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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Mysticism

A view, based on a number of experiences from people in quite diverse cultures, that there is a transcendental Reality in the world, usually identified by mystics of the various different religions as their particular deity, i.e., God, Allāh, Śiva, etc. The mystic experience has been described by a large number of different writers, drawing from accounts of the experience by the mystics themselves. Most notable among those writers are Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism, 1955; several reprints; also The Mystic Way, 1913; Practical Mysticism, 1914; and The Essential of Mysticism, 1920), W. R. Inge (Christian Mysticism, 1899; Mysticism in Religion, 1948), William James (The Varieties of Religions Experience, 1902; several reprints), A. E. Waite (Studies in Mysticism, 1906), Aldous Huxley (The Perennial Philosophy, 1945), Rudolf Otto (Mysticism East and West, 1932), Richard Maurice Bucke (Cosmic Consciousness, 1902), Walter T. Stace (Mysticism and Philosophy, 1960), and F. C. Happold (Mysticism: a study and an anthology, 1966). Among theosophical authors who have written on the subject are C. Jinar€jad€sa (The Divine Vision, 1928; Quest edition, 1973) and Raynor Johnson (The Imprisoned Spendour, 1953; Nurslings of Immortality, 1957; and Watcher on the Hills: a study of some mystical experiences of ordinary people, 1959).

There have been a number of different attempts to describe the nature of the mystic experience, even though mystics themselves state that the experience is ineffable. Happold, for instance, lists ineffability, transiency, passivity, oneness, timelessness, egolessness, and incommunicable gnosis. William James lists ineffability, transiency, passivity, and incommunicable gnosis. Rudolf Otto lists awfulness (perhaps better put as awesomeness), overpoweringness, urgency (or energy), fascination, and a feeling of a Being which is “wholly other” (i.e., transcendence). Interestingly, one of the simplest descriptions of the basic nature of the mystic experience was by the noted anti-mystic philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in his Mysticism and Logic (1918; reprinted 1963) in which he identified four elements reported by mystics: a profound feeling of oneness, a sense of overwhelming love, a feeling of timelessness, and a conviction that everything was perfectly just. The latter element is interesting because even though mystics have felt things are perfectly “right” the way they are, many mystics have been among the world’s greatest social reformers, feeling that improvement was possible and even essential. Such reform efforts usually conflicted with the authorities of a religion, e.g., the Muslim mystic Al-Hallaj even stated “I am the Truth” which implied that he was God, which led to his execution by orthodox Muslims. In other words, the experience sometimes causes the mystic to subordinate his or her loyalty to a given religious institution, its clergy and orthodox theology, even though in later centuries — when the mystic has been dead a long time — the institution honors or reveres those mystics which it decried or even burned at the stake during the mystic’s lifetime. Some authors have suggested that the mystics are, therefore, the life-blood of a religion.

Jinar€jad€sa described the mystical experience as an immediate apprehension of the sacred, the holy, the divine. He pointed out that the implication is that true religion transcends specific theologies and points to the fact that “all religions, all faiths . . . worship the true and the living God everywhere” (Divine Vision, Quest ed. p. 17). He also says that “when you have gained the vision — even if only a fleeting vision — of man as seen by God, then . . . you begin to see the archetypes behind them all [i.e., all religions and all human beings], and your judgment becomes so different from that of [other] men” (loc. cit., p. 14). In The Nature of Mysticism (TPH 1917, 1934), he classified different types of the mystical experience as the mysticism of grace, the mysticism of love, pantheistic mysticism, nature mysticism, sacramental mysticism, and theosophical mysticism (the last of which involves what is termed Discipleship). In some theosophical circles a distinction is made between mysticism and occultism, with what Jinar€jad€sa terms “theosophical mysticism” usually classified as a form of occultism and identified as quite different from the usual mystical experience. Other writers, such as Bucke, have pointed out that even the mystical experience can take two different forms: nature mysticism and divine mysticism. In the first, the experience is that of feeling at one with all of nature; in the second, the experience is that of feeling one with a transcendent Reality. This is sometimes classified as extravertive mysticism and introvertive mysticism, although those categories sound a bit pejorative.

It seems obvious from a report of the experience from a wide variety of different peoples in different cultures and religions that the mystic experience involves a process in which consciousness becomes expanded beyond its normal limits and ordinary rational processes are temporarily dominated by non-rational, unconscious, and even super-conscious states. The clear theosophical implication is that the human being has levels of consciousness beyond those dominated by brain activity. Although this does not prove the theosophical premise that humans are septenary beings, it does open one’s mind to the fact that humans are more than just physical bodies.

The distinction between mysticism and occultism is an important one from a theosophical point of view. Occultism, as theosophy uses the term, always includes the mystical life, that is, the spiritual and transcendent life (otherwise it becomes just the practice of the “occult arts”). But mysticism does not necessarily include occultism. Occultism is the science of the unseen universe (from “occultus” which means “hidden”). Occultism implies an understanding of the inner forces of nature that govern human growth and evolution, and thus the treading of the spiritual path is one that is deliberate and based on time-tested knowledge and principles. On the other hand, a mystic may or may not be able to explain or even understand what is happening to oneself, and may not be able to formally recognize that it is a mystical process. Examples of the latter are the cases mentioned by William James in his book Varieties of Religious Experience involving spontaneous mystical experiences of common people, or the experiences of Charles Kingsley, J. A. Symonds, or of Alfred Tennyson since his boyhood.

While a mystical experience is authoritative for the person who has it, it obviously cannot convince others who have not, unless they are predisposed in that direction. No experience, however momentous, can satisfactorily settle theological questions for everyone. But to a theosophist, who approaches the subject without the preconditioning of a specific religion, the mystical experience demonstrates that all religions ultimately derive from the same Source. Annie Besant, in her Seven Great Religions (TPH, 1902; several reprints), contended that within each of the world’s religions is a common wisdom tradition, a single spiritual truth, and that the mystic experience clearly proves this. Bhagavan Das, too, in his Essential Unity of All Religions (TPH, 1932; enl. ed. 1939; Quest ed. 1966) makes the same point. Nevertheless, philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and modern scholars such as Steven T. Katz (cf. his Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, 1978, or Mysticism and Religious Traditions, 1983) challenge that claim, suggesting that the experience cannot be separated from the mystic’s socio-historical context and theological setting. This “empirical” approach tends to denigrate the experience. Evelyn Underhill by contrast, identifies the mystic as “the pioneer of Life on its age-long voyage to the One: and shows us, in his attainment, the meaning and the value of that life” (Mysticism, p. 447). Theosophists, clearly, would agree with Underhill’s statement and disagree with Russell and Katz.

R.W.B.

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