“Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.” ―
SUMMARY: Mystics naturally speak of the experience that distinguishes them from other folks using words and terms derived from their individual cultures. Hence, they typically speak of having experienced “god”, but upon examination, their notions of god often tend to have more in common with other mystics than they do with common cultural notions of god. Central to virtually all theistic mysticism is the notion that god — or ultimate reality — is an all-encompassing oneness or One, despite any appearances to the contrary.
(About a 10 minute read)
I first became interested in mysticism about 40 years ago. I was a sophomore at university and seriously concerned with finding an objective basis for values.
At the time, I believed — like many people still do — that unless an objective basis for values could be found, “anything was permissible”. No evil, however great, could be objectively opposed. And that frightened me.
Unfortunately, the more I learned, the less there seemed to be any possibility of an objective basis. But then I came across the writings of various mystics.
It almost immediately struck me how greatly mystics were in agreement with each other. To be sure, their agreement was not so much about specific values, but rather about the ultimate nature of reality itself. It did not seem to matter much whether a mystic had been living in 500 B.C. India, 200 B.C. China, 1500 A.D. Spain or any other period or culture. They all agreed on the nature of ultimate reality significantly more than most people did.
Sure, there were differences. But those differences seemed to me in most cases to be no greater than the differences between people describing the same species of tree. Each person’s description might be a little unique, but you could always recognize the species they were talking about.
Of course, that held open to me the possibility that the mystics might also agree on ordinary values — such as the value of kindness or love. And in fact, there was indeed more than common agreement on those things. But their agreement on ultimate reality was exceptionally pronounced.
Now, I noticed from the start that mystics differed from most people who in one way or another talk about ultimate reality (often without using the term “ultimate reality”) in that most people claim to get their opinion of it either from reasoning about it, or from some authority, such as a teacher or holy scripture. But mystics claimed to get their knowledge of ultimate reality from having themselves directly experienced it. That was obvious.
Still, it took me a while to catch on to just how important that direct experience had been to them. On the whole, mystics care about little else as a source of knowledge. Even Christian and Muslim mystics seemed in many cases to barely pay more than lip service to the notion that their experiences needed to be consistent with their religion’s holy scriptures and traditions for them to be seen by those religions as having had “legitimate” experiences at all.
Once I had learned how to better analyze texts, I discovered that in many instances, a Christian or Muslim mystic was borrowing common terms from their religions, but using those terms in ways that would nearly scandalize a theologian from their religions — yet which would be readily understood by a mystic from India or China, for instance.
For instance, it seemed to me the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart had used the word “God” in ways that would have been more familiar to an Indian mystic than to a Catholic theologian. So, in the end, I was pretty much forced to conclude that not only were mystics all witness to much the same experience as each other, but they also valued that experience to much the same degree as each other.
That is, they quite often saw it as superseding in authority even the teachings and revelations of their own religions. “The only true mosque is that in the heart of saints. The mosque that is built in the hearts of the saints is the place of worship for all, for God dwells there.” — Masnavi.
So what makes someone a mystic? In this essay, I have been following W. T. Stace’s strict definition of “mystic” as someone who has had — or claims to have have had — a mystical experience. Stace is specific: People who are merely interested in studying mysticism are not mystics. Only those who have had the experience are mystics.
That experience involves a radically different kind of awareness than the awareness of ordinary, waking consciousness.
Sometimes people talk of mystical awareness as a “higher consciousness”, but I frown on that term because it implies that mystical awareness is fundamentally like conscious awareness. Yet in so many ways, it simply is not. Radically not.
For one thing, conscious awareness involves a division of the world into self and non-self. I am me, but I am not the grass in my yard. I and the lady approaching me on the sidewalk are separate things. This automatic conscious division of the world into self and non-self is wholly absent from mystical awareness.
Instead, mystical awareness either involves a sense of oneness, or a perception that all things are One. In the case of oneness, you see the grass in your yard and sense that in some mysterious way, it and you are the same thing.
In the case of perceiving that all things are One, the grass in your yard — along with everything else in your perceptual field — dissolves into just One thing. You no longer see the grass, nor sense yourself: Instead you experience a One that is everything.
There can be much, much more content to a mystical experience than just a sense of oneness, or a perception of the One. For instance, it is common for mystics to speak of also experiencing infinity, a feeling of infinite strength and power, unconditional love, absolute bliss, vast sentience, and so forth. But the sin qua non of the mystical experience is – again — the sense of oneness or the perception of the One.
Most mystics — but certainly not all mystics — identify that oneness or One as god. The minority who do not, may be atheistic, agnostic, apatheistic, or they may identify it with something that they see as primeval to the gods — such as the Tao of Taoism. But virtually all mystics willing to talk about their experiences talk about a oneness or One — even the non-theists among them.
So I think the first thing to recognize about the god of the mystics is that it is to them not a concept, not an idea, not a theory, not even a belief — but an experience. Or — at the least — an interpretation of an experience. In practice, that is one reason why so many mystics seem to treat their experience as superseding any teachings or authoritative writings about god. As the Bhagavad Gita puts it:
As unnecessary as a well is
To a village on the banks of a river,
So unnecessary are all scriptures
To someone who has seen the truth. (2.46)
When your understanding has passed
Beyond the thicket of delusions
There is nothing you need to learn
From even the most sacred scripture. (2.52)
Furthermore, the kind of knowledge the experience has imparted to the mystic is not necessarily consciously known knowledge. A great deal of it might be known on some subconscious level, but not consciously. Bits and pieces of it might percolate up into consciousness for days, weeks, or even years after the experience, but many mystics dismiss even limited conscious knowledge as misleading or all but useless. “Blessed is the one who has arrived at infinite ignorance.” — Evagrius Ponticus.
Try thinking of that knowledge as akin to what you would learn if you spent a decade or so practicing carving wood. You’d be consciously aware of much that you knew about carving wood — but there would be perhaps just as much that you knew about it that you were not conscious of knowing but which you’d likely describe as your having developed an intuition, feel, or sense about wood carving. So too, mystics can simply know that their god is X or Y, but not Z without needing to consciously think much about it.
“Guarding knowledge is not a good way to understand. Understanding means to throw away your knowledge.” ―
To the mystic, god is not merely a reality, but ultimate reality. “More real than real”, as some have put it. Of course, that means oneness or the One is ultimate reality. The notion that the world is really a collection of millions of separate things is to one significant extent or another denied by all mystics I know of. Instead, that notion is seen as an illusion. As“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”
Mystics typically insist that even people who are unaware of ultimate reality as some kind of unity nevertheless act according to it in some profound sense. “We rarely hear the inward music, but we’re all dancing to it nevertheless.” — Rumi.
Beyond that, it seems to me that the god of the mystics is typically something along the lines of what most of us would describe as pantheistic or panentheistic. There can be some dispute about that, because some mystics are from times and places where it wasn’t acceptable to describe god in those terms.
They tended to get around it, however, by either describing god in “poetic language” (e.g. “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”), or by using more acceptable terms such as “God is imminent in all things”.
Moreover, mystics usually describe their god and themselves as in some sense being identical — within the limits of how permissible it is for them to describe such a thing, given their times and places.
Many people assume that, in a typical mystical experience, god appears to the mystic as if in some kind of vision such that the mystic sees god. Or that god appears as a voice such that the mystic hears god. But that does not seem to be the case — or if it is the case, it is quite uncommon.
To be sure, people do have such visions and experiences, but they are rarely genuine mystical experiences for they lack the sin qua non of the mystical experience: oneness or the One. Moreover, seeing god or hearing god each involves just one or two senses — sight or hearing. But the mystical experience almost always involves the total perceptual field. That is, all the senses.
In sum, the god of the mystics is usually, but not always, characterized by these traits, among other things:
- It is an experience rather than a belief or theory involving a radical change in awareness.
- Knowledge of it, like knowledge from any experience, does not stop at knowledge one is consciously aware of knowing, but extends to knowledge one subconsciously knows too.
- The experience of it provides knowledge or information of it that supersedes all authority, teachings, and holy scriptures about it.
- It crucially involves a sense of oneness or a One to all things such that it is arguably most compatible with some form of pantheism or panentheism.
- It is ultimate reality — and all other supposed reality is mere appearance and/or illusion.
- Typically the experience of it does not take the form of merely seeing and/or hearing it.
I have written an extensive primer to Mysticism which can be found here.