Mysticism is a type of religious experience or altered state of consciousness in which a person senses intimacy or union with the source or ground of ultimate reality. Mystical states or experiences are qualitatively different from normal, everyday consciousness. They can be experienced variously as a vision, an ecstatic state, an emptying or silencing of the self, union with God, or absorption into God.
For the monotheistic Western religions, mysticism exists as a movement or school of thought within the religious tradition. For the Eastern world religions, mysticism is the central practice and goal. Mysticism is also a central aspect of primal religions such as shamanism. Some people without an explicit religious attachment also testify to personal mystical experiences; these include Aldous Huxley, Walt Whitman, Carl Jung, and Simone Weil.
Eastern forms of mysticism are directly related to the concept of time. For example, Hindus believe in an endless cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. Through the discipline of yoga, one can obtain Samadhi, the highest level of spiritual perfection. Through the resulting union of Atman (the essential self) with Brahman (that which is truly real), one experiences liberation (moksa) from samsara.
The Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not share the Eastern view of the reincarnation or transmigration of the soul, so they do not seek release from this cycle into a state of existence outside of space and time. However, many thinkers in these religions view God as existing outside of space and time. Therefore, when devotees experience mystical union with God, they often report sensations of the absence of space and time.
The adjective “mystical” (mustikos) was used by Christians from the 2nd century onward, but the noun “mysticism” was first used in French (la mystique) in the 17th century. Because it is a relatively new term, attempts to define it have varied greatly. The term can be defined broadly as consciousness of the immediate or direct presence of God (which many have claimed to experience). This broad definition would identify mysticism with spirituality or religion in general. It can also be defined narrowly as a union of the self with God or absorption of the self in the Absolute (which few have claimed to experience).
One of the most notable attempts to describe mysticism was William James’s list of four characteristics of mystical experiences. First, they are ineffable: Mystics struggle to put their experience into words. Second, they are noetic: Insights gained from the experience inform a person’s knowledge and understanding. Third, they are passive: They are experienced as an undeserved gift. Fourth, they are transient: Mystical experiences usually last for a short period of time. The last characteristic has proved to be less convincing to students of mysticism than the first three.
Religious traditions of mysticism have developed practices and disciplines that enable a person to achieve a state of mystical union. They provide systems of initiation and apprenticeship to inculcate mystical values and disciplines. Central to most mystical systems are the practices of meditation and contemplation, which are distinguished from each other in most traditions. In meditation, a person focuses attention and imagination on a religious idea or image. In contemplation, a person suspends the activity of the body and the thought processes of the mind in order to center the spirit on the presence of God. Meditation would be more closely associated with kataphatic mysticism, which utilizes images in order to experience intimacy with God. Contemplation is associated more closely with apophatic mysticism in which the union of the self with God is experienced as negation or absence. The terms extrovertive and introvertive mysticism are sometimes used to describe similar phenomena.
The mystical traditions in various religions reveal a diversity of practices and goals but also some similarities. Students of mysticism tend to emphasize either the common core found in all mystical traditions (e.g., Walter Stace) or the irreducible differences among them (e.g., R. C. Zaehner). Hindus practice various forms of yoga through which the conscious and the subconscious are mastered by means of moral, physical, respiratory, and mental discipline. In Zen Buddhism, the practitioner contemplates a nonsensical koan in order to free the spirit from the domination of the conscious mind. In Kabbalah, adherents mentally manipulate numbers and images in order to annihilate the ego, detach themselves from the physical world, and experience the presence of God directly. Christian mystics have relied upon contemplative prayer, fasting, solitude, and other forms of asceticism in order to focus the mind and spirit on the presence of God within the person. Sufi Muslims practice fasting, sleep deprivation, vigils, dancing, chanting, and contemplation to achieve annihilation of the self.
Mystical elements were present in the teachings of Plato. Centuries later, these were developed more fully by Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, and his later follower Proclus. Plotinus taught that the soul must lose its present identity in order to find a transcendent self in the One or the First Principle. Neoplatonism was a major influence on mystical traditions in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Mystical elements were present from the very beginnings of Christianity in the teachings and practices of both Jesus and Paul. The first Christian theologian to develop fully a theory of mysticism was Origen in the 3rd century, which led to the development of monasticism in the 4th century. Christian mystics have often spoken of three stages on the way to the vision of God: (1) purgation, which is a purification of the flesh and soul brought about through ascetic disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; (2) illumination, which is an enlightenment of the mind by the Holy Spirit; and (3) contemplation or union, which is an unadulterated awareness of the love of God. Following John of the Cross, some mystical writers have identified a “dark night of the soul” that occurs before the final stage of union is reached. Notable Christian mystics through the centuries include Evagrius, Gregory of Nyssa, PseudoDionysius, Augustine, Gregory the Great, William of Saint Thierry, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Marguerite Porete, Meister Eckhart, Henry Suso, John Tauler, Jan van Ruusbroec, Richard Rolle, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Jeanne Guyon, Emanuel Swedenborg, Therese de Lisieux, Thomas Merton, Karl Rahner, and John Main.
Some Christian mystics have offered theological and philosophical speculations on the nature of time. In Augustine’s view, time was created by God, and it flows from the future into the present and recedes into nonexistence. One may access fleetingly and fragmentarily the experience of timeless eternity by means of a “rare vision” of enlightenment. These experiences result from withdrawal from the sensory world, an interior movement into the depths of the soul, and a movement above the soul to the vision of God. Meister Eckhart taught that the soul must look outside space and time in order to know God, because God exists outside of space and time. Giordano Bruno’s mystical reflections on the heliocentrism of Copernicus led him to propose that both space and time were infinite, without beginning or end. Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo posited that the conflict between reason and the desire for human immortality gives rise to the need for faith in God. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin taught that the perfection of humanity through the evolutionary process will culminate in an Omega Point in the future.
Sufi mystics promote the role of single-minded love in the pursuit of God. Two crucial stages on the Sufi path are fana’ and baqa’. Fana’ (“passing away”) is the annihilation or nullification of the ego in the presence of the divine, and baqa’ (“subsisting”) is subsisting in the divine reality, which is all that remains. In Iran, the development of the dervish as a method of achieving mystical trance popularized mysticism among all levels of the population. Some of the notable Sufi mystics are Ja‘far as-Sadiq, Rabi‘ah, Ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, Abu Yazid al-Bistami, Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ibn al-Farid, Ibn al-‘Arabi, and Jalal al-Din Rumi.
Through the centuries, Judaism has produced various forms of mysticism. The earliest form of Jewish mysticism is found in Merkabah literature, written between the 2nd and 10th centuries. It promoted meditation on Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly throne room of God so that the seer might ascend through the various levels of heaven (hek- halot) until he arrived at the highest heaven where God dwells. Hasidism originated in eastern Europe in the 12th century. Kabbalah mysticism originated in Spain in the 13th century and was spread to the rest of the Jewish world when the Jews were expelled in 1492. Its most notable document was the Zohar. A new Hasidism arose in eastern Europe in the 18th century. Important figures in Jewish mysticism are Abraham ibn Ezra, Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon, Isaac of Acre, Abraham Abulafia, Isaac Luria, Dov Ber, Shne’ur Zalman, Aharon Halevi Horowitz, and Nahman of Bratslav.
Psychologists and scientists have tried to explain the phenomenon of mystical experience from the perspective of their disciplines. Sigmund Freud theorized that mystical experiences were illusions caused by a neurotic desire to recapture the infantile bliss of union with the mother. Carl Jung, who described his own mystical experiences in his autobiography, explained them more positively as encounters of the individual unconscious with the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Some psychologists view them as pathological symptoms of schizophrenia, psychosis, epilepsy, or other psychological and brain disorders, but others report that people who experience mystical states possess higher-than-average levels of psychological health.
Recently, neuroscientists have conducted brainimaging studies of people undergoing mystical experiences. These studies suggest that repetitive, rhythmic rituals deprive the brain’s orientation association area of sensory and cognitive input. As a result the brain would not be able to orient the self in its spatial context or identify the boundaries of the body. The mind experiences these sensations as a spaceless and timeless void.
Gregory L. Linton
See also Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Bruno, Giordano;
Eckhart, Meister; God and Time; Kabbalah; Maximus the Confessor, Saint; Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus);
Nirvana; Plato; Plotinus; Sufism; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre; Time, Sacred; Unamuno y Jugo, Miguel de
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