On kataphatic and apophatic mysticism
At the heart of mystical experiences is a paradox: the urge to tell, and not to tell
Today we changed the title of the newsletter from The Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project to Ecstatic Integration, for two reasons. First, TCPEP is a bit of a mouthful, and second, this newsletter isn’t just about psychedelics - the bigger question it explores is, how do western cultures re-integrate ecstatic experiences after centuries of pathologisation and marginalization? How do we make sense of such experiences and develop good cultural and ethical containers for them? Psychedelics is just a part of that, and it would be a great pity if western culture got too fixated on that one route to the Beyond.
This week, our theme is talking and not talking about ecstatic experiences. On Tuesday we had an interview with professor Alan Levinovitz on why he feels he can’t talk about his occasional ecstatic experiences. Tomorrow we have an essay on the central role of testimonies in the psychedelic renaissance. And for today’s Throwback Thursday piece from the archives, here are some thoughts from the great mystics about apophatic versus kataphatic mysticism. As usual, I’ll give a taster for free and the rest is for paid members.
As we make sense of ecstatic experiences, the idea of ‘apophatic versus kataphatic mysticism’ is a really useful one.
Apophatic mysticism, also known as negative mysticism or via negativa, emphasizes the ineffability and unknowability of God or the divine. It asserts that the divine cannot be described or understood through human language or concepts, and that the ultimate reality transcends all human comprehension. Apophatic mystics often use negation or denial to describe God, saying what God is not, rather than what God is. They emphasize the limitations of human language and reason when it comes to understanding the divine, and believe that direct experience or intuition is necessary to approach the divine beyond concepts.
Kataphatic mysticism, on the other hand, also known as positive mysticism or via positiva, emphasizes the use of affirmative language and concepts to describe and approach the divine. Kataphatic mystics believe that God or the divine can be known and experienced through positive attributes and concepts, and that human language and reason can play a role in understanding the divine. They may use positive affirmations, visualizations, and meditations on divine attributes or qualities to approach the divine.
These two attitudes to mystical experience are found in two of the philosopher William James’ classic features of mysticism, from his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience. On the one hand, James described mystical experiences as ineffable:
The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.
People have mystical / ecstatic / psychedelic experiences, and they are astonished, it’s beyond their capacity to verbalize, so they turn to symbols, parables, negative statements, or silence. It may be that they are even forbidden from speaking about their experiences as in the Eleusinian Mysteries (the word ‘mystic’ comes from the Greek for ‘closed mouth’) or in the many monastic orders that take vows of silence. That’s ‘apophatic mysticism’ – the word ‘apophatic’ comes from the Greek apo (non) and phanei (speaking), as in to not speak or to speak in negatives.
On the other hand, William James said that mystical experiences are noetic – they feel brimming with meaning, and often give us words, phrases, ideas, ethical commandments which we then treasure and communicate to others. Humans are constantly effing on about the ineffable. Many mystical experiences involve language, conversation with divine entities, verbal messages transmitted to the people, as in the mystical experiences of Moses, Mohammad, Jesus, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and many others. That’s ‘kataphatic mysticism’, from the Greek kata (affirmation) and phanei (speak) – to speak in affirmations (God is great, God is love and so on).
So this is a tension or paradox at the heart of mystical experiences. The urge to speak and not to speak, to tell and not to tell, to be rendered speechless…and to feel you must communicate your experience.
With psychedelic science, this mystical paradox is put into an awkward position, because you the trial participant must speak, you must put your experience into words for the scientists to quantify, you must even describe your experience in questionnaires...how complete was your mystical experience on a scale of one to ten? Was it happy or sad, positive or negative, full of meaning or bewildering, empowering or overpowering. To which a person may reply yes, yes, yes!
Psychedelic culture since the 1960s has in general been very kataphatic. Timothy Leary never shut up, Ram Dass talked for hours, Terence McKenna thought psychedelics connected you to the Logos and increased loquacity – and he also could talk for hours about his psychedelic experiences. Alan Watts said you couldn’t put the mystery into words…but repeated this point in public talks every evening. Many others feel a strong urge to ‘testify’ about their psychedelic experience to others, hence the thousands of trip reports on Erowid, and all the unread self-published psychedelic memoirs you can find Amazon (‘Day Three…this was the big one…’)
But to consider the other side of the coin, here are some quotes from the great mystics about apophatic mysticism:
And in the same ground, where God has His own rest, we too shall have our rest and possess it with Him. The place has no name, and no one can utter a word concerning it that is appropriate. Every word that we can say of it is more a denial of what God is not than a declaration of what He is. A great master saw that and it seemed to him that, whatever he could say in words about God, he could not really say anything which did not contain some falsehood. And so he was silent and would not say another word, though he was greatly mocked by other masters. Therefore it is a much greater thing to be silent about God than to speak.
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