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What is Mysticism?

Updated on December 26, 2016

Mysticism is the doctrine that a person can experience direct awareness of ultimate reality or a sense of oneness with all things. Mystical awareness is considered to be an intuitive spiritual ecstasy that lies beyond both sense experience and the reasoning mind. Probably for this reason, attempts to describe the experience often use nonrational and contradictory terms. For example, mystics have generally described an intense awareness of fullness and light and, at the same time, of emptiness and darkness. Mystics may also be subject to trances, visions, voices, clairvoyance, and extrasensory perception, but these are not essential to mystical experience. The experience is sometimes involuntary, but mystics in both the East and the West often follow a careful program of asceticism and meditation to achieve fuller mystical awareness.

Although some mystics are skeptics, the majority believe that their experience corresponds objectively to ultimate reality. Some mystics describe this ultimate in philosophical terms, such as the Hindu Brahman (world soul), the Neoplatonist One, the Buddhist Nirvana (bliss), or the Taoist Tao (way). The ultimate is interpreted as God by religious mystics, including some Hindus, Christians, Sufi Moslems, and Hasidic Jews. The last three groups maintain that the mystical experience is the work of God in man and that man goes through the experience without losing his basic identity. Many mystics hold the opposing view that they achieve their goal through their own effort and that their individuality is absorbed into the ultimate during the experience.

The mystical experience usually produces a sense of peace, joy, and love, which most mystics express in serving their fellowmen. Thus the Hindu holy man teaches others and the Buddhist bodhisattva turns back from Nirvana to guide others to the experience. Sufi missionaries preach. Christian mystics, such as St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, John Ruysbroeck, St. John of the Cross, and George Fox, have written books and founded religious societies. Jews have developed a mystical doctrine called the Kabbalah.

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