Karen Armstrong on Mysticism and being a Mystic (or not)

“Men and women may express their faith in different terms, but there is an underlying and profound similarity beneath all the differences. We now realise that the great religions of the world are not monolithic institutions but that they all contain several spiritualities – many of which are found right across the board of the world religions – which reflect different attitudes of mind towards our ultimate end. Mysticism is one such spirituality, found in all religions and is a startling example of this deep unity of the religious vision.

Mystics often have different beliefs which inevitably affect their experience. They will describe their interior journeys in terms of the orthodox traditions of their faith: Jews, Christians and Muslims, for example, believe in a personal God while Buddhists feel that this is an unreligious idea and prefer to speak of an ultimate but indescribable Reality.

But the actual experience of all mystics is strikingly similar: all encounter a reality in the depths of the self, which is, paradoxically, Other and irrevocably separate from us. All emphasise that this ultimate reality, which gives meaning and value to human life, is ineffable, transcending our limited words and concepts. Mystics are aware that their experience can never be explained in rational terms and insist that it is unhelpful and can even be dangerous to attempt to define the ultimate reality in terms of reason and logic. They encounter a presence which transfigures their lives and, provided that they are temperamentally suited to this type of spiritual activity and have the benefit of expert advice, they experience a satisfaction which is real but inexpressible. They feel that they have transcended the confines of their limited and isolated egos and also feel that they have been somehow absorbed into the ultimate truth and are at one with the world.

Disappearing into the Fog

People who have no religious faith find this baffling, but it would be wrong to dismiss the mystics as deluded and credulous. However one chooses to interpret it, the mystical experience has been a fact of life, once human consciousness has developed to a particular point.

Mysticism is not for everybody, however. Certain men and women have a propensity for this type of spirituality and have devised techniques and disciplines to create the sense of presence within themselves. Again, these techniques are revealingly similar in widely different cultural contexts.

At the very least, therefore, mysticism must tell us something important about the human mind. Buddhists, indeed, have insisted that there is nothing supernatural about such enlightenment: the visions, ecstasies and other alternative states of consciousness experienced by an adept are not a meeting with an alien, divine reality but are natural to the human condition, even though most people have not developed this spiritual potential within themselves. But the Buddhists also point out that, unless a man or woman has a special gift or potential, these techniques will not work infallibly.

Zen masters insist that no amount of teaching and practice will help people who are temperamentally or intellectually unsuited to contemplation. The guru or the spiritual director will have to tell the novice when he has reached the limits of his ability. Entering the depths of the mind can be extremely dangerous if the would-be mystic has not the mental or physical capacity for this interior quest. The higher states of consciousness cannot be attained by will-power and application, any more than any other talent. An unmusical person will be unable to progress beyond a certain point, no matter how many piano lessons he has.

I myself discovered that I did not have this mystical ability, even though I spent seven years in a Roman Catholic convent, engaged in daily meditation and intensive spiritual exercise. This is difficult for people brought up in the Protestant tradition to accept, perhaps, because Protestantism has always insisted that every single Christian has the ability to become a great spiritual athlete. Roman Catholicism has been more in line with other great world religions in insisting that mysticism is only for a few chosen souls and that, unless one has this special propensity, mysticism can be a serious health threat. Its inaccessibility to the rank and file may be one reason why Protestants were, until the beginning of this century, extremely distrustful of the mystical experience.

If, however, a man or woman has mystical ability, it will become essential. Mystics cannot be prevented from contemplation any more than a poet can be prevented from writing poetry. …”

– Karen Armstrong, The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century

Image: Fog