Mysticism (from the Greek μυστικός, mystikos, an initiate of a mystery religion) is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, or insight. Mysticism usually centers around a practice or practices intended to nurture that experience or awareness. Mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or they may be nondualistic. Differing religious traditions have conceived 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 generally form sub-currents within larger religious traditions - such as Kabbalah within Judaism, Sufism within Islam, Vedanta within Hinduism, Christian mysticism within Christianity - but are often treated skeptically and held separate, due to their emphasis on personal experience 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.
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. 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. 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.
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
These categories are, of course, intended only as guidelines; many mystical teachings cover the gamut. For instance, Yunus Emre's famous passage:
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.
The pursuit of knowledge in the realm of physics has been accepted for much of history as inseparable from understanding the mind of God - including the 20th c. comment by Albert Einstein that "God does not play dice," referring to the unfathomable discoveries of quantum physics. The rift between mysticism and the modern sciences derives mainly from elements of scientism in the latter: certain branches of the natural sciences, broadly disavow subjective experience as meaningless, misunderstanding the limitations of the ancient languages. That said, several areas of study in biology (work of Mae Wan Ho and Lynn Margulis are two examples) and philosophy address the same issues that concern the mystic, and modern physicists now struggle to understand a multiple dimensional reality that mystics' have attempted to describe for millennia. Physicist David Bohm speaking of consciousness expressing itself as matter and/or energy would be completely understood by the mystic, whatever his cultural/religious heritage.
Furthermore, Continental philosophy tends to be concerned with issues closely related to mysticism, such as the subjective experience of existence in Existentialism. It should be noted that while existentialism suggests a nothingness rather than a oneness, the mystic's pursuit of emptiness - despite its fear producing angst - for the sake of union with the Divine, points directly toward a potential unity between physics and psychology that does not at present exist. The mystic's attempt to describe cause and effect between one's internal state and the miraculous, hints at a close connection between psychological stability (ego transcendence) and the mysterious realm of causality quantum physicists are now deciphering - dimensional reality shifts that synchronize with states of consciousness and unconflicted choices.
Mysticism is related to epistemology to the extent that both are concerned with the nature, acquisition and limitations of knowledge. However, where epistemology struggles with foundational issues—how do we know that our knowledge is true or our beliefs justified—mystics often appear more concerned with process as the means to true knowing. However, every mystical path has necessarily as its ontological purpose, the discernment between truth and illusion, and many approaches emphasize the total discarding of beliefs as the prerequisite to knowledge in the phenomenological sense. Foundational questions are generally answered, in mystical thought, by mystical experiences. Their focus, less on finding procedures of reason that will establish clear relations between ontos and episteme, but rather on finding practices that will yield clear perception. The goals therefore are the same, but the mystic's awareness of evolving levels of consciousness encompass another realm altogether. At least one branch of epistemology claims that non-rational procedures (e.g. statements of desire, random selection, or intuitive processes) are in some cases acceptable means of arriving at beliefs, while the mystic's goal is discarding said beliefs as a limit to knowledge. The term "mysticism" is also used in a pejorative sense in epistemology to refer to beliefs that cannot be justified empirically, and thus considered irrational. According to Schopenhauer, mystics arrive at a condition in which there is no knowing subject and known object:The emphasis most accolytes place on the "mysteriousness" of the encounter with the divine and otherworldly transcendent goal of unity, leave most scientists and laymen behind for lack of interest in "mumbo-jumbo" - despite the seemingly causal relationship between self knowledge/accurate perception and the subsequent Real effects as described by not only the mystic, but the pychologist and philosopher as well.
Phenomenology is perhaps the closest philosophical perspective to mystical thinking, and shares many of the difficulties in comprehension that plague mysticism itself. Husserl's phenomenology, for instance, insists on the same first-person, experiential stance that mystics try to achieve: his notion of phenomenological epoché, or bracketing, precludes assumptions or questions about the extra-mental existence of perceived phenomena. Heidegger goes a step beyond: rather than merely bracketing phenomena to exclude ontological questions, he asserts that only 'beingness' has ontological reality (similar to Baruch de Spinoza's suppositions) and thus only investigation and experiencing of the self can lead to authentic existence. Christian mystics would assert that "the Kingdom of Heaven is within" references the same approach. Phenomenology and most forms of mysticism part ways, however, in their understanding of the experience. Phenomenology (and in particular existentialist phenomenology) is pre-conditioned by angst (existential dread) which arises from the discovery of the essential emptiness of 'the real' and can go no further; mystics, by contrast take the step beyond to "being" and describe the peace or bliss that derives from their final active connection to 'the Real'. Those who adopt a phenomenological approach to mysticism believe that an argument can be made for concurrent lines of thought throughout mysticism, regardless of interaction
According to author Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of "The Crack in the Cosmic Egg" and "Evolution's End," we have transcendence itself as our biological imperative:
"...Spiritual transcendence and religion have little in common. In fact, if we look closely, we can see that these two have been the fundamental antagonists in our history, splitting our mind into warring camps. Neither our violence nor our transcendence is a moral or ethical matter of religion, but rather an issue of biology. We actually contain a built-in ability to rise above restriction, incapacity, or limitation and, as a result of this ability, possess a vital adaptive spirit that we have not yet fully accessed."
"Historically our transcendence has been sidetracked ... by our projection of these transcendent potentials rather than our development of them. We project when we intuitively recognize a possibility or tendency within ourselves but perceive this as a manifestation or capacity of some person, force, or being outside of ourselves. We seem invariably to project onto each other our negative tendencies..., while we project our transcendent potentials onto principalities and powers "out there" on cloud nine or onto equally nebulous scientific laws...we wander in a self-made hall of mirrors, overwhelmed by inaccessible reflections of our own mind."
"Culture has been defined by anthropologists as a collection of learned survival strategies passed on to our young through teaching and modeling...as the collected embodiment of our survival ideation, is the mental environment to which we must adapt, the state of mind with which we identify. The nature or character of a culture is colored by the myths and religions that arise within it, and abandoning one myth or religion to embrace another has no effect on culture because it both produces and is produced by these elements...That we are shaped by the culture we create makes it difficult to see that our culture is what must be transcended, which means we must rise above our notions and techniques of survival itself, if we are to survive. Thus the paradox that only as we lose our life do we find it."
"A new breed of biologists and neuroscientists have revealed why we behave in so paradoxical a manner that we continually say one thing, feel something else, and act from an impulse different from either of these...A major clue to our conflict is the discovery ...that we have five different neural structures, or brains, within us. These five...represent the whole evolution of life preceding us; reptilian, old mammalian, and human. Nature never abandons a good idea but instead builds new structures upon it...Thus, while we refer to transcendence in rather mystical, ethereal terms, to the intelligence of life, transcendence may be simply the next intelligent move to make."
"...Neurocardiology, a new field of medical research, has discovered in our heart a major brain center that functions in dynamic with the fourfold brain in our head. Outside our conscious awareness, this heart-head dynamic reflects, determines, and affects the very nature of our resulting awareness even as it is, in turn, profoundly affected."
Theistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic metaphysical systems most often understand mystical experience as individual communion with a God. One can receive these very subjective experiences as visions, miracles, dreams, revelations, or prophecies, for example.
Going beyond "natural theology" (theologia naturalis) to direct experience of God is "mystical theology" (theologia mystica) or, as Thomas Aquinas defined it, "experiential knowledge of God" (cognitio dei experimentalis). In Catholicism the mystical experience is not sought for its own sake, and is always informed by revelation (not of necessity visions or supernatural occurrences) and ascetical theology. The effort being analogous to reentering a divine "field" which we misperceive we have been excluded - by sin/shame/remorse. Repentance (awareness of lower-self attachments) and ascetics (giving up the thoughts/behaviors) is the requirement for reestablishing divine communion/unity/grace.
Enlightenment is becoming aware of the nature of the self through observation. By examination of the interior thought system and emotions with detachment, one becomes aware of its processes without being controlled by them, allowing one greater creative capacity and ease of interaction with others and the environment.
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." "Afterlife" is not related to an extension of life after physical death, but sought as a direct experience of the perfect, the divine reality in the present life. The goal is generally established through an "accidental" revelatory or miraculous experience such as a dimensional shift between one structure of reality to another. Once this "potentiality" has been experienced/received/observed, understanding how and why it has occurred becomes the goal of the individual and permanently stabilizing this "direct experience of God" is obsessively pursued. Because terms descriptive of the divine "goal" are defined differently - even by individuals within a given religion - and their usage within mysticism is often no less imprecise, it is extremely difficult for anyone, who has not experienced the simultaneity of the "shift in awareness/reality" to translate mystical language in a useful way.
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.
Christian mysticism has diverse takes on the relationship between God and the soul with purification and reunion the goal and the soul synonymous with the Christ Self or one's true God-given nature. In Catholicism, saints and other beatific individuals are sometimes said to have received the Holy Spirit — Who grants them miraculous, prophetic, or other transcendent abilities — and this belief is taken up in certain charismatic and evangelical faiths that seek out testaments to divine revelation through spontaneous speaking in tongues, faith healing, the casting out of demons, etc. However, the practice is generally unrelated to a disciplined mystical approach. In the Quaker view, the soul is inner light, an inherent presence of God within the individual. Other Christian traditions, such as Catholicism, hold a more distinct division between the individual soul and God, given the traditional belief that the salvation of the soul and union with God will occur only at the resurrection after physical death, but these faiths generally hold that righteousness is possible and necessary during life. Eastern Orthodoxy holds that union with God happens in this life during baptism and continues via the process of theosis. Christian mystics seek this unity state of the soul while in the body, variously, through intense prayer, ascetism (purification), contemplation and meditation, to achieve resurrection of the Christ Self/nature in this life.
The Jainist view of soul is perceivable non-matter which has the ability to connect to infinite knowledge but cannot receive that knowledge without removal of the blanket of karma, but as self knowledge is gained, the hold of karma is loosened, everything can be seen clearly and nirvana(salvation) is achieved. The pure soul — divine unity — is accomplished when all the power of karma is destroyed.
Islam shares this conception of a distinct soul, but with less focus on miraculous powers; the Muslim world emphasizes remembrance (dhikr, zikr): the recalling of one's original and innate connection to Allah's grace. In traditional Islam this connection is maintained by angels, who carry out God's will — returning the soul to one's authentic origin — though only prophets have the ability to see and hear them directly. In Islam the mystical path is incorporated within Sufi and the Self/Soul is embattled (jihad) with the infidel/ego. Sufism holds that God can be experienced directly as a universal love that pervades the universe. Remembrance, for Sufis, explicitly means remembrance of the soul's love/purpose or returning to one's original divine state, and Sufis are particularly noted for the artistic turn their forms of worship often take.
Eastern philosophies, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are concerned with the individual soul's dissolution of ego (moksha) into transcendent reality (generally Brahmanor Ishvara). In the mystical aspects of the Vedic tradition Atman (something not entirely different from the western conception of the soul) is believed to be identical with Brahman. Hindu mystical practices aim for God-consciousness and loss of lower self.
Buddhist teaching holds that all suffering (dukkha) in the world comes from craving, aversion and ignorance ('raga', 'dosa', 'moha'), and that freedom from suffering comes from the extinction ('nirodha') of these poisons which are the source of mental defilements ('klesha'), through the development of insight and equanimity. The doctrine of 'anatta' suggests that the perception of an unchanging and cohesive self (the 'me'), is itself a mere mental construct ('vijnana') to which one may be attached, and is thus also a major source of suffering. While Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist schools invoke various deities and venerated beings, the mystical sects of Buddhism are generally not concerned with, and even overtly deny, the existence of a permanent or unchanging self, or of a permanent or unchanging deity. There is no term equivalent to the Christian idea of 'soul' in the Buddhist lexicon however belief in rebirth is assumed throughout the Buddhist world.
Taoism is largely unconcerned with the soul. Instead, Taoism centers around the tao ('the way' or 'the path'). The human tendency, according to Taoism, is to conceive of dualisms; the Taoist mystical practice is to recapture and conform with that original unity (called te, de, which is translated as virtue).
Regardless of particular conceptions of the soul, a common thread of mysticism is the experience of a collective peace, joy, compassion or love.
There are also dualist conceptions, often with an evil (though existent) material world of the ego competing with a transcendent and perfect spiritual plane aligned with the true self/essence. Gnosticism is a term for various mystical initiatory religions, sects and knowledge schools which were most active in the first few centuries of the Christian/Common Era around the Mediterranean and extending into central Asia. These systems typically recommend the pursuit of special knowledge (gnosis) as the central goal of life. They also commonly depict creation as a dualistic struggle between competing forces of light and dark, and posit a marked division between the material realm, which is typically depicted as under the governance of malign forces, and the higher spiritual realm from which it is divided. As a result of these traits, dualism, anticosmism and body-hatred are sometimes present within Gnosticism. There is, however, variety, subtlety, and complexity in the traditions involved.
Mysticism is often found in common with nondual worldviews and many mystics, from whichever religion or tradition they originally came, also describe in many ways a non-dual view of existence. Ramesh Balsekar comments on nonduality and mysticism, that it is in order for phenomenae to occur, that the illusion of personal existence and doer-ship (ego) is present, and explains mysticism and nonduality in fairly accessible (conventional) terms:
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.
Adherents of the faith are expected to respect or follow each of these closely. Most mystical paths arise in the context of some particular religion but tend to set aside or move beyond these institutional structures, often believing themselves to be following the 'purest' or 'deepest' representations of that faith. Thus, to the extent that a mystical path has a hierarchy, it is generally limited to teacher/student relationships; to the extent that they use a central text or ethical code, they view them as interpretable guidelines rather than established law. Conventional religious perspectives towards mystics varies between and within faiths. Sometimes (as with the Catholic church and Vedantic Hinduism) mystics are incorporated into the church hierarchy, with criteria set up for validation of mystical experiences and veneration of those who achieve that status. In other cases, mystical paths follow a separate but parallel course. Traditionally, Buddhist monks were closely interwoven into the fabric of village life through most of Asia, but had no authoritative position in the community; almost all the traditional Islamic 'orthodox' scholars, however, were Sufis, including Al-Shafi'i, Imam Nawawi, and Al-Ghazali.
Some systems of mysticism are found within specific religious traditions and do not relinquish doctrinal principles as a part of mystical experience. In some definite cases, theology remains a distinct source of insight that guides and informs the mystical experience. Christian Science, based on the mystical experience and writings of founder Mary Baker Eddy is one such example. Some faiths—including most Protestant Christian sects—find mystical practices disreputable; so called mystic "practices" and beliefs generally restricted to specific sects, such as the Society of Friends or certain Charismatic groups, which have implicitly incorporated them.
The mystic's disregard of religious institutional structures often lends a quasi-revolutionary aspect to mystical teaching, and this occasionally leads to conflict with established religious and political structures, or the creation of splinter groups or new faiths. The relation of mysticism to ethics and morality is more complex than is usually assumed. Mystical experiences do not guarantee that mystics will be compassionate or moral, nor on the other hand is a mystical state incompatible with being morally concerned with others. Rather, a given mystic's ethics will depend on the factual beliefs and values espoused in that mystic's religious tradition..
[W]ith the one, divine reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one reality is such that it cannot be directly or immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit.
Some mystics use the term to refer to a manner wherein the mystic strives to plumb the depths of the self and reality in a radical process of meditative self-exploration, with the aim of experiencing the true nature of reality.
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.
The Rosicrucian Order is a legendary and secretive Order publicly documented in the early 17th century. It is associated with the symbol of the Rose Cross, which is also found in certain rituals beyond "Craft" or "Blue Lodge" Freemasonry. The Rosicrucian Order is viewed among earlier and many modern Rosicrucianists as an inner worlds Order, composed of great "Adepts." When compared to human beings, the consciousness of these Adepts is said to be like that of demi-gods. This "College of Invisibles" is regarded as the source permanently behind the development of the Rosicrucian movement.
Freemasonry is a worldwide fraternal organization. Members are joined together by shared ideals of both a moral and metaphysical nature and, in most of its branches, by a constitutional declaration of belief in a Supreme Being. Freemasonry is an esoteric society, in that certain aspects of its internal work are not generally disclosed to the public, but it is not an occult system. The private aspects of modern Freemasonry deal with elements of ritual and the modes of recognition amongst members within the ritual.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (or Golden Dawn, as it is commonly referred to) is a tradition of magical theurgy and spiritual development, probably the single greatest influence on twentieth century western occultism and many other traditions, including Wicca, Thelema and other forms of magical spirituality popular today. By the mid 1890s, the Golden Dawn was well established in Great Britain, with membership rising to over a hundred from every class of Victorian society. In its heyday, many cultural celebrities belonged to the Golden Dawn, such as actress Florence Farr, Arthur Machen, William Butler Yeats, Evelyn Underhill, and Aleister Crowley. Many men and women of the 19th century Fin de siècle social culture were members of the Golden Dawn.
Examples of major traditions and philosophies with strong elements of mysticism are: