Mysticism is the spiritual belief that one can experience a personal connection of the absolute or divine through thought and mediation. A Greek word, it is known as any practice that leads to “religious ecstasy.” But what do mystics mean by this “ecstasy”? Who exactly are these mystics in the first place, and where did these practices originate? We’ll get to the bottom of this strange yet riveting concept soon.
When we talk of ecstasy, we think of happiness, euphoria, bliss, etc. That is essentially what the mystic searches for but through God. They achieve this euphoric state through various ethics, myths, legends, ideologies, rites, and even magic. The concept of mysticism emerged during Classical Greece and Hellenistic Age. In these times, these types of practices were deemed highly secretive. Hence, mysticism was initially associated with secretive practices such as cults.
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Let’s now go through some characteristics of mysticism to understand the phenomenon better.
General Characteristics of Mysticism
Following are a few qualities that most, not all, mysticism practices have:
- Mysticism puts a big emphasis on experiencing a union with God.
- It’s thought to be a very personal and intimate experience one gets when contemplating and reflecting upon God.
- Nearly all types of mysticism have one main goal, which is obtaining a blissful vision of God.
- Another central theme of most mystic practices is to create a divine-human soul.
- Mystics practice two major spiritual disciplines – solitude and silence.
- Mystics say their practices are unique from the traditional kinds such as prayer, the sacraments, or other religious rituals.
- They usually use extremely vivid terms to explain their religious ecstasy experiences, perhaps because it is very intense and personal. Mystics use sensual descriptions relating to their five senses to describe it.
- Some mystics talk about experiences of seeing saints or angels, but other mystics argue that the presence of God is evident by our virtuous actions rather than visions.
These are the general similarities you will find within different kinds of Mysticism; however, each variation can also have its unique qualities as well.
Variations of Mysticism
There are many religions around the world that practice variations of mysticism. Let’s go through some of the major ones.
Hinduism consists of multiple “sadhanas” that plan to overcome ignorance and go beyond one’s actual mind, body, and ego. The result is moksha, which means complete liberation.
We are all familiar with Yoga in these modern times. It possesses Hindu roots and is a type of pure mysticism.
Guru Nanak, the creator of Sikhism, was said to have profound mystical experiences when he was a child. Sikhism emphasizes viewing God from the heart or “inward eye” or heart of a human.
Buddhism originated in India between the 6th century and 4th century BCE and is mystical because its goal is to live according to your true internal nature. It aims at liberation from the cycle of rebirth by practicing self-control through meditation and observing morally just behavior.
Taoist belief revolves around the Tao that translates to “way.” The religion mainly consists of rituals and exercises which intend to manipulate the life force Qi and gain health and longevity.
Clinical psychoanalyst Dan Merkur explains shamanism as a highly regarded type of mysticism. Shamanism consists of accessing spirits during religious ecstasy.
Within Christianity, there are a few mystic practices. They can be as simple as prayer and evaluation of the Holy Scripture, Lectio Divina, or as intense as ecstatic visions of being unified with God. Eastern Orthodox mystics believe in theosis, where humans acquire divine characteristics.
Although mystic traditions are present in Eastern Christianity and Catholicism, these practices are not popular in Protestantism.
Judaism contains two types of mysticism, which are Merkabah and Kabbalah. Merkabah came first, and it focused on visions, while its successor, Kabbalah, was more inclined towards explanations and teachings.
Sufism is a part of Islamic mysticism, and its primary goal is to repair the heart and lead it to God. A Sufi’s objective is to leave everything that deviates it from God, which is why perhaps many decide to withdraw themselves from the hustle and bustle of urban life. The word Sufi can also be defined to mean purity.
Mysticism has been part of human experience all over the world since ancient times. From the Greek mathematician Pythagoras who was well known for his teachings about the soul to Joseph Smith experiencing a series of visions, mysticism continues to be a significant part of religious experience into the present day.