On Mysticism

Meister Eckhart said, “God is a great underground river,” and the wisdom in all religions taps into this one source. – Matthew Fox

We must all become oceans now,
deep at that,
and as broad…


There is a passage in a short biography of Inayat Kahn that reads as follows:

‘Inayat began to teach and discuss his world view with different people who would ask what to call this mode of thought. For a long time, Inayat refused to give it a name fearing it would create barriers between people. He would say only it was ancient wisdom from the one and only source.

‘He emphasized how none of the great spiritual teachers gave a name to their religious views. Finally, knowing that a body of thought needs some identifier to unify it, he told people it was Sufism.’

The World Today Needs More Mystics

A mystic is someone who has taken their spiritual path far enough to see the universal truth of it. This gives them an understanding of other traditions, not in terms of their history or doctrines, but from the point of view of their goal. They have reached ‘the one without a second’. Now, isn’t it just this depth of realization that is so needed in the world today? This is what enables people to give up their exclusive claim to the truth.

‘Truth is one, but people call it by different names’ – The Rg Veda

Think of all the wars in history that have been carried out in the name of religion– in all of these, people felt that they alone knew the will of God, or Allah, and that everyone else was a threat and needed to be converted or die.

One of the great world scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita has this remarkable exchange on the subject of narrow mindedness that has stayed with me since I first read it more than twenty years ago. It goes like this:

Someone asked a wise person, what is the most amazing thing in the world?
and the wise person answered, the most amazing things are two: first, that all around us, people are dying, and yet we think that we will never die, and second, that everywhere, people think that others are fools, and that they alone have the truth.


I’ve brought this to mind many times over the years, to try to pry open my mostly unconscious grip on ideas, to try to let some light and fresh air in. It is so on the mark, I’m happy to say, I think it’s worked more often than not!

Think of all the close minded arrogance there is in religion today, and all of the fear and mistrust of others. All of this comes, not from religion or spiritual practice itself, but from a lack of depth, from a lack of realization within those very traditions. The traditions themselves are all perfectly capable of producing saints– what’s lacking is profound understanding.

We so live surrounded on all sides by a sea of ignorance of other beliefs, and intolerance, that most of us take it for granted. We seldom look, or ask how other faiths can be seen and profitably understood. The closest we may come to getting a glimpse of how pervasive intolerance is in these times, is when we see the sectarian divisions within religions themselves. Sometimes these are the most antagonistic– the most famous these days probably being the Catholic-Protestant divisions in Ireland, but there are others that I know about closer at hand.

For example, when one the followers of a Buddhist teacher disagrees with another person who is being taught within the same lineage, you can be sure they don’t even regard other schools of Buddhism as genuine, or as being worthy of respect and consideration, let alone study. And if this is the case within one school, then other religions are not even viewed as anything other than mistaken. Their perspective, time honored and filled with saints in their history, nevertheless, at the very least, is not received at all. And never mind those who have no religious affiliation– they are not even registered as having anything of truth and genuine worth to offer to humanity.

And remember, here we’re just talking, thankfully, about the most benign form of intolerance. At the very least, there is an absence where there could be a greater flourishing of understanding, learning, and even practice. This kind of extreme, closed minded sectarian thinking is there in American Christianity, and in Islam too, and I’m sure in other religions as well. Narrow minded intolerance everywhere has the same characteristics, and what a loss it is to us all!

The problem of idolatry

Every religion has recognized the danger of mistakenly worshipping what is not the real source of benefit to ourselves and others. This may be like seeing a tree, but not seeing its roots.

In the Old Testament the idol was ‘the golden calf’.

In the Book of Mark, Jesus says,

I will destroy this temple, made of hands, and, in three days, build another, made without hands.

Further on in that same Book, it says:

… and the veil of the temple
was torn from top to bottom…

Islam, to this day, has a prohibition against any representation of the Ultimate truth. And the Zen Buddhist Tradition, throughout its teachings, is especially keen on exposing the limitations of language, and where we get caught by forms.

In the account of what is regarded as ‘the first zen discourse’, the Buddha, without speaking, simply held up a flower. Only Mahakasyapa saw the Buddha’s intent, and he smiled. The Buddha then said,

I have a treasure of insight that I have transmitted to Mahakasyapa.

Thich Nhat Hanh commented that, while everyone was wondering, what is the deep philosophical meaning, only one person saw. When someone holds up a flower, well, he wants you to see it! {a paraphrase, as best as I remember it}

Build me a seamless monument

they also say in Zen. Go beyond the words, and then go beyond the going beyond, i.e., don’t be attached to that either.

It is, as I have heard Meister Eckhart express it, that,

as long as we love any image we are doomed to live in purgatory.

{i.e., as long as we’re thinking this way, we’re only half way there}

But forms alone are not the problem. The crux of whether some form of worship is idolatry is the extent to which we have penetrated the meaning of the symbol. If we have not, that very act sets us up against every other symbol, and every other form of worship. If we have, we find ourselves in deep accord with them all.

We should all be offering each other our best gifts, but instead, because of limited understanding and our attachment to forms, the door is shut and barricaded before our guests even turn up the lane! We go to war against our brothers out of that very same narrowness of view.

Here’s part of a poem:

We must all become oceans now,
deep at that,
and as broad
anything less
and the light that could feed,
and save us,
turns against us

Religions become most dangerous forces when they are not fully understood, when we don’t penetrate to their universal depth. They can rouse natural devotional passion, and instead of that illuminating reason, and people’s lives, and the world, that same ardor can go in terribly wrong directions, as evidenced by so much of what’s in the news this last decade and more.

Maybe once long ago, and until recently, people could survive, and even thrive holding to one perspective, one teaching, one teacher and tradition. It may have been that there was no need to understand other faiths, as people either didn’t come into contact with them, or else they were not dependent on them in any way.

Although I would argue that their lives would have been enriched, and wars based on misunderstanding would have been avoided had people actually learned in some depth, and with respect, what others believed, still it may have been possible somewhere for people to live in peace and fulfillment with secure in just their one set of beliefs.

But these times we are living in now are different. In our increasingly globalized world, we are confronted more and more, whether we like it or not, with different faiths, different languages, different poetics, and different tellings of history. The one thing we can’t do any longer is to ignore that there are other traditions.

At this time, we can either choose to attach even more firmly to our beliefs, and, with even greater fervor and intensity, deny any validity other than that, which fundamentalists everywhere are doing, or we can go in the opposite direction and begin to open to the possibility that truth itself is not just contained in one tradition or set of beliefs. In other words, we can become more realized in our own tradition, and to some extent at least, in our own way, touching universal truths, we can become mystics.

As each day goes by, the need for mystics grows more and more. We need people who have taken the practices of their tradition far enough so they recognize the same essential truth shining in those who walk other paths. More and more, we need people who will spread this truth about the religions of the world.

In the past, it may have been enough to just produce realized beings who had no contact with or knowledge of other traditions. In these times though, it’s a dangerous thing not to understand that our own path aims to bring us to a goal shared by others.

Add to religions devotional passion the contact with other traditions, without understanding this truth, and this is exactly how fanaticism comes about. People blow up buses, clinics, open fire in churches, burn mosques, and deny that we are all of one family, all out of this kind of blindness.

What we need is a depth of realization, produced everywhere, in all traditions and non- traditions, such as the arts, that sees the universal truth of our own particular path, and that then goes on to embrace all of humanity, all of life as its own, naturally encouraging others to do the same.

We need to reach beyond distinctions, where there is neither East nor West.

Rabindrath Tagore offers us these timeless lines:

O, grant me the prayer
that I may never lose the bliss
of the touch of the One
in the play of the many


Where the mind is without fear,
and the head is held high,
where knowledge is free;
where the world has not been broken up
into fragments,
by narrow domestic walls –
into that heaven, wake!

When you look at mystics across time and cultures, it’s reassuring to see how they have more in common with each other than with many of their fellow believers.

All mystics, said Saint-Martin, speak the same language and come from the same country.

They all teach that life is sacred, and that the highest ideal is love. They all affirm that life is one, and that, whoever we are, wherever we are, we belong to that one life, and to each other.

Twentieth Century theologian Howard Thurman wrote, in The Luminous Darkness,

‘It may be, I don’t know, that to experience oneself as a human being is one with experiencing one’s fellows as human beings. It means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organic kinship that binds him [or her] ethnically or “racially” or nationally.

He has a sense of being an essential part of the structural relationship that exists between him and all other men [and women], and between him, all other men [and women], and the total external environment. As a human being, then, he belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life that includes all that lives and perhaps, also, all that has ever lived.

In other words, he sees himself as a part of a continuing, breathing, living existence. To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in a living world.

Isn’t it clear now more than ever, with all our differences emerging, that this view what we need more of? This is what will harmonize the differences, and make the cacophonous discord of Babel a great ocean-like symphony, enriching to us all.
Other mystics come to mind here, such as Rumi, Hafiz, Meister Eckhart, Hazrat Inayat Kahn, Lama Yeshe, Thich Nhat Hanh, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, the poets Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye and Pablo Neruda, and of course the Buddha, and Jesus.

There are greater and lesser mystics, people with deeper or less profound realization, but we do need them all. It is also entirely possible for someone to reach a depth in their practice without thinking of it as mysticism. Seeing a unity behind the multiplicity of forms, depends on contrast, which goes like this:

Whether someone recognizes that they’ve found a unifying truth depends on whether they come in contact with other language and methods, and, in an open-hearted, open minded way comparing their tradition with his own, he sees with joy that they come to the same conclusion.

Part of it, certainly, is having the intention to look. There can never be a legacy-tradition of realized beings, passed down like so many physical goods, for this reason. We each need to affirm certain truths for ourselves. But when we see the need to look deeply, the same truth we find within also begins to be seen elsewhere, to shine from other sources.

I recently had the surprise and delight to hear the following, expressed by Father Thomas Keating:

If one completes the journey to one’s own heart, one will find oneself in the heart of everyone.

How wonderful!

Rabia has a poem in which she says:

In my soul
there is a temple, a shrine,
a mosque, a church
where I kneel.
Prayer should bring us to an altar
where no walls or names exist…

And St. Theresa of Avila has said:

This magnificent refuge is inside you.
Enter. Shatter the darkness that shrouds the doorway…

Be bold. Be humble.
Put away the incense and forget
the incantations they taught you.

Ask no permission from the authorities.
Close your eyes and follow your breath
to the still place that leads to the
invisible path that leads you home.

If we see this much it should be enough.

It is clear to me on my good days that traditions have these two aspects to them, the precious historical dimension, and the ultimate dimension, which goes beyond any one tradition, and that empowers all traditions. Recognizing the aspect that is beyond names and forms, then we know at that time our unity with other people, in other places and Faiths.

It is this ultimate dimension that gives life to traditions, both our own, and those of others. It’s like when the roots of a tree go down deep into the earth and reach water, and that life nourishes the whole tree. Then all the branches, leaves, flowers and fruit will certainly flourish. It has always been this way in the past, it will always be this way in the future, and it is this way now.

How to pray, How to act, and How to live in this world

The strength of devotion, and the joy of believers in the different traditions tells us is that they have each found a source of strength and sustenance, and that they know keeping in contact with that is essential for their spiritual survival and continued strength.

One of the great things about being alive in these times is that we have so many choices of teachings and teachers available to find what meets our needs, our karmic affinities, and character. I have no doubt that anyone who searches sincerely, without giving up will find the living water.

It gets so personal at that point, and it never need be anything other than that. Think of a rose, or a pine tree, or a wave- they can only be what they are, thankfully. It’s in being what we are made to be that we give our gift fully to this world.

A version of ‘think globally – act locally’

I remember being surprised a number of years ago, when I went to receive acupuncture treatments, to find out how they can place a needle in one part of the body, to effect another. I remember this now because it seems to be exactly analogous to what we would think of as acting locally. The truth of it is that, just like the body is one, this life is one, and anything we do on a personal level, even the smallest action, effects the whole of life. We may not see it, but we can be sure that it is so.

Wherever we are in life then, as long as we are acting with a positive motivation, with kindness and compassion, and being as inclusive as we can, we can be sure that life beyond what we see benefits.

We can continue to learn throughout our whole lives, and share what we know, and the basis for doing this will always be the depth of our own spiritual practice and insight. This aspect of living must be honored, my brothers and sisters, in all its forms.

Our eyes and our heart are privileged to see many of the ways people live, and believe, and practice their path today. Even if we don’t understand the language, or what they do, or if we see them practicing their path only partway, still the common basis of our faith and life can always be clear to us, and constant. And, life with all its challenges, at that point, as the mystics love to tell us, is fulfillment, a great festival of celebration, and of service.

Hafiz says:

You carry all the ingredients
To turn your existence into joy,

Mix them, mix


We have not come here to take prisoners
Or to confine our wondrous spirits,
But to experience ever and ever more deeply
Our divine courage, freedom, and


You are with the Friend now
And look so much stronger.

You can stay that way
And even bloom!

Keep squeezing drops of the Sun
From your prayers and work and music
And from your companions’ beautiful laughter.

Keep squeezing drops of the Sun
From the sacred hands and glance of your Beloved

And, my dear,
From the most insignificant movements
Of your own holy body.

Now, sweet one,
Be wise.
Cast all your votes for Dancing!

A mysticism of personal and collective value

I know that when many people read lines such as these they think, ‘what does this have to do with my life?’ Spirituality in general, and mysticism in particular have gotten a bad rap over the years as having nothing to do with life in the world, and as having little or nothing to offer, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Who among us is actually able to bear witness, and to respond to suffering effectively, other than people who are liberated from their own inner conflicts, in other words, those who have matured far enough in their spiritual life. This maturation can take any form, but everywhere it is the same story unfolding, wherever there is an effective method at work – born of empathy, then, by their fruits we know them.

What mystics especially have to offer, in addition to being able to respond to the lives of those around them, is an understanding of our common ground, that we are all of one family, and that it is our responsibility and privilege, the greatest joy for us, to care for one another. It is this universal perspective, a unitive vision, and active engagement in healing the world soul, that truly characterizes the mystic, and not those caricatures imagined from a distance.

Addressing an unfounded bias against spiritual practice, Matthew Fox, the author of Original Blessing, was asked the following question about the place of the mystic in society:

Sam Keen:

It seems to me that psychotherapy, like religion, is concerned with healing and that it has the virtue of providing a time and place for remembering our individual wounds and for private lamentation. But don’t both fail to lead us beyond our private suffering and into the wounds of the body politic?

and he replied:

Both therapists and politicians should join the mystics in leading us, gently but surely, into the wounds of our times, because if we did not live in such denial we could develop the collective imagination necessary to deal with our problems. But we are afraid to face the nothingness.

The mystics tell us that from the encounter with nothingness comes a breakthrough into imagination and creativity — the next step in the journey. Once you experience the awe and face the darkness, creativity is unleashed. It’s not something you have to manufacture. Creativity is utterly natural in us. It’s our divine power.

In the final stage of the journey, creativity gives us the impulse and power to transform ourselves and our society. I think of the transformative way as the practice of compassion, the struggle for healing, for justice, for bringing the balance back into our bodies, our psyches and our communities.

Acting this way, always and everywhere, we are taking part in something larger than ourselves, carried on the tide of the spirit, as Rumi said. There is little or nothing of the ego there, with none of the separation that comes from false distinctions.

Were the time not so pressing, I wouldn’t have tried to write at this much on something so seemingly vague and impractical as mysticism.

Actually, from another point of view, there is nothing more precise, and necessary in our times than pointing out how our religions have a common basis, and to try thereby to foster greater respect for other faiths.

In writing this then, it is my hope simply that enough of the great value and necessity for our times of a depth of realization and universal perspective, will have come through to encourage people on their path, for all of our sake.

May all benefit.