She wrote the short, dense book, Practical Mysticism: a Little Book for Normal People, in 1915 as a guide for the “everyman” of her era. (As she used the masculine normative throughout, I’ve decided not to mark each instance with a [sic] for ease of reading. Please forgive me this lenience.) Underhill firmly believed that mystical experiences are available to all who truly pursue them.
She admits that the topic is usually reserved for those cloistered away, and then goes on to say: “Yet it is to you, practical man, reading these pages as you rush through the tube to the practical work of rearranging unimportant fragments of your universe, that this message so needed by your time—or rather, by your want of time—is addressed. To you, unconscious analyst, so busy reading the advertisements upon the carriage wall, that you hardly observe the stages of your unceasing flight: so anxiously acquisitive of the crumbs that you never lift your eyes to the loaf.”
In other words, it was written for people going about their workaday lives with little or no comprehension of what she calls Reality, with a capital "R," which different people call the Ultimate, the Absolute, God, Allah, Brahman, the Sacred, and so on.
I believe that her message is just as important to us today, if not more so as the stakes are raised in our time concerning the future of humankind. But her writing style is challenging, to say the least. What I propose to write here is a series of posts that will provide a synopsis, chapter by chapter, of that already little book. I am doing this mostly, if I’m candid, to help myself and maybe others parse its compressed and nearly antiquated early 20th century prose into something more manageable for the early 21st century mind. That said, I find many of her florid turns of phrase to be both spot on and delightful, and at times, like in the above quotation, to show important consistencies between our times. Therefore, I will use her words liberally throughout.
Let’s get started.
Chapter One: What is Mysticism?
Setting aside, until chapter two, the question of what exactly Reality is, we are asked instead to consider the word “union.” Union, she says, is happening all the time. It is not some “rare and unimaginable operation” but instead something we are always doing. We are uniting with something, “in a vague, imperfect fashion, at every moment,” and “with intensity and thoroughness in all the more valid moments” of our lives.
So, the question isn’t whether we will experience union, but “what, out of the mass of material offered to it, shall consciousness seize upon—with what aspects of the universe shall it ‘unite’?”
The problem is that most of us spend our time uniting with things that are superficial and impermanent, less than Reality. At the root of this problem, according to Underhill, is the question of labels.
“Because mystery is horrible to us,” she says, “we have agreed . . . to live in a world of labels; to make of them the current coin of experience, and ignore their merely symbolic character, the infinite gradation of values which they misrepresent.”
To put this another way, we are separated from Reality because we automatically categorize sensations and perceptions. We spontaneously label everything. But labels misrepresent reality because words and the mental categories they create are necessarily less than the experiences they represent. It is this veil of words, of superimposed mental categories, that prevents us from experiencing, “uniting,” with Reality directly.
But we can overcome this separation by learning to experience our sensations directly, through “contemplative consciousness,” which is a faculty we all have. That will be the focus of chapter three. But before we get there, we need to talk about Reality.
Chapter 2: The World of Reality
When we “reach out and unite with the fact, instead of our notion of it,” she says, we experience “direct communion.” When we achieve “an ideal state of receptivity, of perfect correspondence with the essence of things,” then there is an experience of “absolute sensation.”
“It is,” she goes on, “a pure feeling-state, in which the fragmentary contacts with Reality achieved through the senses are merged in a wholeness of communion which feels and knows all at once, yet in a way which the reason can never understand, that Totality of which fragments are known by the lover, the musician, the artist.”
OK, let’s back up a bit and recap. To begin with, we are always uniting with some aspect of Reality, however shallow that encounter might be. And sometimes the encounter takes on greater depth—in love and in creative acts. (And I wonder if we should consider adding here reverie and all of those events which these days we might call “peak experiences” à la Maslow and “flow experiences” à la Csíkszentmihályi.) Then, in the mystical experience, the encounter is no longer with only a piece of Reality: it is complete immersion.
Moving forward again, Underhill begins to explain how to cultivate this experience when she says, “Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond: too arrogant to still our thoughts, and let divine sensation have its way.”
She tells us, “It needs industry and goodwill if we would make that transition: for the process involves a veritable spring cleaning of the soul, a turning-out and rearrangement of our mental furniture, a wide opening of closed windows, that the notes of the wild birds beyond our garden may come to us fully charged with wonder and freshness, and drown with their music the noise of the gramophone within.”
This spring cleaning of our inner lives is a necessary step in learning how to refrain from subjecting our immediate experience of sensations “to the cooking, filtering process of the brain.” Continuing on this theme, in chapter three we will learn “to put the emphasis upon the message from without, rather than on (our) own reaction to and rearrangement of it.”
Chapter 3: The Preparation of the Mystic
“What is it that smears the windows of the senses?” Underhills asks. And she answers, “thought, convention, self-interest.” Later she adds, “Religion, priggishness, or discontent may drape the panes.”
To make this clearer, she says, “To ‘purify’ the senses is to release them . . . from the tyranny of egocentric judgments . . . to make of them the organs of direct perception. This means that we must crush our deep-seated passion for classification and correspondence; ignore the instinctive, selfish question, ‘What does it mean to me?’”
Ok, you may be saying, I get it. I’m supposed to stop filtering sensations through my preconceived, enculturated categories. But how do I do that? I believe that Underhill would have us find inner stillness.
“At this very moment your thoughts are buzzing like a swarm of bees. The reduction of this fevered complex to a unity appears to be a task beyond all human power. Yet the situation is not as hopeless for you as it seems. All this is only happening upon the periphery of the mind, where it touches and reacts to the world of appearance. At the centre there is a stillness which even you are not able to break. There, the rhythm of your duration is one with the rhythm of the Universal Life. There, your essential self exists: the permanent being which persist through and behind the flow and change of your conscious states.”
Finding this stillness, she says, is comparable to the “Eastern visionary” beckoning us to “Take your seat within the heart of the thousand-petaled lotus,” or the Christian mystic urging us to “Hold thou to thy Centre.”
“This is a practical recipe,” she says, “not a pious exhortation. The thing may sound absurd to you, but you can do it if you will: stand back, as it were, from the vague and purposeless reactions in which most men fritter their vital energies. Then you can survey with a certain calm, a certain detachment, your universe and the possibilities of life within it.”
Through this “deliberate withdrawal of attention from the bewildering multiplicity of things” we begin to simplify and purify the will until it can “retreat to the unity of its spirit.” And there we unite not just with our own eternal spirit but successively with the “three levels of existence: which we may call the Natural, the Spiritual, and the Divine.” She also calls these levels the World of Becoming, the World of Being, and the Absolute or God.
Finally, Underhill sets out the path in toto:
“We begin, therefore, to see that the task of union with Reality will involve certain stages of preparation as well as stages of attainment; and these stages of preparation . . . may be grouped under two heads. First, the disciplining and simplifying of the attention. . . . Next the disciplining and simplifying of the affections and will, the orientation of the heart. . . . So the practical mysticism of the plain man will best be grasped by him as a five-fold scheme of training and growth: in which the first two stages prepare the self for union with Reality, and the last three unite it successively with the World of Becoming, the World of Being, and finally with that Ultimate Fact which the philosopher calls the Absolute and the religious mystic calls God.”
The next couple chapters go further into the practices of Recollection and Purgation, which we might also call meditation and detachment.
To be continued . . .