Everyday mysticism

I am much taken with Rahner’s idea of everyday mysticism and also with Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowledge. The two merge. There is a tacit awareness. Of what… it is not possible to say. Sometimes it is a sense of presence, sometimes a connectedness, sometimes a feeling of bliss, or unaccountable joy, i.e. the feeling emerges from nowhere and has no apparent referent. This awareness is most obvious when the body is engaged in routine activity and the mind is unoccupied – walking, working in the garden, doing the washing up, etc. Once I engage in mental activity it disappears. During meditation, not only is it not there, it seems unattainable.

I am beginning to think that the mystical journey is not just progress in knowledge, or awareness. It is a whole person thing. A phrase by Polanyi struck me vividly the other day. He gives as an example of tacit knowledge a blind person using a stick to find his way around. At first all his attention is focused on the sensations in his hand as he probes with the stick. Eventually, however, his attention switches, first to the tip of the stick and then to the reality that the stick touches. He decodes, as it were, tacitly the sensations in his hand into three-dimensional objects out there. In this way the stick becomes something from which the attention proceeds, and not something which attracts attention. Polanyi calls this a process of incorporation. He writes: “…we incorporate it in our body – or extend our body to include it – so that we come to dwell in it”.

 At first the sensations in the hand are explicit and say nothing more than, ‘This is what my hand is sensing.’ Eventually this explicitness fades and becomes tacit as the mind learns to interpret, or decodes, what is felt as the environment the tip is probing. 

… if we now regard the integration of particulars as an interiorization, … [it] now becomes a means of making certain things function as the proximal terms of tacit knowing, so that instead of observing them in themselves, we may be aware of them in their bearing on the comprehensive entity of which they constitute. It brings home to us that it is not by looking at things, but by dwelling in them, that we understand their meaning.

This is analogous to religious experience. The feelings – joy, bliss, union, awe, love – are explicit at first, but they lack a context. Or rather, they do not fit the empirical context within which we live, our normal everyday reality. We have to learn to incorporate them so that we can extend from them into the reality to which they belong. This reality is transcendent, that is, it is not accessible to our senses, nor to any tools or instruments we might use to augment or senses. 

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