Reading Deikman – The Observing Self – sparked off some inconclusive ideas. He makes a contrast between religion and mysticism. The former is concerned with ritual and with propitiating the deity; the latter with bringing about the realisation that ‘I’ = God. He is much too simplistic when it comes to mysticism, seemingly aware only of the monistic variety. He does not appear to have read any Christian writers on the subject. There are, broadly speaking, two mystical traditions. One sees fulfilment in union with God – a union that is not a merging of identities, the other sees it in the realisation of identity. Within these two schools there are variations based on subtle distinctions. Given the impossibility of articulating mystical experience and the varieties of understanding and interpretation, I don’t think these differences are irreconcilable. However, Deikman raises an interesting question – is there a progression from religious experience to mystical experience? It is tempting to say yes on the grounds that the mystical experience is a foretaste of what happens after death. But, as Moran** points out, that assumes that there is a clearly determined end point. Perhaps there is, and perhaps, given the endless variety of individuals, there isn’t.

I think we have lost utterly the ideal of death giving meaning to life. This is very clear from Sogyal Rinpoche’s: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The myth of the ‘fountain of youth’ is just that, a wish fulfilment for eternal youth, eternal childhood even. It sees the meaning of life as narcissistic carefree play in a garden of pleasures. Death does give meaning to life, not because it is an end but because it is the end of the beginning. Deikman suggests that the answer to the problem of meaning does not lie within our ordinary perception. Reality as experienced by caterpillars, butterflies, sea anemones and kittywakes are all different and all limited. With a little imagination we can visualise something of reality as they perceive it. If we can appreciate this, why do we assume that our perception of reality is complete?

Deikman goes on to make two crucial points. 1. Our core sense of personal existence – the ‘I’ – is located in awareness, not in its content. I am not my thoughts, feelings or emotions. 2. We cannot observe the observing self; we must experience it directly. It has no defining qualities, no boundaries, no dimensions. One of the reasons why the preoccupation of the senses, with pleasure, with material things leads to alienation is because it dislocates the ‘I’ from its centre. It attaches it to an object or a self-construct. It reifies the soul.

I find his description of the observing self very interesting, especially coming from a scientist. It goes a long way towards describing the soul. For a long time I have been bothered by the concept ‘soul’. What does it mean to have a soul? Can one ‘have’ a soul? Where are you when your soul is in Heaven, Purgatory, or wherever? Is the soul your ‘self’? How can that be if it is directly created by God and infused into the body? So many questions with no satisfactory answers. On the one hand soul seemed redundant, another term for ‘self’. And yet it denoted the spiritual element in us which ‘self’ could do only partially. What he describes is a spiritual entity. Everything to do with a person is physical, or material, or energy which is derived from physical processes, except the observing self. Somehow, the OS emerges from the mental activity of the brain. This idea begs so many questions. How does it emerge? I can see there is something in the Dalai Lama’s contention that previous lives are the condition for the emergence of this one. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. Is what emerges a particular aspect of Being which takes on my distinctive characteristics? I suspect that this is nearer the truth than that each of us is absolutely unique. If we were unique how could there be empathy?

*(Deikman, Arthur J., The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy, Beacon Press, Boston, 1982)
**(Moran G., Alternative Developmental Images in Fowler, Nipkow and Schweitzer eds., Stages of Faith and Religious Development, SCM Press, London 1991)

Leave a Reply