What is a mystic?

8 Aug '21 • Filed under mystical • Tagged: About this site, Mysticism

I owe you an explanation: why am I using the term mystic, and what does a mystic do? In reading this, what on Earth have you signed up for?

Pick your pain

To talk about anything relating to inner work, meditation and self-realisation requires the adoption of some unsavoury term, complete with several hundred years of unwanted associations.

Sam Harris wrangled over this whilst writing Waking Up and decided to embrace ‘spirituality’ for his purposes.1

I have also settled for ‘spirituality’ before. But for this project, it felt a little too vague—increasingly, anything and everything can be declared spiritual, with little meaning added. ‘Contemplation’ sounds cleaner and slightly less submerged in incense, but it is too generic. You can contemplate anything deeply, but I am writing about a specific kind of contemplation.

Some writers eschew a spiritual or religious perspective to focus on the practice of meditation itself. In doing so, they free themselves from some of these associations but in the process tend to idolise the means over the ends. They speak of meditation as an all-purpose tool that can add an extra coat of awareness to any activity. Talking about meditation as a tool is very trendy, but it distorts the non-instrumental nature of what is realised in meditation.

It’s a similar story for ‘mindfulness’. I don’t mean to poo-poo the efforts of people to bring a little more self-awareness to their days and I have experienced the impact that this can have. But these changes are not what the Buddha, for example, was trying to communicate. There is no discourse on applying mindfulness to increase workplace productivity.

Which brings us to mysticism and the mystic.

Of all these terms, ‘mysticism’ has perhaps the ugliest and most raucous carnival of baggage attached to it. As Peter Moore notes, it is often used to mean “anything nebulous, esoteric, occult, or supernatural.” 2 Merriam-Webster drives the dagger a little deeper, suggesting that we might also define it as “vague speculation: a belief without sound basis.” 3

In all honesty, even I loathed these terms for many years, wary of embracing anything that might soil my secular self-image. Additionally, the term “mystic” is more popular in the Western tradition and my spiritual allegiance was, until that time, firmly with the East and Vipassana/insight meditation.

Beyond means

The mystical is not how the world is, but that it is.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein. TL-P (6.44)

After a decade or so of contemplative experience and many attempts to communicate the meaning of awakening, these terms began to grow on me.

There are three reasons why.

  1. Mysticism refers to a deeper-seated orientation to life, as opposed to the adoption of one isolated practice. It cannot be tacked on to any arbitrary activity—generally, one doesn’t go for mystical dog walks or mystically wash the dishes.

  2. This orientation stems from the fact that mysticism has an explicit and radical end—the direct, personal realisation of unity—that avoids a fixation on the means. Because of this, I find mysticism to have more focus and direction; a sharper edge and more bite when it comes to reiterating the radicality of genuine contemplative practice.

  3. The above recognition also implies a sense of transformation, a key ingredient to the path. This full-contact transformation pulls us in directions we cannot foresee and makes it clear that the journey stretches far beyond the mere induction of mystical experiences.

The origins of mysticism

But what does the word ‘mysticism’ mean?

Mysticism is derived from several Greek verbs with various meanings: “induct”, “initiate”, “make someone aware of something”, and “give first experience of something.” It also has a sense of something hidden or secret.4

The term also features in the Bible and Strong’s Concordance provides one of the most enjoyable definitions: “shutting the eyes and mouth to experience mystery.”

Despite the word being derived from Greek terms, it is not as old as it sounds: mysticism as we know it is a rebranding of an older term. Until the sixth century, it was referred to as ‘contemplatio’5, which in turn was used to translate the Greek ‘theoria’, from which we nowadays derive the terms theory and theatre.

The word theoria is derived from a verb meaning to look, or to see: for the Greeks, knowing was a kind of seeing, a sort of intellectual seeing. Contemplation is, then, knowledge, knowledge of reality itself, as opposed to knowing how: the kind of know-how involved in getting things done. 6

The wide and narrow

Modern academics talk of mysticism—when they acknowledge it all—in two senses: wide and narrow. The wide sense includes any “(purportedly) super sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.” 7

It is an exhausting definition, to say the least. You could distill it down to any “perplexing, profound experience that you probably wouldn’t talk about over dinner.”

The narrow sense of mysticism focuses only on those experiences that we might call “unitive”, such as:

the oneness of all of nature, “union” with God, as in Christian mysticism, the Hindu experience that Atman is Brahman (that the self/soul is identical with the eternal, absolute being), the Buddhist unconstructed experience, devoid of all multiplicity.8

It is this more precise sense of unitive experience that makes mysticism useful for an exploration of what is variously referred to as self-realisation, awakening or Enlightenment.

With mysticism defined, Merriam-Webster goes on to define ‘mystical’ as: “involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality.” 9 For now, we need not drag God into this discussion, but we can treat Reality, Being, Tao etc. as synonyms for God.

An even more precise term is the classical Greek word, henosis, which means “oneness”, “union” or “unity”. In the Greek mystical tradition, the goal of henosis was thus “union with what is fundamental in reality: The One, the Source, or Monad.” 10

Sadly, the term is largely unknown and sounds more like an unpleasant medical condition than a laudable spiritual pursuit.

The invitation of unity

Understanding mysticism as the direct realisation of unity gives us something pragmatic to work with, without watering down the potency of the pursuit.

If we imagine this journey as an invitation, it might read:

This invitation should make it clear that mysticism is not a flight from this life or an other-worldy pursuit:

…as Plotinus knew and Nagarjuna taught: always and always, the other world is this world rightly seen.11

So what does a mystic do?

We can now say that a mystic is someone who has:

  1. An inexplicable yet pervasive yearning to comprehend
  2. an already-existing, ultimate truth or unity about reality
  3. such that they engage with certain practices and rituals that
  4. engender transformation through a direct, personal realisation of this reality (2.)

A few comments on these points:

The “yearning” is such a prominent feature that it would also be fair to define the mystic as someone with “a relentless desire to grasp an intuited wholeness that they feel estranged from, at all costs, no matter what costumes must be worn.”

The “direct” nature of the experience is also crucial: the mystic is not content with second-hand answers. She rolls up her sleeves to discover things for herself. She also believes herself to be be worthy of knowing such a profound truth, a belief that is sadly not as common as it should be. It is the independent, DIY instinct of the mystic that differentiates her from a run-of-the-mill religious person.

We have not referred to the “already-existing” nature of the truth until now, but suffice to say it wouldn’t be much of a truth if it were not already the case before you stumbled upon it.

Heretics and idiots

One final point is not stated but implied in the definition above: that this kind of realisation is actually possible.

This is no trivial matter because the idea is rebuked on several fronts.

On the religious side, the majority of orthodox thought upholds the separation of God and man. In the Christian version, Adam and Eve screwed it up and as punishment, an unbridgeable gap opened between each human being and their blessed Creator. As such, the idea that a person can subjectively experience God is considered heresy.

On the secular side, there is scepticism that any kind of ultimate truth exists. Mystical realisations are—no matter their felt meaning—“only” subjective; little more than hallucinations generated by the brain, nestled inside the skull of a confused human being, who is ultimately nothing other than his or her physical anatomy (the only “really real”), living out a short and quite embarrassing life on a random, rotating rock in a disinterested universe which will eventually succumb to heat death.

Despite the consternation caused by these proclamations, and the unpalatable choice between heretic or idiot, the mystic still feels drawn on by an irrepressible yearning that even he does not fully grasp.

Even so, and without wishing to drop F-bombs needlessly, you might say some faith is required to embark on this journey, considering the variety and volume of voices that decry it as delusional, foolish or meaningless.

The good news is that aspiring mystics do not have to grope around in total darkness: there is a long lineage of sages and mystics, from East and West, who have undertaken the journey and left notes. They do not need to be taken at face value: each authentic teacher offers pointers in how to perform the experiment in one’s own psyche.

What you can expect

I hope the above has added a little colour to what I mean by ‘mystic.’ Many other definitions and nuances are possible, but I’ve tried to focus on some of the main themes I’ll be exploring in the future.

Beyond definitions, my use of this term is a way of giving voice to my own contemplative experiences—primarily, the abiding awakenings that have occurred over the last 13 years. In this sense, I use ‘mysticism’ not to advance clever arguments, but as an expression of self-respect.

This exploration is not by any means complete and at each step of the ladder the view looks slightly different. Having experiences is one thing: making sense of them in public is something else.

I hope to also paint the mystic in a new light: not as a hermit or monastic, but someone at work, on the bus, picking up the kids, “a man of the world” who also wants to honour and satisfy that deepest desire for wisdom.


  1. https://samharris.org/a-plea-for-spirituality ↩︎

  2. Moore, Peter (2005), “Mysticism (further considerations)”, in Jones, Lindsay (ed.), MacMillan Encyclopedia of Religion, MacMillan ↩︎

  3. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mysticism ↩︎

  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mysticism#Etymology ↩︎

  5. Johnston, William (1997), The Inner Eye of Love: Mysticism and Religion, pg. 24, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-8232-1777-9 ↩︎

  6. “Andrew Louth, “Theology, Contemplation and the University” in Studia Theologica, I, 2/2003, 66-67” (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2017-04-05 ↩︎

  7. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mysticism/ ↩︎

  8. Ibid. ↩︎

  9. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mystical ↩︎

  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henosis ↩︎

  11. Wilber 1995:505–506 ↩︎

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