Mystics in Therapy

I read a wonderful reflection on mysticism the other day and started to think about what makes it hard to put some things into words. 

Mysticism is a seemingly positive term that denotes a negative, as the word darkness, which seems a positive term, denotes only an absence — the absence of light... A nonmystic is someone who believes that when truth is explained to him in words, he should understand that truth. The mystic is some one who knows that real truth, meaningful truth, can never be fully expressed in words.
— Joseph Dan, The Heart and the Fountain, p 2-3

Sometimes I see clients in therapy who are mystics in the sense that Dan describes.  They may not identify as spiritually inclined but they mistrust language to adequately convey truth.  Dan goes on to says that for the mystic, "Only the trivial, or the false can be communicated and understood."  It is hard to administer a talking cure when a person views language as untruthful. 

Sometimes mysticism looks like a defense.  I will say something like: "Did that make you sad?"  The mystic replies "Not exactly sad."  I say, "So how would you describe the feeling?"  The mystic: "I can't describe it."  Talking about feelings is like dancing about architecture.  But in this scenario the mystic also can't dance about dance.  The mystic ineffability of inner experience can be a way not to experience feelings.  For many people, saying "I am sad" with intention is akin to God saying "Let there be light."  It is the baldest, most powerful truth of all, in that it creates the reality to which it refers.  (An odd variant on this theme: saying to another person, "I feel lonely" with intention can be a powerfully connecting thing).

Because being a mystic means having access to a truth which cannot be adequately conveyed, it holds a special status, for good or ill.  "I am sad," is a profoundly human statement, and it makes me like 99% of my fellow humans who have experienced sadness.  Saying "The word 'sad' is inadequate to describe what I am experiencing," means I stand alone.  Being an unremarkable human with unremarkable human feelings can feel good a.k.a. 'normalized,' or bad (as in 'unimportant').  To connect with another risks making my experience banal. 

Mysticism and depression are two degrees of separation apart.  Nihilism is the missing link.  The mystic denies the possibility of being able to bridge the gap between one's self and the universe beyond through language.  The nihilist denies the possibility of bridging the gap between self and other entirely.  Depression is the affective prison in which a person is convinced of the impossibility of connection with others, the world of sensation, God, even elements of the self. 

Some therapies have taken the mystical contention about language to heart.  Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy views purely cognitive therapies as flawed because they don't address affective truth, a felt, experienced truth that is prior to and largely inaccessible through language or at least through cognitive language alone.  (I find it ironic that Sue Johnson has spent tremendous effort to empirically demonstrate EFT's claims that reasoning is insufficient for addressing matters of the heart.)

Rabbi Shais Taub talks about addiction as an expression of the urge to transcendence that is part of mysticism.  "Crippling self-consciousness is the root of addiction.  When they (the addict) take this poison it simulates the effect of spirituality in that there's this release from ego, rather than being self-transcendent release from ego... it is a self destructive release from ego.  ...(T)elling the addict... 'Don't you see you're destroying yourself?' is the most ridiculous thing you can say because if they could articulate what their soul they would say  'Yes, I am trying to destroy Self.'"  (You can listen to the whole episode of Tapestry here.  The interview with Rabbi Taub is at about 19 minutes).

I feel both the mystic's tendency to view some of the most important things as ineffable, the desire to connect outside of language and to transcend the crippling 'self'.  But I also feel a hard-headed commitment to the 'communicability' of many of our most complex and difficult truths. 

"It is not in heaven so that one could say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us, to get it for us and make us listen to it, to do it?' "Nor is it beyond the sea so that one could say, 'Who will cross the sea for us, to get it for us and make us listen to it, to do it?'"   For the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it."