In seeking to understand ourselves and our place in the universe, we grapple with concepts just beyond our reach. Infinity, Eternity, the Absolute -- we conceive these ideas, but language fails to define them satisfactorily. As we strive for deeper expressivity, we explore these mysteries, sometimes experiencing them in profound ways that again defy words. We sense unification between ourselves and the infinite, and we struggle toward it, inventing terms that fail to convey the total experience: Illumination, Union, Irfan, Nirvana, Moksha, Samadhi. Some of us, like pioneers, forge ahead into this realm of the inexpressible. We call them “Mystics”, and their endeavor, “Mysticism”.
These labels prove as difficult to define as the experience itself. Entire vocabularies have emerged out of the need to describe the indescribable. Religion speaks of the individual Spirit's union with God; philosophy describes inseparability between the Relative and the Absolute; physics speaks of the illusion of separateness within a unified Body of Creation. But, when speaking of the mystical, words get in the way -- each vocabulary inadvertently alienates some people, and every lexis ultimately fails to overcome its inescapably relative nature. Words that hover near the truth of mysticism may also serve to misdirect: Occult, Magic, the Supernatural. Even wordless vocabularies such as painting and music can evoke the awe of infinity, and yet each person’s encounter with art is subjective – no universal reality is unveiled.
Yet one responsibility the mystic commonly takes on is to share some glimmer of their experience with others. How do they approach this task? Some mystics have employed poetic language that can appear puzzling on the surface. In the Tao Te Ching, we read that “The tao that can be spoken is not the eternal tao,” which affirms that words are simply incapable of delivering the complete truth. The Vimalakirti Sutra demonstrates this same idea with an endlessly unfolding assertion that “the construct that all constructs are empty is empty.”
Working within religious vocabulary, other mystics sometimes employ what is known as “apophasis”, or Negative Theology, which attempts to describe God by negation. For example, rather than say “God is One,” the apophasis statement might be that “There is no multiplicity in God’s being.”
The Oneness of God, a central theme in monotheistic religions in general, takes on a unique perspective in mysticism. In Islamic vocabulary, for example, “tawhid” denotes the oneness of God with Himself, but, as the author Geoffrey Parrinder writes, “in mystical terminology [tawhid] indicates the union of the human personality with the divine" (15). Two indivisible elements that most religions view as comprising the Oneness of God -- immanence and transcendence -- are also uniquely understood by the mystic, who seeks spiritual union by discovering God within himself. This process is what the professor Michael A. Sells describes as "a distinctive dialectic of transcendence and immanence in which the utterly transcendent is revealed as the utterly immanent" (6). This revelation marks the actual moment of mystical union, “in which the boundaries between divine and human, self and other, melt away" and “the subject of the act is neither divine nor human, neither self nor other" (Sells, 7).
This relationship between the relative self (man) and the Absolute (God) is another theme central to mysticism. The “melting away” of the distinction between self and other is how many mystics describe spiritual union. The editor John White explains it as "getting rid, that is, of the egocentric consciousness which experiences life from a contracted, self-centered point of view rather than the free, unbound perspective of a sage who knows he or she is infinity operating through a finite form" (Introduction). Mystics universally describe this union as blissful, sacred and verbally inexpressible.
And yet not all mystics agree on what the “other” really is, or to what degree they unite with it. Some contend that they maintain some degree of separateness with a conscious God imbued with anthropomorphic attributes -- an object of veneration or love. This perspective is shared by many general followers of religion. Other mystics feel that in union they lose identity completely, becoming entirely absorbed in a “Oneness” that is sometimes referred to as “non-being”. Yet even these “Mystics of Infinity” maintain that love is central to their experience. How can love exist without relativism? Perhaps love is the bridge whereupon self meets other, and opposite sides disappear.
"Mysticism,” writes the English author Evelyn Underhill, “is seen to be a highly specialized form of that search for reality, for heightened and completed life, which we have found to be a constant characteristic of human consciousness" (93). Like all definitions of mysticism, Underhill’s is ultimately incomplete, just as descriptions of mystic experience are always inadequate. This ineffability suggests that the importance of mysticism lies not in touching truth, but in reaching for it.
It is our nature to struggle for the infinite. But the mystic, having discovered a path to truth, finds it difficult to share his knowledge with the average man, who is chained to a relative vision and ill prepared for the journey. The mystic master teaches his disciples, and sends out signs to the rest of humanity, that the path exists for those ready to take the first step.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. Mysticism in the World's Religions. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1976.
Sells, Michael A. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Mineola, New York: Dover, 2002.
White, John, ed. What Is Enlightenment?: Exploring the Goal of the Spiritual Path. New York: Paragon House, 1995.