Mysticism is meditation, prayer, or theology focused on the direct experience of union with divinity, God, or Ultimate Reality, or the belief that such experience is a genuine and important source of knowledge.
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Perspectives of mysticism
A wide range of perspectives occur among spiritual traditions and beliefs which embrace direct experiential knowledge of God, Divinity, or Ultimate Reality. Different traditions adopt a range of intellectual or rational assessments of what is likely, possible, provable, approvable, or factual. Among these the idea of union or interrelationship of oneself and of all mortal beings with the ultimate imperishable being is often declared to be something that can be experienced in profound, definite, and personally undeniable ways, rather than something that is merely conjectured. It is often asserted that the triggering of such experience can involve ritual prayer and contemplations focused on such union, or may sometimes occur spontaneously with some individuals.
Subjectivity and mysticism
In theistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic classical pantheist/cosmotheist metaphysical systems, mystical experience is most often understood as individual communion with a god or goddess. These experiences are very subjective, and they may be experienced as visions, dreams, revelations, prophecies, and so forth. Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic mystic from the 13th century, defined it as cognitio dei experimentalis. In Catholicism the mystical experience is not sought for its own sake, and is always informed by revelation and ascetical theology. This causes the subjectivist tendency of mysticism to be curtailed, as experiences not aligned with truths otherwise known are discarded.
In philosophy, the term Perennial Philosophy is used, and relates to a primary concern:
- "[W]ith the one, divine reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one reality is such that it cannot be directly or immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit." — Aldous Huxley
Some mystics use the term to refer to a manner wherein the mystic plumbs the depths of the self and reality in a radical process of meditative self-discovery to discover the true nature of reality experientially. This can happen with or without the use of mind-altering substances.
Mysticism and syncretism
Mystics of different traditions report similar experiences of a world usually outside conventional perception, although not all forms of mysticism abandon knowledge perceived through normal means. Based on extraordinary perception, mystics may believe that true unity of religion and philosophy can be found in mystical experience.
Elements of mysticism are present in most religions and many philosophies. Some mystics perceive a common thread of influence in all mystic philosophies that they see as traceable back to a shared source. The Vedic tradition is inherently mystic; the Christian apocalyptic Book of Revelation is clearly mystical, as with Ezekiel's or Daniel's visions of Judaism, and the Koran is thought by Muslims to have been inspired by the angel Gabriel in a mystical manner. Indigenous cultures also have cryptic revelations pointing toward a universal flow of love or unity, usually following a vision quest or similar ritual. Mystical philosophies thus can exhibit a strong tendency towards syncretism.
Some systems of mysticism are found within specific religious traditions and do not relinquish doctrinal principles as a part of mystical experience. For example, Christian mystics, through the centuries, have not decided that Jesus is not God after all: in other words, not all mysticism results in syncretism. In some definite cases, theology remains a distinct source of insight that guides and informs the mystical experience. For example, Thomas Aquinas' mystical experiences all occurred squarely within the love of the Catholic Eucharist.
On the difficulty of defining mysticism
Seemingly open-ended statements are frequently encountered among studies of mysticism, throughout its history, for example in Taoist thought and in studies of Kabbalah. In his work, Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, a prominent 20th century scholar of that field, stated: The Kabbalah is not a single system with basic principles which can be explained in a simple and straightforward fashion, but consists rather of a multiplicity of different approaches, widely separated from one another and sometimes completely contradictory.
In Catholic traditions, mystical theology is informed by revelation, which averts an apparent tendency to become lost in formless thought. Christian mystics, too, are obligated to obey the forms of ascetical and moral theology, as following Christ is their primary objective, rather than seeking mystical experiences for their own sake.  (http://chastitysf.guidetopsychology.com/guide.htm)
Theosophy and "the occult"
The late 19th century saw an significant increase of interest in mysticism in the West that was combined with increased interest in Occultism and Eastern Philosophy. Theosophy was a major movement in the popularization of these interests. Madame Blavatsky and Gurdjieff were central figures of the theosophy movement. This trend was later to become absorbed in the rise of the New Age movement which included a major surge in the popularity of astrology. At the end of the 20th Century books like Conversations With God (a series which describes the author's experience of direct communication with God) hit the bestseller lists, and films like The Matrix reached an audience not unfamiliar with its philosophical themes.
Examples in major traditions
Examples of major traditions and philosophies with strong elements of mysticism are:
- Christian Gnosticism
- Christian mysticism
- Eastern Orthodox Hesychasm
- Judaic Kabbalah
- Mormonism, being founded on visions, revelations, and angelic ordination
- Mystery religions and cults
- Native American Ghost Dances of the late Nineteenth Century were mystical in origin
- The New Age movement
- Quakerism in its theology
- Sufic Islam
- Tibetan Buddhism
- Transcendentalist Unitarianism
- Vedantic Hinduism
- Zen Buddhism
Some examples of Hindu mystics:
Some examples of Christian mystics:
- John the Apostle (? -101)
- Clement of Alexandria (? -216)
- Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
- Gregory I (590-604)
- Saint Anselm (1033-1109)
- Hugh of Saint Victor (1096–1141)
- Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
- Mechtild of Magdeburg (1210-1279)
- Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 - 1327/8)
- Gregory Palamas (1296 - 1359)
- Bridget of Sweden (1302-1373)
- Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)
- Margery Kempe (c.1373-1438)
- St. Paracelsus (1493-1541)
- Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
- John of the Cross (1542-1591)
- Jacob Boehme (1575-1624)
- Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682)
- Sarah Wight (1632-?)
- St. Molinos (1640-1696)
- Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)
- St. William Blake (1757-1827)
- Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824)
- Jakob Lorber (1800 - 1864)
- Max Heindel (1865 - 1919)
- Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
Some examples of Jewish mystics:
- Shimon bar Yochai (c.200)
- Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-1291)
- Moses ben Shem Tob de Leon (1250-1305)
- Isaac Luria (1534-1572)
- Moses Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746)
- Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)
- Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935)
- Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994)
Some examples of other mystics:
- Apophatic theology
- Western mystery tradition
- Wikipedia (2004). Mysticism (http://www.wikipedia.org/Mysticism). Retrieved Oct. 16, 2004.
- Mysticism (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10663b.htm) in Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/)
- Who's Who in the History of Mysticism (http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/gthursby/mys/whoswho.htm) by Professor Bruce B. Janz
- ChristianMystics.com (http://www.christianmystics.com/) includes many short essays covering various aspects of Christian mysticism
- Alphabetical List of Mystics (http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/gthursby/mys/alpha.htm)
- Christian Mysticism (http://www.digiserve.com/mystic/Christian/)
- Evelyn Underhill's classic work (http://www.ccel.org/u/underhill/mysticism/mysticism1.0-MYSTICIS.html) A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness
- Mysticism in World Religions (http://www.digiserve.com/mystic/index.html)
- The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception or Mystic Christianity (http://www.rosicrucian.com/rcc/rcceng00.htm)