11. Practical/Spiritual Introduction

Donald Evans, philosopher at Victoria College at U. of Toronto, used to teach a class on mysticism where there were labs, or practicums. He has had mystical experience himself, and believes that it can be taught, or at least encouraged. There is no point in talking about it, he thinks, without some experience of it.

I do not intend to have labs. I am not going to advocate the having of mystical experience, nor am I going to give a "how-to" course. Just as one does not need to belong to a particular religion in order to study it, one does not need to have the mystical experience in order to study it.

But of course, what are we studying then? Texts, in part. But I am somewhat uneasy with this dichotomy between experience and reflection, partly because I know that many mystics claim that true knowledge is only available through experience, preferably life-changing experience. Is it really true that we can study something at a distance, objectively, dispassionately?
One of the haunting questions of our study this term will be the tension between the need to be involved with the knowledge which we study, and the need to hold it at arm's length. The experience is, after all, one which is potentially dangerous, as well as potentially enlightening. Just as I would not want to demand that students have a religious experience in a religion course, I cannot demand that students have a mystical experience in a mysticism course. Besides, how could you grade someone else's mystical experience?

There is another issue, though. Many mystics do not speak about particular experiences, but rather about the move toward understanding over time. Some of the mystics we will study never claim a visionary or point-in-time experience; rather, they have a progressive understanding. Eckhart is a good example. Maybe this course is that kind of progressive understanding, a kind of mystical path or seven-story mountain.

So, is this course practical, or not? You decide.