Tag 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.

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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.

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.