What Is Mysticism? Definition and Examples

Ancient and Modern Mysticism and Mystics

Hand reaching up toward the light

Paper Boat Creative / Getty Images

The word mysticism comes from the Greek word mystes, which refers to an initiate of a secret cult. It means the pursuit or achievement of personal communion with or joining with God (or some other form of the divine or ultimate truth). A person who successfully pursues and gains such communion can be called a mystic.

While the experiences of mystics are certainly outside of everyday experience, they are not generally considered to be paranormal or magical. This can be confusing because the words "mystical" (as in "the mystical feats of the Great Houdini") and "mysterious" are so closely linked to the words "mystic" and "mysticism."

Key Takeaways: What Is Mysticism?

  • Mysticism is the personal experience of the absolute or divine.
  • In some cases, mystics experience themselves as part of the divine; in other cases, they are aware of the divine as separate from themselves.
  • Mystics have existed throughout history, around the world, and may come from any religious, ethnic, or economic background. Mysticism is still an important part of religious experience today.
  • Some famous mystics have had a profound impact on philosophy, religion, and politics.

Mysticism Definition and Overview

Mystics have and still do emerge from many different religious traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, South Asian religions, and animistic and totemistic religions around the world. In fact, many traditions offer specific paths by which practitioners may become mystics. A few examples of mysticism in traditional religions include:

  • The phrase "Atman is Brahman" in Hinduism, which roughly translates as "the soul is one with God."
  • The Buddhist experiences of tathata, which can be described as the "thisness of reality" outside of everyday sense perception, or the experiences of Zen or Nirvana in Buddhism.
  • The Jewish kabbalistic experience of the sephirot, or aspects of God which, when understood, can provide extraordinary insights into the divine creation.
  • Shamanistic experiences with spirits or connection with the divine in relation with healing, interpretation of dreams, etc.
  • Christian experiences of personal revelations from or communion with God.
  • Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, through which practitioners strive for communion with the divine through "little sleep, little talk, little food."

While all of these examples can be described as forms of mysticism, they are not identical to one another. In Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism, for example, the mystic is actually joined with and part of the divine. In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, on the other hand, mystics commune with and engage with the divine, but remain separate.

Similarly, there are those who believe that a "true" mystical experience cannot be described in words; an "ineffable" or indescribable mystical experience is often referred to as apophatic. Alternatively, there are those who feel that mystical experiences can and should be described in words; kataphatic mystics make specific claims about mystical experience.

How People Become Mystics

Mysticism is not reserved for the religious or a particular group of people. Women are as likely as men (or perhaps more likely) to have mystical experiences. Often, revelations and other forms of mysticism are experienced by the poor, the illiterate, and the obscure.

There are essentially two paths to becoming a mystic. Many people strive for communion with the divine through a range of activities that may include anything from meditation and chanting to asceticism to drug-induced trance states. Others, in essence, have mysticism thrust upon them as a result of unexplained experiences that may include visions, voices, or other non-corporeal events.

One of the most famous mystics was Joan of Arc. Joan was a 13-year-old peasant girl with no formal education who claimed to have experienced visions and voices from angels who guided her to lead France to victory over England during the Hundred Years' War. By contrast, Thomas Merton is a highly educated and respected contemplative Trappist monk whose life has been dedicated to prayer and writing.

Mystics Through History

Mysticism has been a part of human experience around the world for all of recorded history. While mystics can be of any class, gender, or background, only a relative few have had a significant impact on philosophical, political, or religious events.

Ancient Mystics

There were well-known mystics around the world even in ancient times. Many, of course, were obscure or known only in their local areas, but others actually changed the course of history. The following is a short list of some of the most influential.

  • The great Greek mathematician Pythagoras was born in 570 BCE and was well known for his revelations and teachings about the soul.
  • Born around 563 BCE, Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) is said to have achieved enlightenment when sitting beneath a bodhi tree. His teachings have had a profound impact on the world.
  • Confucius. Born around 551 BCE, Confucius was a Chinese diplomat, philosopher, and mystic. His teachings were significant in his time, and have seen many resurgences in popularity over the years.

Medieval Mystics

During the middle ages in Europe, there were many mystics who claimed to see or hear saints or experience forms of communion with the absolute. Some of the most famous included:

  • Meister Eckhart, a Dominican theologian, writer, and mystic, was born around 1260. Eckhart is still considered to be one of the greatest German mystics, and his works are still influential.
  • St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish nun, lived during the 1500s. She was one of the great mystics, writers, and teachers of the Catholic Church.
  • Eleazar ben Judah, who was born toward the end of the 1100s, was a Jewish mystic and scholar whose books are still read today.

Contemporary Mystics

Mysticism has continued to be a significant part of religious experience past the middle ages and into the present day. Some of the most significant events of the 1700s and beyond can be traced to mystical experiences. A few examples include:

  • Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation, based much of his thinking on the works of Meister Eckhart and may have been a mystic himself.
  • Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, experienced visions and revelations which led her to the United States.
  • Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism and the Latter Day Saint movement, undertook his work after experiencing a series of visions.

Is Mysticism Real?

There is no way to absolutely prove the truth of personal mystical experience. In fact, many so-called mystical experiences may well be the outcome of mental illness, epilepsy, or drug-induced hallucinations. Nevertheless, religious and psychological scholars and researchers tend to agree that the experiences of bona fide mystics are meaningful and important. Some of the arguments that support this perspective include:

  • The universality of mystical experience: it has been a part of human experience throughout history, around the world, regardless of factors related to age, gender, wealth, education, or religion.
  • The impact of mystical experience: many mystical experiences have had profound and hard-to-explain impacts on people around the world. Joan of Arc's visions, for example, led to the French victory in the Hundred Years' War.
  • The inability of neurologists and other contemporary scientists to explain at least some mystical experiences as being "all in the head."

As the great psychologist and philosopher William James said in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, "Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. (...) They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule, they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time."

Sources

  • Gellman, Jerome. “Mysticism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 31 July 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mysticism/#CritReliDive.
  • Goodman, Russell. “William James.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 Oct. 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/james/.
  • Merkur, Dan. “Mysticism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/topic/mysticism#ref283485.