Characteristics of Mysticism
Frances Vaughan, Ph.D.
Mysticism belongs to the core of all great religions, yet no definition of mysticism can be broad enough to encompass all experiences and practices described as mystical. It is possible, however, to describe some of the characteristics that have been commonly attributed to mysticism.
As a subjective state of mind, mysticism is associate with a state of consciousness that surpasses ordinary experience through union with a transcendent reality. (Eliade 1987) The mystical experience was characterized by William James (1958) as ineffable, noetic, passive and transient. The mind, according to James, lies helpless under the luminous shadow of the real.
Western authors such as Rene Gueron, Aldous Huxley, Frithjof Schuon, and Huston Smith point to a common mystical experience underlying all religious theologies and doctrines. This view has been disputed by postmodern thinkers such as Stephen Katz and is discussed at length in ReVision Magazine (Fall 1989)
In her classic work on Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill (1955) discussed the following characteristics of mysticism:
1) Mysticism is the art and science of establishing conscious relation with the Absolute. The mystic is the person who attains union with the Absolute, not the person who talks about it.
2) The mystic has surrendered to the embrace of reality and sees a different world through transformed vision. The mystic lives the spiritual life.
3) Mysticism can be viewed as the art of arts, their source as well as their end. Symbol and image are the means by which the mystic attempts to communicate a vision of reality, although the full meaning of the mystical experience can never be contained in any representation.
4) True mysticism is an active, practical life process. It is not passive or theoretical. It is not a philosophy and has nothing to do with occult knowledge. It is not concerned with manipulation of the visible universe. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual.
5) Union with the One is obtained neither from intellectual investigation nor from emotional longings. These must be present, but they are not enough.
The mystic way entails an arduous psychological and process and the liberation of latent state of consciousness, sometimes called ecstasy or the unitive state.
6) In mysticism, the will is united with the emotions in the desire to be joined by love to the one eternal and ultimate object of love as perceived by the soul.
7) The one reality is, for the mystic, an object of love that draws us homeward under the guidance of the heart. The business and method of mysticism is generous love in all aspects of life. This passion is never self-seeking, but pursued only for the sake of love.
Restatements of the relevance of mysticism to contemporary life can be found not only at the heart of the great religious traditions, each one expressing a unique perception of this universal experience, but also in art, and in the life of any human being that awakens to spiritual knowledge and ecstatic love.