In the outskirts of every society, you will find the mystics. Some are holy men in monasteries; some are Buddhists seeking enlightenment; some are public figures; some are Christians serving Jesus; some are Freemasons, like myself. Mystics have an amazing amount in common despite all that. They are not satisfied with what they learn in books, with ceremonies passed on for the sake of tradition, or with faith that comes from an assertion that “You really ought to believe in this.” What they want, instead, is conviction— the kind of conviction that comes only from a direct spiritual experience. Many say they have found it.
How do mystic seers convey their experience in words, or in stories? Our ancestors’ answer was: with tons and tons of different images – with metaphors, that is. Metaphors, after all, are symbols used to creatively describe a deeper reality, to give a sense of the color and taste of it. There are many metaphors in the teachings of Freemasonry.
How significant, then, is the relationship between mysticism and metaphor?
There are hundreds, maybe thousands or millions of metaphors in existence about mystical things. Rumi, the great Sufi poet, once said that God created everything in the outer world to serve as a metaphor for the inner. The outside world contains objects that can awaken and remind us of truths that, when applied, can be of real benefit. For example, if you read mystic literature about the soul, you might find the soul as ladder, the soul as garden, the soul as mountain, the soul as ark, the soul as mansion or castle, the soul as shining, living stone or even precious jewel, and so on. There are equally as many metaphors about the path to enlightenment.
A metaphor is a comparison. A metaphor establishes a relationship at once; it leaves more to the imagination. It is a shortcut to the meaning; it sets two unlike things side by side and makes us see the likeness between them. A metaphor is a comparison that doesn’t use the words “like” or “as,” while a simile is one that does use those words.
Why do metaphors in the writings of the mystics even matter? As the great consciousness-researchers Julian Jaynes and Owen Barfield both explained in their writings, it is very difficult to discuss consciousness except through metaphor. Metaphors create new ways of thinking, new realities, and new worlds.
Do metaphors shape the way we think? Let us look at an example.
Juliet is the Sun
From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the metaphor, “Juliet is the sun.”
This statement equates two different things: one human, the other sidereal. Juliet is a human; the sun is a star. How do they get to be equal?
For the purpose of illustration, I will show how a metaphor is born, logically. We could say:
There is a human called Juliet.
There is a star called the Sun.
The human called Juliet is radiant.
The star called the Sun is radiant.
Therefore, the human called Juliet is like a star, called the Sun (because of the radiance).
Not very thrilling or poetic, is it? How can we make it more exciting? How is the metaphor created? First, we delete all the unnecessary words and steps, only leaving the simile “Juliet is like the Sun.” The final deletion comes about by eliminating the word, “like.” Voila! “Juliet is the Sun.”
As we can see, this metaphor comes alive through deletion and transformation. Keep taking away words until something “becomes” something else. Keep stripping away the Maya and the illusion until we arrive at the truth: the direct perception or the mystical experience.
In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to a man as it is, infinite.”
If you have ever had an “aha” moment, there is something wonderfully joyous about experiencing the mystical – to remember that we have spiritual faculties in us open to the dimensions beyond. Wonder. Awe. The metaphorical language of the mystics points us to the stars – bridging earth to heaven and to a world beyond itself.
But how do we react when we encounter something that exists outside of our realm of study? Does everything have to fit into what is already known, otherwise it doesn’t exist? The experience of the Transcendent seems to defy expression.
One of the greatest mystical saints of all times, St. Teresa of Avila, says that the intellect cannot go with her to the higher realms. It must stay behind. She writes in her book The Interior Castle: “One should let the intellect go and surrender oneself into the arms of love, for His Majesty will teach the soul what it must do at that point.”
I do believe the central role of metaphor in shaping consciousness can be impactful in someone’s life. I also believe the intellect is not always our ally.
Such was the case with Edgar Mitchell, astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission. On his return trip from the moon, he stared out of the window at our blue planet, Earth. At that moment something profound hit him. All of a sudden he was lifted out of his normal consciousness and felt an intense oneness with planet Earth and the universe. In a flash of higher consciousness a higher truth was revealed to him that dramatically changed his intellectual perspective. (Watch Edgar Mitchell’s “We Are One” video)
How lovely to live in possibility, to think in beautiful metaphors, to cherish the precious jewel in each sacred word, and to overflow with sweeping amazement. Your turn. What mystical metaphor would you want to leave behind as a jewel to humanity?
Note: Featured images are from the Art Exhibition, Beyond the Stars; The Mystical Landscapes from Monet to Kandinsky.