Mysticism is the attempt of humans to attain ultimate knowledge of the true reality of things and to achieve communion with a hierarchy of spiritual beings and with God, not through the ordinary religious paths, but by means of personal revelation and interaction with the divine. Whereas the major religions teach submission of the individual will and adherence to various creeds and dogmas, the mystic desires to realize a union with the Supreme Being free of all ecclesiasticisms and physical limitations. While the faithful member of the orthodox religious bodies seeks to walk the doctrinal spiritual path and obey the will of God according to accepted dogma, the mystic wishes to become one with the Divine Essence itself.

In other words, for the conventional, unquestioning member of a religious faith, revealed truths come from an external source, such as God and his selected prophets and teachers. For the mystic, however, truth comes from the god-self within and with the union of the human mind and the Divine.

Many mystics speak of having received "cosmic consciousness," or illumination, a sense of oneness with all-that-is. In his classic study of the experience, Dr. Raymond Bucke (1837–92) studied a number of individuals whom he considered recipients of cosmic consciousness, such as Gautama the Buddha (c. 563 B.C.E.–c. 483 B.C.E.), Jesus the Christ (6 B.C.E.–C. 30 C.E.), Paul (?–C. 62 C.E.), Plotinus (205 C.E.–270 C.E.), Muhammed (570–632), Dante (1265–1321), Moses (c. 1400 B.C.E.), Isaiah, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), and Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Bucke concluded that the recipient of such illumination must be a person of high intellectual, moral, and physical attainment and express a "warm heart, courage, and strong and religious feeling." He considered the approximate age of 36 as the most propitious time in one's life to achieve this elevated state of consciousness.

In Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) William James (1842–1910) cites four features that he feels may distinguish a mystical state of consciousness from other states of consciousness:

  1. Ineffability. When one receives an illumination experience, James comments, it defies expression; "no adequate report of its contents can be given in words." The mystical experience, he suggests, must be directly experienced; "it cannot be imparted or transferred to others." Mystical states are, therefore, more like states of feeling. "Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly," James writes, "and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment."
  2. Noetic quality. Although the mystical states are similar to states of feeling, to those who experience them they seem also to be states of knowledge. "They are states of insight into depths of truth" that evade the intellect; they are revelations "full of significance and importance" that carry with them a "curious sense of authority."
  3. Transiency. James observes that mystical states cannot be sustained for lengthy periods of time. "Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized."
  4. Passivity. Although the onset of a mystical state may be facilitated by entering a self-induced state of meditation or trance, James comments that once the "characteristic sort of consciousness" has set in, "the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance.…Mystical states…are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance."

In a chapter on "Basic Mystical Experience" in his Watcher on the Hills (1959), Dr. Raynor C. Johnson, Master of Queens College, University of Melbourne, lists seven characteristics of illumination:

  1. The appearance of light. "This observation is uniformly made, and may be regarded as a criterion of the contact of soul and Spirit."
  2. Ecstasy, love, bliss. "Directly or by implication, almost all the accounts refer to the supreme emotional tones of the experience."
  3. The approach to one-ness. "In the union of soul with Spirit, the former acquires a sense of unity with all things."
  4. Insights given.
  5. Effect on health and vitality.
  6. Sense of time obscured.
  7. Effects on living. Johnson quotes a recipient of the illumination experience who said: "Its significance for me has been incalculable and has helped me through sorrows and stresses which, I feel, would have caused shipwreck in my life without the clearly remembered refreshment and undying certainty of this one experience."

The British marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy (1896–1985), D.Sc., Emeritus Professor at Oxford, came to believe that the nonmaterial side of life was of extreme importance in providing science with a complete account of the evolutionary process. Contending that spiritual experiences could be subject to scientific scrutiny, Hardy established the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College in England. "A biology based upon an acceptance of the mechanistic hypothesis is a marvelous extension of chemistry and physics," Hardy remarked. "But to call it an entire science of life is a pretense. I cannot help feeling that much of man's unrest today is due to the widespread intellectual acceptance of this mechanistic superstition when the common sense of his intuition cries out that it is false."

In April 2001, research funded by the Alister Hardy Trust being conducted at the University of Wales revealed that Christians, Muslims, and Jews have similar mystical experiences in which they describe intense light and a sense of encompassing love. Since 1969, the trust has collected accounts of 6,000 religious experiences from people of all ages and backgrounds. Christians most often described the light as an encounter with Jesus or an angel, and Muslims also often interpreted the light to be an angel. Jews perceived it as a sign of inspiration or an experience of God.

Writing in Fields Within Fields (1971), Reza Arasteh, a transcultural developmental psychologist and author of Final Integration in the Adult Personality, speaks of the role that mysticism has played in all major cultures by permitting individuals to transcend cultural reality. Whether one examines Judaic, Christian, or Muslim mysticism in the Near East; humanism and modern psychoanalysis in the West; or Zen Buddhism and Taoism in Far Eastern cultures, "the interesting point is that all these mechanisms have come to us as a 'path' rather than as logic, as experience rather than rationality." Regardless of language or cultural or temporal differences, Arasteh says, "all these styles of life have adopted the same goal of experiencing man in his totality, and the reality of all is cosmic reality." The common denominator of mystical experience "comes with encounter and inner motivation, and the result is inner freedom for a cosmic trip and outer security for the release of unbound energy for future creativity. "The Cosmic Self," he states, "is the manifestation of transcending the earthly and cultural self."

Although there are many schools of mysticism associated with the major world religions, the kind of mystic who focuses upon establishing a meaningful relationship with spirits and the afterlife is also a person who is likely to incorporate the secret teachings of ancient brotherhoods, mysterious mahatmas and masters from secret monasteries in hidden cities, and even tutelary entities from Atlantis and other lost civilizations. While such mystics as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), Alice Bailey (1880–1949), Annie Besant (1847–1933), Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) may have seemed out of touch with reality to those members of their societies who judged them as mad, they believed themselves to be exercising the power of their intellects to establish a truer connection with the actual powers of the universe than their contemporary scholars and clergy could ever hope to achieve. For those professors and scientists who assessed the claimed ability of Swedenborg to communicate with angels and spirits as heresy at worst and insanity at best, he barely noticed such criticism and continued to write book after book and do God's work as it was specially revealed to him. While critics of Steiner were astonished by the depths of his scholarship, they were appalled by his belief in Atlantis and his suggestions that the seeds of the giants of old are ripening in certain modern humans, and that he went on to establish a model of scholastic education that thrives to this day. When Blavatsky, Bailey, and Besant insisted that their wisdom was being astrally communicated to them by great mahatmas and masters in India, they ignored the psychical researchers who cried fraud, and continued to build the Theosophical Society, which still flourishes today.

In his Mystics as a Force for Change (1981), Dr. Sisirkumar Ghose writes that the mystic's real service to humankind is not so much to help people solve material problems as it is to show them how to "transcend secular and humanistic values, to transfigure them in the light of the spiritual ideal or the will of God. The mystic brings not peace, but the sword of discrimination and a sense of the holy.…The mystics have played an important part in the making of…civilization. Most early civilizations owe a good deal to this creative minority.…The early mystics would also be among the priests and medicine men of the tribe."


Bach, Marcus. The Inner Ecstasy. New York-Cleveland: World Publishing, 1969.

Bancroft, Anne. Twentieth Century Mystics and Sages. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1976.

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience. Garden City, N.Y.: Masterworks Program, 1963.

Johnson, Raynor C. The Imprisoned Splendour. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953.

Otto, Rudolf. Mysticism East and West. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

Stace, Walter T. The Teachings of the Mystics. New York: New American Library 1960.

Steiger, Brad. Revelation: The Divine Fire. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Talbot, Michael. Mysticism and the New Physics. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1961.


Blavatsky, H. P. Collected Writings. 16 vols. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1950–1985.

Harris, Iverson L. Mme. Blavatsky Defended. Santa Fe Springs, Calif.: Stockton Trade Press, 1971.

Meade, Marion. Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1980.

Murphet, Howard. When Daylight Comes: A Biography of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975.


McDermott, Robert A., ed. The Essential Steiner. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Shepherd, A. P. Rudolf Steiner: Scientist of the Invisible. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1983.

Steiner, Rudolf. An Autobiography. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1977.


Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. New York: The Swedenborg Foundation, 1972.

——. Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell. New York: Citadel Press, 1965.

Wilson, Colin. The Occult. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Mystics forum