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What is Mysticism
Plus an unruly rant about my fear of fascism and the importance of autonomy.
A few nights ago, a friend asked me for my definition of mysticism. The conversation was being recorded for a podcast, so I was in a particular headspace—you know the one: slightly top-heavy from wanting to do a good job, maybe trying just a little too hard to reach for the impressive words, contorting just a little bit around your own high status. I don’t think I was doing badly because of these things, but there’s no way they weren’t toying with my output.
In any case, he asked me, point blank, “So, what is mysticism?”
I balked. Words poured out of my mouth—none of them particularly cogent—as I tried to dance with a definition in the same way I will often dance with the notes of a melody; namely, I tried to use all of me to articulate all of it. And while I can’t recall how I actually answered that question, something in the chaos of the moment has been haunting me, so I wanted to take a moment and attempt to answer again, this time with order.
What is mysticism?
Pragmatically speaking, the mystical arm of any particular religion—and each religion has got one—is the arm interested in cultivating a direct experience of the divine. Each tradition has different means of said cultivation, as in the Sufis, who twirl for hours around an inner center, undisturbed by dizziness because their channel to The Beloved is so direct, or the Kabbalists who learn the subtle awareness of attending to Ein Sof as he reveals himself through the ten emanations of the sefriot, or any number of Christian mystics who lose themselves so completely in prayer as to become ecstatic. So, in a sense, mysticism is knowing so deeply that communion is possible that communion happens. Mysticism tears God off the page and puts him right inside your very bones. In that sense, it’s both heretical and transgressive. It’s antinomian, as comparative religious scholar Jeffrey Kripal would say—meaning it defies the laws.
And maybe that’s what makes it so hard to talk about. It’s all at once personal and the least personal—that is, of the highest order—game in town. It’s both everlasting and emergent, in and of, apparent and occulted. It moves and breaths, and yet has remained unchanged since time immemorial. It’s happening, has already happened, and will never happen. It has an amoral ethic, encompassing both beauty and terror, and does not bend toward anything in particular.
In that sense, there’s really not a whole lot to hang your hat on. You can see why the Gnostics were reviled amongst Christians when they first asserted their teachings… there was nothing in them which could be used to control anyone.
Because mysticism is interested in how the individual navigates his or her relationship to the All for themselves—nothing more.
But here is the thing, and maybe this is part of why I find this conversation weird or hard or annoying to talk about: mysticism is nothing special. As far as I can tell, mysticism is a by-product of paying close, courageous, unabashed attention to life—of letting the depth of it penetrate you until you’re turned inside out “and all that is left is a tendency to shine,” as Adyashanti writes. There is nothing particularly impressive, certainly nothing trendy, and definitely nothing particularly noteworthy about a mystical orientation: except, maybe, that a shocking number of people seem unwilling to admit to one. That is to say, it’s not a badge for one’s scouts’ vest, its life. If one is paying attention at all, it just is what is.
And while I’m on that note, let me say that mysticism is not a public affair. It is not like religion, which is studied and served in community, with ritual, tradition, and celebration. Those things can, and certainly do, offer the willing constituent a mystical experience, but that’s a happy accident if it happens. A mystical experience is a revelation for your eyes only, an apocalypse of the heart witnessed by no more than one.
For that reason, your mystical life is for you alone. Its yours to master, to study, to deepen, if you so choose. Mysticism is about cultivating a living, breathing relationship with something wholly other inside of you. It’s building a relationship to the Self. It’s learning the language of the divine as it appears in your particular life circumstances. It’s a conversation with God. If one’s mysticism has more to do with the what than the how—what to wear, what to practice, what to read, what to believe, who to follow—we’re not talking about mysticism anymore. What is mystical is much, much closer than all of that.
There is a reason the words mystical and mystery share a root—certainly because of the mysterious nature of the revelatory experience, the encounter with the numinous— but also because what goes on between you and your God is a mystery to all others. “God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night,” writes Rilke. In other words, we are each privileged with our own direct line to God—that is mysticism.
It can become tricky to talk about here, because as privileged as we each are to bask in a direct line to the Mystery, we are also really dumb about it. We are easily mislead, distracted, distanced, scared off, ignorant, blind, or misinformed. In my experience working on very deep levels with humans—psychically, emotionally, and physically—it’s far more common for people to have the wrong idea about what’s really going on than the right one.
Most people assume that a conversation with God means things are always easy. Or that life is full of happiness. Or that the heart always feels full of grace and love. But that is rarely the case. Often we are so lost in the miasma of our own righteousness, the graceful thing to have happen actually looks on the surface quite a bit like calamity. Depression. Loathing. Isolation.
"To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or for worse." ~CG Jung
And this is the thing about being committed to a mystical life…. If you are, and you are being presented a conversation rife with loss, addiction, and suffering, your task is to do it on purpose. Mysticism surfs the edge of all experience like a connoisseur tasting a fine wine: there are no bad flavors, only flavors that your palate doesn’t understand. The idea that any of us knows what’s good for us is the product of an arrogant, limited mindset. As I often say, whether something is good or bad is above my pay grade.
And that—to me—is the essence of mysticism.
Why does this matter?
It matters because without a direct experience, all of religion is speculation. It’s children playing dress up. It’s overhearing a few bits of the neighbors’ conversation and selling it to a journalist as fact. It’s fake news.
Saying nothing against faith, tradition, or the importance of ceremony and ritual. In fact, I am a resounding YES for those things. They are some of my favorite parts of life, as anyone who knows me can attest to. Gimme candles, myths, songs, and funny clothes any time. But without direct experience, we are very easily taken by what Jung would call a creed—that is, a blind acceptance of someone else’s truth. And the problem with that is there can be no self-actualization if we’re taking someone else’s word for it.
One cannot become oneself if one is always being the person other people have told him he is.
Call me a product of my American upbringing, but I believe in autonomy more than I believe in most things. The fact that we can think for ourselves—that we can lift up every strongly held assumption, every tired old belief, or unconsciously programed line of code in our minds and examine them, claim them, choose to change them, or toss them out completely of our own volition is actually the most important thing humans can do. We can self-examine, think critically, and become fully honest with ourselves and the world as a result. This is the hallmark of human consciousness, it is the cutting edge of the mind, and not to out too fine a point on it, but it is the antidote to evil in the world. To me, we cannot talk about the mystical without naming that it presupposes a deep, autonomous impulse to self-actualize. It is the equivalent of free thought for the religious instinct, one of the five human instincts according to Jung (which is also referred to as the instinct for self-reflection, or meaning making; the others being hunger, sexuality, activity, and creativity).
But autonomy, like the mystical, can be very hard to locate. It is often buried under so many layers of mental programing from years of performing gymnastics in the cultural circus, people don’t even realize its absence. Indeed, I consider a buried instinct toward autonomy to be the most severe casualty of trauma, and perhaps that’s why I do the work that I do. And once the autonomous instinct has been buried—a graveyard of unfollowed impulses—then, naturally, when it does arise, it wears the guise of a burdensome threat, not a welcome savior to pave the way to a new level of consciousness.
I could say the same for the mystical. It very rarely comes bearing an obvious gift.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but there are horrendous consequences of a populous that buys into cultural creeds. And I’m not just talking about religious ones. The immediacy of the fever pitch reached by a mass of people swept up in the fallacy of an ideology is actually the only war we’ve ever fought, if you really think about it. Because a people who have lost a sense of their own autonomy—that is, a people whose identity has been subsumed by the group’s—will go to dangerous lengths to defend the creed-which-is-them, so lost are they in their swallowed identification. When we do not allow a direct experience of ourselves—allow the lusty, wild, terrible, true, good, beautiful life that is ours and ours alone—in, and instead subsist on the status quo, we are liable to be totally overcome by the wave of the life that’s not ours, to which we have unconsciously wedded ourselves to for safe keeping.
The way I see it is this: a creed is like the tide. If one has bought into the creed and hasn’t keep some kind of tether to their own roots, then when the tide swells through the collective—and swell it will—they easily lose themselves in the uprising; as easily as a grain of sand in a wave. Without a tether to Self, man becomes just one of the millions of foamy bubbles on the tip of the crashing surf; when the wave moves, he moves, the power of the collective imbuing him with a false sense of identity through the very power of it, while his identity has been fully lost at sea.
There’s a reason Jung was so adamant about the necessity of a direct experience to truly come to consciousness. Without it, the hollowness of one’s identity structure is bound to be filled by something very akin to groupthink.
I’m, of course, not saying that the only way to avoid being a fascist is to be a mystic—that would be rather hypocritical of me—but I am saying that learning to cultivate personal meaning, self-reflect, and engage in a conversation with the unseen depths within you is the only defense against the tide of ideology, the undertow of creeds.
Why is Jung considered a mystic? What’s that about?
You may or may not know that Jung is often called a mystic by his detractors (as if living a life in deep connection with the terrifying reality of existence is anything to scoff at), a moniker he often wriggled out of because it cast him and his work in too soft of a light. To him, and to anyone who has read him with any amount of care, his psychology was birthed of hard empiricism just like any other science. The only problem is, it cannot be replicated, and repeatability is one of the hallmarks of good rational Western science.
Jung’s methods cannot be replicated, per se, because the empirical truth of a singular individual is an empirical truth which is uniquely true to them: the same methods of inquiry, symbolic interpretations, or therapeutic interventions will simply not apply to another. There is nothing more scientific than attending to precisely what is happening in front of you with the utmost care and skillful observation—a task which is nothing if not empirical—but there is also nothing harder to reproduce than a sunset which has already passed. You had to be there. Such is the empiricism of Jung.
That being said, the man was able to glean some kind of truths about the psyche, in particular the presence of such archetypal entities as the shadow, the anima/animus, the ego, and the like. But again—each of these manifests in each of us uniquely. No two are the same.
Perhaps he is considered a mystic because his psychology is a psychology of paying attention, which is ultimately only ever always paying attention to the conversation with the mystery. His is a psychology of attending the unconscious, wherein lies every unknown truth, every irrational tug, every intuitive call, every archetypal plot. When we attend the unconscious—something done by looking where it tends to lurk; namely dreams, drug experiences, the body, & catastrophes that reek of fate—it could be said that we are building a bridge to the divine. For him, there was nothing “mystical”—that is, nothing magical or lovely or light-filled or angelic—about his psychology; the opposite, in fact. His was a psychology of stalking the inner other as far deep, dark, and devilish as it goes—a process which ultimately results in a living, breathing, real-time connection with something so much bigger than the individual conscious self. For him, psychology was not belief, dogma, or proven fact: it was a living, breathing encounter with the unknown.
I guess, if anything’s mystical, that is. And by that definition, he was undeniably a mystic.
So, to summarize I’ll say:
Mysticism is orienting to the deepest truth one can find within one’s own lifeblood. It is the revelation of the divine in this lifetime. Mysticism is not a set of practices, beliefs, or dogmas to undermine one’s identity. Mysticism is autonomous, transgressive, amoral (albeit ethical), and antinomian. It is a wild acceptance of what really is.
There’s a fair number half-baked ideas in here, and perhaps even a few that are totally raw, but the point of this month-long experiment is not to produce something fully formed, but instead to begin the process of fleshing out. I’m along for the ride as much as you. Did I know that today when I began writing about mysticism I’d end up talking about the dangers of groupthink? Nope! But that’s what we’re doing here :-).
Thanks for playing.