Mysticism as a core feature

of the major Religions

All Religions are One

The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness

………As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various) 

So all Religions & as all similars have one source” 

William Blake 1788AD [1]



Mysticism is a  common feature of the world’s major religions. St John of the Cross, William Blake and Teresa D’Avila are examples of Christian Mystics.  Taoism is often quoted as a mystical religion with two of its main proponents being Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu. Sufism, Hinduism, The Kabbalah and Buddhism all have components of mysticism. The consequence of mysticism, being common to all religions, is progress to a universalism, where all religions may be one. In the process of finding commonality, it is presumed that the religion is reduced to its more truthful essence.


Mysticism as self-transcendence could be seen as part of an individual’s final maturation.  The consequence to the individual could be self-empowerment, as their own truth is based on their own direct personal experience – existence based on phenomenology.  Therefore, mysticism is a positive path, if argued using consequentialism or utilitarian thinking.


The factors impeding the spread of mysticism are both political and individual. Individuals who practice mysticism can gain their own understanding and methods for experiencing God. Successful mystics often desire to challenge the status quo with their insights and hence, are a potential threat to a religion.  Consequently, many of the more outspoken mystics are either castigated or excommunicated. Mysticism requires discipline and the forsaking of earthly desires. It is painful and has the potential to cause madness. It includes the very real fear of being ostracised by the religious community. Hence, many individuals choose to abandon this path. Finally, mysticism is both varied and multi-dimensional. There may be true and false mystics or mystical experiences. The latter negates cross-comparison between different mystical traditions. Hence, there is a need to stipulate criteria for a mystical experience.


The first part of this essay will offer a basic overview of mysticism. Then the Essentialism versus Constructivism argument will be considered.  If mysticism is to be universal, clarification of some of the commonly used key terms is necessary. Examples from some of the major religions will be offered and the methods used by the various mystics considered.  A political perspective of mysticism will be discussed before concluding.


Overview of mysticism:

Mysticism (mystica) as a term, was first used by a Neo-Platonist monk known as Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite in approximately the fifth century (Daniels 2003 p1). The word mysticism is from the Greek word “mystos” meaning “keeping silent”.  Certainly, as shall be discussed later, under “Methods”, many of the mystics enter into their mystical state or trance through a period of silence.   James (1960 p367) a psychologist and philosopher identified four general characteristics of mystical experience. Firstly it is “ineffable”, because of the inability to describe the experience. Mystics often describe the experience through symbols and paradox (Kohn 1992 p22). Secondly it has a  “Noetic” quality, which refers to the practitioner’s sense of  having “found a great truth” and “knowing it”. Thirdly there is “Transiency”, which implies that the state usually lasts less than 2 hours. The final characteristic is “passivity”, whereby the practitioner has no control over the events taking place.   From these fourfold characteristics, it is apparent that not all followers of a religion have mystical experiences and not all mystic experiences are of equal value.   Some may seem more genuine, or closer to the truth than others.   Researchers such as Hoods describe a mysticism scale (Daniels 2003 p3), which includes the latter, and the overlap with other religious experiences. Sighting a religious deity, seeing lights and other phenomena, do not qualify as a mystical experience.   


The experience of the mystic has been described as transpersonal, in which  awareness extends beyond the self, humankind, time and the cosmos (Daniels 2003 p3).   In other words, the mystic is able to sense phenomena beyond the body’s physical boundary.   This awareness may also extend out of the present time to the future or past or even beyond time. Maslow used the term “self transcendence” to describe this transpersonal state. He placed it at the top of the hierarchy of the needs[2]. He also referred to this mystical condition as a peak experience (Daniels 2001p5).  


Furthermore he maintains that religious organisation satisfies other lower personal needs. They provide support for the religious community and meet a variety of physiological needs (food, shelter, contacts for essential services and so on). They provide a sense of love and belonging (Daniels 2001 p8). For the majority, the experience of God is an indirect experience sited through the Church and its scriptures. Those searching for a mystical experience may not be catered for by the orthodox religion. Nevertheless, Underhill states that pure mysticism “shades off into religion” and that no religious man is without a touch of mysticism (Underhill 2002 p 70). Each devoted religious person, may experience a glimpse of a mystical experience, however, for the majority, a religious experience is not the same as mysticism (Wainwright quoted in Daniels 2003 p3 ).

Great mystics of the past have been both excommunicated or chastised by religious orthodoxy. At times this chastisement extends to martyrdom. The mystic’s authority may at times, be seen as a threat to the Church.   


Essentialism  versus Constructivism

The Essentialists are philosophers such as Huxley, Stace, and Underhill. They believe that all religions can be reduced through argument and commonality to some true essence. The “Essentialist” line of argument is not a recent philosophical mode of argument and has been around since Plato propounded it  in the “Allegory of the Cave”[3] ( Wikipedia Encyclopedia 2004 ).  Stace defines the central characteristic of a mystical state as recognition of unity “in which all sensory and conceptual content has disappeared so that only a void or empty unity remains”(Daniels 2003 p8). His other criteria include the apprehension of life in all things or a sense of beyond time and place. The individual senses the experience as real, emotionally positive, sacred. There is difficulty describing the content, so practitioners refer to the state through paradox. Huxley (1990 p 7 Intro) describes his “ “philosphia perrenis” as,

 “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being - the thing is immemorial and universal”.  


Huxley and Stace both state that the mystical state exists in all human cultures throughout history and remains the essence of the world’s varied religions.


At the other end of the scale, there are constructivists such as Katz, who maintains that literal experiences are preconditioned by actual values, beliefs, and expectations. (p4 King 1999) and there is no such thing as an experience free from interpretation. Others such as Zaehner offer a more integrated approach and believe that the mystic’s vision is painted on a background of culture or religious vocabulary (p3 King 1999). These three positions  (Essentialist, Constructivist and Integrationists) may be best understood using a metaphor. The Essentialists argue that all religions are climbing the same mountain. The constructivists maintain that the mystics are climbing different mountains and cannot be compared, whilst the integrationists propose that they may be climbing different faces of the mountain but ultimately get to the same peak in the end.  The metaphor of climbing includes the various methods used to reach the mystical state. The mountain is the symbol of the inner obstacles that need to be overcome.  Interestingly enough, Maslow uses the terms such as “hierarchy of needs” and “peak experience”, which fits well with the mountain metaphor.  Maslow states that in this peak experience, the practitioner can perceive: absolute values, gain a Taoist receptivity or cognition of being, become meta-motivated or come to have a direct experience of metaphysics (Daniels 2001 p 10-11). 


Definitions of Key Terms

Taking on an essentialist position obliges the clarification of some notable terms such as the Soul, the Spirit, and God.  These are terms used more so in the Christian tradition. These terms negate immediate collaboration with Eastern traditions.


Plato held that the soul is an immaterialcomponent of an organism.  In the RepublicBook 4, the soul itself is divided into three parts, which corresponds to reason, emotion, and desire. Plato mostly viewed the soul as immortal, whilst Aristotle made more specific reference to the soul being given limits by the physical body in On the Soul(De Anima) Book II.  Aristotle describes the soul as the first actuality of a natural body that has life potentiality and as the cause and the first principle of the living body. This soul is immortal and carries on beyond the death of the individual. For most, the self is not conscious of the soul, though at times in mystical states, the practitioner may begin to fathom it.  

St Theresa D’Avila in defining her soul said:

“I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions… Let us now image that this castle, as I have said, contains many mansions, some above, others below, others at each side; and in the centre amidst of them is the chieftest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul” (Gellman 2001 p 1) 


In this mystical state Teresa described the nature of her soul, which included a loss of usual physical boundaries of self. Multi-dimensional and layered, it was only in the deepest state that she was with God. Consistent with her Catholic tradition, her soul is experienced within the confines of the physical body. This is consistent within most Western and Eastern traditions except Buddhism. In Buddhism there is the term “ An-atta” or no “Atta” or no soul.  Buddha in response to Hinduism, felt that the concept of soul impeded the path to enlightenment. The self would attach to its soul, which in turn, would create attachment to this world.  No Self or No soul made the nothingness more easily achieved.  


So how to continue with this search for commonality with these seemingly irreconcilable opposites? –  Does Buddhism provide an example, where the faces of the mountain that may climb are different? On one face, does the mystic bypass the self? The writer believes not. At a most rudimentary level “soul” and “no soul” can be the same.  It is in these deep mystical states that duality disappears. The structural unit of life in Buddhist terms are  kalapas[4]. In the Taoist system, the soul is that sensation of kalapas or Chi sensed within the confines of the usual body. Therefore, since the foundation of “no soul” and “soul” is the same, both systems could be describing the same phenomena.  


These kalapas (chi) are a useful term in being able to objectify sensations in a mystical state. The Christian tradition seems to neglect this term but alludes to it through often-interchangeable terms such as God, Soul or Spirit. This creates confusion in comparing experiences within and external to the Christian discipline. Kavanaugh (1973), in his introduction to the “Ascent of Mount Carmel ” by St John of the Cross, describes St John’s soul as divided into two parts; the sensory and the spiritual.  Each of these parts has their own powers or faculties.   The sensory part, which has to do with sensible or corporeal objects, possesses exterior sense faculties of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, and it also claims inner sense faculties, which he reduces to the imagination.   The spiritual part of the soul, which is concerned with spiritual or incorporeal objects, numbers three faculties – intellect, memory and will. The sensory faculties, as well as the spiritual faculties of intellect and memory are cognitive. The will on the other hand, is a spiritual faculty inclined towards good, to which are attached emotions of joy, hope, fear and sorrow. The sensory part of the soul, which reacts to the environment, and the spiritual part, connects with God. 


This description implies has not changed much since Plato and therefore, is St John is just requoting old descriptors? Criteria for mystic states referred previously, do not include descriptions of the soul. It supports Katz’s position, that the latter Christian mystics such as Theresa and St John are constructing their perception from prior knowledge.  


The next important definition is that of Spirit. Spirit as seen by Socrates, was that part of the soul, which intervened between earthly desires and rationality. It is also the determinant in animating the individual to action (McInnis 2001).  In the western tradition, the spirit is insinuated by observation and argument, for example, “this individual has lots of energy and is therefore highly spirited”. However, in terms of mystical experience, the practitioner would define those sensations of chi as the inception of the Holy Spirit. This is based on the testimony of Pentecostal devotees during such practices as the “Toronto Blessing”. They define the sensations as  “a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit” which can be compared with the day of Pentecost (Needham 2004).In Taoist terminology the spirit is termed the “Shen” and has much the same meaning. The spirit descends from the cosmos and links the immortals or heavenly chi to the practitioner. The common theme here, is that the spirit is that sensation of chi or kalapas which comes from without.   In Christian terms, the Holy Spirit is that perception of chi, which comes from above, which then animates the body or soul.   


God on the other hand, is where the mystics of East and West most differ and it is here where there is most difficulty finding common territory.   To the West, God is defined (Webster 1998) as a “being conceived as the perfect omniscient originator and ruler of the Universe, the principal object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions”.  A second more Pantheistic definition is “the force, effect or a manifestation of aspects of this being” (Webster 1998). “Buddhism on the other hand has never believed in a superhuman controlling power, nor has it acknowledged a personal God entitled to obedience and worship.   The Buddha clearly rejected the existence of a creative God” (Brahmavavamso 2000).   The Buddhists believe in what they call “kalapas” which to them is the basic unit of all living things and the Taoists believe chi to be the same. To both Eastern and some Western traditions, all life arose from the nothingness or the great void  - much akin to the big bang.  Though, the majority of Christians believe an anthropomorphic androgynous father-like being created life. To connect with God is to have an imaginary conversation with a Santa Claus type figure. In balance and in line with the second definition above, there are many Christian Naturalists, who would describe their understanding of God as that expanded sense of animation in all life.  It could be argued that they are sensing chi, kalapas or energy in matter around them and calling this God. By restricting a concept of God to the second definition, commonality amongst the varied religions can proceed. 


Detailed Examples of Mystics:

St John’s “Ascent of Mount Carmel”, describes a journey to union with God. He wrote three books as a prologue, called the “Active Nights”, to assist the understanding of the poem and provide techniques and workable rules in order to achieve this union.  The first book of the “Active Nights” is about mortification of the appetite and the gradual removal of earthly desires from the clutches of the devil in order gain mastery of the mystical worlds.   Books 2 and 3 are a journey into faith, where faith is consent to be open to the revelations of the mystical experience.  Books 2 and 3 include the subduing of the intellect and the training of the senses to apprehend the visions, revelations, and spiritual feelings that arise. There are two books called the Dark or Passive Nights. In Book 1, the human soul moves from meditation to contemplation, from the life of sense, to the life of spirit. St John describes this latter state as “nothing else but the secret and peaceful and amorous infusion of God which inflames the soul in the spirit of love”([5] St John 1973).


The poem:  “ The Ascent of Mount Carmel - The Dark Night  - Stanzas of the Soul”:

1. One dark night,

Fired with love’s urgent longings

-Ah the sheer grace!-

I went out unseen,

My house being now all stilled;


2. In darkness, and secure,

By the secret ladder, disguised,

- Ah the sheer grace! – 

In darkness and concealment,

My house being now all stilled;


3. On that glad night, 

In secret, for no-one saw me,

Nor did I look at anything 

With no other light or guide

Than the one that burned in my heart;


4. This guided me,

More surely than the light of noon     

To where he waited for me

- Him I knew so well  -

in a place where no-one else appeared.


5. Oh God in night!

Oh night more lovely than the dawn!

Oh night that has united

The lover with His beloved, 

Transforming the beloved in her Lover.


6. Upon my flowering breast

Which I kept holy for Him alone,

There he lay sleeping, 

And I caressing him

there in a breezed from the fanning cedars.


7. When the breeze flew from the turret, 

Parting His hair, 

He wounded my neck 

With his gentle hand, 

Suspending all my senses.


8. I abandoned and forgot myself, 

Laying my face on my Beloved;

All things ceased; I went out from myself,

Leaving my cares

Forgotten among the lilies.


St John of the Cross is an ascetic who offers a path of union with God through self discipline.   There is a sense of denial of the appetite (“In darkness and concealment, My house being now all stilled!”), which could be understood as some sort of glorification through mortification or the reward of heaven through punishment (“he wounded my neck, suspending all my senses!”).   

This journey has correlations with the Buddha also following a path of self-denial and physical suffering. However, Buddha resigned from this path as the wrong way and claimed the middle path was the true path. Yet we understand St John’s thinking. All aspects of Jesus Christ’s life are described as divine and there is a way to God through all aspects of his life, including the crucifixion.  There are many Yogis, Buddhists and Taoists who retreat from the world and seemingly punish their bodies through starvation, prolonged isolation and lack of any physical comforts. All the earthly comforts are removed.  St John implies the initial path is through self-denial and pain. 


Yet there is a hedonistic aspect to this Christian mystic. St John embarks with “loves urgent longings- Ah the sheer grace!” In Eastern mysticism, there is an encouragement of sexual desires with techniques of semen retention to enable increased desire to unite with God. There is magnification of this graceful sexual feeling and other desires by fasting. The adept is hungry for enrichment in the spiritual realm.  These desires are let free in this immaterial dimension, so as to obtain union at a most intense level. For this Christian mystic, this is union with God (“the lover with his beloved!’), for the Taoists this is marriage of heaven and earth, and for the Buddhists this is the union with nothingness.  So returning to our mountain metaphor – in this case Mt Carmel, there are similar faces to climb with seemingly the same goal.  Some go up hard steep faces, while others choose an easier middle path.


Chuang Tzu is part of the native Chinese mystical tradition of the Lao Chuang School (Knaul 1986 p411).  In his commentary on the “Way of Heaven”, he gives advice to the reader on how to place the mind into a blissful or heavenly state.   Heaven to the Taoist, is that state of being, which is quiet, full of light and spacious, thus, mirroring the cosmos. He says, “To harmonize with Heaven is Heavenly joy…. Emptiness, stillness, silence, inaction – these are the level of Heaven … the substance of the Way and Virtue” (Chap 13 Chuang Tzu 1968). Earth is a state of being which includes sexual desire, appetites and all emotions, which reflects day-to-day existence. Finally, the Taoist mystic’s aim is to create sexual union with the heaven and be rewarded with blissful sexual feelings (Mantak Chia 2001 p45 overview).  Thereafter, the adept can “Embrace the One” (chap 10 Lao Tzu 1972) - the one is the Wu Wei, it is the nothingness and could be the Christian’s God. Is this the same summit for all traditions?


Swami Vivekenanda, a notable Indian Universalist, states, 

“That the mind itself has a higher state of existence, beyond reason, a superconscious state, and that when the mind gets to the higher state, then this knowledge beyond reasoning comes…All the different steps in yoga are intended to bring us scientifically to the super conscious state of Samadhi[6]…Just as unconsciousness work is beneath consciousness, so there is another work which is above consciousness, and which, also, is also is not accompanied with a feeling of egoism…There is no feeling of I, and yet the mind works, desireless, free from restlessness, object-less, bodiless. Then the Truth shines in its full effulgence, and we know ourselves – for Samadhi lies potential in us all – for what we truly are, free, immortal, omnipotent, loosed from the finite, and contrasts of good and evil altogether, and identical with Atman or Universal Soul”.  (James 1960 p 386)


 In this Hindu example of a mystical state called “ Samadhi” we see all the mysticism criteria stipulated by James (1960). We also find reference to “contrasts …altogether”. Stace (Mysticism Defined by W.T. Stace) discusses how “multiplicity is completely obliterated...” and how important unity is as a central criteria for mystic states (Cupitt 1998 p58). This merging of multiplicity also covers the concept of paradox. For the logical mind does not see how opposites are the same. This phenomena of multiplicity or duality becoming one, or, one extreme giving rise to the other, is best understood through the Taoist approach - typified by the Yin Yang Tai Chi symbol, where we see Yin changing into Yang.


“Everything has its “that” and everything has its “this”, From the point of view of “that” you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it. So I say, “that” comes out of “this” and “this” comes out of “that” – which is to say “this” and “that” give birth to each other. But where there is a birth, there must be a death; where there is a death there must be a birth. Where there is acceptability there must be unacceptability. Where there is unacceptability there must be acceptability. Where there is recognition of right there must be recognition of wrong Where there is recognition of wrong there must be recognition of right. Therefore the sage does not proceed in such a way… (p 39 Chuang Tzu  1968) 


William Blake, another Christian mystic (Damon 1979 p2910, also dissolves paradox in this unitive state, where he conceptualises,  “the spiritual Eden is the dwelling place or state of mind… It is the Garden of God” (Damon 1979 p 114) which is representative of the mystical state, where opposites co-exist in perfect harmony. It was only when Adam engaged his intellect and left “Samadhi”, that is, ate from the Tree of Knowledge, that the concepts of good and evil came into being.  


Having covered Christian, Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu traditions, it would be appropriate to include an example of Sufism, which is a mystical branch of Islam. 

“During this solitary state, things were revealed to me which it is impossible either to describe or to point out…they are illumined by the light which proceeds from the prophetic source.   The first condition for a Sufi is to purge his heart entirely of all that is not God………  the end of Sufism being total absorption in God…Then the transport rises from perception of forms and figures to a degree which escapes all expression, and which no man may seek to give an account of without his words involving sin.” (James p. 390) 


This example highlights James’s ”ineffability” and the transport fulfils the criteria of “passivity”. The light would be equivalent to chi perceived through the inner visual senses or though St John’s sensory part of the soul. Alternatively it could be described as the “light of God”, or the inception of the “Holy Spirit”.   



If it is presumed that enough evidence exists to justify mysticism as a common essence of religions, then the next step would be to start looking at the methods that each discipline employs.   Through the process of comparing and contrasting, methods can be described as common or unusual. Those being unusual, invite the possibility of being unessential to union with God or the absolute. However, essentialism has a destructive aspect, such that it can marginalise variation. Nevertheless, it is important in our anticipated progress towards a universalism, to be open to criticism of our own unusual methods, and in particular those of our dominant Christian tradition. Spong, for example is highly critical of what we call prayer.  He states “many believers think of prayers as adult letters to Santa Claus” (Spong p. 190).   It is important to educate followers of a particular faith, that superficial dialogue with an imaginary being, will not give them an experience of God or the unique oneness. In some denominations, meditation (and yoga) is labelled as the path to the devil. (“Is Yoga the work of the Devil” 2004) This is both ludicrous and destructive and represents the darker aspect of essentialism – whereby the unusual is not only marginalised, but also labelled as demonic. It could also be seen as a way of political control, or alternatively, it may be there to protect people from the dangerous and difficult path, that lies ahead of those seeking to find their truth.   Herrera in his book, “The Silent Music”, states “what this noisy, busy, ego infatuated world most needs is silence, interiority, self discipline, and spirituality.   And it is here, that the saint (St John of the Cross) can be a splendid teacher” ( p 76 Herrera).  St John of the Cross advises his students, that they must give up their attachment to this world and give up the fulfillment of earthly desires through the senses. For it is only in this attitude, that light  (Chi, Prana, Kalapas or the holy spirit[7]) can enter the body (p 53 Herrera 2004). He advises not to use intoxicants like other mystic investigators have used.[8] For alcohol, St John quotes Proverbs 23:31 “Look not at wine, warn the wise men, when its colour is scarlet and it shines in a glass; it enters smoothly, but bites like a snake and spreads poison like the basilisk”.   His methods are similar to meditation methods used in the Eastern mystical traditions.  In Chapter 13 of Book 2 of the “Ascent to Mount Carmel”, he recommends that the novice start by fixing their attention onto holy images and then let go of this technique when “the soul is placed in that peace and quietude to be spoken of in the third sign” (p 140 St John 1973).  Chuang Tzu said that the key to entering the mystical state is 

“to sit and to forget.  I slough off my limbs and trunk, dim my intelligence, depart from my form, leave knowledge behind, and become identical with the transformational thoroughfare (become one with the infinite[9]) This is what I mean by to “sit and forget” (Shin 2002 ). 


A second, but necessary stage towards divine union, is the cathartic phase.  With St John of the Cross this is the underlying tone for The Dark Knight  and he describes it as a:

“… departure from love of self and of all things for a method of true mortification, which causes it to die to itself and to all these things…this Dark Night signifies purgative contemplation, which passively causes in the soul, this negation of self and all things”. (p 297 St John 1973)   


This is also seen as a theme running in Teresa D’Aviles poem, Cuan triste es, Dios mio:


“Come, oh death, come kindly;

Loose me from my pain.

Sweet the blows thou dealest:

Liberty they gain.   

Blest are they, Beloved, -

That have Thee ever by.  

Thus my yearning for Thee 

Makes me long to die.”  (p 285  Peers 1973)

This is taken to the extreme in St Francis of Assisi, who sympathized with Christ’s suffering to the extent, that the actual stigmata of Christ’s wounds appeared on his body. In the Eastern tradition, in order to purify the inner spaces of the body there are meditations, which release the negative emotions such as anger, hatred and depression.   A classic method used by the Taoists is called, ”Fusion of the Five Elements”, where the negative emotions are released from the organs and directed towards the lower abdomen to be alchemically converted into virtue (Mantak Chia 1989). 


 The third stage before union with God (or the absolute), is the blissful stage of sexual union.   For some Christians this third stage is to create a Christological love encounter Teresa D’Avila’s in her autobiography states, 


“Jesus bade me not to suppose that he had forgotten me.  He would never abandon me, but it was necessary I should do all that I could myself.  Our Lord said all this with great tenderness and sweetness.  He also spoke other most gracious words, which I need not repeat.  His Majesty, further showing his great love for me, said to me very often “Thou art mine and I am thine”. I am in the habit of saying myself and I believe in all sincerity “What do I care for myself?  I only care for thee Oh my Lord”. (p 11 Katz 1983) 

This goes further in The Interior Castle in the Fifth Mansion, to describe her union with God,

“That joy is greater than all the joys of earth, and greater than all its delights, and all its satisfactions… penetrated to the very marrow of the bones; that puts it well, and  know no better way of expressing it…” (St Teresa 1973)


Here the female mystic sublimates her earthly sexual desire to the spiritual dimension. Yet, it is more difficult to understand, how the male mystic may unite with Jesus, or an anthropomorphic God, as a door to a high mystical state. The practitioner could bond to Jesus through brotherly love, or alternatively choose another religious Christian icon such as Mary Magdalene. St John seems to bypass Jesus and unites directly with God as his lover.  Perhaps, it is possible to unite with Christ through a sexual union using Jung’s idea of the “inner woman” or “anima”. This sexuality twist was described by Lao Tzu as, “embracing the one… play the role of the woman” (Lao Tzu chap 10 1972). In the Kabalistic tradition, Sefiroth, the male principal, and Sefirah, which is a female mystic, the most explicit sexual language is used for their hoped for coupling (p9 Katz 1983). The sexual allegory enlarges with Sefirah now representing Israel in exile, uniting with the male principal.  Eventually, this is finally enlarged to the sexual union of God with Israel. In a Taoist immortality meditation practice, it is quoted that “the supreme essences of the sky and earth will copulate and create the sacred nectar (p78 Wong 1997).  And in a  Buddhist Tantra classic,  “it is necessary to cause all of the winds to dissolve in the indestructible drop at the heart in the central channel, and for that, it is necessary to generate the fierce woman, in a heat, by way of sexual union with an action seal” (p 129 Cozort 1986).

The final stage is an everlasting quiet bliss, where desire has been totally sublimated into the oneness and knowing of the absolute or God.  Here the practitioner rests in peace or as St John describes, “forgotten among the lilies”. There is no more duality; the practitioner has reached Nirvana, Samadhi, the Wu Wei, the Nothingness, Heaven or the Garden of Eden. However, James is correct in that unfortunately, this state is transient. For the practitioner now, must come back and share both the journey and the knowledge with their community.



So what happens to those individuals who are successful in reaching a mystical state? The individual has now been changed forever. To unite with God is to become like God. To become like God is to care for man with love. To enable this love, the impediments will need to be removed. The practitioner desires now, “to show the way”. However religions, like any other organism strive to survive. They will survive if they meet as many needs of the people as possible. These needs may include training towards union with God, but more often cater for lower needs, such as helping with food, shelter, caring and a sense of community. However, the mystic is threatening to the religious order as they are claiming a direct relationship with God (or the absolute). Consequently they will endeavour to remove that threat. It has been seen throughout history, how mystics have been martyred or excommunicated.  Names include Al Hallaj, Ortlieb, and Priscillian of Avila (page 3 Katz 1983). There was also Marguerite Porete, an author of a popular mystical treatise called, “The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls who Dwell Only in the Wishing and Desire of Love”.   She was burnt alive in front of an array of civic and ecclesiastical dignitaries in Paris in June, 1310.  Others have escaped with excommunication, such as Meister Eckhart, Teresa D’Avila and St John of the Cross.  A true mystic from a political perspective, needs to be excommunication by the orthodox.  For after their vision – 

“ free from petty desires and emotions, fully at one with the larger reality beyond the ordinary, he or she can then proceed to return to the common world, to enter the Life of Action as a  centre of creative energy and power in the world. The quality of the mystic is judged accordingly by the final success”. (p29 Kohn 1992) 



In this essay, examples of mysticism or mystics were given from Christianity, Sufism, Buddhism, Taoism and the Jewish Kabbalah. Mysticism is only a small part of what religion can offer to its followers. However, Mysticism may represent the highest goal or peak of the mountain for each tradition. Maslow defines Mysticism as also the peak of individual maturation. Therefore, the goals of the individual and the religion could be the same.  To enable comparison amongst the various traditions, mysticism was defined. Our definitions or criteria were based on Philosophers such as   James, Stace and Huxley. The Big question that arose was, “Are the mystical experiences the same in each tradition? There are three possible answers to this question and include the essentialist, the constructivists and the Integrationists positions. And in terms of our mountain metaphor, the Essentialists say that all religions – or certainly the mystic tradition in all religions, are climbing the same mountain to reach the same peak. It is in this position, where there is a universalism, where all religions are one. 


If an essentialist position were adopted, then the next stage would be to find some common ground for key terms that they use. The peak of the mountain is the “union with God”, the “nothingness” or  “heaven”. Base camp could be the sensation of Chi or kalapas or the soul.  Details of the mystics’ methods and works were explored. Or returning to the metaphor – what way did they climb? Some chose the hard way through self-denial and mortification. Some chose the route, which was easy and pleasurable. Others seemed to be “transported” along a seemingly “passive” path. Almost all mystics enjoyed pleasurable sexual feelings in the final union.


The views and sensations at the top were also compared. God can seem so different, yet so similar to different traditions. Others just couldn’t describe it, as it was beyond words. The view was heavenly yet empty. The universe and the earth below became one, yet were also separate. For others it was like “resting amongst the lilies” or living in the “garden of Eden”. 


Unfortunately the time at the peak could only be short (transience). And ultimately our mystic descends and returns to the world – to enter the life of action. It was suggested that the quality of the mystic might be judged according to this.


And to finish- a quote from Spong (2001  p 182): 

“My hope is that my brothers and sisters who find Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism as their point of entry, based upon their time and place in history, will also explore their pathway into God in a similar manner, until they too can escape the limits of their tradition at its depth and, grasping the essence of their system’s religious  insights, move on to share that essence with me and all the world. Then each of us, clinging to the truth, the pearl of great price if you will, that we have found in the spiritual wells from which we have drunk, can reach across the once insuperable barriers to share as both givers and receivers in the riches present in all human sacred traditions. A new day with thus be born, and Jesus – who crossed every boundary of tribe, prejudice, gender, and religion – will be honoured by those of us who, as his disciples, have transcended the boundaries of even the religious system that was created to honour him”. 


Mysticism may indeed be the gateway to some form of religious unity.




[1] (Blake 1977)

[2] There is a hierarchy of five sets of goals or purposes or needs, which are set in the following order of prepotency. First, satisfaction or gratification of body needs…Second the safety needs…Third, love affection, warmth, acceptance, a place in the group. Fourth, desire for self-esteem, self-respect, self-confidence, for the feeling of strength or adequacy…Fifth, self-actualization, self-fulfillment, self-expression, working out of one’s own fundamental personality, the fulfillment of its potentialities, the use of its capacities, the tendency to be the most that one is capable of being. (Maslow 1943 quoted from Daniels 2001)

[3] Book VII of The Republic (514a-520a)

[4] The Buddha started with the behavior of matter, and matter as known to the Buddha is very much smaller than the atom, which science today has discovered. Everything that exists in the Universe, both animate and inanimate, is composed of Kalapas, each dying as it becomes….To the developed student…they can be felt as a stream of energy…” (p195 Tin 1997 )

[5] Dark Night Prologue 1, 10, 6

[6] Also defined as loss of object consciousness ( Michael Coman 2004)

[7] My parentheses.

[8] Examples of mystics using intoxicants available  William James 1960 p 373 to 5. 

[9] translator’s parentheses