Mysticism ( pronunciation (help·info); from the Greek μυστικός, mystikos, meaning 'an initiate') is the knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, or levels of being, or aspects of reality, beyond normal human perception, sometimes including experience of and even communion with a supreme being.
A "mystikos" was an initiate of a mystery religion. The Eleusinian Mysteries, (Greek:Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were annual initiation ceremonies in the cults of the goddessesDemeter and Persephone, held in secret at Eleusis (near Athens) in ancient Greece. The mysteries began in about 1600 B.C. in the Mycenean period and continued for two thousand years, becoming a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spreading to Rome.
The present meaning of the term mysticism arose via Platonism and Neoplatonism—which referred to the Eleusinian initiation as a metaphor for the "initiation" to spiritual truths and experiences—and is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on practices intended to nurture those experiences. Mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic.
Many if not all of the world's great religions have arisen around the teachings of mystics (including Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze, and Krishna); and most religious traditions describe fundamental mystical experience, at least esoterically. 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.
Conventional religions, by definition, have strong institutional structures, including formalhierarchies and mandated sacred texts and/or creeds. Adherents of the faith are expected to respect or follow these closely, so mysticism is often deprecated or persecuted.
The following table briefly summarizes the major forms of mysticism within world religions and their basic concepts.
Mysticism in World Religions
Form of Mysticism
Sources of Information
liberation from cycles of Karma
abnegation of the ego, Ein Sof
liberation from cycles of Karma
Te: connection to ultimate reality
Since, by definition, mystical knowledge cannot be directly written down or spoken of (but must be experienced), numerous literary forms that allude to such knowledge - often with contradictions or even jokes - have developed, for example:
Aphorisms and poetry include artistic efforts to crystallize some particular description or aspect of the mystical experience in words:
§ God is Love (Christian and Sufi in particular)
§ Atman is Brahman, neti neti, "Neither This nor That" (Advaitan)
§ God and me, me and God, are One (Kundalini Yoga, Sikhism)
§ Zen haiku
Koans, riddles, contradictions
Zen koans, riddles, and metaphysical contradictions are intentionally irresolvable tasks or lines of thought, designed to direct one away from intellectualism and effort towards direct experience.
§ "What is the sound of one hand (clapping)?" (Zen)
§ "How many angels can stand on the head of a pin?" (Christian).
These can be meant as humorous phrases (see humour, below); or as serious questions with significant mystical answers. Others believe that the most edifying understanding of these riddles is that excessive effort contemplating the impossible can give an individual the opportunity to stop trying to 'achieve' and start just 'being'.
§ The evocative Taoist phrase—To yield is to be preserved whole, to be bent is to become straight, to be empty is to be full, to have little is to possess —is another example of a metaphysical contradiction describing the path of emptying the learned self.
Jokes and humorous stories can be used in spiritual teaching to make simple yet profound metaphysical points:
§ Some examples are the Nasreddin tales, e.g. someone shouts at Nasreddin sitting on a river bank, "How do I get across?" "You are across." he replies;
§ the Trickster or Animal Spirit stories passed down in Native American, Australian Aboriginal, and African Tribal folklore, and even the familiar "Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby".
Stories, parables, metaphors
§ Jesus makes use of parables and metaphors when teaching his followers. See Parables of Jesus.
Some Passages seem to be aphorisms, riddles and parables all at once. For instance, Yunus Emre's famous passage:
I climbed into the plum tree
and ate the grapes I found there.
The owner of the garden called to me,
"Why are you eating my walnuts?"
Various religious texts prescribe meditative practices in order to achieve the state of consciousness which is typical of religious experience. Texts of Yoga and Tantra mention specific physical, nutritive, ethical, and meditative methods in order to achieve specific kinds of experiences. The traditions of Mantra Marga (literally, "the way of formulae") in particular stress the importance of saying, either aloud or to oneself internally, particular Mantras(phrases to be repeated) given by their teacher. Combined with this is the set of practices related to Yantras (symbols to be meditated on). Various other ways not specific of any religion include:
§ Dance, such as:
§ Extreme pain, such as:
§ Use of Entheogens, such as:
§ Psychological or neurophysiological anomalies, such as:
The centuries-old idea of a perennial philosophy, popularized by Aldous Huxley in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy, states one view of what mysticism is all about:
[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.
R. C. Zaehner has identified two distinctively different mystical experiences: natural and religious mystical experiences, this being the overarching thesis of his book Mysticism Sacred and Profane. Natural mystical experiences are, for example, experiences of the 'deeper self' or experiences of oneness with nature. Zaehner argues that the experiences typical of 'natural mysticism' are quite different from the experiences typical of religious mysticism. In this, Zaehner is directly opposing the views Aldous Huxley put forward in The Perennial Philosophy according to which the mystical experiences in all religions are essentially the same. Natural mystical experiences are in Zaehner's view of less value because they do not lead as directly to the virtues of charity and compassion. Zaehner is generally critical of what he sees as narcissistic tendencies in nature mysticism.
According to Schopenhauer, mystics arrive at a condition in which there is no knowing subject and known object:
... we see all religions at their highest point end in mysticism and mysteries, that is to say, in darkness and veiled obscurity. These really indicate merely a blank spot for knowledge, the point where all knowledge necessarily ceases. Hence for thought this can be expressed only by negations, but for sense-perception it is indicated by symbolical signs, in temples by dim light and silence, in Brahmanism even by the required suspension of all thought and perception for the purpose of entering into the deepest communion with one's own self, by mentally uttering the mysterious Om. In the widest sense, mysticism is every guidance to the immediate awareness of what is not reached by either perception or conception, or generally by any knowledge. The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. The mystic starts from his inner, positive, individual experience, in which he finds himself as the eternal and only being, and so on. But nothing of this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince.
In The Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky argues that mystical experiences only seem profound and persuasive because the mind's critical faculties are relatively inactive during them:-
'Meditator: It suddenly seemed as if I was surrounded by an immensely powerful Presence. I felt that a Truth had been "revealed" to me that was far more important than anything else, and for which I needed no further evidence. But when later I tried to describe this to my friends, I found that I had nothing to say except how wonderful that experience was.
This peculiar type of mental state is sometimes called a "Mystical Experience" or "Rapture," "Ecstasy," or "Bliss." Some who undergo it call it "wonderful," but a better word might be "wonderless," because I suspect that such a state of mind may result from turning so many Critics off that one cannot find any flaws in it.
What might that "powerful Presence" represent? It is sometimes seen as a deity, but I suspect that it is likely to be a version of some early Imprimer that for years has been hiding inside your mind. In any case, such experiences can be dangerous—for some victims find them so compelling that they devote the rest of their lives to trying to get themselves back to that state again.'
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