Is it possible to escape “spiritual” or “mystical” experience? “Mysticism” is an uncomfortable word for many of us, but it has the same root and probably the same experiential source as mystery. Mystery will be there as long as there are things larger than us, things that are significant and beyond our comprehension. Some things seem irreducibly mysterious. For example, nobody has ever found a way to explain conscious experience as the outcome of an analytically understandable process. Some things are just too large to understand, like the whole of history and our place in it. We must relate to all of this, somehow, but … how? Mysticism is an ancient answer, and one definition of the term is:

1. The belief that … the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.

So, put simply, one meaning of mysticism is simply the belief that contemplation is a route to a particular kind of knowledge. Such knowledge might be consciousness of a starry sky that is so full it makes us tremble. Or perhaps it might be the realization, really beyond words, that has made spiritual people say something like “all humans are sisters and brothers.”

Contemplation of mystery has a particular feeling, which we all know, which hints that something particular must be going on during the experience of it at a biological level (this is confirmed by neuroscience which shows different brain areas active during religious experience and analytical thought.) Darwin leads us to suspect that each of our unique capacities has some purpose or role to play in our continued existence. Perhaps the ability to contemplate deals with what reason just cannot. Perhaps contemplation and mysticism are awkward to talk about because they deal with the things that words cannot. All of this sounds good, even reasonable, but leaves the question of why the word “mystical” leaves a bad taste in so many mouths. We need look no further than the second definition of mysticism:

2. Vague or ill-defined religious or spiritual belief, especially as associated with a belief in the occult

This definition feels much closer to the suspicion surrounding mystery and mystical experience. It is notable that we do not “believe” in beauty. One would not call the awesomeness of nature a belief, and neither we do not talk about our belief in sunlight, forests, or our own breath. Beliefs come in when we explain things, which is different than simply seeing or observing their nature.

Probably humans must approach mystery – we are young specks of life in an ancient and inconceivably large world. But, after encountering mystery, we can either resolve to spend more time in its presence, learning, or avoid mystery by trying to explain it. The impulse to simply dwell in, versus grasp, mystery separates the two senses of word mysticism. There is also plenty in Western tradition to suggest that dwelling in mystery is useful. As Einstein famously said:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am a truly religious man.*

So, how to rekindle our relationship with mystery? If to learn from mystery is to reach beyond reason, maybe explanations are not helpful. More useful would be a cultural space in which to explore and reassert the worth of dwelling in mystery without judgement, and with awareness that our relationship with mystery is bound up with our relationship to particular religions. And this space must exist, even within a civilisation that has harbored hopes that science and reason can answer all our questions (implying that mystery is unnecessary).

These hopes to escape mystery have failed, and various strands of science lead us to be sure that they will continue to fail.1 However, the injunction to “stop thinking” is not an answer – as I mentioned above, all our abilities are there for a reason, and the ability to think is no exception. What is needed is greater skill in sensing where clear explanations should stop and reliance on mystery starts, and respect for the answers that contemplation gives us in its domain.


  1. Godel’s incompleteness and various results from quantum physics provide famous exmamples. [return]

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