The best thing would to be able to start off by drawing a clear distinction between two very different types of religious quest, and explaining from there. Black on this side, white on the other. But one of the two items we are looking at is so radically different from the other, and so unfamiliar as well, that most people will have no idea where the contrast lies, and it will look as if something is being compared with nothing at all. Black on this side, and no identifiable colour on the other ? What kind of a comparison is that ? This is the essential difficulty with trying to characterise the ‘spiritual path’: it sounds like nothing anyone can relate to, so it might as well not exist. We might as well not bother talking about it at all.
But then again, why not have a go ? A genuine spiritual path is never going to attract a mass following; it is always going to be of interest only to a tiny minority, if it can manage to generate any interest at all. Yet this has nothing to do with elitism, or exclusivity, as there is no exclusive elite to appeal to: it is all about pursuing a certain rare kind of thinking, which usually isn’t even to the liking of the person having to think it, and which comes about as the result of a very unusual crisis or series of crises, leaving the person who has been experiencing them with nowhere else to go. And the person having to face these difficult thoughts, even though they’re not much enjoying it, can intuit, or sense, that facing facts is probably the direction they should be heading in, and that somehow, one day, sooner probably than later, they will have to dust themselves down and head off along the ‘facing facts’ road, to god knows where.
The distinction between mystical and spiritual is very simple to draw, but, for some reason, exceedingly difficult to explain satisfactorily. We have to begin with a characterisation of the human being, and then work slowly towards the key concepts. A human being is a creature, composed of various capacities; physical, mental and psychological, and driven by various needs and desires, physical, mental, and psychological. The human capacities, various though they are, tend to be encountered as a mixture of all three, although they can be intellectually abstracted from one another. And the encounter with these capacities takes place in what appears to be the most elemental realm available to human beings, namely that of experience. Some aspects of this description may seem a little circular, but the point is to get a rather simple message across without getting bogged down in irrelevant conceptual difficulties: the human being is, when all is said and done, basically an experiencing creature. In other words, the human being exists in what could be called an experiential matrix, and everything that can be experienced, or mentally apprehended, takes place in this matrix. And as far as everyday life is concerned, this basic experiential matrix is all that there is, and it appears to contain anything and everything that could be of interest to a human being.
Now the experiential matrix in which humans have their existence is, as has already been stated, a fundamental realm which includes all the varieties of human experiencing, from the most basic, to the most subtle. It includes gross physicality at one level, and ethereal intellection at another, with psychological experiencing, including emotions, yearnings, desires, dreams, ecstasies, and everything else psychological, somewhere in the middle. The experiential matrix is, if you are at least partially able to apprehend it in its totality, characterised from day to day by various ‘flavours’, depending on your state of mind. For example, there is a sense of ordinariness, which pervades life most of the time, and there can be a sense of impending doom, or a sense of immanent happiness, or a sense of hopelessness, and so on. There are many other varieties as well. These changeable flavours may come and go, but the human experiential matrix itself remains as the realm where all this takes place.
Crucially, everything in the human experiential matrix relates, somehow, to the human being who experiences it. This is not a tautology, but a basic feature of all experiencing. Implicit in all experiencing is the fact that it is human experiencing, and human experiencing of a certain limited kind. The limitations are the constraints of my experiential capacity; in other words, I can only experience what I am capable of experiencing, in the same way that I can only see what my eyes are capable of seeing. We may think to ourselves that we are capable of experiencing anything, but this is simply because we haven’t realised our limitations.
How do we know all this ? Through the exercise of the intellect. The intellect is capable of holding up pieces of experience for inspection, and then of breaking them down – or chopping them up – into their constituent parts. The first exercise is commonly known as reflection, and the second is a mixture of abstraction and analysis. The intellect has many other capacities as well, but its primary function is the presentation of knowledge – in its widest and most basic sense – to the experiencing human being. The intellect is the basic knowing capacity at the centre of human experiencing, and without it experience would not be possible: if you don’t know anything, you can’t experience anything, because experiencing, even the grossest physical wallowing, can’t take place unless you know it’s taking place. Once again, this is not a tautology; this is a feature of our experiential capacity.
The problem that arises is that the human experiential being is most at home in the world of experience. Experience dazzles us, and most people are one hundred percent convinced that experience of some kind or the other is all there is, and that this is the realm where they must find their salvation. It does not occur to people that there might be something more primordial than experience, something which might permit experience to happen in the first place, and which might, in itself, have nothing to do with experience, however subtle, divine, and magnificent. What on earth could such a thing be, and how on earth would you set about finding it ?
And this is where we encounter the greatest difficulty. It is through the intellect that our ‘knowing capacity’ must find its fulfilment, and this is not to be confused with becoming an intellectual, or becoming especially ‘brainy’, and achieving feats of mental prowess. It has nothing to do with anything like that at all. What has to happen is that the intellect has to learn to illuminate the ‘knowing capacity’ in its essence, that is to say, in a most essential way, such that it leaves no aspect of itself unexplored. This is of itself no guarantee of the next stage, but at least you will have done all you can of your own efforts to get to the root of knowledge, and to the root of the knowing capacity. What happens then ? The knowing capacity will have to find out for itself.
A further problem is that the kind of systematic consideration and careful exploration of the knowing capacity is very difficult to do, and may seem – at least at the beginning – very unrewarding, and elusive, and perhaps even dull, when compared with the kind of spontaneous ecstasies afforded the mystic. But if you give it enough time for it to come to itself, all these problems disappear, and the quest for the illumination of lucidity takes off. And in turn, the quest of the mystic becomes revealed for what it is: an addiction to the unending, bottomless pit of mysterious experiences in an experiential matrix, which is dazzling but insignificant, spectacular but empty, and which, when it has exhausted itself, disappears in the ‘twinkling of an eye.’
And finally we see the distinction between the two types of quest in full relief: the quest of the mystic is the search for special kinds of experience, whereas the spiritual quest is a search for the illumination of the capacity to know. The mystical quest takes you into the realms of altered states, ecstasies, cosmic consciousness and all the rest, whereas the spiritual quest takes you into the realm of knowing, and knowing lucidity. Mystical experiences are dependent on the experiential matrix for their meaning and significance, and this in turn is utterly dependent on the capacity for knowing, whereas the spiritual realm transcends that and is dependent only on itself. Mystical experiences deliver only mystical experiences, and leave the mystic exactly where they began, whereas the spiritual quest delivers the supreme insight – Enlightenment – beyond which no further insights are either possible or called for. Mystical experience, no matter how fantastic, sacred and glorious, is nothing, whereas the lucidity at the core of our being is everything.