Mysticism is the states of consciousness interpreted as profound religious experience, or teachings about them or derived from them. In common usage, the word mysticism can mean many different things. For some it means that which is irrational, or vague and “misty.” For some it suggests the arts of OCCULTISM AND ESOTERICISM, like ASTROLOGY or black MAGIC. For others it means psychic powers such as telepathy. In religious studies, mysticism generally refers to deep, intense states of religious consciousness, such as those attained by persons like the BUDDHA, the Suﬁ (see SUFISM) mystics of ISLAM, the great masters of the KABBALAH or HASIDISM in JUDAISM, or in CHRISTIANITY, SAINTS on the order of FRANCIS OF ASSISI or St. Teresa of Avila.
For people like these mysticism indicated a direct, personal experience of GOD or divine reality. Often the experience is described in the language of oneness: The mystic will say, “I became one with God.” There also will be a sense of deep inwardness about it; “I felt God deep in my heart”; “I knew enlightenment in every ﬁ ber of my being.” It can also be put in the terminology of love: “I felt the love of God sweep over me like the waves of the sea.”
The precise words in which mystical experience is put will, of course, vary from one religion to another. For those religions based on an impersonal monism, like BUDDHISM or VEDANTA Hinduism, it will be realizing enlightenment, NIRVANA, or BRAHMAN as Satchitananda, “Being-knowledgebliss,” within one’s true and ultimate nature. For those religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that see God in terms of personal MONOTHEISM, and stress that a created being like a man or woman can never be absolutely the same as God the Creator, they will speak of the mysticism of love, and of being united with God in the same way as a lover yearns to be united with the beloved.
However, it is important to realize that the speech and writings of mystics, even the greatest, are always an attempt to describe and interpret an experience that many of them nonetheless say is beyond words. The words of description are not the experience itself.
Two people may have an experience of deep joy and rapture. One may take it to be just a psychological experience, the other a religious encounter with the divine. Even the second will probably interpret it in terms of a religion with which that person is familiar, whether it is monistic or monotheistic. Even so, the great mystics East and West have greatly enriched their languages and literatures with beautiful and evocative attempts to communicate their deep and subtle encounters with divine grace.
Many spiritual traditions teach techniques that help one to have mystical experiences. These include, ﬁ rst of all, PRAYER and especially MEDITATION. Prayer is believed to bring one into contact with God, while stilling the mind through meditation can allow the divine love or divine presence to well up deep within. Preparation for meditation like YOGA, sitting in the lotus posture, deep slow breathing, focusing the eyes or the mind on a single point, and chanting a mantra or sacred set of syllables are all among the methods used. Others say that music, especially the beat of a drum, and dance like that done by Muslim Suﬁ and Jewish Hasidic practitioners, among others, can include mystical states.
However, thoughtful teachers of mysticism warn that it is something far more subtle than a state that can be automatically brought about by practices or techniques. They can help, but in the end mysticism is more of an art than a science. Even the greatest artists sometimes have better days than others, times when the streams of creativity seem to ﬂ ow well and others when they run dry. So it is with the mystics.
Teachers of mysticism in fact describe various stages of the mystical path. One of the bestknown books on the subject is Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. Combing reports of numerous mystics, she outlines ﬁ ve basic stages. First is the Awakening, when—sometimes in a powerful conversion or “born-again” kind of encounter with the divine—one awakens to the reality of the spiritual life. This initial stage tends to be very emotional and erratic, though, and needs to be stabilized in the Purgative or Preparative stage, when the wise practitioner will deepen and stabilize the spiritual life with a disciplined life and regular prayer and meditation. This leads to the Illuminative stage, a basically happy time when God seems to be near, prayers answered, and the promises of religion fulﬁ lled.
For some, however, it is followed by something distressing: the Dark Night of the Soul, as it was called by the great St. John of the Cross. Now God seems to have withdrawn his presence, and one is left as though on a desert at night without a compass. Many give up at this point in despair. But the Dark Night is really a time of deepening and of purging away even the subtlest kinds of attachment to good religious feelings and the like one may have, that one may come to know God alone. For the Dark Night ﬁ nally leads into Underhill’s supreme stage, the Unitive state, when one is united with God on so deep a level that the divine presence is always there, even when one is not thinking about it, and one is guided in all one’s doings by love.
Religious traditions have evaluated mystical experience differently. Some, such as P URE LAND BUDDHISM and certain strands in Protestant Christianity, have emphasized simple FAITH and harbored suspicions that too much craving for mystical “states” gets in the way of reliance on faith alone. Others might accuse mysticism of being “escapist” and taking up time and attention that would be better spent in the doing of good works in the world, even though some of the greatest “do-gooders” from St. Francis to GANDHI have also been great mystics. Probably the majority of religionists in the world, though, would say that while being a mystic may not be necessary to SALVATION, some mystical experience can deepen and enrich one’s spiritual life.