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Permeating each of the world's major religious traditions, mysticism may be described as the level of deep, experiential encounter with the divine, or ultimate, however that may be understood, that links religious and spiritual pursuits across cultures and across the centuries. Mysticism differs from more defined forms of religious experience, inasmuch as it frequently transports the individual beyond the confines of the religious tradition itself to a realm often described as lacking in any sense of differentiation, whether it be between aspirant and God, or between self and non-self.

The task of defining mysticism bears reevaluation, however. As Frits Staal has written, "If mysticism is to be studied seriously, it should not merely be studied indirectly and from without, but also directly and from within. Mysticism can at least in part be regarded as something affecting the human mind, and it is therefore quite unreasonable to expect that it could be fruitfully explored by confining oneself to literature about or contributed by mystics, or to the behavior and physiological characteristics of mystics and their bodies." (p. 123). That being said, according to a loose, phenomenological typology, one may consider mysticism to be that genre of subjectivity and behavior manifesting in an "altered," or nonconventional mode, framed in a religious or spiritual narrative, and experienced by those who are refered to, at least in English, as "mystics."

Mysticism in various religious traditions

The Christian tradition manifests varied branches of mysticism, including the Discalced Carmelites, a movement within the Carmelite order that espouses a form of mystical development still followed today in the Catholic Church. Founded by St. Teresa of Avila (15151582) and St. John of the Cross (15421591) in sixteenth-century Spain, the movement defended the practice of inner prayer against its persecution by King Philip II of Spain. Educated by Jesuits, John of the Cross began theological studies at the University of Salamanca in 1567 but left to help Teresa of Avila in her efforts to found the Discalced Carmelites. Imprisoned by the non-reformed Carmelites from 1575 to 1578, he used his imprisonment to his advantage, composed poetry, and, finally, escaped to face further suspicion regarding supposed connections to socalled illuministic books roundly condemned during the Inquisition. Only after the Apostolic See had examined his orthodoxy in the early seventeenth century were his books published openly.

St. John primarily articulates a systematic approach to mystical development appropriate to cloister spirituality, though he wrote his last book, The Living Flame of Love, for a laywoman, and used it as a vehicle of instructing both lay and monastic Christians in the methods for attaining mystical union. St. John may primarily be remembered for explicating a so-called via negativa mode of spiritual engagement in which one prays without focusing on imagery and without actively pursuing any specific intellectual content (Mallory, pp. 17). Some generations earlier, Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (12601328) similarly utilized a kind of "negative theology" to point towards the inadequacy of human language and perception in capturing the fullness of mystical experience: "There is no knowing what God is" (Steere, pp. 143144). And in the Indian Advaita tradition, as Mahadevan wrote in the preface to The Wisdom of Unity, one experiences transcendent unity as "the distinctions and differences that teem this world" fade away in the recognition of "the eternal nonduality of the Self."

The Sufi tradition exhibits the depth of Islamic spirituality and exemplifies the paradoxical quality of mysticism in general. According to Rumi (12071273), a Persian mystic and poet, "What is Sufism? He said: To find joy in the heart when grief comes." Rābi 'a (717801), a Sufi mystic and an Islamic saint, "introduced the element of selfless love into the austere teachings of the early ascetics and gave Sufism the hue of true mysticism." Never marrying and not favoring the prophet Mohammad in any particular way, she loved God absolutely, and completely, losing herself in contemplation of him. Sufism also provides a good example of the nature of the path that carries mystics of all stripes, a series of steps towards a deep experience of God, toward the realization of emptiness, or towards whatever the goal may be. In Islam, Sufis follow the ṭarīqa (path), in which the mystic practices īthār (preferring others over oneself), a practice that later dissolves as the difference between oneself and the other is "subsumed in the divine unity" (Schimmel, p. 99).

The theme of total, devotional love also infuses Christian mysticism, as evidenced by the Franciscan movement of the alumbrados, those mystics "illuminated" by the Holy Spirit, some of whom practiced dejamiento (abandonment) of oneself to the love of God, with the result that the formal sacraments of the Church were seen to be superfluous (Hamilton, pp. 12). And according to the visions of the German mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (10981180), love appears as a beautiful apparition, such that "the fire of God's love runs through the world and its beauties, constantly re-enlivening the cosmos as a miracle of perfection" (Schipperges, pp. 6869, citing Hildegard's Book of Divine Works ).

The status of duality, or non-duality, occupies branches of mysticism otherwise separated by virtue of culture, time, or doctrine. This is unsurprising, particularly given the nature of mysticism itself in transcending boundaries, which are often perceived as limitation; for example, the dualisms of sense versus spirit, and attachment to creation versus attachment to God, pervade St. John's writings, as Marilyn Mallory posits in her 1977 book, Christian Mysticism. Interestingly, in attempting to express non-duality and paradox, mystics often choose poetry as a modality capable of pointing beyond the mundane levels of a world with defined, black and white borders, at the same time that it promises great aesthetic enjoyment to its listeners. And as Herbert Guenther indicates in The Royal Song of Saraha (1969), beginning with Mar pa (10121097), Tibetan teacher and translator, the Doha tradition in Tibet utilized melodious verses composed and sung by mystics to both express and indicate non-conventional modes of awareness and states of deep appreciation and joy.

Sometimes referred to as "states of infused contemplation" (Pike, p. ix), union exists as a central preoccupation of many mystics. In Christianity, for example, union covers experiences from prayers of silence, to prayers of union, to more intense experiences of rapture, so-called ecstasy states similar along certain dimensions to shamanic flights of the soul. As Nelson Pike puts it, "the paradigm union experience unfolds through a dualistic stage into a state in which the distinction between subject and object is lost" (p. 59). Language fails at this important juncture, causing many mystics to resort to metaphor and poetry in describing their experiences. St. John of Ruysbroeck (12931381), for example, describes his experience of being permeated, stating, "the iron is within the fire and the fire is within the iron; and so also the air is in the sunshine and the sunshine in the air" (pp. 236237).

Sociologically, mystical traditions in many religions rely upon a period of tutelage by a respected member of the community, and a period of discipleship on the part of the aspirant. As Frits Staal comments, "The need for a qualified teacher is stressed in almost all the traditions of mysticism . In Islam it is the foundation of the silsila or 'spiritual lineage'" whereas in Indian religions, one refers to "the guruparampara, 'the direct lineage of teachers'" (p. 144). Tibet, for example, historically organized a good part of its country's social structure around this kind of hierarchical, lama-discipline relationship, and this tradition of devotion to idealized teachers in some cases stimulates the minds of Western academics who study Buddhism. One also may find the master-discipline lineage tradition in other religions, such as the Sufism of West Africa. 'Umar al-Shaykh (864960) brought the Qādiriyyah order of Sufism to the western Sudan in West Africa, having been initiated into the order of the Qādiriyyah masters and hajj, as Ibrahim Doi posits in "Sufism in Africa" (1991).

In communities, and in some cases, entire societies, in which mystical achievement translates into positions of power and prestige, authenticity exerts itself as a powerful mediator of who will or will not be accepted by the group, which teachings will be honored, and whose interpretations will be valued. In the Islamic world, for example, Jami (14141492), a Persian poet and mystic, describes two types of mystics, those who are concerned with their own salvation and who practice in complete reclusion, "and those who return from their mystical experience in a higher, sanctified state of mind and are able to lead other people on the right path" (Schimmel, p. 7). Grace Jantzen also discusses the manner in a "gendered struggle for power and authority" permeates mysticism in early and medieval Christendom, though the same may easily be claimed for mystical traditions more generally (p. xv).

Members of mystical communities also distinguish between "the true Sufi, the mutasawwif who aspires at reaching a higher spiritual level, and the mustawif, the man who pretends to be a mystic but is a useless, even dangerous, intruder" (Schimmel, p. 20). In some cases, too, the mystic's life is seen to contradict that of the householder, and severe sanctions may ensue. For example, the father of Dnyaneshwar, a well-known fifteenth-century Indian saint, abandoned the world for the mystical path after leading a householder's life for many years. He later returned to family life, however, fathering Dnyaneshwar, who was condemned as an outcaste on the basis of his father's violation of the orthodox injunction that a sanyasi (renounced person) should never return to the life of the householder, according to Ian Ezekiel.

Throughout this brief account, the existential dimensions of mysticism should not be ignored. Mystics from all traditions often point towards aspects of reality beyond the conventional world of thoughts and forms. Yesh, a Hebrew term used by rabbis to indicate the treasure awaiting saints in the future life, roughly translates as there is, thereby signaling deeper existential dimensions than those normally encountered. As Abraham Isaac Kook (18651935), a Jewish mystic, writes, "So long as the world moves along accustomed paths, so long as there are no wild catastrophes, man can find sufficient substance for his life by contemplating surface events, theories, and movements of society." But "when life encounters fiery forces of evil and chaos," he continues, "the man who tries to sustain himself only from the surface aspects of existence will suffer terrible impoverishment, begin to stagger then he will feel welling up within himself a burning thirst for that inner substance and vision which transcends the obvious surfaces of existence and remains unaffected by the world's catastrophes" (Weiner, pp. 34). In the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbala, one searches for yesh in a kind of "subsurface reality," a dimension of existence in which "good and evil [lose] the distinction so apparent to surface vision" (Weiner, pp. 67).

Interpreting mysticism

Interpretative approaches to mysticism vary, from those influenced by traditional disciplines such as philology and the history of religions, to those that take their inspiration from contemporary Western sciences of the mind. Frits Staal, for example, canvasses dogmatic approaches, philological and historical approaches, phenomenological and sociological viewpoints, and physiological and psychological frameworks. In this last category, one moves from Freud's dislike for "dark" phenomena such as mysticism and Yoga, to Jung's archetypal metaphysics according to which a variety of mystical phenomena may be classified. Nevertheless, Staal himself claimed that he "would not be surprised if the study of mysticism would one day be regarded as a branch of psychology," by which he meant "that psychology would be deepened and widened so as to be in a position to take account of these particular aspects of the mind" (p. 116).

Psychology and cognitive science. Approaching mysticism from the interpretive lens of cognitive science, visions and locutions offer themselves as interesting candidates for investigation. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, for example, frames Hildegard of Bingen in terms of medical literature on migraine. He writes, "The religious literature of all ages is replete with descriptions of 'visions,' in which sublime and ineffable feelings have been accompanied by the experience of radiant luminosity." He continues, "It is impossible to ascertain, in the vast majority of cases, whether the experience represents a hysterical or psychotic ecstasy, the effects of intoxication, or an epileptic or migrainous manifestation" (p. 112). Somewhat similarly, mental health professionals also have investigated patterns of commonality between the reported mystical experiences of religious practitioners and psychotic inpatients, concluding, "Contemplatives and psychotics taken together could be separated from Normals, but not from each other, with the Hood Mysticism Scale. The Normals and Contemplatives taken together could be separated from the Pyschotics, but not from each other, with the EGO Scale (Knoblauch's Ego Grasping Orientation Inventory) and the NPI (Raskin and Hall's Narcissistic Personality Inventory)" (Stifler, p. 366).

Hindu and particularly Buddhist mysticism assumes "the perfectibility of man," as Herbert Guenther puts it (p. 42). This fact opens the way for some incredible claims concerning human capacities, such as the claims that enlightened humans may attain ja 'lus, or "rainbow body," at the time of death, such that their bodies dissolve into rainbow light and all manner of spectacular visions appear to the disciples left behind (Lhalungpa, pp. 8297). Obviously, traditions postulating no ceiling on human accomplishments open the way for psychological grandiosity to manifest in the character structures of certain practitioners. Invoking a contemporary, psychiatric frame of interpretation, one can recognize a pathological "mechanism of defense" in the "primitive fantasy" of omnipotence (Kernberg, pp. 221) and the signs of "narcissistic personality disorder" in fantasies of unlimited success (Beck, p. 234). Along somewhat similar lines, Schumaker argues that we should "understand religion and psychopathology (and, indirectly, hypnosis) as systems of artificial order that are dependent upon an active dissociation process" (p. 34). The fine line between insightful interpretation of one system of thought and practice in terms of the reality framework of another, and critical, almost condescending judgment, on the other hand, however, highlights the difficulties one encounters when employing one specific cultural lens to interpret behaviors arising in different segments of the same culture, or in different cultures altogether.

The status, experience, and understanding of consciousness, awareness, the mind, and the self, occupy tomes of mystical rumination. Indian philosophical systems of thought, and later Tibetan Buddhist writers, excel in this arena. For example, Prabhakara Mimamsaka philosophers occupy themselves with the question of whether or not the self is "self-luminous," concluding, "the self is not consciousness, and while consciousness (samvit) is self-luminous, the self is not" (Mahadevan, p. 11). Interestingly, this emphasis on consciousness and awareness makes mysticism a possible ally to contemporary brain science in the West. Mystical accounts from all of the world's major religious traditions, such as the rnam thar ("sacred biography") genre expressive of Tibetan Buddhist mysticism, frequently rely upon autobiography and sacred biography (hagiography) as narrative forms, further pointing to the centrality of the "self" and its transformations in the mystical journey. To oversimplify the situation, regular and frequently dramatic personal transformations wrought by the mystical path threaten to destabilize the self, a potentially dangerous, psychological situation mitigated by the creation of a "narrated self" (Wortham, p. 140), which can function as the hero or heroine in tales of miraculous accomplishment, thereby compensating for possible psychological fragmentation by means of a chronological narrative unfolding in which the mystic's own identity remains constant over the course of his or her lifespan.

The role of the body in providing a support for mystical experience constitutes another area in which mysticism and modern science, in this case, medicine, may complement one another. In the medieval Siddha traditions of Hindu alchemy and hatha yoga, for example, the body serves as the locus for complex worldly to transcendent transformations, as in when the practitioner utilizes pranayama (breath control) to transform mundane semen into the "divine nectar of immortality" and to transform mundane mind into "a state beyond mind" (White, p. 45). Because of its intricate involvement with body, speech, and mind, ritual plays an important role in catalyzing mystical states of awareness, as demonstrated, for example, by the tremendous emphasis placed on ritualized mantra repetition in both Hindu and Buddhist mystical traditions (Abe, pp. 138149). Repetitive, ritualized mandala visualization provides a similar, corporeal engagement of the aesthetic sensitivities cultivated by mystical practitioners (Andresen 2000). Perversions of the relationship between self and body, as seen from the perspective of Western medicine's diagnostic recognition of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, also has plagued mystics of many traditions. Whitney Miller develops a methodology of "psychomysticism," a kind of "contemplative counseling" in which the counselor emphasizes awareness and sensitivity, "a willingness to pay attention," following Bernard Lonergan's transcendental precept "to 'be attentive'" (p. 1).

The importance of context. Scholars of mysticism continue to debate whether or not mystical experience itself is mediated by context. Constructivists have held the view that, "linguistic, social, historical, and conceptual contextuality" shape the mystic's experience. On the other side, essentialists articulate a position whereby a common, pure core to mystical experiences supposedly exists, not merely within a single tradition such as Christianity or Buddhism, but across cultures and traditions, too. It is possible, as argued by Jensine Andresen, that constructivist and essentialist ("perennialist") positions may be seen to be complementary, inasmuch as species-wide perceptual systems and consciousness, which mediate between the qualia, or felt experience of the subjective, and the hard and fast reality of what is conventionally perceived to be an external world, are shared between all members of the human family, mystics included.

See also Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Physiological Aspects; Experience, Religious: Philosophical Aspects; Meditation; Monism; Mystical Experience; Mystics; Neurosciences; Pantheism; Psychology; Spirituality; Transcendence


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jensine andresen

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The attempt of man to attain the ultimate reality of things and experience direct communion with the highest. Mysticism maintains the possibility of a relationship with God, not by means of revelation or the ordinary religious channels, but by introspection and meditation in conjunction with a purified life, culminating in the awareness that the individual partakes of the divine nature. Mysticism has been identified with pantheism by some authorities, and many pantheists have been mystics. However, mysticism is not tied to any particular philosophical or theological perspective.

Mysticism tends to differ from public religion, which emphasizes a worshipful submission to the deity and the ethical dimension of life, while mysticism strains after the realization of a personal union with the divine source itself. The mystic desires to be as close to God as possible, part of the divine essence itself, whereas the ordinary devotee of most religious systems merely desires to walk in God's way and obey his will.

Historical Survey

Mysticism has emerged as a strain in all of the major religious systems, both East and West. It tends to have a particular affinity, however, with some systems. While there is, for example, a perceptible mystical stain in Christianity, Judaism (Hassidism), and Islam (Sufism), Western systems that emphasize the transcendence of a personal all-powerful deity have made mysticism a secondary concern. In the East, where the unreality of material things is emphasized, mysticism is a more dominant form of spiritual life. The Sufis of Persia may be said to be a link between the more austere Indian mystics and those of Europe.

With the rise of Alexandrian Neoplatonism, mysticism attained a new level of presence in Europe. Neoplatonism made a definite mark upon early Christianity, and we find it mirrored in many of the patristic writings of the sixteenth century.

It was Erigena who, in the ninth century, transmitted to Europe the so-called writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, the sixth century Syrian thinker who synthesized Christian theology and Neoplatonism and thus greatly influenced the mysticism of the Middle Ages. Erigena based his own system upon that of Dionysius. This was the so-called "negative theology," which placed God above all categories and designated him as nothing, or the incomprehensible essence from which the world of primordial causes is eternally created. This creation is the work of the Son of God, in whom all substantial things exist; but God is the beginning and end of everything. On this system Christian mysticism may be said to have been founded with little variation.

With Erigena, reason and authority are identical, and in this he agrees with all speculative mystics. Scholasticism, however, is characterized by the acceptance by reason of a given matter that is presupposed even when it cannot be understood. It seemed to Erigena that in the scholastic system, religious truth was external to the mind, while the opposite view was fundamental to mysticism.

That is not to say that mysticism according to Erigena is a mere subordination of reason to faith. Mysticism indeed places every confidence in human reason, and it is essential that it should have the unity of the human mind with the divine as its main tenet, but it accepts nothing from without, and it posits the higher faculty of reason over the realization of absolute truth.

Medieval mysticism may be said to have originated from a reaction of practical religion against the dialectics in which the true spirit of Christianity was then enshrined. Thus St. Bernard opposed the dry scholasticism of Abelard. His mysticism was profoundly practical, and dealt chiefly with the means by which human beings may attain the knowledge of God. This is to be accomplished through contemplation and withdrawal from the world.

Asceticism is the soul of medieval mysticism, but St. Bernard averred regarding self-love that it is proper to love ourselves for God's sake, or because God loved us, thus merging self-love in love for God. We must, so to speak, love ourselves in God, in whom we ultimately lose ourselves. In this, St. Bernard is almost Buddhistic, and indeed his mysticism is of the universal type.

Perhaps Hugh of St. Victor, a contemporary of St. Bernard's, did more to develop the tenets of mysticism, and his monastery of Augustinians near Paris became a great center of mysticism. One of his apologists, Richard of St. Victor, declared that the objects of mystic contemplation are partly above reason, and partly, as regards intuition, contrary to reason. The protagonists of this theory, all of whom issued from the same monastery, were known as the Victorines and put up a stout fight against the dialecticians and schoolmen. Bonaventura, who died in 1274, was a disciple of this school and a believer in the faculty of mystic intuition.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the worldliness of the church aroused much opposition among laymen, and the church's cold formalism created a reaction towards a more spiritual regime. Many sects arose, such as the Waldenses, the Cathari (see Gnosticism ), and the Beguines, all of which strove to infuse into their teachings a warmer spirituality than that which burned in the heart of the church of their time.

In Germany, mysticism made great strides, and Machthild of Magdeburg and Elizabeth of Thuringia were, if not the originators of mysticism in Germany, certainly among its earliest supporters. Joachim of Flores and Amalric of Bena wrote strongly in favor of a reformed church, and their writings are drenched with mystical terms, derived for the most part from Erigena. Joachim mapped out the duration of the world into three ages, that of the Father, that of the Son, and that of the Spiritthe last of which was to commence with the year 1260, and to be inaugurated by the general adoption of monastic and contemplative life.

A sect called the New Spirit, or the Free Spirit, became widespread through northern France, Switzerland, and Germany; and these did much to infuse the spirit of mysticism throughout Germany.

It is with Meister Eckhart, who died in 1327, that we get the juncture of mysticism with scholastic theology. Of his doctrine it has been said:

"The ground of your being lies in God. Reduce yourself to that simplicity, that root, and you are in God. There is no longer any distinction between your spirit and the divineyou have escaped personality and finite limitation. Your particular, creature self, as a something separate and dependent on God is gone. So also, obviously, your creaturely will. Henceforth, therefore, what seems an inclination of yours is in fact the divine good pleasure. You are free from law. You are above means. The very will to do the will of God is resolved into that will itself. This is the Apathy, the Negation, the Poverty, he commends."

With Eckhart personally this self-reduction and deification is connected with a rigorous asceticism and exemplary moral excellence. Yet it is easy to see that it may be a merely intellectual process, consisting in a man's thinking that he is thinking himself away from his personality. He declares the appearance of the Son necessary to enable us to realize our sonship; and yet his language implies that this realization is the perpetual incarnation of that Sondoes, as it were, constitute him. Christians are accordingly not less the sons of God by grace than is Christ by nature. Believe yourself divine, and the Son is brought forth in you. The Saviour and the saved are dissolved together in the blank absolute substance."

With the advent of the Black Death, a great spirit of remorse swept over Europe in the fourteenth century, and a vast revival of piety took place. This resulted in the foundation in Germany of a society of Friends of God, whose chief object was to strengthen each other in intercourse with the creator. Perhaps the most distinguished of these were John Tauler and Nicolas of Basle, and the society numbered many inmates of the cloister, as well as wealthy men of commerce and others. Ruysbroek, the great Flemish mystic, was connected with them, but his mysticism is perhaps more intensely practical than that of any other visionary. The machinery by which the union with God is to be effected is the most attractive. In Ruysbroek's lifetime, a mystical society arose in Holland called the Brethren of Common Lot, who founded an establishment at which Groot dispensed the principles of mysticism to Radewyn and Thomas Kempis.

The attitude of mysticism at the period of the Reformation is peculiar. We find a mystical propaganda sent forth by a body of Rosicrucians denouncing Roman Catholicism in the fiercest terms, and we also observe the spirit of mysticism strongly within those bodies that resisted the coldness and formalism of the Roman Catholic Church of that time.

On the other hand, however, we find the principles of Luther strongly opposed by some of the most notable mystics of his time. But the Reformation passed, and mysticism went on its way, divided, it is true, so far as the outward theological principles of its votaries were concerned, but strongly united in its general principles.

It is with Nicolas of Kusa, who died in 1464, that mysticism triumphs over scholasticism. Nicolas was the protagonist of super-knowledge, or that higher ignorance which is the knowledge of the intellect in contra-distinction to the mere knowledge of the understanding. His doctrines colored those of Giordano Bruno (1550-1600) and his theosophy certainly preceded that of Paracelsus (1493-1541). The next great name in mysticism is that of Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), a German Rosicrucian mystical teacher.

The Roman Catholic Church produced many mystics of note in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including Francis of Sales, Madame Guyon, and Molinosthe last two of which were the protagonists of Quietism, which set forth the theory that there should be no pleasure in the practice of mysticism, and that God did not exist for the enjoyment of man. Perhaps the greatest students of Boehme were William Law (1686-1761) and Saint-Martin (1743-1803).

The Universality of Mystical Experience

It is clear from the statements of mystics that they are not limited to any given religion or theology. Given the elevation of the mystical experience over any theological reflection upon that experience, it has been relatively easy for mystics of different traditions to relate to each other, often finding a more natural affinity that with the non-mystic members of their own religious tradition. It is obvious that they are dealing with an element in human experience common to all of humankind. When Meister Eckhart stated, "If I am to know God directly, I must become completely He, and He I: so that this He and this I become and are one I," he comes to the same point as the Advaita Vedanta doctrine of Hinduism, where the jiva (individual soul) merges with Brahma the creator before absorption in Brahman, the non-personal divine ground.

Sufism, Islamic mysticism, first arose in the ninth century among the Persian Moslems, probably as a protest against the severe monotheism of their religion, but in all likelihood more ancient springs contributed to its revival. In the Persia of Hafiz and Saadi, pantheism abounded, and their magnificent poetry is read by Moslems as having a deep mystical significance, although for the most part it deals with the intoxication of love. It is certain that many of them exhibit the fervor of souls searching for communion with the highest.

The apparent differences between Hindu mysticism and Christian mysticism are nominal. Although Christian theology postulates the divine in the form of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, such distinctions become largely unimportant in the actual mystical experience. Similarly, popular Hinduism postulates hundreds of different gods and goddesses, but these are merely legal fictions to the Indian mystic, melting away in the totality of higher consciousness.

Because mind and emotion are transcended in the higher reaches of mysticism, they are seen by mystics as merely ways of reaching a reality that lies beyond them, a totality of consciousness without object, beyond the normal human limitations of individual body, ego, personality, hopes, and fears.

Like Christianity, Hindu Vedanta (inquiry into ultimate reality), has different schools of theology, ranging from Advaita (monism or non-dualism, claiming that all is one and only the divine ultimate has actual existence, all else being illusory) to degrees of Dvaita or dualism (claiming that there is one ultimate divine principle of God but that the soul is a separate principle with independent existence). Such schools are not really contradictory to the mystic, but rather different degrees of interpretation of one reality on the way to an actual mystical experience in which intellectual distinctions vanish.

The Way of the Mystic

In both Eastern and Western mysticism, withdrawal from the everyday life of a householder is recognized as an aid to mystical progress, thus both have monastic establishments at which one follows a life of prayer and meditation. In the initial stages, self-purification is facilitated by dedicated service to others, prior to the more secluded life of the contemplative.

Mystics have sometimes been accused of escapism, of retreating from the responsibilities of everyday life into a private world, and indeed, the descriptions of the ecstasies of spiritual awareness often sound rather like a selfish indulgence, oblivious to the problems of the outside world.

It is clear that the ideal mystic partakes fully of the duties and social responsibility of life after spiritual enlightenment, since mystical experience should give deeper meaning to the reality behind the everyday mundane world. For most individuals, however, a period of retreat from everyday life is helpful in disengaging oneself from the fears, desires, and egoism of mundane existence.

Hinduism places great stress on dharma, the duties and responsibilities of the individual, which take priority over any desire for transcendentalism. During this period one would observe the everyday religious rites and rituals related to the gods and goddesses of an individual's life. Later, however, when one had fulfilled one's responsibilities, married, begat a family, and provided for them, the realization that everything connected with the material world and physical life was transient would grow steadily, culminating in a hunger for knowledge of what is eternal.

At such a time, one might seek a qualified guru or spiritual preceptor and follow an ascetic life, discarding all material possessions, egoism, hopes, and fears in the quest for a higher spiritual awareness not subject to birth and death, or change and decay. Various pathways of yoga facilitated that quest, involving self-purification, service to others, and refinement of perception based upon physical health and its spiritual counterpart.

The Hindu emphasis on the duties and responsibilities of a householder taking priority over the quest for mystical enlightenment have something in common with Judaism, which does not seek to separate mystical experience from everyday life. Judaism is essentially pragmatic in its approach to the spiritual life and requires that mystical experience be interfused with daily life and religious observance.

The Jewish mystic typified in the period of eighteenth to nineteenth-century Hasidism, was a pious rabbi, living a life of prayer, study, and meditation within his community and sharing everyday social life and responsibility. In this respect he resembled the Eastern teacher around whom a group of pupils would gather for spiritual teaching and experience.

The Mechanisms of Mysticism

It is clear that the concept of self-purification in mystical progress involves psycho-physical mechanisms. Fasting, asceticism, mortification, and intense meditation have profound effects on the individual nervous system and other aspects of the body and mind. Very little discussion on this important area appeared in Western literature until Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven & Hell (1956). The starting point for Huxley's speculations about the psychophysical mechanisms of mystical experience was his own experiment in taking mescaline, a psychedelic drug, and unfortunately this particular stimulus has overshadowed the wider implications of his discussion.

A more simplistic interpretation of Huxley's speculations leads directly to the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, spear-headed by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, based on the conviction that by merely taking certain chemical substances one could have a spiritual experience comparable with that of the great mystics of history. This was a concept that Huxley himself deplored in his later years.It is now obvious that the chemical ecstasy and visions produced by psychedelic drugs are qualitatively different from the transcendental union experienced by the mystic who has devoted years to self-purification of mind, inner exploration, and spiritual perception, and that unless there is such a purification of the individual, the consumption of drugs can produce an intense but ultimately shallow experience. The search for chemical ecstasy was soon abandoned by its major early exponents, such as Walter Houston Clark.

It is now clear that the gradual transformation of the personality on all levelsphysical, mental, emotional and spiritualinvolves specific psycho-physical concomitants. Some of these may be accessible to scientific inspection. It may also be possible to evaluate various degrees of transcendental experience, ranging from emotional euphoria to progressively more profound areas of higher consciousness.

The modern Hindu mystic Pandit Gopi Krishna, who experienced a dramatic development of higher consciousness following a period of intense yoga discipline and meditation, has published his experiences and the perceptions accompanying them in a series of books, which during the last years of his life attracted the attention of scientists in investigating the phenomenon.

Paranormal Side Effects

Most religions have reported miraculous phenomena associated with the path of mysticism, including visions, disembodied voices, levitation, and gifts of healing. Christian saints have their miracles and the yogis have their occult powers. It would seem that with the transcendence of normal mental and emotional life, there is an area of transcendence of normal physical law. However, the mystic is warned not to be snared by such phenomena, since it will activate egoism and pride, common faults of the beginner on the spiritual path.

A Turning Point in Western Mysticism

Recent studies of Christian mysticism recognize 1200-1350C.E. as a crucial period in Western mysticism history. The era witnessed new styles and forms of religion, including reformed attitudes toward the relation of the world and the church. No longer was withdrawal from the worldly considered necessary to experience the mystical. Language styles changed in mystical poetry, sermons, and hagiography. Most significantly, there was a growth in the number of mystics, both male and female, as women began to take on a more influential role in mysticism during this time. Among these women visionaries was the ecstatic mystic Angela of Foligno and several great spiritual leaders of the Beguine movement: Mary of Oignies, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete.


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mysticism is frequently defined as an experience of direct communion with God, or union with the Absolute, but definitions of mysticism (a relatively modern term) are often imprecise and usually rely on the presuppositions of the modern study of mysticism — namely, that mystical experiences involve a set of intense and usually individual and private psychological states. While figures such as Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, and John of the Cross are seen to be paradigmatic mystics of the Christian tradition, no ‘mystics’ would have defined themselves as such before the twentieth century. Furthermore, mysticism is a phenomenon said to be found in all major religious traditions — though the common assumption that all mystical experiences, whatever their context, are the same cannot, of course, be demonstrated.

Mysticism involves the practice of contemplation both in the philosophical sense of the contemplation of truth and in the ‘supernatural’ sense of having knowledge of God via a life of prayer. Nevertheless, the ‘mystic way’ is primarily practical, not theoretical, and is something in which the whole self is engaged; the great Christian mystics have spoken of how they acted rather than how they speculated. St Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote that the writing of her book had been seen and experienced in her every limb, seen with the eyes of her soul, and heard with the ears of her eternal spirit. Sharing the mental and physical suffering of Christ, in the meeting of the spirit with evil, is described by some mystics as central to their experience. Teresa of Avila warned her nuns that the trials given by God to contemplative could be intolerable, and that they might not be able to endure their sufferings for as long as a day. Images of action — battle, pilgrimage, search — are used to describe the mystic's inward work, which is, paradoxically, sustained by the outward stillness of contemplation.

Some have placed a particular emphasis on certain altered states, such as visions, trances, levitations, locutions, raptures, and ecstasies, many of which are altered bodily states. Margery Kempe's tears and Teresa of Avila's ecstasies are famous examples of such mystical phenomena. But many mystics have insisted that while these experiences may be a part of the mystical state, they are not the essence of mystical experience, and some, such as Origen, Meister Eckhart, and John of the Cross, have been hostile to such psycho-physical phenomena. Rather, the essence of the mystical experience is the encounter between God and the human being, the Creator and creature; this is a union which leads the human being to an ‘absorption’ or loss of individual personality. It is a movement of the heart, as the individual seeks to surrender itself to ultimate Reality; it is thus about being rather than knowing. For some mystics, such as Teresa of Avila, phenomena such as visions, locutions, raptures, and so forth are by-products of, or accessories to, the full mystical experience, which the soul may not yet be strong enough to receive. Hence these altered states are seen to occur in those at an early stage in their spiritual lives, although ultimately only those who are called to achieve full union with God will do so.

In Jewish mysticism, embodied in the collected teachings known as the Kabbalah, God is perceived as one who both reveals and conceals himself but who can be perceived through the practice of contemplation and resulting illumination. Because mystical knowledge can easily be misinterpreted, traditionally only people of a certain age and educational level, and usually men, were allowed to engage in mysticism. The role of the ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ body, and the place of gender relations, in Jewish mystical experience are illustrated by the story of Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakkanah, told in the sixth- or seventh-century Hekhalot Rabbati. The rabbi was in a mystical trance, at the sixth heaven but about to enter the seventh heaven, when the people with him wanted to ask him about his vision when he was speaking out loud to them while in his trance. They were faced with the question of how to get him out of his mystical trance, so they laid a piece of cloth on his knees which had been touched by a woman who had completed her menstrual cycle, had purified herself the first time, but not the second, and was therefore not quite pure. When the cloth touched his knees the rabbi came out of his trance immediately so they were able to ask him the question, and then he went back into his trance.

In the late nineteenth century mysticism became the object of much research, partly because of the development of psychology and partly because of the new comparative study of religion by which phenomena were observed and compared across cultures. Key figures in this scholarship were Evelyn Underhill and Friedrich, Baron Von Hugel, though their analysis of mysticism was not theological. Von Hugel emphasized the Transcendent, the ‘wholly other’ as a fact of religions across cultures and thus he influenced thinking about the mystic's union with that Transcendent being. Underhill in particular saw mysticism as a process or way of life and as a cross-cultural phenomenon, and thus envisioned the ‘mystic way’ as a series of psychological states which could be found in mystics across different religions, times, and places. While Underhill insisted that a feature of mysticism was the abolition of individuality, the new emphasis, also found in the work of the philosopher William James, on the psychological states of the mystic led to an assumption that mystical experience is an essentially private and subjective matter. It did not involve, for example, questions of social justice — though mystics have long claimed that the mystical experience is proven ‘true’ in its effects or fruits, such as greater humility, acts of charity, and love of others. James associated the mystical with subjective states of feeling and the notion of mysticism as ‘private’ remains in most subsequent philosophical treatments of the subject. Both Underhill and Von Hugel made it clear that mysticism was an essential element in all religion, but never claimed it to be the whole content of any religion. However, some Protestant theologians, such as Emil Brunner and Reinhold Neibuhr, came to reject it as anti-Christian, considering it to be too Neoplatonic, while others, including Anglicans like W. R Inge, Dean of St Paul's, went to the other extreme and saw mysticism as the essence of Christianity.

Michel de Certeau's work, in the latter part of the twentieth century, has compared the procedures common to both mysticism and psychoanalysis, suggesting that the body, far from being ruled by discourse, is itself a symbolic language, and that in both psychoanalysis and mysticism the body is perceived as responsible for a truth of which it is unaware. Thus the body holds the ‘key’ to the ‘truth’ of the ‘space’ represented by the mystical or unconscious. This has caused the modern study of mysticism to focus, like psychoanalysis, on the bodily manifestations of the psyche's or soul's condition in order to understand the ‘truth’ of that condition. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is Jacques Lacan's attempt to locate the apparent impossibility or unknowability of female desire in the mystical experiences of Teresa of Avila, as depicted in Bernini's sculpture in Rome; he states that on looking at that statue it is immediately clear to us, if not to Teresa, that she is experiencing an orgasm. Luce Irigaray, a feminist psychoanalyst, has appropriately responded (in This Sex Which is Not One) to this collapse and merging of female sexual desire and religious experience thus: ‘In Rome? So far away? To look? At a statue? of a Saint? Sculpted by a man? What pleasure are we talking about? Whose pleasure? For where the pleasure of Teresa is concerned, her own writings are more telling.’

Jane Shaw


Underhill, E. (1995). Mysticism, (15th edn, revised). Bracken Books, London.

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It is a major premise of the mystical traditions that it is possible for humanity to come into direct contact with the one God, the one Goddess. These traditions can be found in many places and in many eras. This entry provides a brief introduction to this profound area of human experience.

One such tradition can be found in the Holy Kabbalah, which embodies the mystical, esoteric teachings of the Jewish faith. Its primary glyph is the tree of life, which is a complex symbol that represents both the microcosm and the macrocosm (the symbol of which is the Star of Davida hexagram uniting two triangles). The tree is composed of ten emanations of God, called sephira, and twenty-two connecting paths that correspond to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each sephiroth is associated with a different vision experience. The two greatest of these visions are the vision of God face-to-face and the vision of union with God. It is interesting to note that even Moses, who received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, was denied the vision of God face-to-face. He was only allowed to see his hind parts. The vision of union with God was experienced by several prophets in the Old Testament, including Elijah. Christians refer to this experience as being translated. Once one experiences this vision, in accord with Kabbalistic teachings, one is taken from the earth. A relatively modern manifestation of these teachings can be found in the writings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization that only lasted about twenty years but was composed of such important figures as William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Dion Fortune (1890-1946), and Israel Regardie (1907-1985). Offshoots of this group can be found today.

The Holy Kabbalah is the centerpiece of a larger body of knowledge referred to as the Western esoteric tradition. It included such people as the Swiss physician Paracelsus (c. 1493-1541), Nostradamus (1503-1566), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). These alchemists, in their search for the philosopher's stone, sought the hidden truths by which they could successfully engage in a process called the great work. This process entails transforming all that is lead or dross within one's nature into pure gold. These transformational processes allow one to transcend ordinary human limitations and bring one into contact with the higher powers and the beings through whom these powers flow. This approach is referred to as process theology, which is in close harmony with mystical traditions. This process is often described as being on the path or as one's personal journey. Perhaps the best known example of this is the story of Saul who was blinded for three days and nights on the road to Damascus. There he met a holy man by the name of Ananias who aided him in his spiritual transformation by which he became Paul, the Apostle.

The mystical tradition exists within Christianity as well, although it has been historically suppressed. The founding fathers, such as Origen (c. 185-254 CE), placed much more emphasis on the inner Christ than is true of most of Christendom today. The Gnostic movement in the early church promoted this approach by developing practices by which one could experience the Christ principle found deep within the consciousness of all people. This gave it a universalistic thrust that would appeal to mystics of all ages. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) stated, when asked what religion he was, that in his true essence he was a Christian, in his true essence he was a Hindu, in his true essence he was a Buddhist. Implied in this answer, is that all world religions flow from the same source. It is their concrete expressions that give rise to dogmatism and social conflict. Were all people to adopt this perspective, religious strife, bigotry, and arrogance would come to an end.

The centerpiece of Buddhism is the achievement of nirvana or enlightenment. That experience is so powerful that it releases one from the wheel of rebirth. This event happened in the life of Prince Siddhartha (who became an enlightened one) when he sat under the banyan tree 2,500 years ago and declared unto humanity that all is sorrow. He had what the Kabbalah describes as the vision of the sorrow of the world. He then gave us the noble eightfold path by which one can experience the ineffable bliss. This process entails the raising of the kundalini fire up the spinal chord, vivifying each chakra along the way until it reaches the thousand-petal lotus located within the crown chakra. Each petal of the lotus represents a different spiritual power. Thus, an enlightened one is born. Successful completion of this process frees one from the wheel of rebirth.

Native American spiritualism provides yet another fine example of mysticism. Wankan Tanka, the Lakota term for the Great Spirit, suggests the awe one experiences when one draws near these primal forces. Lakota culture, like many Indian tribal cultures, emphasizes the harmony ethos in which tribal members are encouraged to place their lives in harmony with these powerful forces found in nature. Such rites as sweats, crying for a vision, and the most sacred of all Lakota rituals, the sun dance, aid one in this process, termed the medicine path. The focus here is to come into an understanding of who one is and the spiritual purpose for which one has been placed on earth. Native culture is about being. Anglo culture is about doing.

Modern psychology also contains traditions that speak to these exalted states of consciousness. William James (1842-1910), the father of psychology, wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), which provides descriptions of these experiences. More recently, transpersonal psychologists have devoted considerable effort to better understand these phenomena. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), a forerunner of this tradition, described these events as peak experiences that can have great meaning for those who experience them. Regardless of the tradition to which one subscribes, all agree on the premise that it is possible to come into contact with God.

SEE ALSO American Dilemma; Buddhism; Christianity; Cox, Oliver C.; Gramsci, Antonio; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Ideology; Judaism; Lukacs, Gyorgy; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Myrdal, Gunnar


Black Elk. 1961. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Ogalala Sioux. As told to John G. Neihardt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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James, William. [1902] 1963. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Hyde Park, NY: University Books.

Maslow, Abraham. 1971. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Regardie, Israel. [1932] 2004. A Garden of Pomegranates: Skrying on the Tree of Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.

Paul R. Newcomb

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mysticism (mĬs´tĬsĬzəm) [Gr.,=the practice of those who are initiated into the mysteries], the practice of putting oneself into, and remaining in, direct relation with God, the Absolute, or any unifying principle of life. Mysticism is inseparably linked with religion. Because of the nature of mysticism, firsthand objective studies of it are virtually impossible, and students must confine themselves to the accounts of mystics, autobiographical and biographical, or, as the mystics themselves say, they must experience for themselves. The terms mystic and mysticism are used very broadly in English, being extended to mean magic, occultism, or the esoteric.

The Nature of Mysticism

There are certain common fallacies current about mysticism: that mystics are not "practical" and that they are revolutionary; on the contrary, many of the greatest mystics have been both intensely active as well as submissive to authority of whatever sort. Nor is the "solitary thinker" necessarily, or even usually, a mystic. There is no accepted explanation of mysticism, and few psychologists have interested themselves in its practice. William James studied the nature of mysticism but reached no conclusion that satisfied him. A significant philosophical evaluation of mysticism was made by Henri Bergson.

There are two general tendencies in the speculation of mystics—to regard God as outside the soul, which rises to its God by successive stages, or to regard God as dwelling within the soul and to be found by delving deeper into one's own reality. The idea of transcendence, as held most firmly by mystics, is the kernel of the ancient mystical system, Neoplatonism, and of Gnosticism. Their explanation of the connection between God and humans by emanation is epoch-making in the philosophy of contemplation. Among those who think of God, or the Supreme Reality, as being within the soul are the Quakers (see Friends, Religious Society of) and the adherents of Vedanta.

The language of mysticism is always difficult and usually symbolic. This is readily seen in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, in the book of Revelation in the New Testament, and in the writings of William Blake. Mystics, especially those of the Roman Catholic and the Islamic traditions, have made use of a terminology borrowed from ordinary human love. A conventional analysis is as follows: The soul undergoes a purification (the purgative way), which leads to a feeling of illumination and greater love of God (the illuminative way); after a period the soul may be said to enter into mystical union with God (the unitive way), which begins with the consciousness that God is present to the soul; the soul progresses through a time of quiet and an ecstatic state to a final perfect state of union with God (spiritual marriage). Late in this process there is an experience (the dark night of the soul) wherein the contemplative finds himself completely deserted by God, by hope, and, indeed, even by the power to pray; it lasts sometimes for years.

Visions, voices, ecstasies may accompany any or none of the states of contemplation before the final union. It is because of these external and nonessential manifestations that the erroneous idea has arisen that all enthusiastic and nonintellectual religious movements are necessarily mystical. The positive convictions of the mystic arise from the fact that they are based on what he or she must regard as objective reality directly perceived.

Great Mystics and Mystical Traditions

Among the principal contemplatives of Christianity from post-Apostolic times to the Reformation are Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Augustine, the false Dionysius the Areopagite, Cassian, St. Gregory I, Erigena, St. Peter Damian, St. Anselm, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Joachim of Fiore, Richard of Saint Victor, Hugh of Saint Victor, Hadewijch, St. Gertrude, St. Francis, Jacopone da Todi, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, Ramon Lull, Dante, Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck, Groote, Thomas à Kempis, Nicholas of Cusa, Rolle of Hampole, Walter Hilton, Juliana of Norwich, Margery Kempe, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catherine of Siena, Gerson, St. Bernardine of Siena, and St. Joan of Arc. The Catholic tradition was continued by St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Theresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Theresa of Lisieux. Orders that have given their name to types of mysticism are Carmelites, Carthusians, and Cistercians.

Among great Protestant mystics are Jakob Boehme and George Fox, founder of Quakerism, the foremost Protestant mystical movement. In the 17th and 18th cent. much literature of the contemplative life was written by the metaphysical poets and by Henry More, William Law, and others. Extremes in post-Reformation mysticism are seen in Jansenism (see under Jansen, Cornelis) and in quietism; and Emanuel Swedenborg may be regarded as a Protestant mystic. Also included in the mystic tradition were the Hermetic philosophers and the Alchemists.

In Judaism the mystical tradition represented by the kabbalah was continued in the modern Hasidism. For Islamic mysticism, see Sufism; al-Ghazali; Farid ad-Din Attar; Jalal ad-Din Rumi; Muin ad-Din Hasan Chishti; Hafiz; Jami; Sadi. For Hindu mysticism, see Vedanta; yoga; Aurobindo Ghose; Chinmoy Ghose; Dayananda Saraswati; Ramakrishna; Vivekananda; Yogananda. For Buddhism, see Zen Buddhism; Buddha; Milarepa; Daisetz Suzuki. See also Taoism.


See R. M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (1909, repr. 1970); S. N. Dasgupta, Hindu Mysticism (1927, repr. 1959); E. A. Peers, Studies of the Spanish Mystics (3 vol., 1927–60); E. Underhill, Mysticism (rev. ed. 1930, repr. 1961); J. de Marquette, Introduction to Comparative Mysticism (1949); D. T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (1957, repr. 1971); W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (1960); R. C. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (1960, repr. 1969); G. G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed. 1961); D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (1961); E. O'Brien, Varieties of Mystical Experience (1964); E. C. Butler, Western Mysticism (3d ed. 1967); L. H. Bridges, American Mysticism (1970); G. Parrinder, Mysticism in the World's Religions (1976); D. R. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism: A Biography of Rama Krishna (1985).

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MYSTICISM has many meanings in the study of the history of religions. In general it refers to a type of faith that emphasizes the direct experience of unity with the Divine. Theologically, mystical faiths tend to stress the divine immanence, and they often identify God with the structure of being. In the United States mystical forms of faith can be seen as a protest against the dominant religious tradition. Often centered around charismatic leaders, many of whom have been women, important strains of American mysticism have also set themselves explicitly outside Christianity.

The most famous mystic in early American history was Anne Hutchinson, whose mysticism evolved from the Puritan emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the means of grace. Her teachings were inflammatory, and for stating that she had communicated directly with God, she was exiled from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637.

Although Jonathan Edwards, a leading preacher of the Great Awakening, was primarily interested in traditional forms of religious experience, many elements in his writings suggest mystical leanings. The description of his wife's religious experience in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1792) is one of the classic accounts of mystical experience in American literature. Edwards's own theology presented a view of the world as filled with shadows and images of things divine and had elements in it similar to those found in mystical faiths.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was perhaps the most prominent proponent of nineteenth-century Romantic mysticism in the United States. Building on ideas ultimately derived from German philosophy and—in his later years—from the religions of the East, Emerson evolved a unique American mysticism that stressed the unity of humans with all nature. Through humans' communication with the world, Emerson argued, they could come to transcend it and recognize themselves as part of it at the same time.

In the years after the Civil War a variant of mysticism known as theosophy gained in popularity. Theosophy focused both on humans' ability to experience God and on the power of the human mind. Drawing on ideas from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, charismatic leaders, such as

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Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Annie Wood Besant, attracted both numerous followers and considerable controversy. In 1875 Blavatsky helped found the Theosophical Society and Universal Brotherhood in New York City. Mysticism also became better known to Americans through the World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Representatives of Eastern religions and Western mysticism presented their views of the religious life to large audiences.

In the Native American tradition, mysticism had always played a central role, and this tendency increased under the pressure of persecution and displacement from ancestral lands. The most famous example of this phenomenon is the rise of the Ghost Dance movement among the Plains Indians in the late 1880s. Inspired by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, who claimed transcendent experiences in the afterworld, Sioux believing themselves invincible to bullets came into conflict with the U.S. Army. In 1890 over three hundred Sioux were killed in what became known as the Battle of Wounded Knee. Although this massacre brought the Ghost Dance movement to an end, the ideas that had animated it lived on and became part of the Native American Church, founded in 1918. Native American mysticism after Wounded Knee often revolved around peyote, a hallucinogenic plant that was used as a sacrament in ceremonies.

The Roman Catholic Church has always had more of a place for mysticism than the Protestant churches, and the mystical experience has continued to be important in the lives of many Roman Catholic religious orders. Thomas Merton, a convert to Catholicism, was one of the influential voices for Catholic mysticism in the United States in the twentieth century. His exposition of the mystical way was marked by clarity and philosophical insight, and his works reveal a deep concern for social justice and a keen analysis of political issues.

The drug culture of the 1960s created a widespread interest in mysticism among the young. Many who tried mind-expanding drugs found the states they induced were remarkably similar to or even identical with the experiences of the great mystics of the past. This led many to explore or become followers of non-Christian faiths, such as Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Native American religions.


Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948.

Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. New York: W. Sloane, 1949.

Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness. London: Methuen, 1962.


See alsoGhost Dance ; Indian Religious Life ; Spiritualism ; Theosophy ; Transcendentalism .

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Mysticism is a set of beliefs and practices evoking an intimate union of man and the principle of being (god or divinity). The term mystic (mystisch ) appears in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). In its March 20, 1907, session, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society listened to a talk by Adolf Häutler on "Mysticism and the Comprehension of Nature," with critical comments by Adler, Rank, and Freud.

Mysticism was understood at that time in a pantheistic sense, as a union of man and nature and of nature with God. In a related sense, Freud "reserved for mysticism a consciousness of the inanimate," that is of matter and the mineral world (1915e).

The discussions between Freud and Romain Roll-and on the "oceanic feeling" and "Universal river" partook of the same pantheistic atmosphere that the French writer was fond of attributing to the "Germanic soul," and that he had borrowed from Indian thought. The feeling for nature and the idea of God were combined in a communion that drew equally on art and religion. For his part, however, Freud wrote to Rolland, on July 20, 1929, "I have as little appreciation for mysticism as I do for music."

Unlike Carl Jung, Freud was distinctly reticent about mysticism, which he felt had more to do with nature than with culture, more to do with intuition (if not drives) than with reason. Near the very end of his life, on August 22, 1938, he wrote in his notes: "Mysticism, the obscure self-perception of a kingdom outside the ego, or id." This obscurity, according to Freud, is not unrelated to the "dark continent" of the female psyche.

But although he seemed to reject mysticism, Freud acknowledged an irrational element in himself: the residue of his self-analysis, which he called "the specifically Jewish nature of [his] mysticism." Moreover, he loved mystery and wrote to Fliess (June 12, 1900) that he had dreamt of a marble plaque on his house that read:

In this house,
on July 24, 1895,
the mystery of the dream was revealed
to Dr. Sigmund Freud.

Odon Vallet

See also: Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, A ; Jung, Carl Gustav; Oceanic feeling; Rolland, Romain Edme Paul-Emile.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915e). The Unconscious. SE,14:159-204.

. (1970). Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1873-1939. (Ernst L. Freud, Ed.; Tania and James Stern, Trans.). London: Hogarth.

Häutler, Adolf. (1962-75). Scientific meeting, March 20, 1907: Mysticism and the comprehension of nature. In Herman Nunberg and Ernst Federn (Eds.), Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (M. Nunberg, Trans., Vol. 2, 1906-08). New York: International Universities Press.

Jung, Carl Gustav. (1980). The psychology of the transference. Coll. Works, Vol. 16. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Vermorel, Henri, and Vermorel, Madeleine. (1993). Sigmund Freud et Romain Rolland. Correspondance 1923-1936.(Alain de Mijolla, Ed.). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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285. Mysticism

See also 267. MEDITATION ; 349. RELIGION

Boehmenism, Behmenism
the mystical teachings of Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), an influence on George Fox and Quakerism. Boehmenist, Boehmist, Boehmenite , n.
the mystical theories of Antoinette Bourignon (1616-80), popular in the Netherlands and in Scotland.
the beliefs and practices of pre-Christian and early Christian sects, condemned by the church, especially the conviction that matter is evil and that knowledge is more important than faith, and the practice of esoteric mysticism. Gnostic , n., adj.
1. the occult concepts, ideas, or philosophy set forth in the writings of the hermeticists of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.
2. adherence to, belief in, or propagation of these concepts and ideas.
3. Literature. a symbolic and arcane style similar to that of the hermeticists, especially in the poetry of certain French symbolist poets. hermeticist, hermetist , n. hermetic, hermetical , adj.
the doctrine that knowledge of the Absolute is within human reach, but through a higher religious consciousness rather than by logical processes. See also 183. GOD AND GODS . metagnostic , adj.
mystagogics, mystagogy
1. the principles, doctrines, and practices of mysticism.
2. the interpretation of mysteries, as the Eleusinian. mystagogue , n. mystagogic, mystagogical , adj.
a teacher of mystical doctrines.
the practice of staring at ones navel to induce a mystical trance. Also called omphaloskepsis. omphalopsychite , n.
the Gnostic concept of the spiritual world, representing the fullness of the Divine Being and the eons emanating therefrom.
theosophy, theosophism
1. any of various forms of philosophical or religious thought claiming a mystical insight into the divine nature and natural phenomena.
2. (cap.) the system of belief and practice of the Theosophical Society. theosophist , n. theosophical , adj.

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Mysticism. The practices and often systems of thought which arise from and conduce toward mystical experience. Mystical systems are distinguished from other metaphysical systems by their intimate connection to a quest for salvation, union, or liberation realized through distinct forms of mental, physical, and spiritual exercise. In a classic definition: Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, is the direct intuition or experience of God; and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or lesser degree, such a direct experience—one whose religion and life are centred not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which he regards as first-hand personal knowledge (E. Underhill, The Mystics of the Church).

But mysticism need not be theistic. Theravāda Buddhism, for example, is more conducive to mystical thought, experiences, and practices than Islam in general; yet Sufism emerged in Islam giving priority to the mystical apprehension of God. Mystical experiences bring a serenity or bliss to the mystic. Such experiences may have some relation to the spontaneous experience of the unity of the world (‘panenhenic’ experience) and with certain kinds of chemical- and drug-induced experiences; but the connections are much disputed. See also BIOGENETIC STRUCTURALISM.

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461. Mysticism

  1. cabala Jewish oral traditions, originating with Moses. [Judaism: Benét, 154]
  2. Catherine of Siena, St. experienced visions from age seven. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 59]
  3. Druids magical priests of Celtic religion; oak cult. [Celtic Rel.: Leach, 325; Jobes, 471]
  4. Hudson, Dr. Wayne believed power obtained by good deeds and silence. [Am. Lit.: The Magnificent Obsession, Magill I, 547549]
  5. mothers, the keepers of the bodiless spirits of all who have lived; they supply Faust with an image of Helen of Troy. [Ger. Lit.: Faust ]
  6. Ouija letterboard reveals messages from spirits. [Am. Pop. Culture: Brewer Dictionary, 788]
  7. Svengali Hungarian hypnotist, mesmerizes artists model who becomes a famous singer under his influence. [Br. Lit.: Trilby ]
  8. Teresa of Ávila, St. religious contemplation brought her spiritual ecstasy. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 318]
  9. voodoo religious beliefs and practices from the West Indies. [Am. Cult.: Brewer Dictionary ]
  10. Zen Buddhist sect; truth found in contemplation and self-mastery. [Buddhism: Brewer Dictionary, 1174]
  11. Zohar, The cabalistic reinterpretation of the Bible. [Judaism: Haydn & Fuller, 812]

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mysticism Belief in, or experience of, a perception of reality that is elevated above normal human understanding. It may involve some form of spiritual search for unity of self with God or the universe. It is found in most major religions, and exponents of mysticism (mystics) may experience trances, dreams, or visions. In India, mysticism has long been important in Hinduism, and is based on Yoga. Mysticism in Judaism is apparent in Hasidism and the Cabbala. Mystics in the Far East have mostly been followers of Taoism or Buddhism.

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This entry includes six subentries:

Chinese Mysticism
Christian Mysticism
Islamic Mysticism
Islamic Mysticism in Asia
Mysticism in African Thought

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Mysticism (Jewish): see KABBALAH.

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