Mysticism (from the Greek μυστικός, an initiate of a mystery religion, μυστήρια meaning "initiation": The Eleusinian Mysteries, or mystery religions in general, do not necessarily involve mysticism; the present meaning of the term arose, rather, via Platonism and Neoplatonism, which made reference to the Eleusinian initiation as a metaphor for the "initiation" to spiritual truths is the pursuit of achieving communion, identity with, or conscious awareness of ultimate reality, the Other, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, or insight.
In many cases, the purpose of mysticism and mystical disciplines such as meditation, is to reach a state of return or re-integration with the Godhead. A common theme in mysticism is that the mystic and all of reality or God are a unity, termed Unio Mystica "mystical union". The purpose of mystical practices is to achieve that oneness in experience, to achieve a larger identity and re-identify with the all that is. Terms for this fundamental experience occur with various connotations in most or all religious traditions,
The term "mysticism" is often used to refer to beliefs which go beyond the purely exoteric practices of mainstream religions, while still being related to or based in a mainstream religious doctrine. For example, Kabbalah is a significant mystical movement within Judaism, and Sufism is a significant mystical movement within Islam. Gnosticism refers to various mystical sects of classical / late antiquity that were influenced by Platonism, Judaism and Christianity. Some have arguedTemplate:Who? that Christianity itself was a mystical sect that arose out of Judaism. Non-traditional knowledge and ritual are considered as Esotericism, for example Buddhism's Vajrayana. Vedanta, the Naths (North India), the Natha (South India), Siddhar, Nagas are considered the several mystical branches of Hinduism. Hinduism, being an ancient religion and a rather broad 'all-paths' embracing philosophy, has many mystical branches.
Mystical doctrines may reference religious texts that are non-canonical, as well as more mainstream canon (Christian example of the former, Dark Night of the Soul, and the latter Book of Revelation), and generally require a more committed intellectual, psychological and physical approach from spiritual devotees. Most mystical teachers typically have some history or connection with a mainstream religious branch — controversial or otherwise, but gather followers through reinterpreting sacred texts or developing new spiritual approaches from their own unique experience.
Mystics hold that there is a deeper, more fundamental state of existence hidden beneath the appearances of day–to–day living (which may become, to the mystic, superficial or epiphenomenal). For the authentic mystic, unity is both the internal and external focus as one seeks the truth about oneself, one's relationship to others and reality (both the world at large and the unseen realm). The mystic's motivation for such an arduous endeavor appears to be unique to the individual and culture, and sometimes a new religion, order or sect may be the legacy. Generally approached through the purification processes of prayer, meditation, contemplation (communion with Reality), ingestion of entheogens (to raise consciousness and loosen the ego), and a wide variety of other means, the mystic seeks to transcend any constraint to his direct experience of the divine.
The processes/experiences undertaken to achieve unity are described variously as the path, theosis, faqr (Sufism), Makhafah/Mahabbah/Ma'rifah (fear/love/knowledge, Sufism/Egypt), fana (Sufism/Arab and Persian), enlightenment, the way, transcendence, the Fourth Way (G. I. Gurdjieff), salvation through the Christ self, satori (Zen Buddhism), dhyana or bhakti (Hinduism), wu-wei (Taoism), etc. Every culture develops traditions and myths pointing the way to the transcendent heroic Self; the process may be embodied in visual symbolism (Hindu "Shiva"/Christian "Stations of the Cross") or detailed psychologically in powerful stories such as Theseus and Odysseus, etc.
The divine realm has been expressed in any of various ways across cultures — as God/Allah/Brahma/Creator, baqa' (Sufism), the perfect goodness, ultimate reality, hal (Persian sufism), a universal presence, force or divine principle. The ultimate unification with the divine may be experienced by the mystic as psychological emancipation, samadhi, being born again, wahdat al-wujud(Sufism) or unity consciousness, but in practical terms it can be described as a surrendered egoless state in which the external world synchronizes with the mystic's true nature and purpose. The term, heaven/nirvana, while generally considered an after-death experience in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism is seen by the mystic as a non-physical realm or "field" with physical effects in the eternal "now." Severe cultural alienation often accompanies this effort as the mystic turns away from the world (fasting/emptying) seeking reunion with the Creator or Godhead within.
Mysticism is usually understood in a religious context, but as William James and Ken Wilber point out, transcendent experiences may happen to anyone, regardless of religious training or inclinations. Such experiences can occur unbidden and without preparation at any time, and might not be understood as religious experiences at all. A momentary unity may be experienced by the artist or athlete as a perceived interconnection with existence or a loss of self accompanied by feelings of euphoria, by the scientist as a spontaneous ecstatic inspiration, by an ordinary individual as a shift in physical reality after experiencing a temporary unconflicted state of mind, by a prophet as an open channel of knowledge or even dismissed as psychological disturbances in modern times. But, the authentic mystic's ultimate goal is a sustained stable state of full consciousness, wholeness/holiness through self-knowledge. First, the observer role (Seer, Watcher) must be stabilized before he/she can return to being, merge with the preexistent field — the Divine, allowing him to fulfill his purpose or realize his passion. With that in mind, the word mysticism, is best used to point to conscious and systematic attempts to gain transcendent insights/experiences through studies and practice. Possible techniques include meditation, contemplation (of causality), prayer, asceticism (fasting from the world), devotions, Dhikr, Sama, the chanting of mantras or holy names, communion with entheogens, and intellectual investigation. Mystics typically go beyond specific religious perspectives or dogmas in their teachings, espousing an inclusive and universal perspective that rises above traditional sectarian differences because they comprehend the shared basis of other religious traditions beneath the superficial. (see interdenominationalism, interfaith, and perennial philosophy).
James points out that a mystical experience displays the world through a different lens than ordinary experience. The experience, in his words, is "ineffable" and "noetic"; placed beyond the descriptive abilities of language. While there is debate over what this implies, and whether the experience actually transcends the phenomenal or material world of ordinary perception, or rather transcends the capacities of ordinary perception to bring the phenomenal and material world into full view, it should be remembered that a complete absence of terminology — related to modern psychology, biology and physics — existed during the evolution of mankind's sacred texts and earliest attempts to communicate the unity experience. Ancient religious and mystical language may become more accessible with modern terminology and understanding in future translations and interpretations. However, mystics generally focus on the experience itself, and rarely concern themselves with ontological discussions assuming that the initiate understands, or will grasp the semantics as they progress. One example of the opposite can be found in Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Christian mystic, who was brought before the Inquisition for heresy because his interpretation of Christ's teachings as psychological metaphors linking mind with the Real were considered dangerous to laymen.
The mystical perspective
Author and mystic, Evelyn Underhill outlines the universal mystic way, the actual process by which the mystic arrives at union with the absolute. She identifies five stages of this process. First is the awakening, the stage in which one begins to have some consciousness of absolute or divine reality. The second stage is one of purgation which is characterized by an awareness of one's own imperfections and finiteness. The response in this stage is one of self-discipline and mortification. The third stage, illumination, is one reached by artists and visionaries as well as being the final stage of some mystics. It is marked by a consciousness of a transcendent order and a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The great mystics go beyond the stage of illumination to a fourth stage which Underhill, borrowing the language of St. John of the Cross, calls the dark night of the soul. This stage, experienced by the few, is one of final and complete purification and is marked by confusion, helplessness, stagnation of the will, and a sense of the withdrawal of God's presence. It is the period of final "unselfing" and the surrender to the hidden purposes of the divine will. The final and last stage is one of union with the object of love, the one Reality, God. Here the self has been permanently established on a transcendental level and liberated for a new purpose. Filled up with the Divine Will, it immerses itself in the temporal order, the world of appearances in order to incarnate the eternal in time, to become the mediator between humanity and eternity.
Ambiguities of meaning
The mystic interprets the world through a different lens than is present in ordinary experience, which can prove to be a significant obstacle to those who research mystical teachings and paths. Much like poetry, the words of mystics are often idiosyncratic and esoteric, can seem confusing and opaque, simultaneously over-simplified and full of subtle meanings hidden from the unenlightened. To the mystic, however, they are pragmatic statements, without subtext or weight; simple obvious truths of experience. One of the more famous lines from the Tao Te Ching, for instance, reads:
- My words are very easy to know, and very easy to practice;
- but there is no one in the world who is able to know and able to practice them. (Legge, 70)
References to "the world" are common in mystical and religious traditions including admonitions to be separate and the call to detachment which is analogous to emptiness. One key to enigmatic expressions lies in the perspective that "the world" of appearances reflects only learned beliefs - based on the limitations of time, culture and relationships - and that unquestioned faith in those misperceptions limits one's return to the divine state. The cloaking of such insights to the uninitiated is an age-old tradition; the malleableness of reality was thought to pose a significant danger to those harboring impurities.
Readers frequently encounter seemingly open-ended statements among studies of mysticism throughout its history. In his work, Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, a prominent 20th century scholar of that field, stated: The Kabbalah is not a single system with basic principles which can be explained in a simple and straightforward fashion, but consists rather of a multiplicity of different approaches, widely separated from one another and sometimes completely contradictory
- aphorisms, poetry, and etc.
- semi-artistic efforts to crystalize some particular description or aspect of the mystical experience in words
- God is Love (Christian and Sufi in particular), Atman is Brahman (Advaitan), Zen haiku, Rumi's love poems (Sufism). Over time many of these have become trite slogans, losing their core meaning as depictions of practical experience, i.e. "God is Love" - describing the power of creation inherent in pure desire/unconflicted singlemindedness of will.
- koans, riddles, and metaphysical contradictions
- irresolvable tasks or lines of thought designed to direct one away from intellectualism and effort towards direct experience.
- The classic "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" (Zen) or "How many angels can stand on the head of a pin?" (Christian). Sometimes these are dismissed as mere incomprehensible silliness (see humor, below); sometimes they are taken (erroneously) as serious questions whose answers would have mystical significance. In either case, the intention is lost; the point being that excessive effort in contemplating the impossible leads the initiate to give up the ego pursuit of doing/getting as opposed to the unity experience of being/having.
- The evocative Taoist phrase - To yield is to be preserved whole, to be bent is to become straight, to be empty is to be full, to have little is to possess - is another example of a metaphysical contradiction describing the path of emptying of the learned self.
- humor and humorous stories
- teachings which simultaneously draw one away from serious discussion and highlight metaphysical points
- Primary examples are the Nasrudin tales, many of which focus on the unreliability of perception, e.g. someone shouts at Nasrudin sitting on a river bank, "How do I get across?" "You are across." he replies; Bektashi jokes (Islam) which serve as a means of opposing the pressures put on society by Orthodox Islam, and the Trickster or Animal Spirit stories passed down in Native American, Australian Aboriginal, and African Tribal folklore. Even the familiar "Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby", for example, is fairly acute psychology wrapped in a children's tale. Humor of this sort is often corrupted into mere jokes: some Nasrudin tales have a clear metaphysics built in, while others have devolved into little more than depictions of a crazy, dimwitted old man.
- parables and metaphor
- stories designed to teach a particular but unconventional metaphysical view of reality indirectly, by using analogy
- One familiar example - the Garden of Eden story of Adam and Eve being cast out in shame - has lost its metaphorical meaning over time; the psychological/metaphysical consequences of shame when the innocent creative ego (feminine aspect) is tempted to reach for power and subsequently enters the belief in duality (eating of the tree of good and evil) because reason (masculine aspect of mind) has yet to waken. In the story, return to the Garden and Tree of Eternal Aliveness (divine reality) is only possible through purification of mind (the gate is protected by the lone innocent cherubim/Self wielding a flaming sword.) Compare this to the symbols of fire, masculine/feminine unity, time, fearlessness, and ego transcendence found in images of "Shiva the Destroyer" (Hindu) where the transformational process is described by visual metaphors. Christ is well-known for his use of parables, consistently using them to teach compassion and inclusion, while many contain hidden metaphorical content for "those who have ears to hear." In one of the most enigmatic stories from the Gospel of Thomas, he describes the Kingdom of Heaven as like an old woman returning home after a long journey, carrying all she values - a bag full of grain - on her back. A tear allows the grain to escape during the journey and she arrives home to discover it empty. Very Buddhist in tone, each word of the story has significance in describing the return path to the divine through a gradual emptying of earthbound value concepts and subtle internal conflicts. The old woman is a common metaphor related to the mind's creative incapacity when controlled by ego values.
These categories are, of course, intended only as guidelines; many mystical teachings cover the gamut. For instance, Yunus Emre's famous passage:
- I climbed into the plum tree
- and ate the grapes I found there.
- The owner of the garden called to me,
- "Why are you eating my walnuts?"
is humor, parable, poem, and koan all at once as it describes the human potential for timelessness and moving beyond the vagaries of perception and levels.
Relation to philosophy and sciences
To an extent, mysticism and the modern sciences appear antithetical. Mysticism is generally considered experiential and holistic, and mystical experiences held to be beyond expression; modern philosophy, psychology, biology and physics being overtly analytical, verbal, and reductionist. However, through much of history mystical and philosophical thought were closely entwined. Plato and Pythagoras, and to a lesser extent Socrates, had clear mystical elements in their teachings; many of the great Christian mystics were also prominent philosophers, and certainly Buddha's Sutras and Shankara's 'Crest Jewel of Discrimination' (fundamental texts in Buddhism and Advaitan Hinduism, respectively) display highly analytical treatments of mystical ideas. Baruch de Spinoza, the 17th c. philosopher, while supporting the new discoveries of science and eschewing traditional Jewish concepts of God and miracles, espoused that Nature/Universe was one holistic reality with the highest virtue - the power inherent in preserving essence (being) or "conatus," and the highest form of knowledge - the intuitive knowing of the Real. These shared understandings occur again and again in the field of philosophy and yet some persist in disparaging the one over the other.
The pursuit of knowledge in the realm of physics has been accepted for much of history as inseparable from understanding the mind of God - including the 20th c. comment by Albert Einstein that "God does not play dice," referring to the unfathomable discoveries of quantum physics. The rift between mysticism and the modern sciences derives mainly from elements of scientism in the latter: certain branches of the natural sciences, broadly disavow subjective experience as meaningless, misunderstanding the limitations of the ancient languages. That said, several areas of study in biology (work of Mae Wan Ho and Lynn Margulis are two examples) and philosophy address the same issues that concern the mystic, and modern physicists now struggle to understand a multiple dimensional reality that mystics' have attempted to describe for millennia. Physicist David Bohm speaking of consciousness expressing itself as matter and/or energy would be completely understood by the mystic, whatever his cultural/religious heritage.
Furthermore, Continental philosophy tends to be concerned with issues closely related to mysticism, such as the subjective experience of existence in Existentialism. It should be noted that while existentialism suggests a nothingness rather than a oneness, the mystic's pursuit of emptiness - despite its fear producing angst - for the sake of union with the Divine, points directly toward a potential unity between physics and psychology that does not at present exist. The mystic's attempt to describe cause and effect between one's internal state and the miraculous, hints at a close connection between psychological stability (ego transcendence) and the mysterious realm of causality quantum physicists are now deciphering - dimensional reality shifts that synchronize with states of consciousness and unconflicted choices.
Ontology, epistemology, phenomenology
While the three philosophical fields - the nature of reality, knowledge and phenomenon - would appear to all relate to aspects of mystical experience, they have not as yet been correlated in a systematic way. Traditional use of the term ontology makes it a synonym of metaphysics. Prior to Immanuel Kant's theoretical separation of "reality" from the "appearance of reality," with human knowledge limited to the latter, the field of ontology/metaphysics concerned itself with the overall structure or nature of reality. Afterword, philosophical and mystical approaches were seemingly separated in a permanent way. 'The general focus on experience in mysticism tends to belie ontological questions; mystical ontology is rarely stated in clear affirmative particulars. Often, it consists of generalized, transcendent identity statements—"Atman is Brahman", "God is Love", "There is only One without a Second" — or other phrases suggestive of immanence. Sometimes it is stated in negative terms, from the Hindu tradition for instance, the word Brahman is usually defined as God 'without' characteristics or attributes. Buddhist teachings explicitly discourage ontological beliefs, Taoist philosophy consistently reminds that ontos is knowable but inexpressible, and certain 'psychological' schools—spiritual schools following after Carl Jung, and philosophical schools derived from Husserl—concern themselves more with the transformation of perceptions within consciousness than the connection between transformed consciousness and the external Real.
Mysticism is related to epistemology to the extent that both are concerned with the nature, acquisition and limitations of knowledge. However, where epistemology struggles with foundational issues—how do we know that our knowledge is true or our beliefs justified—mystics often appear more concerned with process as the means to true knowing. However, every mystical path has necessarily as its ontological purpose, the discernment between truth and illusion, and many approaches emphasize the total discarding of beliefs as the prerequisite to knowledge in the phenomenological sense. Foundational questions are generally answered, in mystical thought, by mystical experiences. Their focus, less on finding procedures of reason that will establish clear relations between ontos and episteme, but rather on finding practices that will yield clear perception. The goals therefore are the same, but the mystic's awareness of evolving levels of consciousness encompass another realm altogether. At least one branch of epistemology claims that non-rational procedures (e.g. statements of desire, random selection, or intuitive processes) are in some cases acceptable means of arriving at beliefs, while the mystic's goal is discarding said beliefs as a limit to knowledge. The term "mysticism" is also used in a pejorative sense in epistemology to refer to beliefs that cannot be justified empirically, and thus considered irrational. According to Schopenhauer, mystics arrive at a condition in which there is no knowing subject and known object: Template:QuotationThe emphasis most accolytes place on the "mysteriousness" of the encounter with the divine and otherworldly transcendent goal of unity, leave most scientists and laymen behind for lack of interest in "mumbo-jumbo" - despite the seemingly causal relationship between self knowledge/accurate perception and the subsequent Real effects as described by not only the mystic, but the pychologist and philosopher as well.
Phenomenology is perhaps the closest philosophical perspective to mystical thinking, and shares many of the difficulties in comprehension that plague mysticism itself. Husserl's phenomenology, for instance, insists on the same first-person, experiential stance that mystics try to achieve: his notion of phenomenological epoché, or bracketing, precludes assumptions or questions about the extra-mental existence of perceived phenomena. Heidegger goes a step beyond: rather than merely bracketing phenomena to exclude ontological questions, he asserts that only 'beingness' has ontological reality (similar to Baruch de Spinoza's suppositions) and thus only investigation and experiencing of the self can lead to authentic existence. Christian mystics would assert that "the Kingdom of Heaven is within" references the same approach. Phenomenology and most forms of mysticism part ways, however, in their understanding of the experience. Phenomenology (and in particular existentialist phenomenology) is pre-conditioned by angst (existential dread) which arises from the discovery of the essential emptiness of 'the real' and can go no further; mystics, by contrast take the step beyond to "being" and describe the peace or bliss that derives from their final active connection to 'the Real'. Those who adopt a phenomenological approach to mysticism believe that an argument can be made for concurrent lines of thought throughout mysticism, regardless of interaction.
The philosopher Ken Wilber who has also studied mysticism and mystical philosophies in some depth comments that:
- "There is nothing spooky or occult about this. We have already seen identity shift from matter to body to mind, each of which involved a decentering or dis-identifying with the lesser dimension... consciousness is simply continuing this process and dis-identifying with the mind itself, which is precisely why it can witness the mind, see the mind, experience the mind. The mind is no longer a subject, it is starting to become an object [in the perception of] the observing self. And so the mystical, contemplative and yogic traditions pick up where the mind leaves off... with the observing self as it begins to transcend the mind."
- "The contemplative traditions are based upon a series of experiments in awareness: what if you pursue this Witness to its source? What if you inquire within, pushing deeper and deeper into the source of awareness itself? What do you find? As a repeatable, reproducible experiment in awareness? One of the most famous answers to that question. begins, There is a subtle essence that pervades all reality. It is the reality of all that is, and the foundation of all that is. That essence is all. That essence is the real. And thou, thou art that. In other words, the observing self eventually discloses its own source, which is Spirit itself, Emptiness itself... and the stages of transpersonal growth and development are basically the stages of following this observing self to its ultimate abode."
- Q: "How do you know these phenomena actually exist?
- A: "As the observing self begins to transcend... deeper or higher dimensions of consciousness come into focus. All of the items on that list are objects that can be directly perceived in that worldspace. Those items are as real in [that] worldspace as rocks are in the sensorimotor worldspace and concepts are in the mental worldspace. If cognition awakens or develops to this level, you simply perceive these new objects as simply as you would perceive rocks in the sensory world or images in the mental world. They are simply given to awareness, they simply present themselves, and you don't have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out if they're real or not."
- "Of course, if you haven't awakened to [this] cognition, then you will see none of this, just as a rock cannot see mental images. And you will probably have unpleasant things to say about people who do see them".
According to author Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of "The Crack in the Cosmic Egg" and "Evolution's End," we have transcendence itself as our biological imperative:
"...Spiritual transcendence and religion have little in common. In fact, if we look closely, we can see that these two have been the fundamental antagonists in our history, splitting our mind into warring camps. Neither our violence nor our transcendence is a moral or ethical matter of religion, but rather an issue of biology. We actually contain a built-in ability to rise above restriction, incapacity, or limitation and, as a result of this ability, possess a vital adaptive spirit that we have not yet fully accessed."
"Historically our transcendence has been sidetracked ... by our projection of these transcendent potentials rather than our development of them. We project when we intuitively recognize a possibility or tendency within ourselves but perceive this as a manifestation or capacity of some person, force, or being outside of ourselves. We seem invariably to project onto each other our negative tendencies..., while we project our transcendent potentials onto principalities and powers "out there" on cloud nine or onto equally nebulous scientific laws...we wander in a self-made hall of mirrors, overwhelmed by inaccessible reflections of our own mind."
"Culture has been defined by anthropologists as a collection of learned survival strategies passed on to our young through teaching and modeling...as the collected embodiment of our survival ideation, is the mental environment to which we must adapt, the state of mind with which we identify. The nature or character of a culture is colored by the myths and religions that arise within it, and abandoning one myth or religion to embrace another has no effect on culture because it both produces and is produced by these elements...That we are shaped by the culture we create makes it difficult to see that our culture is what must be transcended, which means we must rise above our notions and techniques of survival itself, if we are to survive. Thus the paradox that only as we lose our life do we find it."
"A new breed of biologists and neuroscientists have revealed why we behave in so paradoxical a manner that we continually say one thing, feel something else, and act from an impulse different from either of these...A major clue to our conflict is the discovery ...that we have five different neural structures, or brains, within us. These five...represent the whole evolution of life preceding us; reptilian, old mammalian, and human. Nature never abandons a good idea but instead builds new structures upon it...Thus, while we refer to transcendence in rather mystical, ethereal terms, to the intelligence of life, transcendence may be simply the next intelligent move to make."
"...Neurocardiology, a new field of medical research, has discovered in our heart a major brain center that functions in dynamic with the fourfold brain in our head. Outside our conscious awareness, this heart-head dynamic reflects, determines, and affects the very nature of our resulting awareness even as it is, in turn, profoundly affected."
Goals sought and reasons for seeking
Theistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic metaphysical systems most often understand mystical experience as individual communion with a God. One can receive these very subjective experiences as visions, miracles, dreams, revelations, or prophecies, for example.
Going beyond "natural theology" (theologia naturalis) to direct experience of God is "mystical theology" (theologia mystica) or, as Thomas Aquinas defined it, "experiential knowledge of God" (cognitio dei experimentalis). In Catholicism the mystical experience is not sought for its own sake, and is always informed by revelation (not of necessity visions or supernatural occurrences) and ascetical theology. The effort being analogous to reentering a divine "field" which we misperceive we have been excluded - by sin/shame/remorse. Repentance (awareness of lower-self attachments) and ascetics (giving up the thoughts/behaviors) is the requirement for reestablishing divine communion/unity/grace.
Enlightenment is becoming aware of the nature of the self through observation. By examination of the interior thought system and emotions with detachment, one becomes aware of its processes without being controlled by them, allowing one greater creative capacity and ease of interaction with others and the environment.
- Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Terms descriptive of a desired "afterlife" include Moksha (liberation or release), Heaven (traditionally understood as a gathering place for goodly spirits, near to God and other holy beings), and Nirvana (literally extinction), but in mystical parlance these reference an experience of reality "different from the present here and now." "Afterlife" is not related to an extension of life after physical death, but sought as a direct experience of the perfect, the divine reality in the present life. The goal is generally established through an "accidental" revelatory or miraculous experience such as a dimensional shift between one structure of reality to another. Once this "potentiality" has been experienced/received/observed, understanding how and why it has occurred becomes the goal of the individual and permanently stabilizing this "direct experience of God" is obsessively pursued. Because terms descriptive of the divine "goal" are defined differently - even by individuals within a given religion - and their usage within mysticism is often no less imprecise, it is extremely difficult for anyone, who has not experienced the simultaneity of the "shift in awareness/reality" to translate mystical language in a useful way.
Types of experience
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes three common classifications of Religious experience:
- Extrovertive – mystical consciousness of the unity of nature overlaid onto one's sense perception of the world.
- Introvertive – any experience that includes sense-perceptual, somatosensory, or introspective content. An experience of "nothingness" or "emptiness", in some mystical traditions, are examples of introvertive experiences.
- Theistic – experiences of God.
External or internal divinity
From the inner light of the Quakers to the Atman of the Hindu, many have found a soul or other essential essence within themselves to be a center of focus. Even the buddhist who seeks Buddhahood through anatta places a great deal of emphasis on their inner world.
In contrast some (particularly some gnostics and dualists) see the learned self (as opposed to essence) as wicked and deserving of punishment or extreme neglect through asceticism, with positive values placed only upon the transcendent true self.
Mysticism and the soul
Abrahamic religions conceive of a soul that lies within each individual, which is of great spiritual significance. However, Judaism, placing more focus on this world than others, has resulted in multiple views ... that man is a partner in God, all the way to the mystical esoteric knowledge of numerology and the Kabbalah.
Christian mysticism has diverse takes on the relationship between God and the soul with purification and reunion the goal and the soul synonymous with the Christ Self or one's true God-given nature. In Catholicism, saints and other beatific individuals are sometimes said to have received the Holy Spirit — Who grants them miraculous, prophetic, or other transcendent abilities — and this belief is taken up in certain charismatic and evangelical faiths that seek out testaments to divine revelation through spontaneous speaking in tongues, faith healing, the casting out of demons, etc. However, the practice is generally unrelated to a disciplined mystical approach.
In the Quaker view, the soul is inner light, an inherent presence of God within the individual. Other Christian traditions, such as Catholicism, hold a more distinct division between the individual soul and God, given the traditional belief that the salvation of the soul and union with God will occur only at the resurrection after physical death, but these faiths generally hold that righteousness is possible and necessary during life. Eastern Orthodoxy holds that union with God happens in this life during baptism and continues via the process of theosis. Christian mystics seek this unity state of the soul while in the body, variously, through intense prayer, ascetism (purification), contemplation and meditation, to achieve resurrection of the Christ Self/nature in this life.
The Jainist view of soul is perceivable non-matter which has the ability to connect to infinite knowledge but cannot receive that knowledge without removal of the blanket of karma, but as self knowledge is gained, the hold of karma is loosened, everything can be seen clearly and nirvana(salvation) is achieved. The pure soul — divine unity — is accomplished when all the power of karma is destroyed.
Islam shares this conception of a distinct soul, but with less focus on miraculous powers; the Muslim world emphasizes remembrance (dhikr, zikr): the recalling of one's original and innate connection to Allah's grace. In traditional Islam this connection is maintained by angels, who carry out God's will — returning the soul to one's authentic origin — though only prophets have the ability to see and hear them directly. In Islam the mystical path is incorporated within Sufi and the Self/Soul is embattled (jihad) with the infidel/ego. Sufism holds that God can be experienced directly as a universal love that pervades the universe. Remembrance, for Sufis, explicitly means remembrance of the soul's love/purpose or returning to one's original divine state, and Sufis are particularly noted for the artistic turn their forms of worship often take.
Eastern philosophies, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are concerned with the individual soul's dissolution of ego (moksha) into transcendent reality (generally Brahmanor Ishvara). In the mystical aspects of the Vedic tradition Atman (something not entirely different from the western conception of the soul) is believed to be identical with Brahman. Hindu mystical practices aim for God-consciousness and loss of lower self.
Buddhist teaching holds that all suffering (dukkha) in the world comes from craving, aversion and ignorance ('raga', 'dosa', 'moha'), and that freedom from suffering comes from the extinction ('nirodha') of these poisons which are the source of mental defilements ('klesha'), through the development of insight and equanimity. The doctrine of 'anatta' suggests that the perception of an unchanging and cohesive self (the 'me'), is itself a mere mental construct ('vijnana') to which one may be attached, and is thus also a major source of suffering. While Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist schools invoke various deities and venerated beings, the mystical sects of Buddhism are generally not concerned with, and even overtly deny, the existence of a permanent or unchanging self, or of a permanent or unchanging deity. There is no term equivalent to the Christian idea of 'soul' in the Buddhist lexicon however belief in rebirth is assumed throughout the Buddhist world.
Taoism is largely unconcerned with the soul. Instead, Taoism centers around the tao ('the way' or 'the path'). The human tendency, according to Taoism, is to conceive of dualisms; the Taoist mystical practice is to recapture and conform with that original unity (called te, de, which is translated as virtue).
Regardless of particular conceptions of the soul, a common thread of mysticism is the experience of a collective peace, joy, compassion or love.
Differences of terms and interpretation
Pantheism, acosmism, dualism, non-dualism, syncretism
Pantheism means "God is The All" and "All is God". It is the idea that natural law, existence, and/or the universe (the sum total of all that is, was, and shall be) is represented or personified in the theological principle of 'God'.
In contrast Acosmism denies the reality of the universe, seeing it as ultimately illusory (maya), with only the infinite unmanifest Absolute as real.
There are also dualist conceptions, often with an evil (though existent) material world of the ego competing with a transcendent and perfect spiritual plane aligned with the true self/essence. Gnosticism is a term for various mystical initiatory religions, sects and knowledge schools which were most active in the first few centuries of the Christian/Common Era around the Mediterranean and extending into central Asia. These systems typically recommend the pursuit of special knowledge (gnosis) as the central goal of life. They also commonly depict creation as a dualistic struggle between competing forces of light and dark, and posit a marked division between the material realm, which is typically depicted as under the governance of malign forces, and the higher spiritual realm from which it is divided. As a result of these traits, dualism, anticosmism and body-hatred are sometimes present within Gnosticism. There is, however, variety, subtlety, and complexity in the traditions involved.
Mysticism is often found in common with nondual worldviews and many mystics, from whichever religion or tradition they originally came, also describe in many ways a non-dual view of existence. Ramesh Balsekar comments on nonduality and mysticism, that it is in order for phenomenae to occur, that the illusion of personal existence and doer-ship (ego) is present, and explains mysticism and nonduality in fairly accessible (conventional) terms:
- "Consciousness-at-rest is not aware of Itself only the force around it. It becomes aware of Itself only when this sudden feeling, I-am, arises, the impersonal sense of being aware. And that is when Consciousness-at-rest becomes Consciousness-in-movement, Potential energy becomes actual energy. They are not two. Nothing separate comes out of Potential energy becoming the one true being... That moment that science calls the Big Bang, the mystic calls the sudden arising of awareness..."(Balsekar, Who Cares? You Don't!, p. 15-16)
Related to syncretism, mystics of different traditions report similar experiences of a world/reality outside conventional perception, although this does not infer an abandonment of knowledge understood through normal means. Mystics describe the same unity experience across history, culture and religion - despite the extreme individuality of the experience. If the attempt of religion, philosophy and science to describe reality is comparative to the fable of five blind men attempting to define an elephant by describing its parts, the mystic of every religion and culture sees the elephant despite the individuality of approach and differences in culture and language. Elements of mysticism exist at the core of all religions and in many philosophies, including those where the majority of the followers have no awareness of this. Some mystics perceive a common thread of divine influence in all religions and philosophies. The Vedic tradition is inherently mystic; the Christian apocalyptic Book of Revelation is clearly mystical, as with Ezekiel's or Daniel's visions of Judaism, and Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel revealed the Qur'an in a miraculous manner. Indigenous cultures also have cryptic revelations pointing toward a universal flow of love or unity, usually following a vision quest or similar ritual. Mystical philosophies thus can exhibit a strong tendency towards syncretism.
Mysticism and traditional religions
Conventional religions by definition, are marked by strong institutional structures. A religion will generally include most or all of the following:
- an established hierarchy
- a definitive creed
- a set of approved central texts
- regular public services
- an accumulation of rites, rituals, and holy days
- a clearly stated ethical code or set of moral laws
Adherents of the faith are expected to respect or follow each of these closely. Most mystical paths arise in the context of some particular religion but tend to set aside or move beyond these institutional structures, often believing themselves to be following the 'purest' or 'deepest' representations of that faith. Thus, to the extent that a mystical path has a hierarchy, it is generally limited to teacher/student relationships; to the extent that they use a central text or ethical code, they view them as interpretable guidelines rather than established law. Conventional religious perspectives towards mystics varies between and within faiths. Sometimes (as with the Catholic church and Vedantic Hinduism) mystics are incorporated into the church hierarchy, with criteria set up for validation of mystical experiences and veneration of those who achieve that status. In other cases, mystical paths follow a separate but parallel course. Traditionally, Buddhist monks were closely interwoven into the fabric of village life through most of Asia, but had no authoritative position in the community; almost all the traditional Islamic 'orthodox' scholars, however, were Sufis, including Al-Shafi'i, Imam Nawawi, and Al-Ghazali.
Some systems of mysticism are found within specific religious traditions and do not relinquish doctrinal principles as a part of mystical experience. In some definite cases, theology remains a distinct source of insight that guides and informs the mystical experience. Christian Science, based on the mystical experience and writings of founder Mary Baker Eddy is one such example. Some faiths—including most Protestant Christian sects—find mystical practices disreputable; so called mystic "practices" and beliefs generally restricted to specific sects, such as the Society of Friends or certain Charismatic groups, which have implicitly incorporated them.
The mystic's disregard of religious institutional structures often lends a quasi-revolutionary aspect to mystical teaching, and this occasionally leads to conflict with established religious and political structures, or the creation of splinter groups or new faiths. The relation of mysticism to ethics and morality is more complex than is usually assumed. Mystical experiences do not guarantee that mystics will be compassionate or moral, nor on the other hand is a mystical state incompatible with being morally concerned with others. Rather, a given mystic's ethics will depend on the factual beliefs and values espoused in that mystic's religious tradition.
New religious movements, perennial philosophy and entheogens
The late 19th century saw a significant increase of interest in mysticism in the West that combined with increased interest in Occultism and Eastern Philosophy. Theosophy became a major movement in the popularization of these interests. Madame Blavatsky functioned as a central figure of the theosophy movement. This trend later became absorbed in the rise of the New Age movement which included a major surge in the popularity of psychological self-awareness groups such as EST and many others. At the end of the twentieth century books like A Course in Miracles (purported to be a channeled course of study dictated by Jesus) and Conversations with God (in which the author describes his direct communication with God) became popularized.
The term perennial philosophy, coined by Leibniz and popularized by Aldous Huxley, relates to what some take to be the mystic's primary concern:
[W]ith the one, divine reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one reality is such that it cannot be directly or immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit.
Some mystics use the term to refer to a manner wherein the mystic strives to plumb the depths of the self and reality in a radical process of meditative self-exploration, with the aim of experiencing the true nature of reality.
In some cultures and traditions, mind-altering substances—often referred to as entheogens—have been used as a guide; the Uniao do Vegetal being a notable modern example.
It is important to note that many of the self-styled mystical belief systems arising in recent decades essentially differ from mysticism proper in that they rely on the individual seeker's power and will, whereas in the mystic traditions, the states cannot be initiated by the seeker himself, but only by the Ultimate Being. Hence the term mystikos.
In Rosicrucianism, Masonry and Golden Dawn
The Rosicrucian Order is a legendary and secretive Order publicly documented in the early 17th century. It is associated with the symbol of the Rose Cross, which is also found in certain rituals beyond "Craft" or "Blue Lodge" Freemasonry. The Rosicrucian Order is viewed among earlier and many modern Rosicrucianists as an inner worlds Order, composed of great "Adepts." When compared to human beings, the consciousness of these Adepts is said to be like that of demi-gods. This "College of Invisibles" is regarded as the source permanently behind the development of the Rosicrucian movement.
Freemasonry is a worldwide fraternal organization. Members are joined together by shared ideals of both a moral and metaphysical nature and, in most of its branches, by a constitutional declaration of belief in a Supreme Being. Freemasonry is an esoteric society, in that certain aspects of its internal work are not generally disclosed to the public, but it is not an occult system. The private aspects of modern Freemasonry deal with elements of ritual and the modes of recognition amongst members within the ritual.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (or Golden Dawn, as it is commonly referred to) is a tradition of magical theurgy and spiritual development, probably the single greatest influence on twentieth century western occultism and many other traditions, including Wicca, Thelema and other forms of magical spirituality popular today. By the mid 1890s, the Golden Dawn was well established in Great Britain, with membership rising to over a hundred from every class of Victorian society. In its heyday, many cultural celebrities belonged to the Golden Dawn, such as actress Florence Farr, Arthur Machen, William Butler Yeats, Evelyn Underhill, and Aleister Crowley. Many men and women of the 19th century Fin de siècle social culture were members of the Golden Dawn.
There is great danger associated with the habitual practice of religious daydreaming; mysticism may become a technique of reality avoidance, albeit it has sometimes been a means of genuine spiritual communion. Short seasons of retreat from the busy scenes of life may not be seriously dangerous, but prolonged isolation of personality is most undesirable. Under no circumstances should the trancelike state of visionary consciousness be cultivated as a religious experience.
References and footnotes
- The Eleusinian Mysteries, or mystery religions in general, do not necessarily involve mysticism; the present meaning of the term arose, rather, via Platonism and Neoplatonism, which made reference to the Eleusinian initiation as a metaphor for the "initiation" to spiritual truths.
- James, William (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. ISBN 0-679-64011-8.
- Greene, Dana, Adhering to God: The Message of Evelyn Underhill for Our Times, SPIRITUALITY TODAY, Spring 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 22-38
- Legge, James (1891). Tao Te Ching (Sacred Books of the East, Vol 39).
- Scholem, Gershom (1974). Kabbalah. Meridian. ISBN 0-452-01007-1.
- Bothamley, Jennifer (1993). Dictionary of Theories. Gale Research. ISBN 1-873477-05-8.
- Schopenhauer, Arthur (1844). Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung 2.
- Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything, 197-208.
- Pearce, Joseph Chilton. The Biology of Transcendence;A Blueprint of the Human Spirit, 2-5.
- Balsekar, Who Cares? You Don't!, p. 15-16
- Jones, Richard (2004). Mysticism and Morality. Lexington Books.
- Huxley, Aldous (1945). The Perennial Philosophy. Perennial. ISBN 0-06-057058-X.
- "Aims and Relationships of the Craft".
- (1991) Emulation Ritual. Lewis Masonic. ISBN 0-85318-187-X.
- Griffin, Mark (2002). "Freemasonry: Your Questions Answered". Retrieved on 2006-11-23.
-  Broad Summary
- Mysticism: A Study in Spiritual Consciousness by E. Underhill
- Resources > Medieval Jewish History > Jewish Mysticism The Jewish History Resource Center, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
- "Mysticism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- "Mysticism", Encyclopedia of Religion and Society
- ChristianMystics.com includes many short essays covering various aspects of Christian mysticism
- Planet Baha'i Mysticism Resources A look at mysticism in the Bahá'í Holy Writings, its relationship to mystical elements religions, and its impact on the lives of individual Bahá'ís.
Critical / Opinions
- "Introduction to Mysticism", Mysticism Volume 1 "The Origin of World Religions" Wade Cox Mysticism published World Conference Christian Churches of God 2004,2005. See also the site History of Religion 
- "A Brief Analysis of Mysticism" - a skeptical analysis by Hamed Vahidi
- "Buddhism and Mysticism" from Atheists United
- Mysticism - Part 1 in Think On These Things by Gary Gilley - parts 2 through 5 linked at bottom of page
- "Buried Memories on the Acropolis. Freud's Relation to Mysticism and Anti-Semitism", International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, Volume 59 (1978): 199-208. (Jeffrey Masson and Terri C. Masson)