Mysticism Research Paper

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1. Definition Of Mysticism

Mysticism consists of a practice of religious ecstasies, i.e., of religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness, together with whatever ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, magics, etc., are related to the ecstasies. ‘Ecstasy’ may be defined as any experience of involuntary belief in the reality of the numinous, i.e., of the holy or demonic. Whenever the numinous is as manifestly real as perceptible reality is during waking sobriety, consciousness has been sufficiently altered that the experience is intrinsically religious (Merkur 1992).

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Since the paradigm shift promoted by the work of Katz (1978, 1983), mysticism is no longer defined as the ideology and practices surrounding the experience of union with the Absolute (Underhill 1910), or ultimate reality, etc. There is abundant evidence that the people who traditionally have been called mystics have enjoyed many varieties of religious ecstasies. Comparative studies of mysticism currently include the vision quests and shamanism, spirit possessions and spirit mediumship, prophetism and seers, etc., of the oral religious traditions, as well as the visions, voices, mystical unions, enthusiasms, etc., of the scripture-based religions.

Mystical experiences are as varied as the dreams of sleep. Not only personal matters, but also culturally and historically variable religious ideologies contribute to the contents of mystical experiences and their postexperiential interpretations. People in all cultures may potentially experience all possible varieties of religious experience. The world’s ecstatic religious traditions each tends to accommodate a considerable diversity of ecstatic experiences, even when certain types are privileged. Conformity is required in matters of doctrine and behavior much more than in experience. The vagueness or nonspecificity of many traditional doctrines permits them to be applied simultaneously to diverse religious experiences.

No sociological research has yet been done that conforms with mysticism’s current definition. Collating existing research on shamanism, spirit medium- ship, prophetism, mysticism in the book religions, etc., in search of common denominators, discloses few commonalities. People who make religious uses of alternate states of consciousness take their religion more personally and seriously than the general population. They tend to be convinced, and not only hopeful, about the reality of their objects of belief. Religion is not only a social institution for them; it is an integral component of the cosmos. In Allport’s (1959) terms, their religiosity is ‘intrinsic,’ and not only ‘extrinsic.’

In other respects, mystics are diverse. Some mystics are religiously and/or socially conservative, but others are revolutionary. Some seek to transcend all perceptible phenomena; others address the immanence of spiritual phenomena within material reality. Some shun their bodies and engage in asceticism. Others celebrate both their bodies and the physical world. Some seek to withdraw from society, but others participate within it. Some mystics prioritize a single type of mystical union, e.g., nothingness, or all-being, or identity with God; but others favor complex systems of multiple types of religious ecstasy that include both visions and unions.

The term ‘mysticism’ derives historically from the noun mystes, ‘mystic,’ meaning the possessor of a secret, and denoting an initiate of a classical Greek or Hellenistic Mystery. The Mysteries were rites of initiation that induced religious experiences. Technical terms of the Mysteries were taken over by Plato, Philo, and the Christian Church Fathers, who applied the terms to their own practices of religious experiences. By the early medieval period, Christianity officially denied possessing any secrets that had not been publicly divulged through Christ. Hindu yoga, Buddhist vipassana meditation, and Confucian meditation, among other mystical traditions, similarly teach their alternate-state practices openly. At the opposite extreme, Taoism, Hindu and Buddhist tantra, theosophical Sufism, the Kabbalah, and Western alchemy are so very secretive that they encode their teachings in secret languages, whose meanings cannot be understood by noninitiates.

2. Incidence And Varieties Of Mystics

In a survey of 488 societies worldwide, Bourguignon (1973) found that 90 percent had institutionalized one or another religious use of alternate states of consciousness. In different surveys in Western cultures, between one-third and one-half of the population has been found to have had one or more mystical experiences (Greeley 1975). A considerably smaller part of the population pursues mystical experiences on a frequent or habitual basis. Many factors have contributed to the distinctive historical forms that different mystical traditions have taken.

2.1 Shamans

A shaman may be defined as a religious functionary who enters ecstasy and, by commanding the aid of helping spirits, intermediates between the social group and the numina (Hultkrantz 1973). Shamanism has its origin and major distribution in hunter cultures. Like hunters, shamans’ ecstasies are highly mobile. In their visions, shamans may travel out of their bodies to the sky, netherworld, or distant overland locations. Shamans also summon helping spirits to them, sometimes from considerable distances, and they send them abroad on distant errands. Shamans relate to their helping spirits much as hunters relate to half-wild dogs.

A shaman typically is paid for services rendered to a client, such as healing. In their ecstasies, shamans may also find game animals, placate angry deities, guide new ghosts to the afterlife realm, and hex enemies in war. In some hunter cultures, vision quests are pursued more generally by part or all of the society. In these cases of ‘democratized shamanism,’ shamanism occurs as a private practice, and only mystics who are exceptionally gifted emerge as professionals.

Shamanism persists in agricultural communities in varied forms. Democratized shamanism persisted as a practice among warriors in Indo–European cultures (e.g., Glosecki 1989). It was also adapted to group possession states in the classical Mysteries of Dionysus. In late antique and medieval Europe, shamans who lacked traditional social locations within their communities emerged as itinerant seers (Brown 1981, Davidson 1989), magicians (Smith 1978), and witches (Ginzburg 1983). Where seers have a clientele, magicians and witches often engage in shaman-like conjuring of spirits, but privately rather than professionally.

2.2 Spirit Mediums

A spirit medium may be defined as a religious functionary who enters ecstasy and, through states of possession, serves as a vehicle for the manifestation of a numen to the social group. Spirit mediumship has its major distribution in clan-based farming villages, both in Africa (Walker 1972) and in Southeast and East Asia (Elliott 1955, Paper 1995). The sedentary life style of farming villages is reflected in the lodging of spirits within mediums. Mediums and their spirits perform no errands that require travel outside the village. Much spirit mediumship is intimately connected with the worship of ancestral ghosts. Deference to family elders, which is economically motivated by the ownership and inheritance of arable land, is continued after the elders’ deaths through the agency of mediums, whom the ancestral ghosts possess. The deference is reflected, among other manners, in mediums’ claims that all of their activities while possessed are performed by the possessing spirits, while they themselves are passive.

Spirit mediums may also be possessed by gods and spirits that are not ancestral ghosts. Spirit mediumship also occurs in democratized forms, where large numbers of people within a social group engage communally in possession states, and only a few show sufficient virtuosity to function as professionals. Spirit mediumship and possession may persist into more complex societies, e.g., in the theurgy of late antique Hellenism (Luck 1989), enthusiasm in Protestant Christianity (Knox 1950), and modern New Age channeling.

2.3 Prophets

A prophet may be defined as a religious functionary who enters ecstasy, learns of the will of the god, and later communicates the divine will to the social group. Prophets have their major distribution in kingdoms, whose gods are imagined as kings, and whose prophets are imagined as heralds, spokespeople, or ambassadors of the gods (Cross 1973). Prophetism had its origin and classical location in urban societies with differentiated labor and trades, both in the ancient Near East and East Asia. Prophetism can be conceptualized as an adaptation of ecstasy to monarchic politics, with the prophet’s god outranking the king. Prophets’ ecstasies favor verbal revelations from their gods, but may include shamanic and mediumistic forms that have been adapted to monarchic politics.

Anthropologists also use the term ‘prophet’ in reference to shamans and spirit mediums who have been influenced by missionaries’ accounts of Biblical prophets and developed hybrid types of mysticism that reflect their postcontact situations.

2.4 Mystics In Scripture-Based Religions

Because book religions invest religious authority in scriptures and their official interpreters, they marginalize professional ecstatics. Mysticism is then often pursued by a leisure class, which may embrace poverty in order to support its practices, as among Hindu forest dwellers, and in Buddhist and Christian monasticism. In other cases, e.g., Taoism, Sufism, and Kabbalah, mysticism has been pursued by individuals sufficiently affluent to devote leisure time to it.

Mystics in the book religions often avoid conflict with religious authorities by favoring varieties of ecstatic experience that are socially and political powerless. Unitive experiences, which are not useful for professional ecstatics, may consequently be privileged. However, other ecstasies are often pursued as well.

Mystics in the book religions may be public religious functionaries, e.g., as leaders or teachers of other mystics. Their leadership roles among nonmystics tend to be limited to religious revival movements, in which mystics proselytize ecstasy among their co-religionists.

Although most mystics are sociopolitically conservative, a minority are radical and potentially revolutionary. In such cases, mystics in the book religions typically seek social roles appropriate to prophets. Rather than seeking ecstasies that are accommodating, inconspicuous, and innocuous, they seek inspirations that claim authority to transform their religions and/or societies. The would-be prophets may then emerge as charismatic founders of sects, schisms, and/or cults. An apocalyptist may be conceptualized as a would-be prophet in a book religion, who seeks the radical reformation of society, often as an aftermath of catastrophe and revolution. Apocalyptists may found or belong to millennial movements.

3. The Contents Of Mystical Experiences

All ideas and practices that may be entertained and performed during normal waking sobriety can also be thought and done during at least many varieties of ecstasy. Ecstasies facilitate unconscious manifestations that tend not to occur otherwise; but they do not necessarily preclude the activities of normal consciousness. Mysticism may embrace the whole of non-ecstatic religiosity, together with an additional component i.e. contributed by the ecstatic experiences.

Ecstasies may be subdivided on psychological criteria into two major categories. Some ecstasies involve narratives, as do daydreams and night dreams. The narratives may consist of visual images, with characters, sceneries, dialogue, etc. They may instead consist exclusively of words. Narrative ecstasies can also have physical dimensions and take form as automatic speech, automatic writing, automatic dramatization (i.e., possession), and other types of behavior. Somatizations (stigmata) may also occur.

The second category of ecstasies may be termed unitive experiences. All unitive ecstasies involve a sense of separate things becoming unified. What is unified varies. In normal waking sobriety, our sense of self is elastic. Our senses of our ‘selves’ is limited to our bodies when naked; extends to clothing when dressed; and may include, e.g., even the fenders of a vehicle when we are driving. Romantic partners, children, family, ethnic group, and nation may also be included in the normal fluctuation of the sense of self. Unitive ecstasies include exceptional instances of the elasticity of the self. In some instances of mystical union, the self is co-extensive with the entire physical cosmos; in others, with infinite timeless being; in others again, with God; in still others, with ultimate nothingness. Other commonly encountered unitive ecstacies include a sense of identity with some one particular thing in the cosmos.

Unitive experiences are always unconsciously dyadic. Just as self exists and is defined psychologically only in relation to others, so mystical unity exists and is defined experientially only in relation to the absolutely Transcendent. One cannot experience self as transcendent, unless the ideas of the self and the Transcendent have been brought to union. Conversely, experiences of self and a numinous being in a manifestly dyadic relationship may be categorized as unitive experiences. Self and other are united in a unifying relationship during experiences of the immediate presence of a numinous power, or absolution by a numinous power, etc.

So-called paranormal phenomena, such as precognition, clairvoyance, and meaningful coincidences (‘miracles’) are further varieties of unitive experience. They unite subjective fantasy with the objectivity of perceptible reality, imparting objective reality to imagined (‘extra-sensory’) perceptions (Merkur 1998, 1999).

4. The Varieties Of Alternate States

Most mystical experiences occur during states of trance. Religious trances are instances of either self-hypnosis or hetero-hypnosis. In other cases, mysticism depends on trances that occur as symptoms of hysteria, epilepsy, and other pathologies. In all cases, suggestion—either autosuggestion or heterosuggestion—is responsible for directing the trance to serve religious purposes (Arbman 1963).

An important aspect of the trance state is its ability to reify the contents of consciousness (Shor 1959). For example, a trance state is all that is necessary in order to transform a visual daydream into a waking hallucination. Instead of seeming to be imaginary, daydream images may seem during trance to be objectively existing, external realities. Trance states may similarly transform speculative ideas into delusions that have the force of firm convictions.

Trances are often termed ‘dissociative states’ because the reification of fantasies leads to a corresponding devaluation and/or denial of sense perceptions. Mystics who use trances uncritically may develop dissociative religious doctrines that reject the perceptible world in favor of transcendent realms or states, otherworldliness, asceticism, devaluation of mortal life, community, and the physical world, and asocial or anti-social behavior (Furst et al. 1976). Mystics may, however, use trance states critically, much as hypnotherapists do.

Some mystical experiences occur in a different class of alternate states that may be termed ‘reveries.’ Nonecstatic forms of reverie include daydreams, creativity, and hypnagogic states between waking and sleeping. Reveries of ecstatic intensity include ‘peak experiences,’ which typically occur spontaneously and last only a few seconds or minutes. Sensory deprivation is a means to induce reverie states that may reach ecstatic intensity. Psychedelic drugs, i.e., psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, and THC, the active factor in marijuana, similarly induce reverie states, as distinct from trances (Merkur 1993).

Both narrative and unitive ecstasies may occur in either trances or reveries. Reveries differ from trances, among other manners, in the ecstatic’s knowledge during reverie that his or her experiences are subjective and intrapsychic, rather than objective and external. They are self-evident as heuristic phenomena. Religious reveries seem subjectively to be apperceptions of truth through the medium of imagination. The experiences take form as pseudo-hallucinations and illusions, where the same narrative and unitive experiences have the force of hallucinations and delusions when they occur during trances.

5. Psychological Transformation

Mystics traditionally have sought transformations that were metaphysical in nature: magical empowerment, salvific perfections of their souls, etc. Since the 1970s, transpersonal psychologists have argued that mystical transformations have powerful psychological benefits, consistent with Maslow’s (1964) concept of ‘self-actualization.’ Some mystical practices have been shown to be beneficial developmentally (Sacks 1979, Emavardhana and Tori 1997), but others may be harmful.


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