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The term "mysticism" has Ancient Greek origins with various historically determined meanings.[web 2][web 1] Derived from the Greek word μυω, meaning "to conceal",[web 1] mysticism referred to the biblical liturgical, spiritual, and contemplative dimensions of early and medieval Christianity. During the early modern period, the definition of mysticism grew to include a broad range of beliefs and ideologies related to "extraordinary experiences and states of mind".
In modern times, "mysticism" has acquired a limited definition,[web 2] with broad applications,[web 2] as meaning the aim at the "union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God".[web 2] This limited definition has been applied to a wide range of religious traditions and practices,[web 2] valuing "mystical experience" as a key element of mysticism.
Since the 1960s scholars have debated the merits of perennial and constructionist approaches in the scientific research of "mystical experiences"; the perennial position is now "largely dismissed by scholars".
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Definitions
- 3 History
- 4 Development of modern mysticism
- 5 Forms of mysticism within world religions
- 6 Mystical experience
- 7 Scientific studies of mysticism
- 7.1 Perennialism versus constructionism
- 7.2 Attribution Theory
- 7.3 Neurology and meditation
- 7.4 Ethics and Mysticism
- 8 Skepticism
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Sources
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
Parson warns that "what might at times seem to be a straightforward phenomenon exhibiting an unambiguous commonality has become, at least within the academic study of religion, opaque and controversial on multiple levels". The definition, or meaning, of the term "mysticism" has changed through the ages.[web 2]
Spiritual life and re-formation
...the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood.[note 1][note 2]
Parson stresses the importance of distinguishing between
...episodic experience and mysticism as a process that, though surely punctuated by moments of visionary, unitive, and transformative encounters, is ultimately inseparable from its embodied relation to a total religious matrix: liturgy, scripture, worship, virtues, theology, rituals, practice and the arts.
According to Gellmann,
Typically, mystics, theistic or not, see their mystical experience as part of a larger undertaking aimed at human transformation (See, for example, Teresa of Avila, Life, Chapter 19) and not as the terminus of their efforts. Thus, in general, ‘mysticism’ would best be thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions.[web 1][note 3]
McGinn argues that "presence" is more accurate than "union", since not all mystics spoke of union with God, and since many visions and miracles were not necessarily related to union. He also argues that we should speak of "consciousness" of God's presence, rather than of "experience", since mystical activity is not simply about the sensation of God as an external object, but more broadly about
...new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts.
D.J. Moores too mentions "love" as a central element:
Mysticism, then, is the perception of the universe and all of its seemingly disparate entities existing in a unified whole bound together by love.
Related to the idea of "presence" instead of "experience" is the transformation that occurs through mystical activity:
This is why the only test that Christianity has known for determining the authenticity of a mystic and her or his message has been that of personal transformation, both on the mystic's part and—especially—on the part of those whom the mystic has affected.
Belzen and Geels also note that mysticism is
...a way of life and a 'direct consciousness of the presence of God' [or] 'the ground of being' or similar expressions.
Some authors emphasize that mystical experience involves intuitive understanding and the resolution of life problems. According to Larson,
A mystical experience is an intuitive understanding and realization of the meaning of existence – an intuitive understanding and realization which is intense, integrating, self-authenticating, liberating – i.e., providing a sense of release from ordinary self-awareness – and subsequently determinative – i.e., a primary criterion – for interpreting all other experience whether cognitive, conative, or affective.
And James R. Horne notes:
[M]ystical illumination is interpreted as a central visionary experience in a psychological and behavioural process that results in the resolution of a personal or religious problem. This factual, minimal interpretation depicts mysticism as an extreme and intense form of the insight seeking process that goes in activities such as solving theoretical problems or developing new inventions.[note 4][note 5]
Mystical experience and union with the Divine
William James, who popularized the use of the term "religious experience"[note 6] in his The Varieties of Religious Experience,[web 1] influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge of the transcendental.[web 1] He considered the "personal religion" to be "more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism", and states:
In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which bring it about that the mystical classics have, as been said, neither birthday not native land.
According to McClenon, mysticism is
The doctrine that special mental states or events allow an understanding of ultimate truths. Although it is difficult to differentiate which forms of experience allow such understandings, mental episodes supporting belief in "other kinds of reality" are often labeled mystical [...] Mysticism tends to refer to experiences supporting belief in a cosmic unity rather than the advocation of a particular religious ideology.[web 3]
According to Blakemore and Jennett,
Mysticism is frequently defined as an experience of direct communion with God, or union with the Absolute,[note 7] but definitions of mysticism (a relatively modern term) are often imprecise and usually rely on the presuppositions of the modern study of mysticism — namely, that mystical experiences involve a set of intense and usually individual and private psychological states [...] Furthermore, mysticism is a phenomenon said to be found in all major religious traditions.[web 4][note 8]
In the Hellenistic world, 'mystical' referred to "secret" religious rituals[web 1] The use of the word lacked any direct references to the transcendental. A "mystikos" was an initiate of a mystery religion.
In early Christianity the term "mystikos" referred to three dimensions, which soon became intertwined, namely the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or contemplative. The biblical dimension refers to "hidden" or allegorical interpretations of Scriptures.[web 1] The liturgical dimension refers to the liturgical mystery of the Eucharist, the presence of Christ at the Eucharist.[web 1] The third dimension is the contemplative or experiential knowledge of God.
This threefold meaning of "mystical" continued in the Middle Ages. Under the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite the mystical theology came to denote the investigation of the allegorical truth of the Bible. Pseudo-Dionysius' Apophatic theology, or "negative theology", exerted a great influence on medieval monastic religiosity, although it was mostly a male religiosity, since women were not allowed to study. It was influenced by Neo-Platonism, and very influential in Eastern Orthodox Christian theology. In western Christianity it was a counter-current to the prevailing Cataphatic theology or "positive theology". It is best known nowadays in the western world from Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross.
Early modern meaning
Luther dismissed the allegorical interpretation of the bible, and condemned Mystical theology, which he saw as more Platonic than Christian. "The mystical", as the search for the hidden meaning of texts, became secularised, and also associated with literature, as opposed to science and prose.
Science was also distinguished from religion. By the middle of the 17th century, "the mystical" is increasingly applied exclusively to the religious realm, separating religion and "natural philosophy" as two distinct approaches to the discovery of the hidden meaning of the universe. The traditional hagiographies and writings of the saints became designated as "mystical", shifting from the virtues and miracles to extraordinary experiences and states of mind, thereby creating a newly coined "mystical tradition". A new understanding developed of the Divine as residing within human, an essence beyond the varieties of religious expressions.
In the 19th century the meaning of mysticism was considerably narrowed:[web 2]
The competition between the perspectives of theology and science resulted in a compromise in which most varieties of what had traditionally been called mysticism were dismissed as merely psychological phenomena and only one variety, which aimed at union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God—and thereby the perception of its essential unity or oneness—was claimed to be genuinely mystical. The historical evidence, however, does not support such a narrow conception of mysticism.[web 2]
Under the influence of Perennialism, which was popularised in both the west and the east by Unitarianism, Transcendentalists and Theosophy, mysticism has acquired a broader meaning, in which all sorts of esotericism and religious traditions and practices are joined together.
The term mysticism has been extended to comparable phenomena in non-Christian religions,[web 2] where it influenced Hindu and Buddhist responses to colonialism, resulting in Neo-Vedanta and Buddhist modernism.
In the contemporary usage "mysticism" has become an umbrella term for all sorts of non-rational world views. William Harmless even states that mysticism has become "a catch-all for religious weirdness". Within the academic study of religion the apparent "unambiguous commonality" has become "opaque and controversial". The term "mysticism" is being used in different ways in different traditions. Some call to attention the conflation of mysticism and linked terms, such as spirituality and esotericism, and point at the differences between various traditions.
Development of modern mysticism
The contemporary understanding of mysticism as a perennial essence developed under the influence of various modern developments, especially Perennialism, Swedenborgianism, Transcendentalism, Universalism, New Thought, neo-Vedanta, and the mass-appeal of these developments which culminated in the New Age movement.
According to the Perennial Philosophy the mystical experiences in all religions are essentially the same. It supposes that many, if not all of the world's great religions, have arisen around the teachings of mystics, including Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze, and Krishna. It also sees most religious traditions describing fundamental mystical experience, at least esoterically. A major proponent in the 20th century was Aldous Huxley, who "was heavily influenced in his description by Vivekananda's neo-Vedanta and the idiosyncratic version of Zen exported to the west by D.T. Suzuki. Both of these thinkers expounded their versions of the perennialist thesis", which they originally received from western thinkers and theologians.
Transcendentalism and Unitarian Universalism
Transcendentalism was an early 19th-century liberal Protestant movement, which was rooted in English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume.[web 1] The Transcendentalists emphasised an intuitive, experiential approach of religion.[web 5] Following Schleiermacher, an individual's intuition of truth was taken as the criterion for truth.[web 5] In the late 18th and early 19th century, the first translations of Hindu texts appeared, which were also read by the Transcendentalists, and influenced their thinking.[web 5] They also endorsed universalist and Unitarianist ideas, leading to Unitarian Universalism, the idea that there must be truth in other religions as well, since a loving God would redeem all living beings, not just Christians.[web 5][web 6]
New Thought promotes the ideas that Infinite Intelligence, or God, is everywhere, spirit is the totality of real things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and "right thinking" has a healing effect.[web 7][web 8] New Thought was propelled along by a number of spiritual thinkers and philosophers and emerged through a variety of religious denominations and churches, particularly the Unity Church, Religious Science, and Church of Divine Science. The Home of Truth, which belongs to the New Thought movement has, from its inception as the Pacific Coast Metaphysical Bureau in the 1880s, disseminated the teachings of the Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda.[web 9]
The Theosophical Society was formed in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge and others to advance the spiritual principles and search for Truth known as Theosophy.[note 9] The Theosophical Society has been highly influential in promoting interest, both in west and east, in a great variety of religious teachings:
"No single organization or movement has contributed so many components to the New Age Movement as the Theosophical Society [...] It has been the major force in the dissemination of occult literature in the West in the twentieth century.
The Theosophical Society searched for 'secret teachings' in Asian religions. It has been influential on modernist streams in several Asian religions, notably Hindu reform movements, the revival of Theravada Buddhism, and D.T. Suzuki, who popularized the idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless, transcendent reality.[web 10][web 11] Another example can be seen in Paul Brunton's A Search in Secret India, which introduced Ramana Maharshi to a western audience.
Orientalism and the "pizza effect"
The interplay between western and eastern notions of religion is an important factor in the development of modern mysticsm. In the 19th century, when Asian countries were colonialised by western states, a process of cultural mimesis began. In this process, Western ideas about religion, especially the notion of "religious experience" were introduced to Asian countries by missionaries, scholars and the Theosophical Society, and amalgamated in a new understanding of the Indian and Buddhist traditions. This amalgam was exported back to the West as 'authentic Asian traditions', and acquired a great popularity in the west. Due to this western popularity, it also gained authority back in India, Sri Lanka and Japan.
The best-known representatives of this amalgamated tradition are Annie Besant (Theosophical Society), Swami Vivekenanda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (Neo-Vedanta), Anagarika Dharmapala, a 19th-century Sri Lankan Buddhist activist who founded the Maha Bodhi Society, and D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese scholar and Zen-Buddhist. A synonymous term for this broad understanding is nondualism. This mutual influence is also known as the pizza effect.
Forms of mysticism within world religions
Based on various definitions of mysticism, namely mysticism as a way of transformation, mysticism as "enlightenment" or insight, and mysticism as an experience of union, "mysticism" can be found an all major world religions.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were annual initiation ceremonies in the cults of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, held in secret at Eleusis (near Athens) in ancient Greece. The mysteries began in about 1600 B.C. in the Mycenean period and continued for two thousand years, becoming a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spreading to Rome.
The High Middle Ages saw a flourishing of mystical practice and theorization corresponding to the flourishing of new monastic orders, with such figures as Guigo II, Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Victorines, all coming from different orders, as well as the first real flowering of popular piety among the laypeople.
The Late Middle Ages saw the clash between the Dominican and Franciscan schools of thought, which was also a conflict between two different mystical theologies: on the one hand that of Dominic de Guzmán and on the other that of Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, Bonaventure, and Angela of Foligno. This period also saw such individuals as John of Ruysbroeck, Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Genoa, the Devotio Moderna, and such books as the Theologia Germanica, The Cloud of Unknowing and The Imitation of Christ.
Moreover, there was the growth of groups of mystics centered around geographic regions: the Beguines, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch (among others); the Rhineland mystics Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso; and the English mystics Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich. The Spanish mystics included Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Ignatius Loyola.
The later post-reformation period also saw the writings of lay visionaries such as Emanuel Swedenborg and William Blake, and the foundation of mystical movements such as the Quakers. Catholic mysticism continued into the modern period with such figures as Padre Pio and Thomas Merton.
The philokalia, an ancient method of Eastern Orthodox mysticism, was promoted by the twentieth century Traditionalist School. The inspired or "channeled" work A Course in Miracles represents a blending of non-denominational Christian and New Age ideas.
In the common era, Judaism has had two main kinds of mysticism: Merkabah mysticism and Kabbalah. The former predated the latter, and was focused on visions, particularly those mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel. It gets its name from the Hebrew word meaning "chariot", a reference to Ezekiel's vision of a fiery chariot composed of heavenly beings.
Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious Ein Sof (no end) and the mortal and finite universe (his creation). Inside Judaism, it forms the foundations of mystical religious interpretation.
Kabbalah originally developed entirely within the realm of Jewish thought. Kabbalists often use classical Jewish sources to explain and demonstrate its esoteric teachings. These teachings are thus held by followers in Judaism to define the inner meaning of both the Hebrew Bible and traditional Rabbinic literature, their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances.
Kabbalah emerged, after earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th to 13th century Southern France and Spain, becoming reinterpreted in the Jewish mystical renaissance of 16th-century Ottoman Palestine. It was popularised in the form of Hasidic Judaism from the 18th century forward. 20th-century interest in Kabbalah has inspired cross-denominational Jewish renewal and contributed to wider non-Jewish contemporary spirituality, as well as engaging its flourishing emergence and historical re-emphasis through newly established academic investigation.
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Sufism and Tariqat
[A] science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.
A practitioner of this tradition is nowadays known as a ṣūfī (صُوفِيّ), or, in earlier usage, a dervish. The origin of the word "Sufi" is ambiguous. One understanding is that Sufi means wool-wearer- wool wearers during early Islam were pious ascetics who withdrew from urban life. Another explanation of the word "Sufi" is that it means 'purity'.
Sufis generally belong to a khalqa, a circle or group, led by a Sheikh or Murshid. Sufi circles usually belong to a Tariqa which is the Sufi order and each has a Silsila, which is the spiritual lineage, which traces its succession back to notable Sufis of the past, and often ultimately to the prophet Muhammed or one of his close associates. The turuq (plural of tariqa) are not enclosed like Christian monastic orders; rather the members retain an outside life. Membership of a Sufi group often passes down family lines. Meetings may or may not be segregated according to the prevailing custom of the wider society. An existing Muslim faith is not always a requirement for entry, particularly in Western countries.
Sufi practice includes
- Dhikr, or remembrance (of God), which often takes the form of rhythmic chanting and breathing exercises.
- Sema, which takes the form of music and dance — the whirling dance of the Mevlevi dervishes is a form well known in the West.
- Muraqaba or meditation.
- Visiting holy places, particularly the tombs of Sufi saints, in order to absorb barakah, or spiritual energy.
The aims of Sufism include: the experience of ecstatic states (hal), purification of the heart (qalb), overcoming the lower self (nafs), extinction of the individual personality (fana), communion with God (haqiqa), and higher knowledge (marifat). Some sufic beliefs and practices have been found unorthodox by other Muslims; for instance Mansur al-Hallaj was put to death for blasphemy after uttering the phrase Ana'l Haqq, "I am the Truth" (i.e. God) in a trance.
Notable classical Sufis include Jalaluddin Rumi, Fariduddin Attar, Sultan Bahoo, Saadi Shirazi and Hafez, all major poets in the Persian language. Omar Khayyam, Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Arabi were renowned scholars. Abdul Qadir Jilani, Moinuddin Chishti, and Bahauddin Naqshband founded major orders, as did Rumi. Rabia Basri was the most prominent female Sufi.
Sufism first came into contact with the Judea-Christian world during the Moorish occupation of Spain. An interest in Sufism revived in non-Muslim countries during the modern era, led by such figures as Inayat Khan and Idries Shah (both in the UK), Rene Guenon (France) and Ivan Aguéli (Sweden). Sufism has also long been present in Asian countries that do not have a Muslim majority, such as India and China.
The main aim of Buddhism is liberation from the cycle of rebirth, by enlarging self-awareness and self-control. The Buddhist tradition rejects the notion of a permanent self, but does have a strong tradition of metaphysical essentialism, especially Yogacara and the Buddha-nature doctrine. The Madhyamaka tradition lends itself to both a non-metaphysical interpretation, as exemplified by the rangtong philosophy of Tsongkhapa, but also to a "mystical" interpretation, as exemplified by the shentong philosophy of both the Dzogchen tradition and Dolpopa. The Two truths doctrine reconciles absolute and relative reality, but is likewise differently interpreted. Chinese and Japanese is grounded on the Chinse understanding of the Buddha-nature and the Two truths doctrine. It was the Japanese Zen-scholar D.T. Suzuki who noted similarities between Buddhism and Christian mysticism.
Hinduism has a number of interlinked ascetic traditions and philosophical schools which aim at moksha and the acquisition of higher powers. With the onset of the British colonisation of India, those traditions came to be interpreted in western terms such as "mysticism", drawing equivalents with western terms and practices.
Yoga is the physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which aim to attain a state of permanent peace. Various traditions of yoga are found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali defines yoga as "the stilling of the changing states of the mind," which is attained in [[samadhi].
Classical Vedanta gives philosophical interpretations and commentaries of the Upanishads, a vast collection of ancient hymns. At least ten schools of Vedanta are known, of which Advaita Vedanta, Vishishtadvaita, and Dvaita are the best known. Advaita Vedanta, as expounded by Adi Shankara, states that there is no difference between Atman and Brahman. The best-known subschool is Kevala Vedanta or mayavada as expounded by Adi Shankara. Advaita Vedanta has acquired a broad acceptance in Indian culture and beyond as the paradigmatic example of Hindu spirituality. In contrast Bhedabheda-Vedanta emphasizes that Atamn and Brahman are both the same and not the same, while Dvaita Vedanta states that Atman and God are fundamentally different. In modern times, the Upanishads have been interpreted by Neo-Vedanta as being "mystical".
Tantra is the name given by scholars to a style of meditation and ritual which arose in India no later than the fifth century AD. Tantra has influenced the Hindu, Bön, Buddhist, and Jain traditions and spread with Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia. Tantric ritual seeks to access the supra-mundane through the mundane, identifying the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Tantric aim is to sublimate (rather than negate) reality. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use prana (energy flowing through the universe, including one's body) to attain goals which may be spiritual, material or both. Tantric practice includes visualisation of deities, mantras and mandalas. It can also include sexual and other (antinomian) practices.
Mysticism in the Sikh dharm began with its founder, Guru Nanak, who as a child had profound mystical experiences. Guru Nanak stressed that God must be seen with 'the inward eye', or the 'heart', of a human being. Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, added religious mystics belonging to other religions into the holy scriptures that would eventually become the Guru Granth Sahib.
The goal of Sikhism is to be one with God. Sikhs meditate as a means to progress towards enlightenment; it is devoted meditation simran that enables a sort of communication between the Infinite and finite human consciousness. There is no concentration on the breath but chiefly the remembrance of God through the recitation of the name of God and surrender themselves to Gods presence often metaphorized as surrendering themselves to the Lord's feet.
Taoist philosophy is centered on the Tao, usually translated "Way", an ineffable cosmic principle. The contrasting yet interdependent concepts of yin and yang also symbolise harmony, with Taoist scriptures often emphasing the Yin virtues of femininity, passivity and yieldingness. Taoist practice includes exercises and rituals aimed at manipulating the life force Qi, and obtaining health and longevity.[note 10] These have been elaborated into practices such as Tai chi, which are well known in the west.
The Fourth Way
The Fourth Way is a term used by George Gurdjieff to describe an approach to self-development he learned over years of travel in the East that combined what he saw as three established traditional "ways," or "schools" into a fourth way, namely the schools of the body, the mind and the emotions. The Fourth Way emphasizes that people live their lives in a state of "waking sleep", but that higher levels of consciousness and various inner abilities are possible. The Fourth Way teaches people how to increase and focus their attention and energy in various ways, and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. The Fourth Way is an "in the world" practice, which rejects retreats and other forms of seclusion. Its central concentrative technique, self remembering, is to be practised, as far as possible, under all circumstances. According to fourth way teaching, inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, whose aim is to transform a man into what Gurdjieff taught he ought to be.
Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly that knowledge that comes with them) as revelations caused by divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes. They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware.
Many regard those various traditions as pointing to one universal transcendental reality, for which those experiences offer the prove. The notion of "religious experience" or "mystical experience" as marking insight into religious truth is a modern development, and the perennial position is "largely dismissed by scholars", but "has lost none of its popularity". Contemporary researchers of mysticism note that mystical experiences are shaped by the concepts "which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience". What is being experienced is being determined by the expectations and the conceptual background of the mystic.
Origins of the term "mystical experience"
The term "mystical experience" has become synonymous with the terms "religious experience", spiritual experience and sacred experience. A "religious experience" is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework. The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of western society. William James popularized the use of the term "religious experience" in his The Varieties of Religious Experience. It has also influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge of the transcendental.[web 1]
Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the notion of "religious experience" further back to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite. The notion of "religious experience" was used by Schleiermacher to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular critique. It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.
A broad range of western and eastern movements have incorporated and influenced the emergence of the modern notion of "mystical experience", such as the Perennial philosophy, Transcendentalism, Universalism, the Theosophical Society, New Thought, Neo-Vedanta and Buddhist modernism.
Freud and the Oceanic feeling
The understanding of "mysticism" as an experience of unity with the divine is reflected in a famous comment by Freud on the "oceanic feeling". In response to The Future of an Illusion (1927) Romain Rolland wrote to Sigmund Freud:
By religious feeling, what I mean—altogether independently of any dogma, any Credo, any organization of the Church, any Holy Scripture, any hope for personal salvation, etc.—the simple and direct fact of a feeling of 'the eternal' (which may very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and as if oceanic). This feeling is in truth subjective in nature. It is a contact.[web 12]
Rolland derived the notion of an "oceanic feeling" from various sources. He was influenced by the writings of Baruch Spinoza, who criticized religion but retained "the intellectual love of God". Rolland was also influenced by Indian mysticism, on which he wrote The Life of Ramakrishna (1929/1931) and The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (1930/1947).[web 12]
In the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents (1929/1930) Freud describes this notion, and then remarks that he doesn't know this feeling himself. He then goes on to locate this feeling within primary narcissism and the ego ideal. This feeling is later reduced to a "shrunken residue" under the influence of reality.[web 12]
The notion of "experience" has been criticised. Robert Sharf points out that "experience" is a typical Western term, which has found its way into Asian religiosity via western influences.[note 11] The notion of "experience" introduces a false notion of duality between "experiencer" and "experienced", whereas the essence of kensho is the realisation of the "non-duality" of observer and observed. "Pure experience" does not exist; all experience is mediated by intellectual and cognitive activity. The specific teachings and practices of a specific tradition may even determine what "experience" someone has, which means that this "experience" is not the proof of the teaching, but a result of the teaching. A pure consciousness without concepts, reached by "cleaning the doors of perception",[note 12] would be an overwhelming chaos of sensory input without coherence.
Other critics point out that the stress on "experience" is accompanied with favoring the atomic individual, instead of the shared life on the community. It also fails to distinguish between episodic experience, and mysticism as a process, that is embedded in a total religious matrix of liturgy, scripture, worship, virtues, theology, rituals and practices.
Richard King also points to disjunction between "mystical experience" and social justice:
The privatisation of mysticism – that is, the increasing tendency to locate the mystical in the psychological realm of personal experiences – serves to exclude it from political issues as social justice. Mysticism thus becomes seen as a personal matter of cultivating inner states of tranquility and equanimity, which, rather than seeking to transform the world, serve to accommodate the individual to the status quo through the alleviation of anxiety and stress.
Induction of mystical experiences
Various religious practices include:
- Mantras and yantras[note 13]
- Dance, such as:
- Yoga, consisting of postures (Asanas), controlled breathing (Pranayama), and other practices.
- Extreme pain, such as:
- Profound sexual activity,
- Use of Entheogens, such as:
- Psychological or neurophysiological anomalies, such as:
- Near-death experience
Scientific studies of mysticism
Perennialism versus constructionism
In the 19th century perennialism gained popularity as a model for perceiving similarities across a broad range of religious traditions. William James, in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, was highly influential in further popularising this perennial approach and the notion of personal experience as a validation of religious truths.
Since the 1960s, debate has continued on "the question of whether mysticism is a human experience that is the same in all times and places but explained in many ways, or a family of similar experiences that includes many different kinds, as represented by the many kinds of religious and secular mystical reports". The first stance is perennialism or essentialism, while the second stance is social constructionism or contextualism.
The essentialist model argues that mystical experience is independent of the sociocultural, historical and religious context in which it occurs, and regards all mystical experience in its essence to be the same. According to this "common core-thesis", different descriptions can mask quite similar if not identical experiences:
[P]eople can differentiate experience from interpretation, such that different interpretations may be applied to otherwise identical experiences".
The contextualist model states that mystical experiences are shaped by the concepts "which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience". What is being experienced is being determined by the expectations and the conceptual background of the mystic. Critics of the "common-core thesis" argue that
[N]o unmediated experience is possible, and that in the extreme, language is not simply used to interpret experience but in fact constitutes experience.
Principal representants of the perennialist position are Walter Terence Stace, who distinguishes extroverted and introverted mysticism, in response to R. C. Zaehner's distinction between theistic and monistic mysticism; Huston Smith; and Ralph W. Hood, who conducted empirical research using the "Mysticism Scale", which is based on Stace's model.[note 14] The principal representant of the constructionist position is Steven T. Katz, who, in a series of publications,[note 15] has made a highly influential and compelling case for the constructionist approach.
William James – The Varieties of Religious experience
William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience is the classic study on religious or mystical experience, which influenced deeply both the academic and popular understanding of "religious experience".[web 1] He popularized the use of the term "religious experience"[note 16] in his "Varieties",[web 1] and influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge of the transcendental:[web 1]
Under the influence of William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, heavily centered on people's conversion experiences, most philosophers' interest in mysticism has been in distinctive, allegedly knowledge-granting “mystical experiences.”"[web 1]
James emphasized the personal experience of individuals, and describes a broad variety of such experiences in his The Varieties of Religious Experience. He considered the "personal religion" to be "more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism",[note 17] and defines religion as
...the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude , so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.
According to James, mystical experiences have four defining qualities:
- Ineffability. According to James the mystical experience "defies expression, that no adequate report of its content can be given in words".
- Noetic quality. Mystics stress that their experiences give them "insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect." James referred to this as the "noetic" (or intellectual) "quality" of the mystical.
- Transiency. James notes that most mystical experiences have a short occurrence, but their effect persists.
- Passivity. According to James, mystics come to their peak experience not as active seekers, but as passive recipients.
William James recognised the broad variety of mystical schools and conflicting doctrines both within and between religions. Nevertheless,
...he shared with thinkers of his era the conviction that beneath the variety could be carved out a certain mystical unanimity, that mystics shared certain common perceptions of the divine, however different their religion or historical epoch,
According to Harmless, "for James there was nothing inherently theological in or about mystical experience", and felt it legitimate to separate the mystic's experience from theological claims. Harmless notes that James "denies the most central fact of religion", namely that religion is practiced by people in groups, and often in public. He also ignores ritual, the historicity of religious traditions, and theology, instead emphasizing "feeling" as central to religion.
R. C. Zaehner – Natural and religious mysticism
R. C. Zaehner distinguishes three fundamental types of mysticism, namely theistic, monistic and panenhenic ("all-in-one") or natural mysticism. The theistic category includes most forms of Jewish, Christian and Islamic mysticism and occasional Hindu examples such as Ramanuja and the Bhagavad Gita. The monistic type, which according to Zaehner is based upon an experience of the unity of one's soul,[note 18] includes Buddhism and Hindu schools such as Samhya and Advaita vedanta. Nature mysticism seems to refer to examples that do not fit into one of these two categories.
Zaehner considers theistic mysticism to be superior to the other two categories, because of its appreciation of God, but also because of its strong moral imperative. Zaehner is directly opposing the views of Aldous Huxley. Natural mystical experiences are in Zaehner's view of less value because they do not lead as directly to the virtues of charity and compassion. Zaehner is generally critical of what he sees as narcissistic tendencies in nature mysticism.[note 19]
Zaehner has been criticised by a number of scholars for the "theological violence" which his approach does to non-theistic traditions, "forcing them into a framework which privileges Zaehner's own liberal Catholicism."
Walter T. Stace – extrovertive and introvertive mysticism
Zaehner has also been criticised by Walter Terence Stace in his book Mysticism and philosophy (1960) on similar grounds. Stace argues that doctrinal differences between religious traditions are inappropriate criteria when making cross-cultural comparisons of mystical experiences.
Stace distinguished two types of mystical experience, namely extrovertive and introvertive mysticism. Extrovertive mysticism is an experience of unity within the world, whereas introvertive mysticism is "an experience of unity devoid of perceptual objects; it is literally an experience of 'no-thing-ness'". The unity in extrovertive mysticism is with the totality of objects of perception; the unity in introvertive mysticism is with a pure conscousness, devoid of objects of perception. Stace's categories of "introvertive mysticism" and "extrovertive mysticism" are derived from Rudolf Otto's "mysticism of introspection" and "unifying vision".
According to Hood, the introvertive mystical experience may be a common core to mysticism independent of both culture and person, forming the basis of a "perennial psychology". According to Hood,
[E]mpirically, there is strong support to claim that as operationalized from Stace's criteria, mystical experience is identical as measured across diverse samples, whether expressed in "neutral language" or with either "God" or "Christ" references.
According to Hood,
...it seems fair to conclude that the perennialist view has strong empirical support, insofar as regardless of the language used in the M Scale, the basic structure of the experience remains constant across diverse samples and cultures. This is a way of stating the perennialist thesis in measurable terms.
Steven Katz - constructionism
After Walter Stace's seminal book in 1960, the general philosophy of mysticism received little attention. But in the 1970s the issue of a universal "perennialism" versus each mystical experience being was reignited by Steven Katz. Katz rejects the discrimination between experiences and their interpretations. Katz argues that it is not the description, but the experience itself which is conditioned by the cultural and religious background of the mystic. According to Katz, it is not possible to have pure or unmediated experience. In an often-cited quote he states:
There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences. Neither mystical experience nor more ordinary forms of experience give any indication, or any ground for believing, that they are unmediated [...] The notion of unmediated experience seems, if not self-contradictory, at best empty. This epistemological fact seems to me to be true, because of the sort of beings we are, even with regard to the experiences of those ultimate objects of concern with which mystics have had intercourse, e.g., God, Being, Nirvana, etc.[note 20]
The philosopher Robert Forman has presented philosophical arguments against the constructionist position. In addition, scientists have presented neurological evidence for the existence of a "pure consciousness event" empty of any constructionist structuring.
After constructivism, a more recent theory has been advanced that also negates any alleged cognitive content of mystical experiences: mystics unconsciously merely attribute a doctrinal content to ordinary experiences. That is, mystics project cognitive content onto otherwise ordinary experiences having a strong emotional impact.
Neurology and meditation
The scientific study of mysticism today focuses on two topic: identifying the neurological bases and triggers of mystical experiences and demonstrating the purported benefits of meditation. This had led to the philosophical issue of whether the scientific identification of the brain activity occurring during mystical experiences proves the experiences are delusions or proves they are cognitive since they occur in the normal brain activity of healthy persons. Materialists conclude the former, and the religious the latter. However, the conclusion that these scientific studies are ultimately neutral on the question of cognitivity is also popular today.
Andrew Newberg & Eugene d'Aquili – Why God Won't Go Away
Andrew B. Newberg and Eugene G. d'Aquili, in their book Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, take a perennial stance, describing their insights into the relationship between religious experience and brain function. d'Aquili describes his own meditative experiences as "allowing a deeper, simpler part of him to emerge", which he believes to be "the truest part of who he is, the part that never changes." Not content with personal and subjective descriptions like these, Newman and d'Aquili have studied the brain-correlates to such experiences. They scanned the brain blood flow patterns during such moments of mystical transcendence, using SPECT-scans, to detect which brain areas show heightened activity. Their scans showed unusual activity in the top rear section of the brain, the "posterior superior parietal lobe", or the "orientation association area (OAA)" in their own words. This area creates a consistent cognition of the physical limits of the self. This OAA shows a sharply reduced activity during meditative states, reflecting a block in the incoming flow of sensory information, resulting in a perceived lack of physical boundaries. According to Newman and d'Aquili,
This is exactly how Robert and generations of Eastern mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual and mystical moments.
Newman and d'Aquili conclude that mystical experience correlates to observable neurological events, which are not outside the range of normal brain function. They also believe that
...our research has left us no choice but to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the ultimate realness of something that is truly divine.[note 21]
Why God Won't Go Away "received very little attention from professional scholars of religion".[note 22][note 23] According to Bulkeley, "Newberg and D'Aquili seem blissfully unaware of the past half century of critical scholarship questioning universalistic claims about human nature and experience".[note 24] Matthew Day also notes that the discovery of a neurological substrate of a "religious experience" is an isolated finding which "doesn't even come close to a robust theory of religion".
Ethics and Mysticism
Another philosophical issue is the impact of the scientific study of mysticism on the issue of alleged cognitivity of mystical experiences noted above. A third issue is the relation of mysticism to morality. Albert Schweitzer presented the classic account of mysticism and morality being incompatible. Arthur Danto also argued that morality is at least incompatible with Indian mystical beliefs. Walter Stace, on the other hand, argued not only are mysticism and morality compatible, but that mysticism is the source and justification of morality. Others studying multiple mystical traditions have concluded that the relation of mysticism and morality is not as simple as that.
In the widest sense, mysticism is every guidance to the immediate awareness of what is not reached by either perception or conception, or generally by any knowledge. The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. The mystic starts from his inner, positive, individual experience, in which he finds himself as the eternal and only being, and so on. But nothing of this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince.
Meditator: It suddenly seemed as if I was surrounded by an immensely powerful Presence. I felt that a Truth had been "revealed" to me that was far more important than anything else, and for which I needed no further evidence. But when later I tried to describe this to my friends, I found that I had nothing to say except how wonderful that experience was.
This peculiar type of mental state is sometimes called a "Mystical Experience" or "Rapture," "Ecstasy," or "Bliss." Some who undergo it call it "wonderful," but a better word might be "wonderless," because I suspect that such a state of mind may result from turning so many Critics off that one cannot find any flaws in it.
What might that "powerful Presence" represent? It is sometimes seen as a deity, but I suspect that it is likely to be a version of some early Imprimer that for years has been hiding inside your mind. In any case, such experiences can be dangerous—for some victims find them so compelling that they devote the rest of their lives to trying to get themselves back to that state again.
Minsky's idea of 'some early Imprimer hiding in the mind' was an echo of Freud's belief that mystical experience was essentially infantile and regressive, i.e., a memory of 'Oneness' with the mother.
- Original quote in "Evelyn Underhill (1930), Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness.
- Underhill: "One of the most abused words in the English language, it has been used in different and often mutually exclusive senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse for every kind of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics. on the other hand, it has been freely employed as a term of contempt by those who have criticized these things. It is much to be hoped that it may be restored sooner or later to its old meaning, as the science or art of the spiritual life."
- According to Waaijman, the traditional meaning of spirituality is a process of re-formation which "aims to recover the original shape of man, the image of God. To accomplish this, the re-formation is oriented at a mold, which represents the original shape: in Judaism the Torah, in Christianity Christ, in Buddhism Buddha, in the Islam Muhammad." Waaijman uses the word "omvorming", "to change the form". Different translations are possible: transformation, re-formation, trans-mutation. Waaijman points out that "spirituality" is only one term of a range of words which denote the praxis of spirituality. Some other terms are "Hasidism, contemplation, kabbala, asceticism, mysticism, perfection, devotion and piety".
- Compare the use of the terms bodhi, kensho and satori in Buddhism, commonly translated as "enlightenment", and vipassana, which all point to cognitive processes of intuition and comprehension, in contrast to the mind-calming techniques of samatha and samadhi.
- According to Evelyn Underhill, illumination is a generic English term for the phenomenon of mysticism. The term illumination is derived from the Latin illuminatio, applied to Christian prayer in the 15th century. Translated as enlightenment it is adopted in English translations of Buddhist texts, but used loosely to describe the state of mystical attainment regardless of faith.[a]
- The term "mystical experience" has become synonymous with the terms "religious experience", spiritual experience and sacred experience.
- According to W.F. Cobb, mysticism is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on practices intended to nurture those experiences. According to Cobb, mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic.
- blakemore and Jennett add: "[T]he common assumption that all mystical experiences, whatever their context, are the same cannot, of course, be demonstrated." They also state: "Some have placed a particular emphasis on certain altered states, such as visions, trances, levitations, locutions, raptures, and ecstasies, many of which are altered bodily states. Margery Kempe's tears and Teresa of Avila's ecstasies are famous examples of such mystical phenomena. But many mystics have insisted that while these experiences may be a part of the mystical state, they are not the essence of mystical experience, and some, such as Origen, Meister Eckhart, and John of the Cross, have been hostile to such psycho-physical phenomena. Rather, the essence of the mystical experience is the encounter between God and the human being, the Creator and creature; this is a union which leads the human being to an ‘absorption’ or loss of individual personality. It is a movement of the heart, as the individual seeks to surrender itself to ultimate Reality; it is thus about being rather than knowing. For some mystics, such as Teresa of Avila, phenomena such as visions, locutions, raptures, and so forth are by-products of, or accessories to, the full mystical experience, which the soul may not yet be strong enough to receive. Hence these altered states are seen to occur in those at an early stage in their spiritual lives, although ultimately only those who are called to achieve full union with God will do so."[web 4]
- To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.
- To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
- To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
- Extending to physical immortality: the Taoist pantheon includes Xian, or immortals.
- Robert Sharf: "[T]he role of experience in the history of Buddhism has been greatly exaggerated in contemporary scholarship. Both historical and ethnographic evidence suggests that the privileging of experience may well be traced to certain twentieth-century reform movements, notably those that urge a return to zazen or vipassana meditation, and these reforms were profoundly influenced by religious developments in the west [...] While some adepts may indeed experience "altered states" in the course of their training, critical analysis shows that such states do not constitute the reference point for the elaborate Buddhist discourse pertaining to the "path".
- William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru' narrow chinks of his cavern."
- Mantra Marga (literally, "the way of formulae") in particular stress the importance of saying, either aloud or to oneself internally, particular Mantras (phrases to be repeated) given by their teacher. Combined with this is the set of practices related to Yantras (symbols to be meditated on).
- Others include Frithjof Schuon, Rudolf Otto and Aldous Huxley.
- Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 1978)
- Mysticism and Religious Traditions (Oxford University Press, 1983)
- Mysticism and Language (Oxford University Press, 1992)
- Mysticism and Sacred Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2000)
- The term "mystical experience" has become synonymous with the terms "religious experience", spiritual experience and sacred experience.
- James: "Churches, when once established, live at secondhand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine. not only the superhuman founders, the Christ, the Buddha, Mahomet, but all the originators of Christian sects have been in this case; – so personal religion should still seem the primordial thing, even to those who continue to esteem it incomplete."
- Compare the work of C.G. Jung.
- See especially Zaehner, R. C., Mysticism Sacred and Profane, Oxford University Press, Chapters 3,4, and 6.
- Original in Katz (1978), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Oxford University Press
- See Radhakrishnan for a similar stance on the value of religious experience. Radhakrishnan saw Hinduism as a scientific religion based on facts, apprehended via intuition or religious experience.[web 13] According to Radhakrishnan, "[i]f philosophy of religion is to become scientific, it must become empirical and found itself on religious experience".[web 13] He saw this empiricism exemplified in the Vedas:
"The truths of the ṛṣis are not evolved as the result of logical reasoning or systematic philosophy but are the products of spiritual intuition, dṛṣti or vision. The ṛṣis are not so much the authors of the truths recorded in the Vedas as the seers who were able to discern the eternal truths by raising their life-spirit to the plane of universal spirit. They are the pioneer researchers in the realm of the spirit who saw more in the world than their followers. Their utterances are not based on transitory vision but on a continuous experience of resident life and power. When the Vedas are regarded as the highest authority, all that is meant is that the most exacting of all authorities is the authority of facts."[web 13]
This stance is echoed by Ken Wilber: "The point is that we might have an excellent population of extremely evolved and developed personalities in the form of the world's great mystic-sages (a point which is supported by Maslow's studies). Let us, then, simply assume that the authentic mystic-sage represents the very highest stages of human development—as far beyond normal and average humanity as humanity itself is beyond apes. This, in effect, would give us a sample which approximates "the highest state of consciousness"—a type of "superconscious state." Furthermore, most of the mystic-sages have left rather detailed records of the stages and steps of their own transformations into the superconscious realms. That is, they tell us not only of the highest level of consciousness and superconsciousness, but also of all the intermediate levels leading up to it. If we take all these higher stages and add them to the lower and middle stages/levels which have been so carefully described and studied by Western psychology, we would then arrive at a fairly well-balanced and comprehensive model of the spectrum of consciousness."
- See Michael Shermer (2001), Is God All in the Mind? for a review in Science.
- According to Matthew Day, the book "is fatally compromised by conceptual confusions, obsolete scholarship, clumsy sleights of hand and untethered speculation". According to Matthew Day, Newberg and d'Aquily "consistently discount the messy reality of empirical religious heterogenity".
- Bulkely (2003), The Gospel According to Darwin: the relevance of cognitive neuroscience to religious studies. Religious Studies Review 29 (2), 123–129. Cited in 
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- According to Wright, the use of the western word enlightenment is based on the supposed resemblance of bodhi with Aufklärung, the independent use of reason to gain insight into the true nature of our world. As a matter of fact there are more resemblances with Romanticism than with the Enlightenment: the emphasis on feeling, on intuitive insight, on a true essence beyond the world of appearances. See also Enlightenment (spiritual).
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