Category Archives: mysticism

Seeking Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise.” Aldous Huxley included this statement in The Perennial Philosophy, a comparative study of world mysticisms, published in 1944. Huxley’s complaints centered on organized noise: “indiscriminate talk” and the radio, which he described as “nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes.” The “assault against silence” has continued unabated as the twentieth century has rolled into the twenty-first. The ubiquity of televisions, personal computers, and mobile phones has only exacerbated the problem. Such technologies present conscious and unconscious barriers to the spiritual ideal of inner calm and clear-minded contemplation.

Arguably more damaging than the intentional sound sources Huxley bemoaned are the byproduct noises of human activities. Especially intrusive are noises fitting naturalist Bernie Krause’s definition: “an acoustic event that clashes with expectation.” The tranquil lake is spoiled by buzzing jet skis and motorboats. The pristine forest is tarnished by chainsaws and overhead airplanes. According to composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” to describe the ever-present array of noises in our sonic environment, human beings make such noises, in part, to remind ourselves and others that we are not alone. The absence of overt human-generated sounds is for many a painful signal of solitude. Think of the person who keeps the radio or television on for companionship.

An extreme of this view equates excessive noise with human dominance and modern progress. According to Schafer, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior James G. Watt declared that the more noise Americans make, the more powerful the country will appear. This perception has deep roots: cannon blasts and booming fireworks have long been associated with muscular patriotism. Schafer even remarked to Krause that if the ear-pounding decibels of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels were muted, attendance at their air shows would drop by ninety percent.

Nothing could be further from the quietude desired by mystics, who not only strive to muzzle external sounds, but also to cultivate silence of mind. This is hardly the default mode of modernity. As Huxley put it: “Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire—we hold history’s record for them all.” Instead of seeking silence, most people seek its opposite.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Advertisements

The Musician’s Mentality

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Legendary jazz musician Nina Simone once remarked, “Music is my God. The structure, the cleanliness, the tone, the nuances, the implications, the silences, the dynamics . . . all having to do with sound and music. It is as close to God as I know.” These words echo the feelings of many musicians. The experience of making music can (and regularly does) bring one into a spiritual zone: a state of being in which cognitive functions, emotional highs, sensory perceptions and creative energies fuse into a transcendental whole. There is no need for theology in such a state. Holiness becomes a sensation rather than an idea.

Of course, there are devout musicians who contextualize musical sensations in the language of their faith. The God they encounter in music is the same one they read about in holy writ. (They might agree with Luther: “Apart from theology, music is God’s greatest gift. It has much in common with theology because it heals the soul and raises the spirits.”) But countless others feel as Simone did.

Her position is supported by the long list of prominent atheist musicians, including such luminaries as Hector Berlioz, Georges Bizet, Giuseppe Verdi, Béla Bartók, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frederick Delius. These composers were in contact with their inner-nature and explored the recesses of the human mind and spirit. Music provided them with the sort of spiritual nourishment commonly sought in religious concepts and practices.

A glimpse into this aspect of the musician’s psychology is found in Music as an Asset to Spirituality (1928), an enigmatic book written by Laura J. Richards. The origins and ideology of the book are difficult to decipher, and nothing is available of the author’s biography. In truth, it is an almost incomprehensible work of pseudo-science and pseudo-mysticism, and probably deserves less attention than it is getting here. A random sampling exposes its baffling content: “How to cultivate a musical feeling is a very difficult subject. It takes many centuries for the musician to come to this state of perfection”; “What is mind? It is the soul functioning perfectly according to the laws of nature”; “Winds are nature’s entities to destroy the impure forces that cause the vibrations to intermingle.”

The bulk of the text reads in this fashion. Like other theosophical writings, its sentences can be poetic and may on the surface seem profound; but when we pierce through the flowery language, we discover jumbled thoughts that offer nothing of substance. Richards’ clumsy esotericism and happy disregard for reason are typical of early twentieth-century spiritual literature, and persist in some contemporary New Age publications .

Even so, there are moments when Richards is coherent and insightful—as long as her exaggerations are read as metaphors. One such instance is her section on the musician’s mentality. She notes that musicians are often misunderstood “because their organism is created of an entirely different material than other individuals.” There is no literal or scientific validity to this claim: we are all made of the same matter. But the “material” she refers to is dispositional, not elemental. One who is perpetually engaged in musical activities can, as it were, lose touch with the ordinary. Musicians familiar with the upper reaches of human consciousness can effortlessly drift into a heightened, spiritual or transcendent state (whichever terminology one prefers). “Consequently,” writes Richards, “the material world is very difficult for them to endure.”

Music-making is a sacred act: it is removed from the mundane and hints at something deeper than the physical. This has made it a helpful aid to religion and prayer. However, music is just as readily experienced as an equivalent to (or a substitute for) theological concepts. For the musician, music can be God enough.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Spirit in Sound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Wagner is my religion.” Thus said an enthusiast when asked by a friend why he had not been attending church. The response was certainly not a comment on Wagner the man, whose character and views are even less worthy of devotion than the average person. Nor was it meant to imply that Wagner’s music was sufficient to replace the multi-layered and multi-faceted complexity of religious affiliation. Not coincidentally, the quip hearkened back to words penned by Wagner himself, namely: “I found true art to be at one with true religion,” and “[I]f we obliterate or extinguish music, we extinguish the last light God has left burning within us.”

What, if anything, should be gleaned from the remarks of Wagner and the extoller of his musical virtues? Is it not careless to compare works of music to religious beliefs and practices? How can listening to music possibly fulfill the duties and obligations placed on the religiously observant? Is human-made music really comparable to the light of God? Are these statements hyperbolic or intentionally provocative?

These and similar questions appear on their face to be reasonable challenges. Surely, it is impossible for music to replace the awesomeness of a deity or the dogma, ritual and pageantry a deity commands. But this line of questioning does not accurately address the “music as religion” position. It is better to ask if and how, on an experiential level, music satisfies central aims and expectations of religious adherence.

A musical experience might involve a series of quasi-religious epiphanies. Attaining them depends on a number of conditions, not the least of which are the listener’s orientation and attributes of the music itself. Just as religious practices yield varying and circumstantially shaped results, epiphanic musical moments can sometimes be unobtainable, at times fleeting and other times long-lasting. Any discussion of the overlap of music and religion must therefore begin with recognition that we are dealing with ideals.

Potential musical revelations include the following: Penetrating tones might stimulate deep introspection; Emotional and kinesthetic reactions might suggest the indwelling presence of a spiritual force; The arrangement of sonic materials might evoke a sense of cosmic order; The abundance of sound might suggest a transcendent power; The creativity the music exudes might inspire renewed faith in humanity; The listener might be motivated to translate the music into positive action. In these and other ways, musical and religious engagement can have similar (or even identical) benefits.

R. Heber Newton (1840-1914), an Episcopalian writer and priest, supplied a summation of this effect in his treatise, The Mysticism of Music. In characteristically eloquent language, he compared the feelings roused at a concert with those derived from religious activities: “Here is the broad thought known to all who love music intelligently, that it expresses, outside of the church, the highest principles of religion and morality, as they influence the sentiments and actions of men. Music vindicates thus the cardinal principle of religion, its central article of faith—that human life, as such, is divine, that the secular is after all sacred.”

What Heber observed and what has been described above is probably closer to spirituality than religion proper. Religion is a technical term encompassing an intricate network of social, historical, cultural, doctrinal, aesthetic and ritual elements. Music alone cannot replace such a system. But, again, this misses the point. Religion and secular music converge in the arena of outcomes. They differ in substance and form, but can be directed toward like ends.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Peaks

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is a common element of trance. Musical sounds combine with other sensual cues—like incense and bright ornate colors—to bring individuals into feelings of euphoria and a perceived connection with a sacred realm. In the Santería religion of West Africa and the Caribbean, songs with repetitive and extended rhythmic patterns are played to call upon deities, known as orishas. A typical ceremony begins with oro seco, dry drumming without singing, followed by a salute to Elegúa, the messenger between gods and humans. Next comes the oro cantado, or sung prayer, during which individual orishas respond to set rhythms and musical themes, and enter the bodies of consecrated priests—a sensation called “mounting the horse.” The musicians and dancers, propelled by polyrhythmic textures and repetitious melodies, continue performing for many hours. The emotions and physical exertion escalate as the ceremony carries on. The end goal is spirit possession, in which orishas are believed to work within the possessed and deliver messages, advice and healing.

This is just one culturally and religiously specific example of how rhythm, melody, dance and belief merge to inspire feelings of transcendence. The type and level of rapture will vary according to factors like physical space, group makeup, belief system and style and duration of the musical episode. How and for what reason the trance is induced is situational: it takes different forms and is interpreted differently depending on whether the context is Hassidic, Dervish, Santerian or something else. Moreover, similar feelings can be aroused at secular venues like a rave or rock concert, and can potentially be achieved in unplanned and informal dance sessions done in private.

The diversity of perceived causes and meanings indicates two things. First, human beings seem to be drawn to this kind of experience. We have an instinctual urge for ecstatic moments and use music and dance to reach them. Second, it is in the level of interpretation—prior to and afterward —that we assign meaning to what takes place. The kinds of responses that occur are essentially identical from person to person and group to group, but the environments and explanations span a wide spectrum of possibilities. Many of them involve some form of theological language, as with the notion of orishas possessing their invokers. But is this a necessary component?

Dance trances, in all their multifarious incarnations, exemplify what Abraham Maslow called peak experiences. Maslow, a humanist psychologist, rejected the premise that supernatural forces ignite feelings regarded as spiritual. Instead, he saw these “peaks” as perfectly natural moments of self-actualization: especially exciting events involving sudden feelings of wholeness, elation, epiphany and awe. These wondrous instances can be triggered by an assortment of inducements, including love, works of art, the beauty of nature, and music.

In The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow cites listeners of classical music who describe themselves being delivered to “great joy,” “ecstasy,” “visions of another world” and “another level of living.” A few sentences later, he notes the consciousness-altering effect of music when it “melts over, fuses over, into dancing or rhythm.” According to Maslow, the potential outcome of such peak experiences is manifold. They can release creative energy, affirm the value of existence, renew a sense of purpose and promote oneness with the universe. And the mark they leave can be permanent, reorienting the individual for the better.

Again, none of this depends on an external power; it all takes place within the “farther reaches” of the body and mind. In this sense, there is no inherent contrast between spiritual/religious experiences and peak/highly emotional experiences. They are one and the same. The only difference is whether religious or secular language is used to contextualize and interpret what has occurred. Regardless of how we choose to frame such experiences, they demonstrate the human propensity—and need—for extraordinary moments.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Consciousness, Cognition and Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion published over a decade ago includes two conflicting articles on the nature of spiritual awareness. The first, by Robert A. Emmons, argues for what he terms “spiritual intelligence.” The second, by John D. Mayer, challenges Emmons’s formulation, replacing it with “spiritual consciousness.” More than a semantic squabble, their contrasting approaches address whether or not spirituality should be viewed as a form of cognitive activity or as an enigmatic element of consciousness.

Emmons offers a five-part definition of spiritual intelligence: (1) the capacity for transcendence; (2) the ability to enter into heightened states; (3) the ability to find sacredness in relationships and everyday actions; (4) the ability to use spiritual resources to solve problems; (5) the capacity for virtuous behavior. The problem with this list, in Mayer’s view, is its reliance on “ability” and “capacity”—language ordinarily reserved for discussions of mental aptitude and high-level reasoning. In classical discourse, abstract thought is the first hallmark and foremost attribute of intelligence. It involves executing various kinds of mental transformations, such as identifying patterns, generalizing information, registering similarities, contrasting dissimilarities and performing other regulated cognitive functions. From Mayer’s perspective, forcing spirituality into this limiting arena of cognition is more indicative of a desire to raise the prestige of spirituality than an accurate representation of what it entails.

As a corrective, Mayer modifies Emmons’s intelligence model to convey what psychologists call “structuring” or “developing” consciousness. He removes spirituality from the realm of reasoning and places it in the mysterious territory of consciousness, where it resides as a phenomenon distinct from rational systems of thought and an activity grounded in mechanisms of an intuitive, rather than cerebral, kind. He rephrases Emmons’s characteristics thus: (1) attending to the unity of the world and transcending one’s existence; (2) consciously entering into heightened states; (3) attending to the sacred in relationships and everyday actions; (4) structuring consciousness so that life problems are seen in light of ultimate concerns; (5) desiring to act in a virtuous way (italics from the original). These are processes, as opposed to mental exercises, and give preference to sensations—attending, altering, entering, desiring, etc.—over logic and reasoning.

To be sure, cognition can and usually does play a supporting role in spirituality. Religious stories, mythologies, doctrines, customs and interpretations provide language with which to frame the experience. These conceptions may be rehearsed beforehand, recalled during the act, or reflected upon afterward. But such discernment is ultimately separate from the experience itself. Indeed, the main reason spiritual pursuits elicit feelings of transcendence is because they are, at root, non-rational or supra-rational. They exist apart from ordinary mental states. Thus, argues Mayer, spiritual consciousness should not be confused with intelligence, where abstract thought reigns supreme, and should instead be embraced as a distinct way of knowing, where sensations are processed as meaning-giving and life-changing currents.

Such extra-mental awareness is commonly instigated and sustained through music. The naturalness with which music lends itself to this undertaking has made it a staple of spiritual practices worldwide. To paraphrase English theater critic Jeremy Collier (1650-1726), exposure to musical sounds activates passions that destroy reason. Stated more positively, if we allow ourselves to succumb to and be absorbed in musical stimuli, we can reach a level and category of consciousness discrete from the usual modes of cognition.

This does not mean that all music or all musical contexts are equally conducive to spirituality or will promote that end with equal effect. Nor is it always possible to keep the brain’s interpretive functions and critical faculties sufficiently in abeyance to be fully exposed to musical inducements. But the extent to which music is used in public devotion, private meditation, and other spiritual praxes proves its potency as a vehicle for transcendence. More importantly, it demonstrates an inherent distinction between mental processing and spiritual consciousness, without depreciating the latter. Spirituality may not be intelligence, but it is indispensable just the same.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

A Higher Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann. Ph.D.

In the non-theistic mysticism of psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (1900-1980), God is not a power hovering over us, instructing us or judging our behavior. God is a concept: a symbol of our higher self and a metaphor for what we can become. Fromm articulated this view, among other places, in The Art of Loving: “[God] stands for the highest value, the most desirable good.” He considered this conception of the deity harmonious with the Jewish faith of his birth, since the essence of Jewish monotheism is “imitation of God,” not some rarified theological formulation. This is a principle affirmed in the Torah—“To walk in all His ways” (Deut. 11:22)—and reiterated in rabbinic literature: “Just as God is merciful, you too must be merciful . . . just as God is compassionate, you too must be compassionate” (Sifre, Ekev 49).

Fromm agreed with the believer that the divine (or at least the divine concept) can and should be experienced. He regarded himself a mystic—not in the sense of striving for an external entity, but in the sense of seeking one’s highest potential, symbolically represented as God. In this framework, which he called humanistic religion, “transcendence within” can be achieved in three ways: cultivation of knowledge, ethical development and rising above the “prison” of daily routine. The first two uphold critical thinking and healthy relationships as aspirational ideals. The third endorses the value of transcendence.

Although Fromm did not state so explicitly, the third path is ably facilitated by music. Music is almost universally acknowledged as a language of transcendence. It pierces through the ordinary noises of sound and speech, and has an expressive capacity surpassing other forms of communication. This is the underlying reason why prayers are regularly sung in houses of worship: the “beyondness” implicit in musical tones is felt as contact with the deity. For Fromm, however, communion is not between humanity and a higher being, but between humanity and higher human essence.

When we hear or sing or play music, we are activating areas of our consciousness that are dormant under regular conditions. Absorption in the musical activity can deliver us into a world of emotions, memories, sensations, images and epiphanies rarely approachable in other pursuits. The experience is so distinct from the norm that the theistically minded rush to label it sacred or holy. But Fromm saw it otherwise. Stimulants like music unlock a deeper layer within us all. They do not tap into some cosmic energy; they lead us further within ourselves.

Fromm would recognize music as a spiritual encounter in that it is immaterial and essentially ineffable. Yet he would identify the object of the encounter as our interior potential. On an experiential level, this perspective does not automatically conflict with conventional theism, since both promote peak experiences as life-enhancing moments. And whether one’s religion is theistic, humanistic or none at all, it is hard to argue against Fromm’s assertion that knowledge, relationships and transcendence are key avenues toward self-realization.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Theurgy and Concentration

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Sometime during the exile following the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple (586 B.C.E.), a rift emerged between Israel’s hereditary priestly classes: the Levites and Kohanim. The Kohanim won the conflict of power, assuming religio-political dominance in post-exilic Jerusalem. The Levites were consequently reduced to subordinate roles in the restored Temple. Kohanim conducted sacrifices and administered the religion; Levites prepared the sacrifices, held custodial and clerical duties, and provided music for the Temple service. Whether the latter activity—singing and instrument playing—was really ancillary is debatable. According to some sources, the purpose and efficacy of cultic ceremonies relied entirely on the Levites’ musical presentation.

The writings of Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.–30 C.E.), a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, portray the high priest entering mystical awareness with the aid of music. Midrashic literature similarly shows the high priest reaching music-induced ecstasy. Attaining this elevated state was crucial for the high priest’s vocation, which rested on his perceived ability to access and make palpable the divine presence. The music he listened to was not just beautiful; it enabled him to channel and absorb spiritual energy from the heavenly source.

A passage from Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen, a thirteenth-century kabbalist, elaborates on this musical-magical-mystical phenomenon. Though a late source, its imagery is rooted in earlier material. The rabbi affirms the hierarchical structure of the priestly system, ascribing different levels of understanding (greater and lesser) to the high priest and the musicians. But he also highlights the imperativeness of music in facilitating mystical union, implying that without music the rite would not succeed: “[The high priest’s] power is awakened by the sweetness of the song and the pure prayer. So do the musicians direct their fingers, according to their elevation and understanding, on the key-holes [of wind instruments] and on strings, arousing the song and the melody to direct their hearts toward God. Thus the blessings are aroused and the divine presence resides in them, each one according to his performance and according to his understanding.”

Central to this passage is a progression from music to concentration to theurgy. The high priest first listens to the music, then enters a spiritual state, then achieves a theurgical aim: influencing the supernal structure to release its concentrated energy in the mortal world. According to Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen and others who have written on the subject, it is musical sound that grants the high priest access to divine power, which he harnesses and directs toward a desired end.

This scenario is an instructive study in music perception. Frequently, musical strains are felt as sacred portals connecting natural and supernatural realms. The energy music exerts on our minds and bodies is often beyond mundane description, thus lending itself to otherworldly explanations. Specific concepts and formulations vary from culture to culture and system to system; but the force of music rarely evades spiritual interpretation. This earned the Levites a permanent—albeit secondary—place in the Temple rite, and has guaranteed the inclusion of music in virtually all spiritual paths.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.