Genuine Mysticism

Thomas J. McFarlane
Summer 2000
Revised and edited for the web March 2004


Fool’s gold exists because there is real gold. –Rumi
Mysticism 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.

Know Thyself

At the end of his long life of selfless teaching, the Buddha said that you must strive on the path yourself—the Awakened Ones only point the way. Like the Buddha, all genuine mystics will tell you that the ultimate authority and touchstone of truth is not any scriptures or dogmas or teachers, but your own deepest experience. “Don’t take my word for it,” they will say, “find out for yourself!” Just as a scientist tests hypotheses using experiments, so you should test the teachings in the laboratory of your life using spiritual practices. It makes sense that you should be your own ultimate authority, because it is your own true nature that you must discover and know. As the oracle at Delphi commands: “know thyself.” And as Jesus instructs: “examine yourself, and learn who you are, how you exist, and what will become of you” (Jesus, Book of Thomas). The reason the genuine mystic directs your attention inward to seek your own true nature is because, as Jesus says, “He who has not known himself does not know anything, but he who has known himself has also known the depth of all” (Jesus, Book of Thomas). And Rumi tells you: “It’s you yourself that hide your own treasure” (Rumi, Mathnawi). So the genuine mystic will always point you to yourself, to discover the depths of your own true nature.

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 Mystic Death

The truth of your own nature, the mystics all testify, is that you are nothing, which reveals that you are everything. In your deepest essence, you are identical with God or ultimate reality. Your real Life is the birthless and deathless Life of God, and the Life of God embraces the whole of creation. But as long as your identity is centered in the limited life of the ego, you cannot live in full consciousness of this Life. Thus, you must die to your self-centered life in order to awaken into the Life of God. As Rumi says, “You want Reality unmasked? Choose death! Not the death that drags you to the tomb—the death that is a transmutation, so you at last change into the Light” (Rumi, Odes). Or, as Jesus says, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25-26). Thus, the genuine mystic lives in and as God only insofar as the life in and as the ego is dead. It is the ego’s delusion of grandeur that imagines you can escape suffering and attain immortality, when in fact your life centered in the ego must be completely sacrificed in the mystical death. Any teacher or teaching that is not clear about this just feeds the ego’s propensity for megalomania and self-deception. The genuine mystical path involves the perpetual surrender and sacrifice of all self-centered egoistic activity, up to and including the complete sacrifice of ego-centered life itself. Thus all genuine mysticism teaches the cultivation of selflessness, love, and compassion.

Love and Selflessness

When asked what is the supreme commandment, Jesus answered: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mark, 22:37-38). In all genuine mysticism, selflessness is the most fundamental and essential teaching and practice. Contemplation of the selfless nature of all things purifies the mind, just as selfless intention and action purifies the heart. Until your entire being is saturated with the power of selfless love, you will remain centered in the ego self, blind to the infinite life in God. Thus, any genuine mystic will emphasize the fundamental importance of selflessness on the path. For example, the modern philosopher-mystic Franklin Merrell-Wolff writes,
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.

Wisdom and Discrimination

To become a more perfect instrument of the Divine, the mystic strives to purify not only the heart but also the mind. Just as genuine mysticism is not a heartless attempt escape from the pain of the world, but a compassionate striving to love and heal all suffering, so it is not a mindless escape from ignorance and illusion, but rather an open-minded and intelligent effort to bring wisdom and clarity into confusion. The genuine mystical path does not require that you toss away your intelligence or your mind, only that you purify them and dedicate them to the complete spiritualization of yourself and the world. Nor is the genuine mystical path about suspending all judgement, all discrimination, and all thought, resulting in mental paralysis. Rather, it is about becoming radically clear about the ground of all judgement, discrimination and thought, so that it becomes like a laser of Truth that can burn through all obscurations of the mind. The genuine mystical path is not about discarding or denying your body, heart, or mind, but rather—as Jesus says in his greatest commandment—to purify them so that all three are completely involved in the love of God. Purity of mind, however, means to surrender the possession of all knowledge, all pride in knowing, and all opinions and biases. The mind’s love for truth must be so pure that it prefers a real hell to an imaginary paradise. When the mind is emptied of its own concepts and restless activity, and waits quietly for insight from above, it will be illumined from above, just as the death is followed by the resurrection. As Simone Weil says, “To love truth means to endure the void and, as a result, to accept death. Truth is on the side of death” (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 11).

Ineffability of Truth

Mysticism is not ultimately about ascribing to, believing in, defending, or verifying any particular dogma, revelation, scripture, or philosophical system. Rather, its primary purpose is to awaken a non-conceptual knowledge through identity that reveals Reality in all its ineffable glory. No single scripture, dogma, doctrine or philosophical system has a monopoly on Truth, since none can contain the whole of the incomprehensibly vast ocean of Truth. The best any teaching can do is reveal a sliver of Truth from a particular perspective, and hope that it is effective in pointing beyond itself to the ineffable Truth. So, although all genuine mystical teachings flow directly from the same Truth and embody the same principles, these expressions of Truth will naturally vary among mystics, traditions, cultures, and ages. Genuine mystics recognize and acknowledge this diversity of expression. They do not fight over which scripture or revelation is the ultimate word of God, but celebrate the Truth in all its glorious diversity of expression.

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.

Radical Nondualism

The ineffable Truth of genuine mystical realization is so utterly radical in its nonduality that it can easily be confused with very subtle forms of dualism. For example, the mystical path often involves a reorientation toward the changeless, unitive, spiritual aspect of reality, often with an implicit or explicit turning away from the changing, pluralistic, material aspect of reality. This, however, is only an initial phase of the path designed as a corrective counter-balance to worldly attachments. Like a medicine that becomes a poison once the illness is cured, this orientation away from the created can become a subtle form of ignorance that subtly denigrates the created world. Genuine mysticism ultimately values the created world as not separate from God. The realization of the transcendental, formless ground of all form is just the beginning of the endless process of integrating the form with the formless, embodying the light, bringing spiritual insight and divine love into the world, and transfiguring all of creation. Genuine mysticism, in other words, recognizes that the distinctions between the One and the Many, between Heaven and Earth, between Body and Soul, are subtle forms of duality. The radical nondual Truth is comprehensive of both the One and the Many, both Heaven and Earth, both Body and Soul, both God and the world. The radical nondual must even transcend the distinction between the dual and the nondual. As the Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi explains so clearly,
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 Stateless State

In the Sufi tradition, it is said that the journey to God has an end, but the journey in God is endless. In fact, when the journey to God ends, it is realized that there was, is, and always will be, no real separation from God in the first place. What was thought to be the self seeking God is seen to have truly been God seeking God. And what was thought to be a journey with beginning and end is seen to be actually part of a divine Life with no beginning and no end. This glorious Life is a dance of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, transcendent and immanent, where the partners in the dance are ultimately indistinguishable and of one essence. God is woven into the fabric of form, which unravels again to reveal its formlessness. In the end, there is no separate self to unite with God, because this “self” was already God woven into a particular form. When a human form of God knows its true identity as God, then this human form may be said to be “awakened” or “enlightened.” But it is not any separate human “self” who is awake, but God who is awake in that human form of God, for when genuine awakening dawns, there is no human self to whom it happens, or to whom it belongs. Thus, in truth, there is no one who, as an individual human self, can be or become enlightened or awakened—there is only God who, in human form, may be either awake or not. A genuine mystic, therefore, humbly acknowledges that, as a human creature, he or she possesses no inherent enlightened status, and is no more or less perfect, precious, exalted, or privileged than any other created living being. We are all utterly dependent upon God, and should be infinitely humbled before God’s incomprehensible majesty and power. However, insofar as the genuine mystic is totally emptied of “self” and becomes a pure instrument of God, he or she may honestly and truly declare “I am awake,” as did the Buddha, or “I and the Father are One” as did Jesus, where the “I” refers not to the human instrument, but to God.

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.

The Virtues

The selflessness of the genuine mystic is cultivated through the conscious surrender of self-centered habits of the heart, mind, body, and soul. In order to help bring these habits to consciousness, genuine mysticism always emphasizes the cultivation of spiritual virtues. This cultivation normally involves taking various vows as part of the spiritual practice. These vows are not rules to be obeyed so as to avoid punishment or accumulate merit, but are ways to bring awareness to your own imperfections and selfishness, so that these can be surrendered in Love. The vows are not intended to provide the basis for you to pass judgement on yourself or others, but are meant to help you see imperfections and self-centeredness clearly so that you can purify them in the light of love.

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