The word "mysticism" comes from the Greek word "to conceal." In ancient Greece, mysticism referred to secret rites of esoteric religions. Mysticism now has a broader definition, and it has become associated with any occult, religious, metaphysical or spiritual activity and experience, from angels to Zen Buddhism. By its current definition, mysticism has been found throughout the ages on every continent, and persists to this day.
In Asia, philosophies such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism saw enlightenment as the ultimate end. In India, Hinduism was the development of the first theological, scripture-based religion. In the Middle East lie the roots of the Abrahamic faiths--Judaism, Christianity and Islam-- concerned with understanding and connecting with the divine, and surmising what occurs after death. Pagan cultures of Europe, Native Americans on the North and South American continents, and African tribal religions all had their own rich traditions of religious rites and descriptions of spiritual beings, experiences, practices and events.
There are several ways that mysticism can be categorized. Mysticism can be a one-time event, such as having a vision, or an overall pervasive consciousness, such as in the life of a Buddhist monk. Mystical experiences are usually internal, such as the connection one might feel to God in private prayer. Some mysticism is entirely theistic in nature, based on attuning with a Higher Power, such as in the Wiccan rituals of Drawing Down the Moon. Mysticism does not have to be theistic, however; an example of non-theistic mysticism is the connection that a Pantheist might feel with nature.
Mysticism is often an experience that is difficult to put into words. This is understandable, considering mysticism deals with that which transcends the mundane and ventures into the supernatural. What differentiates mysticism from fantasy is that the person who experiences the mystical has a strong feeling that the experience was real and not imagined, and the experience often has a lasting impact on the person.
Skeptics insist that mysticism is nothing more than imaginary, emotional or mistaken perceptions, because the experiences are beyond rational understanding. Believers in mysticism counter this argument, asserting that while the experiences in themselves are difficult to articulate, the value of such experiences lies in the rational and observable results of the experiences. The very real effect it has on a person's life leads some philosophers to believe that a rational experience must have taken place, even if at this point that experience is undefinable and enigmatic in nature.
Even well into the age of reason, mysticism continues to call to people, and people continue to answer. Perhaps the need for mysticism is something embedded deep in the human psyche, and its appeal, like with poetry, art and music, lies in the subjective experience. Experiencing these things is moving and inspiring, but often the awakening they stir defies articulation. The origins or underlying causes of the experiences may not be nearly as significant as the way the experience is received, and the effect of the experience on our lives and society.
Author: Mackenzie Wright