Looking back over the story of how the human mind has done its thinking through the ages, we find that four major ways of knowledge have been pursued: the traditionalist, the rationalist, the empirical and the intuitional. The traditionalist follows the path laid down by beliefs and customs established long ago, embodied in the inherited culture or faith. The rationalist is guided by reason, accepting as true only what is coherent, logical, consistent and orderly. The empirical mind relies upon the spirit and method of science, wanting to test propositions for their truth, and respecting that which will work. The intuitionist, by contrast with these ways of knowing, believes that certain feelings, experiences, and intuitions provide a direct knowledge of truth; the road to knowledge is through immediate experience and insight more than by inherited beliefs, orderly reason or outward experience.
This intuitionist way is often called the way of the mystic. In popular use, "mystic" is held to mean anything mysterious, occult, or difficult to grasp. When someone expresses ideas not easily understood, people are apt to say that be is being "mystical." Any thought that is vague, incomprehensible, or farfetched is, for many, "misty-cism." In actuality, however, the mystical signifies something quite different in human response. It means the belief that the truth of things can be apprehended directly and immediately, that is, without the mediation of the ordinary senses. Direct contact can be made with "reality" and it is no surprise to find many mystics calling that reality God, though not always.
The mystical has been an element in all the great religions in the world, and vigorous mystical strains are found in each of them, creating distinct groups of followers. In the Orient, Taoism, Yoga, and Sufism; in Judaism, the Kabbalistic movement; in Christianity, some of the most notable figures of Christian history -- Jesus, Paul, St. Francis, Thomas 'a Kempis, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, as well as the leading Quakers George Fox, Rufus M. Jones, and Evelyn Underhill. Mysticism holds a place of honor and significance in religion.
The frequency with which the mystical element appears, both within and outside the religions, constitutes the mystic way as one of the perennial philosophies of life. It may even be affirmed that no human being on earth has not had at some time, in some degree or in some form, an experience with an element of the mystical in it.
Partial substantiation of this appeared in Andrew Greeley's New York Times Magazine article on January 26,1975, entitled "Are We A Nation of Mystics?" He tells of a study of mystical experiences in modem America, in which a surprising proportion of people reported having had at some time of their lives a feeling of being "very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift them out of themselves." Greeley concludes that "such intense, overwhelming, indescribable experiences are widespread, almost commonplace, in American society today." "Wherever the place, whatever the trigger, and whoever the person, there run through the accounts of such interludes certain common themes: joy, light, peace, fire, warmth, unity, certainty, confidence and rebirth.... All seem to report a virtually identical experience: a joy which seemed literally to lift them out of themselves."
Throughout history, the more dramatic and extreme occurrences of this kind have been given the name of mystical, while milder and more moderate feelings of this sort have been considered a part of normal existence, not especially mystical or even religious. Such natural incidents come in a wide variety of forms. Common to all of them is the awareness that life is larger, or deeper, or more mysterious than it usually seems. According to William James, the pioneer psychologist who wrote what is still the standard reference work in this area of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, it is a feeling of "the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life."
The word "mystic" itself gives us a useful clue. It originally meant an initiate, one who had been led into the hidden meaning of some mystery in the ancient religions of Greek civilization. This is what mystical experience literally means in everyday terms: any experience that seems to let one into the inner heart of life, to give one an insight that does not come on the surface. In his poem, "The Great Lover," Rupert Brooke writes of commonplace things in such a way:
These I have loved . . .
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crusts
Of friendly bread; . . .
. . . and the blue bitter smoke of wood; . . .
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew; . . .
All these have been my loves.
Have you ever felt uplifted, depressed or strangely touched by certain colors, sounds, or objects? Have you ever, at a chance moment suddenly sensed the inexpressible richness and beauty of ordinary things, and wondered why you felt so? Sometimes these feelings come and we resist them, turn away from them, or reduce them to conventional terms. In one of Charles M. Schulz's comic strips, Lucy say "Charlie Brown, life is a mystery. Do you know the answer?" Charlie puts on a pious expression and says, "Be kind, don't smoke, be prompt, smile a lot, eat sensibly, avoid cavities, mark your ballot carefully, avoid too much sun, mail overseas packages early, love all creatures above and below, insure your belongings, and try to keep the ball low." In the final frame, Lucy sums up by saying, "Now hold real still, Charlie Brown, because I'm going to hit you a very sharp blow on the nose". People often avoid letting a sense of the wonder and mystery of life touch and teach them, and reduce it to prosaic, familiar little prescriptions.
The same quality of experience does not move or touch all of us. For some, it is human relationships that trigger and release their natural mysticism, if we dare to call it that. It is no accident that most of the poetry and songs of the world have been written about love between a man and a woman, for this is the most powerful and profound experience most human beings ever have in their entire lifetime, even when it is only partially realized. Great (and terrible) poetry has been poured out on it, but the fullness of human love has never been captured or set down. There is no better way to illustrate what historic mystics felt in their sense of union with God than to point to the experience of being in love, the sense of partaking of the very existence of another human being and his or her thoughts, feelings, joys and sorrows, feeling the strange combination of identity and separateness that characterizes human love. The sense of "divine Presence" reported by noted mystics, according to students of religious psychology, often is connected with their human feelings about their loved ones; frustrated human love sometimes gives rise to a sublimated hungering for divine love.
Simply being aware of people, and of the impact of people on our senses, is written of by Kenneth Patton:
To walk down a street with men and women streaming by, each face an insight into a life, the set and swing of their bodies, the liveness of their hair, the knowingness of their eyes, hints of joy and grief; the energy of young people burning like a quick fire, the calm of age like glowing coals; the magic of movement and muscle harmony, the flowing balance of walking and running, the smile lighting the whole person: and beneath the thin mask that each of us wears, the ever-present sense of mystery and loneliness and wonder. To be with people is to handle mystery. It is to live in wonder and glory.
One does not need to be a parent to know the swelling of the heart when one bends over a sleeping child and kisses the warm, smooth cheek, or when a child trustingly puts its hand in yours and looks up at you, or the tangible emptiness of a house that is suddenly without children. If one is a parent, even with the desperations and irritations that this relationship brings, there sometimes comes the heart-bursting realization of being responsible for the life and nurture, indeed the very existence of another human being -- a feeling that lends dignity to the least of us and humility to the greatest. We may not call such a feeling mystical, but some do.
Our human experience must also be viewed in its larger setting. For many, "cosmic consciousness" serves as a better term than mystical. The universe has often been the focus of the mystical feelings of people, even when little was known about it, and the horizons of our knowledge were narrow -- or rather, especially when little was known about it, for the unknown surrounding us has exerted an irresistible pull on human imagination. There are always some who feel a compelling fascination in the unknown depths of the cosmos, and of the future ahead. But what we do know of the universe holds wonder too. In Max Ehrmann's famous "Desiderata," one of the gentle admonitions reads, "You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars." Too many have no real feeling that we are that, yet that is exactly what we are -- indeed it is all we are. Fortunately, this dimension of our being plays a large part in the daily consciousness of many.
John Buchan, the novelist who was once Governor General of Canada, told of one of the deepest impressions of his life:
I had been ploughing all day in the black dust of the Lichtenburg roads, and had come very late to . . . the spring of a river which presently loses itself in the sands of the Kalahari. We watered our horses and went supperless to bed. Next morning I bathed in one of the Malmani pools -- and icy cold it was -- and then basked in the early sunshine while breakfast was cooking. The water made a pleasant music, and near-by was a covert of willows filled with singing birds. Then and there came on me the hour of revelation, when, though savagely hungry, I forgot about breakfast. Scents, sights, and sounds blended into a harmony so perfect that it transcended human expression, even human thought. It was like a glimpse of the peace of eternity. -- Pilgrim's Way
This feeling for the universe, or nature, and our relation to it, does not necessarily arrive only in a dramatic way or majestic place. The mossy stone, rusted and pitted by the wind and the rain, lying in its native grass, says something that the cut stone of our buildings does not say. The tree alive in its soil says something that polished and stained wood fails to communicate. A great deal more is to be found in working the earth in a garden than in opening a pack of frozen peas. We are all children of earth, and there is a depth in us that can be enriched and impregnated through contact with the soil. Such contact can bring a sensual awareness of living forces moving through and around human existence.
Another and more humanistic kind of mysticism is felt by many people concerning humanity and their relationship to it, their involvement in it, and their indebtedness to it. The sense of belonging to humanity, of being joined in destiny with mankind, accompanies some of us all of our days and never leaves us. It is the religious basis for any valid program of social action. "I am not free while any man is in chains," wrote Eugene Debs, and he lived his words. Carl Sandburg's "The People, Yes" is one of the best examples of this kind of humanistic mysticism in modern literature. It may come with the birth of a child, or at the side of a dying beloved, when we realize that life and death are one, and that each emerges out of the other and that neither is possible without the other. It may come in the depths of despair, when all that we value seems lost, and when there flowers out of isolation an awareness that nothing is ever lost, that no matter what happens to our individual being, everything we have ever been and done and hoped is woven into the fabric of the universe forever.
We could speak of the natural mystic in us in other ways. For everyone there is a particular area of his life that has special sensitivity, a field of memory, an association long forgotten, that brings one to a halt of a sudden on hearing a distant train whistle through the night, or catching a strain of song from an unknown voice in a strange town. Read the novels of Thomas Wolfe for haunting expressions of this kind of feeling. I have stood on a waterfront dock of an evening, lost to the world, with nothing before me but the rough iron plates of a ship's side, while the wheeling gulls over the bow with their harsh call at the sight of the ship's tumbled wake as she moved away caused as deep a wonder, exaltation and yearning as any symphony or art gallery ever has for me. For each of us, there is something special that may bring to us the "mystery of fact, the wildness and pang of life," the true depth of life that knows no telling.
Two further words need to be said, one of caution and the other of challenge. Once we have accepted the awareness of this deeper dimension of our lives as natural and necessary, we should watch it carefully. Mystical tendencies have often brought superstition, harmful fantasy and dangerous obscurantism to the world, and have hindered a realistic taking-hold of life. Man's itch for the unknown has thrown a danger zone around his life, a zone in which charlatans, quacks, phony seers and pseudo-psychics make hay while the sun of credulity shines. The mystical has been and is a bulwark of all kinds of superstition and priestly authority.
Yet with all the caution we can muster, the mystic way can lead to a deepening and enrichment of our life. William James again: "It must always remain an open question whether mystical states may not possibly be such superior points of view, windows through which the mind looks out on a more extensive and inclusive world." It is quite likely that we human beings have powers of which we know little as yet, of which we are only dimly aware. Our lives are rich in signs that further sensitivities and powers do exist. It would be a crime against the growing human spirit to stifle, much less to be ashamed of the natural mystic in all of us, blunting the edge of our deeper awareness with the dogma of a flat, narrow, two-by-four existence. Human life may well be a far deeper, richer, and subtler enterprise than we yet realize.
(From Sunrise magazine, May 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)
World Spiritual Traditions Menu