Can Anyone Be a Mystic?
Discovering and Practicing Mysticism – Part One
Pew research from 2009 revealed that 49% of Americans say they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” 10 years later, that number is most likely higher. It has been climbing up steadily from only 22% in 1962. The numbers may be even higher considering that many may have had such experiences but wouldn’t want to put the term “religious” on it for a variety of reasons.
Have you had a mystical experience?
Many people that have are often hesitant to speak about them. They may feel that talking about it reduces or cheapens the experience. They may be concerned about how something so personally meaningful to them will be perceived by the other, or have fear of coming across as “holier-than-thou” or boasting from the ego. Or they may simply not have the words to describe an experience that is often beyond our general lexicon.
In an oft quoted remark, Karl Rahner once said, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic or nothing at all.”
What does it mean to be a mystic? And if it is so vital, how can our practice of spirituality serve us in better pursuit of mystical living?
While this word gets thrown around a lot, it’s important to emphasize that a mystic is not just someone who prays, or someone with higher consciousness, or even someone who is contemplative. In my definition, A mystic is someone who engages in the direct experience of the divine in the physical or non-physical realm, often through felt sensations, visions, and even conversation. Mystical experience can be either transcendent, deeply relational, or connected to self-identification with oneness or the divine—or all three!
Before we go much further though, we need to leap over some common pitfalls people fall into when thinking about Christian mysticism. Let’s look at 5 helpful distinctions:
1. Magical vs Trans-rational
The kind of mysticism we are talking about here is not a regression into a magical perspective. Magical thinking makes for great stories, but there is a reason we stop believing in Santa Claus (spoiler alert!). We don’t want to live in a fantasy land. Unfortunately, fairly often what gets claimed as mysticism is charlatan magic.
Rational thinking has greatly helped humanity move beyond many of these trappings (though they’re still quite prevalent). But in doing so, as is often the case with any evolutionary growth, there was an over-correction. Rationalism often became strict materialism, which denies any reality that is not observable by instruments designed to observe material reality.
Trans-rational goes beyond this materialism to acknowledge reality that is beyond rational thought. Sometimes we have a hard time accepting mysticism because we associate it with a magical perspective. It can take time to accept our experiences that aren’t rooted or explainable in the traditional scientific worldview many of us were brought up in. Quantum mechanics offers a scientific breakthrough beyond many of these Newtonian understandings, and even more there is still much of reality that science cannot account for.
2. Imagined vs Real
Often influenced by this materialist underpinning in our culture, we perhaps find our mind objecting, “Oh you’re just imagining this.” Especially if the experience isn’t overwhelmingly powerful to where we can’t deny it, we may think “Am I just making this up because I want it to be true?” Or “Is this just happening in my head?”
To which the great wise Professor Dumbledore says, “Of course it’s happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Lest we think this is just a magical perspective, let us also quote Jorge Ferrer Ph.D., one of the preeminent transpersonal psychology scholars:
“[We] should also scrutinize the neo-Kantian assumptions lying beneath skepticism and agnosticism toward the ontological status of certain spiritual realities. It is fundamental to be aware that such a stance, far from warranting neutrality or impartiality, is the fruit of Western, dualistic, and arguably disembodied epistemological ethos that automatically renders suspect many spiritual claims about the nature of knowledge and reality.”
In other words, those voices of self-doubt are probably far more suspect than thousands of years of spiritual experiences across the entire globe. Our culture’s denial of spiritual realities that we have absorbed—often passively—are not rooted in proven, scientific data, but rather a perspective shaped by cultural limitations, not higher knowledge.
We should also say, forgiving Dumbledore, that mystical experiences don’t totally happen just “inside your head.” There is a visionary quality, but a huge part of mystical accessibility comes from engaging with our whole body—most of all our hearts. Ferrer also says:
“Participatory approaches, that is, seek to enact with body, mind, heart, and consciousness a creative spirituality that lets a thousand spiritual flowers bloom.”
3. Passive vs Participatory
This last Ferrer quote also emphasizes another misconception about mysticism: participation. Too often mysticism is thought of as an almost entirely passive experience, that it is simply something that happens to you or it doesn’t. You can’t control it, force it, or make it happen. While there is some truth in this—real mystical experience cannot be contrived—it can be and often is co-created.
Indeed part of the reason people do not have more mystical experiences is because they think these moments only come in given form. And all we can do is posture ourselves and wait passively hoping, as if deep spiritual reality was only doled out in sparse amounts to a few special individuals lucky enough to be deemed worthy of receiving.
Participation is even more than just trying to cultivate an environment wherein such an experience could happen. There is plenty of evidence and experience of active participation facilitating experienced mystical reality. We are often less familiar and less developed with such practices for a variety of reasons. We’ll talk more about the “how to” of participation in future writings, but the first thing we can do is accept our role in stepping into mystical consciousness, awareness, and engagement.
“Participatory spiritual practice cultivates the embodied, relational, and enactive (i.e. creative, inquiry-driven, and world-constituting) dimensions of spiritual cocreation.”
— Jorge Ferrer
4. Ego vs Higher Self
Many mystical experiences dissolve our ego boundaries. Or they come to us from a reality that seems to exist outside of our normal egoic experience of reality. We are touched in a part of us that is beyond our everyday self.
Christians used to call this the “soul,” but that word has become a little loaded with baggage and multiple meanings. At its heart, the word points to the deeper spiritual reality that exists within us.
Because of the seeming “power” or “specialness” of mystical experiences, it’s very important not to see them as notches on our ego-belts. Engaging in mystical reality should lead us closer to knowing and living from our Higher Self. Here there is no competition, grasping, or boasting. The experiences simply are.
It’s not that we’re ego-free. Having an experience of ego-death in your life may help free you to not hold on to mystical experience as a measure of specialness, power, envy, etc. But that is not entirely necessary. If we’re coming from our deep hearts and souls, we can acknowledge mystical reality simply as something that exists. We don’t exalt our ability to engage with it, we simply want to help others see as well.
5. Private vs Connective
Sometimes people treat their mystical experiences like buried treasure. It only belongs to them, and if they share it there will somehow be less of it within. There is some truth in this. We need to be careful with that which is precious. There isn’t any need to caste pearls before swine. They might trample them underfoot. Sharing these experiences with people who aren’t ready to hear about them or engage with them can create a disappointing feeling that may have a lessening effect.
But mysticism does not fit in a worldview of scarcity. These experiences are not treasures to be buried. They are glimpses into a way of seeing and living from oneness. How would it make sense that they are supposed to be just for you?
In fact, when we share them with people who can engage and even experience into them from their own heart, there is an amplifying effect. Mysticism that is shared in similar consciousness is deeply connective, enlivening, and expanding.
Discovering Mystical Practice
Ok, so once we’ve understood these distinctions, what then?
We often stumble into our first mystical experience, often by pure grace. But as we’ve seen, this is not the sole means of engaging in the mystical. We can practice mysticism. We can grow and develop those faculties through certain approaches. We have a part to play. We’ll explore exactly how we do that next week.
“The really important division in the world of spirituality is not the line that separates the individual mainstream religions from each other, but the one that separates all of them from their mystical branches.”