A suitably obscure definition of mysticism

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Dtcwee has pointed out that readers might benefit from a definition of mysticism. This is a subject I’ve followed for some time but rarely discussed or written about. Finding a definition is a bit like retracing my steps; bear with me.

Starting with ye olde Catholic Encyclopedia:

Mysticism, according to its etymology, implies a relation to mystery. In philosophy, Mysticism is either a religious tendency and desire of the human soul towards an intimate union with the Divinity, or a system growing out of such a tendency and desire. As a philosophical system, Mysticism considers as the end of philosophy the direct union of the human soul with the Divinity through contemplation and love, and attempts to determine the processes and the means of realizing this end. This contemplation, according to Mysticism, is not based on a merely analogical knowledge of the Infinite, but as a direct and immediate intuition of the Infinite.

That’s pretty good as far as definitions go, yet would-be mystics might find it a little too concise. One of the prevailing themes in mysticism is that ordinary language cannot define the contours of mysticism as it can other more mundane aspects of reality. As the Dao De Jing puts it:

Those who know don’t speak. Those who speak don’t know.

And of course:

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

One of the first books I read on this subject was ‘Practical Mysticism‘ by Evelyn Underhill. Underhill wrote Practical Mysticism in the early 20th Century, aiming to make mysticism newly accessible to ordinary people. Despite promoting accessability, Underhill was firmly in the ‘ineffable’ camp. Her work emphasises the limits of our normal mode of understanding and the kind of understanding enjoyed by the mystic:

Here is the definition:—

Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.

It is not expected that the inquirer will find great comfort in this sentence when first it meets his eye. The ultimate question, “What is Reality?”—a question, perhaps, which never occurred to him before—is already forming in his mind; and he knows that it will cause him infinite distress. Only a mystic can answer it: and he, in terms which other mystics alone will understand. Therefore, for the time being, the practical man may put it on one side. All that he is asked to consider now is this: that the word “union” represents not so much a rare and unimaginable operation, as something which he is doing, in a vague, imperfect fashion, at every moment of his conscious life; and doing with intensity and thoroughness in all the more valid moments of that life.

Underhill was writing for a popular audience at a time when, as her wikipedia biography notes: “The enormous excitement in those days was mysteriously compounded of the psychic, the psychological, the occult, the mystical, the medieval, the advance of science, the apotheosis of art, the re-discovery of the feminine and an unashamedly sensuous and the most ethereally ‘spiritual’.”

Perhaps this is why her writing comes across as, on the one hand, a little too ethereal as though trying to match the spirit of the age, and on the other hand crudely condescending as though trying to sell something to ‘the man on the street’ using all the key words and themes of the era – an era yet to have its spirit crushed by the First and Second World Wars.

Underhill’s work remains a classic in the field and required reading to some degree, but you’ll be forgiven for thinking that Underhill’s ‘practical man’ is basically a Muggle.

It is notorious that the operations of the average human consciousness unite the self, not with things as they really are, but with images, notions, aspects of things. The verb “to be,” which he uses so lightly, does not truly apply to any of the objects amongst which the practical man supposes himself to dwell. For him the hare of Reality is always ready-jugged: he conceives not the living, lovely, wild, swift-moving creature which has been sacrificed in order that he may be fed on the deplorable dish which he calls “things as they really are.” So complete, indeed, is the separation of his consciousness from the facts of being, that he feels no sense of loss. He is happy enough “understanding,” garnishing, assimilating the carcass from which the principle of life and growth has been ejected, and whereof only the most digestible portions have been retained. He is not “mystical.”

It’s been a long time since I read Underhill’s works on mysticism, and if we can set aside the occasional irksome and confusing elements of sales-pitch and condescension, the text retains its value.

So while Underhill focuses on (and perhaps oversells) the mystery as though to entice ‘the practical man’ out of his staid complacence, she also touches upon the more compelling observation of general human dissatisfaction and incompletion. Human beings are not as they ought to be, to our own detriment. Our happiness is shallow and fleeting because it is based on superficial and impermanent things. Our dissatisfaction points to a deeper reality, a thing (res) which alone can complete our happiness.

Mysticism is the pursuit of this deeper reality that completes our happiness. This deeper reality is ontologically and cosmologically distinct from mundane reality. Ontologically: its existence and nature are unique, like comparing a real object to an image; cosmologically: its relationship to the cosmos is special, like that of a creator to its creature.

Where Underhill comes into her own is in the poetic expression of this new experience of reality; a poetry by which she enjoins the reader to undertake the difficult training required.

Ambitions and affections, tastes and prejudices, are fighting for your attention. Your poor, worried consciousness flies to and fro amongst them; it has become a restless and a complicated thing. At this very moment your thoughts are buzzing like a swarm of bees. The reduction of this fevered complex to a unity appears to be a task beyond all human power. Yet the situation is not as hopeless for you as it seems. All this is only happening upon the periphery of the mind, where it touches and reacts to the world of appearance.

At the centre there is a stillness which even you are not able to break. There, the rhythm of your duration is one with the rhythm of the Universal Life. There, your essential self exists: the permanent being which persists through and behind the flow and change of your conscious states. You have been snatched to that centre once or twice. Turn your consciousness inward to it deliberately. Retreat to that point whence all the various lines of your activities flow, and to which at last they must return. Since this alone of all that you call your “selfhood” is possessed of eternal reality, it is surely a counsel of prudence to acquaint yourself with its peculiarities and its powers. “Take your seat within the heart of the thousand-petaled lotus,” cries the Eastern visionary. “Hold thou to thy Centre,” says his Christian brother, “and all things shall be thine.” This is a practical recipe, not a pious exhortation.

The thing may sound absurd to you, but you can do it if you will: standing back, as it were, from the vague and purposeless reactions in which most men fritter their vital energies. Then you can survey with a certain calm, a certain detachment, your universe and the possibilities of life within it: can discern too, if you be at all inclined to mystical adventure, the stages of the road along which you must pass on your way towards harmony with the Real.

It has been about sixteen years or so since I first read Underhill’s Practical Mysticism, and I long ago abandoned her enthusiasm for sharing this interest with others. It seems to me that some people are naturally more inclined by temperament to this discipline; but more importantly, the path has been enough of a struggle for this one person without trying to lead others down the same difficult and often doubtful road. I believe now that if people are meant to find it they will.

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