Recently in an online discussion, the thesis of our podcast came up and was the subject of some back anf forth comments. We state:
The thesis of the show is that rationality is in no way the antithesis of deep mystical experience, in fact, we assert that it is a necessary ally.
I realize that this description is provocative, and it is provocative in the sense of provoking the sorts of questions that came up in my recent online conversation. One objection that this formulation tends to provoke is that the thinking mind cannot by its nature know or understand presence or awareness.
I certainly agree that the "thinking mind" cannot be aware of, know, understand, or access presence, but I do not equate rationality in the sense we use it in our podcast introduction to the "thinking mind". Nothing can know presence (i.e. make presence into an object) because presence is the ultimate subject. In our use of the term, rationality is more akin to "awareness of distinction" whereas thinking mind is composed of sequences of verbal and imaginal symbolic forms which may or may not map onto memory formations born out of direct embodied experience.
Awareness of distinction can be useful in a number of ways in support of mystical experience. One of these ways is awareness of the nature of distinction, of the ultimate emptiness of distinction, and (paradoxically) of the distinction between distinction and presence. This mode of the awareness of distinction is the basis of the classic "Neti Neti" practice in which we respond to each and every verbal formulation our thinking mind throws up to try to objectify presence with the reminder "Not this, not this". The process continues until the mind exhausts itself and our attention can abide in a profound silence.
Another way in which awareness of distinction is useful is to help make subtle aspects of our embodied experience conceptually accessible. Though our fundamental nature may be knowing presence, in this realm of time and space, we manifest in bodies and enjoy gradations of embodied experiences that range from the very course to extremely sublime. But not all of these experiences are necessarily conceptually accessible. A simple example of this is to consider a palette of shades of the color yellow. When seen as a collection of shades, we can easily distinguish between different tones of yellow. However, if we are shown these same colors one by one, we will typically have a difficult time recalling which color is which.
Another example that I have found in the study of Japanese bamboo flute is the degree to which I can distinguish, recall, and reproduce extremely subtle variations in tone color today after more than 20 years of practice compared to what I was able to distinguish in my early days with the instrument. When our experiences are conceptually accessible, we have the possibility of returning to those experiences as a matter of choice. In my early days of playing the Shakuhachi, I might accidently find myself in a relatively transcendental place of playing, with very little sense of how I got there. Now, with years of practice and a host of injunctions planted in my memory by my teacher, I can access those places by will (needless to say, there are plenty more places like that for me to work on).
This musical example is a good analogy for spiritual practice. At The Mystical Positivist, we hold that the aim of our spiritual practice is to "live transcendence," that is, to bring the abiding awareness of the truth of our ultimate nature into our day-to-day embodied experience. As such, it is useful to learn to make the subtler aspects of our embodied experience conceptually accessible so that we can reliably return to such experiences "as the spirit moves us." The rational mind is constitutionally incapable of knowing anything per se, but it can help to organize and direct our embodied attention so that we can reliably bring an experience of the transcendental into our most ordinary of daily activities. This is the sense in which we mean that the rational mind is a necessary ally in the mystical quest.