Dan Merkur’s studies of religious experience offer the best summary statements of mystical experience currently available in the literature. He manages to distil the major and most useful lines of argument from the mountain of fact and maze of theory that clutters the scientific consideration of religious experience. I have for many years felt the few works have ever come close to William James’s masterpiece while at the same time quite aware that tremendous cultural diversity and religious evidence has been accumulated during the last century that was lacking clear central articulations of theory. Merkur’s works manage in a reasonably concise way to present the central arguments for the best social scientific approach to religious experience and comparative religion.
Mystical Moments and Unitive Thinking (State University of New York
an alternative to the traditional psychoanalytic explanation of mystical
experiences as regression to the solipsism of earliest infancy. He does this by
viewing unitive thinking as a line of cognitive development, and mystical
moments as creative inspirations on unitive topics. Utilizing classical
self‑reports by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim mystics, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras,
and modem Western peak experiences, Merkur argues that experiences of mystical
union are manifestations of a broader category of psychological processes that
manifest in scientific and moral thought, as well as in mysticism. Unconscious
as well as conscious, unitive thinking is sometimes realistic and sometimes
fantastic, in patterns that are consistent with cognitive development in
general. Mystical moments of unitive thinking may be considered moments of
creative inspiration that happen to make use of unitive ideas. Building on the
psychoanalytic object‑relations theory that the self is always in relationship
with an object, Merkur argues that the solipsism of some varieties of mystical
union always implies unconscious ideas of a love object who is transcendent.
Dan Merkur, Ph.D., is Research Reader in the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a member of the Adjunct Faculty at the Psychocultural Institute, Toronto. He is the author of several other books, including two published by SUNY Press, Gnosis: An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Visions and Unions, Unconscious Wisdom: A Superego Function in Dreams, Conscience, and Inspiration and The Ecstatic Imagination: Psychedelic Experiences and the Psychoanalysis of Self‑Actualization.
Merkur reviews the phenomenology of mystical union or, more
precisely, unitive experiences. In the process, he argues with the present
consensus against the older view that all mystical experiences are one and the
same; but he also argues against the current claim that they are infinitely
Unitive experiences, so it seems to me, form a distinct subset of mystical experiences. With Patanjali, Suso, Buber, and modern depth psychologists, Merkur also holds that a theoretical explanation of unitive experiences obliges us to move beyond phenomenological methods and to postulate the unconscious.
Discussions of mystical union within the comparative study
of religion conventionally define the topic along ecumenical lines. When the
topic is instead approached, so far as possible, on scientific principles,
unitive experiences prove to be a limited part of the more general psychological
phenomenon of unitive thinking.
Unitive experiences of the solitary self may be associated
with the core of the sense of self that Winnicott termed an incommunicado
element. The distinctive contents of unitive experiences of incorporation and
identification are well‑known to psychoanalysis as the products of so‑called
defense mechanisms that ordinarily generate unconscious fantasies.
Unitive experiences of incorporation and identification may
be treated as assimilations, in a Piagetian sense, of cognitive ideas to
subjective fantasies. Incorporation can be seen as an addition of perceptible
reality to the content of the solitary self. The self expands to incorporate
perceptible reality. Identification can be seen in parallel as an equation of
the self with another person. Corresponding to these two assimilations are two
unitive experiences that accommodate their ideas to the perceptible world in a
more realistic way. Unitive experiences of inclusion and relation contain ideas
that are normal parts of everyday thinking.
Because the individual varieties of unitive thinking
manifest both as unitive experiences and in other contexts, they may each be
conceptualized as schemas, of mixed cognitive and affective content. Unitive
experiences consist of unitive thinking that manifests with the intensity of
Single unitive schemas may apparently undergo different
accommodations. The fantasy of incorporation generates the idea of a
macroanthropos by incorporating the perceptible world within the self. When the
subjective element of the fantasy is deleted, the result is a fantasy of a
macroanthropos that exists in its own right, independently of the subject. As it
is accommodated to the perceptible world, the unconscious fantasy of a
macroanthropos underlies scientific thinking about causality, objectivity, and
the universality of natural law. Moral thinking is predicated on a slightly
different version of the macroanthropos fantasy, which conceives of the
macroanthropos as a personal rather than an impersonal being.
In addition to these three orders of unitive thinking‑personal, scientific, and moral‑each with its own subtypes, unitive experiences and unitive thinking are also extended to topics of escalating abstraction, including such metaphysical powers as vitality, energy, love, and omnipresent power.
Speculating on the basis of the data of unitive experiences
in schizophrenia, Freud suggested that newborns are initially solipsistic and
only gradually learn to recognize the externality of the perceptible world. He
later used his theory of "primary narcissism" to explain unitive experiences as
regressions to a neonatal "ego feeling." The circularity of his argument escaped
attention until advances in direct infant observation established that object
relations are inborn. Clinical phenomena that were previously interpreted by
reference to the theory of neonatal solipsism have since been reinterpreted in
terms of unconscious fantasies of mother-infant fusion or merger. These
fantasies occur ex hypothesi during the first two years of life.
The replacement of Freud's theory of infants' general
perception of reality with Jacobson's theory of infants' occasional fantasies
about their mothers makes nonsense of the theory that unitive experiences are
regressions. Unitive experiences are incommensurate with their ostensible
sources in infancy. The transformation of concrete fantasies of being one with
the maternal breast, for example, into a sense of oneness with all-being,
presupposes a sophisticated process of generalization, metaphorization,
abstraction, and so forth. Unitive experiences may instead be seen as creative
inspirations that depend, at minimum, on the sublimation of unconscious merger
The earliest possible date for the origin of unitive
thinking is likely the rapprochement phase, in the middle third of the second
year of life, when the idea of the self originates and empathy, guilt, and
reparation first make their appearance. Clinical observation of the
nondifferentiation of self and loved objects in the deepest levels of the ego
ideal suggest that unitive schemas are constituent functions of the oral
superego. A detailed account of the development of unitive schemas is not
presently possible. The question is an empirical one and awaits solution through
direct infant observation. It seems clear, however, that the schemas do not
develop each out of the last in a unilinear fashion. Rather, the data exhibit a
complicated multilinear relation that is possibly analogous to the organization
of directories and subdirectories in a computer.
Working with a directory tree model also helps explain the differences between mysticism of the One and the postunitive mystical orientation of theosophy. It may also explain why the "dark night of the soul" is not a problem for the latter.
Merkur argument that infant‑mother fusion fantasies undergo sublimation into unitive thinking entails the corollary that a nonsexual reality is being assigned a psychosexual value through the process of sublimation. This nonsexual reality Merkur argues to be the concept of the transcendent. Called "Something More" by Otto and "Beyond" by van der Leeuw, the transcendent is a speculative idea, but its attainment is an unconscious universal of human psychology. The unconscious psyche extrapolates from its knowledge of infant‑mother relations in order to understand the relation of all‑being and the transcendent. Just as the idea of self is developed into the unitive schema of the solitary self, the idea of the mother is developed into the idea of the transcendent. Theistic thinking is consequently to be regarded as a developmental acquisition arising from unitive thinking.
Experiences of mystical nothingness arise when the idea of
the transcendent is taken up as the manifest content of infant-mother fusion
fantasies. Union with the transcendent is experienced as the perspective of the
transcendent. The same schema is operative in conjunction with sense perception
of the environment, in experiences of self-transcendence.
Also related to the idea of the transcendent is another variety of mystical experience, the phenomenon of ecstatic death. When the schema of the solitary self is reality-tested and falsified, several different accommodations to reality are possible. The schema of incorporation is a compromise with reality that remains fantastic. Other accommodations are more successful. Although the idea of the transcendent is a speculative postulate, there is nothing illogical or falsifiable about it. Another accommodation of the solitary self proceeds by falsifying its element of timeless infinity, rather than its element of self-identity. The result is an idea of mortal finitude, which arouses the panic of an ecstatic death.
When the sense of presence is experienced as a fascinans,
its manifestly illogical or paradoxical contents are experienced as metaphors.
The metaphors imply "Something More", a rational, albeit speculative postulate.
When the sense of presence is instead experienced as a
mysterium tremendum, its manifestly illogical or paradoxical contents are
both increased in number and seemingly nonmetaphoric. The experiences are
preternatural; they contravene nature. Their psychoanalysis indicates, however,
that the illogical or paradoxical features are symbols that have been reified.
Because their symbolic nature and meaning is unconscious, they are manifestly
irrational. However, their latent meanings are consistent with fascinans
experiences, rational, albeit speculative in character.
The metaphoric character of fascinans experiences is
inconsistent with Freud's theory of regressive symbol-formation, but coherent in
terms of Silberer's theory of symbols that express abstract ideas for which no
corresponding linguistic abstractions have yet been attained. Silberer's theory
has not attained the celebrity that it deserves but is necessary to
psychoanalytic discussions of religious imagery. Regressive symbols are
irrational; but regressive symbols are reifications of religious metaphors that
may themselves be entirely rational.
This argument brings to a close Merkur’s effort to show that mystical moments sublimate infant-mother fusion fantasies, as metaphors for the expression of speculations. Whether the speculations are scientific, moral, or metaphysical in content, they are efforts to press fantasies into the service of understanding reality. In keeping with expectable vicissitudes in cognitive development, individual speculations vary from absurd errors to tenable possibilities. Cognitive development is not unilinear, but proceeds by trial and error in many directions.
Reverting to the concern with superego theory Merkur suggests that unitive experiences manifest ego ideals. When the ideals are welcomed, the mystical moments are euphoric. When the ideals are instead resisted, the mystical moments take form as desolation experiences. Recognizing the discrepancy between its unitive ideals and the standards that the ego maintains and rationalizes, the ego's reality-testing function generates anxiety in the form of a depressive affect. Both the euphoria and desolation are reactions by the ego to its ego ideals.
Mystical moments typically consist of positive superego
materials. When mystical moments function as religious conversions, they
invariably integrate at least some positive superego materials within the
conscious sense of self. The materials may manifest directly. When they must
instead compromise with the ego's resistance, they manifest only as they are
displaced into symbolic substitutes. Part of the materials then fails to
manifest, and full integration is impossible.
There is no evidence, however, that the integration of repressed fixations is achieved through spiritual development. The self may be integrated with its ideals but, as the case of Satomi Myodo demonstrates, both may proceed in denial of the instincts, rather than in their accommodation. Psychotherapy, in the traditional psychoanalytic sense of the ego's reconciliation to repressed instincts, aims at a different type of transformative integration and may be appropriate as an independent adjunct to spiritual development.
The interpretation of coincidental events as miracles, acts
of providence, acts of magic, and so forth, is a normative religious practice
cross-culturally. Gods and spirits may be regarded, in part, as theoretical
explanations of the occurrence of miracles. Prayers everywhere seek the
occurrence of miracles. Magic attempts to produce miracles on demand. Religious
moralities, observances, taboos, and rites hope to manage favorable and unwanted
Interpretations of coincidental events as miracles differ
from culture to culture, as the examples of Inuit hunter religion, popular
American Christianity, and early Hasidism show. In all cases, however, miracles
project judgments of conscience externally onto coincidental events. The
superego's interpretation of a coincidence as a judgment on the self causes the
event to be experienced as a miracle.
Because speculations regarding the meanings of coincidences
cannot be falsified, interpretations of coincidences as miracles are consistent
with reality‑testing and are logically tenable.
A theory of random symbol formation is an important
commonsense observation that is too often overlooked in the more sectarian and
polemical literature about mysticism. With the understanding that the existence
of randomness is a heuristic fiction and that the apparent meanings of
coincidences are intelligible realities that are causally created by God, it
becomes possible to develop a model of the psychology of revelation. Because
good theory is built from the bottom up, and not from the top down, Merkur
reverts to methodological agnosticism to continue his case.
What Merkur postulates in discussing coincidentally
meaningful imaginations is that a distinctive function of unconscious thought is
constituted in such a fashion that it serves as a vehicle or medium of random
imagination. Like a deck of cards in parapsychology laboratories, the
unconscious mental function permits the occurrence of a high number of random
neurochemical events. Occurring at molecular levels within the brain/mind, the
random processes produce fantasies or imaginations that, through coincidence,
happen to correspond to external reality.
The circumstances necessary for random imaginative activity
must be expected of the mental process that is responsible for unconscious
symbol‑formation, in which any mental element can be used to symbolize any other
mental element. The arbitrary relation of signifiers to the signified proves
that symbol formation is at least sometimes a randomly acting process. Semiotic
thought could not exist unless elements of randomness were built into the
physicochemistry of the nervous system. We know that symbol‑formation may be
driven by instinctual desire, or by a rational need to solve a problem. When the
same mental processes are more or less idle, their more or less random
combinations may be expected to make possible the high number of coincidences
necessary to produce complex imaginations that correspond to events at a
distance or in the future. Such a theory of the brain's random activity would be
consistent with the well‑known fact that clairvoyance and foreknowledge occur
most frequently during hypnagogic states, as the mind shifts from waking to
sleeping and is momentarily engaged in neither.
If we postulate that a naturally occurring human thought
process is so constituted as to readily produce randomly meaningful
imaginations, we can conceptualize the induction of ostensibly paranormal or
revelatory experience. Meditation, visualization, prayer, psychoactive drug use,
sensory deprivation, and so forth, all cause the natural activity of the
imaginative process to shift its momentary organization in a direction that
increases the likelihood of random activity. In other words, sobriety may be
compared with sorting a deck of cards, but spiritual induction techniques with
shuffling. No shuffle, no randomness, no coincidental imaginations of meaning‑no
Merkur’s theory of revelation implies that revelation is
accomplished through the random, coincidental reassembly or reorganization of
existing mental contents into new and meaningful patterns. The mental
contents—the ideas and affects, the percepts and memories, mental images,
fantasies, somatizations, instincts, and so forth—are all natural. Revelation is
accomplished, when it is accomplished, through their random combination in novel
and meaningful ways. Unitive thinking is no exception to this general rule. The
unconscious elaboration and disclosure to consciousness of unitive thinking may
occur naturally, but when it occurs at random, it may instead be revelatory.
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