Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Toward a New Understanding of Glossolalia
For every genuine case of spiritual baptism and glossolalia, there were at least 10 that were not authentic.
The first time I heard of speaking in tongues was in 1972 in Brother August's sophomore religion class at Notre Dame High School. August had a deep interest in the Charismatic movement that had been sweeping through Roman Catholicism for the past four or five years. In class he played album recordings of Christians baptized in the spirit who spoke in glossolalia. To substantiate the phenomenon Biblically, Brother August often referred to Chapter Two of Acts where the apostles of Jesus became filled with the Holy Spirit and manifested a series of divine gifts. Although I found the topic of glossolalia fascinating, I did not really believe in it. Even at 15 years old I knew how easily the unconscious mind could trick us. Little did I realize that in just a few weeks' time I would undergo an extraordinary spiritual experience and speak in tongues.
It all began one night at Loyola University in southern California in March 1972. Brother August had been taking a large number of students to the weekly prayer meetings and masses held at the college. One day he invited my friend Joe Maria and I to go along. We agreed, not really sure what was in store for us. There were about 300 people that night. First there was some communal singing followed by testimonies by individuals who had been saved by Jesus and baptized in the spirit. The stories ranged from simple narratives of personal transformation ("I was trapped into taking drugs and the Lord helped me to see the light") to amazing accounts of physical healing ("I had cancer of the colon and the doctors didn't give me much chance for survival; I prayed to Jesus and felt infused with a wondrous light. When I went back for my checkup the doctors informed me there had been a remission. They just couldn't believe it. I could. It was the power of the Holy Spirit").
Joe and I sat there feeling a bit awed; obviously something tremendous was happening in these people's lives. After about an hour of singing and testimonials, everyone went to the chapel for mass. This was not the usual Catholic mass that I had been brought up with. There was no separation between the altar and the pews; instead both the priests and the laity stood together on the altar or right around it. It was a beautiful and moving celebration, unlike anything I had experienced before in my Catholic upbringing.
As the mass ended small prayer groups formed. It was at this time, I was told previously by Brother August, that the Holy Spirit really becomes active. I don't know why I walked up to one prayer group but I do know I was pulled by a higher impulse within myself. Personally, I was not interested in receiving tongues, a healing, or the gift of prophecy. I just simply wanted to know: What's really going on here? Is there a God? What's Truth? Who am I? The typical but nevertheless profound questions of most introspective teenagers.
The moment is forever instilled in my mind. I knelt down on the communal railings before four or five prayer partners and the leader of the Loyola prayer meetings asked me what I wanted. With all the intensity of my heart's quest, I said, "Just to know. I just want to know." I then closed my eyes and those around me prayed aloud. Then I felt the prayer leader put his hands on my head. Immediately I felt a surge of numinous power rush from the depths of my being. It was as if a torrent of radiant energy was rising from the core of my heart upwards. My entire body became flushed with a supernormal sense of warmth and peace. I felt incredibly alive and awake, as though everything before this moment was dull and dreamlike.
The prayer leader asked me to pray aloud but when I tried I could not speak. The mysterious presence within me took control of my vocal cords and my power of speech. Literally I heard some other force speaking from within the depths of my being. I was speaking in tongues. Nothing had prepared me for this moment. I never had imagined such a state of consciousness. All I could do in the midst of this spiritual glossolalia was laugh and cry, repeating mentally in my mind over and over again, "There really is a God. There really is a God." I cannot overemphasize the pure conviction and certainty which accompanied this baptism of the spirit. Doubt simply did not enter in. In that instant I knew what the saints meant by a mystical encounter; here was a reality far superior to the waking state, beyond the constraints of everyday existence. The phrases that issued forth from me were not consciously produced. Even to me they sounded completely foreign. Yet it was not just the glossolalia that affected me but the keen perception (bodily, mentally and spiritually) of a Being far greater than I. Rudolph Otto and Mircea Eliade have described the experience of Divine Energy as one of Mysterium Tremendum (tremendous mystery) and das Ganz Andere (wholly other). These two terms reflect both the majesty and the distinctive otherworldliness of being baptized in the spirit.
The experience probably didn't last more than 10 minutes; I say probably because I had no sense of time during the mystical encounter. Finally, when I got up off my knees, several of my friends, including Joe Maria, came over and hugged me. They had seen what transpired and were just as amazed as I was. Brother August, who also witnessed the event, could not restrain himself; he broke into obviously joyful tears at seeing one of his own students receive glossolalia.
I couldn't sleep that night. My attempts to explain to my parents what had happened were fruitless. Who could blame them for not understanding their son's attempt to describe a transpersonal encounter with a spiritual being? Only my brother Joseph got a partial glimpse of what had occurred. As I walked into his bedroom, excited by the fact that I had spoken in tongues, I spontaneously went into glossolalia for a few seconds. My brother was astounded. Although he wasn't quite sure what tongues were, he knew that I wasn't faking it. The next day at school I became an instant religious "celebrity." Classmates with whom I had never spoken before now asked me for spiritual advice. "Tell me, Dave, what can I do to get tongues?" Tongues fever ran through the sophomore class. Glossolalia suddenly became wildly popular. In just a few weeks' time Notre Dame High School was having its own weekly prayer meetings on Friday nights. Because I had supposedly been "born again," Brother August asked me to lead the meetings. Attendance grew steadily, until finally the prayer gatherings reached a critical junction. Tongues fever reached its limit.
The meeting was packed with students, parents, priests and brothers. But the social pressure on the sophomore class to receive the gift of tongues was so strong that a number of students began to fake glossolalia to impress their peers and girlfriends. The whole thing turned into a fiasco. Dozens of students began pounding their desks in an emotional frenzy, praising God aloud. Yelping at the top of their lungs, these students were trying to imitate glossolalia. It was a farce and almost everybody there knew it. Soon afterwards the prayer meetings at Notre Dame were discontinued.
From that moment on most people at Notre Dame dismissed the whole phenomenon of tongues as a curious emotional aberration, a misguided attempt to display one's holiness. And to a large degree they probably were correct. For every genuine case of spiritual baptism and glossolalia, there were at least 10 that were not authentic. But what about the rare legitimate expression of glossolalia? What are we to make of it? Is there really a Holy Spirit ready to transform those who pray for salvation? Is speaking in tongues truly a sign of spiritual baptism?
Authentic glossolalia has something more universal and structural to it than we may first suspect.
I have been asking these kinds of questions for almost 15 years. The answers are not simple. From my own experience, I know the phenomenon of tongues is more than just a psychological disorder or the manifestation of remembered preverbal babble. I am not convinced, however, that tongues is a unique gift of spiritual baptism bequested only to God-fearing Christians. Authentic glossolalia has something more universal and structural to it than we may first suspect. To understand what may be occurring let us examine closely what happened to me. First, I was receptive to my prayer partners. Regardless of what I ultimately desired, I was at least open to the possibility that my prayer might be answered. I remember being particularly sensitive that night. On the way to Loyola University one of my friends was being a bit obnoxious; yet instead of getting angry with him I felt I should be friendlier. It worked. Although this is a trivial episode, I nevertheless felt strangely uplifted by it, as if I had done something pleasing to God. This feeling of receptivity (no matter how fragile or deep), I believe, plays an important role in all mystical encounters.
Second, I did not yearn for any specific manifestation of God's grace, save that of knowledge. Hence, when I did speak in tongues it was a complete surprise to me. Naturally, this unexpectedness contributed to the feeling of das Ganz Andere (wholly other). Realizing that I had nothing to do with the experience (i.e., I was not trying to imitate or fake glossolalia) also gave me a sense of mystery. Who or what was infusing me with such numinous energy? During the experience the answer was quite obvious: the Holy Spirit, God, Jesus. But these were all concepts that I had been brought up with in the Roman Catholic Church. Are tongues and the Holy Spirit necessarily connected? I think not. For example, glossolalia is neither original nor exclusive to Christianity. It is worldwide, in a number of different religions and cultures, many of which predate Catholicism. Third, I did not experience the spiritual baptism until after the prayer leader placed his hands on my head.
This would indicate (and would agree with the mystical schools of kundalini yoga and shabd yoga) that there was a transmission of some kind from the Charismatic leader to me, not unlike what occurs during initiation ceremonies in shamanism or guru-disciple relationships. It is important to note here that this particular prayer leader was well-known for his gift of laying on of hands and as a catalyst for invoking glossolalia. And fourth, speaking in tongues was the after effect (not the cause) of a profound sensation of physical, emotional, mental, spiritual well-being. Hence, tongues should not be thought of as the progenitor of my mystical encounter but the verbal confirmation of my inward state of consciousness. Most critics of the phenomenon confuse the two and tend to view tongues in isolation. This now leads us to the central question concerning glossolalia: Who or what causes tongues to occur? The Holy Spirit? The Higher Self? The Unconscious Mind?
Again, the answer is not simple. In some cases, especially when the person is emotionally unstable and susceptible, tongues could be the product of repression, a momentary outburst of the unconscious into the waking world. But this does not accurately account for superconscious experiences of glossolalia, where the person awakens to a state beyond the rational-verbal mind. In accepting an occurrence such as the one I underwent, we must acknowledge that there are higher levels of consciousness than the waking state. Indeed, as saints, mystics and yogis tell us, we have the inherent potential of experiencing extraordinary levels of awareness.
Thus, we can see that glossolalia is a transcultural phenomenon, indicative of a higher state of consciousness available to all human beings.
Is tongues merely a momentary outward expression of an inward, transpersonal state? In the case of genuine glossolalia I would argue yes. There is no evidence that tongues is a verifiable sign that God/Jesus/Holy Spirit has divinely baptized the person. Rather, these terms are used only by people born again within a Christian context. When a similar experience happens in kundalini yoga (a transference of shaktipat, for instance), the person inevitably refers to the language and concepts available within that system. In India they would call "tongues" a kriyaan outward sign of an awakening of kundalini (an internal evolutionary force within man). Thus, we can see that glossolalia (like the near-death experience) is a transcultural phenomenon, indicative of a higher state of consciousness available to all human beings, regardless of religion. But we must not go too far. True, tongues represents a level of awareness beyond that which we are normally used to. Yet it is just a preliminary step in the higher worlds. It would be misleading to give glossolalia too high a mystical status, especially when even St. Paul did not give it preferential treatment. I think it is appropriate to point out that many people in the Christian world take tongues to be the be-all and end-all of spiritual experience; I found this to be the case especially in the Charismatic movement. Instead of viewing tongues as a very small advance into the mystical dimension, many take it as a final sign of their salvation. Such an absolutist posture ultimately leaves one stranded and unenlightened. I remember vividly, even at 15, arguing against this kind of perspectiveto no avail. In fact, for this reason (the narrow purview of some born-again Catholics) I embarked on a comparative study of religion and mysticism.
No religion has a monopoly on truth, as the cliche rightly states. Therefore, we can see that mystical experience can be misused to serve outward, doctrinal purposes. For instance, when one undergoes the experience of tongues in a fundamentalist Christian setting, there is a tendency to attribute the encounter to Jesus/God/Holy Spirit (much as I did). Yet, as we have previously noted, this is a social categorization of the event and not one which is intrinsic to the experience itself. But because most individuals do not distinguish between structural (mystical) experience and cultural upbringing, they confuse and combine the two. It is perhaps for this reason that "born-again"
Christians can be so adamant in claiming that the Bible is the only true Word of God. They have experienced a higher realm which gives them such conviction and certainty that they know it is more real than anything the world has to offer. Now, when this "transpersonal" encounter is connected to Christian dogma (due to the particular sociological setting), the person, knowingly or unknowingly, empowers his chosen religious beliefs. Hence, it is not necessarily the Bible itself that gives rise to the person's certainty of his faith but the direct, personal experience of a higher spiritual order. Furthermore, I would argue that most religious conflicts arise from the mistaken juxtaposition of doctrine and experience, where the former is given power and justification by the latter. Tongues is not the province of any one religion but rather the effect of a genuine mystical encounter which theoretically can happen to anybody, anywhere, anytime. But glossolalia cannot be literally translated like normal speech; in a sense, it is the mouth's way of expressing what cannot be truly spoken in words. I would argue, finally, that tongues, as one of the "shells" of mystical experience, reveals outwardly what has inwardly transpired. As such, it should not become the object of exclusive glorification. There are innumerable levels of awareness to uncover in the inner journey of consciousness. It would be both a misfortune and a tragedy to mistake but a tiny drop for the entire ocean.
A FORTY YEAR REFLECTION
How sex provided the clue to glossolalia
It has been nearly 40 years since I first spoke in tongues. It still stands out in my mind as a genuinely remarkable experience, though over the years I have developed a distinctive, if controversial, theory about what glossolalia ultimately indicates.
First, it is now fairly well known that speaking in tongues is not unique to the Christian Church. Second, the interpretation of what the phenomenon means varies within differing religious traditions. And, third glossolalia appears to be the after-effect of a prior internal state of awareness and not necessarily the cause of it.
However, when I was about 30 years old and living in Del Mar, California, another event occurred which transformed my understanding of glossolalia. It was rather late at night, perhaps around 11:45, and I was trying to get some sleep since I had to get up rather early and teach a morning class at UCSD. But all I could hear coming from another apartment was the moaning sounds of two people having sex. Now at first I was pleasantly bemused and thought to myself “oh this will last about five minutes and all will be calm.” Yet, such was not the case, as the sounds (which oscillated from heavy breathing to dirty talk to what I thought were the sounds of a wounded hyena) didn't stop but got even louder and louder until finally after about an hour or so I yelled out the window, “Hey, put a muzzle on it, I have to sleep.” This outburst of mine didn't help one bit, as the woman screamed back, “f…. sleep. I am going to c…. all night.”
Okay, I thought to myself, this is not good. I tried putting a pillow over my head, but to no avail, as the pair continued at their nocturnal wrestling until far past 2 in the morning, which made me think that Superman (as she called her mate numerous times) was really alive and kicking in Del Mar.
In any case, right in the middle of these unedited proceedings I had a mini epiphany about speaking in tongues. Strange what late night thoughts you can get when you are sleep deprived.
Reflecting back on when I spoke in tongues the first time, I remembered that I was already in an ecstatic state before the charismatic leader and others asked me to speak out loud. What would have happened, I pondered, if I was never asked to say my prayer vocally? Would I have still spoken in tongues?
I don't think so. In fact, if I was in a different religious setting (maybe a meditation session), my focus would have been on the inner light that I was seeing or perhaps the intense heat circulating upwards in my body or perhaps I would have concentrated on the dissociative feeling that was arising.
Speaking in tongues was the outward manifestation of my internal state and, as such, was merely the vocal effect of an internal neurological state of being. This is similar, I thought, to what is happening in those engaged in sex in that upper apartment. Their ecstatic speech was merely the reflection of their sexual arousal and that the orgasm (no matter how loudly exclaimed) was the result of an internal body state, most acutely registered within the brain.
But in general nobody has sex so that they might get the gift of speaking in “orgasmolalia.” No, what is desired is the sexual state itself and all that moaning and groaning and yelping is merely the outpouring of that prior state of bliss. However, in some Christian Churches, speaking in tongues is seen in isolation as if it were the end point or goal, forgetting that glossolalia is the vapor of an already achieved inner experience. I don't mean to suggest, in some neo-Freudian fashion, that speaking in tongues is the manifestation of some repressed sexual state.
No, I merely want to draw the parallels between two forms of ecstatic speech and ask the more pertinent question about why such language forms arise in the first place. My suggestion is that both arise because of internal neurological states, but that glossolalia is occasionally partitioned off and made into a sort of religious fetish which in some traditions can become ritualized over time. The outcome is that one might forget how glossolalia originates and what other possibilities the a priori state could have generated if the participant was allowed to focus his or her attention on some other feature within the mystical emergence.
One could, in fact, argue that speaking in tongues prevents one from actually going deeper into the altered state of consciousness, since it tends to force one to focus from the internal to the external precisely at the point in which the mystical encounter is starting to blossom.
I am sure there are gradations and exceptions to the above, but my hunch is that the reason speaking in tongues has been given such a cherished place within certain Pentecostal groups is because others not in such a state can witness, albeit partially, what would erstwhile remain private. Just as for some in sexual congress, the vocalization of their increasing sexual pleasure allows for the partner to better gauge and perhaps appreciate the intensity of the blissful union.
Transference and Projection: empowering the written word
Another aspect of speaking in tongues which I think has much in common with other numinous encounters is how easily it is to project and transfer such mystical happenings on to a holy scripture or personage.
For instance, the first book I was given to read after my born again experience was the Bible, but with specific instructions to read passages in the New Testament concerning the Pentecost and the gifts of the spirit.
This had the almost immediate effect of convincing me that the Bible must be partially true. Why? Because in the writings of Paul, in particular, I found a deeply resonant explanation of my own mystical encounter. If someone nearly two thousand years ago could understand what I was undergoing, then surely there must be some “truth” to it and explain why early Christian writings have survived for so long.
But this is a fundamental mistake that I soon realized just a few weeks after my glossolalia initiation. What would have happened if I were given a different book, one from a differing religious tradition that explained speaking in tongues in a variant way? Would I have then become convinced of the efficacy of that scripture as well? I think the answer is decidedly yes. Indeed, I have a suspicion that for many people who undergo a mystical encounter (and who are given holy texts within their culture to explain such apparent transmundane happenings) they, like myself, will have a natural tendency to empower the received text if such writing confirms and helps explain what had just transpired. But this projecting and transferring tendency (which humans seem almost predesigned to do) blinds us from other viable interpretations while at the same time providing us with a palpable sense of certainty in the particular religious tradition.
Perhaps this can help us better understand why some Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, and Hindus can be so convinced that their respective holy books are true and are inspired by God. The mystical experience is so overwhelming and so extraordinary that when it is intertwined with a sacred scripture that contextualizes it, the would-be neophyte may then project and transfer his or her own certainty over to the text itself.
This conflation of one's own extraordinary experience with a revealed scripture can, in some instances, inflate the holy book itself to such heights so as to transform it too into an extraordinary and numinous artifact. We do this sort of transference all the time in our lives, but I think it gets deeply magnified when one undergoes a numinous encounter, even if such an encounter can be explained away by others as merely brain chemistry.
Another correlation between speaking in tongues and sexual talk that became apparent to me that night in Del Mar was that others who were not in such states of revelry could hear both. Because of this, one could easily mimic either state and give the impression that one was indeed undergoing a blissful encounter.
I first noticed this after I became the leader of the prayer meetings at Notre Dame High School. It seemed obvious to me, and was later confirmed by interviews after, that many students who claimed to be genuinely speaking in tongues were not. They were simply mimicking the process, primarily so that they could get the peer recognition of being “born again.” It is relatively easy to echo glossolalia or even an orgasm (see the movie When Harry Met Sally for an example of this), and this may better explain the memetic propagation of each. My hunch is that one of the reasons speaking in tongues can at varying times become so sweeping and popular within certain Churches is not because each person is indeed having a mystical encounter, but because it can be so easily mimicked. In my own experiences at Notre Dame, I think I only met one or two other individuals (out of the fifty or so who claimed to have undergone the transformation) who I felt had genuinely spoken in tongues. And by genuine I only mean that they were not faking the process or trying to elicit the experience by intensive mimicry.
In conclusion, I think it is important to note that even if glossolalia is explained as a recursive throwback to our evolutionary past when language first emerged, or as an adaptive signal to confirm to others in our tribe that ecstasy is possible, it is a truly amazing experience and may be indicative of other more luminous states of consciousness within the human neuroanatomy.