Mysticism is Alive in America

by | Jun 1, 2012 | Religion

According to a 2009 Harris Poll, when Americans are asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not,” the following results were revealing: 82% believe in God 76% believe in miracles 71% believe in survival of the soul after death 75% believe in Heaven Gallup and other polls have also […]

According to a 2009 Harris Poll, when Americans are asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not,” the following results were revealing:

82% believe in God
76% believe in miracles
71% believe in survival of the soul after death
75% believe in Heaven

Gallup and other polls have also shown that large numbers (if not a majority) of Americans believe in the ability to predict the future and to have contact with the dead.

Millions of words have been written about the authenticity (or lack thereof) associated with those who claim to predict the future and communicate with the dead. It is not my intention to add to that mishmash of hearsay and dubious “scientific” study.

As a psychotherapist, my question is this: What need does this fascination with mysticism serve? Why do otherwise rational and levelheaded people flock to psychics, mediums and the like? What are they looking for that is so superior to reality?
And what about conventional or traditional religion? Is the need people are seeking to fulfill basically the same?

Human beings want explanations for things. Science does not provide us with everything—at least not all at once. People are impatient. Consequently, it can be tempting for some to look for answers beyond the realm of reason and reality. Of course, what greets you there is nothing more than wishful thinking—not hard-core answers.

That notwithstanding, fantasy can hold great emotional appeal in an often uncertain and indifferent world. Adults who grew up in abusive, unhappy family environments will often tell a therapist, “I escaped by retreating into fantasy.” Fantasy, in such situations, can actually keep the young person sane through the treacherous psychological (and sometimes physical) warfare taking place in the household.

Of course, not everyone grows up in horrible family settings, but I think this offers a clue as to what’s so appealing about the paranormal: All of us, occasionally, can find life puzzling, stressful or even futile. In times like these, it can be exciting to look “outside” the real world. As an old friend of mine once put it, “It’s fine to face reality and confront your fears, but what happens when reality bites?”

Here’s where you run into the difference between psychologically healthy and unhealthy attitudes. When reality “bites,” the healthy person thinks, “What can I do to make it better?” The answer might not be immediate, but the healthy person never questions the fact that solutions do exist. A person with self-esteem trusts his or her mind to figure things out, without having to look for answers out of the blue. When confronted with problems or crises, a person with self-esteem will think, “I can stop, take a deep breath and tell myself that there is a solution in here somewhere; I just have to find it. Usually, I do.”

A person who, for whatever reason, finds it difficult to summon up this kind of attitude will take a different approach. “I just can’t take it. I need out.” In rare cases this could result in suicide, but most people are not suicidal. In some situations, drug or alcohol addiction takes over, but this is also the exception. Some will absorb themselves in favorite hobbies or their work. And still others will turn to the paranormal or supernatural.

The core issue here is confidence in the efficacy of the mind. Notice I’m saying confidence in the efficacy of “the” mind, not merely confidence in the efficacy of your own mind. In order to trust that your own mind can solve problems and find solutions, you first have to believe, by definition, that the human mind, in its capacity to reason and think, can solve problems.

This is where philosophy enters the psychological picture.

Everyone, at least subconsciously, has some sort of philosophy of life. If your philosophy tends towards the mystical and supernatural, then you’ll tend, in a crisis, to look less towards reason and more towards external, unscientific and inhuman factors, such as mediums, psychics, mysticism and the like. If your philosophy tends towards reason, secularism, science and the efficacy of the human mind to master problems, then you’ll be practical and objective in your approach to problem solving.

To some, the mystical and magical can be fascinating. It addresses questions that most of us don’t think about in daily life. What happens after we die? Is there reincarnation? Can I communicate with lost loved ones and figure out where they are? If I pray to Jesus, might he heal my ailments or solve my problems for me?

When all is said and done, of course, there is no hard and fast evidence of anything regarding the supernatural. But the appeal, for many, lies in escaping the rigors of daily life by venturing over to the “other side,” where, for a blissful little while, you can make up the rules yourself.

To the person with an already established rational philosophy, it won’t seem blissful to escape the rules of human reason and objective reality. It’s not that the reasonable person has to repress his desire to venture into the realm of the supernatural; it’s just that it doesn’t occur to him that this is an option.

To a fully reasonable person, indulging in the supernatural is like deliberately putting on a blindfold before driving a car, or walking across a busy street with earplugs. But to others, it’s a different story. At the core, they’re frightened and anxious about life, and don’t feel that their rational, reasoning capacities have equipped them with what they need to understand, thrive and flourish. They don’t have confidence in the ability of human reason to make discoveries. They ignore all that human beings have accomplished, especially in the past century or two when (at least in the Western world) the secular activities of reason, freedom and business were relatively dominant. So instead, they retreat to what they feel is a more comfortable place—into the supernatural.

A lot of times, unhappy or overstressed people will think, “Why did this happen to me? Life isn’t fair!” The thought can be in response to something horrendous and tragic, or to nothing more than a frustrating day. A rational person can truly offer no answer other than, “This is just how it is.” Don’t try to read meaning into what simply “is.”

Some things just are what they are. The challenge is to figure out how to cope with them. Maybe the negatives can even be turned into positives. Explanations are certainly valuable, but, ultimately, solutions are more important. Asking questions for which there’s no possible answer—“Why do bad things happen to good people?”—is a recipe for psychological paralysis.

When reflecting, people often ask themselves or others: “Why does God allow these things to happen?” The premise is widely accepted that there is a God. A reasonable reply is: “I don’t know. You’d have to ask God. My concern, in the here and now, is what YOU’RE going to do about it.” This is more than a mere shifting of responsibility back to the person who asked the question; it’s also an attempt to assert that the mind is efficacious, that the universe is rational and, using the proper methods, discoveries can be made to help solve problems. Thinking this way is the only way to build emotional “muscle.”
Most people have an interesting dichotomy when it comes to this issue. They subscribe to reason and objective reality when it comes to business, science, and the “practical” matters of life. But when it comes to more personal and emotional concerns, such as relationships, family, and inner growth, they escape towards the mystical.

There’s a lot of this in Hollywood and the music industry, for example, where actors/musicians rely upon and benefit from the very latest in technology (made possible by human reasoning, not supernaturalism), yet, at the same time, endorse supernatural and New Age approaches to diet, living, reincarnation, etc.

Indeed, an increasing number of Americans appear to be turning to New Age, supernatural and mystical approaches, not as a means of balancing the checkbook or selling a house, but as a means of putting life into perspective and coping with mortality. (Of course, more Americans of the traditional mindset are asserting the supernaturalism, myth and mysticism of good old-fashioned religion, as well.)

The problem with all this is the dichotomy, and even the hypocrisy, of it all. Many people in the advanced, secularized society of the United States rely upon and enjoy all the benefits of a modern society in which the activities of science and business—grounded in human reason and practicality—make the world go around. Yet, when it comes to coping and finding purpose or “meaning” in life, they turn in exactly the opposite direction: To the supernatural.

It can take two forms (not all that much different from one another): New Age and the latest religious fads, as with Hollywood and the liberal “blue states”; or fundamentalist Christianity, holding sway over many conservatives in the “red states,” and starring caricatures of the various televangelists—their multimillion dollar empires elevating panhandling and begging to a high art.

Both the religious right and the New Age left call their brand of coping “spiritualism.” They fight over ideological influence and even political power. On the surface, they’re enemies, but they share one very important and profoundly fundamental premise: The idea that reason and objective reality—while they might apply to the “practical world”—in no way apply to the inner, psychological or “personal world.”

Whether it’s somebody humbly trudging to a prayer meeting in the middle of Nebraska, or a bored Hollywood actress trying to divine dead loved ones in her extravagant Beverly Hills home, both are trying to escape beyond the realm of human reason, futilely searching for answers to questions that are forever rooted in flawed premises.

Reasonable people take a practical, problem-solving approach to both personal and professional endeavors. They don’t look for ghosts, miracles and vaguely defined “meaning” based on myths and folklore. They look for real world solutions. They don’t stare, glassy-eyed, at the latest televangelist du jour, wondering, “What’s it all about?”

Instead, they look within themselves to make their lives on earth as happy, comfortable, and fulfilling as possible. They welcome challenge and ambition. And, interestingly enough, the good feelings that emerge from improving, succeeding and learning to develop their talents will grant them the true “spirituality” that the Bible thumpers and hocus-pocus psychic followers only dream about.

Singer/composer Stevie Wonder said it best in his hit song “Superstition”: “When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer, superstition ain’t the way!”

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Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

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