Introducing the Mystic Perspective
Rabbi Herbert Weiner, the author of 9 1/2 Mystics, once observed that the religious traditions of the world are very, very different --- on the surface, but the deeper one goes into the mystic aspects of these traditions, the more they tend to look the same. Other scholars have made similar observations.
Mystics from all religious traditions, cultures and eras share a perspective that sees the finite, physical world in which we live as merely part of a larger reality. Indeed, the reality beyond the finite, physical world is more real and more reliable than the physical. They consciously expand their awareness to live in this greater, combined reality as much as possible.
Unveiling the Direct Connection
In contrast, most people consider the physical world and the science that explores it to be the core of what is real. The possibility that there is something beyond the veil of the physical world is a matter of speculation. It cannot be proven and can be accepted only as a matter of faith. Yet every once in a while, "the veil is lifted" for a brief moment and we are given a glimpse of what lies beyond. It happens in subtle events and coincidences that occur in everyday life, but can easily be discounted once the skeptical mind resumes control. It happened in a much harder to ignore fashion to Dr. Frank Siebert in the event recalled in the Preface of Love Life 101. It has happened in many near-death experiences and healings that cannot be explained by modern science.
A friend of mine had such an experience in the late 1990's. It occurred within two weeks of being diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. It was an understandably intense, stressful time. She grappled with the most basic questions of life - God, life, death, religion and "why is all of this happening to me?" She averaged only about 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night. Typically, after sleeping a few hours, the fear of the cancer would well up from inside and wake her up. There were nights when she went for a walk in her neighborhood at 3 AM in her pajamas.
At some point, she realized that she had to have the "will to live." She read some of the prayers and spiritual material that friends and relatives had given her. One of them was Desiderata1, a famous poem by Max Ehrmann that told her to be "gentle" with herself. She is "a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars" and has "a right to be here." As she read those words, she reflected on what had happened to her over the past few years. She simply did not feel like a "child of the universe" who "had a right to be here." She talked to God about it in her prayers that evening.
The next morning, she went to a friend's house and talked for 2 or 3 hours about their religious upbringing, God, and spiritual beliefs they had in common. As noon approached, she got in her car and headed to the pre-school at a local church to pick up her son. There was a line of cars waiting to pick up children and she found herself in the middle as noon approached. She had her windows down. The church bells started playing a spiritual song that she recognized and loves. The October sky was a deep teal blue. It was a nice temperature and there was no humidity. A comforting breeze came in through the window and went around her head and body, pulling her into a moment of stress-less existence. She was in an extraordinary place she had never been before. She let out a big sigh and said, out of pure gratitude, "Oh God, what a beautiful day!"
At that moment, she looked at a huge conifer tree by the church. It lit up like a Christmas tree with a brilliant white light. The more she looked at it, she realized that the light was really vibration or energy emitting from the tree. It was like an aura, following the shape of the entire tree and extending out the same distance from each part. It looked white because it was crystal clear.
She looked at the people in the other cars to see if anyone else was seeing this phenomenon. No one appeared to be noticing. At that moment she knew she was experiencing something unusual. She recalled her prayer from the night before when she told God that she didn't feel like a "child of the universe" connected "like the trees and the stars." She then saw two images in her mind's eye. The first was a little sparrow. The second was a patch of green grass. Each had the same energy surrounding it as the conifer tree did.
In that profound moment, the message that awakened in her consciousness was: we are all connected. The trees, the grass, the birds and humans all come from the same source - God. She realized that she is worthy of God's love and God's blessings. She had a right to be here.
This moment of joy was followed by a moment of sadness as she thought about what we as a people are doing to the earth - pollution, hunting animals for sport and more. It's all part of God's Creation. We are here to be an integral part of Creation, not to treat everything as if it were intended for our consumption and disposal.
Finally, her mind focused on the fact that there is no such thing as a coincidence. The illness that she faced was not just the fate of an inherited gene, or the penalty for a flawed diet. She realized that it was a gift from God, awakening her to her connection with God and the beauty of the universe. It was an experience that touched the very core of her soul.
Dr. Abraham Maslow has called this type of experience a "peak experience." Peak experiences are commonly associated with saints and mystics. However, in his book, The Journey Home: What Near-Death Experiences and Mysticism Teach Us About the Gift of Life , Philip L. Berman points out, among other things, that they have also happened to people, like my friend, we would consider quite ordinary if we were to meet them on the street. Berman also concludes that the near-death experience phenomenon is a form of peak experience. The same universal themes that emerge from near-death experiences, particularly life reviews, can be found in various sources of ancient mystic wisdom.
A Common Perspective from Diverse Backgrounds
The essence of a mystic is the pursuit, through contemplation and self-surrender, of unity with the Greater Being that ties all of creation together. This union leads to the spiritual apprehension of truths that transcend the ordinary human intellect. As a general proposition, each of the world's major religious traditions has a sub-group regarded as mystics. For Islam, it is the Sufis. For Judaism, it is the Kabballists and Hassids (there is overlap). The Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism are examples within Hinduism. Within Christianity, Jesus was certainly a mystic and there have been many others such as St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhardt, Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton.
Although mystics come from many cultural and religious backgrounds, their understanding of reality is not limited to what is written in the books or taught by the religious traditions and cultural surroundings of their respective upbringing. Their direct experience of the Divine Presence guides their path and puts their theology and all other aspects of their lives into perspective. Not surprisingly, important universal themes emerge from their teachings, albeit often framed in the context of symbols and concepts of their respective religions, language or cultures.
In his scholarly work entitled, American Mysticism From William James to Zen , Hal Bridges, then a professor of history at the University of California at Riverside, observed:
[M]ysticism is a recognizable pattern of experience and thought, discernible in the utterances of mystics throughout world history, notwithstanding the differences that prevail among them with regard to time and place and philosophical and religious beliefs. . . . [T]he core of mysticism is experience. ...Unity - Oneness - this quality of mystical experience is stressed again and again by the great mystics. ...As anyone who cares to investigate mystical literature may determine for himself, the half-dozen examples of mystical statement that we have considered can be paralleled innumerable times with examples of writings of scores of mystics, East and West; and while no mystic will be found to say exactly the same thing as any other, all will seem to be describing more or less the same kind of experience. This similarity of utterance, which in the words of William James "ought to make a critic stop and think," is the basis of the premise that mysticism is a recognizable pattern of experience and thought.
Thomas Merton is a good example of a mystic's ability to see light and truth in the mystic teachings of other religious traditions. Merton was one of the more widely known Christian mystics of the Twentieth Century. He authored more than 70 books during his lifetime. His autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain inspired many young men during the post-World War II era to join monasteries. Although a devout Catholic monk, Merton studied other religious traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sufism. He regularly corresponded with mystics of other traditions such as the Dalai Lama. His last trip involved a tour of religious sites in Asia culminating in a speaking engagement at an interfaith conference in Bangkok, Thailand.
Merton, like many mystics, was grounded in his own religious tradition, but bowed to truth and light wherever he found it even when it came cloaked in the teachings of someone else's religious tradition. Truth and light from other religious traditions did not threaten Merton's Catholicism. It only enriched and deepened it to the benefit of all who contemplate his writings.
2Phillip L. Berman, The Journey Home: What Near-Death Experiences and Mysticism Teach Us About the Gift of Life (Pocket Books 1996), 5-13, 65- 194.
3Hal Bridges, American Mysticism From William James to Zen (Harper & Row 1970).
4American Mysticism From William James to Zen
5Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain (Mariner Books 1999).