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Love And Will
Meditation And Recollection
The First Form Of Contemplation
The Mystical Life
The Preparation Of The Mystic
The Second Form Of Contemplation
The Third Form Of Contemplation
The World Of Reality
What Is Mysticism?
Anaximenes And The Air
Animism, Ancient And Modern
Brooks And Streams
Development And Discipline Of Intuition
Earth, Mountains, And Plains
Fire And The Sun
Heracleitus And The Cosmic Fire
Light And Darkness
Man And Nature
Mystic Intuition And Reason
Mystic Receptivity
Nature Mysticism And The Race
Nature Not Symbolic
Nature, And The Absolute
Poetry And Nature Mysticism
Rivers And Death
Rivers And Life
Seasons, Vegetation, Animals
Springs And Wells
Still Waters
The Beautiful And The Ugly
The Charge Of Anthropomorphism
The Expanse Of Heaven--colour
The Immanent Idea
The Moon--a Special Problem
The Ocean
The Waters Under The Earth
Will And Consciousness In Nature
Winds And Clouds

What Is Mysticism?

Those who are interested in that special attitude towards the
universe which is now loosely called "mystical," find themselves
beset by a multitude of persons who are constantly asking--some
with real fervour, some with curiosity, and some with disdain--
"What is mysticism?" When referred to the writings of the
mystics themselves, and to other works in which this question
appears to be answered, these people reply that such books are
wholly incomprehensible to them.

On the other hand, the genuine inquirer will find before long a
number of self-appointed apostles who are eager to answer his
question in many strange and inconsistent ways, calculated to
increase rather than resolve the obscurity of his mind. He will
learn that mysticism is a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of
religion, a disease; that it means having visions, performing
conjuring tricks, leading an idle, dreamy, and selfish life,
neglecting one's business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions,
and being "in tune with the infinite." He will discover that it
emancipates him from all dogmas--sometimes from all morality--
and at the same time that it is very superstitious. One expert tells
him that it is simply "Catholic piety," another that Walt Whitman
was a typical mystic; a third assures him that all mysticism comes
from the East, and supports his statement by an appeal to the
mango trick. At the end of a prolonged course of lectures,
sermons, tea-parties, and talks with earnest persons, the inquirer
is still heard saying--too often in tones of exasperation--"What
is mysticism?"

I dare not pretend to solve a problem which has provided so
much good hunting in the past. It is indeed the object of this little
essay to persuade the practical man to the one satisfactory course:
that of discovering the answer for himself. Yet perhaps it will
give confidence if I confess pears to cover all the ground; or at
least, all that part of the ground which is worth covering. It will
hardly stretch to the mango trick; but it finds room at once for the
visionaries and the philosophers, for Walt Whitman and the

Here is the definition:--

Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a
person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or
who aims at and believes in such attainment.

It is not expected that the inquirer will find great comfort in this
sentence when first it meets his eye. The ultimate question,
"What is Reality?"--a question, perhaps, which never occurred to
him before--is already forming in his mind; and he knows that it
will cause him infinite-distress. Only a mystic can answer it:
and he, in terms which other mystics alone will understand.
Therefore, for the time being, the practical man may put it on one
side. All that he is asked to consider now is this: that the
word "union" represents not so much a rare and unimaginable
operation, as something which he is doing, in a vague, imperfect
fashion, at every moment of his conscious life; and doing with
intensity and thoroughness in all the more valid moments of that
life. We know a thing only by uniting with it; by assimilating it;
by an interpenetration of it and ourselves. It gives itself to us, just
in so far as we give ourselves to it; and it is because our outflow
towards things is usually so perfunctory and so languid, that our
comprehension of things is so perfunctory and languid too. The
great Sufi who said that "Pilgrimage to the place of the wise, is to
escape the flame of separation" spoke the literal truth. Wisdom is
the fruit of communion; ignorance the inevitable portion of those
who "keep themselves to themselves," and stand apart, judging,
analysing the things which they have never truly known.

Because he has surrendered himself to it, "united" with it, the
patriot knows his country, the artist knows the subject of his art,
the lover his beloved, the saint his God, in a manner which is
inconceivable as well as unattainable by the looker-on. Real
knowledge, since it always implies an intuitive sympathy more or
less intense, is far more accurately suggested by the symbols of
touch and taste than by those of hearing and sight. True, analytic
thought follows swiftly upon the contact, the apprehension,
the union: and we, in our muddle-headed way, have persuaded
ourselves that this is the essential part of knowledge--that it is, in
fact, more important to cook the hare than to catch it. But when
we get rid of this illusion and go back to the more primitive
activities through which our mental kitchen gets its supplies, we
see that the distinction between mystic and non-mystic is not
merely that between the rationalist and the dreamer, between
intellect and intuition. The question which divides them is really
this: What, out of the mass of material offered to it, shall
consciousness seize upon--with what aspects of the universe shall
it "unite"?

It is notorious that the operations of the average human
consciousness unite the self, not with things as they really are,
but with images, notions, aspects of things. The verb "to be,"
which he uses so lightly, does not truly apply to any of the
objects amongst which the practical man supposes himself to
dwell. For him the hare of Reality is always ready-jugged: he
conceives not the living lovely, wild, swift-moving creature
which has been sacrificed in order that he may be fed on the
deplorable dish which he calls "things as they really are." So
complete, indeed, is the separation of his consciousness from the
facts of being, that he feels no sense of loss. He is happy enough
"understanding," garnishing, assimilating the carcass from which
the principle of life and growth has been ejected, and whereof
only the most digestible portions have been retained. He is not

But sometimes it is suggested to him that his knowledge is not
quite so thorough as he supposed. Philosophers in particular have
a way of pointing out its clumsy and superficial character; of
demonstrating the fact that he habitually mistakes his own private
sensations for qualities inherent in the mysterious objects of the
external world. From those few qualities of colour, size, texture,
and the rest, which his mind has been able to register and
classify, he makes a label which registers the sum of his own
experiences. This he knows, with this he "unites"; for it is his
own creature. It is neat, flat, unchanging, with edges well
defined: a thing one can trust. He forgets the existence of other
conscious creatures, provided with their own standards of reality.
Yet the sea as the fish feels it, the borage as the bee sees it, the
intricate sounds of the hedgerow as heard by the rabbit, the
impact of light on the eager face of the primrose, the landscape as
known in its vastness to the wood-louse and ant--all these
experiences, denied to him for ever, have just as much claim to
the attribute of Being as his own partial and subjective
interpretations of things.

Because mystery is horrible to us, we have agreed for the most
part to live in a world of labels; to make of them the current coin
of experience, and ignore their merely symbolic character, the
infinite gradation of values which they misrepresent. We simply
do not attempt to unite with Reality. But now and then that
symbolic character is suddenly brought home to us. Some great
emotion, some devastating visitation of beauty, love, or pain, lifts
us to another level of consciousness; and we are aware for a
moment of the difference between the neat collection of discrete
objects and experiences which we call the world, and the height,
the depth, the breadth of that living, growing, changing Fact, of
which thought, life, and energy are parts, and in which we "live
and move and have our being." Then we realise that our whole
life is enmeshed in great and living forces; terrible because
unknown. Even the power which lurks in every coal-scuttle,
shines in the electric lamp, pants in the motor-omnibus, declares
itself in the ineffable wonders of reproduction and growth, is
supersensual. We do but perceive its results. The more sacred
plane of life and energy which seems to be manifested in
the forces we call "spiritual" and "emotional"--in love,
anguish, ecstasy, adoration--is hidden from us too. Symptoms,
appearances, are all that our intellects can discern: sudden
irresistible inroads from it, all that our hearts can apprehend. The
material for an intenser life, a wider, sharper consciousness, a
more profound understanding of our own existence, lies at our
gates. But we are separated from it, we cannot assimilate it;
except in abnormal moments, we hardly know that it is. We now
begin to attach at least a fragmentary meaning to the statement
that "mysticism is the art of union with Reality." We see that the
claim of such a poet as Whitman to be a mystic lies in the fact
that he has achieved a passionate communion with deeper levels
of life than those with which we usually deal--has thrust past the
current notion to the Fact: that the claim of such a saint as Teresa
is bound up with her declaration that she has achieved union with
the Divine Essence itself. The visionary is a mystic when his
vision mediates to him an actuality beyond the reach of the
senses. The philosopher is a mystic when he passes beyond
thought to the pure apprehension of truth. The active man is a
mystic when he knows his actions to be a part of a greater
activity. Blake, Plotinus, Joan of Arc, and John of the Cross--
there is a link which binds all these together: but if he is to make
use of it, the inquirer must find that link for himself. All four
exhibit different forms of the working of the contemplative
consciousness; a faculty which is proper to all men, though few
take the trouble to develop it. Their attention to life has changed
its character, sharpened its focus: and as a result they see, some a
wider landscape, some a more brilliant, more significant, more
detailed world than that which is apparent to the less educated,
less observant vision of common sense. The old story of Eyes and
No-Eyes is really the story of the mystical and unmystical types.
"No-Eyes" has fixed his attention on the fact that he is obliged to
take a walk. For him the chief factor of existence is his own
movement along the road; a movement which he intends to
accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks not
to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the
caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges
along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but
oblivious of the light which they reflect. "Eyes" takes the walk
too: and for him it is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder.
The sunlight inebriates him, the winds delight him, the very effort
of the journey is a joy. Magic presences throng the roadside, or
cry salutations to him from the hidden fields. The rich
world through which he moves lies in the fore-ground of his
consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at every step.
"No-Eyes," when told of his adventures, usually refuses to
believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his
companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by
agreeable hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the
contrary unless we persuade him to look for himself.

Therefore it is to a practical mysticism that the practical man is
here invited: to a training of his latent faculties, a bracing and
brightening of his languid consciousness, an emancipation from
the fetters of appearance, a turning of his attention to new levels
of the world. Thus he may become aware of the universe which
the spiritual artist is always trying to disclose to the race. This
amount of mystical perception--this "ordinary contemplation," as
the specialists call it--is possible to all men: without it, they are
not wholly conscious, nor wholly alive. It is a natural human
activity, no more involving the great powers and sublime
experiences of the mystical saints and philosophers than the
ordinary enjoyment of music involves the special creative powers
of the great musician.

As the beautiful does not exist for the artist and poet alone--
though these can find in it more poignant depths of meaning than
other men--so the world of Reality exists for all; and all may
participate in it, unite with it, according to their measure and to
the strength and purity of their desire. "For heaven ghostly," says
The Cloud of Unknowing, "is as nigh down as up, and up as
down; behind as before, before as behind, on one side as other.
Inasmuch, that whoso had a true desire for to be at heaven, then
that same time he were in heaven ghostly. For the high and the
next way thither is run by desires, and not by paces of feet." None
therefore is condemned, save by his own pride, sloth, or
perversity, to the horrors of that which Blake called "single
vision"--perpetual and undivided attention to the continuous
cinematograph performance, which the mind has conspired with
the senses to interpose between ourselves and the living world.

Next: The World Of Reality

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