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3 Tutorials that teach Mysticism
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Author: Ted Fairchild

Define what mysticism and recognize how various religions practice it.

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Hello. Welcome. Today we're going to talk about mysticism. It's a term that's easily misunderstood. So for this lesson, we're going to lay out some of the basic elements of mysticism and provide some examples from several religions and traditions.

The word itself, "mysticism," comes from two Greek words-- "to conceal" and "to initiate." Western psychology, in fact, has a very long history-- not as long as mysticism itself-- but has an interesting history of having offered an interpretive lens for understanding mysticism and mystical experience. Sigmund Freud linked it to the primitive ego feeling of a child prior to separation from the mother. In other words, the feeling of complete immersion and oneness with the other, where there is no separation between oneself and life's source and sustenance.

Surely, this changes. Separation occurs, and the ego develops with all of its constructions of self and other, with all of its defenses that try to protect the individual from the suffering that this might cause.

Well, very generally and broadly, the term "mysticism" is oriented around the possibility of seeing through these and other false constructions that might hinder awareness of something else. Again, very generally, in history, this has meant an experience of and communion with the divine. So mysticism is not necessarily a specific path, but refers to something experiential that is not that easy to define.

Many of the world's religions have elements of mysticism in them in terms of customary practices that might guide one toward greater clarity and insight, perhaps allowing for a different level of receptivity, something one might normally be conditioned to avoid. Some examples of these traditional practices include meditation, contemplative prayer, mantras and chanting. The idea with mantras and chanting is that an excessive repetition of specific words and sounds will assist in transporting one beyond the realm of the familiar and ordinary world. And there are also particular indigenous and tribal practices, like drumming and dancing and ingesting psychoactive plants, intended to induce an ecstatic state, a state of union with the divine, bringing extreme feelings of joy and happiness.

Just a moment ago, I mentioned Western psychology. And there are many interpretive structures that it has in common with Buddhism, particularly when talking about the nature of experience and the role of the ego and the self. Freud used the phrase "primitive ego self," unconditioned by experience of separation from source and sustenance.

In Buddhism, there's a Sanskrit term called "anatman," which means "no self." The idea is that, ultimately, our suffering is caused by the endless clinging and grasping for self identity, an identity which is constantly changing and in flux. Being impermanent, any identity and the associated experience of self, well, all of this is mere illusion.

In other words, anything that we might want to cling to for security and identity-- my car, my iPhone, my body, my concepts, my knowledge-- it's in fact empty. Everything is empty. All phenomena are inherently empty of self, because everything is completely interdependent upon and the result of something else, something other than itself.

The Buddhist hopes to gain insight into this doctrine of dependent origination, it's called, which is linked with the non-conceptual experience of emptiness, which in Sanskrit is called shunyata. Meditation, chanting, and silence, and in many sects of Buddhism, prayer, they're all used to facilitate these experiences of emptiness and no self.

In Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualistic school of Hinduism, there's this idea that atman and brahman can be experienced simultaneously. Atman is the self, the true self. And brahman is the absolute principle of being, the absolute reality. And there are certain methods that one can practice in order to experience this state of non-dualism. This is sought through different yoga practices, chants, and meditations.

In other branches of Hinduism, like Vaishnavism, for example, there are certain devotional yoga practices, spiritual, mental, and physical, called bhakti, which are designed to help the devotee achieve complete surrender to and union with God, with the god Vishnu, or his incarnation, Krishna. In some cases, a vision of some part of Vishnu's body will be encountered and experienced.

And another example of communing with the transcendent realm is in the religion of Santeria, which contains elements of many different religions and traditions, including Native American, Roman Catholic, West African, and Caribbean. One custom involves dancing and drumming with the goal of communing with the deities and also making contact with ancestor spirits.

An example from some branches of Tibetan Buddhism is the practice of creating elaborate, colorful designs called mandalas using tiny granules of sand. Based on the text called the Kalachakra Tantra, these mandalas represent the three wheels of time, the three time wheels. And they're used for initiation ceremonies, where the initiate meditates on the images, attaining a vision of the Buddha body and divine emptiness. These mandalas are also used for generating compassion and extending piece out into the world.

And the Western religions, too, have a long history of mystical approaches to the divine. The experiences of the early Christian Desert Fathers, for example, they often lived lives of extreme simplicity with the goal of trying to get closer to God. The hope was that, by stripping away the distractions of the known world, one could achieve some kind of union and communion with the divine, with God. And these early forms of monasticism had a great influence on the mystical tradition that was to follow.

In the fifth and sixth centuries of the common era, Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite, he developed a theological system called apathetic theology, or via negativa, negative theology, a way of denial, negative way. The idea behind this is that we can't define God, we can't say what he is, we can't indicate what his positive attributes might be. But we can possibly know God by knowing what he is not.

We can't say what he is, but maybe we can get to know him by saying what he is not. This is a mystical orientation that aims at removing preconceptions and availing oneself to the insight that the unknown might bring. The via negativa has also inspired other Christian mystics, like the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing in the 14th century of the common era.

In general, there are many branches of Christianity that have some element of mysticism in them throughout the early centuries and heavily in the Middle Ages and in contemporary society, such as the Religious Society of Friends known as the Quakers, for example. The vision of many Protestant Quakers who immigrated from England, this vision was inspired by a desire to step outside of familial structures of religious thought-- the Church of England, specifically-- to gain insight into a truth of a different sort on another level, to know and to love God without anything in between. This is done through a great deal of silence, contemplative prayer, hard physical work, and dedication to the principles and the ideals of a cooperative community, supportive and cooperative community.

Some historians of religion have equated Quakers with mysticism. The conditions we just described are thought to support an attitude that might predispose one to mystical experience and union with God. So now we can review mysticism.

We started out with the word "mysticism" coming from two Greek words meaning "to conceal" and "to initiate." And we looked at Western psychology and the idea that there is a unified experience that precedes the development of the ego. And Freud coined the term "primitive ego self." And we related that also to the Buddhist notion of no self. And that mystical experience in certain schools and sects of Buddhism desires to reconnect with that sense of oneness through mandalas, we talked about, through chants, and through meditation.

And then we looked at the development of mysticism in Christianity, beginning with the early Desert Fathers and then through the Middle Ages with the negative way, or the via negativa, or apaphatic theology. And then, finally, we spoke about the Quakers as a lifestyle and a way aligning oneself internally and with the community, such that love of God and appreciation of that oneness can be experienced through the ordinary world, but ultimately a transcendence of that.

Terms to Know
Advaita (non-dual) consciousness

An altered mental or emotional state in which the person no longer experiences a difference between the internal and external.


In Buddhism, the experience of the loss of self, usually combined with mystical religious experience.


An often-repetitive song that aims to induce a state of spiritual receptivity in the worshiper.

Contemplative Prayer

An attempt to put oneself in contact with the sacred/divine via clear and quiet thinking.


A state of intense spiritual joy and/or physical pleasure.


A practice that aims to clear the mind in order to be receptive to divinity.


A religious approach that emphasizes one's personal experience of divinity and/or the presence of divinity over philosophical or rational approaches.


In Buddhism, “emptiness” that leaves one more receptive to enlightenment through prayer and contemplation.