Self-inflicted spiritual damage

As a teenager I found some books on mysticism, meditation, and spirituality and saw in them an answer to my problems.

But recently I’ve been reviewing them and recognising how, far from providing help, they set me further on a harmful path of emotional inhibition, withdrawal from life, and confusing alterations in consciousness.

Today I revisited a short book called Practical Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. Here’s an excerpt from it:

First, the subject of your meditation begins, as you surrender to its influence, to exhibit unsuspected meaning, beauty, power.  A perpetual growth of significance keeps pace with the increase of attention which you bring to bear on it; that attention which is the one agent of all your apprehensions, physical and mental alike.  It ceases to be thin and abstract.  You sink as it were into the deeps of it, rest in it, “unite” with it; and learn, in this still, intent communion, something of its depth and breadth and height, as we learn by direct intercourse to know our friends.

Moreover, as your meditation becomes deeper it will defend you from the perpetual assaults of the outer world.  You will hear the busy hum of that world as a distant exterior melody, and know yourself to be in some sort withdrawn from it.  You have set a ring of silence between you and it; and behold! within that silence you are free.  You will look at the colored scene, and it will seem to you thin and papery: only one among countless possible images of a deeper life as yet beyond your reach. 

And gradually, you will come to be aware of an entity, a You, who can thus hold at arm’s length, be aware of, look at, an idea – a universe – other than itself.  By this voluntary painful act of concentration, this first step upon the ladder which goes – as the mystics would say – from “multiplicity to unity,” you have to some extent withdrawn yourself from that union with unrealities, with notions and concepts, which has hitherto contented you; and at once all the values of existence are changed.  “The road to a Yea lies through a Nay.”  You, in this preliminary movement of recollection, are saying your first deliberate No to the claim which the world of appearance makes to total possession of your consciousness: and are thus making possible some contact between that consciousness and the World of Reality.

Now turn this new purified and universalized gaze back upon yourself.  Observe your own being in a fresh relation with things, and surrender yourself willingly to the moods of astonishment, humility, joy – perhaps of deep shame or sudden love – which invade your heart as you look. 

So doing patiently, day after day, constantly recapturing the vagrant attention, ever renewing the struggle for simplicity of sight, you will at last discover that there is something within you – something behind the fractious, conflicting life of desire – which you can recollect, gather up, make effective for new life.  You will, in fact, know your own soul for the first time, and learn that there is a sense in which this real You is distinct from, an alien within, the world in which you find yourself, as an actor has another life when he is not on the stage. 

When you do not merely believe this but know it; when you have achieved this power of withdrawing yourself, of making this first crude distinction between appearance and reality, the initial stage of the contemplative life has been won.  It is not much more of an achievement than the first proud effort in which the baby stands upright for a moment and then relapses to the more natural and convenient crawl: but it holds within it the same earnest of future development.

Reading this now makes me feel ill. But back then it promised so much. Maybe it kept me going and gave me hope, but honestly I can make little sense of it now.

On the basis of this text and others like it I threw myself into mental contortions that became ingrained over time. I developed an attitude of depreciating “appearances” and longing for the vague “something within” that would supposedly become new life.

I feel angry at the harm this text did me. In hindsight I see it’s inadequacies and faults, though I surely wasn’t it’s intended audience.

I think it’s unfair to criticise it out of its own context, nonetheless it’s clear to me that the text itself is a grandiose and poetic attempt to take contemplative mysticism out of its context and exhort people everywhere to have a go.

Maybe the things she describes work for some people, but I think they are more likely an individual approach, and as we discovered with the mindfulness fad: spiritual methods are not “one size fits all”.

Using absorption and heightened self-consciousness to search for a more “significant” reality set me up for a form of dissociation that persisted on an habitual level for years.

I’ve since found it’s far better simply to find ways of feeling better, rather than using psychological tricks to change my perception of reality.