Digest of terms


a heightened state of awareness in which the person's perception of reality is extended beyond its usual condition. It may be sought in acts of contemplative prayer and meditation, but is also reported as 'entrancing' without warning or premeditation, prompted or accompanied by verbal or visual triggers. Though there are undoubted similarities between different mystical experiences, the claim that at heart they share a common essence is highly questionable. This is because it would mean that there was a common underlying experience stripped bare of the conflicting interpretations put upon them by mystics themselves, and this is thought to be both unprovable and implausible.

Conflicting interpretations include the trio of monistic, monotheistic and nature mysticism. According to the first, mystical experience involves the absorption of the individual soul into whatever is regarded as ultimate - the 'absolute', a 'world soul', or indeed God. Yet in monotheistic religions, this last would be regarded as blasphemous,theologians drawing a sharp distinction between claims to absorption in God on the one hand, and on the other hand claims to union with God where the essential qualitative distinction between creature and Creator is not called into question. The third type, nature mysticism, involves a heightened intense sense of the wonder of nature and of identification with it. Thus while mysticism is often associated with institutional religions, this link is neither intrinsically necessary nor invariably present equally in all.

Forms of heightened awareness are evident in the experience of artists, musicians and poets, though here the label 'mystical' is being extended beyond its more technical use. There is debate about whether the same may be true of drug-induced experiences, some of which bear considerable similarities to some experiences described by religious mystics. It is a conclusion that would be unwelcome in religious circles, since it rather readily leads to reducing the experience to 'nothing more than' a chemical reaction, or a retreat to a pre-birth 'oceanic feeling'.

Some mistakenly characterise mystical religious traditions as Indian or Eastern, in contrast with the outward materialist emphases of Western religions. Whilst it may be true that critical prophetic elements within individual religious traditions vary in preponderance from one religion to another, so do mystical ones - but rarely in their mainstream forms to the exclusion of either.

The relation between mysticism and ethics can be a cause of controversy, claims being sometimes advanced regarding the superiority of mysticism over ethics or vice versa. Thus mystical experience gained by sustained solitary asceticism may attract the charge of having been gained at the expense of due contribution to society, and therefore of being a morally unacceptable form of egoism. From a religious perspective, however, the reply might be that the egoism is only apparent, since the mystic contributes to the collective spiritual life of the religion, thereby enriching all concerned. In any case, more typically the paths of mysticism and morality are not compartmentalized from each other, but feed - or are intended to feed - into each other. As always the nature of any version of inwardness is a sensitive area for moral education.

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