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Mysticism, from the Greek μυω (muo, "to conceal"), is the pursuit of achieving communion with or conscious awareness of ultimate reality, the divine, spiritual truth, or God through direct, personal experience (intuition or insight) rather than rational thought; the belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible through personal experience; or the belief that such experience is a genuine and important source of knowledge. In the Hellenistic world, "mystical" referred to secret religious rituals.

Mystics claim to experience intuitive knowledge of transcendent dimensions, beyond the phenomenal or material concrete objects of ordinary perception. The mystic claims to see things that are not part of ordinary experience. William James used the words "ineffable" (which means that something cannot or should not be spoken) and "noetic" (from the Greek νοῦς nous: "relating to consciousness or intuition"), to describe the mystical experience.

A more general definition sees mysticism as an attempt to derive some wider meaning from personal experience, surpassing everyday human understanding and tapping insights normally hidden from our mundane selves. While usually understood in a religious context, a mystical experience may happen to anyone, does not require religious training, can occur unbidden and without preparation, and may not be understood as religious at all. (James, 1902) In various circumstances, such experiences may be interpreted non-exclusively as scientific or artistic inspiration, or even dismissed as a psychological disorder.


Types of mystical experience

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy features four main common classifications of mystical and religious experiences:

  • Extrovertive
mystical consciousness of the unity of nature overlaid onto one's sense perception of the world.
  • Introvertive
any experience that includes sense-perceptual, somatosensory, or introspective content. An experience of "nothingness" or "emptiness", in some mystical traditions, are examples of introvertive experiences.
  • Theistic
experiences which are purportedly of God.
  • Non-theistic
purportedly of an ultimate reality other than God or of no reality at all.

Mysticism and epistemology

In the context of epistemology, mysticism refers to using non-rational methods to arrive at belief and assuming that belief to be knowledge. For example, believing that something is true based on emotion would be regarded as epistemological mysticism, whereas believing based on deductive logic or scientific experiment would not.

Subjectivity and mysticism

Theistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic classical pantheist/cosmotheist metaphysical systems most often understand mystical experience as individual communion with a god or goddess. One can receive these very subjective experiences as visions, dreams, revelations, prophecies, and so forth.

Thomas Aquinas, a Christian mystic of the 13th century, defined it as cognitio dei experimentalis (experiential knowledge of God). In Catholicism the mystical experience is not sought for its own sake, and is always informed by revelation and ascetical theology.

Self-transcending self-discovery

The term Perennial Philosophy, coined by Leibniz and popularized by Aldous Huxley, relates to what some take to be the mystic's primary concern:

[W]ith the one, divine reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one reality is such that it cannot be directly or immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit. (Aldous Huxley, 1945)

Some mystics use the term to refer to a manner wherein the mystic strives to plumb the depths of the self and reality in a radical process of meditative self-exploration, with the aim of experiencing the true nature of reality. Historically in some cultures and traditions, mind-altering substances—often referred to as entheogens—have been used, being considered a guide; others use rituals and methods such as meditation, self-reflection or self-enquiry.

Mysticism and syncretism

Mystics of different traditions report similar experiences of a world usually outside conventional perception, although not all forms of mysticism abandon knowledge perceived through normal means. Based on extraordinary perception, mystics may believe that one can find true unity of religion and philosophy in mystical experience.

Elements of mysticism exist in most religions and in many philosophies. Some mystics perceive a common thread of influence in all mystic philosophies that they see as traceable back to a shared source. The Vedic tradition is inherently mystic; the Christian apocalyptic Book of Revelation is clearly mystical, as with Ezekiel's or Daniel's visions of Judaism, and Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel inspired the Qur'an in a mystical manner. Indigenous cultures also have cryptic revelations pointing toward a universal flow of love or unity, usually following a vision quest or similar ritual. Mystical philosophies thus can exhibit a strong tendency towards syncretism.

Some systems of mysticism are found within specific religious traditions and do not relinquish doctrinal principles as a part of mystical experience. For example, Christian mystics, through the centuries, have not decided that Jesus is not God after all: in other words, not all mysticism results in syncretism. In some definite cases, theology remains a distinct source of insight that guides and informs the mystical experience. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas' mystical experiences all occurred squarely within the love of the Catholic Eucharist.

On the difficulty of defining mysticism

Readers frequently encounter seemingly open-ended statements among studies of mysticism, throughout its history, for example in Taoist thought and in studies of Kabbalah. In his work, Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, a prominent 20th century scholar of that field, stated: The Kabbalah is not a single system with basic principles which can be explained in a simple and straightforward fashion, but consists rather of a multiplicity of different approaches, widely separated from one another and sometimes completely contradictory. (Scholem, 1974)

In Catholic traditions, mystical theology is informed by revelation, which averts an apparent tendency to become lost in formless thought. Christian mystics, too, are obliged to obey the forms of ascetical and moral theology, as following Christ is their primary objective, rather than seeking mystical experiences for their own sake. [1]

Theosophy and Occultism

The late 19th century saw a significant increase of interest in mysticism in the West that combined with increased interest in Occultism and Eastern Philosophy. Theosophy became a major movement in the popularization of these interests. Madame Blavatsky and G. I. Gurdjieff functioned as central figures of the theosophy movement. This trend later became absorbed in the rise of the New Age movement which included a major surge in the popularity of astrology. At the end of the 20th Century books like Conversations with God (a series of books which describes what the author claimed to be his experience of direct communication with God) hit the bestseller lists.

Examples in major traditions

Examples of major traditions and philosophies with strong elements of mysticism are:

Hindu mystics

Some examples of Hindu mystics:

Gopi Krishna
Nārāyana Guru(1856-1928)
Sri Ramakrishna
Ramana Maharshi
Sri Deep Narayan Mahaprabhuji

Chinese mystics

Lao Zi (Lao Tze)
Zhang Sanfeng
Zhuangzi (Chuang Tsu)

Christian mystics

Some examples of Christian mystics:

St. John the Apostle (? -101)
Clement of Alexandria (? -216)
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
St. Gregory I (590-604)
Saint Anselm (1033-1109)
Hugh of Saint Victor (1096–1141)
St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
Albertus Magnus (206-1280)
Mechtild of Magdeburg (1210-1279)
St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1275)
Angel of Foligno - (c.1248-1309) )
Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 - 1327/8)
Richard Rolle (c. 1290 - 1349)
St. Gregory Palamas (1296 - 1359)
St. Bridget of Sweden (1302-1373)
Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)
Margery Kempe (c.1373-1438)
Paracelsus (1493-1541)
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)
Jakob Boehme (1575-1624)
Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682)
Michael de Molinos (1628-1696)
Sarah Wight (1632-?)
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)
William Blake (1757-1827)
Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824)
Jakob Lorber (1800 - 1864)
Rufus Jones (1863-1948)
Max Heindel (1865 - 1919)
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
Aiden Wilson Tozer (1897-1963)
Daniil Andreev (1906-1959)
Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Islamic mystics

Some examples of Muslim mystics (also called Sufi):


al-Ghazali, (d. 1111)
al Hallaj (d. 922)
Jalal ad-Din Rumi (d. 1273)
Abdul Qadir Gilani
Abu Yazid Bistami aka Bayazid of Bistam
Abusaeid Abolkheyr
Farid al-Din Attar
Mahmud Shabistari


Yunus Emre


Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, aka Khwaja Gareeb Nawaz
Khwaja Nizamuddin Chishti, aka Nizamuddin Auliya or just Khwaja Nizamuddin
Qalandar Baba Auliya
Amir Khusro
Shahbaz Qalander

Jewish mystics

Some examples of Jewish mystics:

Shimon bar Yochai (c.200)
Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-1291)
Moses ben Shem Tob de Leon (1250-1305)
Isaac Luria (1534-1572)
Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746)
Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)
Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935)
Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994)

Other mystics

Some examples of other mystics:

Plotinus (Neo-Platonist)
Walt Whitman
Heinrich Himmler (Nazi mysticism)
Aleister Crowley (magick and Thelema)
Jiddu Krishnamurti
Chapel Tibet

See also


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