Fool’s gold exists because there is real gold. –RumiMysticism can be defined as the belief, based on the testimony of mystics, that God, Truth, or Ultimate Reality can be directly known through a profound unitive realization. Mysticism also includes teachings and practices designed to help followers of the mystic path attain such a realization, and to integrate and manifest that truth ever more perfectly in themselves and the world. Mystics are found in all cultures and times, and are the original source and lifeblood of the world’s major religious traditions, as well as countless indigenous spiritual traditions. There are also mystics outside the religious and spiritual traditions who are poets, philosophers, musicians or simply ordinary people. Among all these mystics, there are genuine mystics as well as quasi-mystics and pseudo-mystics. And each has a particular brand of mystical teaching. With so many teachings and teachers in our multi-cultural modern world of religious pluralism and spiritual marketing, how is the earnest spiritual seeker to find the way? How can you discriminate healthy spiritual food from poison, and separate mere candy from true nourishment? What is healthy food that will sustain your soul and help it grow? What, in other words, is true and genuine mysticism? And how do you know a genuine mystic?
The only genuine answer I can give to this question is to simply share with you what, for me, are the signs of wholesome spiritual nourishment, and genuine sources for that nourishment. What follows, then, is my personal testimony, which you are invited to taste for yourself and see if it rings true to you. If not, then I have no wish to force feed you my personal answers to this question, or to coerce or convince you with an appeal to scripture or tradition as any kind of authority. Although I do cite passages below from some mystics who lived within various spiritual traditions, I quote them not as authorities that you ought to blindly believe and trust, but simply because their words are beautiful and true for me, and so are part of my own testimony, and my own sense of the truth. May this essay help bring more love, peace and understanding into the world.
The mystical injunction to know yourself and look to yourself as your own ultimate authority, however, does not mean that teachers and teachings have no value in the mystical path. The point is that they only show the way, as the Buddha says. If you invest a particular teaching or teacher with ultimate truth, you will be implicitly separating yourself from the truth, and you will fail to realize the truth of your own nature. In the end, however, when you realize that the teachings and teachers—and indeed the entire world—is not separate from you, then you will see that your entire life is the truth of your own deepest being revealing itself to itself. Thus, to see truth in nothing reveals the truth in everything.
The two great factors which implement the motivation underlying the drive toward Mystical Realization are (1) Love of Truth, and (2) Compassion. ...Compassion and the Love of Truth are the only valid and effective motivations, and the Compassion must be utterly self-disregarding, and the seeking of Truth must be so pure that every preconception is offered up on the alter of sacrifice. (Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Transformations in Consciousness, p. 235)
The radical depth of this love and compassion not only sacrifices the self in the mystical death, but is completely open and vulnerable to the pain and suffering of all beings, and eternally strives to bring love wherever it is needed. This completely selfless devotion to bringing love and peace into the world is expressed beautifully in the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
As St. Francis’ prayer demonstrates, the genuine spiritual life is not an escape from suffering, but a deep and open-hearted response to it. The goal of genuine mysticism is not to be insulated and untouched by the horrors of the world, with a cold, other-worldly detachment. Quite to the contrary, the genuine mystic is radically open to the suffering and pain of others, and strives to love and heal it. The genuine mystic is an instrument of Love, and a servant to Truth.
Yet, mystical teachings are not arbitrary. Although no fixed dogma, scripture, philosophy, or teaching contains the ultimate truth, this does not imply that all teachings and points of view have equal value. No place on Earth is the Sun itself, yet the sunlight shines brighter in an Arizona summer than in an Oregon winter. Similarly, in the context of human life, there are teachings that bring more light and those that bring more darkness. And the principles taught by the genuine mystics are as sure to bring light to life in this context as a summer in Arizona is sure to warm you up. In the realm of pure logical possibility, of course, all perspectives are equal. But we live in an actual world that has its actual moral and spiritual laws, just as much as it has actual physical laws. In principle, the world might have been created otherwise, but it was in fact created this particular way, and any beings living in this world are subject to its laws. As a result, some logical possibilities are more relevant, valuable, and effective in this world than others. Thus, true mystics will defend and even fight for selfless spiritual values that support the embodiment of Light in the world, and oppose the selfish values that bring darkness. At the same time, true mystics will acknowledge that all perspectives ultimately dissolve in the One Ineffable Truth.
He who affirms the duality (of God and the world) falls into the error of associating something with God; and he who affirms the singularity of God (in excluding from His reality all that manifests as multiple) commits the fault of enclosing Him in a (rational) unity. Beware of comparison when you envisage duality; and beware of abstracting the Divinity when you envision Unity! (Ibn ‘Arabi, Fusus)Thus, the genuine mystical path does not stop at the mere shift of identification from the Many to the One, but goes ‘beyond the beyond’ in a total surrender of all distinction. In this One beyond the One, the marriage of all opposites continues endlessly. In the end, even the distinctions between liberation and bondage, between knowledge and ignorance, between self and God, are ultimately subtle forms of dualism that must be surrendered on the mystical path. The Madhyamika philosopher Nagarjuna says that the supreme Truth “cannot be seized either as existent or as non-existent, either as permanent or as impermanent, either as unreal or as real. ...Transcending all determinations it is yet not exclusive of anything determinate, and is therefore itself undeniable.” (Nagarjuna, Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, 139c-140a) What more could possibly be said?
The enlightenment of the genuine mystic is not the attainment of some transcendent state of consciousness that is somehow fixed forever. The mystical realization is an awakening to the true nature of Reality, no matter what its states and forms. When you wake up each morning, your being awake doesn’t depend upon what experiences arise during the day. Similarly, the genuine mystic realizes that all states—blissful transcendent states of clarity as well as painful distracted states of confusion—are just God dancing in and as form. And these states unfold endlessly in an infinite process of wakeful transformation and transfiguration. After realizing the Light, the mystic becomes part of the process of embodying the Light in all of creation, at all its levels and in all its realms. Like a plant that has finally flowered, the mystic fills the world with heavenly perfume and transmits the pollen of ambrosia until the sun bakes the flower’s delicate pedals in its radiance. The flower then gives itself to the ground as earthy nourishment, and its essence is reconstituted in the plant for the next season. Thus the genuine mystic is an endless, selfless offering to both heaven and earth.
Although different mystical paths may involve taking different particular vows, all vows in a genuine spiritual path are intended to cultivate the virtue of selflessness in all its various forms. Some of the most widely recognized selfless virtues are faith, hope, charity, love, compassion, mercy, patience, generosity, harmlessness, humility, gratitude, joy, honesty, integrity, honor, self-discipline, responsibility, respect, courage, justice and stewardship. These virtues sometimes take more specific forms, such as sexual restraint, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, refraining from gossip, not lying, and not stealing. Although it can be very helpful (especially in the early stages of the mystical path) to make the vows very specific and clear, it should never be forgotten that the greatest commandment is love and compassion, lest the vows be abused. For example, false humility can be a form of vanity or pride, distorted honesty can be used as an excuse for vengefulness, and manipulation can parade as gratitude. You must be vigilant and guard the purity of all virtues against corruption, because false virtues can be very subtle and can trick you into cultivating self-centeredness in the name of selflessness, undermining all your purest intentions. This is why the deep and sincere cultivation of spiritual virtues is so important in the mystical path. Without a solid moral foundation, all our efforts and striving for goodness can be wasted, or even turned to evil. It is wise never to underestimate the power of self-deception and darkness that may be hiding in the shadows of your heart, mind, and soul. For no matter how apparently illumined and pure you seem to yourself, there is no danger in endlessly and earnestly examining yourself, and more perfectly embodying all the genuine selfless virtues.
The genuine mystic never strays from the path of perfecting selflessness.
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(c) 2000 Thomas J McFarlane