shackles of the old self have dropped off and the new self has gained a detached, clearer, more objective relation to the universe. The great mystical metaphor of Light enters the terminology, here: the mystic feels Illuminated. Underhill describes the Illuminated state as "an enormous development of the intuitional life at high levels" (234). She says that three experiences or qualities characterize the Illuminated state: a consciousness of the Absolute, or sense of the presence of God; a vision of the world as being connected and invested by a radiance, beauty or reality of an intensity and completeness never before suspected; and a greatly heightened intuitive awareness which manifests itself in automatic experiences such as hearing voices, engaging in dialogue with other (usually divine) intelligences, visions, and sometimes automatic writing.

The stage of Illumination includes the introvertive and extrovertive experiences that Stace describes. But at this stage, these experiences are (recalling James's term) transient, or very brief, and so Illumination, as intense as it is, is not the culmination of the mystic way. In fact, during the period of time in which the intense Illuminative experiences occur, the mystic achieves the growing realization of the actual distance that he or she - bound here in the physical world - is from divine reality. The mystic then enters the fourth stage, which involves the stripping away of the final attachments to the physical world that prevent the mystic from living unified with the ultimate reality that he or she has glimpsed in the Illuminative state. Underhill calls this fourth stage the Dark Night of the Soul, and explains that it is the most arduous and painful of the mystics purgative activities because the more clearly the mystic perceives the existence of the ultimate reality, the greater is the desire to achieve union with it, or become it. It is described variously as a burning thirst, starvation, and in its most complex metaphor, as a fear of rejection by a lover, who in this case is God, the ultimate partner, in a way.

An incredible array of metaphors is used to try to convey the exquisite heights and abysmal depths the soul experiences during the Dark Night. Dante's Purgatorio unfolds carefully detailed descriptions of spirits voluntarily undergoing incredible suffering to achieve heaven. Sufi poets from the Middle Ages forward use erotic metaphors to try to convey the intense feelings of urgency and despair of those who have come into the presence of "the Friend" or God, and wish with all their being to return and live there forever.

Underhill notes that many mystics who make their way through the difficulties of the stage of Purification and then experience the peak pleasures of the Illuminated stage, do not have the strength or spiritual endurance to last through the Dark Night of the Soul. But some do, and those people achieve the Unitive Life while still alive in the body. It is a state of full, permanent consciousness of, or spiritual union with God, or reality, or the cosmos. These people are conventionally referred to as saints, or Buddhas. Examples are Sakyamuni Buddha himself, Christ, Muhammad and Rumi, and Underhill calls special attention to St. Catherine of Genoa. The lives of Far Eastern and Native American mystics do not fit as neatly into Underhill's categories as do Christian and Muslim mystics, but powerful similarities in their depictions of the mystical life nonetheless exist, and we'll say more about this later.

Meanwhile, what this introductory essay has offered are ways of identifying mystical experiences when they appear in books, poems and other writings. I say "other writings" because mystical literature is often autobiographical. Even Plotinus, one of the littlest-known but most influential philosophers in Western culture, did not shy from describing his own experience. In fact one of the most famous testaments in Western philosophy to the reality of mystical experience comes from Plotinus, and is a good way to sum up these opening ideas:

Many times it has happened: lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-centred; beholding a marvelous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life; acquiring identity with the divine; stationing within It by having attained that activity; poised above whatsoever within the Intellectual is less than the Supreme (Plotinus Ennead IV.8)

Whatever it is, it really happens. And it's been happening for thousands of years at least. While Plotinus' words are famous, the most powerful and perhaps the central image of mystical experience, and how we should understand it, is given first in Plato - who was, after all, the principal predecessor of Plotinus, the Neoplatonist. We should have a brief but important look at Plato's Allegory of the Cave.

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Plato's Cave

In Plato's Republic, Socrates tells a story that is an important key to understanding mystical experience. It's not the only key, and not the only way of understanding what mystics say. But it is one of the earliest full expressions of what mystical experience is like, and it is a very clear and accessible story that has profoundly influenced Western philosophy, religion and mysticism. Because of its clarity and the compact fullness of its metaphorical meaning, it's a useful point of comparison in understanding what the mystics from many different cultures say.

Imagine, Socrates says one afternoon to his listeners as they're talking in the agora in Athens, people living in a cave underground. The cave has a long entrance that's open to the light. The people are sitting on the ground, and they're chained together, with their backs to the entrance. They're facing the far wall of the cave, and on that wall lights and shadows are dancing back and forth. The lights and shadows are all they see because their chains prevent them from turning around.

Behind the chained people, on top of another wall, a big bonfire is burning which, once again, the people can't see. In front of the fire is a sort of walkway with a screen in front of it, like the screens used in puppet shows, and people behind the screen are carrying different kinds of carved objects in front of the fire so that the objects' shadows thrown by the fire are playing on the opposite wall. These are the shadows the chained people see.

Since the people can't turn around and have never seen anything else, when they talk to each other about what's happening in their cave, they assume the shadows on the opposite wall are real things, and they speak of them this way. If the people in back who are moving around the carved objects sometimes speak or make noises, the chained people think the sounds are coming from the shadows. You can't blame them, really, since they can't see anything else.

Now imagine further, says Socrates, that from time to time one of the chained people finds a way to get free of his (or her) shackles. He stands up and turns around, and is astonished to see that the light in the cave is thrown by the fire, and slowly he realizes that the images on the far wall which he always assumed were real, are just the shadows thrown by the fire from the artificial objects. This would be an astonishing realization - to discover that what you thought was real your whole life, is only shadows.

But then the unshackled person looks up beyond the fire and sees a much brighter, more expansive light that is so bright it hurts his eyes. Since he has a new realization about lights and shadows, he decides to go up the long entrance and see what this other, larger light might be.

As the light grew brighter, the person's eyes would have trouble adjusting. Imagine what it would be like to come out of a dimly lit cave toward full sunlight. It would be quite painful, and the person might feel compelled to turn back. But imagine he had helpers who forced him to continue on toward the cave entrance. When he finally emerged in the bright sun, he would be blinded. He'd have to squint and close his eyes against the brightness. After a while, though, his eyes would begin to adjust to the light, and he'd be able to make out the shadows of real things, and then eventually the things themselves, trees, mountains, oceans, stars, the sun itself.

Imagine what it would be like to experience this world, and to realize that the cave was a world of shadows - not only shadows, but the shadows of artificial objects. The person would realize why there are seasons, and how the year progresses. He would feel, in a sense, blessed, and when he thought of his friends back in the cave, he'd be likely to want to bring them up into the light too.

So he goes back down into the cave and tries to explain to the people sitting there in chains that the world they're watching isn't real, that real light and real objects are up behind them. It might take his eyes a little time to get adjusted to the dim light again, and he might have a little trouble making his way inside the cave again.

How would the chained people react? He would probably become the butt of the chained people's jokes because he'd seem clumsy in the dimness. If the freed person tries to explain to them that the shadows are unreal, most of them will not know what he's talking
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