WHY EVERYONE IS A MYSTIC
Everyone is a mystic.
Everyone is also “religious” – including atheists. (Or, put differently: it’s impossible to be “irreligious.”)
We might not often think of ourselves in these ways. (Especially atheists.)
But these roles are hard-wired into human nature.
After all, we have no choice but to try to make sense of life. We all face The Big Questions (or the “existential riddles” life throws at us), consciously or unconsciously. We all have to start our thinking somewhere, with foundational premises, axioms, or assumptions – and so on.
That said, if everyone really is a mystic, a philosopher, and a theologian, then part of the trick, it seems, is to get good at these.
One of our most important tasks in life is to become a “good” mystic instead of a “bad” one.
But what does it even mean, to “become a ‘good’ mystic”?
Are we really even “mystics” at all?
A few examples should help here.
Heroin addiction, for example, can be seen as an example of failed mysticism.
Drug abuse and alcoholism can be seen as examples of dysfunctional mysticism.
A gambling addiction can be seen as an example of toxic mysticism.
To take a closer look at toxic gambling, for example – what’s going on?
It’s no mystery, really. It offers “fun” – drama, tension, and excitement sprinkled with occasional, short-lived thrills, a few moments of joy, or even a brief taste of bliss. It offers a few short moments of escape.
It offers an escape from what, exactly?
An escape from “ourselves”?
Do we really want to escape ourselves?
Could this basic dynamic even take the form of a mustache?
Jerry and George grew mustaches as “a vacation from ourselves.”
We can probably all relate to that. The desire is universal.
We want to escape ourselves.
The word ecstasy comes from ek (“out”) and histanai (“to stand”), or “to stand outside of oneself.”
To escape ourselves is “ecstasy.”
Food, drugs, gambling, mustaches, compulsive shopping, bad daytime television, and so on – they all offer a brief taste of the experience of escaping from ourselves. They tease the relief of escape from self.
"I drink not from mere joy in wine nor to scoff at faith
- no, only to forget myself for a moment,
that only do I want of intoxication, that alone."
- Omar Khayyam
It usually isn’t a rare moment to want an escape from our ordinary, mundane self, our ego. Our “ego” or self is the headquarters and home of our problems, worries, histories, and struggles that can sometimes seem surround and overwhelm us.
And something in us isn’t satisfied with “this is it.” “This is all there is.” “This is as good as it gets.”
Gambling is just one example of something that seems to be a reliable way to shrink life’s complexity down into something contained, manageable, and (potentially) joyful. It offers a direct experience or taste of a Solution. Suffering seems to vanish, or at least recede into the background – even if that experience only lasts a few seconds, comes at a terrible price, or eventually delivers crippling debt or bankruptcy.
This desire for escape is stronger in some of us than others.
But we all seem to recognize and understand it.
That said, clearly, “vacations from ourselves” don’t always go as planned.
We might grow a mustache in the hope of an “escape.” But before long, we get used to it, and need a new, different way to escape.
Even those who live in Hawaii and the Bahamas go on vacations to “get away from it all.”
In the everyday mysticism that makes up part of our ordinary experience, “escape” can offer not just a vacation or relief from misery, but a taste of genuine happiness.
Some tastes are bigger than others.
It might be as small as a touchdown or as profound as a cataclysmic spiritual experience. It might be a small pleasure in walking or gardening or a moment of ecstasy.
But these can be defining moments. They can set us on a different course or reveal a new goal or allegiance. They can leave the impression that this is worth living for.
When a taste of happiness is powerful enough – or when ordinary life is difficult enough – we can sometimes want to live on vacation and never come back “home.”
Along these lines, the longing for escape can fuel an “addictive personality” that searches desperately for a solution to The Problem of Life.
So, it’s one thing to grow a mustache.
It’s another to become an effective mystic.
Some forms of mysticism are simply ineffective. They don’t work, or they eventually become dysfunctional or toxic.
Dysfunctional forms of mysticism make things worse.
Fame, wealth, power, status, or rewards from other “games of life” aren’t inherently toxic by themselves. Someone might achieve great wealth, for example, without that wealth necessarily becoming a form of dysfunctional mysticism.
But when we approach these areas in certain ways (for example, a look at the “fame” game here), it can lead to disappointment, dissatisfaction, or even tragedy.
All of this can even play a role in psychology.
It’s possible to understand certain aspects of depression, anxiety, various fears, phobias, compulsions, and so on as being due in part to ineffective or toxic mysticism. A person who can’t find a reason to get out of bed in the morning, for example, could describe the situation as a problem of their mystical system. Life, as they perceive it, doesn’t appear to offer hope, or a reason to brave the struggles. There might be a desire to escape, but there seems to be no outlet. With all escape routes blocked and no way out, things can seem hopeless or pointless.
If there is no escape, then this is all there is.
This is as good as it gets.
And that idea can lead to despair.
But this kind of despair is based on viewing life in a certain way.
All these various strategies – from heroin to fame – focus on The Problem of Life.
Heroin, alcohol, fame, and so on all offer “answers” to The Basic Problem of Life.
Why are we here? What’s the point? Why do we suffer? What can we do about the problem of suffering? How can we find genuine happiness?
The Big Questions are like branches on the trunk of a tree (the “tree” being “The Problem.”)
Life consists of our efforts to solve this problem, one way or another.
Mysticism, in this sense, refers to the first-hand experience of a solution to The Problem of Life.
The “solution” might only last a few seconds.
It might vanish almost instantly, and it might bring about deleterious consequences.
But for even a brief moment, it feels like The Answer.
It isn’t a merely intellectual solution. It’s visceral. It’s deeply felt, and real. It’s not mere academic theory, like a solution to a riddle. It can feel like the relief of a vacation from oneself, an escape from suffering, or even the direct experience of a state of transcendence where a person leaves a bad state behind and moves on to something much better and far superior. It can be profound or relatively mundane, life-changing or routine, all-consuming or barely noticeable.
But when it happens, we naturally want more of it.
That said, again, some forms of mysticism are functional, others are dysfunctional. Some are toxic, others are wholesome. Some are corrosive to life, others lead to a life that thrives.
The word “mystic” often brings to mind bizarre, fantastic images such as supernatural visions, mysterious trances, bizarre magical rituals, and so on. It’s often depicted as a realm of mystery, irrationality, and nonsense.
But it can eventually boil down to something much simpler.
Everyone experiences life in a direct, first-person, “subjective” way.
From the outside, one person’s life might look perfect. That person might seem to have it all. Someone might be surrounded by wealth, leisure, status, and throngs of adoring fans.
Yet that person might be utterly miserable.
On the other hand, from the outside, a different person’s life might look like a total mess – a journey into squalor.
Yet that person might live in a state of utter joy.
The difference doesn’t lie in external circumstances.
The difference lies in someone’s unique, private view of the world.
Picture a glass of water.
For some, that – a mere glass of water – is as boring as it gets.
But for someone who has been lost and wandering in the desert for several days, that exact same glass of water might be the most beautiful thing in the world.
The difference doesn’t lie in the water itself. The difference lies in us.
The difference isn’t in what we see, but how we see it.
There’s a “beauty in the eye of the beholder” element in this.
One person might see a great work of art – a painting, for example – and be stunned.
Another might see that same work of art – and be bored.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in
seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
- Marcel Proust
That’s the “private,” “unique,” first-person view that each of us experiences.
It’s “the view from me.”
Even if everyone sees the exact same event – a football game in a stadium, for example – we view it from a slightly different and unique angle. No individual is standing in the exact same spot as another. Even if everyone is staring at the exact same screen, everyone still focuses on slightly different aspects of that screen and interprets it differently.
It’s also ineffable. We can’t explain it in words.
This isn’t unique to “mystical” experiences.
It can be difficult to explain anything in words.
Even if we do something completely mundane – if we take a trip to an amusement park and then come home, for example – can we really, fully communicate and explain even that?
Not even close.
We might say “It was fun!” or “The lines were too long!” or tell a few stories about specific moments. Great poets struggle to relate and truly convey certain aspects of life with words. But none of us can never fully recapture or communicate (much less “prove” many conclusions about) the experience itself.
In that sense, even a routine trip to a theme park is “ineffable.”
We all experience life first-hand, and every moment passes, and that’s unavoidable.
This can help us keep certain things in perspective.
Many of us today – by historical standards – have it pretty good.
We often have food and clean water, cars and smartphones, refrigerators, books, computers, air-conditioning, and luxuries that weren’t available to kings and queens throughout history.
Yet often, we’re still miserable.
At the same time, more than a few old-school mystics lived in caves, dressed in rags, owned practically nothing, and survived on things like bugs and honey.
Yet on a deeper level, they seemed quite thoroughly fulfilled. They reportedly gave off vibes of a profound inner peace.
We can have advanced technology and emotional misery – outer wealth and inner poverty.
There’s a quality of our experience that’s private, subjective, and direct.
And it can be profoundly important.
“The mind is its own place,
and in itself
can make a heaven of hell,
a hell of heaven.”
- John Milton
There’s something in our subjective experience of life that’s independent of external conditions.
In this sense, everyone is a mystic.
The trick, then, lies in being an effective mystic.
Effective mysticism can be the difference between a heroin addict and a saint.
Dysfunctional mysticism can ruin someone’s life, while an effective approach to mysticism can lead to genuine fulfillment.
Many of the examples above are those of toxic or ineffective mysticism. They ultimately make people worse, or “de-grade” them.
But some forms of natural mysticism are wholesome.
They make us stronger, saner, more intact, more fulfilled.
“Falling in love,” for example, can be viewed as a kind of mysticism. It’s mysterious and inexplicable. It’s blissful, exhilarating, and sometimes torturous. And it can only be experienced firsthand, by the person going through it (you can’t fall in love for someone) – and looks crazy to everyone else.
Parenting children can work in the same way. For a parent who loves a child, that relationship is often filled with moments that can seem mystical.
“Flow” experiences – as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences – roughly resemble miniature, contained, self-generated mystical experiences that are deliberately cultivated and managed. Sports, music, art, or activities such as gardening or yoga are a few examples.
Clearly, our system of mysticism can make a huge difference in our lives.
Yet we’re often taught next to nothing along these lines.
On these kinds of all-important matters, we’re often left to our own devices. We’re abandoned to figure it all out for ourselves.
As a result, we might find ourselves relying on musicians, entertainers, or a conga line of pharmaceuticals as our sole means of emotional sustenance.
When a nihilistic culture tries to tackle The Big Questions, there’s often confusion between genuinely good answers and merely profitable, popular, or flattering ones. Even if we have a functional and wholesome system of personal mysticism that sustains us in our day-to-day, it still often consists of our own limited experiences. These can be valuable, yet they can still fall far short of genuine revelation or full enlightenment. There might be a vast universe of greater experiences we have no clue about and have never even gotten close to.
That said, over the course of human history, there has been a great deal of work and effort focused on understanding mysticism and sorting out the differences between its wholesome and toxic forms.
Those efforts have typically taken place under the jurisdiction of religion.
This raises up a flood of tangled, complex challenges.
After all, today, many see religion as not credible.
Many today see religion and spirituality as realms of the fantastic and the irrational, as flights of imagination based on speculation that promote ideas that are unbelievable.
Others see it as something subjective, personal, and entirely a matter of taste. They see it as a kind of lifestyle choice, as something you’re either “into,” or not.
They don’t see it as a matter of objective truth. It’s less about the foundational reality that governs all of life – and more a hobby.
They don’t see it as seeing through “The Illusion” or as a glimpse outside of The Matrix.
The idea of religion or spirituality as a wholly sane response to life that aligns someone to truth – even perhaps the only response to life to do that – can seem utterly alien to many today.
Yet when we really think life through, the exercise can be revealing.
Some outlooks on life or worldviews eventually dissolve into nihilism.
Others hold strong.
Religion, in some cases, can be the vehicle for ways of life that don’t dissolve into nihilism.
But religion is rarely presented in this way.
In this sense, some problems in discussions on religion are based simply in bad communication.
While some are understandably turned off by what seems to be sentimental, irrational, “blind faith” approaches that seem hostile to reason, science, and logic, there are no-nonsense approaches to spirituality that don’t. Those approaches are often ignored, but they exist. Seeking them out, it seems, requires some digging. And this kind of digging today is often actively discouraged – and even when it isn’t actively discouraged, it often takes place amid billions of potential distractions.
The basic conflict often eventually boils down to the core question: which worldview is correct?
We often argue over the different conclusions we’ve reached without discussing how we reached those conclusions.
And so again, we’re often abandoned to figure this out for ourselves. We’re faced with the challenge of solving the most difficult questions in the universe, and we can often find ourselves utterly unequipped for the task.
Part of the job of religion, it seems, is to equip us for the task.
Yet mere “religious training” isn’t enough.
The factor of “mysticism” as we’re describing it here is critical.
Someone might know every Bible verse, Buddhist Sutra, or passage from the Tao de Ching or The Upanishads by heart, and still be a cold fish, a mere intellectual, a lecturing college professor.
Someone else might know little more than a simple, well-worn, familiar platitude on the intellectual level – “treat other people the way you want to be treated,” for example – and yet that person is widely loved and revered as a saint.
A person can have a head full of knowledge, but they haven’t been “transformed.”
They might have a mustache, but they aren’t really on vacation.
Without a sense of mysticism – or direct experience – mere religion can be a dry, dusty pile of theories, a mere set of beliefs or speculations, a catalogue of imaginary hopes. They might serve to define a culture or lifestyle or foundational principles, but they don’t necessarily offer any sense of joy, wisdom, or happiness.
So then, what’s the secret to becoming an effective mystic?
As a discipline or school of thought as a whole, in these areas, we seem to know very little.
Again, hardly any of us were trained along these lines. The best our culture-at-large seems to offer us today is a few bumper-sticker slogans – “Think positive!” “Be here now!” “Believe in yourself” and so on – that quickly wear thin.
That said, these terrains aren’t completely unmapped.
The road to happiness through heroin or alcohol or status-symbol collecting has been well-travelled. It’s hardly an “experiment.” Practically everyone who has gone to the end and comes back has the same message: don’t go that way. It’s a dead end.
But if so many roads are wrong, which roads are right?
While this can be difficult terrain, we do have plenty to go on.
Over centuries, various traditions have gathered loads of trial-and-error, hard-won lessons, and hard data in these areas.
For example, meditation, prayer, contemplation, yoga, and other forms of contemplative practice often play a central role.
Experiential spirituality, various forms of experimentation, and even the pursuit of the ultimate experience (“spiritual awakening” or whatever you might call it) has been a key topic over thousands of years.
A real “science” of this – a “science of mysticism” – is fraught with both peril and promise. Its discoveries seem able to both fulfill lives or ruin them.
In this, we might be tempted to rely on “experts.” We might imagine that somewhere, there’s some universally respected, ivy-league genius who has Figured It All Out and simply has to tell the rest of us about it.
Yet the “science of mysticism” is still in diapers, to the degree that it exists at all.
The field resembles the early days of learning about and experimenting with explosives, medicines, or airplanes, and involves more than a few accidental explosions, poisonings, and crashes.
There might be credentialed experts and even geniuses in some of these areas. But in most, it’s the Wild West.
In these areas, we’re playing with forces we don’t entirely understand. The few who are even asking the right questions or seeking answers to the right problems are often working almost entirely on their own.
That said, the rest of us can’t wait for the “science” to evolve.
Quack science can move quickly, but real science takes time and a great deal of work. And before any “science of mysticism” evolves enough to be truly useful, many of us will be long gone.
So, in the meantime, it’s up to us.
We each have to figure it out for ourselves. No one can walk this path for us. We have to do the best we can in the situation we’re in, and that’s all we can do.
That said, we’re not alone.
Luckily, we do have like-minded others – as well as centuries of insights and data – to draw on.
It can be a hazardous road. But that’s the situation we’re in.
To overcome the hazards, we need to wise up in these areas.
And to do that, we might conduct some spiritual experiments or adopt a contemplative practice or take up some form of “inner work.” This might involve becoming better philosophers or theologians or simply clarifying our basic worldview or life philosophy. It might involve simply an effort to become more sane. All of this might involve really making an effort to know ourselves in the sense of making the subjective objective or making the unconscious conscious.
Here, we can look to from Evelyn Underhill, author of Mysticism and Practical Mysticism who defines “mysticism” very simply:
Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.
While few of us might think of themselves as “mystics,” all of us (who aren’t nihilists) can see value in aiming for and orienting ourselves around reality, or Reality.
But the result, if all goes well, wouldn’t mean that each of us would then become a mystic.
That’s already happened.
It would mean getting good at it.