Having reached the end of our discussion, we must now return to the topic we mentioned at the beginning, mysticism. Indeed, across all the histories and praxes we have discussed, mysticism has appeared repeatedly. We see it in Islam (Sufism), Hinduism (Yoga), and Judaism (Kabbalah). But what is mysticism? How can we define it? And why does it appear in so many religions, in so many places and times?
Mysticism is, arguably, the inner “core” of religion; it is the origin or source of religion; and it is the purpose of religion. Mysticism is the individual quest for direct experience of the divine. It is the introspective-intuitive aspect of religion that attracts the most serious and dedicated disciples of spirituality to it. Mysticism possesses the greatest mysteries of man within it; and it is not by accident that mysticism often produces some of the greatest figures of human history (ie, figures such as Dante, the Buddha, and Mohammed).
Mysticism is a life-path one follows that leads one to union with the divine. While explanations of this path appear in different forms, comparative religion shows a remarkable universality in descriptions of this path from mystics of different places and times.
We will recount an explanation of this life-path, using arguably the greatest authority of western mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, as our source. Underhill wrote a description of this journey (as well as a history of western mysticism) in her magnum opus, Mysticism (1911). As we proceed, we will point out analogues to what she describes that appear in the other traditions, in the process demonstrating the universality of this journey.
Underhill explained the “mystic way” as consisting of five stages. She created her system as a refinement of the traditional three stage system taught by the Catholic Church. Catholic tradition taught that mystics went through three steps on the quest for enlightenment: purgation, illumination, and divinization. Underhill added two stages to this, a new opening stage she called awakening, and an intermediate stage (that came before divinization) that she called the dark night of the soul. We will briefly examine each of these stages in our analysis.
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. -Ecclesiastes
As we have recounted, a sincere analysis of the human condition leads us to recognize its horror. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the king came to see the vanity of all he did when he learned that the end of everything was death. In India, we mentioned the “three divine messengers,” the forces of old age, sickness, and death, that were inevitable ends of human life. Finally, in Christianity we encountered the tale of the crucifixion; for our purposes, we will interpret this as an allegory for human life: a life characterized by the experiences of suffering and adversity.
Confronted by these forces, what is the human being to do? The first answer would be to resign oneself to fatalism; to submit to the forces of nihilism and mortality, to accept that life ends in death and there is nothing that can be done about it.
But: what if there was something more? If there was even a possibility - the remotest chance - that one could turn oneself into something that was not perishable, then it would follow that that possibility should be investigated very seriously. This intuition of the mystics - that there is something more - is the impetus which begins their quest.
It is here where the life-path begins. The mystics at this stage, coming to this great realization, often turn away starkly from their former material lives as though they were paths of utter foolishness. Here we encounter, for example, the tale of Francis of Assisi, who dramatically abandoned his life as a nobleman to instead seek union with the divine; or the tale of the Buddha, who renounced his inheritance of Magadha to seek the answer to the problems of “sickness, old age, and death.”
Mystics at this stage affirm the foolishness of human life: the unending race for riches and fame that ultimately results in nothing. They recognize, also, the speed with which life can change, how rapidly “the Lord giveth and taketh away” (Job), and the need to prepare for death (Phaedo 64a).
Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist, called this stage the “call to adventure,” a psychological step which he said recurred in numerous epics of various places and times.
This awakening causes an outwardly-focused individual to become introspective. This introspection leads the mystic to a gradual awareness of their own shortcomings and limitations, and this leads naturally into the turmoil and adversity of the next stage, when these “heroically-minded” individuals (alluding to their description in Buddhism) enter the wilderness.
We have mentioned this “second stage” of the mystic life in passing several times, and it is indeed the stage of the spiritual life that is the most alluded to in art and literature. We have seen references to it when we discussed Christianity (metanoia) and the Hellenic religion (the descent into hell). When we examined the Greeks, we listed several references to this stage that appear in literature, such as in the tales of Orpheus, Herakles, Aeneas, and Odysseus. Additional references to this stage appear in Jungian psychology (the integration of the shadow), in comparative mythology (the journey into the “otherworld”), and in alchemy (the stage of “putrefaction”).
When the human being develops self-knowledge and becomes self-aware, he becomes conscious of the litany of traits he has that fall far short of perfection. Indeed, if the mystic seeks “the true, good, and beautiful” then he learns he must start with himself; take hold of the “prima materia,” the first matter - man in his fundamental state - and transform it into a higher form.
One explanation of this stage makes use of the Seven Deadly Sins. In Dante’s Divine Comedy (which we can read partly as an allegory for the mystic path) he explains each of the foolish traits that are innate to man and that separate him from the divine. As a mystic ascends the “Mount of Purgatory,” he purifies himself of these qualities and achieves greater conformity with the sacred. Thus, man in the state of purgation reforms himself and overcomes the vices: gluttony, greed, lust, pride, envy, wrath, and sloth. In place of them the mystic cultivates the virtues: temperance, charity, chastity, humility, kindness, patience, and diligence.
The Greek monk, John Climacus, used the metaphor of Jacob’s ladder from the Bible as an explanation of this process. A spiritual psychologist, Climacus viewed the overcoming of each of these vices as representing one ascending additional steps on the ladder. The Biblical tale of Jacob included a vision of angels “ascending and descending” the ladder, beings descending to earth to join humanity, and others climbing the ladder to reach the heavens (Gen 28:10-19).
Another explanation of the state of purgation makes use of metaphor. Sometimes mystics will describe the “opening of the heart,” and indeed this image recurs in Christian hagiography, for instance in icons of Christ, Mary, or the saints that depict them with an open, burning, or inflamed heart. This metaphor suggests there is a refinement of the emotions that occurs in this stage: that in purgation the mystic overcomes the base and destructive emotions, like malice and fear, and elevates the higher emotions, including joy, empathy, and equanimity.
Whatever transformations occur in purgation are likely the result of the introduction of self-awareness to the stew of human memory. Indeed, the idea of self-awareness appears in the Kabbalah (devekut), Sufism (dhikr), Christian mysticism (nepsis), and Buddhism (sati). It is also worth emphasizing the idea of self-knowledge (gnothi seauton) which appears both as the inscription above the Oracle of Delphi, as well as in the teachings of Socrates.
We have discussed the power of dogmatism previously; how religions throughout time develop institutions that come to organize and regulate human behavior. Indeed, we have said how these institutions have political and social value, but how over time they come to exist for their own purposes, and fall away from the original ends for which they were adopted. This process, which recurs in history, is how religions become oppressive and burdensome, and how they come to censor, condemn, and suppress human flourishing.
In Christianity this process is alluded to by Paul, who discussed the difference, taught by Christ, between the “spirit” and the “letter” of the law. The spirit is the purpose of religion, the reason dogma exists: to facilitate the individual’s quest to the sacred. The letter is the unfortunate product that develops over time: the burdensome and unnecessary accumulation of history that regrettably amasses.
Indeed, we are all born in cultures and times that have their own unique delusions, fallacies, and lies that are widely accepted. Thus, an essential part of the mystic life - one that often manifests in the stage of purgation - is the process of unpacking ingrained beliefs.
When the mystic goes through this process, they reacquaint themselves more and more with truth, with objectivity, and with the real world; they lose their prejudices and provincialism and begin to see the real nature of religion.
At the same time, this process is extremely difficult. Is it easy to question what you were taught by your parents? Is it easy to question the priests, who everyone else says have certain knowledge about the afterlife and God? Is it easy to question the truths believed in by your countrymen, your nation, your religion?
Indeed this process often leads to persecution, and it is not by accident that many of history’s mystics end up as martyrs. We see this in the accounts of early Christianity; and we see other examples of it in the lives of Christ and Socrates. Drifting too far from orthodoxy is dangerous in many times, and unfortunate mystics may find themselves perishing for this work.
One of the most difficult aspects of the mystic life, which makes it a struggle for us who try to comprehend it, is the primary means by which the mystic apprehends truth. While most of us defer to logic and critical reason as the means by which we come to conclusions, the mystic, while not rejecting these, inevitably moves past them and comes to, in their opinion, the most refined source of truth, intuition.
Intuition is something that recurs throughout the history of religion, and indeed “revealed knowledge” or “higher knowledge” is claimed by most religions as being the force that inspired their prophets or led to the writing of their holy books. Christians claim the Gospels are “revealed”; Muslims claim divine inspiration for their scripture the Koran; and Hindus claim a divine origin for their text the Bhagavad Gita.
Mystics claim to be led by strong inward pushes and pulls that they say lead them on their quest. This force is sometimes referred to as an “inner voice” or an “audition,” though when one reads the Spanish mystics (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross) they state that the closer this phenomenon comes to an actual voice the more questionable it becomes.
We see this strong inner push, for example, in Francis of Assisi’s sudden decision to renounce worldly life; and again in Teresa of Avila in her quest to reform the Carmelite order. There is even an account of this in Buddhism. After his enlightenment Siddhartha initially refused to begin a ministry, but was only persuaded to do this after a personal revelation (Sahampati).
The best example of this phenomenon in literature, however, appears in the Apology of Plato. During his trial, Socrates claims to be guided by such an inner voice, his “daimonion,” which he says has offered him the best and wisest counsel throughout his life (31d). Socrates states that the inner voice guided his conduct during the trial; and that it also informed his decision not to flee the sentence of the Athenians.
This force of intuition seems to be the most questionable in the early steps of the mystic life, often being conflated with one’s own opinion. However, it appears this force plays a major role in all instances of the advanced mystic life (Inner Castle, VI:3).
The illuminated life begins after the stage of purgation. From the Jungian perspective, the illuminated life is the product of the renewed integration of the psyche which proceeds after the turmoil of the previous stage. In books of mysticism, this stage is usually associated with the contemplative life.
What is contemplation? Contemplation refers to the act of focusing the attention: of grasping control of the digressive mind and establishing oneself in states of internal quiet. Contemplation is often practiced by the mystic in various states of withdrawal, for example as one retires to a monastery or the wilderness to focus on meditation.
Contemplatives appear frequently throughout religion. Dante dedicates one of the highest spheres of the Paradiso to them; and we see other examples of them in the Desert Fathers, Spanish mystics, and Indian yogis.
Descriptions of the contemplative life are remarkably similar across different faiths. The most common description of the steps of contemplation is the following.
1. Concentration. The first step of the contemplative. One starts with a digressive and wandering mind that is unable to focus. The contemplative applies and sustains the attention (in the Buddhist tradition, “vitarka” and “vicara”), often done by focusing on an object, such as the breath or a candle.
2. Meditation. Eventually, the constant effort at controlling the mind produces results, and a state of quiet stillness is achieved. In this, the usual chattering-mind is overcome and the contemplative abides in a state of inner quiet.
3. Absorption. The remarkable claim of the mystics. Here they claim their state of inner quiet deepens, and they experience something more. Sometimes this state is referred to as ecstasy (samadhi). The mystics often claim that in this state - at least for brief moments - their experience of individuality lapses and they achieve a state of unity with the divine.
This division appears in Underhill’s work Mysticism (II:6-8) and recurs in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives the names of dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, correlating with the three listed above.
Buddhism describes the practice of right meditation (samma sati) which it states leads inevitably to the state of right ecstasy (samma samadhi). The Buddhists describe the states of absorption in their teaching of the four jhanas (altered states of consciousness experienced during meditation).
Likely the most famous example of ecstasy is visible in the statues of Bernini, who portrayed the religious experiences of Teresa of Avila in his art. However, ecstasy recurs in many figures, from Rumi to Catherine of Siena to Hildegard of Bingen.
Here we must confront the two mystical theses; the two bold claims of the mystics. These two claims, if accepted, are life-transformative, and mean extraordinary consequences for us in our understanding of reality. As a result of their contemplative practices, mystics claim (1) the continuity of consciousness after the death of the body and (2) the illusion of I-hood.
The continuity of consciousness after the death of the body
References to consciousness existing outside of the body appear throughout religious literature, but the most notable ones arise in the letters of Paul (“Whether in the body or out of it I do not know,” 2 Corinthians 12) and in the account of Mohammed’s ascent to the seventh heaven (Koran, 53:13-18). Teresa of Avila alludes to her own experiences of such phenomena in her discussions on “transport” which appear in the Inner Castle (VI:5). When reading the Buddhist suttas, we can infer the same claims of spiritual travel were made by the Buddha, due to his detailed descriptions of the heavenly and hellish realms which exist in Buddhist cosmology (eg, the pure abodes and naraka). Finally, modern references to this phenomenon appear in the “out-of-body experience” movement, with the main figure being Bob Monroe (Journeys Out of the Body).
Is consciousness the product of the body or does consciousness precede it? This is one of the great questions of human life, one of the great mysteries, and is a central question that has been debated by human beings since the dawn of time. Indeed, the debate between the two answers is so perennial that it appears in ancient Greek philosophy.
The Greek philosopher Plato, often remembered as being a key figure in the history of religion, concluded that consciousness could exist independently of the body. Indeed, to him “philosophy was the preparation for death” (Phaedo 64a); philosophy refined and perfected the soul so it could ascend to the higher spheres after the body’s end.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, the father of science (“natural philosophy”), in contrast proposed the opposite answer. Aristotle stated the powers of the soul - including perception, memory, and intelligence - were produced by “hylomorphism,” the coming together of matter and form (On the Soul). In other words, the soul was a product of physical matter.
Platonism presented several theories on the soul. These appeared in the dialogues in the doctrines of metempsychosis (reincarnation) and anamnesis (remembering what was forgotten), as well as in the Myth of Er.
The Myth of Er - the most relevant of these for our purposes - appears In The Republic. In this tale, Plato describes a man named Er, a soldier who was thought to have died in battle and who was subsequently placed on a funeral pyre by his compatriots. Yet in the account, Er awakens on the pyre and recounts what he experienced in the afterlife. Indeed, the tale of Er reads like a modern near-death experience.
Er explains he saw large numbers of people, some rising and some descending; some in queue to take on human forms, others progressing into the spirit world. Er explains the importance of morality in determining the fates of souls; and he explains the need for wisdom in choosing one’s incarnations wisely (Republic, 10.614-621).
Er explains the existence of the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, which souls are supposed to drink from prior to descending to take on a new physical form. He explains how his failure to drink from this river meant he was able to remember and recount his experience of the nonphysical world.
The tale of Er, though forgotten today, plays a major role in developing the basic concept of death and the afterlife for most people. It is worth pointing out the similarity of this account to that given in most Dharmic religions, and the similarity of the account to the Christian and Muslim afterlifes, with the exception of the Platonists’ idea of return (as opposed to the idea of only one descent).
The illusion of I-hood
The second bold claim of the mystics - what we will refer to here as the “illusion of I-hood” - is, if true, one of the supreme mysteries of the human experience. While we have encountered this premise previously (when we compared Hinduism with Buddhism), we will try to put the basic concept into words as clearly as possible.
1. The human experience is based on duality.
2. This duality means all our experience is divided between “I” and “you.”
3. Another way of expressing this is to think of the division between subject (I) and object (you).
4. The claim of the mystics is that this division is untrue.
5. In India, the illusion of division is sometimes referred to as “Maya.”
6. The mystics claim that all is actually One. Everything - all phenomena without exception - are particles of a divine Unity.
7. The illusion of division is created by the divine in order to give its creation independence and agency; but ultimately, all is One.
This state - the hypothetical state in which the illusion of separation is lost - is referred to by various names. Buddhists call it “nirvana,” Sufis “fana,” Hindus “moksha,” and Christian mystics the “spiritual marriage.” It is a hypothetical state in which one’s individuality - one’s sense of I-hood - is extinguished and merged with the divine.
Mystics such as Teresa of Avila refer to this as the highest attainment of religion (VII:2), and counsel that all efforts should be made to achieve this state. Other mystics explain that this state is really not “achieved,” but rather it is “given” after a lifetime of work (Mysticism, II:7).
This state is described as inexplicable, though various devices have been developed over the years to describe it. We have explained before the apophatic (negative) and kataphatic (positive) approaches.
Negative explanations lead to descriptions of what the state is not; Buddhism describes the state as “amata” (deathlessness) but the Buddha refused to define the experience one way or the other when questioned. (This led to the doctrine of the “unfathomables” in Buddhism.)
Positive explanations (such as those that appear in the Inner Castle) usually describe the experience as one of joy, immortality, and transcendence; describing it as a kind of “spiritual marriage” in which individuality is paradoxically both lost and retained as one unites with a higher individuality in the divine “I.”
The quest for this state is said to have driven the theologians. Augustine was said to have experienced the state “in a flash” (Confessions, VII:23-27); Thomas Aquinas, having encountered it once himself, said later that all he had written was “but straw” in comparison to it (quoted in reply to Reginald of Piperno, when asked to resume writing the Summa Theologica in 1273).
This state is what is described in all the great myths of humanity: it is the Pearl of Great Price, the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone. The descriptions of this state suggest its surpassing anything else achievable in the human condition (Mt 13), making wealth, sexual fulfillment, and fame seem like dross in comparison. This state is usually attained in brief glimpses during illumination - then later established in a stabilized form in the stage of divinization.
The Dark Night of the Soul
While we have described each of the mystic’s stages in a linear way, in practice these overlap with one another. Some mystics may have a religious experience early on, during the awakening stage; while others may go through the purgation stage to the higher spiritual life without any of the extraordinary experiences associated with illumination.
The spiritual crisis - which we have referred to in “purgation” - often persists throughout the entire spiritual life, and, indeed, may be the primary source of the individual’s whole development. This crisis may occasionally subside, letting the mystic bathe for a time in the illuminated rays of the sun; before re-emerging, causing the mystic to descend again into the long process of difficult internal work.
The most acute part of the spiritual crisis - and the most mysterious for those of us down here on earth - is what the mystics refer to as the “dark night of the soul.” This stage is said to appear shortly before the stage of perfection, and represents the greatest depths of self-negation that it may be possible for the human psyche to undergo.
The “dark night of the soul” gets its name from the poem of the same name by John of the Cross, who in the work attempted to describe this spiritual transformation. Later versions of the poem also included a commentary by the mystic, which grant us some insight into the changes that accompany this stage (as well as showing us the great psychological insight of John of the Cross).
John’s poem is the following.
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
Several of the themes we have been discussing appear in this work. I will examine some of these briefly, though John of the Cross goes into much greater detail in his own commentary (which is usually published alongside the poem).
John describes the inability of the human mind to comprehend the higher states of the mystic (“on a dark night,” “without being observed”), referring to the transcendent nature of what occurs for these saintly figures. John alludes to overcoming the spiritual crisis (“my house being now at rest”), and alludes to his achievement of a state of stillness.
John refers to Jacob’s ladder (“by the secret ladder”), a metaphor of the mystics we mentioned before. John describes the state as positive (“a happy night”), suggesting its sublime and blissful properties; and alludes to a common charism (“save that which burned in my heart”), sensations of warmth felt in the heart described by mystics and portrayed in hagiography.
John is guided to the “place where he was waiting for me,” a “place where none appeared” - referring to Christ, in this case, as an embodiment of the divine. The place described seems to be a reference to the “loss of I-hood” we mentioned earlier.
John leans toward negative language (the repetition of “night”) in attempting to communicate the experience, but concludes with a positive description (“night that joined beloved with lover, lover transformed in the beloved”). John uses the metaphor of the “spiritual marriage” in describing the mystic’s supreme state: “I-hood” is not lost in annihilation, rather it is transformed in a joyful union with the divine.
The power of this state - its surpassing anything else available for mortals - is alluded to in John’s conclusion (“I remained, lost in oblivion”; “all ceased and I abandoned myself”; and “leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies”).
For us mortals this is one of the most incomprehensible states, and constitutes the boldest claim of mysticism. As we mentioned previously, Christian mystics claim that “God became man that man might become god.” We also encountered this premise elsewhere, such as in the Trials of Herakles, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and in the tale of Osiris. The claim is that a man can join the ranks of the gods, or can achieve a state of unity with the divine. But what is this state? And how can those of us on earth understand it?
Here we should cite the author R. M. Bucke, who in the early 20th century attempted to produce a survey of this phenomenon. In Bucke’s history, the book Cosmic Consciousness, he attempted to compile a list of individuals that he speculated had achieved the “divinized” state.
The individuals who made it on this list would be familiar to us, as they are the prophets, mystics, and great artists of human history. Bucke proposed Christ, the Buddha, Mohammed, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Socrates, Dante, Paul, and Walt Whitman as all individuals he thought had achieved (or partly achieved) the supreme spiritual state.
While Bucke remained open over who did or did not best fit his schema, he insisted that all these individuals had at least glimpsed the supreme state, and the results of this were visible in their actions and works.
Bucke dedicated himself to this study after his own religious experience, which we will recount below.
All at once, without warning of any kind, [Bucke] found himself wrapped around, as it were, by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire - some sudden conflagration … The next instant he knew that the light was within himself.
Directly after there came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of Brahmic Splendor which ever since lightened his life. Upon his heart fell one drop of the Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of Heaven. (Cosmic Consciousness, iv)
Bucke’s experience, something we have alluded to above in our discussion of illumination, is frequent in the mystics. The thesis of the “divinized” individual would be that they have developed a more-or-less permanent establishment of such a state following a period of work over many years.
Bucke argued that each of the individuals who attained the divinized state (he used the expression, “those with the cosmic sense”) manifested a group of common characteristics.
a. The subjective light.
b. The moral elevation.
c. The intellectual illumination.
d. The sense of immortality.
e. The loss of the fear of death.
f. The loss of the sense of sin.
g. The suddenness, instantaneousness, of the awakening.
h. The previous character of the man - intellectual, moral, and physical.
i. The age of illumination.
j. The added charm to the personality so that men and women are always (?) strongly attracted to the person.
k. The transfiguration of the subject of the change as seen by others when the cosmic sense is actually present. (Cosmic Consciousness, 79)
Bucke explains that each of these individuals later went on to great accomplishment, often by founding religions, by reforming religions, or by achieving extraordinary feats in the arts or literature. Indeed, it seems a reasonable thesis that a “divine sense” is what led to the achievements of these individuals.
Since the beginning of the human race, some have followed a noble path to a hidden city. In the city is liberation. (The Book of Shiva)
All the evidence of our study points to this: in the human condition there exists a hidden path to immortality and liberation, which has been followed across time by saints and mystics. This path is the origin of religion and the end of religion; and all the other expressions of religion (in social, political, or other domains) are ultimately digressions from this central quest.
The mystic, following their own way, again and again throughout history rediscovers and retreads this path; follows the great and noble quest from the material to the spiritual, from the emanations back to the source.