From time to time I am asked to explain “mysticism” to people, usually in response to the focus of my work, Return to the Mystic. In modern times the term has come to have a rather poor connotation, suggesting anti-intellectualism, magical or wishful thinking, or all round “woo-woo,” to name just a few of the term’s negative meanings. Too often, this rather poor connotation of the term actually does describe, with relative accuracy, what the term has come to mean in our modern age - in no small part due to the casual use of it by so many arm chair psychologists and New Age pundits. At the same time, the term maintains a different meaning, one more consistent with its more traditional meaning, which is what I intend when I use the term.
When I use the term mysticism I am referring to four things: the soul; the ego (our mental, emotional, and sensate (physical) structure); God; and the dynamic relationship that holds between these three. That is, mysticism is about the relationship of the soul with God, which requires negotiation with the ego. Indeed, mysticism actually begins with an understanding that the ego is the singular impediment to the soul’s relationship with God. Thus, the mystical journey must begin with this negotiation, for which spiritual practice is indispensable (on which more in a future reflection).
This meaning of mysticism is evident in the teachings of the mystics, from the ancient yogis of India to modern day Sufis. To wit, in the Upanishads we have clear, though admittedly less pronounce intimations of the ego as the impediment to one’s relationship with God, while in modern day Sufism we have an incredibly well developed understanding of the problem of the nefs, the tendencies of one’s lower animal nature to impede the spiritual journey. (The understanding that the ego is the singular impediment to the soul’s relationship with God is equally evident in Christianity and Buddhism.)
My work in Return to the Mystic is to help people understand the traditional meaning of the term “mysticism” by encouraging them to return to the mystic, i.e., to read the mystical texts where the meaning of mysticism and the mystical life are clearly demonstrated, as well as teaching spiritual practices that the mystics advise. Always, the two go hand in hand, as one without the other – study without practice and vice versa – is like trying to start a fire with a single fire stick.
Fire, though present in the fire sticks, is not perceived until one stick is rubbed against another.
The Self is like that fire: it is realized in the body by meditation on the sacred syllable AUM.
- Swetashwatara Upanishad