False Mysticism


Merry Old Santa Claus, by Thomas Nast, 1881
Merry Old Santa Claus, by Thomas Nast, 1881

There are many misconceptions about mysticism. Lighting candles, practicing hatha yoga, making use of crystals, and burning incense can serve as aids and support on a person’s spiritual journey. But their use will not bring about God realization. Nor will speculations about Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, or UFOs. Bending spoons is a neat parlor trick, but your bent spoon will only cost you money. Séances and alchemy, palmistry and numerology, I Ching and unexplained phenomena, astral travel and exploring past lives can have a place at certain stages in one’s life. But they have nothing to do with experiencing God, which is the goal of the mystical path.

While there are many genuine spiritual teachers, the contemporary spiritual scene is littered with a certain proportion of charlatans. The most odious are those who use religion to exploit others to further their own worldly objectives, such as acquiring wealth, fame, or power. Second-most offensive are those who water down religion to make it worldly, stripping it of its mystical element in favor of using God to obtain material things. God then becomes a Santa Claus figure to whom people pray for health, money, jobs, partners, or possessions. In this manner, worldly advancement is really sought instead of spiritual advancement. It is this displacement of objectives that ends up perverting the true aim of spirituality, which is leading souls to God.

Psychological integration, or individuation, is not the same as spiritual progress. Ideally both go hand in hand. Making efforts to overcome one’s psychological complexes and to adapt harmoniously with one’s peers are admirable and desirable milestones in the course of a person’s life. But the achievement of personal epiphanies or the mastery of socialization skills have nothing to do with the pulsating mystical realization of which the mystics speak. Nor do physiological states of wellbeing that are sometimes achieved through diet, nutritional supplementation, or exercise regimes. It is essential to maintain optimum health while traversing the spiritual path. But body and mind are temporal realities, whereas the underlying Spirit within our beings is eternal. If an aspirant gets caught in the body-mind labyrinth, they may lose sight of God.

Another category often mistaken for mysticism is psychic phenomena, astrology, and the occult. While a certain percentage of psychics and astrologers have a legitimate calling to provide useful, even transformational, insights to others, a certain percentage of them are con artists set up to bilk hapless individuals. Those in the latter category can prey vampire-like on emotionally vulnerable persons who are often desperate for information about their future or departed loved ones. Avoid these individuals like the plague. Along these lines, preoccupation with developing psychic powers, such as telepathy or clairvoyance, is one of the primary stumbling blocks to realizing God. Psychic phenomena and the occult as a rule have nothing in common with authentic spiritual paths that lead one to God.


Commercialism

Mysticism can never be relegated to a commercial enterprise. The in-your-face pseudo-spiritual impresarios, the mega-selling religious hustlers, the chicly dressed money-grubbing televangelists, and the self-styled seminar-circuit gurus all utilize marketing strategies designed to entice you to buy their products. But God is not a commodity. Aggressive promotional campaigns and advertising come-ons are functions of commercialism, not religion. Authentic spirituality can never be passed off as if it were a commercial venture.

The Sixth Zen Patriarch Hui-neng Tearing up the Scriptures
The Sixth Zen Patriarch Hui-neng Tearing up the Scriptures

In some religious traditions, such as Sufism, the brashest and the loudest are positively shunned in favor of the subtlest and the most anonymous. But we have been successfully conditioned by the brash and loud forces of commercialism, which unconsciously mold and manipulate us round the clock. We are trained to gauge all things by the criterion of commercial success, and so we tend to judge our spirituality by commercial standards. We succumb to marketing techniques when evaluating spiritual teachers and religious teachings. Our approach to religion has been tainted by this consumer mentality, which dictates that we buy our spirituality much in the same way that we purchase goods at the local grocery store. All that concerns us is what will improve us. Actually, what we want does not always correspond to what we truly need, and what we need is a spiritual path that will deconstruct our ego and rid us of our emotional attachments and aversions.

In reality, the criteria used for judging spirituality should be based entirely on non-commercial factors. When a so-called spiritual teacher achieves commercial acclaim, his or her ego will often bask in the limelight of publicity while the money rolls in hand over fist. They have achieved “success” as gauged by the yardstick of commercialism. But the very means by which they achieve their success, which might include hoodwinking impressionable individuals by using slick marketing campaigns, are typically based on commercial, not spiritual values. So when appraising spiritual teachers and teachings, carefully analyze whether you are merely buying hype and succumbing to sales tactics, or if there actually exists an underlying element of authentic spirituality that will truly help you divest yourself of your ego in order to experience God.


Egoitis 

Your ego can be your best friend or your worst enemy on your spiritual journey. By simply embarking on the path of spirituality, you are part of a small minority. If you follow an authentic mystical path, that percentage narrows even further. You ruminate on this fact, and you begin to think that you are superior to other people because you are practicing meditation and they are not. The very instant this thought enters your mind, egoitis has set in, and you are headed for a downfall.

You begin having spiritual experiences. You weep tears of ecstasy. You commune inwardly with God. You feel shivers of bliss palpably caressing your soul. Now you really think you’re progressing spiritually. Guess again. The minute you think you’re advancing, you are actually regressing. Another case of egoitis.

St. Florian's Psalter
St. Florian’s Psalter

You pick up a book on genuine spirituality and carefully read it. You closely identify with the author’s experiences, so much so that you feel you have fully grasped the mystery of God and you are well on the road to enlightenment. Not necessarily so! You know by now the diagnosis. Reading books by authentic mystics can immensely inspire one’s spiritual quest. But a person’s journey comes to a grinding halt if they believe they can know God solely by intellectual understanding. Realizing God has nothing to do with the intellect, and the experience of God absolutely cannot be attained through armchair mysticism. It is a transformative experience — an inner realization — that wholly transcends the mind and intellect. Put down that book and do what the author did in order to achieve that sublime experience.

The ego will devise countless traps to ensnare you. Subtler than the subtlest, it lies in wait to trip you up, 24 hours a day. It will cater to your sense of self-importance, and it will foster the idea that you are situated higher in the spiritual pecking order than others. If you fall prey to its pernicious attempts to assert itself, it will undermine your spiritual efforts. Rather than becoming a saint, you may end up a spiritual elitist. Much to your chagrin, many seemingly non-spiritual persons may in fact be more spiritually advanced than you.

As we advance on the spiritual path, the ego loses its grip as our spiritual Self unfolds. But while we still have an ego, the cure for egoitis is humility. An authentic spiritual path is built on the foundation of egolessness. Take steps to attenuate the ego whenever it flares up. Dismantle your spiritual reputation. Imbibe the tincture of self-effacement. The less there is of you, the more room there will be for God. Many of the Jewish mystics refer to God as ayin — nothingness. One must become nothing in order to merge with the limitless reality we call God.