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Mysticism is an attitude or practice in many religions and spiritual traditions where people attempt to seek union with what they perceive to be spiritual realities - the One, the absolute, God or the universe - through contemplative and ascetic practices including prayer, meditation, fasting, chanting of mantras, koans, aphorisms or other devotional sayings, retreat, and occasionally use of psychoactive substances.

Those who practice mysticism often become more syncretistic, seeing religious denominations and philosophies as being different approaches to the unified Oneness of being. Religions which are centred on a holy text - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - often use those texts within mystical practice, meditating on passages and verses. Mystic practices often all point to a similar end goal of oneness - the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, the Hindu concept of Moksha (freedom from the death and rebirth cycle), union with Christ in Christianity, Irfan in Islam and so on.

Scientific understanding of mysticism

In recent years, scientists have attempted to study the psychological, biological and sociological causes of religious belief and, by extension, mystical, transcendent and religious experiences. An example of this is Pahnke's Good Friday Experiment in 1962, where divinity students in Boston, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, were given psilocybin (with a control group being given niacin as a placebo) before going to a service at the Marsh Chapel at Boston University. Those in the live group claimed to have experienced religious experiences.[1] Others have repeated this experiment, and others, to better explore the link between mysticism and psychology, including Michael Persinger's use of magnetic inducement of temporal lobe activity to prompt mystical or transcendent experiences in those who are prone to such experiences.

The mystic life

It is normal for practising mystics to pass through different stages, though these are not necessarily clearly distinguished. One writer gives a detailed account of five such stages: awakening, purification, illumination, the "dark night of the soul" and union.[2] Other Christian writers commonly list three: the way of purgation, the way of illumination, and the way of union.[3] A non-Christian classification gives a similar set: purification, concentration and identification.[4] The Sufi account in Farid ud-Din Attar's The Conference of the Birds gives no less than seven "valleys" through which the mystic passes, of which the sixth, the valley of astonishment and bewilderment, may correspond in some ways to the dark night of the soul.[5]

These stages seem to relate mainly to what has been labelled as "God-mysticism". Other forms have been identified, including nature-mysticism and soul-mysticism.[6]


There is a considerable range of mystical writing, some of it, such as the poems of Rumi, among the classics of national literatures. Many tracts are in effect instruction manuals for the practice of contemplation, incorporating some of the author's own experience. The approach of many of these instructors is that of the anonymous author of the The Cloud of Unknowing: "Smyte apon ðat ðicke cloude of unknowyng wið a scharp darte of longing love."[7] Other writers give a lucid account of what they have experienced, while some, like William Blake and Jacob Boehme, in certain of their writings, wrestle with the problem of conveying meaning to such an extent that the non-expert reader may be baffled.

See also the article on Medieval English Mystics.

Hindu mysticism

See Hinduism

Upanishadic practises were a reaction against the standard Vedic religion, with its rituals and sacrifices to gods, aiming instead to promote awareness of the ultimate reality, at once transcendent and indwelling - thus ending the cycle of death and rebirth. The Bhagavad Gita introduced a more personal element into the concept of God as ultimate reality, by using the notion of the avatar or incarnation of a deity. It taught that a devotee could get darshan (theophany - manifestation of a particular God/Goddess) if he/she did constant japa (chanting a mantra). The personal devotion (Bhakti) to a deity in this form was held to purify the soul and prepare it for union with God, though not all forms of bhakti promote the practice of mystical meditation. The evolving history has given rise to various different mystical traditions in Hinduism, some holding that the world of everyday experience is illusion, or that everyone's inmost soul is identical with God/Reality, others emphasising a relationship of love.[8]

"More than other religions, Hinduism appeals to the soul's immediate knowledge and experience of God."[9]

Islamic mysticism

Islam, with its view of God as totally transcendent and other, is not a religion conducive to a mystical approach. As a result Sufism is virtually the only form of it, though there are many branches of Sufism.

Plotinus and Christian mysticism

Plotinus (204–270) was a neo-platonist philosopher who, though not a Christian, had a profound influence on later Christian thought, especially in relation to mysticism. As a practising mystic himself, he seems to have experienced both ecstasy and the sense of union with God. He combined this experience with his heritage of neo-platonism to produce teachings both about the approach to God and about the nature of God. According to his thinking, the approach is through purification and through love. Reasoning about it is something that happens after the experience. The nature of God is held to be both transcendent and immanent.[10][11][12]

Augustine, among others, was influenced by Plotinus, and he himself helped to create the later Christian orthodoxy. Many Christian mystics stayed happily within the orthodoxy of their time. Others were driven beyond it.


  1. Walter N. Pahnke, Drugs and Mysticism, The International Journal of Parapsychology, 1966
  2. Underhill, E. Mysticism. Methuen & Co. 12th ed, 1930
  3. Happold, F C. Mysticism: a study and an anthology. Penguin Books. 1963
  4. Radhakrishnan. Eastern Religions and Western Thought. Oxford University Press. quoted Happold
  5. Farid ud-Din Attar, translated from the French of Garcin de Tassy by C S Nott. The Conference of the Birds. Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1961
  6. Happold
  7. Hodgson, P (ed). The Cloud of Unknowing. Oxford University Press. 1944
  8. Spencer, S. Mysticism in World Religion. Penguin Books. 1963
  9. Eliot, C. Hinduism and Buddhism. London. Vol 1, Introduction. 1921 quoted Spencer
  10. Spencer
  11. Underhill
  12. Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. George Allen & Unwin. 1946