|Jacob's Ladder - William Blake|
I don’t know exactly where to start – it would make sense to start with the very beginning of mysticism, but the truth is that no one can really put a date to it. It might make sense to begin with a definition, but even a definition is somewhat difficult because it is a broader term than one might think. I can turn my attention to what mysticism does, and even that might be somewhat difficult to describe in objective, pragmatic terms because of a befuddling plethora of traditions. Of course one of my main goals is to clear away all of the mystical, magical language and funny words associated with the subject so that anyone can understand what it’s all about. Greater minds than mine have attempted such introductions with the same goals – and have done a much better job than what I’m doing now – but both time and the volume of new information have put us back in the same situation as when these greater minds were at work. That is – gross misunderstanding and prejudgments made from ignorance prevent many people from taking a serious look at mysticism.
Be that as it may, ignorance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably the very best place to begin. If that sounds strange to you, visit my previous post on ignorance to find my explanation. Otherwise, read on for an introductory glance at:
- The roots of the word “mysticism”
- The fundamental branches of mysticism
- What mysticism is
- What mysticism is not
So far as I can find, the words mystic, mysticism, and mystery derive from the Greek mystes, from the verb myein – “to shut” or “to conceal”. I’ve also found mystes defined as “one who is initiated” and as the root of the Greek mystikos, which is similarly defined. These words are closely tied to the so-called “Mystery Schools” or “Mystery Cults” of ancient Greece and Egypt. These schools dramatized the stories of the gods to divulge the mysteries to their initiates, who were sworn to secrecy. Any uninitiated person who may have observed the dramas would not have the same understanding as a mystikos, or initiate of the school.These themes of initiation and silence continue to this day, and the words mystery and mysticism still imply information that is knowable but concealed, secret, or yet to be understood. This isn't necessarily some profound arcane knowledge from some ancient tome or a mantra, but perhaps some principle that can not be communicated through words alone - a knowledge that comes from within oneself, through effort.
For now, just keep in mind that mysticism is not about looking for miracles, achieving instant results, bending the laws of physics or ignoring science in favor of “supernatural” explanations for things. Rather than escaping reality, it is about interacting with reality - through whatever means suit you - in order to know and express your deepest self. For millennia, certain individuals have used special methods for such self-development. The word “mystic” would be a proper term for those individuals and their methods, but only if we remove all of our modern connotations and prejudices from the word (and in doing so, expose those who would exploit it). The underlying theme of any true “mystical” tradition is primarily human transformation.
In The Tree of Life, Israel Regardie makes the case that the cultural and spiritual atrophy apparent in modern society are the direct result of a lack of communication with reality, and that mysticism is the only way to get us back on track. Some might say he’s a bit too idealistic or even moralistic in his ideas; nevertheless, his work has proven to be invaluable to more than myself as both a practical and academic resource. We may discuss him more in the future, but for now it is more important to note that in The Tree of Life, he also identified two branches of mysticism: Western magick and Eastern Yoga. As I write this, I can’t help but to wonder how Regardie would have classified shamanism, which (so far as we can tell) predates both magick and yoga. Perhaps shamanism is the common root shared by these branches, but my purpose here is to expose some of the common themes so that we may delve deeper into these subjects and learn how they affect our daily lives.
The word “shamanism” really describes the spiritual practices of a particular group of people in Northern Asia, but it’s become common to apply the term “shamanism” to a diverse collection of spiritual practices among various groups of people. “Shaman” has become a somewhat more politically correct way to say “medicine man” or “witch doctor.” The key elements here are that a shaman acts as an intermediary between humans and spirits for the good of his or her community. To do this, a shaman must access states of mind that allow him or her to interact with the spirits or the spirit world. Specific methodologies vary, but the common ideas are that a shaman enters different states of mind to interact with some normally unseen element of reality in order to help the community in some way.
It might surprise you if I told you that the Roman Catholic Church is one of (if not the) largest modern institution that currently practices ceremonial magick. The church, however, does not call it “magick” but mass, communion, sacrament, etc. to separate Church practice from Paganism, Satanism, superstition, and other un-Christian practice. Magick is now commonly spelled with a “k” specifically to distinguish it from spiritualism and “stage magic” performed for entertainment. That factor has done little to maintain its integrity and reputation, and interest in ritual or ceremonial magick is not usually something one shares with his or her “normal” neighbors and friends. In its simplest definition, magick is a means of causing change through the application of willpower. Building on that, a “magickal system” is a system of mnemonics in which every element of a particular working or ceremony is intended to focus your attention, imagination, and emotions. What’s important to note for my purposes here, is that magick is the form of mysticism that grew within and influenced the advancement of Western civilization.
Despite what your yoga instructor may have told you, those yoga positions you've been learning don’t have anything to do with ancient India. Most, if not all, of them were developed by a European guy within the last hundred years or so (if that far back). The oldest known writings about yoga are found in the Hindu Vedas, but there is reason to believe that yoga predates Hinduism. Most scholars divide yoga’s history into four distinct periods: Vedic, pre-classical, classical, and post-classical. The yoga practiced in your local gym has its roots in yoga’s post-classical period, but today’s yoga focuses primarily on only one or two of the eight aspects of classical yoga.
We’ll take a more detailed look at these topics in the near future; for now, let them sit in the back of your mind as you consider the differences between the East and West.
Contrary to popular belief and despite what I've said so far about magick, mysticism is not “magical thinking” nor is it denial of scientifically-tested phenomenon. It has nothing to do with Harry Potter or other fantasy, but it does require a degree of imagination and often draws upon mythology. Mysticism is a system (or a blanket term for such systems) of exerting one’s willpower to explore both inner and outer reality, of knowing oneself and learning about the universe. It is a system of interacting with and creating not only your experience of reality, but reality itself. This seems outlandishly fantastical when described in such broad terms, but it does not contradict “scientific” understanding nor is it something reserved for ascetic yogis, secluded monks, austere shamans, and mad men. It is not reserved for “goth” kids, vampires, Satanists, pagans, witches, “psychics” or the “New Age” movement. Nor is it even a wholly religious phenomenon – though it can be considered as the root of religion, one might say that contemporary religions are in a state of degradation because they have lost their mystical keys.