What is the place of symbols in spirituality? Myth and symbol have an important role in nourishing the human spirit. I’m very comfortable myself with “sacramentalism” – with using items in the physical world as symbols of and vehicles of divine power, grace and knowledge. This might be a good time to bring up the different “states” of consciousness that can impact spirituality.
Studying the record of mystical experiences over time and across cultures, we find that there are basically four different “states” of mystical experience that are available to all people. These manifest as “peak experiences” of four general kinds. However, in spite of the similarity of these states as they are experienced by different people – the states will be INTERPRETED according to the level that person is at, spiritually. Here’s what the four states look like:
Nature mysticism. This state is experienced as a profound sense of the unity, aliveness and wonder of the natural world and our connection to it. The whole world seems alive with beauty and meaning. We also feel a unity with all other human beings. People can often be pulled into this sort of state while gazing at the night sky, for example, or climbing a mountain. It is a spiritual state often associated with such paths as new-age paganism or Native American spirituality but is also seen in the writer of the psalms and St Francis of Assisi.
- “Subtle” mysticism (or “deity” mysticism) This state corresponds in some ways to the dream state. People experience visions and apparitions. Angels, spiritual guides, gods and other non-material beings are seen, and reality becomes fluid and dream-like. The person becomes aware of a “higher” spiritual order behind the world of form and substance. This spiritual state has examples in many spiritual paths – from Ezekiel to Carlos Castaneda to Paul on the road to Damascus.
- “Causal” mysticism (or “formless” mysticism). In this state, external objects and even spiritual objects fade and one is immersed in an infinite abyss of light, love and formless, timeless emptiness. This is also paradoxically a fullness – or an abyss so deep that all fullness is within it. You are one with this fullness and light, and experience it as your true self. There are many examples of descriptions of such states from the Gnostics, the Sufi, the Cabbalists, the Buddhists, the Christians mystics such as Eckhart, etc.
- Non-dual mysticism. This state unifies the others. One sees the manifest world of things and forms as an expression of the formless emptiness – and one sees in the formless emptiness the potential for all the manifest forms, physical and spiritual. You are the vast emptiness in which all manifest forms arise and fade, and you are the forms themselves.
One’s “God view” can change considerably in each of these states. A form or symbol of God that is highly meaningful in the subtle state can become trivial or even an impediment in the causal state. In the non-dual state, God is seen in all the symbols as well as in the emptiness devoid of symbols.