Mysticism


Illustration for Attar’s The Conference of the Birds
Illustration for Attar’s The Conference of the Birds

Mysticism is the branch of philosophy which asserts that the ultimate reality, or God, can be personally experienced. Most mystical paths are associated with traditional religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism contain openly mystical elements. The Hasidic and Renewal movements within Judaism are steeped in mysticism. In Christianity, the explicitly mystical components are found in the Hesychast movement within Orthodox Christianity, and they are particularly stressed in certain Roman Catholic orders, such as the Carthusians and Cistercians. The various Sufi orders provide the mystical element within Islam.

The principal theme of all mystical paths is the soul uniting with the ultimate reality, or God. This is achieved when an aspirant undergoes various spiritual practices. As Evelyn Underhill wrote in 1915, “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.” According to philosopher Gerald Heard, this mystical union is the purpose of evolution. All living beings seek to transcend their worldly condition and reunite with the underlying Reality of the universe, which is in essence identical with their true nature.

The methods to effect this transformation vary from religion to religion. Some employ contemplative means, while others employ devotional means. All insist on the constructive modification of character and conduct, as well as leading an ethical lifestyle. This effort is fueled by an aspirant’s fervent yearning to realize their goal.

“It is true that many things are recorded in the scriptures;
but all these are useless without the direct realization of God.”
— Sri Ramakrishna

The essential ingredient without which mystical union remains a mere intellectual exercise is practice. Rational understanding of mysticism is poles apart from one’s firsthand experience of God, which the mystics tell us produces a profound and searing inner realization. A spiritual aspirant must therefore make strident and focused efforts to bring about this mystical union.


Obstacles

The main stumbling blocks to mystical realization are one’s own fossilized ego structure and crystallized personality traits, which are hard-wired aspects of one’s character. Continual spiritual practice coupled with ardent longing for liberation help break down the overshadowing influence of these elements. This allows the underlying spiritual reality to manifest.

Another stumbling block is the persistent search for God outside of oneself. Visiting places of worship and socializing with like-minded spiritual companions are valuable aids that help to invoke and maintain a sense of the sacred. Setting up a home sanctuary is essential in order to practice quiet meditation. Reading spiritual books can significantly inspire one’s practice. But one must remember: the mystical experience is found within. As Jesus asserted, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:21). God is located at the core of your being. Focus your efforts in an inward direction. As you whittle away the detritus of your outer personality and ego by engaging in diligent practice, what is revealed inside is God, the ultimate reality. The mystics tell us there was never a time when this Reality was absent from us. It’s up to us to tap into God within the very core of our being.


Spiritual Practices

There are two modes of spiritual practices that can be undertaken by an aspirant. The first is to practice alone or in a group while remaining temporarily secluded from the world, such as when practicing meditation in one’s home shrine. The second is to practice while actively participating in one’s duties of life. Both go hand in hand. Isolated practice is necessary to shut down the mind and emotions in a distraction-free environment so that contact with the inner spiritual Presence can first be established, then nurtured. Active practice is equally important, as it enables the aspirant to maintain a spiritual center while engaged in the various activities of life. The latter serves as the practical application of the former.

Zen Master Dogen
Zen Master Dogen

If you are affiliated with a major religion, your spiritual practice will reflect the beliefs of that religion. However, it is not necessary to be associated with a religion in order to attain full-blown mystical realization. But it is helpful to subscribe to a basic frame of reference when following your own path, as it will act as a guidepost while you travel on your journey. For example, your frame of reference might be, “I believe there is a God; I will strive to experience God in my daily life.” Once you’ve established your frame of reference, have unshakable faith in it and don’t allow other people or the vicissitudes of life to undermine your faith.

There are numerous paths that lead to the ultimate reality, or God. If your belief system holds that God is within you, then your spiritual strivings will tend to be more inwardly focused than those who search for God outside of themselves. Your main concern will be how to access the Source of your being, which is God within. Remember, you are undertaking spiritual practices in order to experience God, the ultimate reality, and to establish an ever-deepening connection with that Reality so it comes to permeate all facets of your life. If you persist, you will succeed. You will then come to carry that experience within you, and the effects of that experience will spill over into all areas of your life, wondrously touching all those with whom you come into contact.