“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
From The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
I’ve been reading the gigantic tome, The Magicians Companion: a Practical & Encyclopedic Guide to Magical & Religious Symbolism by Bill Whitcomb. In this expansive text, Whitcomb touches briefly upon the three types of ritual as classified by occultist William Gray:
Hermeticism is highly intellectual and utilized complex temples and rituals.
Mysticism is a spiritual process that involves contemplation and devotion.
Orphism is a practice that utilizes dance, music, and emotional expression.
I have a vaguely intellectual understanding of these categories, but my own experience of ritual incorporates extensive overlap between Hermeticism, Mysticism, and Orphism. From observation and practice, I’m convinced these three types of ritual are actually all mysticism. They are different expressions, but each is a vital practice that is important in its own way when it comes to engaging the Cosmos and the Divine.
But what do I know of mysticism, anyway? I would certainly hesitate to call myself a mystic. Despite years of exploring mysticism (including a year spent writing a book on the subject), I’m not sure if I fully understand what mysticism is. For a long time I had this vague idea that mysticism was holy men chanting in ancient languages, sitting still for hours at a time. Or maybe it was women wearing animal skins, hair running wild, dancing throughout the hills and forests. Or maybe mysticism was drumming around a fire while engaging on vision quests to the underworld and astral realms.
Maybe none of those things are mysticism? Or maybe mysticism is all of these things at the same time?
Just on a whim, I did a quick Google search on the term “mysticism.” According to the Google machine, mysticism is:
- belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.
- belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies.
As much as I rely on Google, I don’t like either of these definitions of mysticism. For one, I think they’re insulting. Mysticism is self-delusion and dreamy confusion? Maybe. But I know some aspiring mystics who would say that anyone who isn’t engaging in mysticism is self-delusional and lost in dreamy confusion. Ancient mystics, particularly the Gnostics, told us over and over again to “wake up!” It is by engaging in mysticism, by waking up, that we begin to move away from the dreamy confusion.
But really, it’s not so much that these definitions are wrong, they’re just… feeble. I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time, and I realized that one of the huge problems with writing about this topic is that mysticism is all about experience. Mysticism isn’t a belief that contemplation and meditation will give you access to esoteric wisdom, but mysticism is the experience of that wisdom. But a definition of an experience falls short because it’s just words and descriptions of a phenomenon that must be understood firsthand.
This experience is something that is lost when we read about mysticism. It’s one thing to learn about the Eleusinian Mysteries or dancing Maenads, but it’s quite another thing to actually engage in these mysteries yourself. Much wisdom has been lost to us throughout the ages, but I don’t think that means mysticism is out of our reaches. If anything, I think genuine mystic experiences are needed now more than ever, to help connect us to our true selves, to our lost heritage, and to the Cosmos and the Divine. Ancient mysticism isn’t lost to us completely, but it’s our job as contemporary, aspiring mystics to follow the lead of those who came before us, while realizing we can update and improve upon their practices in our modern world.
Mysticism can be these things, and so much more. It’s experience. It’s watching a strike of lightening hit the ground outside of your window on a summer’s night. It’s sitting in silence in the woods. It’s listening, really listening, to a friend during a hard conversation that challenges your world view down to is core. It’s being quiet for five seconds so Deity can talk to you. It’s good food. It’s daily ritual (even when you’re tired, and especially when you’re tired.) It’s chanting and dancing so hard that you can feel energy buzzing and pulsing in your fingertips, on your nose, between your legs, at your feet. It’s having a dream that takes you deeper and deeper into your own self and into the Cosmos, so deep that upon waking you have a hard time remembering where you end and the Universe begins.
It’s also engaging in contemplation of enlightened texts, regardless of their origin. Truth can be found just about anywhere, if only we look for it. These messages have a way of repeating themselves. Like our ancestors of old, chanting into the incense-filled darkness of cathedrals and temples, shrines and caves, we crank up the music in our car and sing our hearts out. We hope that that the Gods hear us and answer our prayers, and that by honoring Them we move a little bit closer to Them.
It’s about allowing yourself to be overcome with love and kindness, compassion and empathy. It’s crying and loving and shouting and laughing and loving some more.
The specifics don’t always matter, but if you aspire towards any type of mysticism, EXPERIENCE. Experience it all. Open yourself up. These moments between moments, the imperceptible pause between breaths, when time stands still and no longer exist - these are the moments that lead us to something more real and more genuine than we can even begin to imagine.
And that's just scratching the surface.
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