Some Reflections on Mysticism

The word “mysticism” is not very much in favor in our society and culture. For too many this word merely points to various bizarre manifestations or simply just the paranormal, whatever that be. Even at its best, “mysticism” seems to refer only to some special experiences of some small elect group within a religious tradition…the “elite” of that tradition. As I have often lamented in my postings, at least within Christianity mysticism hardly seems to matter to the average church goer. What we badly need is a very basic, down-to-earth language about mysticism (kind of ironical in that regard) and an understanding of it that opens people up to the depths within themselves wherever/whoever they be. And finally we need to challenge our superficial religious culture and consciousness of a watered-down Christianity that is more about making people feel “comfy” within the aches and pains of modern life than about opening us to the depths within our hearts.


In some ways it is useful and important to talk about mysticism in universal terms; but that can also be misleading. In the concrete experience of people mysticism comes in so many different “flavors” and “styles” that it is bewildering to see any deep down unity of that experience. It’s only when you abstract from the varied experiences that you begin to see certain universal traits and common notions, but then you have only the conceptualizations of mysticism, not the reality itself. There are numerous philosophical issues that these last few sentences hint at but we won’t be getting into that. Suffice it to say that no one can/should claim that it’s obvious that all mysticism is “one” and the “same.” How do you get John of the Cross and Francis of Assisi and Eckhart and the great hesychasts of Russia and Mt. Athos under the same umbrella? And then there’s a short statement by Merton somewhere which is not picked up by most commentators that mysticism in our time will be quite different from classical mysticism. All this is only for Christian mysticism; how about then such figures as Ramana Maharshi, Milarepa, Hui-Neng, Ryokan, Rumi, al-Hallaj, etc., etc.? Or consider the personal/relational mysticism of bhakti yoga or most Christian piety concerning Jesus and compare that with the Buddhism of Nagarjuna or the advaita of Sankara. Only a superficial view of these people would claim that all these folks are about the same thing.


Given all that, it is still extremely important to get some universal handle for this topic; or to put it better, to find something in our hearts that is universal and seeks fulfillment and expression in the mystical language available to it, which in some sense also shapes that fulfillment. Consider the following quote from Abhishiktananda:

“In the heart of every human being there is something–a drive?–which is already there when he is born and will haunt him unremittingly until his last breath. It is a mystery which encompasses him on every side, but one which none of his faculties can ever attain to or, still less, lay hold of. It cannot be located in anything that can be seen, heard, touched or known in this world. There is no sign for it…. It is a bursting asunder at the very heart of being, something utterly unbearable. But nevertheless this is the price of finding the treasure that is without name or form or sign. It is the unique splendor of the Self–but no one is left in its presence to exclaim. ‘How beautiful it is.’”



In every work of art there is a “more” than just what the artist intended to be there. You may have a sense for that “more” even beyond the sensitivity of the artist. He/she does not necessarily have the resources to exhaust the meaning of what they have created. By analogy, the language of the mystic is not necessarily exhaustive of the meanings of his/her experience. That’s why it is advantageous and beneficial to read the mystical language of a different tradition than your own–you might have a sense of something there that will help you understand your own tradition so much deeper. The “more” in your own tradition may become manifest only with a different vantage point. This is not the same thing as a cheap syncretism.


The word “mystic” comes from the Greek word “mystikos.” Perhaps here lies a problem. The root meaning of this word refers to things that are “secret,” hidden, not manifest. The word “mystery” comes from the same roots. Originally the word “mystikos” applied most readily to matters and persons in the Mystery Religions of Hellenistic culture and the ancient Near East. One had to undergo a certain initiation in order to be a “mystikos.” This makes one a member of a secret group of elites who have this secret knowledge of the “other world.” So this is an unfortunate association. Nothing to do with real mysticism except that the latter does involve us in something hidden but in a very paradoxical way–or in a very Zen way if you will. In real mysticism what is most hidden is what is most manifest; and what is most manifest is what is most hidden.


Namaste. The traditional greeting between people in India; superficially akin to people in present-day USA saying “Hi,” “How are you,” “Hello,” “Good to see you,” etc., etc., and then the all important handshake.   In “Namaste” the hands are held palms together as in western prayer in front of you, and this parallels the western handshake. Actually to say that there is a superficial resemblance between the two is in fact a gross overstatement. There is actually very little in common between such greetings. To extract the deep down meaning from “Namaste” you need to explore the meaning of such a statement as: “God in me greets God in you.” Here we are very far from the western handshake!

The handshake, the western greeting, partakes of a very different sense of relationality to the “other.” It speaks, whether people realize it or not, of an economic relationship, the world of commerce and bargaining, a contractual relationship: I will be nice to you if you are nice to me. The western greeting and handshake is a kind of agreement; the handshake is an outgrowth and an extension of a contractual agreement–you can count on the other party for something, at the very least for a kind of mutuality that is the basis of all contracts, and we often hear it said, “His handshake is good enough for me,” or “You can tell a lot about a person from their handshake.” So we encounter the “other,” acknowledge his presence and in greeting we enter into an unspoken agreement to be mutually civil and to share and exchange whatever it is that we are about. And all this is most often left unsaid and even unthought, but believe me it is at the basis of all these greetings whether we realize it or not.   Now “Namaste” is in a completely different world. Here we are no longer encountering “the other” with greetings that have economic underpinnings. This is human relationality grounded in something quite different. For one thing, the very notion of “the other” begins to recede and the underlying unity or “oneness” is pronounced and becomes manifest. This is not a unity that is due to some contractual agreement, but it is a unity that is a fundamentally spiritual and metaphysical reality. And, yes, all this is quite there even when the “Namaste” is said with little thought.

Now you may be wondering what does this have to do with our discussion of mysticism? Well, lots! Just maybe the very notion of mysticism is impossible to understand within a culture that sees all human relationships through the lens of economic underpinnings. Within that kind of setting mysticism seems only bizarre. Maybe it is only when we are within the world of “Namaste” can we begin to sense the real meaning of mysticism.



In the western mentality (and actually in a lot of the East too, but mostly in the West) there’s this mindset: mysticism? Ok, how do I get started? What’s step 1? Step 2? Step 3?….give me a plan…a recipe…maybe a shortcut…let’s do it…hey, maybe there’s a how-to video on You Tube….ok, ok, now I am exaggerating, but you get the idea. Authentic mysticism does not unfold like that at all. It’s a long, long journey–with no beginning and no end, at least not in any sense that our little rational minds can grasp. Decades ago the Beatles had this lovely song about a “long and winding road”–that’s your life you know. You are THAT road, that trail through the wilderness, wherever you are, whoever you are.



(with thanks to the PCT hiker who took this photo)

There is only a kind of awakening to it, but you are on that road whether you realize it or not. Authentic mysticism unfolds like that–in the very heart of whatever life you have. With whatever aches and pains there may be, with whatever bliss there may be, with whatever turns there may be.   There is NO map, no guide, no how-to manual to YOUR life, your “long trail,”–the mysticism that IS you is your real life. Maps, plans, programs, guides, all these exist only for the abstract journey or as some sort of exemplar but be cautious even with the classic and great “maps” of various holy people.

There is this superb Hasidic story: Rabbi Zusya, a true holy man, used to say: When I die and come before God, God will not upbraid me by saying, “Zusya, why are you not yet Moses?” No, God will upbraid me by saying, “Zusya, why are you not yet Zusya?”

The Divine Reality is manifest in all things and in all people; but in each it manifests itself in this unrepeatable way and so it goes to infinity. The Divine Reality unfolds in your heart and in your life and manifests itself there in a way that it does NOWHERE else in the whole cosmos. In the Old Testament the Divine Reality is called a “jealous God,” and you can begin to see the true meaning of this term when you see the Divine as being “jealous” when you seek out its manifestations somewhere else than your own heart and your own being, which is “on fire” as the Burning Bush (and as the Desert Father Abba Joseph said, “Why not become totally fire?”). In the depths of your being you know the Divine Reality by a Name that no one else knows, and it is this that is the essence of your uniqueness. It is this Name which is hidden in the depths of God and in which you find your own self and the Self of God as One Reality. Once you awaken within the Divine Presence in your own unique life, you can truly say Namaste to all in the deepest sense.

Having said all of the above, there is still a very real place for a “clearing of the cobwebs” of consciousness, for a setting in order the disorderly passions, for training the mind in certain ways. The path of renunciation and asceticism has its rightful claims on us if we are truly “into” mysticism. However, there is an interesting problem and a common mistake here.   And this may be a peculiar problem within the Christian spiritual and mystical traditions. Too often certain key notions from the Gospels are used as grounding renunciation and asceticism: “taking up your cross,” “following the way of the cross,” “giving up your life in order to save it,” “following Jesus with your whole being,” etc., etc. These are extremely important moments and sayings from the Gospels and they have much more to do with one’s whole life, your whole orientation in life, than with some practice that may or may not be difficult and/or arduous. Let’s be very clear: the language of the Cross, Jesus on the Cross, has very little to do with ascetical practices and nothing to do with creating pain for oneself by some practice. It has everything to do with the real cost of discipleship in that path which plunges one into the Mystery of the Divine Reality whom Jesus called “Abba,” “Father.” The two should not be confused like they have been at times in the tradition. The rationale for asceticism has to do with “clearing the cobwebs of consciousness”; the Cross has to do with the most fundamental direction of one’s whole being.


And in conclusion I would like to end with a beautiful quote from a great holy man of the Kasmir Saivism tradition, Lakshman Joo:

“God is realized by everybody. He is perceived by everybody. God is realized by ignorant people. God is realized by those who have nothing to do with God. They have also realized God. And those who are only engrossed in household activities, those women carrying water from the river, who know nothing else, they have also realized God. So, drstah: he is realized, from all sides he is realized, let Him elevate us.”