Interrogative Imperative Institute

Is mysticism really mysterious?

The states and stations of the mystical path may have their qualities and dimensions of mystery, but the methods are fairly straghtforward ... namely, to purify the self from anything which would distort or undermine one's capacity to engage the truth in as objective and unbiased manner as one's capacity permits.

Mysticism: A Rational Exploration - Part 2

If an individual is not properly prepared to understand a particular argument (whether in logic, mathematics, science, or anthing else), then, regardless of how well constructed the argument might be, the individual may not be receptive to the ideas being presented. Moreover, if one has difficulty in comprehending a given form of argument, one may not be justified in concluding that the problem lies in the nature of the argument.

Unfortunately, when spiritual issues are being engaged, there are many people who are, often, only too willing to assume that any difficulties which arise - as is invariably the case - in conjunction with such forms of argument are due to the inherent nonsenicalness and ultimate vacuousness of the spiritual position. Of course, there may be some, or many, arguments dealing with various spiritual themes that completely live up to the nonsensical image which such sceptics have with regard to the spiritual dimension.

There are, however, other kinds of argument or proof which cannot be as readily dismissed, if at all, by anyone who is willing to expend some effort in coming to terms with the various premises of the argument. For example, suppose one were to list the following names: Hermes Trimegistus, Ramana Maharshi, Milarepa, Farid ud-din Attar, Meister Eckhart, Marpa, Moses de Leon, Abu Yazid Bayazid Bistami, Shankara, St. John of the Cross, Rabbi Akiba, Lao Tzu, St. Francis of Assisi, Huang Po, Chuang Tzu, Ramakrisna, Jalalu'l-Din Rumi, St. Theresa of Avila, Naropa.

Each one of the foregoing names - or, more precisely, the lives and values of the individuals represented by each name - signifies, one might say, a premise of a kind of argument. For want of a better term, such a proof might be referred to as the proof concerning the 'transcendental unity of religions' - or, following Leibnitz' example, the proof concerning the 'philosophia perennis'.

Any person who takes a little time to investigate the characteristic features and history of each of the above named premises and who is willing to do so with an open mind, will run into something in each premise that circumvents 'things rational and physical'. This theme which runs through each of the premises points directly toward a transcendent dimension in which the essential message of such seemingly divergent doctrines as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, Native spirituality, and Islam are united in 'That' which lies within, behind and beyond all possibility.

The foregoing represents one sort of argument that might be offered to justify or support a belief in mystical possibilities. There is another kind of argument (considerably different from the first, but related to some extent) which attacks the issue from a much more direct perspective.

One might liken this second kind of argument to doing a mathematical proof in that just as one must go through the steps of, say, an algebraic proof in order to gain an insight into the soundness of such a proof, one must go through the steps of a metaphysical proof in order to be in a proper position to attest to the verities of the metaphysical position. Moreover, just as one requires in mathematics a method of discipline in order to harness the power of reason and, as a result, be able to concentrate on the existing problem, metaphysics also requires a concentration of efforts within a disciplined 'logic' to penetrate to the bottom of the existing issue.

However, the sort of metaphysical proof being referred to now requires another kind of disciplining - a much more extensive and rigorous kind of discipline than is provided by mathematics - which is designed to purge the individual of the impurities of mind and heart that are said (by, among others, those individuals mentioned before) to veil one from different levels of reality extending beyond the physical plane.

The foregoing remarks represent a pertinent preface to the ensuing discussion because they not only serve as a cautionary note for those who might tend to reject, out of hand, the notion of mysticism as being a priori absurd. Such remarks also bring immediate attention to several a posteriori features that are shared by all the esoteric doctrines associated with the aforementioned major spiritual traditions.

To begin with, according to the mystics themselves, mystical experience, insight, or illumination is not a matter of philosophical speculation but of lived experience. Mystics are not making speculative predictions about, say, the underlying structure of man's nature on the basis of a theory which has emerged out of someone's creative imagination. Their doctrinal statements are rooted in the mystical understanding and visions which have been revealed to them.

To be sure, there have been many spiritual counterfeits who have tried to pass themselves off to people as legitimate mystics and spiritual adepts and, as a result, have generated great confusion concerning the authenticity of various doctrines, practices and spiritual guides. Nonetheless, the passage of time often has a way of uncovering the fraudulent activities and teachings of would-be pretenders to the spiritual throne. More importantly, the authentic saints and spiritual sages of each tradition have left behind them a legacy (both living and written - or spoken) which continues to shine throughout the passing of time and beckons to every human being who is willing to examine - with sincerity, care and openness - the lives and teachings of such saints.

Finally, to point to all the pseudo-mystics and cults as arguments against the existence of legitimate traditions and saints is like pointing to instances of poor reasoning as arguments against the possibility of good philosophy or science. We often are able to distinguish between sound reasoning and spurious reasoning, and, if we look closely at the lives of people, one also often (though not always) can distinguish between those who pretend to spiritual knowledge and those who actually have it.

The second feature shared by all mystical doctrines is correlative with the first feature discussed above, and it focuses on the issue of practice. All esoteric or mystical doctrines are firmly rooted in a discipline. Having a theoretical understanding of the doctrine is not enough, one also must absorb the doctrine into one's being and, according to the mystics, this is only possible, in principle, through becoming engaged in a specific practice or discipline.

There are, of course, exceptions because the mystics also generally hold that "the Spirit bloweth where it listeth" and, therefore, anyone is capable of receiving benefit from the Transcendent order regardless of whether, or not, they are engaged in a spiritual practice. By and large, however, spiritual or mystical realization is only attained through following the practice which is embodied in a given mystical doctrine.

The terms "practice" and discipline" do not refer just to the performance of exoteric litanies or rituals that form part of the formal aspects of a spiritual tradition. Rather, they refer to the performance of works which lie beyond, or in addition to, the normal duties of a spiritual devotee.

These extra practices involve different combinations of meditation, contemplation, fasting, chanting, spiritual seclusion or retreats, other-directed service. All of these practices are tailored to the needs, temperament and capacity of an individual aspirant by her or his spiritual guide.

Initially - and, actually, throughout the various stages of the mystical path - the needs of an individual are related to freeing oneself from one's baser nature. All mystical doctrines are agreed upon this point.

Every person is considered to have a contingent nature and an essential nature. The contingent nature consists of our participation in the material/physical world through our bodies which are connected to this world through the intellect, senses and emotions. This contingent aspect cloaks, as it were, a more essential nature, our real nature.

The means of understanding mysticism is not through reasoning, conceptualization, intellectualization, or theory but through the Divine spark within human beings which mysteriously links the contingent with the Transcendent. However, the path leading to this essential inner dimension of man first must be cleared of the contingent debris that accumulates during the course of lived existence - that is, the impurities of one's actions, attitudes, intentions, emotions, and thoughts - which clouds our perception of the higher Reality.

More importantly, the various esoteric traditions do not treat purity as an end in itself. While each esoteric tradition contains features of discipline that are peculiar to it (and might even be in external conflict with, or in contradiction to, certain aspects of the disciplines of other traditions), the ultimate goal is the same in each case - to divest the Self of the self, or to break through the illusory appearances of phenomena to the underlying unity, or to turn away from external contingencies, including one's body and its existential entanglements, and concentrate on the inner Reality.

One should not interpret "inner" to mean psychological consciousness in the sense of brain functioning, for these still belong to the phenomenal order of things. "Inner" refers exclusively to the transcendental realm lying beyond phenomenal contingencies, regardless of whether these contingencies concern formless phenomena or the world of forms. And, since the reasons why mystics have traditionally interpreted "inner" in a non-psychological (i.e., a non-physical) manner may not be readily understandable, some discussion on this matter may be helpful.

In developing his definition of mysticism or mystical consciousness, Walter Stace stipulates in The Teachings of the Mystics that:

"... visions and voices are not mystical phenomena, though... it seems to be the case that the sort of persons who are mystics may often be the sort of persons who see visions and hear voices... Nor are the voices which certain persons in history, such as Socrates, Muhammad, and Joan of Arc are supposed to have heard to be classed as mystical experiences.2"

Stace presents several reasons for ruling out visions and voices as mystical phenomena. He points out there have been a number of well-known mystical figures such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila who treated such phenomena as being possible Satanic traps designed to direct the aspirant's attention from the true transcendent goal, or as being Divine consolations which were intended to comfort the aspirant during the mystical quest but which were not to be confused with the actual goal of the quest - namely, God.

One can agree with Stace that such possibilities are important to keep in mind when trying to understand, to some degree, the nature of mystical experience. On the other hand, there are certain problems which arise if one adheres too strictly to these suggestions.

For example, Stace wishes to rule out visions and voices as mystical phenomena in order to be able to restrict the use of the terms: "mysticism", "mystical", etc., to the condition of undifferentiated unity which often is referred to in writings that are classed as mystical. According to Stace, any experience which falls outside the unitive condition or state is to be excluded from the set of experiential possibilities to which the term "mystical" (or some variation) can be applied. But if one were to follow this procedure, the question arises: What sense are we to make of the voices and visions? Into what sort of descriptive category is one to place them?

Stace, of course, could proffer several condidates in order to meet such questions: These 'candidates' are precisely those mentioned as reasons for ruling out visions and voices as mystical experiences, i.e., Satanic temptations or Divine consolations. Although the first possibility is somewhat self-explanatory, the latter notion needs a certain amount of clarification.

What reasons are there for supposing that Divine consolations are not instances of mystical experience? Surely, the fact that Stace has overruled such a possibility by definition is not sufficient grounds for discontinuing this line of inquiry.

While one has a 'right' to a certain amount of leeway in establishing definitional parameters for an area of investigation, there must be a certain sense of "legitimacy" and "heuristic value" in one's definitional stance. "Legitimacy", means that a definition cannot be so arbitrary as to be unsupportable by argument or evidence and unrelated to the phenomenon under consideration. And, "heuristic value", suggests that a definition should prove to be of some use in delineating an area of inquiry in an understandable and fruitful manner - a manner which is capable of conceptually organizing the subject matter into a consistent, coherent and plausible account of the given phenomenon.

Naturally, there likely is to be a certain degree of overlap between the conditions of legitimacy and those of heuristic value. Something may be of heuristic value precisely because it helps to establish legitimacy. On the other hand, something may demonstrate legitimacy and serve as the foundation for further exploration because it yields positive gains and is, therefore, of heuristic value.

The foregoing brief descriptions of "legitimacy" and "heuristic value" are, of course, still relatively vague. There is, however, enough precision to indicate a sense of the point being made.

Arguments still might erupt over what, actually, constitutes, for example, the meaning of "consistency" or "coherency" or "supportable", and so on. Yet, the idea of criterial standards are being alluded to, and alluded to in such a way as to indicate that not just any definition is necessarily acceptable.

Having said the foregoing, once again, one can ask: What reasons are there for supposing that Divine consolations are not instances of mystical experience? With respect to the notion of legitimacy, Stace offers the testimony of two Christian "mystics" as evidence in support of his decision to delimit his definition of mysticism to the notion of transcendental, undifferentiated unity and thereby, exclude visions and voices as instances of mystical experience.

One might excuse Stace for assuming his conclusions, to some extent, by presupposing that the testimonies of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila are those of mystics and, consequently, represent acceptable evidence, of a partial sort, for his definitional stance. Apparently, as is the case in many definitional contexts, one must have some kind of an intuitive insight into what is to be considered - in this case - mystical in order to be able to derive a working definition of the term.

Even if such intuition is based strictly on finite processes of reasoning, it provides some degree of relation to the subject matter under consideration - i.e., mysticism. On the other hand, however, there is no a priori reason why one should stop with the two historical figures mentioned by Stace in the search for evidence from which one might draw a functional, even descriptive definition.

Moreover, there is a difference between saying that visions and voices are not to be confused with the ultimate goal and contending that: because visions and voices are not to be confused with the ultimate goal, they, therefore, cannot be mystical experiences. St. John and St. Teresa do address themselves to the former possibility, but the latter implication is not necessarily entailed in their warnings.

In the quote from Stace's book given earlier Stace mentions, in passing, Muhammad (peace be upon him), among others, as an historical figure who supposedly heard voices. He goes on to argue that such a person (or Joan of Arc or Socrates) is not to be classed as a mystic simply on the basis of such auditory experiences.

One can agree with such an argument without committing oneself to the separate argument that such an experience does not constitute a mystical experience. Moreover, although paranoids and schizophrenics often report hearing voices without such experiences being categorized as mystical, logically, one cannot conclude, therefore, that all auditory experiences are capable of being accounted for by labeling them as psychotic symptoms. Nor is the only other available category one of 'normal-but-unusual' (i.e., anomalous) sense perception, a category into which Divine consolations seems to fall for Stace (and this is indicated by his discussion on page 13 of his book which argues that because a vision of the Virgin Mary has shape, color, etc., it is "composed of elements of our sensory-intellectual consciousness.").

In the case of Muhammad (peace be upon him),the fact that Stace did not examine the relationship between this historical figure and Sufism in the latter's chapter on Islamic Mysticism is rather unfortunate. Through this lacuna, he has left out some very important matters which have great significance for the issue of mystical experience.

To begin with, the non-ordinary auditory experiences of Muhammad (peace be upon him) were, subsequently, described by Muhammad (peace be upon him), himself, as the Arch-angel Gabriel's (peace be to him) communication of Sacred Revelation to a Prophet of God. Of course, with Stace, one could adopt a sceptical position with respect to the authenticity of the claims concerning Prophethood by Muhammad (peace be upon him), just as one could adopt a sceptical viewpoint concerning the reported claims of Jesus or Moses or Buddha (peace be upon them all).

In conjunction with Stace, one also could argue that a distinction must be drawn between a given experience and the interpretation of that experience. For instance, the experiences of a Prophet are one thing, and the Prophet's interpretation of such experiences is quite another thing.

On the other hand, without wishing to become entangled in theological controversies, the position to be adopted throughout this section is that Muhammad (peace be upon him) represents the cornerstone, so to speak, out of which Islamic mysticism grew, just as: Jesus (peace be upon him) was the cornerstone of Christian mysticism, Moses (peace be upon him) was the central figure of Judaic mysticism and Buddha (peace be upon him) was the historical passage-way through which Buddhist mysticism arrived, and so on. Moreover, this section will argue that there is a transcendental unity to these different traditions, despite the apparently irreconciable differences which appear on the theological surfaces of these traditions.

Normally, the notion of revelation, as mentioned above in conjunction with the experiences of Muhammad (peace be upon him), is treated, conceptually, as pertaining to exoteric spiritual discourse and, as a result, something to be considered apart from the notion of mysticism. Yet, this sort of bifurcation which many writers (among them Stace) wish to make is somewhat problematic, especially in the context of Muhammad (peace be upon him) - though by no means must the following comments be restricted to this context).

Traditionally, Sufis have traced their spiritual lineage, practices and doctrines to the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him). Putting aside the distortions of people such as Idries Shah and others, Muhammad (peace be upon him) is acclaimed by all the Great Sufis, such as Ibn Arabi, al-Junayd, al-Hujwiri, Hafiz, Jami, Farid-ud-din Attar, al-Ghazzali, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Ahmad Sarhindi, and countless others, as the spiritual fountain through which two main streams of transcendence flow.

One stream is an exoteric or 'outer' path of salvation. The second path is an esoteric path that not only saves but is said to sanctify. The exoteric goal, generally, is identified with the condition of heavenly existence (or, negatively stated, with the avoidance of perdition). The esoteric goal, on the other hand, is concerned neither with heaven nor hell but seeks to struggle toward union with Allah.

The term 'religion' is often applied to the preoccupations of the exoteric path, while the notion of 'mysticism' is often reserved for the experiences which characterize the esoteric path. However, one is not necessarily talking about a difference in kind here but more in the sense of a difference in degree or depth. Both the exoteric and esoteric aspects are concerned with transcendence and both paths of transcendence are established through one and the same Revelation - the text of which varies from tradition to tradition according to circumstances and the temperaments of the people to whom the Revelation is addressed.

Although there are exceptions to the rule, esoteric traditions (whether Sufistic Vedantine, Hesychastic, Kabbalahistic, etc.) do not operate in opposition to the exoteric doctrines and practices, Instead, the esoteric discipline is intent on fathoming the depths of the spiritual possibilities that are inherent, though hidden, in the so-called exoteric doctrines.

The differentiation between the exoteric and the esoteric is not a difference of doctrine but a difference of emphasis and perspective that, in the case of esotericism, allows entry (or, at least the possibility of this) into the more hidden treasures of the Transcendent realms. Even in the case of the exceptions which are sometimes found within a given tradition, there is only an apparent violation or discrepency since there is a conformity to the spirit of the law which is more essential and fundamental than the letter of the law since the latter receives its vitality from the former.

To remove mysticism from the exoteric context, as Stace seems intent on doing, would distort what the mystics of many different traditions (such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and even Buddhism) state about the relationship between the outer and inner aspects of their given doctrines. When one considers the logical possibilities entailed by the notion of 'oneness' that is said to be characteristic of mystical union, to exclude exoteric manifestations from such a notion of oneness seems excessively arbitrary.

In other words, if the undifferentiated unity experience of the mystic is accepted as disclosing a fundamental truth about the nature of Reality - despite the appearances of multiplicity within the world of illusions or contingencies - then, exotericism must be included as something which is a manifestation of oneness.

In fact, to the extent exoteric doctrine emphasizes oneness, it identifies itself, on its own level, with the ultimate nature of Transcendent Reality. If one wishes to maintain a separation between exoteric spirituality and mysticism (which may be conceptually necessary in order to draw attention to differences in levels of Truth or Reality), then, the separation should be maintained with the understanding that they (exoteric spirituality and mysticism) are best thought of as concentric circles generated by, or made possible through, the central Point which they hold in common.

Indeed, when one remembers Pascal's description of the Transcendent One (i.e., God) as being a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere, the exoteric/esoteric distinction becomes less well defined in many respects yet still remains useful, within certain limits, on the conceptual level. As a result, to automatically eliminate the experience of voices or visions from a discussion of mystical experiences simply because they (the voices, etc.) are reported in an exoteric context becomes difficult, if not impossible, to do in any defensible fashion.

At this point, Stace might present his second line of argument by attempting to argue that the sensations and images associated with 'mysterious' voices and visions are a function of the cognitive aspects of so-called normal or ordinary consciousness which he refers to as the "sensory-intellectual" consciousness and, therefore, cannot possibly apply to the transcendental nature of mystical experience. Stace contends that:

"... the mystical consciousness is destitute of any sensation at all. Nor does it contain any concepts or thoughts. It is not a sensory-intellectual consciousness at all. Accordingly, it cannot be described or analyzed in terms of any of the elements of the sensory-intellectual consciousness, with which it is wholly incommensurable."3

There is a Hadith [reports concerning the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)] which is well-known to the Sufis and that may be instructive with respect to the above quote. This Hadith says:

"My slave ceaseth not to draw nigh unto Me with devotions of his free will (i.e., superogatory acts) until I love him; and when I love him, I am the Hearing wherewith he heareth and the Seeing wherewith he seeth, and the Hand wherewith he smiteth, and the Foot whereon he walketh."4

From the Sufi perspective, when an aspirant has been brought to an appropriate level of purity, the Heart (the point at which the finite human self ends and the Transcendent Self is said to begin) tends to reflect whatever is disclosed to it. The phraseology: "eye of the Heart", is often used to draw attention to the powers of Divine illumination of which the Heart is capable. As human qualities are left behind through the process of purification, the 'individual', so to speak, becomes clothed in the qualities of the Absolute.

Of course, one should not develop a literalist interpretation of the foregoing Hadith. For example, one should not suppose that God has eyes, ears, hands, or feet. Nonetheless, some sort of qualities are being referred to in the Hadith in which 'seeing', 'hearing', etc., are being given expression trough the presence of the Divine.

Moreover, the foregoing Hadith should not be construed to mean that God is definable. On the contrary, He is said to be without limitation.

Implicit in the depth of Infinity is a plenitude that fully covers the sort of qualities that are referred to in the previous Hadith. Through such Transcendent Possibilities, 'vision' and 'audition' of a mystical nature, taken as essential possibilities within human beings, are capable of occurring.

Therefore, with respect, for example, to the mystical visions of an individual - to the extent such visions are truly mystical - the lesser (the individual's experience) is not other than an expression of the Greater. This, of course, is also true of so-called normal perception, but there is a difference of level and perspective which separates the two kinds of experience even while they are not other than different expressions of the One.

The 'seeing' of the eyes, or the 'hearing' of the ears, or the 'knowing' of the brain are only prototypes, as it were, of a higher Reality. There is no intention here to develop a Platonic-like notion of Ideals in which the contingent realm participates - although the similarities do not go entirely unnoticed.

Rather, an attempt is being made to indicate that 'seeing', for example, is not something only the eyes can do. There is a 'seeing' of the imagination; there is a 'seeing' of the mind's eye, and there is a 'seeing' of different spiritual faculties. That all the foregoing are referred to as kinds of 'seeing', indicates they bear a family resemblance (in Wittgenstein's sense) to each other In other words, some sort of essential thematic current (even if undefinable) runs through them that ties the different activities together somehow and justifies the label of 'seeing'.

Underlying the different kinds of 'seeing', or some process which acts as a common denominator, is consciousness - whatever this may be. Physical sensation is only one medium of consciousness and one vehicle of 'seeing'. The level out of which a given vehicle operates will impose veils or limitations on the nature of vision experienced according to the structural and functional characteristics of the level and vehicle under consideration. But vision itself is connected with the illuminating quality of the Divine that penetrates to every level in some form or mode of manifestation. In the purest form there is no vehicle of vision, only Vision itself.

One might agree with Stace that sensation in the physical/ material sense is completely absent from mystical consciousness. Such agreement, however, does not automatically rule out the having of, say, a vision through a non-physical/material mode.

A vision is said to be made possible by the qualities of its point of origin and conveyed according to the medium appropriate to the point of origin. Physical/materialistic vision (so-called normal vision) is made possible by the qualities which are characteristic of the physical/material world together with the structural/ functional properties of eyesight (including cognitive faculties).

Spiritual vision is made possible by the qualities that are characteristic of a given spiritual plane, together with the properties of the 'eye of the Heart' or the 'third eye' or the 'Mind/Essence', all of which are different ways of referring to essential, esoteric possibilities within human beings. And, paralleling, somewhat, the 'form' of vision as this is manifested on the physical/material plane, vision on a spiritual level, will be affected by such factors as: the purity of heart and individual spiritual capacity, which 'frame', as it were, a given spiritual experience.

The above is, obviously, not so much an explanation of anything - for nothing has, in fact, been explained - as it is an attempt to distinguish between kinds and levels of vision or audition or knowing. Such distinction, however, are lost when Stace relegates all visions, etc., to the sensory/intellectual consciousness.

Furthermore, as a result of the unnecessary, structural/functional limitations being imposed by Stace with respect to the notion of vision, one's conceptual understanding of the nature of mystical experience is being impoverished, as well. Stace has, in a sense, 'ignored' experiences which are not of the undifferentiated-unity variety, yet, which are, nonetheless, mystical.


2.) Walter T. Stace, ed., The Teachings of the Mystics (Scarborough, Ontario, New American Library, 1970), p. 11. [Return to Text]

3.) Ibid., p. 13. [Return to Text]

4.) Martin Lings, Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century (London, Allen and Unwin, 1971, p.3 [Return to Text]

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