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.