What is Mysticism?
Oh Jesus. We’re in trouble with this one. All I can think of is the old cliché that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” I might refine that to something like: ‘defining mysticism is like building a house of dry sand’. You can do it but it’s gonna be kind of a shit show. Do you even want to bother? Well, here I am… bothering.
The idea of sitting down at my computer to describe mysticism is something of an inside joke. I’m sure whatever guides and ancestors are looking over my shoulder are having a great laugh (or whatever their dimensional equivalent is). Since I’ve started a blog about mysticism though, I feel an obligation to define it. I’ll do it even if, from the mystical point of view, a blank page would be more effective.
I’m sure there is some articulate definition that exists, elsewhere online or in treatises by renowned scholars of theology. I have no interest in such things. I won’t be upset if you open a new tab in your web browser at some point and do a little digging. However, you might consider coming along for this short ride with me first, unencumbered with knowledge and therefore more open in heart and mind. That way, we can take the journey together, which is always more fun, especially with a foolhardy destination such as this.
Below is how I see and am using the term ‘mysticism’ for the purposes of this blog, at this moment. Nothing more. It is certainly an exercise born to teach my future self a lesson in humility.
Mysticism as Thirst
My working explanation of mysticism comes from Coleman Barks's translation of Rumi’s poem “The Oldest Thirst There is.” In it, there’s a line that gets to the heart of the matter: “The inner listening that is a way in itself and the oldest thirst there is.”
Stop. Go back. Read it again.
A single sentence can be an endless well. That’s typical of Rumi. But instead of drawing up buckets of water until we forget why we started, let’s take just the obviously relevant bits.
First, the line evokes “inner listening.” Mysticism is an invitation to the inner voice, as opposed to the things that the world around us or even our senses tell us is ‘reality’. The inner voice is that of our eternal selves.
Second, mysticism is “a way in itself.” Another interpretation might be, “the way is the way.” I’ll return to that shortly.
Taking the first two parts together, then, mysticism is the act of going inward as the path to God. Moving inward toward the mystery of God is the chief verb of mysticism and at the core of its essence as noun as well.
“Inward,” in this case, is not a physical direction. It is a directionless direction. God does not reside in our liver or some part of our bone marrow. God is the bone marrow and the inner eye with which we view it. To go inward is to reach “up” to God and pull the underworld along with us on the journey.
Third, “the oldest thirst there is” might be interpreted as the “why” of mysticism. The phrase points to our soul’s longing for an unclear, unknowable, indescribable, and apparently missing piece of itself. Without the sense of separation that defines our earthly existence and creates the “thirst,” it would be unnecessary to find a path back. We don’t have to acknowledge or know our “thirst” for it to exist. But its recognition, in any form, is a turn toward mysticism, even if you don’t call it that. Mysticism is the way to start the process of walking back to our innate wholeness within the confines of a third dimensional reality. The “thirst,” then, is the desire for a return that wholeness. It is created by and therefore inherent to taking an earthly form.
This brings up a final key point. It is a confusion of words to think about the mystical “path” or “walking back” in terms of “progress.” In fact, there is no location at which to arrive. The perceived “missing piece” of the Self is not ‘out there’ or in some other place or person. It is not achieved as the result of some action. The “goal,” if we can call it that, is just the realization there was never anything missing. Mysticism is an opening of our eyes to our own divinity. If we realize that, we must also recognize the divinity of all others, of everything.
We are children who’ve had their nose taken by a loving parent. Once we “get it back,” we discover that it was there all along. We learn that our journey was unneeded. And so, nothing for it, we laugh and laugh. In a sense, mysticism is a comic circle back to our Selves and our own, extraordinary beauty. We were whole and unseparated the entire time.
There’s No Here, Here
Imagine exiting an elevator on the 3rd floor of an unfamiliar office building. You set out down a hallway, passing by a stranger in a sharp business suit. You smile and nod nervously, feigning like you know where you’re going. You make a left turn. You still don’t see the doorway you seek. The hall ends and you make another left. Nothing there. You see the stranger turn the corner at the other end. You feel awkward, maybe give a nervous chuckle. This hall ends. You turn left again. Soon you arrive back at the elevator, just as the stranger does. You both push the down button and laugh.
If we take the translation of Rumi in a literal sense, the “oldest thirst” is not a desire for a return to wholeness, as I posited above. The mystic’s desire is just to walk the path toward wholeness, knowing that we’re already whole (or at least strongly suspecting it). This is a real relief because it frees us from the idea that we are heading somewhere or have something we must accomplish. To return to my second point above, the way of mysticism is to be on the way, perpetually. Ideally, we are surrendered to that circumstance and in love with it – any irony or paradox is welcomed, even sacred. In contrast to the idea that life and separation from God is a form of suffering, to be repeated until we evolve out of karmic cycles or reach Enlightenment, our time in these bodies is a loving gift. Mysticism, then, is just the surrender to and acceptance of a journey that we’re all on anyway, like it or not.
There’s nothing material that is going to complete your soul. Intellectualizing spirituality, including that being done here, is no use. To be a mystic is to look without eyes, listen without ears, and think without the mind. If there is a “destination,” it is only to surrender to not knowing, giving up the need to understand the Divine through our human tools or rational forms. Our collective Oneness in divinity can only be glimpsed by surrendering to the mystery – the ‘unknowableness’ of the whole venture and of the Universe, of God. As long as we are ‘unsurrendered’ or surrender only in half-measures, we’ll always be ‘thirsty’ – that is the only guarantee. Any other activity is drinking salt water.
In short, then, Mysticism is the act of working to perfect our surrender to the Mystery. It is a pursuit of absolute capitulation to the ineffability of God and a wink to the absurdity of our perceived separation from God. It is inherently unreasonable, as it provides no clear instruction, no clear definition, and offers no guarantee of anything in this life or the next, except that if you follow it to its conclusion, you begin again where you started. Therein lies its essence and its perfection as a guiding spiritual principle.
Let me know what you think about this definition and provide your own in the comments below!
If you want more Rumi, check out my new YouTube Channel, where I read excerpts from his work and offer a bit of reflection.
For more on words and their inadequacy for mystical matters, see last month’s post and this month’s story “Testing Teeth”.
In The Bhagavad Gita, the supreme god Krishna is having a prolonged conversation with a man named Arjuna. A little more than halfway through, Arjuna is eager to learn more of Krishna’s greatness. In the asking, though, he undermines any answer, correctly observing that “neither gods nor demons know your real nature… you alone know yourself.” Without going too far on a tangent, if gods and demons can’t understand the divine nature of Krishna then how might we, mere mortal beings, be expected to? Krishna responds to the request for more information by saying he’ll “mention only the most glorious” of his powers. The first he chooses to highlight is “I am the true Self in the heart of every creature.” So, finding our “true Selves,” is really the only reasonable and perhaps the most direct path to knowing God, at least the aspect most relevant to us. This reinforces the importance of “inner listening,” pointed to by Rumi.
Moreover, Krishna finishes his list of attributes by asking “of what use is it to you to know all this, Arjuna? Just remember that I am.” The Gita, then, reiterates that intellectual work, knowing a list of elements of God, understanding how to worship in a particular way, etc. are all relatively superfluous. This is especially true in the face of the totality of God, which is entirely outside our reach, even outside the reach of “gods and demons.” And so, the first thing we must surrender on the path of mysticism is a desire to “understand.” The mystic purely accepts the “I am,” of both God and the Self. Ultimately, he seeks to unite the two so that when he says, “I am,” it evokes a singular concept – the “I am” that Krishna implies at the end of his statement to Arjuna becomes one with the “I am” that speaks to the Self’s existence as a unique expression of divinity.
Finally, we see in Krishna’s statement the implied unimportance of a particular set of beliefs and practices. Yes, he encourages Arjuna to undertake meditation and advises the way of yoga, among other practices and sets of values. But, underneath the Indian cultural inventions and particularities, the Gita reinforces what I see as an ultimately mystical approach to spirituality – an encouragement to set aside dogmas and even traditions. Whether it’s “inner-listening,” “I am,” or “surrender,” any culturally specific wisdom tradition worth its salt, tends to undermine the validity of its own existence. Mysticism, by contrast, is not attached to concrete expressions and forms. It is concerned only with that which is timeless and formless.
When I talk about the path of mysticism and say, “the way is the way,” it is meant to highlight the absence of cultural, human, and temporary accruements in the cultivation of a relationship to the eternal Divine. To remove our minds from the equation of our spirituality is to sever our attachment to culture and its influence on us (and power over us). Culture can only act to corrupt any pure vision of and relationship to God, something I may speak to more in a future post. For now, I’ll just say that the mystical lies beneath the surface of the great wisdom traditions. It’s present in Rumi, in the Gita, in Islam, in Hinduism, in the Christian Gospels, and so on. Islamic scholars get upset about removing Rumi from his Muslim context, Indian scholars are likely the same with the Gita and Krishna. But the scholar’s worldview and livelihood are tied to labels and distinctions. They depend upon the reinforcement of duality – as does religion itself. The important thing to keep in your heart is that I have serious doubts Krishna or Rumi or Jesus would be upset (or even consider it a mistake) to set aside their cultural framework.
Beyond anything else, then, centering my blog around ‘mysticism’ is a means to move beyond cultural labels and identities. It is a way to the root of all religious tradition – which has no form. When I say “mysticism,” it is essentially a means to identify the unidentifiable, formless connection point in all spirituality. Mysticism is not religion. It is the thirst that gives rise to religions, which seek (largely in vain) to quench it.