The mystic is not a special kind of person; every person is a special kind of mystic.– William McNamara, quoted by Carl McColman
Spirituality is simply a way of indicating that we’re plunging beyond the personal consciousness. The depth of our being is just astonishing.– Adyashanti, Silent Retreat Vol. 70
There are many definitions of spirituality, and the most basic one is perhaps Adya’s definition above. Spirituality suggests that we are going, or intend to go, beyond the personal human being and into something wider. Whether that is our human community, our Earth community (nature and Earth as a whole), the Universe as a whole, or Existence as a whole. And whether it is to connect with this larger whole, take it into account, live as if it matters, expand our sense of “us” to include all there is, or – ultimately – find ourselves as that, and this human being as an expression of it.
Is mysticism mysterious?
It’s certainly presented that way in popular culture. And perhaps for a couple of reasons. There isn’t a widespread understanding of what it’s about, so it naturally may seem a bit mysterious. And what it’s about isn’t so easy to put into words.
And yet, it’s not inherently mysterious. Not any more than most things. At least when we have had a taste of it.
As I like to say, it’s about noticing what we are, which is what our experience happens within and as. We can call this the awakeness (or consciousness) all content of experience happens within and as. And from here, it does seem as if the whole world is this awakeness. It seems that this awakeness is what takes all these forms, and locally may temporarily take itself to be a separate being – even if the ultimate identity of everything is this awakeness.
Most can have an immediate and direct taste of this through, for instance, forms of inquiry such as the Big Mind process or the Headless experiments. (Some also do by using psychoactive substances but I wouldn’t recommend that.) And after this taste, most of us will need to clarify and stabilize and learn to live from it over a long period, usually for the rest of our lives.
As with most things, we can explore this endlessly. For those who us who have, for whatever reason, a fascination with this, it’s an endless exploration.
My mystical experience has faded a lot now. I still spend time in nature, but that incredible oneness and closeness of feeling with the birds, trees, rivers is much less. – J.
You may already have discovered this. One thing that has helped me with fading mystical experiences is to see what’s still there. Often, the strength of the experience may fade or the “bells and whistles” (the bliss, amazement etc.) may go away, but something is still there. And what’s still there is often the most central. What I have found helpful is asking myself “what’s the essence of the mystical experience”, and then see if I can find that here and now. For instance, it may be a sense of oneness, or that all is Spirit or the divine. Initially, it can be a bit disappointing to see that it’s here but not as strong as before. But as you attend to it, you may find a real appreciation for what’s still here. It may turn out to be what’s most important and transformative in the long run. – from my replyI thought I would share this here. It’s common for mystical experiences to fade and for the side-effects – the bliss, awe, amazement – to go away. That’s the nature of mystical experiences. And there is an invitation here, and that’s to see what’s still here. It’s easy to get into “chase the mystical experience” mode. I did for a while. Whether it works or not, it becomes pretty clear over time that it’s a bit like a dog chasing it’s tail. It can be fun, it may work, but it’s also exhausting and – if we are honest with ourselves – futile. It doesn’t really get us what we want because experiences, including the most amazing ones, fade and go away. So what is it that didn’t go away? What’s still here? Maybe that’s what it is more about?
mys·ti·cism / mistsizm/ noun
1. belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.
2. belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies.
Mysticism is a word I rarely use, partly because it’s often misunderstood and partly because it doesn’t seem necessary.
In a way, everything is quite mystical. It’s all quite weird. It’s a mystery that anything is at all.
Looking at definition no. 1 above, the first that comes is that it’s not about beliefs. It’s about seeing what’s here, in immediacy. And a thought may call that union with the divine, although it’s much simpler and more ordinary than that.
Definition no. 1 is the more scholarly definition of mysticsm. It’s how it may seen when seen from the “outside”, by other people. Definition no. 2 is how the word is often used in our culture, and that’s partly why I don’t find it so useful.
I see how the word may be used in three different ways.
(a) In the sense of fantasy, wishful (or fearful) thinking, as definition 2 above.
(2) In the sense of exploring the non-physical world that’s still within content of experience. The astral, soul, openings and glimpses, peak experiences, and more.
(c) In the sense of recognizing and realizing what’s already here. Spirit as all there is. (Whether there is still some identification so it appears as slightly “other”, or the sense of “I” is gone.)
When I use “Mysticism” in this blog, it’s usually when referring to other people who have used the word, and it’s typically in the third meaning.
Mystical states can help us recognize the truth.
And the trick is to continue recognizing the truth as the states change.
Mystical states and experiences are certainly not necessary for recognizing reality, but they can offer us a window into reality. They can be stepping stones for recognizing what is.
A oneness experience shows us all as God, although there is still a sense of it happening to an I. The I is recognized as God too, as an appearance of God, but there is still some identification with it.
Mysticism is an interesting word.
Colloquially, it often means obscure or irrational.
In a more technical or traditional sense, it is about clarifying and demystifying, and also revealing the utter mystery of existence.
It is a process of demystifying. Depending on our path, we may get more familiar with the dynamics of the mind, what happens when there is identification with stories and viewpoints, and when this identification is released, what we really are, and so on.
And it is process of recognizing, in our bones, the utter mystery of everything. We may be deeply familiar with something, have sophisticated and useful maps, or clearly recognize that what we are is not the story of “I”. And yet, the essence and root of all of this is a complete mystery.
One key, I think — coming again from the monastic tradition — is the idea of joyful repentance, which suggests that even the purgative way can be a source of delight in God. Granted, surrendering sin and opening ourselves up to transformational healing can be hard, ego-threatening work, but I see no reason why it must be miserable work. It’s like the question of purgatory: I think Protestants rejected purgatory because it was seen so much as a hellish place. But many Catholics regard purgatory as a place of great wonder and excitement, a room in heaven rather than in hell. Once you enter purgatory, the exit door leads to the great banquet hall. You are there simply to get a manicure and take a lovely bubble bath before your intimate date with your beloved. I for one cannot think of anything more delightful than taking the extra effort to clean myself up before a special evening with my wife. S0 — even for Protestants who reject the idea of purgatory — I think we can all agree that the hard work of holiness and penitence in this life ought to be an occasion for joy, if entered into in the right spirit — a spirit of trust and hope and confidence in God’s love for us, and humble recognition that everything we do to improve ourselves is ultimately a gift of grace to begin with.
– from Mapping the Journey, a post on Anamchara: The Website of Unknowing
I rarely read blogs these days, but happened to find Anamchara: The Website of Unknowing. It is the blog of Carl McColman, and every post is a gem – insightful, informed, well-written, and practical.
His new book is called The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, and will be out in August. If it is half as good as his blog, it will be well worth reading.
I came across this mysticism scale which I believe is from some decades back. There are probably more updated ones out there.
Questionnaires are notoriously difficult to construct. They need to be clear, appropriate to the topic/culture, refined through studies and research, and even then, it is usually possible to interpret the questions in many different ways.
1. I have had an experience which was both timeless and spaceless.
Even such an apparently simple statement runs into problems quickly. Timeless and spaceless, yes, although a timelessness that allows for (the appearance of) time and a spacelessness that allows for (the appearance of) space. And is it really an experience? Isn’t it really what experiences happens within and as? And what about the “I”? Is there an “I” there that it happens “to”? Isn’t that “I” also content of experience? That which happens within the timeless/spaceless?
I am impressed with the sincerity and maturity of the young Croatian mystic Zlatko Sudac.
His message is very much aligned with that of other mystics:
God is something which surpasses any and all thoughts about Him. He surpasses our feelings, and even the state of our souls. It is impossible to speak about Him. The only way to communicate with God is to love God. We have to sink into God so that I no longer exist but God does. When I do this I don’t lose myself, but find myself in God. This can be understood only by those people who love God with all their heart, all their soul, and all their strength. If anyone sins, the only cause for all sins is the lack of love towards God and the lack of love for mankind and ourselves, that is the cause of all evils. If this wounded humanity would discover the formula of love, unconditional love, this life would be heaven on earth.
Bøygen  represents an apparently unmovable obstacle that it is often tempting to avoid and walk around, which is sometimes a good idea. But other times, it may be good to stand our ground. To hold and allow it, stay with it with some receptivity and curiosity, take our stories as questions, take it as an invitation for exploration.
For me, one bøyg is Bernadette Roberts. From the descriptions in her books, it seems that her awakening is the garden variety one, the one mystics from all the great traditions attempt to describe and point to, Ground awakening to itself. At the same time, she insists that it is not. It is different somehow, although – to my limited knowledge – she is not all that specific or clear about how. (She may well be somewhere.)
I was a die-hard atheist before the initial awakening, and became one on my own in elementary school. God doesn’t care.
After – or within – an awakening, we tend to operate from the same general worldview as we had before the awakening, only modified some to fit our new reality. We used to be Christian, and still are afterwords. Or Muslim. Jew. Buddhist. Taoist. And so on.
And the same goes for atheism. The worldview I am most comfortable with is in many ways the worldview of an atheist, only modified to fit my new reality. I still have a more-than-average interest in science, and now also in stories about science that bridge science and spirituality such as integral views and the Universe Story. And it also means I am free to explore pointers and teachings from any tradition, and value and find appreciation for them.
In most areas of life, demystifying that which can be demystified is a practical and sensible approach. (Or so we think in our culture, so why not play along?)
Most spiritual teachers today do a good job demystifying mysticism. They use a clear and direct language. They use a practical approach. They often describe direct experience instead of relying exclusively on traditional – and sometimes confusing – terminology.
And by doing this, what is truly mystifying is left even more obviously mystifying.
Something is. What can be more amazing?
And I don’t know. A story may appear functional in a practical sense, but it is still a story. A story may appear to point to what I am, but it doesn’t really. Even when what I am is awake to itself, that is all that is known. And even that is mystifying.
So it can be helpful to demystify that which can be demystified, such as maps and pointers, leaving what is truly mystifying still mystifying.
And it may be less helpful to do the reverse. To mystify that which can be clear. And to demystify – by taking stories about it as true – that which is genuinely mystifying, which is everything.
From New York Times today:
JERUSALEM — A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.
If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.
Of course, the Jesus story has parallels with not only Jewish myths, but also myths from other earlier traditions of that time and region.
Some examples are given in The Jesus Mysteries by Tim Freke and Peter Gandi where they outline the following parallels of the Osiris-Dionysus and Jesus stories:
- Osiris-Dionysus is God made flesh, the savior and “Son of God.”
- His father is God and his mother is a mortal virgin.
- He is born in a cave or humble cowshed on December 25 before three shepherds.
- He offers his followers the chance to be born again through the rites of baptism.
- He miraculously turns water into wine at a marriage ceremony.
- He rides triumphantly into town on a donkey while people wave palm leaves to honor him.
- He dies at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
- After his death he descends to hell, then on the third day he rises from the dead and ascends to heaven in glory.
- His followers await his return as the judge during the Last Days.
- His death and resurrection are celebrated by a ritual meal of bread and wine, which symbolize his body and blood.
Why is it so? The obvious answer is that the Jesus myth picked up elements of existing myths to make it more familiar to the people of the time.
But another answer, as Freke and Gandi points out, is that these stories are about an inner truth more than an outer – historic – truth. They reflect an inner process of growing and waking up.
And that is why similar story elements not only appear in traditions of that place and time, but around the world in many different cultures, and also in dreams and visions of people today.
None of this really touch whether Jesus was a historic figure or not. He may well have been, and the specific events of his life may or may not have followed the lines of the Jesus story as we know it today.
More than 700,000 have signed up for the Tolle/Oprah 10 week course, and it is also the most popular podcast on iTunes. Very impressive in terms of numbers alone, and even more impressive considering that Tolle is a genuine a mystic as any. His namesake had only a handful of listeners, at most.
I watched the first episode, and thought it was well worth it. I found it especially interesting to see how Tolle and Oprah helped bridge the gap between fundamentalism and a more open approach, and also between traditional religion and spirituality.
Sign up at the Oprah Book Club website and watch it there, or download the free podcasts.
I see that Eckhart Tolle is doing an online class for Oprah’s book club. A genuine mystic who goes mainstream and reaches thousands and thousands of people. It is actually quite astounding. It is free, and anyone can sign up.
Buddhism and Christianity both use a “pointing beyond itself” analogy.
In Buddhism, it is the finger pointing to the moon. The teacher, teachings and practices point beyond themselves to what we really are, this awakeness with a content which is awakeness itself. Don’t mistake the finger for the moon.
In Christianity, it is the realization that it is all from God. Nothing happens here which is not from God.
This also shows where the traditional teachings sometimes don’t go quite as far as they can.
In Buddhism, it is not only the teacher/teachings that are the finger pointing to the moon. It is also this human self. When it points to itself as the final truth, it is deluded. When it notices that it is already and always pointing to awakeness as reality, it is awakened.
In Christianity, it is not only that I as a human being give all credit to God. It is also that God is all there is. It may appear that there is a human being here, with a separate I, but there is nothing but God. There is no separate I here, only God.
In both cases, this human self becomes a finger pointing beyond itself.
And this shift has to be thorough for it to be real. For this human self to really notice what is already and always is.
(Leonardo’s beautiful painting of St. John the Baptist shows him pointing up. He has to point somewhere, so it may as well be up. But it is really in all and no directions.)
I just received this comment on one of my previous posts:
I thought you did an excellent job of encapsulating the book. However, as you may have noticed, it is no longer available on amazon.com, as it is Out of Print. The good news is that I am offering History of Mysticism (with some additional text in the Chapter on Gnosticism) as a FREE Ebook in PDF format on my website at: www.themysticsvision.com. Check it out. And, if possible, please publicise its availability.
Swami Abhayananda (Stan Trout)
As before, I can highly recommend this book. It is among the clearest and most inspiring books on the history of mysticism I have read, and I am looking forward to reading the new sections on Gnosticism.
And what an honor to receive a comment from the author!
If you would like a copy of the free ebook, send an email with “History of Mysticism” in the subject line to abhayanand [at] aol [dot] com
In shifting from taking ourselves as an object in the world to awake void & field of form (Big Mind), there can be many transition experiences, either as glimpses or more stable phases.
One way to organize these is by the three aspects of Big Mind: void, awake, and form. It works to some extent, but there are also lots of overlaps here (by necessity, since those three are really the same thing/no-thing). Also, what I list here are mostly things I am familiar with from my own process, so a lot is left out.
- Void… a sense of form as transparent, translucent, insubstantial, dream-like, absent of I and Other, absent of identification.
- Awake… a sense of the wider world (beyond the human self) as somehow awake, conscious, animated. (Leading to experiences akin to nature and deity mysticism.)
- Form… a sense of form as a seamless whole (from shifting the center of gravity into the witness, pure seeing), as transparent and insubstantial (from sensing it as void), and as awake or consciousness itself (from seeing it in its awakeness aspect).
And then a fourth area which comes up to different extents: the soul. It enriches the process tremendously, can appear as a stumbling block if taken as anything final or attached to for any other reason, and can also be a guide into an awakening of the void to itself.
- Soul… a sense of clear luminosity, of alive presence, of smooth, full, round, luminous blackness, and of this body and all form as void combined with any or all of these. (For instance, a sense of alive presence in and as this body, or the smooth luminous blackness as what all form arises from, within and as.)
More specifically, transition experiences can include a sense of no separation, of oneness (a vague I here, one with the wider world), of synchronicities (the content of form out there mirroring what is going on in here), of one’s inanimate surroundings as consciousness (and not really separate from this consciousness), and much more.
Eventually, it leads into a sense of a separate self falling away, and what is left is just the field of awake void and form, the form including this human self and its surroundings (whatever arises in the field of consciousness), and all inherently absent of an I with an Other. It is all just a field… void, awake and as form.
Strictly scholarly works on mysticism are of course necessary and useful, but it is still a relief to come upon a history of mysticism written by someone where Spirit has awakened to itself. It gives it a freshness, immediacy and clarity that is often lost in the more dry and exclusively scholarly works.
In going through the history of mysticism, from prehistoric to more recent times, he touches upon some of the highlights from many traditions, showing how they all describe the same realization of Spirit as emptiness and form.
(Brahman and Maya, Purusha and Prakrti, Shiva and Shakti, Sat and Asat, Vishnu and Lakshmi, Theos and Logos, Tathata and Samsara, Tao and Teh, the unspeakable Tao and the speakable Tao, El and Elat, Baal and Asherah, Yahweh and Chokmah, Haqq and Khalq, yang and yin, masculine and feminine, and so on.)
This lens gives the book a clear focus and message: there is one theme with minor variations from culture, tradition and personal flavor. It takes some of the many flavors of ice cream and shows that it is all ice cream. (If there is a minor drawback with the book, it is that it becomes somewhat predictable after a while, and that some of the interesting variations are downplayed.)
Still, highly recommended for its clarity, for its excellent overview of the history of mysticism, for its clear theme, and for its ability to inspire.
Note: The book is available for free and in digital form at The Mystic Vision.