Considering the Mind-Body Problem Mystically

An exploration of questions proposed to mysticism as a potential source of solutions to the mind-body problem.

John Horgan

John Horgan is one of my favorite authors and journalists. He writes a lot about science, particularly in Scientific American, but he also has a keen interest in mysticism and spiritual philosophy, and trying to reconcile these two domains and others. He wrote a great book a while back called Rational Mysticism, interviewing many mystics and mystical philosophers and theologians, which I just finished reading for probably the third time. He is a sincere investigator, questioner, doubter, skeptic, ponderer, explorer, thinker, and I really appreciate that mindset.

Recently he had the opportunity to attend a week-long symposium at Esalen on the topic of the mind-body problem, and he wrote about his experience. The presenters were battling the metaphysics of materialism, describing how mysticism and associated mystical experiences may hold better answers to the mind-body problem. The meeting’s abstract contained this:

Do human beings, under particular and very special conditions, have access – empirical or experiential — to the metaphysical ground of reality? Such access seems to be reported in large parts of mystical literature in many cultures. Are the descriptive narratives of mystical sources simply mere social constructions, more fashionable nonsense solely based on metaphor, but nothing else?  Or is there something to these claims and reports that needs to be seriously considered to move us forward toward answering the deep unresolved questions of mind and matter and their place in nature?

Horgan thinks these are good questions, as do I. But Horgan has some questions about mysticism, and how it can play a role in answering these deepest questions. As a self-professed mystic, lover of science, and armchair philosopher, I’d like to share some of my thoughts in response to his questions, extending my recent thoughts on the mind-body problem.

To briefly review, the mind-body problem is the problem which has vexed philosophers, theologians, and scientists for ages, and it is basically this: how do physical processes (as in the brain and body) and mental experience relate and interact? Does one cause the other, and if so, how? If one does not cause the other, what is their relationship or correlation? This has tremendous implications for understanding of the nature of the world, and of ourselves in it.

I have suggested recently that the mind and brain/body may not actually be two different things, but only one thing manifesting in two different ways, a kind of dual-aspect monism, also called double-aspect theory. The brain has never been shown to produce, generate, create, or cause mental experiences. There is certainly a correlation between brain states and mental states, but I suggest the reason there is a correlation is because they are like two sides of the same one coin, inner and outer. They reflect each other and are co-dependent and co-arising. My ideas that follow are based on that metaphysic.

Mystical Diversity?

The first question that Horgan asks is about the diversity of mystical experiences and visions. Some visions are of oneness, love and bliss, but others are diabolical, horrific, and terrible. How do you construct a coherent metaphysic around mysticism when it spans such a profound range of phenomenology?

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Mystical experiences do run the gamet from heaven to hell, as Aldous Huxley rightly noted in his book-length philosophical essay by that title, Heaven and Hell. Many experiences include both ends of the spectrum, from deep thick darkness and emptiness, to profound light and ecstatic bliss, and everything in-between, as can be found in Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

What these experiences seem to be showing us is the breadth and depth of human experience itself, of human nature, the human condition, and the nature of consciousness. There is a duality to the human condition, and of much of nature as well, the polarities of existence. We have light and dark, hot and cold, male and female, and innumerable other opposites. I suggest that these are not accidental, but the necessary nature of reality itself, if it is to manifest. There must be contrast to experience, or there is none.

But I also suggest that these opposites are not ultimately two separate things, but one and the same thing, expressing itself on a range of possibilities, actualizing all potentialities. Where there is light, there must also be an absence of light, or there is neither. You can’t have one or the other. They are a unified pair. This is sometimes called the unity of opposites, or coincidentia oppositorum.

I think the mystical experience often demonstrates these opposites of Reality in vivid fashion. We don’t merely experience the highest state known to mankind, a One or Love beyond comprehension, but its direct opposite, complete absence, darkness, abandonment. The key is perhaps that we know both by their contrast. We know heaven by visiting hell, and vice versa. There is no knowing of anything without this kind of contrast, there is no experience without the apprehension of these dualities.

But why do we experience a heaven and a hell in mystical experience? Why the difference? What is the root cause of these different states? I think they may be fueled by the dual-nature of our human condition itself. As Jesus was said to have, we have a human and a divine nature, we belong to an infinite cosmos yet we are finite beings, we are both immortal and mortal, simultaneously. And this is where our logical minds begin to push back.

Our mind seems to be two-sided. We have an ego-self, a constructed perspective of ourselves in our psyche, developed over our lifetime of experiences, but we also have a deeper Self, which is perhaps synonymous with the cosmos itself. In mystical experiences, I think we experience hell when our typical sense of self begins to fall away from consciousness. We feel like we are dying, that our finite sense of self is being annihilated, and that brings with it all kinds of darkness and misery, especially if we try to hang on to that sense of ego-self.

But if we trust, let go, and allow ourselves to fall into that dark abyss, I think that is when the Light of God often appears. We come to realize something much deeper than the constructed ego-self. We realize we are manifestations of the cosmos itself, that our consciousness has a fundamental relationship to all being, all of nature, all things, that we are in fact one in God. We go beyond the subject-object split of mind (another duality), and realize a unity that underlies it, and gives rise to it. This is heaven, it is eternal life, it is immortality, it is the true Self.

The absence or death of our ego-self is the presence of the true Self, and so it is simultaneously a very dark night and horror for the ego, but it is salvation and heavenly bliss for the soul. This is perhaps why some mystics use the seemingly contradictory terms “dazzling dark,” or “bright night,” to describe it. It is both light and dark. It is both sides of the coin simultaneously, a unity of the dualities. It is a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, an awesome and yet also terrible mystery at the same time, depending on which viewpoint we choose to take, from the ego, or from the true Self, and we may experience both sides at once.


The next question Horgan asks is about the revival of a kind of geocentrism which makes humanity the center of the universe. If mind is fundamental, then our minds are somehow the reason why the universe exists, and reflects a narcissistic anthropomorphism that we transcended centuries ago when we realized that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

As I said, I take the view that mind and matter are more like two sides of a deeper “underlying ur-stuff” as Horgan puts it. That doesn’t make mind fundamental, but rather something else that is deeper still. What is that something? That is the ultimate question. Some call it consciousness (which I think is more fundamental than mind, and is not necessarily “mental”), others call it the One, or God, or a spiritual essence, or a quantum field. Whatever that fundamental “thing” is, it may give rise to all things, including mind and matter.

So that would not place us in the center of the universe, but rather say that we are a natural emergence from the fundamental ground of the universe. Our minds are not central to the cosmos, but an expression of the cosmos.

But some might say that this just kicks the can down the road. Our consciousness would still be synonymous with the ground of the universe, thus placing us in the center of reality. This is another area where I think there is a duality. I do think that if you dig deep enough into the human being, you will reach something fundamental, just as if you dig deep enough into anything you will reach its essence. The ground of humanity may be identical to the ground of the universe, but so is anything else. We all arise from that ground, as all trees sprout from the ground of the Earth.

We have in us that ground, that fundamental nature, that pure consciousness perhaps, but we are also finite beings, individuals, mortal creatures, specks of dust floating in the emptiness of space. We are both-and, not either-or. The universe doesn’t revolve around humanity, but the universe can be found in humanity. We are expressions of it, of its fundamental nature. We must be, or we wouldn’t be here. The universe made us as we are today.

I think it is also interesting to consider that in some ways, even in modern physics, we are the center of the universe, or at least of our relative “universes” of our perceptions. Time only has meaning in relativity to a conscious observer, and so forms a kind of time-bubble around each subjective being in reference to that being. There is no simultaneity of events to two different observers. Time is focused around each and every person or lifeform with a mind. This even can be seen in the expansion of the universe, in which we seem to be at the very center of that expansion, as Michael Stevens describes well in this video.

The relativity of our minds I think is telling us something about our finite nature, and mystical states of mind may tell us something about our deeper cosmic ground.

Exceptional Experiences?

Next Horgan asks whether the exceptional experiences of mystical states may make us overlook the ordinary moments of life. As Horgan puts it, “I want a worldview that helps me recognize that all my experiences are exceptional… spirituality… should help us cherish every humdrum moment of our lives.”

I agree that there can be a tendency in mysticism to exclusively seek after extraordinary states of consciousness, to cling to them, attach ourselves to those exceptional rarefied states, and regard the world as plain and dumb. I think that is a mistake, an error of the ego-mind. It is the ego itself that clings to such states, and insofar as mystics seek after them to the exclusion of the natural world as it is, they have not transcended their ego.

Yes, mystical experiences are tremendous, I’ve had several myself over the years, but I think the point of them is to show us just how radically amazing the world is as it is in every moment. They pull back the veil on our perceptions so that we see the world as it really is, beyond our limited thinking mind. Mystical experiences give us a glimpse of that radical reality that is present to us in every moment, if we can just let go of our thoughts, and be present with our experience as it is.

If we integrate our mystical experiences sufficiently well, we can grow to see that all of life, both the ups and downs, are necessary to life itself, and that there is no life without them. They too are the dualities of existence, without which there is no existence, no feeling, no perception, nothing. True mystics come to embrace life, all of life, both the ugly and the beautiful, the happiness and sorrow, the joy and the painful/suffering, because they can see that it all belongs, it is all a part of this thing we call life. Life is suffering, but life is also joy. Mystics can see both sides at once.

Oneness Problem?

Mystics report a sense of oneness with the cosmos, and that all sense of separation is a kind of illusion of consciousness. Horgan notes, “Although I sometimes regret my alienation from the world, I cherish it too. Consciousness, it seems to me, requires separation, or duality, and so does love, the supreme emotion.”

I suggest that this is yet another duality, and an ironic one—we are both One and many. There is a duality between duality and non-duality, which ironically is also transcended in a non-duality or unity. Another way I see this is that non-duality expresses itself in and through dualities, or seeming dualities, at least from our everyday state of consciousness. Even though they appear separate and distinct, the non-dual One yet remains undivided in itself.

I think an example can help illustrate this. A car is a single object, a unified thing, and yet it contains many parts. It is both one and many. It has a nonduality in its nature as a car, but it is also dualistic in its many parts. Its many parts do not negate the unified reality of the car as a whole.

This is also sometimes described in terms of holons. A holon is that which is both a whole and a part. Things are often made up of holons, which are wholes which may make up bigger wholes or holons and so become parts as well.

Reality itself is a unified whole, which is why we call it “reality” in the singular form, and yet it contains many parts. When mystics sense oneness, I think they are intuiting that unified whole of reality, of the cosmos, of this uni-verse (one song). Nature may be, in its deepest sense, a singularity, which may have something to do with gravitational singularities, perhaps even the singularity that may have given birth to our universe, and within which we may be living even now. That singularity expresses itself as us, so that we may be a way “for the cosmos to know itself,” as Carl Sagan once suggested.

Nearly all spiritual traditions have symbolism of a Fall or descent from this oneness, this One, this Singularity, which I equate with the emergence of self-awareness in our human psyche, something which seems especially deep in humans but not in other animals. When we become aware of ourselves, this finite body-mind, both at some point in human evolution and again recapitulated in our early childhood cognitive development, we separate our “self” from the world/reality. I suggest that the emergence of the “self” is our Fall, our alienation, our separation from the Divine.

But this is a kind of illusion of consciousness. It is only apparent from our dualistic subject-object state of mind. As Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Keating once said, “The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from God.” It is the nature of our minds and thoughts that makes us feel like we are something separate, apart, distant from the world, nature, the cosmos, reality, the Divine, and others, when the reality may be that we have never actually become separate from it.

As Horgan notes, this kind of separation is necessary, to a degree. Consciousness cannot become conscious of anything unless it seems to separate itself into a subject/object pair. The Oneness of the cosmos must seem to reduce itself to a finite localized subjective point of view in order to take an objective perspective on itself. The error it makes is in thinking that the subject is separate from the object, that the subject is an isolated island of identity. Consciousness forgets itself, its oneness, and Falls into the alienated state of being identified exclusively with a particular finite body-mind. Mystical states transcend this alienation to become aware once more of the unified Oneness of Reality, the true Self of consciousness, of nature, of the Singularity that we are in our fundamental nature.

Does love require separation? This is a bit paradoxical, in my view. It is not separation that allows love to be, but rather it is the transcendence of separation that is love. Love is not duality and separation, but union, oneness, togetherness, solidarity, connectedness, belonging, comm-unity, comm-union. Some might say that this requires there to be two who come together into one, but again, where is the love? Is it when they are two, or when they are one?

I like the way that non-dual spiritual teacher Rupert Spira recently put it:

Love is the dissolution of the ‘I’ that loves and the ‘other’ that is loved. It is the collapse of relatedness and the dawn of intimacy.

-Rupert Spira, Presence, Volume II: The Intimacy of All Experience


Just as no person that appears in a dream is separate from the dreamer’s mind, so our essential self knows no separation. This absence of the sense of separation is, from the perspective of the person, felt as Love. As such, Love is not a type of relationship that a person has, it is the ending of relationship. It is the dissolution of the one that would love, and the one that would be loved, and the subsequent revelation of our shared being. It is for this reason that Rumi said, ‘True lovers never really meet.’

-Rupert Spira,

I like that. Love is not a type of relationship, but the end of relationship. There are no longer two. It is the dissolution of two, and the realization of One. Or as Jesus put it, “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto Me.” This is Love.

Ineffability Problem?

Horgan rightly asks, how can you construct a coherent metaphysics when all mystical experiences are fundamentally ineffable?

He is right that mystical experiences seem to transcend all language, and even concepts altogether. They cannot be put into words as they really are. They are always translated or interpreted by the mystics’ mind, and that interpretation will always be colored or conditioned by their personal circumstances in the world. This is perhaps why all religions, if they have a similar mystical source, may end up being expressed so vastly different from one another.

Because of this I agree that there will be no definitive, final articulation of a mystical metaphysic. No interpretation will be conclusive, absolute, or certain. For that matter, no scientific theory can be final either, perhaps for the same reason (all observations taking place from a subjective relative point of view on reality). And yet, despite that fundamental limitation, I think we can approach some consensus in our metaphysics if we compare notes among contemplatives of different traditions, which is exactly what the Snowmass conferences did, which perhaps has not been taken as seriously as it should.

What good it is a metaphysic that isn’t definitive or conclusive? It is a pointer. A pointer for what? For us to move in a certain direction, a guide to behave in a particular way, a helper to point us to transcendence ourselves, so that we may know directly in ourselves the Divine, the Absolute, the God. I submit that it is only in mystical experience itself that the Absolute can be known, and in no other way can it be known, or it is not absolute.

Improbability Problem

We seem more mysterious than ever, and mystical experiences can only exacerbate that mysteriousness, leading to a kind of infinite doubt, question mark, and that our existence is infinitely improbable.

It is true that in the mystical experience one sometimes comes to the direct intuition of a Great Mystery, something which can never be fully explained. But I suggest that this is because the rational mind is still trying to interpret it, to find the answer, to propose a solution, to articulate in definite terms all of reality to our perfect logical understanding. But as discussed earlier, this is impossible. The rational mind can never come to finality, absolute certainty. The Absolute is not something intellectually known (which would make it not absolute, but relative to a knower), but rather something experientially intuited, grasped as something fundamental in our very nature, not as a concept, idea, thought, theory, or philosophy, an “object” in mind. Those are all attempts to point to that which is beyond them all, which is only known through direct gnosis, or immediate intuition.

Even through mystical experiences, reality will never be fully explainable, because anything that can be explained will necessarily be conceptual, dualistic, a partial understanding in the intellect, a part of the whole trying to understand the other parts. But the whole can only understand itself as the whole, not as some other thing in the whole, a being among other beings. It is all of being itself. A map can never be the territory. Only reality itself is reality. If we want to know reality fully, then that can only happen in mystical experiences when we intuit ourselves at-one with reality itself, as reality itself, not an external spectator, but reality knowing reality, the knower knowing the knower. Then we’ll know the territory, without trying to articulate it into a map, which will always be reductionistic, simplistic, incomplete, fallible, symbolic, and not the territory.

Beauty Problem?

A counterpart to the problem of evil is the problem of beauty. Why is nature beautiful? How can mysticism help explain evil, beauty, and life?

I’ve discussed the problem of evil before, but perhaps not “natural evil,” things like natural disasters, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, those things which seem to destroy indiscriminately in nature. These things often cause people to not believe there is anything like a benevolent God. For if there was, the line of thought is, God would prevent these things from happening.

The way I approach this is through the same ideas discussed above about dualities, polarities, opposites. Existence cannot exist without all kinds of polarities present in it, and that includes both sunny blue sky days, and terrible hurricanes. God could not prevent these things from happening any more than God could prevent a sunny blue sky day. They are allowed to happen so that existence may be, and that existence is itself God. God does not stand apart from it watching it happen. God is not absent from the hurricane or the flood. It is the necessary manifestation of Reality.

This may not sound comforting. How can God be good if God allows such things? I suggest that God allows it because otherwise there would be nothing, no existence, no reality, no manifestation, none. The cost of manifestation is suffering, is duality, is darkness and pain, but those things also simultaneously make it possible for things like joy, happiness, bliss, love, peace. You cannot have only one side of a coin for a coin to exist in reality. No coin exists with only one side.

On the flip side, I think beauty is a realization in our consciousness of the holistic nature of reality, of its oneness, of its intrinsic harmony, of its grace, of its symmetry, of its unity, of its own unfolding creativity and evolving complexity. It is a revelation to consciousness of the nature of consciousness itself.

What is life? It is God. It is consciousness. It is the cosmos coming to know itself. It is the cosmos reflecting itself into itself. It is the One becoming many and realizing it is One. It is Love seeming to separate itself in dualities only to find itself again in Love, in unity, in Oneness. It is the natural unfolding of Divine Reality, to ever greater manifestations and consciousness of itself.


So, no, mysticism can’t solve the mind-body problem, at least not in an outward, conceptual, linguistic, dualistic way. Duality is itself the problem. Mind and body are perhaps not two things, as we commonly see in our everyday subject-object state of consciousness, but rather are one and the same thing, arising from something deeper, a One. And that One can only be known through direct mystical intuition of it, in it, as it. Apart from this, there can be no knowing of a solution in any final, definite, or certain sense. The answer to duality cannot be known in duality, because we only run into more dualities, uncertainties, partialities, but only in the direct intuition of nonduality, unity, oneness. That is where the answer is revealed, and necessarily nowhere else.

I agree that no theory or theology will ever be able to fully explain our existence. The One will never know itself fully in any dualistic conceptual sense. It can only know itself as the One, and then it is full, then it is complete, then it is whole or holy, a holon, the ultimate Holon, the One that contains many. That is what I suggest that mysticism provides, tools, methods, practices, texts, symbols, means, pointers, guidance, to get our ego-minds to the edge of that dark abyss, and then trusting enough to let go of that “separate self,” and falling into the recognition of what we really all are in our deepest essence—the One.

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