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What Is Mysticism?

We encounter the word mysticism more often these days as if we were collectively searching for its renewed significance in today’s world. Though long misunderstood in secular and even spiritual circles, mysticism – and the mystical experience – has an essential and profound place in the history of the world’s religions. More importantly, the mystical experience itself opens the door into the direct experience of the divine itself. With these comments in mind, I want to offer a modern explanation of mysticism and its relation to religion and spirituality.
What Is Mysticism?
Mysticism refers to the direct, first-hand experience of the divine. People have reported mystical experiences since the dawn of time. In fact, major mystical experiences are the source of all authentic religion. Major figures like Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad all had profound mystical experiences and their revelations evolved into world religions.
Mystical Experiences generally come in three flavors: Big Mystical Experiences, Little Mystical Experiences and Mystical Consciousness
Big Mystical Experiences, known variously as enlightenment, satori, cosmic consciousness, and countless other names, transform an individual’s life with their spiritual power and profundity. Immersed in the loving ecstasy and revelations of divinity, we rarely forget big mystical experiences. In fact, their sacred energy and realizations can often get rekindled, re-experienced and expanded when we get back in touch with them.
Small Mystical Experiences arise in states of awe, reverence and self-transcendence evoked by great natural beauty, powerful rituals, extreme physical exertion, intense creative focus, shared performance or profound moments of life. Examples might include the miracle of childbirth, the spectacle of Midnight Mass, the magic of falling in love, intense athletic competition, losing oneself in drumming, dance or choir, and the sacred transition of death. These are moments when time stands still, thinking ceases, perception heightens, the sense self expands or dissolves, and we sense something sacred happening right before our eyes. We’ve all had small mystical experiences though we may have overlooked or forgotten their spiritual significance.
Mystical Consciousness is a way of intentionally awakening the direct perception of the divine in order to explore the same qualities and dimensions of big mystical experiences though to a lessor degree. We move into mystical consciousness through spiritual practices that help us stop thinking, heighten awareness, experience the world exactly as it is, and sense the ambient divine Presence as consciousness itself animating everything.
To summarize, we have big mystical experiences, little mystical experiences, and mystical consciousness. The big mystical experiences happen spontaneously, breakthroughs of the divine that are beyond our control; the little ones often get triggered by what’s happening to or around us; and mystical consciousness can actually be learned and intentionally evoked, teaching us a great deal about the divine.
Now all these mystical states involve the same experience of a sacred, timeless and unconditionally loving consciousness or Presence permeating the universe creating transfiguring perceptions of reality as astoundingly beautiful, radiant, and alive; self-transcending ecstasy, gratitude and humility; profound spiritual realizations, and a reassurance of Creation’s perfection, holiness and purpose. In these experiences, therefore, the divine has literally become the world and the world is a sacred place once again. I should add that big mystical experiences still happen everyday to the religious and non-religious alike; in other words, divine revelation has never stopped.
Finally, I should also point out that Mysticism is different than Spirituality and Religion. As I noted, Mysticism refers to the direct and first hand experience of the divine. Spirituality, on the other hand, refers to the meaning we create from our religious education, life experiences and moments of mystical awareness. For example, a congregation of three hundred members will have one formal religion but three hundred unique spiritual interpretations on that religion. In other words, our spirituality represents the personal conclusions we’ve reached so far about the ultimate nature of life, God and the universe. As such, spirituality often tends to be a stepping-stone from formal religion – with its history, scriptures, theology and practices – into Mystical Consciousness where we learn to experience the revelations of our religion for ourselves.

John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D.Min. is a clinical psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry (studying with Matthew Fox), an ordained interfaith minister, the author of nine books and numerous articles on the psychology, spirituality and mysticism of the New Aging, and a frequent speaker at Conscious Aging Conferences across the country. You can learn more about his work at

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