolong the feeling of elation, and will be interpreted as an experience of God. Otherwise, there will arise a deep peacefulness due to the dominance of specified hypothalamic structures. This gets interpreted as an experience of an impersonal, absolute ground of being. The theory associates numinous experiences with variations in deafferentiation in various structures of the nervous system, and lesser religious experiences with mild to moderate stimulation of circuits in the lateral hypothalamus. The latter generate religious awe: a complex of fear and exaltation. The brain functions in related ways in aesthetic experience as well.
We don’t need to make a mystery out of mystery or out of mystics. There's usually some sort of spiritual, temporal, sexual, (mystics seem to get laid a lot), or religio-political agenda at the bottom of it.
Just ask Mystic Meg.