Taking the Purple Pill: On the Paradoxical Pedagogy of Mysticism

Jeffrey J. Kripal

Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation that I can receive from another soul.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Divinity School Address, July 15, 1838

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Scene one. Part fiction, part fact. I am teaching a course for which I have assigned a standard collection of essays on the study of sexuality and Christian mysticism. In one of these essays, there is a single footnote abstractly referencing the literature on some homoerotic readings of Jesus and Paul. I never mentioned these matters in this particular class period. We were talking about something else. I forget what. A female student approaches me after class, obviously quite distraught by this single footnote, which she had stumbled upon the night before.

She had never seriously considered this. Now she was considering this, and it made way more sense than she was comfortable with. She is asking me for advice. I do the best I can. I tell her that there is indeed a substantial literature on these issues. I explain to her my own reading of the issue (which only confirms her deepest anxieties). I also offer to help her. I tell her that, if she chooses to read this literature, she will almost certainly need someone to talk to. I offer the open door of my office as a source of future support and processing, should she decide to go in this direction.

“Oh,” she replies, “this is just like The Matrix. You are offering me the red or the blue pill, aren’t you?” I am stunned by both the depth of the insight and the poignancy of the metaphor. “Yes,” I reply, “I suppose I am. It is up to you. I cannot make this choice for you. You must decide for yourself.”

Here she was referring to the famous early scene in the film where the figure of Morpheus offers Neo a choice of two pills, red or blue. If he chooses the red one, Neo will awaken into a kind of terrifying enlightenment and see, clearly and for the first time, the illusory nature of the virtual world he now takes for granted. If, however, he chooses the blue pill, he will remain asleep, deluded by the Matrix, but happy and secure in his little life.

The student approached me again a few weeks later. She had decided to take the blue pill. She had decided not to read the literature. She had decided to keep this particular aspect of the secret secret.

* * * *

Scene two. I am teaching a course on American metaphysical religion, from Emerson’s Over-Soul to Esalen’s human potential. A young man sits in my classroom. I know who he is. He has traveled half way around the world to be here. He had a mind-blowing mystical experience in high school, just sitting there in a classroom staring out the window. Light danced off a metal roof, and he found himself becoming absorbed in a terrifyingly transcendent form of cosmic consciousness. It shattered him. He visited religious teacher after religious teacher in his home country, to no avail. None could explain what had happened to him. They all preached their individual doctrines and communities. None could go beyond their little local truths to what he had known, instantly, in that utterly transcendent moment.

Then he read William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. That made sense to him. Indeed, that book more or less saved him. He now knew, after all, that he was not crazy, that he was not alone, that what he had experienced others had too, and—perhaps most of all—that a state of consciousness need not be tied to a culture to be real. He came to Rice to study “mysticism.” The Over-Soul sits in my classrooms now. The One is writing a dissertation.

* * * *

There are many perfectly legitimate ways to teach a course on mysticism. Over the last century, the field has swung, like a pendulum on steroids, from a kind of absolute idealism or perennialism in which all “true” mystical experiences shared an identical, or near identical, phenomenology, to a near absolute contextualism in which all we are said to have are texts, local histories, cultural practices, language systems, and so on. We are even told that something like “experience” is a modern construct that ancients or medievals did not really possess. My own position has always been more dialectical and more comparative, that is, I think we need to keep in creative tension both this universal idealism and this radical contextualism, and ground it all in a shared humanity, not to mention a shared physiology, a shared biology, and a shared cosmos. Both sameness and difference are worth thinking about, and I suspect that we err precisely to the extent that we ignore one or the other of these philosophical poles. In the end, I think, these are not mutually exclusive positions. Rather, they are “terms” or ends of a single spectrum of possibility.

For my own part, I am perfectly willing to take that “difference” very far. Indeed, I happen to think that reality itself is co-created by human consciousness in radically different ways in different places and times, and I mean this quite literally. Reality really is multiple, different, depending upon how its potentialities are actualized by different belief systems and cultural practices [1]. But it is also actualized by a shared human nature, by a common neurophysiology, by a mixing, matching gene pool, and by a shared set of universal biological realities, like birth, sex, and death. We really are different. And we really are the same. We thus probably need to move beyond both our universalism and our relativism. They are both true. And they are both false.

Such seeming paradoxes are directly relevant to pedagogy as well as scholarship. When one teaches, one interacts with other human beings, other forms of consciousness, who are more than their cultures or beliefs or languages, and who are both like one and not like one. Allow me a rather extreme analogy here. In 1966, a young American named Terence McKenna decided to smoke some DMT. He came down from that experience and said to himself:

“I cannot believe this; this is impossible, this is completely impossible.” There was a declension of gnosis that proved to me in a moment that right here and now, one quanta away, there is raging a universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien. I call it the Logos, and I make no judgments about it. I constantly engage it in dialogue, saying, “Well, what are you? Are you some kind of diffuse consciousness that is in the ecosystem of the earth? Are you a god or an extraterrestrial? Show me what you know.” [2]

I have never smoked DMT. I have never smoked anything more interesting than a cigar from a proud new father (and that was pretty awful—the cigar now, not the father). But I often feel very much like Terence as I stand before a classroom of walking, talking mysteries. In that moment, one quanta away, there are forms of human being that hide their own secrets. I too try to engage them. I speak to them. I ask provocative questions. Astonishingly, they often answer back, and with the damnedest stories. Through hundreds of classroom conversations, private office visits, and letters, I have been privileged to hear many such secrets. I have listened to stories about out-of-body experiences in car accidents, about paranormal cognitions across space and time, and about eminently positive ecstatic states emerging organically from the suffering of earlier and terrible sexual trauma. There is no end to such impossibilities. Terence was right: “one quanta away, there is raging a universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.”

It is in these moments that I realize that I too am being offered the red or the blue pill. I try to take the red pill, but nothing usually happens. I’m still just standing there, stuck in my banality. So I go back to my lectures and my books. I take the blue pill. Which, of course, turns my red pill purple.

It is out of that purpleness that I write. In four such purple monographs, I have analyzed some of the erotic, hermeneutical, gnostic, and democratic dimensions of speaking “the secrets” (ta mystika) of what we have come to call, for lack of a better word, “mysticism.” [3] In the process, I have become increasingly aware that the category is very much tied up with modernity, with the rise of a kind of transgressive individualism in Western society, and, perhaps most of all, with the history and fate of religious liberalism. As the term has arisen and developed in American culture, at least, it also bears an unusually intimate relationship with the academy (and particularly the comparative study of religion), with the free ritual spaces of the classroom and the book, and with a particular paradoxical relationship to religious authority and tradition [4]. As such, it is an especially powerful category, our category, from which to teach this same paradoxical independence from and intimacy with the religious traditions.

It is this same paradoxical nature of the category again—at once distancing and intimate—that provides, or so I want to suggest, the intellectual space within which one can meet students on a potentially deep level and speak with them about their own ambivalent relationships to all those historical realities that form the foundation and substance of a course on mysticism: tradition and text, ritual and doctrine, body and gender, scripture and religious authority, language and culture, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and so on.

Before and beyond all of these abstract theoretical matters, however, are the students themselves, who possess, who are, their own forms of mystery. This, for me, is the most fundamental, the reddest, pedagogical issue at stake for a course on mysticism. There are all those blue issues: which books to assign, what lectures to give, what time of the day to teach, and of course all those very blue theories about how it is all context, all text, all history, all politics, and so on. And then there are those damned stories. The point is not, of course, that the meaning of these events are now exhaustively understood and made transparent in the classroom, or even in the private spaces of a paper or an office visit. They are not. How could they be? Rather, the point is that the category of “mysticism” and the course that privileges it provide together a ritual and intellectual safe space through which the students can speak their own secrets and make some sense of them in relationship, no doubt a paradoxical one, to their own cultural and religious traditions.

It’s always the same story, really. No one would listen to them. No one would believe them. No one would allow them to think such thoughts. But now they can tell their stories freely, openly, if also always hesitantly. They are ecstatic. Or afraid. Or both.

But that too is a lesson, isn’t it? Consider my female student described above again. She will likely never forget what happened in that class, and all because of a little footnote that neither of us intended. And she will always probably wonder what it would have been like if she had taken the red pill and stepped out of her Matrix. Which means, of course, that, in some small way, she really did take the red pill, even as she swallowed the blue one.

And that is what it is like to teach “mysticism.”

® 2008 copyright by Jeffrey J. Kripal


[1] Here I follow anthropological authors like Ernesto de Martino, The World of Magic (New York: Pyramid, 1972) and Richard Shweder, Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). My thought and language are also indebted to the American human potential movement.

[2] Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 38.

[3] These are, respectively, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago, 1995/1998); Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago, 2001); The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion (Chicago, 2006); and Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago, 2007).

[4] The finest demonstration of this thesis of which I am aware is Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

Related articles from Religion Compass:

$1.99 - small Sufism – What Is It Exactly?
By Paul L. Heck , Georgetown University
(Vol. 1, November 2006)

$1.99 - small What’s New in the History of Christianity?
By Anne Thayer , Lancaster Theological Seminary
(Vol. 2, January 2007)

8 thoughts on “Taking the Purple Pill: On the Paradoxical Pedagogy of Mysticism

  1. Thanks for a wonderful reflection on mysticism. I am neither an academic nor clergy, so in my work (I have a blog devoted to Christian mysticism and am currently writing a book on the topic for the general reader) I’m interested in what, for lack of a better term, could be called ‘mysticism on the street.’ In other words, how does this particular kind of religious discourse shape, and is in turn shaped by, the experience of contemplative practitioners, particularly in our day when such practice is increasingly not anchored in a monastic or even religious context.

    A question for you: You reference “a standard collection of essays on the study of sexuality and Christian mysticism.” Could you please provide bibliographic details? I would love to check this out. Or is it your own, as yet unpublished, collection?

    Bring on the red pill!

    Carl McColman
    The Website of Unknowingtt

  2. Pingback: The Pedagogy of Mysticism « The Website of Unknowing

  3. Pingback: Pages tagged "paradoxical"

  4. I’d like a red pill please. Also, was Jesus a mystic parallel to Ramakrishna? What I mean is, do their lives reflect each other’s as far as their relationships with their “Mothers” I’m referring to Jesus to Mary and Ramakrishna to Sikta (or Kali).

  5. [Hi Carl, please find below a response to your query from Jeff Kripal. Best, Liam]

    Thanks, Carl,

    I have assembled a sample list of reading materials here for your perusal. For more books and annotations on them, see my The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).



    Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986).

    Virginia Burrus and Catharine Keller, ed., Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of a Discipline (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

    Gary David Comstock and Susan E. Henking, eds., Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology (New York: Continuum, 1999).

    Bernard Faure, The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

    Grace M. Jantzen, Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

    Jeffrey J. Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

  6. Hmmm, that was interesting. Looks like somethings will always remain mystery.

    I myself has been trying to solve the mystery of the legend that forces you to have “earn it before

    having it”, for a wile now. Could not understand much though.

    Let me know in case you get to understand the mystery of the Old Hound and the Legend

    By the way, good writing style. I’d love to read more on similar topics

  7. Man, I followed that the dark truth link, and was completely in the story. Damn exciting. The latest post talks about a friend of him who’s gone missing . Somewhere on his way to Leh, India. And the guy is asking for help find it. Soundss like an online game . This looks interesting. M already hooked on.

    Hey, btw, nice post you have there – keep rocking – ;)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s