The Mystical Positivist celebrates 10 years of exploring spiritual thought and practice
By Laura Hagar Rush, Townsy Media, March 27, 2021
When Sebastopol’s Stuart Goodnick was in graduate school, he was trying to explain his rationalist approach to spirituality to a friend, who after listening for a while declared “You’re a mystical positivist!”
That moniker lives on in the long-running podcast and KOWS radio show that Goodnick and colleague Dr. Robert Schmidt have been hosting for 10 years. They’re about to record their 377th show. The Mystical Positivist, which started in December 2010, consists of commentary, book reviews, interviews and discussion about different spiritual traditions.
According to the podcast’s website, “The Mystical Positivist is dedicated to the application of reason in the pursuit of spiritual practice and development … The thesis of the show is that rationality is in no way the antithesis of deep mystical experience; in fact, we assert that it is a necessary ally.”
Ergo, the positivist label. The mystical part comes in their choice of guests. A glance at the last two years of podcast topics reveals a heavy emphasis on Buddhism, but during that same time Schmidt and Goodnick have also interviewed Sufi and Quaker practitioners, as well as an Episcopalian priest, a member of the Golden Dawn, scientific researchers in the field of consciousness and a number of do-it-yourself spiritual teachers.
The hosts themselves come from a Gurdjieff-based tradition known as the Fourth Way. (Gurdjieff was an early 20th century spiritual teacher.) Tayu Meditation Center, founded by their teacher, Robert Daniel Ennis, in 1976 and based in Sebastopol, incorporates a number of the core teachings of the Fourth Way tradition.
Tayu owns and operates Many Rivers Books, a religious and spiritual bookstore in downtown Sebastopol, in which — like the podcast — you can find teachings in almost every spiritual tradition.
“Many Rivers basically is about many rivers flowing into one ocean,” Goodnick said. “Not that all traditions are the same or that they find their way to the ocean in the same way, but they ultimately almost necessarily have to find their way to the same place.”
It’s difficult to sum up a spiritual tradition in one paragraph, but, according to Schmidt, Tayu involves the development of a “witness consciousness” which is aware of but does not comment on all the various aspects of a person’s experience, combined with co-meditation, a practice devised by Ennis for meditating with and on another person.
“Co-meditation is based on establishing and maintaining eye contact with other human beings, while putting full attention on that other person, and to the extent possible, letting go of attention on one’s own internal processes,” Schmidt said.
In addition to their shared practice of Tayu meditation, Goodnick and Schmidt bring an interesting mix of backgrounds and experiences to the show—as well as a fierce intellectualism. Goodnick, who graduated from CalTech with a degree in physics, is a director of engineering at a large tech company, and Schmidt, who has his PhD in archeology, has travelled his own interesting path.
“I’ve had three careers,” he said, “a blue collar one doing color lithography, the academic one — I was a co-editor of a groundbreaking (for the time) book called “Archaeologies of Sexuality,” where sexuality was looked at as an object of knowledge in archaeological contexts for the first time pretty much — and now the bookstore.”
The Mystical Positivist began as a radio show, but it’s evolved over the years.
“It started off as a radio show for KOWS, and then we would just take the radio shows and basically put them online. So it was sort of a podcast, but early on, it had more of the valence of a radio show. I’d say, we’re trending more towards the valence of a podcast,” which he describes as “a little more organic and more like a long conversation.”
Both Schmidt and Goodnick prefer that mode.
“There’s no way, before joining in conversation with folks to know exactly how it’s going to work out,” Schmidt said. “One of the fun things about the podcast is that we’re discovering along the way, and and that means listeners discovering along the way, as well.”
Goodnick, who is a part of KOWS technical team, doesn’t know how many people their radio show reaches, but said the podcast gets between 100 and 1,000 hits, depending on the show—and how adept the guest is at social media.
What do Schmidt and Goodnick hope listeners will get out of listening to The Mystical Positivist?
“I hope that that they hear how their experience does not need to be fixed,” Schmidt said, using the term “fixed” in its meaning of unchangeable. “We have this enormous variety of ways that people have approached living a creative and generous life. And so I hope that from the variety that we present, that they will actually be inspired to work in some direction that is true to their own situation and circumstances and craft their own creative response to the world and to increase that mutual generosity that I think is partly why we’re here.”
Goodnick said there are a couple of things that he hopes people get out of the show.
“One is that we want to provide tools for practitioners of a variety of traditions to hear conversations among senior practitioners and teachers about spiritual practice. And that’s just useful for clarifying questions that individuals may have in their own practice.”
“I also hope that for people who listen to the show who may not be engaged in spiritual practice or a deep formal one, they recognize that there are a lot of possibilities available for learning to go deeper with ourselves—and that there are many traditions, no exclusive tradition, but many traditions that can support them.”