Practical Mysticism: Evelyn Underhill’s Stunning Century-Old Manifesto for Secular Transcendence and Seeing the Heart of Reality
“Because mystery is horrible to us, we have agreed for the most part to live in a world of labels; to make of them the current coin of experience, and ignore their merely symbolic character, the infinite gradation of values which they misrepresent.”
By Maria Popova
The great paradox of consciousness is that it constitutes both our entire experience of reality and our blindfold to reality as it really is. Forever trapped within it, we mistake our concepts of things for the things themselves, our theories for the universe, continually seeing the world not as it is but as we are. The supreme frontier of human freedom may be the ability to accept that something exists beyond understanding, that understanding is a machination of the mind and not a mirror of the world — that the world simply is, and our consciousness is a participant in its being but not a creator of it.
The English poet, novelist, mystic, and peace activist Evelyn Underhill (December 6, 1875–June 15, 1941) explores how to do that in her 1914 book Practical Mysticism (public library | public domain) — a field guide to mystical experience that is secular rather than religious, the product of “ordinary contemplation” springing from the very essence of human nature, available to all.
Acknowledging what modern cognitive scientists well know — that our attention is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator” — Underhill observes that “only a few amongst the wealth of impressions we receive are seized and incorporated into our picture of the world,” and reflects on the spiritual significance of this tendency to mistake representation for reality:
The distinction between mystic and non-mystic is not merely that between the rationalist and the dreamer, between intellect and intuition. The question which divides them is really this: What, out of the mass of material offered to it, shall consciousness seize upon — with what aspects of the universe shall it “unite”?
It is notorious that the operations of the average human consciousness unite the self, not with things as they really are, but with images, notions, and aspects of things. The verb “to be,” which [the self] uses so lightly, does not truly apply to any of the objects amongst which the practical man supposes himself to dwell. For him, the hare of Reality is always ready-jugged [jugged hare is a traditional English dish of hare marinated in wine and juniper berries, cooked in the animal’s blood]: he conceives not the living, lovely, wild, swift-moving creature which has been sacrificed in order that he may be fed on the deplorable dish which he calls “things as they really are.” So complete, indeed, is the separation of his consciousness from the facts of being, that he feels no sense of loss. He is happy enough “understanding,” garnishing, assimilating the carcass from which the principle of life and growth has been ejected, and whereof only the most digestible portions have been retained.
This, Underhill observes, is the opposite of the mystical orientation, which opens us up to a kind of knowledge beyond understanding — the kind that Elizabeth Bishop invoked in her astonishing poem “At the Fishhouses,” consonant with the notion of adaequatio and kindred to Maurice Bucke’s notion of cosmic consciousness.
Five years earlier, Underhill had voiced these existential reckonings through the heroine of her novel The Column of Dust:
She had seen, abruptly, the insecurity of those defences which protect our illusions and ward off the horrors of truth. She had found a little hole in the wall of appearances; and peeping through, had caught a glimpse of that seething pot of spiritual forces whence, now and then, a bubble rises to the surface of things.
That bubble, she intimates in Practical Mysticism, is what mysticism as “the art of union with Reality” surfaces in us. She writes:
Because mystery is horrible to us, we have agreed for the most part to live in a world of labels; to make of them the current coin of experience, and ignore their merely symbolic character, the infinite gradation of values which they misrepresent. We simply do not attempt to unite with Reality. But now and then that symbolic character is suddenly brought home to us. Some great emotion, some devastating visitation of beauty, love, or pain, lifts us to another level of consciousness; and we are aware for a moment of the difference between the neat collection of discrete objects and experiences which we call the world, and the height, the depth, the breadth of that living, growing, changing Fact, of which thought, life, and energy are parts… Then we realise that our whole life is enmeshed in great and living forces; terrible because unknown… The more sacred plane of life and energy which seems to be manifested in the forces we call “spiritual” and “emotional” — in love, anguish, ecstasy, adoration — is hidden from us too. Symptoms, appearances, are all that our intellects can discern: sudden irresistible inroads from it, all that our hearts can apprehend. The material for an intenser life, a wider, sharper consciousness, a more profound understanding of our own existence, lies at our gates. But we are separated from it, we cannot assimilate it; except in abnormal moments, we hardly know that it is.
Those who bridge the separation, Underhill argues, are the mystics. Pointing to Walt Whitman as one such secular mystic — a person who “has achieved a passionate communion with deeper levels of life than those with which we usually deal” — she invites a layered understanding of what this notion of practical mysticism means:
The visionary is a mystic when his vision mediates to him an actuality beyond the reach of the senses. The philosopher is a mystic when he passes beyond thought to the pure apprehension of truth. The active man is a mystic when he knows his actions to be a part of a greater activity. Blake, Plotinus, Joan of Arc, and John of the Cross — there is a link which binds all these together: but if he is to make use of it, the inquirer must find that link for himself.
This practical mysticism, she argues as she contrasts it with an “indolent and useless mysticality,” is available to the ordinary person as an invitation “to a training of his latent faculties, a bracing and brightening of his languid consciousness, an emancipation from the fetters of appearance, a turning of his attention to new levels of the world.” She offers a sentiment of winged assurance:
As the beautiful does not exist for the artist and poet alone — though these can find in it more poignant depths of meaning than other men — so the world of Reality exists for all; and all may participate in it, unite with it, according to their measure and to the strength and purity of their desire.
Underhill considers the ultimate reward of practical mysticism:
Mysticism [is] the art of union with Reality [and], above all else, a Science of Love. Hence, the condition to which it looks forward and towards which the soul of the contemplative has been stretching out, is a condition of being, not of seeing. As the bodily senses have been produced under pressure of man’s physical environment, and their true aim is not the enhancement of his pleasure or his knowledge, but a perfecting of his adjustment to those aspects of the natural world which concern him — so the use and meaning of the spiritual senses are strictly practical too. These, when developed by a suitable training, reveal to man a certain measure of Reality: not in order that he may gaze upon it, but in order that he may react to it, learn to live in, with, and for it; growing and stretching into more perfect harmony with the Eternal Order, until at last, like the blessed ones of Dante’s vision, the clearness of his flame responds to the unspeakable radiance of the Enkindling Light.
Indeed, she places the ability — the willingness — to “look with the eyes of love” at heart of this practice of seeing reality clearly — a practice containing “the whole art of spiritual communion.” In a passage consonant with Dostoyevsky’s insistence that “nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason,”, and evocative of Hilton Als’s notion of love as the art of receptivity, Underhill writes:
The attitude which it involves is an attitude of complete humility and of receptiveness; without criticism, without clever analysis of the thing seen. When you look thus, you surrender your I-hood; see things at last as the artist does, for their sake, not for your own. The fundamental unity that is in you reaches out to the unity that is in them: and you achieve the “Simple Vision” of the poet and the mystic — that synthetic and undistorted apprehension of things which is the antithesis of the single vision of practical men. The doors of perception are cleansed, and everything appears as it is. The disfiguring results of hate, rivalry, prejudice, vanish away. Into that silent place to which recollection has brought you, new music, new colour, new light, are poured from the outward world. The conscious love which achieves this vision may, indeed must, fluctuate… But the will which that love has enkindled can hold attention in the right direction. It can refuse to relapse to unreal and egotistic correspondences; and continue, even in darkness, and in the suffering which such darkness brings to the awakened spirit, its appointed task, cutting a way into new levels of Reality.
Complement these fragments of Underhill’s wholly revelatory Practical Mysticism with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on transcendence for the science-spirited, then revisit Emerson on nature, transcendence, and how we become our most authentic selves.
Published April 28, 2023