Mystics generally hold that there is a deeper, more fundamental state of existence hidden beneath the appearances of day–to–day living (which may become, to the mystic, superficial or epiphenomenal). For the mystic, the hidden state is the focus, and may be perceived in any of various ways — as God, ultimate reality, a universal presence, a force or principle, psychological emancipation — and be experienced or realized directly. Such experience are spoken of, variously, as ecstatic revelation, theosis, direct experience of the divine or of universal principles, nirvana, enlightenment, satori, samadhi, etc. They are sometimes characterized by a fading or loss of self, or a perceived interconnection with all existence, and are often accompanied by feelings of peace, joy or bliss.
Mysticism is usually understood in a religious context, but as William James (1902) points out, mystical experiences may happen to anyone, regardless of religious training or inclinations. Such experiences can occur unbidden and without preparation at any time, and might not be understood as religious experiences at all. They may be interpreted, perhaps, as artistic, scientific, or other forms of inspiration, or even dismissed as psychological disturbances. With that in mind, the word mysticism, is best used to point to conscious and systematic attempts to gain mystical experiences through studies and practice. Possible techniques include meditation, prayer, asceticism, devotions, the chanting of mantras or holy names, and intellectual investigation. While mystics are generally members of some religious denomination, they typically go beyond specific religious perspectives or dogmas in their teachings, espousing an inclusive and universal perspective that rises above sectarian differences.
Abrahamic religions conceive of a soul that lies within each individual, which is of great spiritual significance. However Judaism, placing more focus on this world than others, has resulted in multiple views… that man is a partner in God, all the way to the mysticism of numerology and the Kabbalah. Christian mysticism has diverse takes on the relationship between God, the soul, and the individual. In Islam the mystical path is often incorporated within Sufi.
Quakers view the soul as inner light, an inherent presence of God within the individual. Other Protestant sects, as well as Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, hold a more distinct division between the individual soul and God, given the traditional belief that the salvation of the soul and union with God will occur after death at the resurrection, but these faiths generally hold that righteousness is possible during life. Christian mystics seek this state, variously, through intense prayer, ascetism, monasticism, or even mortification of the flesh.
In Catholicism, saints and other beatific individuals are said to have received the Holy Spirit—a movement of God in their souls that grants them miraculous, prophetic, or other transcendent abilities—and this belief is taken up in certain charismatic and evangelical faiths that seek out testaments to divine revelation through speaking in tongues, faith healing, the casting out of demons, etc.
Islam shares this conception of a distinct soul, but with less focus on miraculous powers; the muslim world emphasizes remembrance (dhikr, zikr): the recalling one’s original and innate connection to Allah’s grace. In traditional Islam this connection is maintained by angels, who carry out God’s will—though only prophets have the ability to see and hear them directly.
Sufism (the mystical aspect of Islam) holds that God can be experienced directly as a universal love that pervades the universe. Remembrance, for Sufis, explicitly means remembrance of divine states of love, and Sufis are particularly noted for the artistic turn their forms of worship often take.
Eastern philosophies, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are less concerned with the individual, and instead seek dissolution of the soul and ego (moksha) into transcedent reality (generally Brahmanor Ishvara). In the mystical aspects of the Vedic tradition Atman (something not entirely different from the western conception of the soul) is believed to be identical with Brahman. Hindu mystical practices aim for God-consciousness and loss of self.
Buddhist teaching holds that all suffering (dukkha) in the world comes from attachment to objects or ideas, and that freedom from suffering comes by freeing one’s self from attachments. The doctrine of anatta suggests that the soul, or the perception of an unchanging and cohesive self, is a mental construct to which one may be attached, and thus a source of suffering. While conventional Buddhist religion has an assortment of deities and venerated beings, the mystical sects of Buddhism at minimum avoid affirming, and in some cases overtly deny the existence of a permanent or unchanging soul, or of any permanent or unchanging being to the universe.
Taoism is largely unconcerned with the soul. Instead, Taoism centers around the tao (‘the way’ or ‘the path’). The human tendency, according to Taoism, is to conceive of dualisms; the Taoist mystical practice is to recapture and conform with that original unity (called te, de, which is translated as virtue).
Regardless of particular conceptions of the soul, a common thread of mysticism is collective peace, joy, compassion or love.
External or internal divinity
From the inner light of the Quakers to the Atman of the Hindu, many have found a soul or other essential essence within themselves to be a center of focus. Even the Buddhist who seeks Buddhahood through anatta places a great deal of emphasis on their inner world.
In contrast some (particularly Gnostics and other dualists) see the self as wicked and deserving of punishment or extreme neglect through asceticism, with positive values placed only upon the transcendent.
Pantheism and acosmism
Pantheism means “God is All” and “All is God”. It is the idea that natural law, existence, and/or the universe (the sum total of all that is, was, and shall be) is represented or personified in the theological principle of ‘God’.
In contrast Acosmism denies the reality of the universe, seeing it as ultimately illusory (maya), with only the infinite un-manifest Absolute as real.
There are also dualist conceptions, often with an evil (though existent) material world competing with a transcendent and perfect spiritual plane.
Mysticism and syncretism
Mystics of different traditions report similar experiences of a world usually outside conventional perception, although not all forms of mysticism abandon knowledge perceived through normal means. Based on extraordinary perception, mystics may believe that one can find true unity of religion and philosophy in mystical experience.
Elements of mysticism exist in most religions and in many philosophies, including those where the majority of the followers are not mystics. Some mystics perceive a common thread of influence in all mystic philosophies that they see as traceable back to a shared source. The Vedic tradition is inherently mystic; the Christian apocalyptic Book of Revelation is clearly mystical, as with Ezekiel’s or Daniel’s visions of Judaism, and Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel revealed the Qur’an in a mystical manner. Indigenous cultures also have cryptic revelations pointing toward a universal flow of love or unity, usually following a vision quest or similar ritual. Mystical philosophies thus can exhibit a strong tendency towards syncretism.
Some systems of mysticism are found within specific religious traditions and do not relinquish doctrinal principles as a part of mystical experience. In some definite cases, theology remains a distinct source of insight that guides and informs the mystical experience. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas’ mystical experiences all occurred squarely within the love of the Catholic Eucharist.
Some examples of Christian mystics:
- St. John the Apostle (? -101)
- Clement of Alexandria (? -216)
- St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
- St. Gregory I (590-604)
- Saint Anselm (1033-1109)
- Hugh of Saint Victor (1096–1141)
- St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
- Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
- Albertus Magnus (1206-1280)
- Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-1279)
- St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1275)
- Angela of Foligno – (c.1248-1309) )
- Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – 1327/8)
- Richard Rolle (c. 1290 – 1349)
- St. Gregory Palamas (1296 – 1359)
- St. Bridget of Sweden (1302-1373)
- Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)
- Margery Kempe (c.1373-1438)
- Paracelsus (1493-1541)
- St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
- St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)
- Jakob Boehme (1575-1624)
- Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682)
- Michael de Molinos (1628-1696)
- Sarah Wight (1632-?)
- Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)
- William Blake (1757-1827)
- Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824)
- Jakob Lorber (1800 – 1864)
- Rufus Jones (1863-1948)
- Max Heindel (1865 – 1919)
- G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
- Aiden Wilson Tozer (1897-1963)
- Daniil Andreev (1906-1959)
- Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
Some examples of Jewish mystics:
- Shimon bar Yochai (c.200)
- Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-1291)
- Moses ben Shem Tob de Leon (1250-1305)
- Isaac Luria (1534-1572)
- Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746)
- Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)
- Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935)
- Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994)
Some examples of other mystics:
- Aleister Crowley (magick and Thelema)
- David R. Hawkins
- Jiddu Krishnamurti
- Bob Marley
- Plotinus (Neo-Platonist)
- Chapel Tibet
- Walt Whitman
- Carlos Castaneda
- Joseph Beuys
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Ross G.H. Shott
- Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, Perennial 1945, ISBN 006057058X
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), ISBN 0300062559
- Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford 1923, ISBN 0195002105
- Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, Meridian 1974, Plume Books 1987 reissue: ISBN 0452010071
- The Four Yogas Of Enlightenment: Guide To Don Juan’s Nagualism & Esoteric Buddhism by Edward Plotkin (2002) ISBN 0972087907
- Buddhism and Mysticism by Jon Nelson
- Sacred Wisdom Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Esotericism, Camparative Theology
- GodConsciousness.com Mystic texts and resources.
- Mysticism in Catholic Encyclopedia
- Who’s Who in the History of Mysticism by Professor Bruce B. Janz
- ChristianMystics.com includes many short essays covering various aspects of Christian mysticism
- Islam Way Online – Your Religion and Spirituality Portal Books on Life and Faith, Mankind and the World (sufi)
- Mystic texts
- Evelyn Underhill’s classic work A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness
- Mysticism in World Religions
- AbstractAtom.com: Information on Buddhism (especially Indian and Tibetan), the philosophy of Brahman, and Buddhist atomism
- Spiritual Travel – mystical and visionary out-of-body experience
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry