Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Wikipedia.
Related to mysticism: Sufism, Islamic Mysticism


mysticism (mĭsˈtĭsĭzəm) [Gr.,=the practice of those who are initiated into the mysteries], the practice of putting oneself into, and remaining in, direct relation with God, the Absolute, or any unifying principle of life. Mysticism is inseparably linked with religion. Because of the nature of mysticism, firsthand objective studies of it are virtually impossible, and students must confine themselves to the accounts of mystics, autobiographical and biographical, or, as the mystics themselves say, they must experience for themselves. The terms mystic and mysticism are used very broadly in English, being extended to mean magic, occultism, or the esoteric.

The Nature of Mysticism

There are certain common fallacies current about mysticism: that mystics are not “practical” and that they are revolutionary; on the contrary, many of the greatest mystics have been both intensely active as well as submissive to authority of whatever sort. Nor is the “solitary thinker” necessarily, or even usually, a mystic. There is no accepted explanation of mysticism, and few psychologists have interested themselves in its practice. William James studied the nature of mysticism but reached no conclusion that satisfied him. A significant philosophical evaluation of mysticism was made by Henri Bergson.

There are two general tendencies in the speculation of mystics—to regard God as outside the soul, which rises to its God by successive stages, or to regard God as dwelling within the soul and to be found by delving deeper into one's own reality. The idea of transcendence, as held most firmly by mystics, is the kernel of the ancient mystical system, Neoplatonism, and of Gnosticism. Their explanation of the connection between God and humans by emanation is epoch-making in the philosophy of contemplation. Among those who think of God, or the Supreme Reality, as being within the soul are the Quakers (see Friends, Religious Society of) and the adherents of Vedanta.

The language of mysticism is always difficult and usually symbolic. This is readily seen in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, in the book of Revelation in the New Testament, and in the writings of William Blake. Mystics, especially those of the Roman Catholic and the Islamic traditions, have made use of a terminology borrowed from ordinary human love. A conventional analysis is as follows: The soul undergoes a purification (the purgative way), which leads to a feeling of illumination and greater love of God (the illuminative way); after a period the soul may be said to enter into mystical union with God (the unitive way), which begins with the consciousness that God is present to the soul; the soul progresses through a time of quiet and an ecstatic state to a final perfect state of union with God (spiritual marriage). Late in this process there is an experience (the dark night of the soul) wherein the contemplative finds himself completely deserted by God, by hope, and, indeed, even by the power to pray; it lasts sometimes for years.

Visions, voices, ecstasies may accompany any or none of the states of contemplation before the final union. It is because of these external and nonessential manifestations that the erroneous idea has arisen that all enthusiastic and nonintellectual religious movements are necessarily mystical. The positive convictions of the mystic arise from the fact that they are based on what he or she must regard as objective reality directly perceived.

Great Mystics and Mystical Traditions

Among the principal contemplatives of Christianity from post-Apostolic times to the Reformation are Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Augustine, the false Dionysius the Areopagite, Cassian, St. Gregory I, Eriugena, St. Peter Damian, St. Anselm, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Joachim of Fiore, Richard of Saint Victor, Hugh of Saint Victor, Hadewijch, St. Gertrude, St. Francis, Jacopone da Todi, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, Ramon Lull, Dante, Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck, Groote, Thomas à Kempis, Nicholas of Cusa, Rolle of Hampole, Walter Hilton, Juliana of Norwich, Margery Kempe, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catherine of Siena, Gerson, St. Bernardine of Siena, and St. Joan of Arc. The Catholic tradition was continued by St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Theresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Theresa of Lisieux. Orders that have given their name to types of mysticism are Carmelites, Carthusians, and Cistercians.

Among great Protestant mystics are Jakob Boehme and George Fox, founder of Quakerism, the foremost Protestant mystical movement. In the 17th and 18th cent. much literature of the contemplative life was written by the metaphysical poets and by Henry More, William Law, and others. Extremes in post-Reformation mysticism are seen in Jansenism (see under Jansen, Cornelis) and in quietism; and Emanuel Swedenborg may be regarded as a Protestant mystic. Also included in the mystic tradition were the Hermetic philosophers and the Alchemists.

In Judaism the mystical tradition represented by the kabbalah was continued in the modern Hasidism. For Islamic mysticism, see Sufism; al-Ghazali; Farid ad-Din Attar; Jalal ad-Din Rumi; Muin ad-Din Hasan Chishti; Hafiz; Jami; Sadi. For Hindu mysticism, see Vedanta; yoga; Aurobindo Ghose; Chinmoy Ghose; Dayananda Saraswati; Ramakrishna; Vivekananda; Yogananda. For Buddhism, see Zen Buddhism; Buddha; Milarepa; Daisetz Suzuki. See also Taoism.


See R. M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (1909, repr. 1970); S. N. Dasgupta, Hindu Mysticism (1927, repr. 1959); E. A. Peers, Studies of the Spanish Mystics (3 vol., 1927–60); E. Underhill, Mysticism (rev. ed. 1930, repr. 1961); J. de Marquette, Introduction to Comparative Mysticism (1949); D. T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (1957, repr. 1971); W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (1960); R. C. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (1960, repr. 1969); G. G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed. 1961); D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (1961); E. O'Brien, Varieties of Mystical Experience (1964); E. C. Butler, Western Mysticism (3d ed. 1967); L. H. Bridges, American Mysticism (1970); G. Parrinder, Mysticism in the World's Religions (1976); D. R. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism: A Biography of Rama Krishna (1985).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) A frame of mind and a teaching based on the idea that true reality is beyond reason and is perceived only in an intuitive, ecstatic (that is, mystical) way. As a philosophical doctrine, mysticism is a type of intuitionism and irrationalism.

(2) A religious practice whose goal is the ecstatic experience of direct “union” with the absolute; also, the totality of theological and philosophical doctrines that seek to justify, explain, and regulate this practice.

The world views on which mysticism is based differ sharply, depending on social conditions and religious practices. In orthodox theistic systems, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the absolute is a personal god, and union with him is a dialogic “communion” which requires the consent of the partner and which, therefore, cannot be mechanically attained by unilateral efforts.

“Communing” is often reinterpreted by heresies as “becoming one with.” In the tenth century the Muslim mystic al-Halladj was executed for saying, while in a state of ecstasy, “I am the Truth” (that is, “I am god”). In nontheistic mystical systems an impersonal, transcendent principle (for example, the Tao of Taoism, the Sunyata of Buddhism, and “the One” of Neoplatonism) takes the place of the personal god.

However, all mystical doctrines have certain common features. They all tend toward irrationalism, intuitionism, and deliberate paradoxicality. They express themselves not so much in the language of concepts as in the language of symbols, focusing on death, which symbolizes an experience that destroys the previous structures of consciousness. Mystics from all historical periods, all peoples, and all faiths insist in almost the same words on the complete impossibility of conveying the meaning of mysticism except in inadequate metaphors or utter silence (the “noble silence” of the Buddhists, for example). In Christianity the theology of mysticism is termed negative, or apophatic, because it describes god by means of negatives, excluding any mention of positive characteristics.

The practice of mysticism presupposes a system of psycho-physical exercises, such as dhyana and yoga in Indian mystical systems or the umnoe delanie (inward activity) of Russian Orthodox monks. Usually, these exercises involve hypnotic concentration on very simple figures (the yantra and mandala in Indian tradition and the cross in Christianity), on simple combinations of words (the mantras of Hinduism, the “Jesus prayer” in Russian Orthodoxy, and the short prayers [ejaculations] repeated thousands of times in Catholicism), or even on individual words. Optimal body positions and breath control are also recommended for meditation in some mystical systems, such as yoga and hesychasm. Techniques are extremely diverse, ranging from the frenetic dance of the dervishes to the serenity of Christian ascetics. In any case, mysticism cannot do without the psychological techniques of asceticism, or of asceticism turned inside out, as in satanism and some forms of gnosticism and tantrism, in which the ritualized violation of ethical and sacred prohibitions is supposed to create the preconditions for psychological shock and entry into a trance. Since mysticism presupposes the experiencing of unfamiliar psychological states, the novice has only to entrust himself blindly to the guidance of the “initiated.” Thus, teachers play an important role in mysticism (the guru in Hinduism, the pir in Sufism, the starets [an old monk] in hesy-chasm, and the zaddik in Hasidism).

The shamanistic, orgiastic cults of remote antiquity, the goal of which was the ecstatic elimination of the distance between man and the world of the spirits or gods, are the historical analogues and prototypes of modern mysticism. Nonetheless, mysticism proper did not originate until religious speculation approached the concept of a transcendent absolute and the development of logic made possible the conscious retreat from logic into mysticism. Therefore, mysticism flowered first in countries that had a philosophical and logical culture: India (the Vedanta), China (Taoism), and to some extent, Greece (Pythagoreanism and Platonism). Later waves of mysticism, which generally crossed national and official religious boundaries, were characteristic of periods of social crisis. The fall of the Roman Empire in the first centuries A.D. was marked by the rise of mystery cults, Neoplatonism, early Christianity, gnosticism, and Manichaeism; the end of the Middle Ages in the 13th and 14th centuries, by the spread of Sufism, cabalism, hesychasm, and the teachings of Joachim of Flora and of J. Eckhart and his followers; and the development of early capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries, by the rise of circles of Jansenists, Quietists, Methodists, Pietists, Quakers, Hasidim, and flagellants. Under certain historical conditions mysticism was a form of protest against the clerical and social hierarchy. It played such a role in the world view of the plebeian sects during the Peasants’ War in Germany. Under other social conditions the paradoxes of mysticism have inspired idealistic dialectics. For example, commenting on the development of mystical ideas in classical German idealism, F. Engels referred to the German mystic J. Boehme as “the forerunner of future philosophers.” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 18, p. 574).

Confronted with the crisis of contemporary bourgeois society, many semi-intellectuals have adopted eclectic, pseudoscientific systems of mysticism unrelated to any organized religion (theosophy and anthroposophy), as well as extremely vulgarized practices of obtaining “mystical experience,” ranging from old-fashioned spiritualistic seances to the frenzies of the hippies. Mystical motifs are characteristic of many schools of contemporary idealistic philosophy and are encountered even in such rationalistic, scientistic schools as logical positivism, which is defined by L. Wittgenstein in a number of his statements as a type of apophatic mysticism analogous to the “noble silence” of the Buddhists.

Marxism-Leninism regards mysticism as a flight from the contradictions of man’s social existence and as a perverted reflection of the real world that is irreconcilable with a scientific, materialistic world view.


Engels, F. Krest’ianskaia voina v Germanii In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7.
Otto, R. West-östliche Mystik, 2nd ed. Gotha, 1929.
Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist. London, 1957.
Scholem, G. Die judische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen. Zurich, 1957.

S. S. AVERINTSEV [16–985–1; 16–987–2]

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.



Mysticism has become a highly imprecise term, partially because various popular writers have come to associate it with the occult and anything “mysterious.” Originally, mysticism was a purely religious concept, referring to the experience of the direct union of the individual soul with the divine. Thus, people like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Rumi, and a host of others were mystics in this pure sense. All true mystics would make a sharp distinction between the dream state and the state of divine union. For example, the Upanishads, a Hindu scripture that deals with mystical union, distinguishes between our normal waking state, the dream state, dreamless sleep, and the “fourth” state (i.e., the state of union with the godhead). Mystics do, however, often have visions and vivid spiritual dreams related to their quest for union with the divine. Thus, while it is not incorrect to associate dreams with mysticism, the dream state and the mystical state should never be confused.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Jewish oral traditions, originating with Moses. [Judaism: Benét, 154]
Catherine of Siena, St.
experienced visions from age seven. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 59]
magical priests of Celtic religion; oak cult. [Celtic Rel.: Leach, 325; Jobes, 471]
Hudson, Dr. Wayne
believed power obtained by good deeds and silence. [Am. Lit.: The Magnificent Obsession, Magill I, 547–549]
mothers, the
keepers of the bodiless spirits of all who have lived; they supply Faust with an image of Helen of Troy. [Ger. Lit.: Faust]
letterboard reveals messages from spirits. [Am. Pop. Culture: Brewer Dictionary, 788]
Hungarian hypnotist, mesmerizes artist’s model who becomes a famous singer under his influence. [Br. Lit.: Trilby]
of Ávila, St. religious contemplation brought her spiritual ecstasy. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 318]
religious beliefs and practices from the West Indies. [Am. Cult.: Brewer Dictionary]
Buddhist sect; truth found in contemplation and self-mastery. [Buddhism: Brewer Dictionary, 1174]
Zohar, The
cabalistic reinterpretation of the Bible. [Judaism: Haydn & Fuller, 812]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a system of contemplative prayer and spirituality aimed at achieving direct intuitive experience of the divine
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
The prime minister said establishment of such an institution in that regard was of paramount importance where comprehensive discussion and genuine research about the services of Sufia-e-Kiram and mysticism could be done.
Director General of Iran Culture Centre Razai Fard highlighted the depth and strength of Iran Pakistan's cultural, historical, religious relations and declared that mysticism is the binding force among different culture and boundaries.
Critique: An ideal instructional resource and reference for spirituality coaches, Lightworkers, Healers, and Spiritual Directors, as well as all Spirituality seekers, "The Eagle's View: Five Steps to Modern Mysticism" is decidedly and unreservedly recommended for personal, community, and academic library Metaphysical Science/Spiritual Growth collections and supplemental studies reading lists.
Treatment of feminine participants in the practice of mysticism in this period continues in Arthur F.
Critique: An inherently fascinating and thoroughly absorbing read from beginning to end, "Alchemy & Mysticism" is a richly illustrated and exceptionally informative study that is very highly recommended and certain to be an enduringly popular addition to personal, community, and academic library Metaphysical Sciences reference collections and supplemental studies reading lists.
The purpose of traditional healer training is to give the apprentices competence as the community philosopher, the medical science practitioner and the expert in mysticism. As a philosopher, the student healer is trained to be a thinker with a high understanding of the nature and purpose of life.
As early as the 1890s, pioneering thinkers in Latin America were already forming part of this nascent Zeitgeist by formalizing the intellectual value of non-theistic mysticism through their writings.
Mysticism and Spirituality, Part I, Mysticism, Fullness of Life.
In Chapter Two Lazenby contends that the topic of mysticism and Woolf has not been given sufficient critical attention and argues this is because both Woolf's contemporaries and later critics adopted a definition of the mystical that is partial or incorrect.
After the spate of studies from the 1970s to the 1990s, the well of Borges and Jewish mysticism seems to have run dry.
Jewish mysticism is shown to have much in common with counterparts in Islam, perhaps opening roads to dialogue.
This paper endeavors to bring into light the unity of knowledge and action under the domain of mysticism with special focus on Ali Hujwiri's most celebrated book Kashf al Mahjub.