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Mysticism (from the Greek μυστικός, mystikos, an initiate of a mystery religion)[1] is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on a practice or practices intended to nurture those experiences or awareness. Mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic. Differing religious traditions have described this fundamental mystical experience in different ways:

Enlightenment or Illumination are generic English terms for the phenomenon, derived from the Latin illuminatio (applied to Christian prayer in the 15th century) and adopted in English translations of Buddhist texts, but used loosely to describe the state of mystical attainment regardless of faith.

Mystic traditions form sub-currents within larger religious traditions—such as Kabbalah within Judaism, Sufism within Islam, Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism within Hinduism, Christian mysticism within Christianity—but are often treated skeptically and sometimes held separately, by more orthodox or mainstream groups within the given religion, due to the emphasis of the mystics on direct experience and living realization over doctrine. Mysticism is sometimes taken by skeptics or mainstream adherents as mere obfuscation, though mystics suggest they are offering clarity of a different order or kind. In fact, a basic premise of nearly every mystical path, regardless of religious affiliation, is that the experiences of divine consciousness, enlightenment and union with God that are made possible via mystical paths, are available to everyone who is willing to follow the practice of a given mystical system. Within a given mystical school, or path, it is much more likely for the mystical approach to be seen as a divine science, because of the direct, replicable elevation of consciousness the mystical approach can offer to anyone, regardless of previous spiritual or religious training.

Some mystic traditions can exclude the validity of other traditions. However, mystic traditions tend to be more accepting of other mystic traditions than the non-mystical versions of their traditions. This is based on the premise that the experienced divinity is able to bring other mystics to their own tradition if necessary. Some, but not all, mystics are even open to the idea that their tradition may not be the most practical version of mystic practice.

Most mystic traditions have both positive (+) and negative (-) values of mystical experience within their own tradition. One example of this is in the New Age tradition, which simply calls these values positive and negative energy. Another example is in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, which would refer to these as the influence of good and evil spirits, or good and evil realms - in the case of an out of body experience.


See also, "Mystic". The term '"mysticism'" is used to refer to beliefs and practices which go beyond the liturgical and devotional forms of worship of mainstream faith, often by seeking out inner or esoteric meanings of conventional religious doctrine, and by engaging in spiritual practices such as breathing practices, prayer, contemplation and meditation, along with chanting and other activities designed to heighten spiritual awareness. For example, Kabbalah (based in Judaism) seeks out deeper interpretations of the Torah, and conducts spiritual practices based in song, dance, prayer and talmudic study, accordingly. Sufism (in Islam) extends and amplifies the teachings of the Quran in the spirit of universal love, most famously through their devotional musicians dancing Zhikrs and singing Qawwalis. Vedanta reaches for the inner teachings of Hindu philosophy encapsulated in the Vedas, and many students of both Shaivite Tantric schools within Hinduism, as well as Shakta Tantrics, along with usually more mainstream-oriented Vaisnaivas, will use the symbolism and mythologies of their gods and goddessess, to take the initiate home to their highest awareness, via mystical practices designed and proven for these purposes. Mystics hold that there is a deeper or more fundamental state of existence beneath the observable, day-to day world of phenomena, and that in fact the ordinary world is superficial or epiphenomenal. Often mysticisms center on the teachings of individuals who are considered to have special insight, and in some cases entire non-mystical (doctrine-based) faiths have arisen around these leaders and their teachings, with few or no mystical practitioners remaining.

Different faiths have differing relationships to mystical thought. Hinduism has many mystical sects, in part due to its historic reliance on gurus (individual teachers of insight) for transmission of its philosophy. Mysticism in Buddhism is largely monastic, since most Buddhists consider jhana (meditation) to be an advanced technique used only after many lifetimes[2]. Mysticism in Abrahamic religions is largely marginalized, from the tolerance mainstream Muslims grant to Sufism to the active fears of cultism prevalent among western Christians, with Chasidic Kabbalists of Judaism being the notable exceptions. Mysticisms generally hold to some form of immanence, since their focus on direct realization obviates many concerns about the afterlife, and this often conflicts with conventional religious doctrines. Mystical teachings are passed down through transmission from teacher to student, though the relationship between student and teacher varies: some groups require strict obedience to a teacher, others carefully guard teachings until students are deemed to be ready, in others a teacher is merely a guide aiding the student in the process.

Mysticism may make use of canonical and non-canonical religious texts, and will generally interpret them hermeneutically, developing a philosophical perspective distinct from conventional religious interpretations. Many forms of mysticism in the modern world will adapt or adopt texts from entirely different faiths - Vivekananda in Vedanta, for instance, is noted for his assertions that all religions are one. As a rule, mysticisms are less concerned with religious differences and more concerned with social or individual development; what mysticism is most concerned with, however, is having the most effective set of practices with which to attain enlightened consciousness/Union w/God. Not much else beyond this matters to a dedicated mystic - he or she focuses on the inner realms; mind-breath, non-thinking awareness, and so on. Mystics are not too concerned with the opinions or the religious tools of their more conservative religious compatriots.

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 a mediator between humanity and eternity.[3]

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)[4]

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[5]


aphorisms, poetry, and etc.
semi-artistic efforts to crystallize 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?" (Zen) (or the more popularly known as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?") 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 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] 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 use of the term, old woman, is a common metaphor related to the mind's incapacity to create, when controlled by embedded defensive 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

Throughout history and even today mysticism has attempted to gain scientific validity by borrowing from all branches of science various laws, theories, jargon, formula, etc. These are then incorporated into the literature (for example) to give the uninformed reader the feeling that what is being discussed is "scientifically sound" and thus valid. Mysticism is generally considered experiential and holistic, and mystical experiences held to be beyond expression; modern philosophy, psychology, biology and physics sometimes being seen as overtly analytical, verbal, and reductionist. However, in some instances throughout history, mystical and philosophical thought were closely entwined. Parmenides, Plato and Pythagoras, and to a lesser extent Socrates, had elements in their teachings that could be interpreted as mystical in nature; many of the great Christian mystics were also prominent philosophers, and certainly, for some, Buddha's Sutras and Shankara's 'Crest Jewel of Discrimination' (fundamental texts in Buddhism and Advaitan Hinduism, respectively) display what seem to be 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. Whether or not these shared understandings occur in the field of philosophy is for students of such subjects or interests to interpret. The pursuit of knowledge in the realm of physics was sometimes seen as inseparable from understanding the mind of God - the 20th c. comment by Albert Einstein that "God does not play dice," referring to the unfathomable discoveries of quantum physics, is often cited to lend an aura of scientific validity to discussions of a mystical nature. The rift between mysticism and the modern sciences derives mainly from elements of scientism in the latter: certain branches of the natural sciences, sometimes disavow subjective experience as meaningless, fully understanding 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 some modern physicists are now attempting to understand a multiple dimensional reality that, coincidentally, philosophers and mystics' have attempted to describe for millennia. Physicist David Bohm speaking of consciousness expressing itself as matter and/or energy could be completely understood by the mystic or philosopher, whatever his cultural/religious heritage. It should be clear that no scientific backing need be used in that understanding but it is sometimes forced together for validity's sake.

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. Afterwards, many philosophers separated philosophical and mystical approaches in a seemingly 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 branches of epistemology to refer to material beliefs that cannot be justified empirically, and thus considered irrational.[6] According to Schopenhauer,[7] mystics arrive at a condition in which there is no knowing subject and known object:

... we see all religions at their highest point end in mysticism and mysteries, that is to say, in darkness and veiled obscurity. These really indicate merely a blank spot for knowledge, the point where all knowledge necessarily ceases. Hence for thought this can be expressed only by negations, but for sense-perception it is indicated by symbolical signs, in temples by dim light and silence, in Brahmanism even by the required suspension of all thought and perception for the purpose of entering into the deepest communion with one's own self, by mentally uttering the mysterious Om. In the widest sense, mysticism is every guidance to the immediate awareness of that which is not reached by either perception or conception, or generally by any knowledge. The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. The mystic starts from his inner, positive, individual experience, in which he finds himself as the eternal and only being, and so on. But nothing of this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince.

Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. XLVIII<

The emphasis that is placed on subjective direct experience of the "divine and otherworldly transcendent goal of unity", makes it highly controversial to individuals who place a greater emphasis on empirical verification of knowledge and truth (such as scientists for example). In this sense, one again returns to a more philosophical context within the fields of Epistemology and the philosophy of perception, exploring the notions of truth, belief, knowledge and verification.

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.[8] 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.[9]

Other perspectives

The integral theorist 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".[10]

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 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 (other two?). 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."[11]

Goals sought and reasons for seeking

Theistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic metaphysical systems most often understand mystical experience as individual communion with 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 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.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War[12]

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 extinguishing of the mental fetters or unbinding of the mind), but in mystical parlance these reference an experience of reality "different from the present here and now." 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 mystical and religious experiences:

  • 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, such as Jacob Boehme, 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 phenomena 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..."[13]

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, including formal hierarchies and mandated sacred texts and/or creeds. 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. 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 Religious 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..[14]

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.[15]

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 Temple of the Rose Cross," Teophilus Schweighardt Constantiens, 1618.

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 said to be 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 disclosed to the public,[16] but they claim that 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.[17][18]

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.

Mysticism in Buddhism

Buddhism includes a vast array of scriptures, beliefs, traditions and practices. Many of these are not overtly mystical. Yet within Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism, there are doctrines which have a strong flavour of mysticism to them. Pre-eminent amongst these are the teachings of Dzogchen and of the Tathagatagarbha. Both of these doctrines indicate the presence of a hidden, deathless core reality within each being – variously called the Buddha Nature, Buddha Matrix, Awakened Mind, Mind Essence, Dzogchen or Mahamudra - which needs to be recognized and ‘entered into’. This Essence of Mind is empty of tangible substance and is resistant to the intellect’s efforts to conceptualise or ‘model’ it, but it is supremely Aware and filled with benevolence and compassion. Writing on this theme, Lama Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche explains the Buddha’s teaching on the ultimate nature of the Awakened Mind (‘bodhicitta’), stating:

‘What is ultimate bodhicitta? It is truly free from all mental constructs, like space; it cannot be indicated by any analogy whatsoever. It falls into no extreme or category; it is beyond mental constructs. It is the unity of emptiness and compassion; it is empty like space. Yet it is loving and compassionate, open and clear. That is ultimate bodhicitta …According to Mahamudra, the essence is nonarising, its expression is unceasing, and its manifestation is the unity of these two. According to Dzogchen, the essence is empty, the nature is cognizant or luminous and the compassion is the unity of these two.’[19]

In the same work by Chokyi Nyima, one reads that the essence of the mind is not a concrete thing, yet is not to be viewed as non-existent; nor is it a multitude of things or just one thing. It is an essence which might be termed the ‘I’ or the Ground of all that is:

‘It is not found to be a concrete thing … Yet it is not nonexistent, since your mind is vividly awake. It is not a singularity, because it manifests in manifold ways. Nor is it a plurality, because all these are of one essence. There is no one who can describe its nature … It may be given many kinds of names such as “mind essence”, “I”, or the “all-ground”. It is the very basis of all of samsara and nirvana.’[20]

This spiritual essence is not something that has to be developed or created: it is primordially present within each being. It constitutes the inner ‘bodies’ or aspects of the Buddha found in every person. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche writes:

‘Since primordial time, these have been one’s natural possession, intrinsic and inherent to one’s being. We learn that these kayas are not something which one achieves or which occurs through the compassion of the buddhas … It cannot be produced through applying the key points of Dharma [religious] practice. One has possessed them since the very beginning. The kayas are absolutely inherent to oneself, to one’s own nature. The kayas exist spontaneously within oneself. Their presence is not a product of blessings or something slowly produced through practice. One cannot create or manufacture one’s enlightened essence through one’s own intelligence or through study of the teachings. One possesses them primordially. The sutras and tantras all agree on this point.’[21]

In the Tathagatagarbha tradition of Buddhism, this enlightened essence is called the Buddha Nature or (in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra) the Self (see atman (Buddhism). It is the essential, indestructible nature of all beings, but is covered over by moral and mental contamination. Once that is removed, the inner ‘treasure’ of one’s true nature stands revealed in its full radiance and one becomes ‘Buddha’. In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha teaches:

‘”Self” means the matrix-of-one-gone-thus [i.e. Buddha Nature]. The basic constituent of a one-gone-thus [i.e. Buddha] indeed exists in all sentient beings, but it also is obstructed by types of afflictive emotions. While existing in them, sentient beings cannot see it … The Buddha-nature of sentient beings is, for example, like a treasure of jewels under a poor woman’s house, like a diamond on a powerful being’s forehead, and like a universal emperor’s spring of ambrosic water.’[22]

Elucidating this notion of the Buddha Nature or Buddha Matrix, Professor Jeffrey Hopkins comments:

‘The basis [of the spiritual life] is the ground on which the spiritual path acts to rid it of peripheral obstructions, thereby yielding the fruit of practice. The basis is the matrix-of-one-gone-thus [Buddha Nature], which itself is the thoroughly established nature, the uncontaminated primordial wisdom empty of all compounded phenomena – permanent, stable, eternal, everlasting. Not compounded by causes and conditions, the matrix-of-one-gone-thus [Buddha Nature] … is not something that did not exist before and is newly produced; it is self-arisen.’[23]

This unbegotten and immortal essence within each being is called the Dharma-kaya – Body of Truth – or Buddha Within (as Dr. Shenpen Hookham has termed it[24] Its nature is described in the Samadhiraja Sutra, where the Buddha states:

‘the Body of the Tathagata [i.e. Buddha] should be defined as … having its essence identical with Space, invisible, surpassing the range of vision – thus is the Absolute Body to be conceived. Inconceivable, surpassing the sphere of thought, not oscillating between bliss and suffering, surpassing the illusory differentiation, placeless, surpassing the voice of those aspiring to the Knowledge of Buddhi, essential, surpassing passions, indivisible, surpassing hatred, steadfast, surpassing infatuation, explained by the indications of emptiness, unborn, surpassing birth, eternal from the standpoint of common experience, undifferentiated in the aspect of Nirvana, described in words as ineffable, quiescent in voice, homogenous with regard to conventional Truth, conventional with regard to the Absolute Truth – Absolute according to the true teaching.’[25]

Mystical traditions

Allsehendes Auge am Tor des Aachener Dom

An all-seeing Eye of Providence that appears on the tower of Aachen Cathedral.

Examples of major traditions and philosophies with strong elements of mysticism are:

See also

References and footnotes

  1. The Eleusinian Mysteries, Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were initiation ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece. Of all the mysteries celebrated in ancient times, these were as held to be the ones of greatest importance. These myths and mysteries, begun in the Mycenean period (c. 1600 BC) [1][2] and lasting two thousand years, were a major festival during the Hellenic era, later spreading to Rome.[3] The name of the town, Eleusís, is a variant of the noun έλευσις, éleusis, arrival. The present meaning of the term mysticism arose, rather, via Platonism and Neoplatonism, which made reference to the Eleusinian initiation as a metaphor for the "initiation" to spiritual truths).
  2. Alexander Wynne, The origin of Buddhist meditation. Routledge, 2007
  3. Greene, Dana, Adhering to God: The Message of Evelyn Underhill for Our Times, Spirituality Today, Spring 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 22-38
  4. Legge, James; Lao-tzu (1891). Tao Te Ching (Sacred Books of the East, Vol 39). 
  5. Scholem, Gershom (1974). Kabbalah. Meridian. ISBN 0-452-01007-1. 
  6. Bothamley, Jennifer (1993). Dictionary of Theories. Gale Research. ISBN 1-873477-05-8. 
  7. Schopenhauer, Arthur (1844). Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. 2. 
  10. Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. pp. 197–208. 
  11. Pearce, Joseph Chilton. The Biology of Transcendence;A Blueprint of the Human Spirit. pp. 2–5. 
  13. Balsekar, Who Cares? You Don't!, p. 15-16
  14. Jones, Richard (2004). Mysticism and Morality. Lexington Books. 
  15. Huxley, Aldous (1945). The Perennial Philosophy. Perennial. ISBN 0-06-057058-X. 
  16. "Aims and Relationships of the Craft". 
  17. Emulation Ritual. London: Lewis Masonic. 1991. ISBN 0-85318-187-X. 
  18. Griffin, Mark (2002). "Freemasonry: Your Questions Answered". Retrieved 2006-11-23. 
  19. Chokyii Nyima Rinpoche, The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 1989, pp. 188-189
  20. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, op. cit., p. 122-125
  21. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, op. cit., 114
  22. Professor Jeffrey Hopkins, Mountain Doctrine: Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha Matrix, Snow Lion Publications, New York, 2006, pp. 53-54
  23. Professor Hopkins, op. cit., p. 8
  24. Dr. Shenpen Hookham, The Buddha Within, State University of New York Press, New York, 1991
  25. Dr. Konstanty Regamey, Philosophy in the Samadhirajasutra, Motilal Banarsidass, 1990, pp. 86-88

Further reading

  • Daniels, P., Horan A., (1987) "Mystic Places". Alexandria, Time-Life Books, ISBN 0-809-46312-1.
  • Fanning, Steven., Mystics of the Christian Tradition. New York: Routledge Press, 2001.
  • Louth, Andrew., The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-19-929140-3.
  • McGinn, Bernard., The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism'.' Vol. 1 - 4. (The Foundations of Mysticism; The Growth of Mysticism; The Flowering of Mysticism) New York: Crossroad, 1997-2005.

External links


Critical / Opinions


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