So, what is mysticism? That’s a tough one to take straight on. Allow me to come at it from the side: Who is a mystic? Ah, much easier. A mystic is someone who seeks union with the Ultimate . . . . At least, that is how it is currently defined.
In every religion, every spiritual path, there are people who seek firsthand experience of the Absolute, the Sacred, God, Goddess, the Tao, perfect Being, nonbeing, Brahman, nirvana—the Ultimate however their path defines it. These are the mystics, variously called ecstatics, seers, prophets, yogis, fakirs, saints, and more.
Mysticism, then, covers everything about their journey. It’s the methods they follow: ethical purity, study, silence, dance, fasting, prayer, meditation, and so on, many of which serve to hollow us out, to empty us of the ego personality.
It’s all the results of those practices: the psychological maturity; the compassion and wisdom; the altered states of consciousness, the visions, trances, intuitions; and the union they experience.
It’s the descriptions of the Ultimate the mystics return with, as they attempt to put into words what is patently beyond words, relying on paradox to describe the hard won truths they have gathered. And it’s their resignation and admonitions that we must put in the work and see for ourselves.
All of this is mysticism, and more.
The essentialists claimed some substance to the perennial philosophy, to the idea that all mystics are touching the same Source, even if that similarity was based in the biology of the human brain.
The constructivists stood firm in the perspective that all experience is mediated through enculturation and language-based expectations, even mystical experience. And to claim that all mystics are having the same experience is at best wishful thinking. At worst it’s the product of cultural hegemony, erasing difference and replacing it with our own constructs of what we think the mystical experience should be.
Twenty-plus years later, the academic study of mysticism appears to have gone full tilt for the latter.
I believe both sides have merit. And honestly, I don’t really care if one side is more right than the other. I’m after my own experience. I want to live this life as deeply and as well as I can. I want to know for myself that peace, joy, and assuredness of the mystics. So it occurs to me to return to the sources to find the Source; to seek the advice of others who sought to experience the Ultimate, who touched the godhead and let it transform them. And to let them be my models for how to live.
At least very few of them were dicks.