The Mystic is tricky for me to write about. I definitely have my spiritual side, but it is ill-defined. When I got to a point where I could approach the realm of spirit without the lens of the church blocking the view, I began to assemble an amalgam of beliefs for myself. Still, the language feels tainted, and I can’t put it all on those Monday night Catechism classes from long ago. I hesitate to use a word like “belief,” because I don’t really have any in the religious sense. I’ve already edited out “the divine” in favor of “the realm of spirit,” and even that has connotations I am not comfortable with. The writer in me recoils at all this dodgy language. We need new words, so I can say “God” or “faith” or “spiritual” and mean exactly what I want to mean. But this language is what we have, with all the baggage of the ages it brings with it, so here we go. I’m sure there will be dodging, but I’m going to talk about my spiritual side, without the safety net of quotation marks. The Sherlock in me is afraid of being perceived as a new-agey rube or an ignorant zealot, while Paintboy is afraid of upsetting and alienating some of my tiny audience by even approaching this topic. But the Mystic closes his eyes on the outside world and looks within.
I was raised Catholic but it didn’t take. The teachings of Jesus were powerful, and definitely shaped me at a young age. But the fickle, jealous and vengeful God, in addition to the growing catalog of inconsistencies a young, close-reading child could discover were enough to turn me off of religion. The Christianity I was seeing was too absolute, all one way or hell, and it didn’t even make sense. So I decided I was better off without it. I went through the motions for a while, but finally I had enough and I spent a long time purging it out of my system. It took years before I could seriously approach these matters again without rejecting everything automatically. But as I grew curious and began to explore the alternatives, I began to see the Mystic grow.
The one religious text that speaks to me the most is the Tao Te Ching. It opens with the line “The Way that can be told is not the eternal Way.” Lao Tzu starts starts off by telling us that anything you can say about the eternal is essentially untrue due to our limitations. What other religions begins with this admission of the ineffability of the subject? Of course, Lao Tzu goes on to tell of the Way and eff the ineffable, but the Way of Daoism was so refreshing to a young man wrestling with the contradictions of a personified God. The Dao is wide open and embraces everything. There is no reason to invent a devil to reconcile all the pieces that don’t fit into God. It’s the Grand Unified Theory of spirit.
Buddhism came quickly after. First the hard knock school of sit down and shut up Zen, to release the hold of Sherlock all day everyday. I forget where I saw it exactly, but I once read meditation likened to pulling the plug on a bath tub and letting the dirty water drain out. I don’t always reach that state of course, but once I had experienced it I kept coming back for more. I don’t know if the increased head space made more room for the emotional side of Paintboy, or if it was simply maturation away from the narcissism of being a teenager, but the friendlier strains of compassion and loving-kindness in Buddhism began to gain importance in my understanding. I still could use more of these virtues, and it is easy to forget how important it is to be compassionate to one’s self as well as to others. But baby steps, as Bill Murray once said.
I found Carl Jung at a key time in my life. Here was insight into the subconscious without the need to label everything as a disease of the mind or an obsession with Oedipus. Man made myth like he made music, art, architecture. This impulse to approach the great mystery wasn’t pressed onto us by some religious institution seeking to control. It was in us. We lived it, we ate it, and we dreamt it. We may be living in an age of staggering scientific achievement and technological wonders, but we are still the same inside as when we were painting stories on the walls of caves. And with Jung every story suddenly fit together as chapters in the one great story. The Sherlock side of me reveled in the esoteric knowledge of the inner workings of the mind. Paintboy appreciated the new vistas of imagination, and he loved the mandalas. And the Mystic smiled in recognition. He was an archetype after all.
Recently I came to Joseph Cambell. He hooked me early with his emphasis on the metaphorical nature of myth and religion. Again, this recognition of the impossibility of defining the limitless but accepting the human need for definition anyway. Campbell cracked the whole thing wide open, and gave me permission to embrace my patchwork of metaphors which spoke to me from within disparate and distinct systems. I glimpsed the Dao moving behind the infinity of Buddhas in the Tibetan mandalas as well as the saints in the stain glass of the Cathedrals. All of these opaque images became transparent to the light of the divine.
I set out to describe the side of me that the Mystic represents, but it seems I’ve described the evolution of influences that have shaped it instead. The spiritual side that can be rigorously described is not the true spiritual side, or something like that. When hard pressed in conversation, I will ultimately yield that I do believe in something. What that something is exactly is difficult to say. In part it is a problem of language. All of the words carry their complicated connotations but they also claim to denote the whole while they only act as a metaphor for a part of something that is ultimately a mystery. This can make my intellect and my emotions squirm, but the Mystic is at home with the mystery.
There is much more to discuss here, now that the hard work of broaching the subject has been done, but the Mystic counsels patience. He speaks quietly, his voice is easily drowned out by the competing influences and impulses that make up daily life, but he is always there. And when I hear him, it is wise to listen.