table of contents
July 2002


There is one thing that disconcerts me regularly and that is the general misuse of the words ‘mystic’ and ‘mysticism’. Let me remark as a preliminary that the word, ‘mysticism’, and its cognates are standardly misused in popular usage. The reason is, I suppose, that most people, particularly in the United States, have little knowledge of what mysticism is. As a result they use the term for things that are tangential to mysticism proper. This article is for those who might be interested in learning something about what mysticism actually is.

As a side note, I can support the way that objectivists use the term provided that it is clearly understood that “mysticism” and “mystic” are technical terms in objectivist philosophy that are distinct from mysticism. They have some justification; the objectivist definition is a refinement of the popular misunder- standing. However, I wish they wouldn’t do it. Agreed misuse of terminology may make for clarity of communication — if I use the word B when I mean A and you do the same then we understand each other. The trouble is that if you use B to mean A you are left without a way to talk about B.

Before I talk about what mysticism is I want to mention some things that it is not. Mysticism is not:

  • a synonym for the occult
  • a system of belief
  • a philosophy
  • a religion
  • ascetism
  • shamanism or animism
  • a mood or philosophy
  • theosophy
  • magic, astrology, or numerology
  • intuitism
  • epigrammatic wisdom
  • mythology
  • a form of mystery religion
  • EST, scientology, etc.
  • Revelations or prophesy
The list could be continued indefinitely.

Now let’s look at what mysticism actually is. This is not so simple. As a starting point let me begin with the definition given in the Encyclopedia Brittanica (1979) in the article on mysticism.

“The goal of mysticism is union with the divine or sacred.”

This will do as a starting point provided that you realize that the practice of mysticism requires neither a belief in nor the existence of the divine or sacred and is consistent with the view- point that the experienced union is, in some deep sense, an illusion. (All discussions of mysticism are replete with apparent paradoxes.)

Another definition: “Mysticism is a radical transformation of self which leads to a state of illumination.” This definition does not tell us anything about the nature of the transformation or the nature of a “state of illumination”. However it does tell us that mysticism is a process with a goal.

Mysticism is a practice, a human activity with a definite goal. It is, in its own right, religiously and philosophically neutral. Its practice leads to certain definite perceptions and experiences. Their interpretation and expression will depend upon the background of the person involved and the context in which the mystical endeavour was undertaken. Usually mysticism is undertaken in the context of strong religious motivation and is therefore associated with religion. However it need not be — it is feasible to be a materialist and an atheist and still be a mystic.

There is definite and strong evidence that the nature of mysticism is independent of the beliefs of the person practicing it. One can look at the recorded experiences and practices of mystics and find a commonality (disguised by language and context.) In European culture mysticism is mostly associated with Christianity and Judaism and has usually been interpreted in terms of those religions. The relationship between mystics and instititutional relgion has always been uneasy in the West. In the East (India, China, Japan) a knowledge of and experience with mysticism is much more a part of the popular culture than it has been in the West. The expression is more widely varied. Zen Bhuddism and Mahayana Bhuddism tend more towards the pure thing. Taoism mysticism is also “pure”; however there is a vast body of occultism and superstition associated with Taoism. Hinayana Bhuddism tends to be encumbered with a lot of Bhuddist philosophy and theology. Indian (i.e. Hindu) mysticism is hopelessly intertwined with mythology, superstition, and occultism. It is also incredibly varied. I have no familiarity with mysticism in Moslem cultures.

There are a number of observations that can be made about mysticism generally. First of all, as noted, the process and the goal achieved seem to be similar in essential character for people of widely varying backgrounds. Secondly, the quest requires both strong motivation and strong committment; it is not easy. Thirdly, what mystics have to say about the process and the results achieved is generally reliable although not completely comprehensible by the layman. Fourthly, what the mystic has to say about religion and philosophy is not reliable. Fifthly, the observed success rate is not high. Sixth, it helps to have a good guide or teacher. Finally, the results, if the quest is successful, are highly desirable.

The process (quoted from the Encyclopedia Brittanica with emmendations by myself) has four basic stages:

  1. purgation of bodily desires
  2. purification of the will
  3. illumination of the mind
  4. unification with the divine
Purgation does not mean asceticism or self mortification although this is widely practiced. These practices can result in visions and related phenomena. Some religions see these states as desirable end goals. “Maturer” forms of mysticism reject them. My personal opinion is that the extremes of self mortification, like drugs, trigger exotic states of mind that are unrelated to mysticism per se.

Stages one and two can be thought of as a process of focusing and of gaining self control. The mind of the non-mystic is continually agitated by desires and sensations; people are dominated by and distracted by their emotions. The successful mystic does not cease to have desires and sensations; however he (or she) is serene in their presence and is not compelled by them. In the process of attaining the goal, however, it is necessary to, so to speak, clear the decks.

Stage three is widely compared with the “flash of insight” or “Aha!” experience. This is misleading. The onset of illumination is usually very definite and has the “flash of insight” character. As such it can be exhilarating. Illumination of the mind cannot be completely understood secondhand. One way to envision it is to think of sense of clarity of the insight experience made permanent. (This is not correct; it is only a misleading analogy.)

Stage four is not the same as stage three but they are intimately intertwined. I am not even going to attempt an explanation or a description. However I will note that (a) unification is a very apt term, (b) it can either be a state of being or a transitory experience, and (c) it does not require the intellectual belief in the divine (or nirvanna).

To summarize: the mystical quest, when successful, results in deep inner serenity and joy and a great increase in personal energy. The process and results are nonrational and cannot be adequately expressed in words. The reports of successful mystics are filtered through intense personal symbology. The word and methods of teaching mystics are oriented towards achieving the desired result and cannot be taken literally as explication.

A disclaimer: This article is no more than superficially informative. A serious effort would be much longer. It is intended only as an introduction to the fact that there is such a thing as mysticism. I hope that it has been of interest.

This page was last updated July 1, 2002.

table of contents
July 2002