Nihilism in the Light of Mystical Experience

Nihilism is a philosophy that says that life is meaningless. It says there is no objective meaning, intrinsic value, or purpose in life. What does mysticism and the mystical experience say about that?

Nihilism is an interesting philosophy, which I don’t automatically reject. Why? Because when we really examine it, when we really pick it apart and consider its arguments, it actually makes a lot of sense. It is full of meaning.


Life should be meaningless, according to everything we know about it. We are born, we live, and we die. How stupid is that?! But in making that argument, in filing those arguments and defending them, it subverts itself. It makes meaning out of meaninglessness. It turns meaninglessness into meaning by merely philosophizing about it. Isn’t that cool?

But what it also means is that it cannot ultimately be true. If it were, the meaning behind nihilism would be as meaningless as the rest of the reality that it claims is meaningless. But it’s not. Nihilism makes meaninglessness out of meaning! How ironic is that?

So how should we make sense of this? Is nihilism valid or not? I think it has validity for the ego. The ego is ultimately meaningless. It is a phantom, a shadow, vapor, and it will disappear, as Merton said, “as completely as smoke from a chimney.” It is an illusion, a mirage, a ghost, a psychological construction, a false self, a mortal identity, and it will “surely die.”

But nihilism is not valid for the soul, for the true Self, for who we really behind the veil of ego. The true Self in Love is the full and total meaning of existence itself. It is Love itself, and so overwhelmingly full of meaning that it overflows into the world of incarnation and creation.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

-Psalm 23

Those aren’t the words of a nihilist! They are of One who has realized their true nature, the divine Self. It is meaning its Self. If there is any meaning in the world at all, it derives from the Source of all meaning, which is this God-Self, this Anointed One. That is the fountain of living waters, the entire meaning of Life, and of eternal Life.

Mysticism isn’t merely a cost-effective way of making a complicated brain happy, as some nihilist philosophers might say. It seems that is something a non-mystic would say. Is that who we should believe is an authority on mysticism? Does a non-mystic know mysticism? No. They don’t. Not really. They may read all the things that everyone has ever said about mysticism, and yet they will not know the mystical experience. That can only be known in truth in the experience of it. Only there. All else is translation/interpretation.

Anyone who has any degree of experience with contemplative practices such as meditation knows that it is not merely a method for “keeping the brain occupied.” In fact, it is just the opposite. The goal of meditation is not to fill the brain with activity, but to let go of all activity, so that the mind becomes empty of thought, sensations, perceptions, feelings, all phenomena whatsoever. Only when that veil of phenomena is gone will the noumena appear, the Self will stand unveiled.

You may have noticed that trying to think about nothing is impossible. You cannot try to do this. You will fail. Because trying to do anything will be the activity of thought. If we sit and try to clear our mind, we tell our thoughts to get out, go away, stop that, not you, get out, no, let me go, no, I want to think of nothing, get away from me, and this goes on forever. Is that thinking about nothing? Hardly.

And so what do we do? We concentrate on a meditation object, whether it be a rosary, or mala, or mantra, or sacred word, or candle flame, or seer stone, or our own breath, in order to give the mind somewhere to rest, to return to. Whenever we find the mind wandering, we acknowledge that, we do not judge ourselves, we have awakened!, that’s a good thing!, we have become aware of mind wandering!, and then we return our attention to the meditation object. Rinse and repeat.

Gradually, through much practice, the mind naturally lets go, activity in the mind naturally becomes less, slows down, becomes silent, until eventually the mind is empty, void, nothing. And then, and only then, do we come to know the Knower.

How do we tell the difference between mysticism and simple mental stimulation? If we find that we are becoming more aware of our thoughts when they appear in consciousness, and return our attention to the meditation object more easily, faster, and eventually, less frequently, we know we are making progress. If we can stay present, conscious, and aware of the meditation object for longer periods of time without mind wandering, we are making progress.

That’s how we know we’re onto something, and we will notice along the way that we are becoming more aware, conscious, mindful. Synchronicities will happen, and we will notice reality much more fully, completely, without mental clatter or chatter. We will simply become more open and aware of the reality that we experience. And either gradually, but often suddenly, the mind will fall away, and Consciousness its Self will be laid bare naked in the full glory of its ineffable Truth, Love, Beauty, the “Christ.”

That is the mystical experience, overflowing with all the meaning of Life itself.

It is Life its Self.

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2 thoughts on “Nihilism in the Light of Mystical Experience

  1. The English language has too many “meanings.” To have meaning is positive. To be mean is negative.

    Too many English words have multiple definitions and applications. My favorite example is “head” which has more than 40 meanings and uses.

    I am glad that English is my native language. It must be difficult as a second language, but is required in most schools in the world.

    1. Yes, English is hard, and has many different meanings, and they continually evolve. That is one of the reasons why the word is not the thing. It is a symbolic system, references, pointers, not the thing in itself.

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