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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Dan Merkur

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.

      In Mystical Moments and Unitive Thinking (State University of New York Press) Merkur proposes 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 various.

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 creative inspirations.

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 fantasies.

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 miracles.

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 revelation.

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.

The difficulty of discerning natural attainments from revelations is unimportant for practical purposes. Whether natural or revelatory, religious experiences articulate ideals toward which one may aspire. It is not religious experiences, but the aspiration and endeavor to fulfill the ideals that they articulate, which is the substance of a religious life.

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