Monday, August 30, 2021

Mystical Participation


As with the writings of Jeff Foster and Andrew Stark that I recently highlighted, the words I share today by author and psychologist Sharon Blackie speak to a deep part of me, and resonate as both timely and relevant.

In the excerpt I share below from Blackie’s 2018 book, The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, the concept of “mystical participation” (or participation mystique, as it was first defined by French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl) is explored. It’s basically the idea that as humans connected in deep and intrinsic ways to the created world around us, we have the capacity to recognize and be in relationship with all kinds of natural realities and processes. In doing so, we can and often do, as Blackie puts it, “invest [these realities and processes] with a significance which goes well beyond their natural physical forms.”

Tragically, most people in the so-called “Western” world have lost touch with this capacity and thus their life-giving connection to nature, in large part because of the dominating and conquering mind-set inherent to both patriarchy and colonialism, and the consumerist mindset of industrialized capitalism. The capacity for mystical participation has, however, been consistently maintained through the centuries by many indigenous peoples across the globe.

That being said, many people in the “West” can and do experience “a sense of kinship with the world; a feeling of oneness, in the sense that we and the world and other creatures and objects in it are not really separate and fundamentally different from each other, but are merged in the same living system.” I’ve certainly had such experiences, and I can relate to how they have been described by psychologist Abraham Maslow as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilirating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect.” Maslow termed these experiences of mystic oneness “peak experiences,” and noted that they can be triggered by our participation in and with art, nature, sex, creative work, and music. This all jives with my experience!


Indeed, I think I’ve always been in touch with my capacity for “mystical participation,” or as I prefer to say, mystical communion, though I also recognize that my awareness of such a capacity was definitely heightened when I experienced the film Picnic at Hanging Rock as a child. A similar awakening took place when, as an adolescent, I experienced the music of Kate Bush, music that, in the words of Martin Glover, nurtures and shines “light that defeats the dark forces that seek dominion over the natural world. . . . [Kate Bush] exemplifies English pagan beauty." (And remember, “paganism” is simply a name for the indigenous spiritualities of Europe.)

Anyway, with all this in heart and mind, I share the following from Sharon Blackie's The Enchanted Life. This excerpt is accompanied by samples of my photography which I feel reflect my openness to and capacity for mystical communion with the world, along with a powerful and related quote by author Karen Armstrong.

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In 1975, the Scottish poet Kathleen Raine wrote about an experience which her eighty-year-old mother once confided to her: an experience she had as a girl. “‘I have never told anyone before,’ she said, ‘but I think you will undertand.’ It was simply that, one day, sitting among the heather near Kielder, ‘I saw that the moor was alive.’”

Raine went on to describe a similar experience which she herself has, as she sat at her writing table one evening in front of the fire, looking at a hyacinth.

All was stilled. I was looking at the hyacinth, and as I gazed at the form of its petals and the strength of their curve as they open and curl back to reveal the mysterious flower-centres with their antlers and eye-like hearts, abruptly I found that I was no longer looking at it, but was it; a distinct, indescribable, but in no way vague, still less emotional, shift in consciousness into the plant itself. Or rather the plant and I were indistinguishable; as if the plant were a part of my consciousness. I dared scarely breathe, held in a kind of fine attention in which I could sense the very flow of life in the cells. I was not perceiving the flower but living it.


What Raine was describling is a sense of kinship with the world; a feeling of oneness, in the sense that we and the world and other creatures and objects in it are not really separate and fundamentally different from each other, but are merged in the same living system. Such moments of deep relationship have been described by mystics throughout the ages, but in 1964 the American psychologist Abraham Maslow secularised them and gave them a new name: he called them “peak experiences,” and described them as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilirating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect.” According to Maslow’s early studies, peak experiences can be triggered by exposure to art, time spent in nature, sex, creative work, and listening to music.

Today, we see these experiences as remarkable and unique, because they occur rarely during each of our lifetimes; indeed, some people report never having had them at all. But when they happen they are always transformative, jolting us out of the everyday. leading us to see the world, and our place in it, in a very different way. Kathleen Raine wrote that when she returned to “ordinary reality” after her experience with the hyacinth, it was “as if I were experiencing at last things as they are, was where I belonged, where, in some sense, I had always been and would always be. That almost continuous sense of exile and incompleteness of experience whish is, I suppose, the average human state, was gone like a film from sight.”


They might be rare, transient experiences for us, but anthropologists have suggested that this way of perceiving the world once would have been the norm rather than the exception for all human beings, and that it still is the norm for many indigenous peoples around the world. It arises out of a belief not only that the world and objects in it are alive, just as we are – but more than that, they are capable of interacting with us. In contrast, in her remarkable novel Ceremony, Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko describes the way Westerners see the world:

They see no life.
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
and trees and the river are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer and bear are objects.
They see no life.
They fear.
They fear the world,
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl used the term “participation mystique” – “mystical participation” – to describe the worldview of what he called “primitive peoples,” in contrast to the more logical, rational worldview of "civilised man." Participation, he wrote, is a belief that “mystical forces” which can’t be perceived by our physical senses are present in the world, and can somehow affect the world. Object can of course simply be themselves – a stone is very much a stone, and a stone is something we can act upon – we can pick it up, move it, use it to build a wall – but objects can also be something more. A stone could represent, for example, or in some sense be inhabited by, other powers and influences which are able to make themselves felt beyond the stone. And so the stone, or those powers and influences which the stone represents, can affect us, or act on us, just as we can act on the stone. In other words, the relationship isn’t just one way: it’s reciprocal.

Even here in the “modern” West, I think that many of us – whether we are aware of it or not, or would admit it publicly or not – still retain a residue of this aspect of participation mystique. I certainly do. I invest all kinds of objects with a significance which goes well beyond their natural physical forms. One of my most treasured possessions is the bright blue empty shell of the egg of a grey heron. My husband retrieved it from the floor of a heronry in the woods behind an old riverside cottage we once lived in, in Donegal. To me, this delicate and fragile shell is two things. First, it is at some level, quite simply, an exquiste sky-coloured egg: a rich reminder of the beauty that can so readily be found in the natural world. But second, it carries in it all the mystical power of the heron in my native Irish mythology. Heron is an edge-dweller, a stalker of riverbanks and lochsides, a walker-between-worlds who passes easily from water to land to air; she guards the entrance to the Otherworld. . . . Heron haunted my early morning walks along the river, and in many ways personified for me that magical green river valley where we spent three years of our lives. The shell, then, is essence-of-heron, essense-of-Otherworldly-guardian, essense-of-liminality, essense-of-the-cycle-of-birth-and-rebirth . . . it’s a magical object, something which, when I hold it (very carefully!) in my hand, conjures up a remarkable rich panoply of archetypal and mythical images which are overlaid onto the beauty of its natural form.

Is the eggshell, then, in my head, inhabited by “other powers and influences” which are able to make themselves felt beyond it? Yes, indeed.

Am I a “primitive” at heart? Perhaps I am. But my life is richer for it.

What is interesting here is that, in my understanding, indigenous people who subscribe to such a worldview don’t differentiate between the supernatural and the natural, the material and the spiritual, the self and the non-self. It’s all the same thing. To see the world in a participatory fashion is to refuse such dualism, to refuse to be separate from the world, to insist on always participating in it and with it, and with the other objects and forces which are present in it. It is also, at its heart, about seeing meaning in a stone, or in the discarded shell of a heron’s egg.

Some scholars have argued that this state of participation is indeed primitive, because it’s nothing more than anthropomorphism – in other words, people who live like this are really just projecting human qualities onto other objects and processes in the world, mostly because they are naive, or lacking in proper understanding. According to this perspective, you can’t look at a participatory approach to the world as a form of consciousness which happens to be different from ours, but which is equally legitimate – instead, you should see it as a misguided and unsophisticated worldview that most of us in the West have, happily and rather cleverly, now outgrown.

But other writers and thinkrs have suggested that participation mystique might be rather more sophisticated than that: people in such indigenous societies might really see other objects and processes as genuine, autonomous presences which are part of the same life-world we inhabit, and which are capable of interacting with us. Maybe they see something we don’t. Maybe stones, rivers and storms are alive, just as people are alive, and maybe all things in the world can have relationships with other things. For example, when asked how they have come so perfectly to understand the medicinal uses of plants without the benefits either of randomised or double-bind clinical analyses in the laboratory, most indigenous people will patiently try to explain themselves to Westerners using some version of the words, “The plants told us.” Why then shouldn’t a woman drift for a while into the consciousness of a hyacinth?

Sharon Blackie
Excerpted from The Enchanted Life:
Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday

September Publishing, 2018
pp. 47-50


The earliest mythologies taught people to see through the tangible world to a reality that seemed to embody something else. But this required no leap of faith, because at this stage there seemed to be no metaphysical gulf between the sacred and the profane. When these early people looked at a stone, they did not see an inert, unpromising rock. It embodied strength, permanence, solidity and an absolute mode of being that was quite different from the vulnerable human state. Its very otherness made it holy. A stone was a common hierophany – revelation of the sacred – in the ancient world. . . . Trees, stones and heavenly bodies were never objects of worship in themselves but were revered because they were epiphanies of a hidden force that could be seen powerfully at work in all natural phenomena, giving people intimations of another, more potent reality.

Karen Armstron
Excerpted from A Short History of Myth
Canongate, 2006



See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Sacred Pause
Aligning With the Living Light
In the Garden of Spirituality – Rod Cameron
Boorganna (Part II)
Robert Farrer Capon on the Power of the Loving Eye
“I Caught a Glimpse of a God . . .”
Cosmic Connection
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
The Mysticism of Trees
Holy Encounters Where Two Worlds Meet
The Landscape Is a Mirror
November Musings
“Our Bodies Are Part of the Cosmos . . .”
Thomas Moore on the Circling of Nature as the Best Way to Find Our Substance
Autumn's “Wordless Message”
“This Autumn Land Is Dreaming”
Celebrating the “Color of Spring” . . . and a Cosmic Notion of the Christ
Guidelines for the Advent of a Universal Mysticism
No Other Time, No Other Place
The Prayer Tree
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All

Images: Michael J. Bayly.


1 comment:

Andrea said...

Michael, thanks for posting this and by doing so reminding me of Sharon’s recent book. I read If Women Rose Rooted and will be pulling it off the bookshelf and addressing it again. I love participating in the mystical. Reading this reminded me of the pull of western thinking, especially in the land of medicine (the land we walk through daily)and how intentional I must be to stay rooted in the mystical because that is what feeds my soul. This is an important reminder and such good timing for me to hear this, Michael. Thank you.