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CHAPTER I

WHAT IS MYSTICISM?


CoThose who are interested in that special attitude towards the universe
which is now loosely called "mystical," find themselves beset by a
multitude of persons who are constantly asking--some with real fervour,
some with curiosity, and some with disdain--"What is mysticism?" When
referred to the writings of the mystics themselves, and to other works
in which this question appears to be answered, these people reply that
such books are wholly incomprehensible to them.

On the other hand, the genuine inquirer will find before long a number
of self-appointed apostles who are eager to answer his question in many
strange and inconsistent ways, calculated to increase rather than
resolve the obscurity of his mind. He will learn that mysticism is a
philosophy, an illusion, a kind of religion, a disease; that it means
having visions, performing conjuring tricks, leading an idle, dreamy,
and selfish life, neglecting one's business, wallowing in vague
spiritual emotions, and being "in tune with the infinite." He will
discover that it emancipates him from all dogmas--sometimes from all
morality--and at the same time that it is very superstitious. One
expert tells him that it is simply "Catholic piety," another that Walt
Whitman was a typical mystic; a third assures him that all mysticism
comes from the East, and supports his statement by an appeal to the
mango trick. At the end of a prolonged course of lectures, sermons,
tea-parties, and talks with earnest persons, the inquirer is still
heard saying--too often in tones of exasperation--"What is mysticism?"

I dare not pretend to solve a problem which has provided so much good
hunting in the past. It is indeed the object of this little essay to
persuade the practical man to the one satisfactory course: that of
discovering the answer for himself. Yet perhaps it will give confidence
if I confess pears to cover all the ground; or at least, all that part
of the ground which is worth covering. It will hardly stretch to the
mango trick; but it finds room at once for the visionaries and the
philosophers, for Walt Whitman and the saints.

Here is the definition:--

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.

It is not expected that the inquirer will find great comfort in this
sentence when first it meets his eye. The ultimate question, "What is
Reality?"--a question, perhaps, which never occurred to him before--is
already forming in his mind; and he knows that it will cause him
infinite distress. Only a mystic can answer it: and he, in terms which
other mystics alone will understand. Therefore, for the time being, the
practical man may put it on one side. All that he is asked to consider
now is this: that the word "union" represents not so much a rare and
unimaginable operation, as something which he is doing, in a vague,
imperfect fashion, at every moment of his conscious life; and doing
with intensity and thoroughness in all the more valid moments of that
life. We know a thing only by uniting with it; by assimilating it; by
an interpenetration of it and ourselves. It gives itself to us, just in
so far as we give ourselves to it; and it is because our outflow
towards things is usually so perfunctory and so languid, that our
comprehension of things is so perfunctory and languid too. The great
Sufi who said that "Pilgrimage to the place of the wise, is to escape
the flame of separation" spoke the literal truth. Wisdom is the fruit
of communion; ignorance the inevitable portion of those who "keep
themselves to themselves," and stand apart, judging, analysing the
things which they have never truly known.

Because he has surrendered himself to it, "united" with it, the patriot
knows his country, the artist knows the subject of his art, the lover
his beloved, the saint his God, in a manner which is inconceivable as
well as unattainable by the looker-on. Real knowledge, since it always
implies an intuitive sympathy more or less intense, is far more
accurately suggested by the symbols of touch and taste than by those of
hearing and sight. True, analytic thought follows swiftly upon the
contact, the apprehension, the union: and we, in our muddle-headed way,
have persuaded ourselves that this is the essential part of
knowledge--that it is, in fact, more important to cook the hare than to
catch it. But when we get rid of this illusion and go back to the more
primitive activities through which our mental kitchen gets its
supplies, we see that the distinction between mystic and non-mystic is
not merely that between the rationalist and the dreamer, between
intellect and intuition. The question which divides them is really
this: What, out of the mass of material offered to it, shall
consciousness seize upon--with what aspects of the universe shall it
"unite"?

It is notorious that the operations of the average human consciousness
unite the self, not with things as they really are, but with images,
notions, aspects of things. The verb "to be," which he uses so lightly,
does not truly apply to any of the objects amongst which the practical
man supposes himself to dwell. For him the hare of Reality is always
ready-jugged: he conceives not the living, lovely, wild, swift-moving
creature which has been sacrificed in order that he may be fed on the
deplorable dish which he calls "things as they really are." So
complete, indeed, is the separation of his consciousness from the facts
of being, that he feels no sense of loss. He is happy enough
"understanding," garnishing, assimilating the carcass from which the
principle of life and growth has been ejected, and whereof only the
most digestible portions have been retained. He is not "mystical."

But sometimes it is suggested to him that his knowledge is not quite so
thorough as he supposed. Philosophers in particular have a way of
pointing out its clumsy and superficial character; of demonstrating the
fact that he habitually mistakes his own private sensations for
qualities inherent in the mysterious objects of the external world.
From those few qualities of colour, size, texture, and the rest, which
his mind has been able to register and classify, he makes a label which
registers the sum of his own experiences. This he knows, with this he
"unites"; for it is his own creature. It is neat, flat, unchanging,
with edges well defined: a thing one can trust. He forgets the
existence of other conscious creatures, provided with their own
standards of reality. Yet the sea as the fish feels it, the borage as
the bee sees it, the intricate sounds of the hedgerow as heard by the
rabbit, the impact of light on the eager face of the primrose, the
landscape as known in its vastness to the wood-louse and ant--all these
experiences, denied to him for ever, have just as much claim to the
attribute of Being as his own partial and subjective interpretations of
things.

Because mystery is horrible to us, we have agreed for the most part to
live in a world of labels; to make of them the current coin of
experience, and ignore their merely symbolic character, the infinite
gradation of values which they misrepresent. We simply do not attempt
to unite with Reality. But now and then that symbolic character is
suddenly brought home to us. Some great emotion, some devastating
visitation of beauty, love, or pain, lifts us to another level of
consciousness; and we are aware for a moment of the difference between
the neat collection of discrete objects and experiences which we call
the world, and the height, the depth, the breadth of that living,
growing, changing Fact, of which thought, life, and energy are parts,
and in which we "live and move and have our being." Then we realise
that our whole life is enmeshed in great and living forces; terrible
because unknown. Even the power which lurks in every coal-scuttle,
shines in the electric lamp, pants in the motor-omnibus, declares
itself in the ineffable wonders of reproduction and growth, is
supersensual. We do but perceive its results. The more sacred plane of
life and energy which seems to be manifested in the forces we call
"spiritual" and "emotional"--in love, anguish, ecstasy, adoration--is
hidden from us too. Symptoms, appearances, are all that our intellects
can discern: sudden irresistible inroads from it, all that our hearts
can apprehend. The material for an intenser life, a wider, sharper
consciousness, a more profound understanding of our own existence, lies
at our gates. But we are separated from it, we cannot assimilate it;
except in abnormal moments, we hardly know that it is. We now begin to
attach at least a fragmentary meaning to the statement that "mysticism
is the art of union with Reality." We see that the claim of such a poet
as Whitman to be a mystic lies in the fact that he has achieved a
passionate communion with deeper levels of life than those with which
we usually deal--has thrust past the current notion to the Fact: that
the claim of such a saint as Teresa is bound up with her declaration
that she has achieved union with the Divine Essence itself. The
visionary is a mystic when his vision mediates to him an actuality
beyond the reach of the senses. The philosopher is a mystic when he
passes beyond thought to the pure apprehension of truth. The active man
is a mystic when he knows his actions to be a part of a greater
activity. Blake, Plotinus, Joan of Arc, and John of the Cross--there is
a link which binds all these together: but if he is to make use of it,
the inquirer must find that link for himself. All four exhibit
different forms of the working of the contemplative consciousness; a
faculty which is proper to all men, though few take the trouble to
develop it. Their attention to life has changed its character,
sharpened its focus: and as a result they see, some a wider landscape,
some a more brilliant, more significant, more detailed world than that
which is apparent to the less educated, less observant vision of common
sense. The old story of Eyes and No-Eyes is really the story of the
mystical and unmystical types. "No-Eyes" has fixed his attention on the
fact that he is obliged to take a walk. For him the chief factor of
existence is his own movement along the road; a movement which he
intends to accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks
not to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the
caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges
along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but oblivious of
the light which they reflect. "Eyes" takes the walk too: and for him it
is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder. The sunlight inebriates
him, the winds delight him, the very effort of the journey is a joy.
Magic presences throng the roadside, or cry salutations to him from the
hidden fields. The rich world through which he moves lies in the
fore-ground of his consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at
every step. "No-Eyes," when told of his adventures, usually refuses to
believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his
companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by agreeable
hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the contrary unless we
persuade him to look for himself.

Therefore it is to a practical mysticism that the practical man is here
invited: to a training of his latent faculties, a bracing and
brightening of his languid consciousness, an emancipation from the
fetters of appearance, a turning of his attention to new levels of the
world. Thus he may become aware of the universe which the spiritual
artist is always trying to disclose to the race. This amount of
mystical perception--this "ordinary contemplation," as the specialists
call it--is possible to all men: without it, they are not wholly
conscious, nor wholly alive. It is a natural human activity, no more
involving the great powers and sublime experiences of the mystical
saints and philosophers than the ordinary enjoyment of music involves
the special creative powers of the great musician.

As the beautiful does not exist for the artist and poet alone--though
these can find in it more poignant depths of meaning than other men--so
the world of Reality exists for all; and all may participate in it,
unite with it, according to their measure and to the strength and
purity of their desire. "For heaven ghostly," says The Cloud of
Unknowing, "is as nigh down as up, and up as down; behind as before,
before as behind, on one side as other. Inasmuch, that whoso had a true
desire for to be at heaven, then that same time he were in heaven
ghostly. For the high and the next way thither is run by desires, and
not by paces of feet." None therefore is condemned, save by his own
pride, sloth, or perversity, to the horrors of that which Blake called
"single vision"--perpetual and undivided attention to the continuous
cinematograph performance, which the mind has conspired with the senses
to interpose between ourselves and the living world.
__________________________________________________________________
Along her journey from agnosticism, through neoPlatonism, to Anglo Catholicism, Evellyn Underhill left this wonderful little (87 page) book of instructions for the wannabe mystic.

After insisting that mysticism can't be defined but can be experienced, she ventures to define it as ",,,the art of union with reality..."

But reality is not what it seems to be.  It is too rich to be parsed and cannot be known through the senses and the intellect.  Knowledge incluides an element of sympathy and is partial at best.  Her approach is, i think, phenomenological.  On the frontespiece she quotes Blake on "caverened man whose "doors of perception" are not cleansed.

I really like the way she treats the material world which is neither maya nor fully interpreted by science.  We mistake our private and shared sensations tor "qualities inherent in the mysterious objects of the external world."
Continued..


Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
everville340
Nov. 26th, 2017 12:08 am (UTC)
Thank you, sir, for sharing this and the impression it's made on you.
bobby1933
Nov. 26th, 2017 04:39 am (UTC)
Thank you,sir! I appreciate your appreciation.
everville340
Nov. 26th, 2017 06:46 pm (UTC)
You are so very welcome, friend. I was so happy to have stumbled on your journal once upon a time. Seeing the words "Faithful Doubter" made me feel like struggling through my Life from youth to find my own spirituality was worth it. I cannot begin to tell you just how much knowing you has helped me to be who I am today.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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