Keeping the Mystery in Mysticism

At the end of our last retreat, one of the participants (whom I'll call "Jane") reported that the most important thing she had gotten out of it was a startling realization that the spiritual path is not just some kind of "super therapy"—a means of enhancing one's abilities to cope in this world—but aims, instead, at something far more profound and mysterious. Part of what made this insight so surprising was that she also realized her misconceptions had not been based on any lack of exposure to authentic spiritual teachings. As a long-time member of our Practitioners' Group, she had read many classics of mystical literature and knew, intellectually at least, that the goal of all mystical traditions is a Gnostic Awakening which actually frees one from the whole delusion that there is any truly existing 'self' in a truly existing 'world'. Nevertheless, because of her previous training in psychology, she had, at a more subconscious level, continued to regard the spiritual path as a strategy for self-improvement rather than a Way of Self-Transcendence.

Now, this tendency to interpret, or rather misinterpret, spiritual teachings in terms of one's own background and beliefs is by no means unique to Jane. Instead of fully "hearing" the words of the mystics, many seekers subconsciously censor out whatever does not accord with their existing knowledge about the world, in effect, taking the 'mystery' out of Mysticism. But one of the most important functions of mystical teachings is precisely to remind us that ultimately Reality is a Mystery—one which cannot be grasped by any of our customary ways of acquiring knowledge. Only when this has been fully recognized will the seeker be prepared to move beyond "knowing" and confront this Mystery with a mind of "unknowing," which is the indispensable prelude to the dawning of true "knowledge," or Gnosis. In order to guard against this tendency to de-mystify the teachings in ourselves, it is imperative to understand what motivates it, as well as to recognize some of the more common forms it takes.

Actually, this tendency is symptomatic of a far more general predilection, well documented by anthropologists and sociologists, which is shared by virtually all human beings, and that is to try to make anything that appears incomprehensible comprehensible by incorporating it into what is already known; or, to put it more technically, to nomonize anomalies by explaining them in terms of an established worldview or paradigm.[1] To cite but one example, here is how anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes the way in which a group of Javanese villagers responded to an unusually fast-growing toadstool:


...people came from miles around to see it, and everyone had some sort of explanation—some animist, some animatist, some not quite either—for it. Yet it would be hard to argue that toad stools had any social value...It was just that this one was "odd," "strange," "uncanny"—aneh. And the odd, strange and uncanny simply must be accounted for—or, again, the conviction that it could be accounted for sustained. . . In the broadest sense the "strange" toadstool did have implications, and critical ones, for those who heard about it. It threatened their most general ability to understand, the world, raised the uncomfortable question of whether the beliefs which they held about nature were workable, the standards of truth they used valid.[2]

This, of course, holds true not only for "primitive" peoples like the Javanese, but even in supposedly sophisticated cultures such as our own. What may seem like completely innocuous anomalies can, in the absence of any coherent explanations, threaten the validity of a society's entire stock of knowledge. In fact, it was precisely such a failure to explain the anomaly of retrograde planetary motion that sparked the modern scientific revolution and, in the process, overthrew the Aristotelian worldview that had dominated European minds for the previous five centuries. It is no wonder, then, that an encounter with any strange or uncanny occurrence can arouse an acute sense of what anthropologists have called "metaphysical anxiety" and "anomic terror."

Even more threatening than anomalous occurrences, however, are encounters with anomalous people—i.e., with individuals or groups who hold different worldviews and thus live in different worlds. This is often the case with "foreigners," "minorities," and other "deviants." Such people are commonly regarded with suspicion and fear because the very fact that they inhabit a different world casts doubt on the reality of the world inhabited by most members of the society. For this reason those charged with maintaining social order have frequently gone to great lengths to isolate, suppress and at times exterminate people who are committed to unorthodox paradigms. But whether or not overt repression is employed, official explanations must always be found for the embarrassing fact that not all human beings experience reality in the same way. After all, if there is only one 'real" world why isn't this obvious to everyone?

To allay the anxiety raised by this question it may be claimed that deviants believe what they do because they are possessed by devils; or that members of a minority perceive reality differently because they are racially inferior; or that foreigners inhabit strange worlds because they are "primitives" who have not yet advanced beyond a "pre-rational" stage of development. But whatever the specific form such explanations take, the important thing to notice is that they always attempt to reduce the unknown to the known by interpreting it in terms of the "reality" defined by the reigning paradigm.

But while your garden-variety deviant or foreigner merely challenges the reality of a particular world, as it is envisioned in the worldview of a particular society, mystics deny the reality of all worldviews and ultimately all worlds! Thus, the Buddha taught that "the multitudinousness of objects have no reality in themselves but are only seen of the mind and, therefore, are of the nature of maya and a dream." [3] The great Hindu sage, Shankara, maintained that: "The apparent world is caused by our imagination, in its ignorance. It is not real."[4] Likewise, the renowned Sufi master, Ibn al-'Arabi, declared, "the Cosmos is but a fantasy without any real existence, which is another meaning of the Imagination," [5] while the Christian Mystic, St. Bonaventure, called the things of this world mere "shadows, echoes and pictures of that...eternal Source, Light and Fullness." [6]

In other words, according to mystics, the boundaries that shape the 'things' we experience are imaginary constructs which do not exist independently of the mind that constructs them. Moreover, this applies not only to the supposedly objective 'things' 'out there', but, what is of even greater psychological significance, also to that subjective 'thing' 'inhere' which we call the 'ego' or 'self'. In fact, 'self' and 'world', being two sides of the same imaginary boundary, arise together and are equally fictitious. This is why the Buddha said: "When you realize that there is no personality in your mind then you will recognize that there is no reality in things as well." [7] Similarly, Shankara claimed that the appearance of "an individual soul is caused by the delusion of our understanding, and has no reality," [8] while Ibn al-'Arabi told his readers: "You are an imagination, as is all that you regard as other than yourself an imagination," [9] and Catherine of Sienna admonished the Christian aspirant to be humble, "seeing that, in thyself, thou dost not even exist." [10]

Given the radical and uncompromising nature of their teachings it is hardly surprising that a majority of their contemporaries have greeted mystics not as "saints and saviors" but as the most dangerous sort of madmen and heretics! Indeed, to the ordinary mind the message of the mystics represents the Supreme Anomaly, for it denies the most taken-for-granted assumptions people have about themselves and the world. At the same time, however, it also holds out the promise of a Supreme Hope, because in proclaiming the imaginary character of all selves and worlds, mystics simultaneously proclaim the imaginary character of suffering and death; for if there is no 'world', wherein lies the basis of suffering? And if there is no 'self, who is it that dies?

Furthermore, the mystics insist that what stands revealed when these twin phantoms of 'self' and 'world' have been put to flight is not simply a "nothing" in the sense of a mere vacuity. Rather it is a Boundless Reality of indescribable "Light and Fullness," (as St. Bonaventure called it) which in the words of the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra is, "radiant with the potency and freedom of its self-nature." [11] In this Reality, say the Hindu Upanishads, "man has all: for he is one with the ONE." [12] In short, the message of the mystics confirms that what the great religious scholar Mircea Eliade called humanity's "nostalgia for paradise"—so poignantly voiced in the myths of myriad peoples-is not just some childish fantasy, but expresses a hidden intuition of how things really are—if we could but see them clearly!

There is, however, a catch. In order to "see things clearly" we must abandon all our conventional ways of seeing—which is to say, seeing our 'selves' and the 'world' through a filter of imaginary thought-constructs. Indeed, it is these very thought-constructs which, when taken to be 'real', veil Reality from us. Thus, instead of trying to capture what is essentially Unimaginable and, therefore, Unthinkable in a net of images and thoughts, we must open ourselves to that Mystery which is beyond all thought and imagination. Specifically, we must relinquish all those boundaries between self and world, I and other, subject and object, the human and the divine which we normally strive to defend with our very lives. In other words, we must paradoxically die to this deluded egoic life and this perishable reality before we can be born again into the True Life of that Imperishable Reality which transcends all selves and all worlds.

On the one hand, then, insofar as the message of the mystics speaks to our deepest desires, it kindles in us an ardent yearning to pursue the spiritual path. On the other hand, by insisting on the necessity of an absolute self-surrender, culminating in the ego's annihilation, this same message also fills us with tremendous dread. Thus, feeling both attracted and repelled by the same teachings, the egoic mind is plunged into an agonizing ambivalence. And it is the desire to escape this ambivalence that prompts it to revert to its familiar habit of trying to reduce the Unknown to the known. Through this strategy not only can the ego edit out those parts of the teachings which most threaten it, but, by seizing on secondary and auxiliary teachings, it can also re-interpret the whole path as one which actually aims not at the ego's annihilation, but at maximizing its gratifications.

For example, one of the most common and, historically, perhaps the oldest misinterpretation of the spiritual path is that, instead of ending in the death of self, its main purpose is to insure the self's survival after death. We may call this the fallacy of self-immortality, which like most fallacies is based on a half-truth. For mystics have indeed taught, by a variety of analogies (some of which even utilize images of post-mortem heavens and hells), that the continuity of Consciousness does not end with physical death. But this is primarily to call attention to a relative fact—namely, that as long as we remain deluded our actions will continue to bear fruit (either for good or for ill) even after the body's demise. It is also true that mystics have taught that physical death represents (for those who are properly prepared) a prime opportunity for that Gnostic Realization which obliterates death. However, this "death of death" (as it is sometimes called) ultimately has nothing to do with the self's continuing survival in time, but rather refers to the end of the delusion that we are anything but that Eternal Reality or Consciousness which transcends time altogether.

Another widespread and age-old misconception of the path is that the object of spiritual practices is to gain personal mastery over the forces of nature. This particular fallacy, which we may call the fallacy of magical power, is born from the egoic wish to make oneself invulnerable to such things as disease, accidents, violence, and other forms of misfortune by magical means. But, again, although mystics have sometimes won reputations as miracle workers and faith-healers, all have warned against taking such manifestations of extramundane phenomena as the goal of the quest, for no amount of supernatural shenanigans, actual or fantasized, can bring about that Realization which alone liberates one from suffering and death. Anandamayi Ma, for example, states unequivocally that: "Supernormal powers are but a stage. They may be beneficial; they may also be harmful. But through them you will not attain to the Supreme, the Ultimate." [13] In the same vein, St. Augustine says of those who have become so misguided: "They have heard of or fancied some holy celestial power, but it is the admiration that human weakness feels for the works of power which attracts them rather than the model of reverent surrender which attains the peace of God." [14]

A slightly more sophisticated version of the fallacy of magical power is what we might term the fallacy of the steady blissful state. Those who suffer from this misconception imagine that the goal of the spiritual path is to cultivate some kind of permanent state in which the self experiences only feelings of felicity and joy. Instead of invulnerability to physical pains, these seekers picture a state of emotional invulnerability which will render them immune to the sufferings of their fellow beings. Although equally erroneous, this fallacy is harder to detect than the fallacy of magical power, because, for one thing, mystics themselves describe the Ultimate Reality as being ultimately "Blissful," "Beneficent," "Loving," "Compassionate," "Radiant," "Peaceful," "All-embracing," etc. Such adjectives, however, are not meant to indicate fixed states of emotion, for emotions, like all phenomena, are by their very nature transitory and ephemeral. Rather these terms are meant to express something quite different—i.e. the happiness inherent in that Freedom from any fixed states, or other ways of being, which comes with Gnosis. Put differently, Gnostics do not experience happiness: they are Happiness. Moreover, this identity holds regardless of whatever emotions, moods, passions, or feelings mayor may not be arising at any given moment.

Another reason so many seekers fall prey to the fallacy of the steady blissful state is that during intermediary and advanced stages of the path most will, indeed, experience various altered states of consciousness or samadhis (as they are called in the east), characterized by extraordinary feelings of ecstasy and bliss. But while such experiences are important indications of a deepening spiritual practice, and can serve to motivate seekers towards making a greater effort, they can also prove dangerously seductive. Seekers who become infatuated with these experiences can easily lose sight of the fact that self-surrender, not self- indulgence—no matter how "spiritual" it may seem—is the true goal of the path. This is why in the Hindu Tradition "bliss" (in the sense of an experiential feeling-state) is considered to be the last "covering" or obstacle which must be overcome if Realization is to be attained. For the same reason the Lankavatara Sutra warns that the disciple who has "attained this exalted and blissful state [Samadhi] . . . must not give himself up to the enjoyment of its bliss." [15] This is also why Catherine of Genoa prayed: "Lord, Lord, I want no signs from you nor am I looking for intense feelings to accompany your love. ...They get in the way of Pure Love—for under the guise of Pure Love it is those emotional feelings to which the soul becomes attached. Love must be naked." [16]

Finally, there is today a particularly prevalent fallacy which may be called the fallacy of an earthly utopia. Actually, this is a recycled version of an older fallacy (found predominantly in the Judeo-Christian Tradition) which has simply been dressed up in modern clothes. In the original version, the teachings of the Old-Testament prophets (and later those of Jesus) were construed not so much as instructions for attaining "the truth that makes you free," but rather as a series of predictions concerning the "last days," when an Avenging God would literally bring history to a close, punish the wicked, and establish the righteous in an everlasting paradise. [17] In the modern rendition of this myth, the Avenging God has been replaced by a pseudo-spiritual version of that secular doctrine of "progress," developed by eighteenth and nineteenth century materialists. The result is an interpretation of spiritual teachings as constituting an ethical, social, and political program for the construction of an earthly utopia where everyone will enjoy such things as equal rights, access to education, health care, economic opportunities, and a fair share of the social wealth. According to some of its champions, this state of affairs will come about as more and more people get "enlightened"—a view which effectively demotes enlightenment from being the Supreme Goal of human life to a mere stepping stone on the road to social advancement. Others see humanity's "collective consciousness" as itself evolving in some amorphous way towards a grand utopian denouement. From a mystic's perspective, however, Consciousness cannot "evolve" because, once again, Consciousness is not a "thing" in time, subject to its transformations. On the contrary, Consciousness is that Formless and Infinite Space in which all things arise and pass, including time itself.

But the major problem with the fallacy of an earthly utopia is that it ignores one of Mysticism's most fundamental teachings—namely that everything in this world is transitory. "So also," as Anandamayi Ma observes, is "worldly happiness: it comes and the next moment it is gone. If permanent, abiding happiness is to be found, That which is eternal will have to be realized." [18] In other words, even if it were possible to establish such an idealistic world order, it, too, would be transitory. Consequently, the instant it was established it would start to unravel. Thus, while mystics have always advocated working to ameliorate suffering at whatever level of being it manifests, the primary purpose for this is to practice a love and compassion which weakens the boundaries between oneself and others. And while some mystics may also dream of one day bringing all of humanity within the embrace of a single sacred society, they are under no illusions that such a society will, by itself, bring a cessation of suffering—only that it will help point the way. For, in the end, the problem of human suffering cannot be resolved through any worldly means: it can only be resolved through a Gnosis which, in the words of the Sufi poet, Rumi, "lays this world flat." [19] But the fallacy of an earthly utopia ignores this crucial teaching. What it really boils down to is Jane's misperception writ large—a program for personal improvement projected as the destiny of humanity as a whole.

Thus, instead of pointing to a Gnosis which destroys the delusion of self and world, all these fallacies actually strengthen this delusion by misrepresenting mystical teachings as a means for enhancing and protecting the self. It is one thing to disbelieve the mystics (a position which is perfectly understandable given that their teachings are far more scandalous than any watered down forgeries could possibly be!); it is quite another to misconstrue what they say. In the first case, the teachings are rejected but left intact for others to follow (or for oneself to follow at a later date.) In the second case, the teachings are distorted and so the Path to Freedom becomes obscure. This is what Jesus complained about when he railed against the scribes and Pharisees: "Woe unto you, you experts in the law, for you have taken away the key of knowledge; you enter not in yourselves, and those who tried to go in, you hindered." It is bad enough when the teachings are falsified by those responsible for preserving them, but it is even more pernicious when the falsifier turns out to be, not some external authority, but our own egoic minds, trying to escape the challenge the teachings present. Worst of all is when, like Jane, we ourselves are unaware that this is happening.

And this is precisely why Jane's insight was so important. Summoning the courage to confront the teachings head-on brought her to a turning point—a jumping off place—that psycho-spiritual land's end where the journey from the known to the Unknown really begins. Here, she was faced with a choice: whether or not to abandon her familiar beliefs and plunge into the Mystery. Eventually, this is a choice every seeker must make. False conceptions must be jettisoned before any true progress can be made. Sooner or later, like Jane, we must stop splashing around in the shallows of the known, take a deep breath, and commit ourselves to the Unknown, striking out boldly across that Great Sea towards a shore which cannot be seen, nor, for that matter, ever reached—for, in truth, we are all already there. This is what must be Realized .

May all of you have the courage to do so!

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Fall 1994. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. Nomos = law or regularity; hence, a-nomalous = not-lawful or ir-regular.
2. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, Inc,. 1973), 101—his italics.
3. A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970),297.
4. Shankara's Crest Jewel of Discrimination, trans. Swami Prabbavananda and Christopher Isherwood, 3rd ed. (Hollywood, Calif.: Vedanta Press, 1978), 73.
5. Ibn Al 'Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R. W. J. Austin (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 124.
6. Bonaventure: The Soul's Journey into God; The Tree of Lift; The Lift of St. Francis, Trans. Ewert Cousins (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 76.
7. A Buddhist Bible, 455.
8. Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, 64.
9. The Bezels of Wisdom, 125.
10. Cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, (1955; reprint, New York: New American Library, 1974), 200.
11. A Buddhist Bible, 341.
12. The Upanishads, trans. Juan Mascaro, (New York: Penguin Books, 1965),86.
13. Anandamayi Ma, Matri Vani: Vol II, 2nd ed. (Calcutta: Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society, 1982), 172.
14. Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, trans. Mary T. Clark (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 326.
15. A Buddhist Bible, 323.
16. Catherine of Genoa: Purgation and Purgatory, trans. Serge Hughes (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 122.
17. It is interesting in this regard to note that the eschatological passages attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Gospels are completely absent from the Gospel of Thomas which many scholars believe to be an earlier and more authentic account of Jesus' teachings.
18. Matri Vani: Vol II, 57.
19. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1983), 59.