About 100 years ago Evelyn Underhill wrote her famous book about mysticism. According to some still the best introduction one might find. I remember, when I read it a few years ago, it shook my world and I believe many people here will recognize what is written.
Let us then start at the beginning: and remind ourselves of a few of the trite and primary facts which all practical persons agree to ignore. That beginning, for human thought, is of course the I, the Ego, the self-conscious subject which is writing this book, or the other self-conscious subject which is reading it; and which declares, in the teeth of all arguments, I AM.
Here is a point as to which we all feel quite sure. No metaphysician has yet shaken the ordinary individual’s belief in his own existence. The uncertainties only begin for most of us when we ask what else is .
To this I, this conscious self “imprisoned in the body like an oyster in his shell,” come, as we know, a constant stream of messages and experiences. Chief amongst these are the stimulation of the tactile nerves whose result we call touch, the vibrations taken up by the optic nerve which we call light, and those taken up by the ear and perceived as sound.
What do these experiences mean? The first answer of the unsophisticated Self is, that they indicate the nature of the external world: it is to the “evidence of her senses” that she turns, when she is asked what the world is like. From the messages received through those senses, which pour in on her whether she will or no, battering upon her gateways at every instant and from every side, she constructs that “sense-world” which is the “real and solid world” of normal men.
As the impressions come in–or rather those interpretations of the original impressions which her nervous system supplies–she pounces on them, much as players in the spelling game pounce on the separate letters dealt out to them. She sorts, accepts, rejects, combines: and then triumphantly produces from them a “concept” which is, she says, the external world.
With an enviable and amazing simplicity she attributes her own sensations to the unknown universe. The stars, she says, are bright; the grass is green. For her, as for the philosopher Hume, “reality consists in impressions and ideas.”
It is immediately apparent, however, that this sense-world, this seemingly real external universe–though it may be useful and valid in other respects–cannot be the external world, but only the Self’s projected picture of it. It is a work of art, not a scientific fact.