Mysticism | Definition, History, Examples, & Facts (2024)


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Also known as: mystical theology

Written by

Dan Merkur Psychoanalyst and Research Reader in the Department of the Study of Religion, Universtiy of Toronto. Author of The Psychedelic Sacrament: Manna, Meditation, and Mystical Experience and Mystical...

Dan Merkur

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The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

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Key People:
St. Francis of Assisi
Philo Judaeus
Emanuel Swedenborg
St. Ignatius of Loyola
St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Related Topics:
via negativa

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mysticism, the practice of religious ecstasies (religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness), together with whatever ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, and magic may be related to them.

The term mystic is derived from the Greek noun mystes, which originally designated an initiate of a secret cult or mystery religion. In Classical Greece (5th–4th century bce) and during the Hellenistic Age (323 bce–330 ce), the rites of the mystery religions were largely or wholly secret. The term mystes is itself derived from the verb myein (“to close,” especially the eyes or mouth) and signified a person who kept a secret. Early Christianity appropriated the technical vocabulary of the Hellenistic mysteries but later disavowed secrecy, resulting in a transformation of the meaning of mystes. In subsequent Christian usage, mystes, or mystic, referred to practitioners of doctrinally acceptable forms of religious ecstasy.

The traditional conception of mysticism

From late antiquity through the Middle Ages, Christians used prayer to contemplate both God’s omnipresence in the world and God in his essence. The soul’s ecstasy, or rapture, in contemplation of God was termed a “spiritual marriage” by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the greatest mystical authority of the 12th century. In the 13th century the term unio mystica (Latin: “mystical union”) came into use as a synonym. During the same period the range of objects of contemplation was increased to include the Passion of Christ, visions of saints, and tours of heaven and hell. In the 17th and 18th centuries the enthusiasms of quaking, shaking, and other infusions of the Holy Spirit were also called mystical.

In the mid-19th century, after the Romantic movement had shifted the emphasis in much religious thinking from theology to individual experience, a growing interest in ecumenism led to the invention of the term mysticism and its extension to comparable phenomena in non-Christian religions. The competition between the perspectives of theology and science resulted in a compromise in which most varieties of what had traditionally been called mysticism were dismissed as merely psychological phenomena and only one variety, which aimed at union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God—and thereby the perception of its essential unity or oneness—was claimed to be genuinely mystical.

The historical evidence, however, does not support such a narrow conception of mysticism. Even within the history of Christianity there were mystics—such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the 5th century and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing in the 14th—for whom the most desirable mystical experience or perception was not of unity but rather of nothing, or nothingness. Thus, St. Bonaventure, in addition to encouraging a program of mystical union with Christ in his death and resurrection, also recommended devotion to the wholly transcendent nothingness of Pseudo-Dionysius’s theology. In the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, along with his followers Heinrich Suso, Johann Tauler, and Jan van Ruysbroeck, all sought experiences in which their souls disappeared, leaving only the mind, emotion, or the will of God. In the 17th century, St. Teresa of Ávila, almost certainly in ignorance of historical precedents, demoted the communion described by St. Bernard to the status of a “spiritual betrothal,” instead emphasizing the soul’s disappearance in the “spiritual marriage.”

The complexity of the historical record is multiplied exponentially when one includes other religious traditions in the survey. Both Buddhism and Kabbala, the esoteric Jewish mysticism originating in the 12th century, emphasize nothingness rather than oneness, and the notion of oneness itself has many varieties in both Christianity and Hinduism. These facts are inconsistent with the postulation of a single unity or oneness that mystics everywhere experience or perceive. It is not that the Absolute, the Infinite, or God is One, and mystics experience and perceive this truth. Rather, the data support a psychological interpretation regarding a tendency of the mind to unify its contents in different ways, resulting in slightly different experiences on different occasions. Mystics do not experience or perceive an objectively existing unity; rather they formulate their own experiential unities in different ways.

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The traditional conception of mysticism was finally abandoned by academic scholars in the 1970s. Since then, some scholars have rejected the category of mysticism as a fiction, while others have enlarged it to encompass all religious uses of alternate states of consciousness.

Mysticism as experience and interpretation

South Asian traditions

Some mysticism can indeed be defined successfully in terms of the experience or perception of unity with the divine. In Hinduism, for example, the hymns of the Rigveda were composed in Sanskrit by members of the Indo-European population that entered the northern plains of India from Central Asia beginning about 1500 bce. In the Vedic religion the chief gods were Indra, the king of the gods; Agni, the fire god; and Soma, the god associated with the hallucinogenic soma plant. (The botanical identity of soma has been lost, but it was possibly the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria.) The major practice of Vedic religion was a sacrificial meal that the community shared with the gods, or devas. Milk, clarified butter, curds, grains, the soma plant, and domestic animals were immolated in fire. The person who drank the hallucinogenic soma beverage was considered a sacrifice to the gods. He acquired intuitive, mystical insight and became one with the ancient primordial Man, who in the Vedic creation myth had been divided into the many phenomena of the cosmos.

The Rigveda contains other examples of mystical experience. One hymn mentions long-haired ascetics (kesin) or silent ones (muni), who were either naked or dressed in red. In their ecstasies they were “possessed by the gods” and able to fly outside their bodies. Their ecstasies were induced by a drug (siva) that they consumed with the god Rudra. In post-Vedic times, Rudra was known as Shiva, who was associated with the hallucinogenic plants of the genus Datura.

A dramatic change in Indian mysticism is indicated in the Sanskrit texts known as the Upanishads, which were composed between 600 and 300 bce. The Maitri Upanishad outlined a practice of Yoga (a practical and theoretical system of ancient Indian philosophy) that consisted of breath control, the withdrawal of the senses (the voluntarily induced loss of sense perception), meditation, concentration, reasoning, and absorption. The goal of Upanishadic Yoga was to realize the identity of the personal self with the cosmic self, or atman, and the identity of atman with brahman, or the divine essence. The divine essence in purest form was conceived as vak (Sanskrit: “sound”); it developed secondarily into sacred sounds, such as AUM, and only thereafter into coherent words. Meditating on and uttering the sacred syllable were considered a means of inducing a mystical union with the divine essence. Once union was achieved, the self and all existence were seen to be divine. As noted in the Brihadaranyka Upanishad, “Verily, by the seeing of, by the hearing of, by the thinking of, by the understanding of the Atman, all this [phenomenal world] is known.”

The Yoga-sutras, written by Patanjali sometime between 200 bce and 400 ce, are the most authoritative formulation of classical Yoga, which is also known as Raja (“Royal”) Yoga. Patanjali’s practice deleted the element of reasoning from Upanishadic Yoga while adding three preparatory components: self-restraint (from violence, falsehood, theft, incontinence, and acquisitiveness), commitment (to purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, and devotion to the Lord), and bodily postures. Doctrinally, Patanjali broke with the Vedic and Upanishadic belief that all existent things are a single substance that is God; he instead favoured an uncompromising transcendentalism. He advised the practitioner (Yogi) to meditate one-pointedly on anything and everything. In each case, the Yogi would find that the object of meditation became the all, absorbed the self, and became evident as divine. Since different things were each the all, the self, and divine, it became logically necessary to postulate an unmanifest source or cause of the Yogic experience of absorption. A Yogi was consequently directed to meditate on the unmanifest that is beyond union. When the unmanifest was experienced contemplatively, it was found to be the soul or self (purusha; literally “spirit”) and was identified with a personified God (Ishvara; “Lord”).

While pursuing these attainments, a Yogi would inevitably acquire one or more siddhas (“powers”), such as knowledge of past lives, foreknowledge of one’s own death, great strength, supernormal senses, levitation, and omniscience. Although the siddhas could be distractions from the goal of moksha (Sanskrit: “release”), or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth (see reincarnation), they were recognized as positive acquisitions.

Bhakti (“devotion”), a religious movement that emerged in India in the 7th to 10th centuries, stressed love of the gods Vishnu and Shiva and of the divine energy or goddess Shakti. Vishnu is conceptualized as sat (Sanskrit: “being”), cit (“consciousness”), and ananda (“bliss”). Devotees of Vishnu, known as Vaishnavites, may practice Yoga in order to experience pure consciousness, which contains all things and is identified with Vishnu himself. In other instances, Vaishnavite bhakti aims at more-limited manifestations of Vishnu, such as a vision of his feet, his arms, or his smiling face. Devotion to Vishnu may also be directed to his avatar (incarnation) Krishna. Meditations on the divinity at the source of all things, amid weeping, singing, and dancing, may aim at self-surrender to blissful possession by Krishna.

Shiva is similarly conceptualized as pure consciousness, but in a fashion that integrates bhakti with Yoga or with the Tantric (esoteric) religious practices of some Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina sects. Tantric mysticism may have originated historically as ritual male copulation with women who were possessed by goddesses. Through the addition of Yoga, the divine marriage was internalized as an event within the Yogi. Tantric Yoga may be performed during sexual intercourse or independently. In both events, Shiva is conceptualized as the pure consciousness that is all things. It is further held that the Yogi’s subtle body (a metaphysical aspect of the person that is present at all times and visible in some dreams and alternate states) contains three vertical channels (nadi) that pass through seven centres (chakras; Sanskrit: “wheel”), from the genital regions to the top of the skull. A subtle energy, called kundalini and regarded simultaneously as Shakti and as the sperm of Shiva, is raised through Tantric Yoga practices along the central channel through the chakras. In the process, the practitioner rises together with the kundalini, achieving immortality and acquiring magical powers.

In Tantric mysticism the body of the deity may be visualized as being composed of alphabetic letters or as assuming a specific posture—holding a jar of nectar or a book, for example. The mental image serves as a focus for the contemplation of pure consciousness, and a mystical reduction of experience to pure consciousness may ensue. The ultimate reducibility of everything to pure consciousness, belief in which is shared by Vaishnavism and Shaivism, can be seen as a logical compromise between the Upanishadic union of all being and the Yogic quest for a unique transcendence of being. Hindu mysticism in its various forms identifies the unitive as antithetical to the material world.

Mysticism | Definition, History, Examples, & Facts (2024)
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