Marià Corbí

Secular mysticism

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Marià Corbí

Centre Unesco de Catalunya. On Mystics: A congress. Barcelona, June 2001
(Each participant was asked to introduce himself in connection to the subject, his personal stand point on spirituality)

My intellectual research and my inner path have blended and become one and the same.
I had a catholic education.
I studied music and piano with dedication at the Liceo School of Music. Perhaps this played a part in the education of my sensitivity.
I soon developed an interest in the spiritual path. However, and at the same time, I also began to feel uncomfortable about the way in which sacred stories, myths and rituals were experienced and also, in general, with the way that the spiritual life was approached. I suffered from this profound discomfort for years, but was incapable of theorising it or of facing up to those that knew more than I. Yet I was convinced that my experience was not a personal problem and that many others found themselves in the same position as I did.

When I graduated in philosophy, as my interest in music continued, I wrote my dissertation on the transformations of the musical language of avant-garde composers.

I also graduated in theology. During my studies the discomfort of my feelings grew. Although I sought a theoretical way out of my problem I could not find it and, by this time I had no doubts that the problem that concerned me was not mine only.
At this time the idea occurred to me that, perhaps there had been shifts in sensitivity and ways of conceiving in terms of religious language, such as had taken place in music. The drastic evolution of musical language after the end of the 19th century, throughout the first half of the 20th century, demonstrated that there had been a shift in sensitivity. Transformations in painting also appeared to point in the same direction.

This shift in sensitivity, I thought, might provide the explanation for my discomfort. If sensitivity had shifted, then it would have to be assumed that ways of living and thinking had also changed; yet ways of living, conceiving and organising Christianity had stayed the same, and perhaps the key to the problem lay here.

By reason of my doctoral thesis on philosophy I began an investigation into the disciplines in which I might find the clues to resolve the problem.

I approached all of the disciplines that enter upon the study of symbols. I began with psychoanalysis, but the subjects of psychoanalysis are the symbolic worlds of pathology. Jung’s pretensions were more social, yet they situated symbols and myths against a background that was transhistoric, while my problem was precisely concerned with historic transformations.

I thought perhaps scientific studies of language would open the door, or that the theory of language from the perspective of logical positivism or scientific theory might have something to offer with regard to this question. It took me a while to realise that this was not so, because these disciplines placed the axiological weight of the terms that I wished to study in parenthesis.

Then I decided that I must take a look at linguistics. I started with German linguistics, followed by French, fashionable at that time, and ended up with American generativism.

Finally I found the instruments that I needed for a semantic analysis of myths and symbols in the linguistics of Hjelmslev and Greimas, and in the actions sequence theory of Propp.

Should sensitivity with regard to religious forms have changed then this must have been due to changes in ways of living. There had to be a connection and a correspondence between the ways of living of human groups, their ways of working and surviving in the environment, their ways of organising themselves, and transformations of sensitivity and ways of thinking.

To verify whether or not a correspondence existed and where the key to such a correspondence could be found, at the same time a semantic analysis of myths and symbols would also have to be undertaken, along with an analysis of working and social structures within the same groups.

Anthropological and ethnological data show that, throughout its history, our species has not developed a great variety of ways to survive. There was the extended age of the hunter/gatherers, another involving small groups of crop cultivators, followed by an age of large scale agriculture under an authoritarian structure, while groups of herdsmen were contemporary with the age of large scale crop agriculture. After this came industrial modes of life, finally followed by the postindustrial modes of the knowledge societies, so-called because life is based on a continuous creation of knowledge and technology. Evidently not all peoples have passed through all of these stages.

It was a question of undertaking a simultaneous double analyses, into the semantics of both myths and symbols, and working and social structures. Firstly preindustrial societies would have to be analysed, because that is when all of humanity’s great religious traditions were formed and developed.

What the data revealed was that for identical modes of survival in a given environment, i.e. by hunting and gathering or in authoritarian agricultural societies, etc., the corresponding symbols and myths were extremely similar. Subsequent semantic and working/social analysis revealed that, where on the surface they appeared to be merely similar, in terms of deep structures they were identical.

The analyses demonstrated that the central forms of survival, that the central act or acts through which they survived in the environment functioned, on a linguistic level, as paradigms, from which the myths were elaborated, from which reality was interpreted, and on the basis of which the group was evaluated and organised. The central action necessary for group survival became the paradigm of the whole of the mythic world and way of life.

Thus a certain correspondence was revealed between the forms by which humans obtained what they needed for survival from the environment and their symbolic worlds. And the key to construction lay in the correspondence between the operations that were central to survival and the central mythical/symbolical and ritual cores. Peoples that fundamentally lived by the same means had mythical worlds that were identical in terms of a semantic analysis that exposed their deep structure.

Furthermore, the myths and rites served as a programming apparatus for the group. The myths, symbols and rituals formed the software of preindustrial societies.

The purpose of the myths, symbols and rituals was not religious, but was based on constitutional, programming. Given that this was the case then the emergence of industrial societies must have resulted in a transformation of their collective programming systems. And there lies the key. Industrial societies, since their emergence, embarked on the task of substituting the programming of sacred stories of myths and symbols for an ideological and scientific programming. Later on the emergence of continuously innovative societies would, in turn, lead to a crisis of ideologies and the appearance of a new form of collective programming, the creation of collective projects and postulates to which individuals and groups are free to attach themselves.

Religions were formed, expressed and organised in and from these preindustrial programming structures. This meant that, as can be verified, a change in the way of life corresponds to changes in myths, symbols and rituals, in short, to changes of religion. Those forms that we may define as being related to yoga, managed to avoid this law of cultural transformations.

The appearance of industrial and postindustrial societies inevitably led to the start of a progressive alienation of religion as a means of experiencing the most radical human dimensions characteristic of societies in decline.

Thus the appearance of continuous innovation, postindustrial, intelligent, knowledge based societies or information societies (all of these names have been given to the new industrial groups) has brought to light another important mutation in the ideological structure of these societies.

Preindustrial societies survived by doing the same thing for millenniums. Applying computer imagery we can say that they built up a viable and verified programme over thousands of years and blocked out all possible transformations of importance or any alternative. The blocking programme mechanism was the belief that this life project came from God, the gods, or their sacred ancestors. Therefore societies that had to exclude all changes were founded on beliefs. For beliefs we must understand an unconditional submission to forms, ways of thinking, feeling, acting and organisation that are assumed and to which both individuals and groups subject themselves.

Belief does not, in itself, have any religious pretensions; it is a process central to the programming of those societies that survive by doing the same thing and excluding change. Belief is one of the pillars of the software of static societies. Faith, the “touch” (in the words of S. Juan de la Cruz) of the Absolute is what provided such beliefs with a religious dimension. Openness, trust, devotion and the “touch” of faith lacked any possibility of expression other than the formulas of the programme’s central beliefs.

In a society organised around beliefs, the inner life was thought, lived and expressed through beliefs, no other possibility existed. Industrial societies were in transit, because they did not live in a state of continuous innovation. They were not seen as mobile, except in terms of their science and technology, even though they changed frequently in the time that they lasted.

Computerised societies, in which there is a continuous innovation of services and products, have resulted in the continuous creation of science and technology, and thus continuous changes in ways of interpreting reality and ways of working. Technological changes and changes in the ways of working bring continuous modifications in organisations and, therefore, in group cohesion systems, in projects and in collective goals. In this new type of society everything is in a state of continuous change.

Furthermore, collective programming, the new software, must motivate continuous change and creation, because therein lies the key to economic success. And it is precisely for this reason that beliefs must be excluded, because beliefs determine the interpretation, evaluation, ways of acting and the organisation of collective projects.

As a consequence in these new circumstances it is necessary to separate what we have, up to now, called the “religious dimensions of existence” from “beliefs”.

This is the change that has been wrought in the new societies. The religion of preindustrial societies was formed by a collective agrarian, authoritarian, patriarchal and static programme, because such excluded all possibility of change or any alternative, and as a result such societies were founded on beliefs and submission, exclusive, excluding and local. In the West this package of features has been called “Religion”.

Religion in preindustrial societies, in the preindustrial sectors of industrial societies and in those sectors of humanity in which neither industrialism or postindustrialism have formed a part, played and plays the role of the bearer of the Great Dimension of existence, the Sacred Dimension, as well as the inciter and guide to the inner path.

In the new societies the bearer of religion in its preindustrial forms, the spiritual path, the inner way, must now be expressed in programmes that motivate continuous creation, continuous change and democracy, programmes that must exclude patriarchies and beliefs, because they determine the way things are, the exclusivenesses and the exclusions, because it is a case of global societies.

Preindustrial societies structured their present and future by repeating the past. The new societies decide the present by designing and projecting the future, only learning from the past, because in creative and continuously changing societies the past cannot be repeated.

As a result the new societies are secular and beliefless, yet these characteristics are not the result of infidelity, degradation or evil, but are unavoidable consequences of the transformations that have taken place in terms of how human groups survive.

These are the facts and it seems unlikely that there can be any going back. My position as a professor in the Social Sciences Department of a Business School (ESADE), has forced me to keep my feet on the ground and to accept things as they are. This new way of life for our species is not, in itself, either good or bad, it all depends on how we manage it.

If religious traditions cannot offer anything wrapped up in beliefs and submissions to these new societies, then what can they offer, and how?

I embarked on a study of humanity’s great religious traditions, from the perspective of the cultural conditions of the new situation. I started by studying the remoter cultural traditions, in order to avoid the interference of my own beliefs: Hinduism, Buddhism. As my research progressed I approached western religions, first Islam, then Judaism and finally the great Christian mystics. In this study my interest was centred in the depth of the message rather than questions of the doctrine or beliefs that were being expressed.

For many years I worked alone, studying the great texts and the great authors of these traditions. Then, little by little, people began to join in my study. Over the last 15 years we have brought together a group of people on a weekly basis to make a common study of the great texts.

This individual and group work has ensured and made possible the subtlety and refinement of faculties, the freedom of all form and the silent approximation to the “formlessness” of all form. I realised that my intellectual research had also been a religious inquiry, an inner path, even though I had not always been aware of this. After this I would be unable to separate one thing from the other.

What the religious traditions could offer the secular and beliefless societies of continuous change, became clear: another dimension to existence, a dimension that is a peculiar quality of living, that consists of a transformation that passes for the silencing of egocentrism in thought, in feeling and in actions.

Silence and watchfulness lead from egocentrism to gratitude and unconditional love for all, from plurality to unity.
For societies that live off the continuous creation of knowledge and technologies, and through one and the other, from the continuous creation of new services and new products, traditions offer another dimension of knowledge: knowledge from the complete silence of egocentrism, silent knowledge that is knowledge of the “not two”, of the “not other”, of the “what is”, a knowledge in which subject/object duality, of “I and the other” has been silenced.

In this new society men build and manage all aspects of their lives. This is our risk and never before has man faced up to such a risk. We no longer have accredited life projects inherited from the past, descended from the heavens. We have to design and project our future on our own. What we do with our lives as men on this earth and what we do with the earth itself will depend on what we do with the power of our sciences and technologies. There is no longer any way of avoiding this situation and this responsibility.

We have a need for quality, especially the quality that is offered by humanity’s great religious traditions. We have a need of this peculiar quality, which is a deep quality, unassociated with forms, capable of taking an interest in and loving all things unconditionally. We need it more than ever now because, in the first place, it is of value in itself and it would be an atrocious crime not to recover and apply it to the new circumstances and the new generations. And, secondly, because we have to be able to maintain a psychic and human balance in societies that are continually changing their forms.

Without this quality, which cannot be governed by the forms of the past because it cannot repeat them, nor by those of the future because they still do not exist, we cannot manage either our present or our future, or our life on earth or the life of the earth itself in a convenient way.

Because of the way that preindustrial society was, we attached ourselves to the untouchable, exclusive and excluding beliefs, to which we had to submit; we attached to them the reading and understanding of scriptures, the sacred stories, the myths and rituals, the great texts and their authors. The inner life should not escape from these patterns. That is why, in the West, the mysticism that comes close to “formlessness” and frees us from all form, has been seriously obstructed and alienated.

Under the new cultural conditions we have had to learn to approach all of the scriptures, sacred texts, stories, myths and rituals, stripped of submission to untouchable, exclusive and excluding beliefs. This simplifies the deep message inherent in all traditions. From this standpoint all traditions open up, without difficulty, to show their immense riches and to place them within the reach of all ways of life and all cultures. This is a positive aspect of the secular, global and beliefless societies.

When beliefs do not raise barriers the traditions clearly manifest their radical unity. This unity has shown that within the traditions there is no any longer yours and mine, they are all the legacy of us all, they are all within reach of us all. It is not a case of syncretism or of relativism. The truth may be told in many ways; the diamond has many facets. We can learn to be guided in our personal work by the traditions without this signifying syncretism, as we can learn to be guided by the poets of all humanity in the search for poetry itself without, for that reason, being accused of being syncretists. It will all depend on the maturity and coherence with which we make use of the traditions.

This is the situation: the new societies, because they are forced to live without beliefs, are secular and global, can approach all of the religious traditions that have existed throughout the history of humanity, without either external or internal confrontations, without the beliefs serving as barriers to an understanding of the teachings of the traditions. Thus they are incited and pushed into using forms in order to transcend them and to learn from them to discern the “formlessness” in all form.

A new way of following the inner path is, in this way opened up for the men of the new societies: a path that accepts all traditions as its own, given that none can nor must be excluded, insofar as it must learn to use and transcend the forms of each one; must learn the characteristics and the internal logic of all of the traditions in order not to mix them together in an incoherent hotchpotch.

The people of the new societies, who cannot repeat the past and cannot live off beliefs, have to live off projects, which are designs for the future, built by themselves and at their own risk. These conditions prevent them (logically, with internal schizophrenias anything is possible) from subjecting themselves to the beliefs proposed by the traditions. Without beliefs, nobody can place himself above the rest. If it is not for a quality that is impossible to reduce to formulas, nobody can exclude the other; all show their deep intention and, in this way, their radical unity with all of the others.

The discovery of the deep unity of all traditions, discloses the reason why each of them must help all of the others and must venerate them, and reveals the reason why they must all learn from all.

This situation of convergence pushes us into not mistaking the inner path that leads to the complete silencing of egocentrism and watchfulness, which is a path that leads to “not two”, to “not other”, to “formlessness”, and the submission of beliefs.

Thus, the inner path and all of the wealth of humanity’s religious traditions are open to the men of the new societies of creation and continuous change, secular and beliefless. The need to follow this path does not necessarily mean confronting impossible tasks or returning to the old beliefs and affiliations, does not necessarily mean that the new knowledge societies will have to alienate themselves.

If we accept the term “mysticism”, despite the ambiguities evoked by its use, we could say that the possibility of a secular and beliefless mysticism is open, prepared to learn from all of humanity’s religious traditions. I prefer to talk of an inner path, from the society that exists, a society of continuous creation, secular, beliefless and global.

In less than 15 years we have moved from one kind of mixed society, consisting of a preindustrial sector and another dominant industrial sector, to another kind of mixed society consisting, this time, of an even more extensive industrial sector and another, minority yet influential and decisive, postindustrial sector. This means that the statements that I have made are of especial value for the postindustrial sectors, yet also, in some way, for the rest of society, because it is the postindustrial sector that imposes the new logic of globalness, in both the economy and politics, as well as in communications and culture.

Three years ago we set up a Centre for the Study of Religious Traditions. This allows us to offer the work that, for many years, was done in private to the public.

At our Centre we cultivate an approximation to the great religious traditions, not so much on the basis of their beliefs and doctrines, but based on the great texts and masters. This approximation, although undertaken with all possible academic rigour, is not intended to be erudite. The aim is to learn, and to teach, how to make direct and immediate contact with the great texts of the different traditions.

We want our Centre to resemble more a Music School than a religious Sciences Faculty. We study in order to learn and we learn in order to practice. We hope that the immediate treatment of the great texts will show us the path that must be followed and how we must follow it; by learning to listen to the message of the texts and authors, we receive their initiation and their thrust.

Our approximation to the texts is always from a secular stance, beliefless and global, i.e. we consider all of the traditions as our own.

We also intend to learn to find interior silence, in practical sessions using the principal methods proposed by the great traditions. Every evening, from Monday to Friday we practice this silence at our Centre.

We organise a few weekends every quarter outside the city for the same purpose.
In both one and the other case it is our intention that the people of the new societies, secular and beliefless, should learn of the wealth of the silence offered by the great traditions, without such involving the reinstatement of established religions or that, once more, we become believers. He who so wishes can do so, with absolute freedom.

We have a library and those that may be interested can come and read the great authors and the great texts at our Centre.
We organise courses and conferences on the continuous transformation of society, in economic or political, in social, scientific and artistic terms, to maintain direct contact with current events. The risk of engrossment is real and could lead you to lose your footing. I believe that an inner path that does not know which world it inhabits is somewhat unreal and may well turn out to be a flight or an illusion.

The new society has many acritical attitudes and ideas, yet these are not beliefs. It has many things that it considers to be untouchable values, without this untouchability being the fruit of reflection and analysis, yet these are not myths. In the past the myths and beliefs provided riches. Acritical attitudes and untouchable opinions and attitudes, due to a lack of lucidity, provide poverty.

This is why we affirm that the new beliefless and secular societies, without real affiliations, global because of our sciences and technologies, economy, communications and leisure, are universal, because all of the great texts of the traditions, and the traditions themselves, are already present in our bookshops and in our cities.

These are our conditions of life. It is unlikely that we can go backwards. And although not all of humanity is in these conditions, they are influenced by them, and if things do not go too badly, we hope that they will become incorporated to them.

Under these conditions of life we must take hold of the vast deposit of teachings, of traditions and of the masters concerning the inner path. We can only follow this path from the real conditions of life, not from those that we yearn or wish for. Accepting what exists is the first principal of love, which is the condition of knowledge. Acceptance of what is, the way it is, is not a conformist attitude but the prior condition for improving the world.

In our cultural situation there is something that is now inevitable, that we live from the continuous creation of science and technology and, through them, from the continuous creation of products and services. All of the rest is avoidable. The venerable path of our ancestors will have to be followed under these conditions. The quality that we acquire by taking this path will powerfully contribute to the suitable management of this voyage, full of risks, of the new culture.

The quality that we achieve by taking this interior path will be a complete ecumenicalism. And the ecumenicalism will be complete because it is secular and beliefless, because it is a secular mysticism.


Centre Unesco de Catalunya. On Mystics Congress. Barcelona, June 2001
(Each participant was asked to introduce himself in connection to the subject, his personal stand point on spirituality)

Marià Corbí es profesor de ESADE y dirige el Centro de Estudio de las Tradiciones Religiosas, de Barcelona. Doctor en Filosofía y licenciado en Teología ha estudiado largamente las consecuencias ideológicas y religiosas de las transformaciones de la sociedad industrial.

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La religió que ve. Barcelona, Claret, 1991.
Conocer desde el silencio. Santander, Sal Terrae, 1992.
Proyectar la sociedad, reconvertir la religión. Barcelona, Herder, 1992.
Viento de libertad. Barcelona, Llar del Llibre, 1994.
Religión sin religión. Madrid, PPC, 1996.
El camino interior, más allá de las formas religiosas. Barcelona, Bronce, 2001. (edición en catalán: Columna/Viena, 1999)