Mysticism, the practice of religious ecstasies (religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness), together with whatever ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, and magic may be related to them.
The term mystic is derived from the Greek noun mystes, which originally designated an initiate of a secret cult or mystery religion. In Classical Greece (5th–4th century bce) and during the Hellenistic Age (323 bce–330 ce), the rites of the mystery religions were largely or wholly secret. The term mystes is itself derived from the verb myein (“to close,” especially the eyes or mouth) and signified a person who kept a secret. Early Christianity appropriated the technical vocabulary of the Hellenistic mysteries but later disavowed secrecy, resulting in a transformation of the meaning of mystes.
In subsequent Christian usage, mystes, or mystic, referred to practitioners of doctrinally acceptable forms of religious ecstasy.
The traditional conception of mysticismFrom late antiquity through the Middle Ages, Christians used prayer to contemplate both God’s omnipresence in the world and God in his essence. The soul’s ecstasy, or rapture, in contemplation of God was termed a “spiritual marriage” by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the greatest mystical authority of the 12th century.
In the 13th century the term unio mystica (Latin: “mystical union”) came into use as a synonym. During the same period the range of objects of contemplation was increased to include the Passion of Christ, visions of saints, and tours of heaven and hell. In the 17th and 18th centuries the enthusiasms of quaking, shaking, and other infusions of the Holy Spirit were also called mystical.In the mid-19th century, after the Romantic movement had shifted the emphasis in much religious thinking from theology to individual experience, a growing interest in ecumenism led to the invention of the term mysticism and its extension to comparable phenomena in non-Christian religions.
The competition between the perspectives of theology and science resulted in a compromise in which most varieties of what had traditionally been called mysticism were dismissed as merely psychological phenomena and only one variety, which aimed at union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God—and thereby the perception of its essential unity or oneness—was claimed to be genuinely mystical.
The historical evidence, however, does not support such a narrow conception of mysticism. Even within the history of Christianity there were mystics—such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the 5th century and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing in the 14th—for whom the most desirable mystical experience or perception was not of unity but rather of nothing, or nothingness. Thus, St. Bonaventure, in addition to encouraging a program of mystical union with Christ in his death and resurrection, also recommended devotion to the wholly transcendent nothingness of Pseudo-Dionysius’s theology.
In the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, along with his followers Heinrich Suso, Johann Tauler, and Jan van Ruysbroeck, all sought experiences in which their souls disappeared, leaving only the mind, emotion, or the will of God. In the 17th century, St. Teresa of Ávila, almost certainly in ignorance of historical precedents, demoted the communion described by St. Bernard to the status of a “spiritual betrothal,” instead emphasizing the soul’s disappearance in the “spiritual marriage.”The complexity of the historical record is multiplied exponentially when one includes other religious traditions in the survey. Both Buddhism and Kabbala, the esoteric Jewish mysticism originating in the 12th century, emphasize nothingness rather than oneness, and the notion of oneness itself has many varieties in both Christianity and Hinduism.
These facts are inconsistent with the postulation of a single unity or oneness that mystics everywhere experience or perceive. It is not that the Absolute, the Infinite, or God is One, and mystics experience and perceive this truth. Rather, the data support a psychological interpretation regarding a tendency of the mind to unify its contents in different ways, resulting in slightly different experiences on different occasions. Mystics do not experience or perceive an objectively existing unity; rather they formulate their own experiential unities in different ways.
The traditional conception of mysticism was finally abandoned by academic scholars in the 1970s. Since then, some scholars have rejected the category of mysticism as a fiction, while others have enlarged it to encompass all religious uses of alternate states of consciousness.
Mysticism as experience and interpretation South Asian traditions
Some mysticism can indeed be defined successfully in terms of the experience or perception of unity with the divine. In Hinduism, for example, the hymns of the Rigveda were composed in Sanskrit by members of the Indo-European population that entered the northern plains of India from Central Asia beginning about 1500 bce. In the Vedic religion the chief gods were Indra, the king of the gods; Agni, the fire god; and Soma, the god associated with the hallucinogenic soma plant. (The botanical identity of soma has been lost, but it was possibly the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria.)
The major practice of Vedic religion was a sacrificial meal that the community shared with the gods, or devas. Milk, clarified butter, curds, grains, the soma plant, and domestic animals were immolated in fire. The person who drank the hallucinogenic soma beverage was considered a sacrifice to the gods. He acquired intuitive, mystical insight and became one with the ancient primordial Man, who in the Vedic creation myth had been divided into the many phenomena of the cosmos.
The Rigveda contains other examples of mystical experience. One hymn mentions long-haired ascetics (kesin) or silent ones (muni), who were either naked or dressed in red. In their ecstasies they were “possessed by the gods” and able to fly outside their bodies. Their ecstasies were induced by a drug (siva) that they consumed with the god Rudra.
In post-Vedic times, Rudra was known as Shiva, who was associated with the hallucinogenic plants of the genus Datura.A dramatic change in Indian mysticism is indicated in the Sanskrit texts known as the Upanishads, which were composed between 600 and 300 bce. The Maitri Upanishad outlined a practice of Yoga (a practical and theoretical system of ancient Indian philosophy) that consisted of breath control, the withdrawal of the senses (the voluntarily induced loss of sense perception), meditation, concentration, reasoning, and absorption
The goal of Upanishadic Yoga was to realize the identity of the personal self with the cosmic self, or atman, and the identity of atman with brahman, or the divine essence. The divine essence in purest form was conceived as vak (Sanskrit: “sound”); it developed secondarily into sacred sounds, such as AUM, and only thereafter into coherent words. Meditating on and uttering the sacred syllable were considered a means of inducing a mystical union
with the divine essence. Once union was achieved, the self and all existence were seen to be divine. As noted in the Brihadaranyka Upanishad, “Verily, by the seeing of, by the hearing of, by the thinking of, by the understanding of the Atman, all this [phenomenal world] is known.
”The Yoga-sutras, written by Patanjali sometime between 200 bce and 400 ce, are the most authoritative formulation of classical Yoga, which is also known as Raja (“Royal”) Yoga. Patanjali’s practice deleted the element of reasoning from Upanishadic Yoga while adding three preparatory components: self-restraint (from violence, falsehood, theft, incontinence, and acquisitiveness), commitment (to purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, and devotion to the Lord), and bodily postures. Doctrinally, Patanjali broke with the Vedic and Upanishadic belief that all existent things are a single substance that is God; he instead favoured an uncompromising transcendentalism. He advised the practitioner (Yogi) to meditate one-pointedly on anything and everything. In each case, the Yogi would find that the object of meditation became the all, absorbed the self, and became evident as divine. Since different things were each the all, the self, and divine, it became logically necessary to postulate an unmanifest source or cause of the Yogic experience of absorption.
A Yogi was consequently directed to meditate on the unmanifest that is beyond union. When the unmanifest was experienced contemplatively, it was found to be the soul or self (purusha; literally “spirit”) and was identified with a personified God (Ishvara; “Lord”).While pursuing these attainments, a Yogi would inevitably acquire one or more siddhas (“powers”), such as knowledge of past lives, foreknowledge of one’s own death, great strength, supernormal senses, levitation, and omniscience. Although the siddhas could be distractions from the goal of moksha (Sanskrit: “release”), or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth (see reincarnation), they were recognized as positive acquisitions.Bhakti (“devotion”), a religious movement that emerged in India in the 7th to 10th centuries, stressed love of the gods Vishnu and Shiva and of the divine energy or goddess Shakti.
Vishnu is conceptualized as sat (Sanskrit: “being”), cit (“consciousness”), and ananda (“bliss”). Devotees of Vishnu, known as Vaishnavites, may practice Yoga in order to experience pure consciousness, which contains all things and is identified with Vishnu himself. In other instances, Vaishnavite bhakti aims at more-limited manifestations of Vishnu, such as a vision of his feet, his arms, or his smiling face. Devotion to Vishnu may also be directed to his avatar (incarnation) Krishna. Meditations on the divinity at the source of all things, amid weeping, singing, and dancing, may aim at self-surrender to blissful possession by Krishna.Shiva is similarly conceptualized as pure consciousness, but in a fashion that integrates bhakti with Yoga or with the Tantric (esoteric) religious practices of some Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina sects.
Tantric mysticism may have originated historically as ritual male copulation with women who were possessed by goddesses. Through the addition of Yoga, the divine marriage was internalized as an event within the Yogi. Tantric Yoga may be performed during sexual intercourse or independently. In both events, Shiva is conceptualized as the pure consciousness that is all things. It is further held that the Yogi’s subtle body (a metaphysical aspect of the person that is present at all times and visible in some dreams and alternate states) contains three vertical channels (nadi) that pass through seven centres (chakras; Sanskrit: “wheel”), from the genital regions to the top of the skull. A subtle energy, called kundalini and regarded simultaneously as Shakti and as the sperm of Shiva, is raised through Tantric Yoga practices along the central channel through the chakras. In the process, the practitioner rises together with the kundalini, achieving immortality and acquiring magical powers.
In Tantric mysticism the body of the deity may be visualized as being composed of alphabetic letters or as assuming a specific posture—holding a jar of nectar or a book, for example. The mental image serves as a focus for the contemplation of pure consciousness, and a mystical reduction of experience to pure consciousness may ensue.
The ultimate reducibility of everything to pure consciousness, belief in which is shared by Vaishnavism and Shaivism, can be seen as a logical compromise between the Upanishadic union of all being and the Yogic quest for a unique transcendence of being. Hindu mysticism in its various forms identifies the unitive as antithetical to the material world.Daoist traditionsUnlike the Hindu traditions, the Daoist mysticism of China locates the unitive in the perceptible world. The Dao (Chinese: “way” or “road”) is both transcendent and immanent, both spiritual and material. The Dao is unnameable and ineffable, yet it is present in and as all things. Although lay Daoists do not necessarily seek mystical experiences, for initiated Daoist priests the whole of Daoism is mystical.
The mystical nature of Daoism is indicated in the “sacrifice of writings,” which is performed in a temple or other designated area. The ritual space contains a stepped altar that represents a mountain. The gods are assembled on the north, east, and west of the altar, and venerated dead and lesser spirits occupy the south wall. The chief cantor chants formulas of invocation, consecration, purification, elevation, and confession while beating rhythmically on a wooden block. The priest, who is called a Great Master, murmurs sacred formulas, makes hidden finger gestures in the sleeves of his robe and signs in the air with incense smoke, and breathes in and out facing the different directions. While performing these actions, he cultivates a mystical experience. He meditates on the words that the cantor recites. Summoning the 24 energies of his body, he inhales, directing his breath and energies from a point situated between his eyebrows and his lower abdomen, which are known as the Upper Palace and the Cinnabar Field, respectively.
The priest then picks up the incense burner and lights it while meditating on another text that the cantor chants. At a certain point in the text, the priest redirects his breathing and energies to the Upper Palace and imagines the colours blue-black, yellow, and white. He turns toward his birth star and contemplates each of 36 gods as the name of the god is recited. At the end of this rite, he puts a pin shaped like a flaming pearl in his crown, signifying the lighting of the incense burner in the Cinnabar Field within his body.In his visionary experience, the priest transforms his energies and body into the gods of his pantheon. He speaks their names and meditates on them individually, arranges them in order of rank, and creates a procession that moves with him in his inner experience to the gates of heaven. When the priest reaches the proximity of the Golden Gate of heaven, he dismisses the emissary spirits in his vision and performs a physical ritual. When he holds out his arms, his assistants take his sword and bowl of lustral water and hand him a tablet. After walking in the pattern of the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), the priest prostrates himself in a fetal position, with his face resting on his hands, which continue to hold the tablet. He envisions a newborn child in the Cinnabar Field and meditates on his heart, where he finds a newborn child, called the True Person, who is escorted by two generals in military garb.
The priest then visualizes the group standing at dawn on a terrace. Other generals escort them as they climb a 12-story tower that is the priest’s trachea and present themselves at his throat, which is the Pass of the Tiger and the Leopard. They proceed into his mouth, nose, and eyes, which are the Gates of the Sun and Moon. From a point between the priest’s eyebrows, they proceed to the top of his head, where they enter the cavity inside his crown, which is again the Golden Gate. There the True Person presents the memorial to the Heavenly Chancellors and turns back. On the way back he appears as an old man, the Great Lord of Long Life, and he slowly descends to merge into the Cinnabar Field that is his place of origin.Many other Daoist rites are similarly performances for the laity, in which a cantor and other assistants help a priest cultivate a mystical experience. In keeping with the unitive ideology at the core of Daoist thought, the priest’s experience is not an instance of timeless, unchanging oneness. It is a rapidly changing vision of a spiritual journey into the sky that is conceptualized in a unitive way.
The locations of the journey are both in the sky and within the priest’s body, as though the priest were a macroanthropos—a cosmic man who houses the heavens within his head. The ideology—it cannot accurately be called a theology or a philosophy—unites the cosmos and the body to such an extent that the ideology enters into the content of the vision near the vision’s end, when bodily parts are understood conceptually as the celestial locations into which they are rapidly transformed. The thoroughgoing mesh of visionary experience and unitive ideology in Daoism makes it impractical to restrict the term mystical to unitive experiences while treating visions as a separate category. It would be equally arbitrary to impose such a distinction in the case of shamanism.ShamanismWidely practiced in the world’s hunting cultures, shamanism may be the oldest mystical tradition. At the centre of the religion is the shaman, an ecstatic figure, male or female, who is thought to heal the sick and communicate with the spirit world. A shaman may address a question in thought to his “helping spirit” and then experience ideas that are interpreted as the spirit’s response to the question. A shaman may also summon a spirit to enter his body, and the spirit may speak through the shaman’s mouth. On such occasions the shaman controls both himself and the spirit that lodges in and manifests itself through his body. In other cases a shaman absorbs his helping spirit, gaining its faculties, capacities, or powers.
A shaman who incorporates a hostile god or spirit may in alternating moments be in control of the situation, housing a raging metaphysical being within his body, and in other moments lose control and be possessed by the being. In Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, Menelaus is implicitly in such a mixed state of uncontrolled possession and controlled incorporation when he wrestles with Proteus, the old man of the sea, and forces him to prophesy.In deep trances, when a shaman is oblivious to physical reality, he may undertake a “spirit journey.” In a vivid continuous visionary state, the shaman experiences himself in disembodied form, flying away from the place of the séance to a distant location to visit ghosts, spirits, or gods.
The examples of shamanism and Hindu and Daoist mysticism demonstrate the difficulty in establishing a single definition of mysticism. Definitions of mysticism in terms of unitive experiences must include spirit possession within their scope, while leaving Daoism out of account. Definitions that emphasize unitive ideologies are able to include Daoism but exempt shamanism from consideration, even though many Daoist visions are variants of shamanic soul flights. To resolve the problem of definition, scholars of comparative mysticism have opted for inclusive approaches that discuss religious uses of alternate states of consciousness without further qualifications.The location of mysticism in religionAn important variable among mystical practices is the extent to which mystical experiences and ideologies are integrated into the religious tradition or broader spirituality of the practitioner. In Christianity, for example, mysticism may be practiced from late adolescence onward, but it is pursued chiefly by monks and nuns who form communities apart from their coreligionists.
Their mystical experiences are pursued in private.Christianity is not alone in segregating mysticism from its mainstream religious practice. In Hinduism, Yoga is pursued by adult males of the Brahman (priestly) caste after they abandon their families and retire to become forest dwellers. In Buddhism, Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha (c. 6th–4th century bce), rejected the Upanishadic belief that all things are a single substance that is God and instead advanced the concept of anatta (Pali: “non-self”). His rejection of the identity of atman and brahman coincided with his renunciation of the caste system and his introduction of an egalitarian model of community, the sangha. Because all is unreal, unreliable, and an illusion (maya), caste and the Hindu divinity of the self may be dismissed as fallacies.
The performances of shamans and Daoist priests, by contrast, are almost always conducted for the benefit of an audience. Shamans’ séances are devoted to healing their coreligionists, ending famines and adverse weather, finding lost articles and people, and so forth. Daoist priests perform highly varied rites on behalf of their coreligionists. Although shamans and Daoist priests occasionally experience private ecstasies, they are primarily professional ecstatics whose mysticism is a component of group religious activities. Practices that laypeople witness in nonmystical states are conducted in alternate states of consciousness by these professional ecstatics. Although vision quests, in which individuals seek to interact with a guardian spirit, are sometimes pursued by laity in religions that have shamans, the layperson gradually improves at the practice, ultimately attracting a following and becoming a professional.Mysticism has influenced other religious traditions as well.
The Kabbala, a school of Jewish mysticism that dates from the late 12th century, had an important impact on the subsequent development of Judaism. From the 12th through the 14th century, Kabbalists interpreted Jewish practices in a new light and so transformed them into mystical rites and customs. In the Iggeret ha-Kodesh (“The Holy Epistle”), for example, sexual intercourse in marriage was interpreted as a theurgical practice in which masculine and feminine hypostases (aspects) of the divine were brought into conjunction through appropriate meditations during sexual activity. Beginning in the 15th century, Kabbalists devised original rites of mystical character, some of which found their way into common Jewish usage. Most famously, the song “Lekhah dodi” (“Let Us Walk, My Love”), which greets the arrival of the feminine hypostasis, was composed by mystics in the town of Ẕefat in Upper Galilee. Its popularity led to its inclusion in the standard prayer books of Jews internationally.Like the Kabbala, Sufism was grafted onto a religion (Islam) that was previously nonecstatic.
The earliest Sufis were ascetics rather than mystics, and the earliest Sufi mystics were isolated individuals. As the movement grew in size, however, its social organization developed in two directions. Some individuals formed and belonged to Sufi orders, which are formal organizations that teach and perform specific approaches to Islamic mysticism. Less formally, however, groups of ordinary people—who may be acquainted, for example, through a local mosque—spend an hour or more together at a time, engaged communally in learning, prayer, and meditation.Mysticism and reasonBecause religious ideas that are obscure or cryptic may be called “mystical” in popular parlance, mysticism is often mistakenly thought to be essentially irrational. Although much mysticism, like much religion, is indeed irrational, other mystical traditions take pride in their adherence to reason.In the West, Diogenes of Apollonia, a Greek philosopher of the 5th century bce, introduced mystical ideas into Greek philosophy. Diogenes maintained that “all existing things are created by the alteration of the same thing, and are the same thing.” This one ultimate substance, according to Diogenes, has nous (“mind” or “intellect”) and “is called Air.” All humans and animals breath Air, which “for them is both Soul (Life) and Intelligence.” In his Nicomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle stated that the contemplative life consists of the soul’s participation in the eternal through a union between the soul’s rational faculty and the nous that imparts intelligibility to the cosmos.
For more than 2,000 years, Western rational mystics have contemplated nature—its forms, structures, laws, and quantities—as a means of participating in the divine intellect. While some rational mystics have regarded nature as a contemplative end in itself, for others the contemplation of nature is a source of insight regarding its creator. The most famous modern representative of this tradition of rational mysticism is the German-born physicist Albert Einstein, who wrote:The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger … is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. The accord of mysticism with reason is also an age-old tradition in China. In the Analects the philosopher and bureaucrat Confucius (551–479 bce) advocated ethical integrity as a code of conduct for gentlemen of the Chinese ruling class. He claimed that ethics is the natural basis of government, as is proved pragmatically by the efficiency of ethical governance. The ethical life is the natural way (Dao) toward sociopolitical effectiveness.
The Confucian program of self-improvement was explicitly understood to include a meditative practice by the philosopher Xunzi (born c. 300 bce), who wrote:If he who seeks to abide by the Way has emptiness, then he may enter into it; if he who seeks to serve the Way has unity, then he may master it; if he who seeks to meditate on the Way has stillness, then he may perceive it. He who understands the Way and perceives its nature, he who understands the Way and carries it out, may be said to embody the Way. Through selflessness, one might become sufficiently empty of self-interest to participate in the objective reality of the Way. This was not simply a conforming with the Way; it was a kind of uniting with it, by accepting the Way’s direction as one’s own. Once participation was achieved, unity or integrity with the Way facilitated mastery; and meditation in “stillness” permitted direct experience of the Way. It then remained only to embody the Way by acting in accordance with it.During the Song (960–1279) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, when neo-Confucianism was the official philosophy of government administrators throughout imperial China, a meditative practice known as “quiet sitting” was often joined together with study to promote self-cultivation. Quiet sitting consisted of suspending thought so that objects ceased to present themselves in the mind.
The remaining consciousness was interpreted as the original substance (benti) or principle (li) of the mind; but because “there is no distinction between interior and exterior,” it was simultaneously the foundation of all things. Neo-Confucian mysticism has been termed an “ethical mysticism,” but it is simultaneously a rational mysticism because it viewed ethics as the natural basis of effective sociopolitical organization.Mysticism and the spiritualExtrasensory experienceMystics believe that their experiences disclose the existence of an extrasensory dimension of reality: phenomena whose existence cannot be detected through sense perception become apparent during mystical experience. Mystics differ radically, however, in their claims about extrasensory realities. Ancient and Hellenistic philosophers offered three examples of the reality of the extrasensory: the numbers and mathematical formulas of Pythagoras; the forms (or “ideas”) of Plato and the universals (substantial and accidental forms) of Aristotle; and the Stoic concept of the lekton, or “saying.”
Thus, a number or a mathematical formula exists or is true objectively, whether or not it is known by any person. It is an intelligible or thinkable reality, though not a sensible or perceptible one. The Aristotelian concept of universals similarly builds from sensory evidence of things to concepts about those things to the concept of conceptual things. Red, yellow, and blue things can be seen through the operation of the senses; the ideas of red, yellow, and blue can be conceptualized through abstraction. The further abstraction—the concept of colour—no longer pertains to anything sensory but concerns an extrasensory phenomenon, colour in general, or colour in the abstract. The signification or meaning of a vocal sound (a word or a sentence) is similarly extrasensory but again entirely real.All laws of nature describe interactions or relationships among perceptible things.
The relationships are intelligible or thinkable; they are not themselves sensible or perceptible. When, for example, Newton’s third law of motion (that interacting bodies apply forces to one another that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction) is illustrated through the collision of two moving objects, sense perception witnesses the objects approaching, making contact, and moving apart. It is the mind or intellect that conceptualizes the processes of action and reaction, equality and opposition, and perhaps attraction and repulsion. Equally extrasensory are the realities operative in emotional relationships. Psychological phenomena such as honour and revenge are perceived by the mind, rather than the senses, through abstraction from highly complex and potentially variable physical interactions. When mystics make claims about extrasensory dimensions of reality, they are making the same type of claim as do physical scientists when they cite the laws of physics or psychologists when they posit emotional complexes that govern healthy and morbid responses to events.
They are not speaking of the magical, mythological, or otherworldly; they are attempting to speak, however well or inaccurately, of aspects of the world of sense perception that are not perceptible to the senses.During mystical experiences, extrasensory phenomena are said to be directly perceived, whether by the soul, the mind, the imagination, or some other faculty. The phenomena that mystics encounter may be impersonal—e.g., a unifying principle, structure, process, law, or force—or personal—e.g., ghosts, spirits, angels, demons, or gods or revelations derived from such personal beings. The inclusion of both impersonal and personal phenomena within the extrasensory is reflected in the medieval description of the extrasensory as “spiritual,” a usage that is reflected in the meaning of the German word Geist (“intellect” or “spirit”).Understanding the spiritualFor mystics the spiritual is not something merely to think about but also something to be encountered. Spiritual phenomena may be said to be experienced when they are thought about in such a way that a depth of feeling becomes attached to them. When experience of the spiritual is heartfelt, the spiritual is found to be mysterious, awesome, urgent, and fascinating—what the German theologian and historian of religion Rudolf Otto called “numinous.”
The relation between the spiritual and the numinous is comparable to the relation between a beautiful object and an aesthetic experience of the object by someone. A work of art may in some moments be experienced as beautiful and in other moments be experienced as boring or even ugly. Its beauty—that is, its potential to be experienced as beautiful—exists whether or not the work of art is momentarily being appreciated as beautiful. Similarly, the physical circumstances that are used to define the physical laws of motion exist whether or not any objects happen to instantiate them at a particular time. Analogously, the spiritual exists, and can even be known to be spiritual, whether or not it is momentarily being appreciated as numinous.Discerning what is truly spiritual from what is falsely or only apparently spiritual is a task that mystics everywhere address, though they differ in their approaches to the problem. Shamans and other mystics embrace pantheons that define the scope of the spiritual, partly by deduction from the perceptible world and partly through mythology. Ancient thinkers in the Platonic tradition subjected the spiritual to philosophical investigation. While validating the contemplation of intelligibles (extrasensory objects or phenomena), they divided visions into metaphorical expressions of intelligibles on the one hand and unreliable fantasies on the other. In both cases, visions were regarded as imaginative combinations of memories of sense perceptions. In the subsequent Aristotelian tradition of rational mysticism, the spiritual was discovered through meditation on nature.
Following the 4th-century theologians Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian, Christian mystics permitted themselves only a much reduced program. They contemplated both God’s intelligible power in the world and God himself, but they avoided visions on the grounds that reliable visions were too easy for demons to counterfeit successfully. Visions were rehabilitated in Islam as early as the 10th century and in Christianity and Judaism in the 12th century. In all cases the contemplation of intelligibles was considered more reliable, and more desirable, than the experience of visions.The problem of discerning the truly spiritual has also been addressed in Asian religions. In Daoism, visions are favoured because the human microcosm contains the same constituent components as does the cosmos, and the contemplation of the cosmos has reliable implications concerning the Dao as a whole. Hinduism and Buddhism instead share an arch skepticism that dismisses both materiality and almost all spirituality as maya (“illusion”). For Hindus, the solitary exception to maya is spirit at its most abstract. As noted above, Hindu mystics locate the truth beyond illusion either dualistically, in pure purusha (“spirit”) —as opposed to the illusion of prakriti (“matter”)—or nondualistically, as the monistic substance sat-cit-ananda (“being-consciousness-bliss”). Buddhist mystics reject even these affirmations. Their meditations classically address a series of eight jhanas (Pali: “meditations”).
The first four have forms that can be imagined or envisioned, and the last four are formless and culminate in “neither perception nor nonperception.” Thus, from a comparative perspective, it may be concluded that, because the mystics of the world make contradictory claims regarding the spiritual, a component of fantasy presumably complicates the perception of the extrasensory.Transcending the spiritual
The aspiration of Buddhist meditation to transcend the whole of the spiritual represents an option that many mystical schools have taken. Western mysticism’s perception of God as utterly transcending both material and spiritual creation has led to descriptions of him as the Ineffable, the Infinite, the God beyond being, the God beyond being and nonbeing, and the God whose essence can never be known. Mystics of these traditions claim that their experiences are limited to the spiritual; it is these experiences, however, that convince them that the spiritual was created and transcended by God.Other mystical traditions consider similar ideas, only to dissent from them.
The Daodejing, the great work of Chinese philosophy composed about 300 bce, begins with the assertion that the Dao that cannot be named is equivalent to the Dao that can be. The unnameable, ineffable Father is utterly transcendent, and the nameable Mother is manifest everywhere. Although Father and Mother are radically opposite, both are one. Christian mystics generally extend the doctrine of the Incarnation of God in the man Jesus to express a more general concern with the omnipresence of the Word in the whole of creation. The transcendent Father can be known only through the Son (the omnipresent Word); yet, together with the Holy Spirit, they form a single Godhead that is immanent everywhere. An equivalent paradox is embraced by Mahayana Buddhists, who speak of phenomenal reality as shunyata (Sanskrit: “void” or “empty”). In their view the immanent is empty because it also transcends itself.Whether the mystic views radical transcendence impersonally or as an attribute of God, mystical experiences themselves are always limited to the spiritual and do not include contact with the transcendent.
During mystical experiences, spiritual phenomena may appear to be ultimate, self-existing, and divine or may be experienced as contingent. Spiritual phenomena are not then considered to be self-existing but instead attest to a superordinate role by a creator who transcends them. A distinction is then made between the spiritual and the divine, and mystics content themselves with inferring the divine from experiences of the spiritual.Mysticism and secrecyExperiencing the hiddenBecause mystics experience spiritual phenomena that are hidden from the senses, the physical world disclosed by sense perception does not exhaust reality as mystics understand it.
Some mystics find the spiritual to be immanent within the world of ordinary sense perception, but others discount the perceptible world as illusion and attribute reality to the spiritual alone. Whatever the precise detail of the relation of the extrasensory to the perceptible, the hiddenness of the spiritual is an important characteristic of mysticism.Many mystics claim that their experiences are indescribable in human language. Language can refer to experiences, as a kind of notational shorthand that enables other people who have had similar experiences to understand approximately what is meant, but it can never convey the whole content of an experience.Not only do mystics feel that they have experienced a hidden dimension of reality, they generally seek to conform with it.
For Confucians, conformance with the Dao traditionally consisted of implementing it in the administration of government. For Western rational mystics, conformance with nous took the form of pursuing philosophical knowledge and, in some cases, its technological implementation, as in medicine or alchemy. For most of the world’s mystics, however, conformance with reality’s hidden dimension is achieved through its imitation. Many Hindu Yogis, Buddhist meditators, and Christian mystics have attempted, so far as possible, to be exclusively spiritual, abstaining from material possessions and the satisfaction of bodily needs and withdrawing from human society and the entire world of physical existence. Other approaches, however, are less extreme.Claims of indescribability differ from claims of inexplicable paradox. Unitive experiences frequently inspire mystics to assert a paradox, such as the claim that all is one, that being is nothingness, or that masculinity and femininity are the same thing.
The analytic psychologist Carl Jung suggested the term mysterium coniunctionis (Latin: “mystery of the conjunction”) as a designation for mystical paradoxes. Mystics who conceptualize a mysterium coniunctionis—and not all do so—find it difficult to express the paradox in words, both in their own thoughts and in interpersonal communications. Words permit one to arrive at the paradox. For example, the statement “A and B are one” uses the nonparadoxical concepts “A,” “B,” and “one.” Each of the nonparadoxical concepts can be explained separately. However, the concepts are juxtaposed in such a way that the sentence as a whole arrives at a concept of “one” that is not its customary meaning, and it can be extremely difficult to find words that express the paradox at greater length by articulating nuances, implications, corollaries, and so forth.
The practice of secrecyBecause mystics experience spiritual phenomena that are hidden from the senses, they often conform with the secrecy of the spiritual by being secretive themselves. Some mystics retreat into silence. Some preserve secrecy about their ecstatic experiences but speak openly about their mystical ideas and beliefs.
Others are still less secretive, withholding, for example, only a certain technique by which alternate states of consciousness are attained, such as a doctrine, a chant, or a spiritual name. In many Native American cultures, people were expected to seek visions in order to encounter a guardian spirit who would bestow a song or name by which a lesser spirit could be acquired as a helper. The song or name was kept secret, so that no one else would have access to the power it conferred, and in most cases the contents of the vision were reported only to the person who taught the visionary. In this manner the hiddenness of the spiritual was imitated by the visionaries and their communities. In several traditional African cultures, boys approaching puberty were taken from their villages into the forest, where they lived in a boys’ village for as long as two or three years. During this period, they were taught secret lore and underwent the ritual induction of a mystical experience through the administration of a psychoactive drug. Following initiation, the youths returned to the communal villages and outwardly carried on as though no secrets existed.In many other cultures, people undergo initiation into secret societies through mystical practice. In other cases, initiation into a mystical practice defines a social class. For example, a successful vision quest was a condition of male eligibility to join a hunting party in many Native American cultures.
Elsewhere, initiations were key to participation in warriors’ groups and militias and in occasional trades, such as iron smithing. In Classical Greece and the Hellenistic world, rites of initiation were undergone for the sake of having mystical experiences and gaining knowledge of the mysteries. Secret societies, often with political agendas, have been a major feature of Daoism for nearly 2,000 years and have been characteristic of Western esotericism since the Renaissance.Mystics in many cultural traditions maintain secrets by speaking and writing in coded languages that are not understood by the laity of the tradition. Shamans convey secret meanings to each other by using vocabularies that consist of archaic words and metaphors. Daoism similarly utilizes coded language, a fact that makes extensive parts of Daoist texts incomprehensible to noninitiates. The “intentional languages” of Hindu and Buddhist Tantric texts include vocabularies in the names of commonplace items that are intentionally used in secret ways to speak about visionary and mystical experiences. In his Seventh Letter, Plato asserted that his writings contain hints at secret teachings; and the Babylonian Talmud, a compilation of Jewish teachings and commentaries, instructs that Jewish mysticism is to be taught by means of “chapter headings” alone. The symbolae (“symbols”) of the Pythagoreans, the ciphers of Western alchemists, the taʾwil (allegorical interpretations) of Sufi mystics, and the Kabbalists’ exegetical technique of sod (“secret”) are further developments of the practice of coded languages among Western mystics.Secrecy may also have ethical consequences.
In Hinduism, Buddhism, and the early-Christian gnostic movement, mystical secrecy includes the devaluing of phenomenological reality as “unreal.” The divine is seen as a keeper of secrets, who deceives and makes sport of humanity, condemning it to suffering through ignorance. In other mystical systems, perceptible reality is regarded not as a deception but as a code that a mystic may learn. Syrian Christian mysticism regards physical phenomena as symbols of higher spiritual realities. The Neoplatonic tradition, which undergirds Sufism, the Kabbala, and Western esotericism, regards physical phenomena as lower manifestations of realities that are spiritual at higher levels of being. In the 16th century the Dutch mystic Jakob Böhme wrote of “the signature of all things.” The correspondence of the cosmos with the human body in both Daoism and Tantric mysticism permits both orders of reality to be coded in terms of the gods, the landscape, the elements, various mineral and vegetable substances, and so forth.Mystical statesTranceMystical experiences can be categorized not only according to their contents but also according to the alternate states of consciousness during which they occur. For example, St. Teresa of Ávila distinguished four stages of mystical prayer. In “the prayer of simplicity,” a prayer that is roughly one sentence in length is repeated continuously until other thoughts cease to follow in an orderly succession.
As thought is gradually halted, the prayer reaches a point termed the “ligature” or “suspension,” when external reality is significantly less distracting. The second stage of prayer, “the prayer of the quiet,” begins at the onset of the ligature. During this stage, repetitive prayer continues to require conscious effort, but it gradually ceases to be a voluntary meditation and instead becomes an involuntary passively experienced object of contemplation. When the increasing oblivion to external reality and the preoccupation with contemplation reach such an extent that distractions entirely cease to intrude on consciousness, the prayer of quiet has ended and “the prayer of the full mystical union” is said to have commenced. Efforts to avoid distraction and maintain contemplation are now all but unnecessary. Sense perception is half-suspended; the sense of hearing is the last of the senses to be inhibited.
The simultaneous increase of the ligature and contemplation is again progressive, arriving by increments at the final stage of Roman Catholic mystical experience, which St. Teresa described in terms of three categories. “Ecstasy” appears gradually or quietly. “Rapture” is an experience of the same content when its onset is violent and sudden. Lastly, the “flight of the soul” is a rapture with the specific content of an out-of-body experience.The four stages of mystical prayer may be described psychologically as four gradually deeper stages of trance, a psychic state in which thinking about something accomplishes what an effort of will is ordinarily necessary to effect.
As trance deepens, the ordinary functions of consciousness are lost one by one, with gradually increasing intensity or extent. Because the functions of ordinary consciousness are inhibited, the contents of trance experiences are received without conflict, regardless of whether they would be disturbing during normal waking sobriety. Similarly, it is no more possible during trance than during the dreams of natural sleep to recognize fantasies as fantasies. Whatever their contents, mystical trances may be experienced as real and true. Ideas become delusions; daydreams become hallucinations. Trances consequently promote forms of religiosity that are at least partly inconsistent with a scientific understanding of the perceptible world.ReverieNot all mysticism has its basis in trance states, however. Rudolf Otto noted this fact when he proposed a dualistic classification of numinous experiences. In the mysterium tremendum (“awe inspiring mystery”), the numinous is experienced as mysterious, awesome, and urgent. Otto identified the other class of experiences, in which the numinous is fascinans (“fascinating”), with the “Dionysian element,” as defined by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
This allusion to the chaotic, creative, spontaneous, and irrepressible element of the unconscious implied that the mysterium tremendum was the Apollonian element—orderly, controlling, rationalistic, and conscious.In reverie states, numinous experiences occur without the inhibition of consciousness, and visions are experienced as revelations rather than as perceptions of externally existing realities. The contents of the visions are often symbolic or allegorical and require proper interpretation in order to be understood. Unitive experiences too are thought to be metaphors and not literal truths.Many contents of mystical experience may occur in both trances and reveries and may differ in little more than the reification and preternaturalism that trance contributes.
The experience that all is one, for example, may lead in trance to a denial of the reality of physical plurality, while in reverie it may lead to wonderment at something like the periodic table of atomic elements, which attests to a unity that underlies physical reality. In trance, the all-in-one is reified, so that plurality cannot be real; in reverie, the all-in-one is self-evidently a metaphor and speaks to an extrasensory dimension of the physical. The idea of dying may be manifested during a reverie as an experience of “mystical death,” a rare instance when reverie has the quality of a mysterium tremendum. Vivid hallucinatory fantasies of being about to die, in the process of dying, or having died can cause extreme panic, which ends with the realization that life continues. During a trance, the idea of dying may take visionary form as an out-of-body experience in which the visionary survives the body by leaving it. Reverie and trance accommodate other disturbing materials in similar ways, with disturbance being experienced in reverie and inhibited or wished away in trance.
Mystics can interpret reverie states as though they were trance states, resulting in an attitude toward visions that the French historian of religions Henry Corbin termed “imaginal.” Mystics can also interpret trance states as though they were reveries.Techniques for inducing mystical experiencesAccording to surveys, roughly one-third of the population of both the United States and the United Kingdom has had one or more spontaneous mystical experiences; almost all of these were reveries. A tiny fraction of the population has had mystical experiences caused by psychopathology; these experiences are invariably reified.Mystical experiences can also be induced voluntarily.
Trance states can be brought about by many forms of concentrative meditation that fix attention monotonously, such as mantras, Buddhist samadhi (Sanskrit: “total self-collectedness”), Sufi dhikr (Arabic: “reminding oneself”), the Eastern Orthodox Jesus prayer (a mental invocation of the name of Jesus Christ), and staring at a crystal, a burning flame, or a drop of oil. Mystical use has also been made of trances that were produced by psychoactive drugs, such as those contained in the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) and the African shrub Tabernanthe iboga and in potions made from the mandrake, henbane, belladonna, and datura plants.Reveries can also be induced voluntarily.
During waking consciousness, visualizing and dwelling emotionally on a mental image can induce a reverie in which a vision may occur. Mystical use has also been made of hypnagogic states, which immediately precede sleep. Sensory deprivation has been cultivated in the depths of caves and also in pits, huts, windowless rooms in temples, and other constructions that reduce sensory stimuli. In the Kabbala and the Ars magna (“The Great Art”) of the Catalan mystic and poet Ramon Llull, alphabetic letters were combined in pairs in alphabetic order. Inuit shamans rubbed a small stone in a circle on a larger one. Both procedures were regarded as magical, but both dependably produced reverie states.
The Buddhist meditative practice of satipatthana (Sanskrit: “mindfulness”) or vipassana (“insight”), which aims to arrest the process of thought, induces a reverie state of mystical intensity that Buddhists consider a pseudo-nirvana. A Christian mystical technique, which John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called “watching,” involves observation of the contents of consciousness in order to detach oneself emotionally from sinful ideas. Wesley paired this technique with another, known as “the practice of the Presence of God,” which also induces a state of reverie. The hitbonenut (Hebrew: “self-reflection”) meditation of Moses Maimonides also induced a reverie state.
Mystical experiences in reverie states have been occasioned by the use of hallucinatory or psychedelic substances or drugs, such as ergot, LSD, peyote, San Pedro cactus, psilocybin-bearing mushrooms, and marijuana. Peyote is used sacramentally in the Native American Church and other legally authorized institutions. San Pedro cactus is used sacramentally in some South American shamanistic traditions. Some scholars have hypothesized that the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece employed ergot sacramentally; others have asserted that manna, the miraculous bread of the Bible, was described as psychoactive in the biblical text and was secretly so understood by many commentators through the centuries. Although psychedelic drugs do not themselves produce mystical experiences, they create alternate states of consciousness that may lead to mystical experiences through prayer, meditation, visualization, or other religious activity.
The “Good Friday Experiment,” in which Walter Pahnke, a researcher at Harvard University, administered psilocybin in a double-blind study in 1962, established that when both mental “set” (the total contents of the mind) and physical “setting” are arranged to encourage the occurrence of a mystical experience, it occurs with a 90 percent probability. (Pahnke made the concept of a mystical experience operational by defining it in terms of characteristic experiential features, as reported by celebrated mystics from all the world’s religions.) Claims that psychedelic mysticism differs from traditional mysticism invariably point to factors by which reverie states differ from trance states and not to characteristics that distinguish psychedelic mysticism from reverie-based mysticism.Set and setting influence the contents of all mystical techniques. Requiring would-be mystics to practice austerities and to meditate for several years before they attain a mystical experience motivates them to have highly disciplined, doctrinally orthodox experiences. Providing easy access to mystical experiences necessitates greater doctrinal tolerance of varied experiences.
The American psychologist and philosopher William James introduced the term “overbeliefs” to explain the contents of mystical experiences that reflect doctrinal expectations rather than the immediate or spontaneous features of the experiences themselves. Many auxiliary practices serve as overbeliefs: ethical behaviour, doctrinal preparation, asceticism, gymnastics, isolation, diet, drumming, dance, and rituals. Another category of overbelief is a mystic’s emotional attachment to his teacher.The goal of mysticismWhat mystics hope to achieve differs from culture to culture. Shamans, theurgists, Daoists, Kabbalists, Western esotericians, and many others are primarily interested in mystical experiences as a means of performing magic.
The gnostics of late antiquity, Hindu mystics, and Buddhists have sought liberation from ignorance through the apprehension of truth, and Christian and Sufi mystics seek consolation in God.For the most part, mystics are engaged in acquiring a set of skills that will enable them to have visions, unitive experiences, possession states, and so forth. In a few cases, however, the purpose of mystical practice is to produce personal transformation.
Confucianism, for example, is aimed at the cultivation of sagehood. Fourteenth-century Roman Catholic meditations on the Passion of Christ, which induced death-and-resurrection experiences that were considered mystical unions with Jesus, were consciously aimed at reforming the soul in both faith and feeling. Early English Methodism was aimed at the achievement of a state of “sanctification,” in which sin ceases to be tempting and virtue is effortless. Tibetan Buddhism is directed toward the production of enlightened individuals, called bodhisattvas, who inevitably acquire compassion as a side effect of their progress toward truthful understanding.
Modern psychological research has established that both Buddhist “insight” meditation and Jesuit spirituality, the latter based on the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, promote healthy growth of the personality. Other researchers, however, have argued that mystical practices can be used as a form of brainwashing that promotes cult behaviour. Brainwashing typically involves a blend of attraction and coercion that subverts a person’s sense of integrity and inculcates a new set of values. Positive techniques such as support from the in-group coincide with negative techniques such as shaming, guilt-making, physical abuse, and isolation from friends, family, and other outsiders. In such a context, the euphoria of mystical experience may enhance the attractiveness of a cult. It is not the positive techniques, however, but only the negative ones that reach traumatizing intensity, accomplishing coercion rather than persuasion.
In all, mysticism may be regarded as an emotionally intense experience, in which the personality is unusually plastic. Change for both the good and bad is possible to a greater than usual extent.In 1966 David Bakan, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, argued that Sigmund Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis—and, by extension, all of the psychotherapies derived from it—constitute a modern revival of rational mysticism. Bakan contended that free association is a type of meditation that is intended to induce moments of inspiration that psychoanalysts call “insight.” Psychoanalytic insights not only provide intuitive access to truths that are not manifest but also disclose a unity that underlies the apparent disconnectedness or nonintegration of manifest thought. Whereas the Aristotelian mystics of antiquity and the Middle Ages meditated on nature outside themselves, Freudian clients meditate on their own natures, arriving at results that are no less mystical. In keeping with Bakan’s intuition, several initiatives have sought to coordinate traditional religious mysticism with contemporary psychotherapy. For example, transpersonal psychology, which developed from humanistic psychology in the 1970s, proceeds from the assumption that, because some mystics have demonstrably enjoyed superlative mental health, selected uses of classical mystical techniques may facilitate the therapeutic goal of self-actualization.
Westerners who engage in Buddhist forms of meditation have frequently attempted to use them as a kind of self-therapy, leading meditators who are qualified psychotherapists to place programs of meditation on a professionally responsible foundation. Within Freudian psychoanalysis, a very small number of practitioners have recognized both free association and the analyst’s practice of “analytic listening” as types of meditation and have attempted to articulate further the mystical character of psychoanalysis. At the same time, many of the world’s religions are becoming massively psychologized. Religious counseling and pastoral work are everywhere becoming increasingly sophisticated in both psychotherapeutic competence and psychological understanding. If deep psychotherapy is indeed a rational form of mysticism, then a new era in mysticism worldwide could be at hand.Dan Merkur
Article Title: Mysticism
Website Name: Encyclopaedia Britannica
Publisher: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
Date Published: 25 August 2015
Access Date: April 28, 2019
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