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Vol 36 No 4


John Henry Thornber CFC

Eugene Stockton

Tony Kelly CSsR

Kerrie Hide

Tom Elich

Andrew Murray SM

Michael Trainor

Kevin Mark


Mysticism in the Australian environment: Calls to a new consciousness


AM I SERIOUS? A couple of decades ago one would hardly bother to give thought to the idea of Australian Spirituality; a few years back it would have been preposterous to imagine mysticism as a core to our Australian experience of God. Now contemplation, whether in a Christian or non-Christian context, is widely discussed as a respectable topic of conversation and commonly admitted as a personal practice. Rahner is often quoted as forecasting: ‘The devout Christian of the future, will either be a ‘mystic’, one who has ‘experienced’ something, or he will cease to be anything at all.’ It is commonplace in scientific works to read a call for a new consciousness in the coming age (e.g. Reanney 1991; 1994) A kind of mystical attitude accompanies many pastimes favoured by Australians: surfing, fishing, bushwalking and gardening.

The New Age movement may be dismissed as bizarre and irrational, but it does highlight the spiritual hunger of many unchurched persons. The movement shows a tendency to pick a bit of this and a bit of that:

• resurrecting older earthy cults
• appropriating Native American (or other forms of) shamanism
• dabbling in Eastern forms of mysticism
• calling for an holistic ecological awareness

This spiritual eclecticism is linked to the popular wave of interest in methods of personal growth.

In the beginning of Wonder: A Way to God I list some of ‘the signs of the times’ in Australia, pointing to a mysticism of the environment and some of the potential influences that have taken root in our land. But before continuing in this direction, it is timely to warn of two dangers in this development.

As a counter to spiritual eclecticism, I regard it as imperative to anchor one’s spirituality in a mainstream tradition. Over the centuries each religious tradition has accumulated a stock of wisdom. Each has recognised in the practice of religion a serious danger of self-deception, that a person can make their religion a subtle means of self-centredness. So each major religion has developed strategies for discerning and warding off this cancerous growth. Spiritual eclecticism is itself an exercise in subtle self-indulgence, as one chooses what suits oneself.

A true spirituality puts us in touch with Something or Someone greater than ourselves, and our lives are spent in submission to this Greater than ourselves. This Greater than ourselves draws us out of ourselves and in the process we are transformed, we transcend ourselves. But this must be the result, not the goal, of our spiritual efforts: otherwise this going after a greater self is again a subtle self-centredness. Contemplation is not a means of personal development, but of self-forgetfulness, and the personal transformation is a hardly noticed, but welcome, by-product. So at the core of one’s spirituality it is advisable to follow a mainstream tradition and submit to its accumulated wisdom.

If one finds it necessary to convert to another tradition, it must be remembered that it is a whole package one is taking on, not just selected parts. However, generally speaking it is advisable to adhere to the tradition one has grown up in, with its familiar language and culture. Changing one’s tradition is like learning a new language, holding oneself back in a cultural childhood for an unnecessarily long time. It might be self-seeking to appropriate, in whole or in parts, what belongs to another religious tradition. Where an aspect of another religion is admired, rather than appropriating an item which may not fit the existing synthesis, let it be a challenge to look deeply into one’s own tradition and to bring to the fore elements that are comparable to what is admired in others.

Encounter with Otherness
Evelyn Underhill describes the mystic as one in love with the Absolute. Contemplation is loving attention to the Transcendent, the Totally Other. Transcendence is by definition unreachable, but we believe the transcendent Godhead is immanent in all beings. My initial encounter with the Totally Other is in others. My ordinary encounters with otherness are other people, new experiences, new challenges, the many and varied ego-deaths along my way (Stockton 1998:107-120). In the Australian environment there are privileged places of encounter which can shape a peculiarly Australian spirituality and mysticism.

Multiculturalism has brought Australians into the presence of multi-varied religious otherness. Major religious traditions, very different from the long established Christian traditions, have become firmly rooted in Australian soil and are certain of an inculturated Australian growth into the future, with the promise of rich cross-pollination across all traditions. The differences can be welcomed by way of challenge. Particularly welcome I have found these aspects of eastern mysticism:

• Islam offers a profound ideal of faith, while its Sufi form of mysticism exhibits an exuberant expression of ecstatic love of God.
• Buddhism is strong on compassion and mindfulness, centred on protracted practice of meditation.
• Hinduism has alerted me to non-duality, leading me to question the dualism of our traditional asceticism from principles in our Christian tradition (Stockton 2000 b).

Increasingly we feel the need to take account of the landscape in our spirituality. More and more Australians sense a numinous quality and an uncompromising otherness in the land. It is not ‘pretty’ or ‘pleasant’ but rather disturbingly beautiful. It makes demands of self-sacrifice of those who would go into it (Tacey 1995:112-3, 169).

On the one hand the ecological movement has called us to question our impact on the land and to take measures of landcare before it is too late. To translate words into action, motivation has to be underpinned by a new way of thinking, an holistic conversion.

On the other hand Australians are looking to ways of bringing the Australian landscape into their spirituality: ‘to come home to this land’ spiritually and so to complete the sea crossing they or their ancestors have made from other homelands. It is only to be expected that they look to Aboriginal spirituality in their quest. This was a spirituality (the Law, the Dreaming) which evolved in the landscape, and as part of the landscape, over thousands of years, and which was expressed in practice, in story, in art and in ceremony by those of who were part of the landscape. There is no question of appropriating the Dreaming but rather of taking up the cue from Aborigines themselves that the Law be read from the landscape. So we can observe the land and read from it ourselves a law of symbiosis as a basis of our relations in society and in nature.

The Aboriginal people are a profound source of otherness for the rest of the nation. Without entering into details of their spirituality (Stockton 1995, 2000 a), here it is appropriate to highlight what brings the lot together, its over-riding mystical character.

Aboriginal mysticism seeks a oneness with the environment. All parts of the land, including the inhabitants, are thought to be alive, conscious and alert to all other parts. One can be engaged with the whole or its parts as subject to subject, in much the same way that one can be engaged in a lively party. Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr has translated traditional mysticism in a form consonant with Christianity in her now famous paper ‘Dadirri’ (Stockton 1995:179-184). She describes dadirri as a form of contemplation, conducted in a bush setting, around the campfire or at ceremony. It combines ‘inner deep listening, quiet, still awareness…and waiting’. In my Wonder, I suggest the word ‘wonder’ is the single English word which most closely approximates to ‘dadirri’. Wonder recaptures the sense, long suppressed and long forgotten, of the wild-eyed child who once explored his/her new world.

Confluence of Potencies
How are these diverse streams to flow into one? Where are we being led? I propose that these current encounters or influences are leading us to the prospect of reaching out to God through our environment, of seeking the face of God in our own land. As Teilhard de Chardin said: ‘There is a communion with God and there is a communion with the earth and there is a communion with God through the earth’.

We recognise that God is transcendent, he is the Totally Other—but not in the sense of ‘out there’ or ‘up there’. We recognise that God is immanent, that the Divine Spirit permeates all creation, and every part of creation. In all that is other to me I meet the ‘Totally Other’. Each that is other to me is like a door opening out into a vast space that is the ‘Totally Other’. Each is a sacrament or icon of God, in the face of which I can say ‘God is this being and beyond this being’. As I engage with the otherness of persons or things around me I engage with the Totally Other deep within it. So I am drawn, not away from the world, but deeper within it. As I am drawn to the other, as God lures me to Himself, I am drawn out of myself to become what I was not before—transformation, self-transcendence.

Even agnostics at times will admit to the tug of the Transcendent: Something/Someone greater than themselves that they hesitate to banalise with the name of ‘God’ or any other name. They may have an advantage over conventionally religious people in having no idols stand in the way (forms of religion pursued, no longer as a means to an end, but as ends in themselves).

Personal Dynamic
In Wonder I proposed an analysis of person, consisting of a dipolarity of ego and spirit, from which flowed the two basic orientations of self, (centripetal) egocentrism and (centrifugal) exocentrism (Stockton 1998:41-53). At that time ego was simply understood as the subject of my actions and experiences but subsequent conversations have led me to reformulate my thinking in line with more common understandings.

What I tried to express as ego I would now term ‘deep or inner self’, the ultimate subject of all that proceeds from me. It is largely unknown, unknowable, but it has its manifest counterpart which can be treated as an object (e.g. of knowledge, awareness): the two can be designated the ‘I’ (subject) and the ‘me’ (object). The ego is my conceptualisation of myself and of my relationship to the world: it is like a map of my reality and it may correspond to reality much as a map to the territory.

In activities such as knowledge, sex and prayer, the ‘I’ of my inner self goes out to the ‘I’ of the other. This is the first step, the ecstasis (standing out of myself) and kenosis (emptying out of myself) of the person to the other— in a relationship of ‘I-thou’. The second step is communion, where the one is in the other and the other in the one, in a relationship which has become ‘we’. The completing step is oneness, where the two have merged into one, in a shared subjectivity which expresses itself as ‘I’. Such a merging in oneness with God, though conceptually appearing impossible, is the actual experience recorded by many mystics at the height of their experience.

Witness of Science and Technology
In recent times there has been considerable neurophysiological research into brain functioning during prayer, including meditation (d’Aquili and Newberg 1999; Zohar and Marshall 2000: 39-112). It has been found that prayer has been accompanied by changes in levels of brain wave activity and by increased synchronisation between the two hemispheres. An empirical basis has been found for experiences recorded by mystics such as the dissipation of the sense of separate selfhood, together with a heightened sense of interconnectedness with reality up to a sense of oneness with all reality. Technologies, such as recorded tapes, have been offered to bring about brain changes to aid meditation—such technologies recall techniques taught by the masters of prayer, such as the repetition of mantras or mindful breathing which have been found to affect the brain in similar ways. Personal growth has been observed in participants which parallel those described by the great mystics. Steps, classically called ‘dark nights’, have been recognised by biologist Darryl Reanney as ‘ego-deaths’, by Tibetan Buddhists as ‘bardos’ (Stockton 1998:118,f.7). I have described them as ‘out-of-womb-emergings,’ as one’s world seems to come to an end, only to open out in a larger, fuller one (1995: 162,f). These have been explained by Ilya Prigogine’s research on open systems or dissipative structures (1984). When such a structure interacts with, and is stimulated by, its environment, it reaches a level where it either breaks down or is re-organised at a higher level, or in Prigogine’s words it ‘escapes into a higher order’. This predicts the evolution of the brain as a typical open system, in the experience of personal growth of the meditator.

With science being able to explain so much of the experience of prayer and of spiritual growth, what remains of grace and intention in one’s prayer life? Science can only account for the physical basis of experience in prayer and so it is a timely reminder that the experience is not grace, that the experience of God is not God (but perhaps a pointer to God). The Christian at prayer may use modern technology to facilitate prayer, as one might have used the older techniques as prayer aids. What is important is the loving intention towards God, rather than meditation for its own sake. Again, however explained, spiritual growth is seen as the accompaniment or consequence of prayer, not the goal.

Grace, though experienced as an empowerment is more accurately described, I would suggest, as God luring the person to prayer. With all the physical supports for prayer in place, such as science verifies, there is still the trigger needed to come to prayer and to attend lovingly to God. That trigger is the drawing of God. This was the insight of St John: ‘No one can come to me unless the Father draw him’ (John 6:44) and again: ‘I, when I am lifted up [in death and resurrection], will draw all people to myself’ (John 12.32).

So grace is God pouring himself out to us and drawing us to pour ourselves out to him in reciprocal kenosis.

The Cosmic Thought
Quantum mechanical physicists have come to regard the universe, not as a pack of independent particles pushed around by the forces of nature, but as a process, a changing, flowing, evolving and intimately interconnected system of interactions. The brain is able to evolve to a point where it is able to perceive, experience and be one with the interconnections of the entire universe. This is an unconventional description of the way of the mystic.

I have wondered whether the cells of my body are aware that they are taking part in my thought, in my self-consciousness? What would happen if they suddenly did? What would happen if I could communicate my consciousness to them and they could respond? If we are like the living cells of the universe, is there a great universal consciousness which we can tune into? Many religious and philosophical traditions have had this intuition (Stockton 1998:85-106). In the Hebrew Bible this was the Wisdom of God. In the New Testament this was the Word of God incarnate in Jesus; to Paul it was the Mind of Christ, to which he claimed access. For us Australians, taking the cue from the Aboriginal people, we can claim it as a Christ Dreaming embodied in our land.

Eugene Stockton is a priest of the Sydney Archdiocese. He has lectured in Scripture, been an Aboriginal and University chaplain, and archeologist. He has also published books on Australian spirituality.


d’Aquili, E and Newberg, A. (1999), The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Mystical Experience. Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
Prigogine, I and Stengers, I. (1984), Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. Bantum, New York.
Reanney, D. (1991), The Death of Forever: A New Future for Human Consciousness. Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.
(1994), Music of the Mind: An Adventure into Consciousness. Hill of Content, Melbourne.
Stockton, E. (1995), The Aboriginal Gift: Spirituality for a Nation. Millenium, Sydney.
(1998), Wonder: A Way to God. St. Pauls, Strathfield.
(2000a), ‘The Dreaming in Australian Aboriginal Culture’, The Way Vol. 40, No.2, 148-156.
(2000b), ‘Enjoy God’, Compass Vol. 34, No. 4, 8-10
Tacey, D. (1995), Edge of the Sacred: Transformation in Australia. Harper Collins, North Blackburn.
Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1968), Writings in Time of War. Collins, London.
Underhill, E. (1999), Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Oneworld Publications, Oxford.
Zohar, D and Marshall, I. (2000), SQ: Connecting with our Spiritual Intelligence. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York.