MYSTICISM: An Experience of the Ultimate

© Barbara F. Meyers 2011. All Rights Reserved.

A sermon delivered at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation on August 21, 2011

Sermon - Mysticism: An Experience of the Ultimate

It was July 31, 1986 in the early afternoon. I was sitting in a meeting at my former employer, IBM in which my boss was trying to convince an IBM vice-president that our project should be funded. There were about 30-40 people there and there was no doubt about who the most important person in the room was. The vice-president's secretary entered the room and handed him a phone message. As she reached out her arm, I saw a halo over her head. It just lasted for a few seconds. The first thing that popped into my mind was, "God is trying to tell me something." At the time, I hadn't been to church in nearly 20 years. Not long afterward, overwhelmed by the experience and believing I was dying, I was hospitalized as being psychotic. After much reading and thinking to try and understand what had happened, I came to the conclusion that I had had a spontaneous mystical experience, a form of spiritual awakening. It took some time for me to interpret what the divine message was - that each person is important and special. When I realized this, it changed my life and eventually led me to a different career.

In my reading to understand my experience, I discovered that such experiences had happened to many pivotal religious figures throughout history. As an example, the 14th century Indian poet Kabir is said by some to be the first Indian saint to have harmonized Hinduism and Islam by preaching a universal path which both Hindus and Muslims could tread together. Many of his writings are in the holy book of the Sikhs. Kabir wrote this poem describing an experience that altered his life:

Between the Poles of the Conscious by Kabir

Between the poles of the conscious and the unconscious,
There has the mind made a swing:
Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway.
Millions of beings are there: the sun and the moon in their courses are there:
Millions of ages pass, and the swing goes on.
All swing! the sky and the earth and the air and the water;
And the Lord Himself taking form:
And the sight of this has made Kabir a servant.

Kabir saw that vision for fifteen seconds, and thereby it made him a mystic and servant for life.

Mysticism, a word that comes from the Greek and relates to the word mystery, is the pursuit of achieving communion with, or conscious awareness of, ultimate reality, the divine, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, or insight. And it is the belief that such experience is an important source of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. A common theme in mysticism is that the mystic who has the experience is One with all of reality. The purpose of mystical practices is to achieve that oneness in experience, to transcend limited identity and re-identify with the all that is.

Mysticism is at the heart of all religious systems. Mystical insights, are attained in two basic ways: either by direct, divine intervention as in the Western religions Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, or else by inward contemplation, as in the Eastern religions Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism. In any case, it is an emotional or intuitive process in which logic and reason do not play a part. To the mystic, emotions are valid cognitive tools, which represent a realm of 'higher' reality than that attained by 'mere' reason. In my case, my revelation that all people are special, and that my old self was dying, was more true and important than any rational facts of the situation. It literally changed my life, something that few facts can do.

Ralph Waldo Emerson the 19th century Unitarian defined three characteristics of mysticism:

First, mystical knowledge is mysterious and not within our power to completely grasp. He wrote, "Man is a stream whose source is hidden."

Second, mysticism involves some sense of knowing or joining with an ultimate reality, whether God as we understand that word, or whether connection with another person.

Thirdly, Emerson believed that we cannot create mystical experiences or bring them about. They come in their own time.

Mysticism can arrive in: conversation, reverie, remorse, passion, surprise, dreams, meditation, prayer, contemplation, asceticism, chanting, dancing, running, drugs, and nature. And, as we saw with Kabir, and as is true of many other mystics, a vision/feeling lasting a few seconds can change lifetime.

Mysticism appears directly in our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources. Take a look at the sources on the page before Hymn #1 in the hymnal. The 1st Source of truth and wisdom is: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life." And look at the 7th Principle: "The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." Both of these are direct reflections of the truths of mysticism. So, it is definitely part of the principles upon which our denominational rests.

When one studies different religious traditions looking for evidence of mysticism, it quickly becomes clear that the founders of all of the major world religions were mystics. There is something about this experience that it gives these founders who experienced it a very strong vision of Ultimate Reality that led them to articulate and establish a new religious tradition. Here are some examples:

In Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hindu and Taoism mystical insight comes from developing one's intuition by reflective contemplation, or meditation.

Buddhism: Siddhartha Gautama was a spiritual teacher who lived in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE who founded a religion we know as Buddhism. He became Enlightened as the Buddha after meditating for many days under a Bodhi tree in a place called Bodh Gaya. In this meditation he saw many of what we would classify as mystical visions, and came to a complete insight into the cause of human suffering, and the steps necessary to eliminate it. These discoveries became known as the "Four Noble Truths," which are at the heart of Buddhist teaching. It should be noted that Buddhism does not dictate that there is a God, merely that people should study the truths that the Buddha preached. So, we have an instance of mysticism that is not directly related to knowing "God" - rather to knowing and living a life to eliminate human suffering, as was revealed to the Buddha in his mystical meditation experience.

Taoism: In China, the religion of Taoism was founded by, Lao Tzu a Chinese Mystic, who lived in the 4th century BCE. Here is a poem that is part of the Tao Te Ching written by Lao Tsu, the text that is fundamental to Taoism. Tao means Way.

The Nature of the Way ... from the Tao Te Ching

The Way is a void,
Used but never filled:
An abyss it is,
From which all things come.
It blunts sharpness,
Resolves tangles;
It tempers light,
Subdues turmoil.
A deep pool it is,
Never to run dry!
Whose offspring it may be
I do not know:
It is like a preface to God.

Taoist theology emphasizes mystical themes, found in the Tao Te Ching, of naturalness, vitality, peace, non-action emptiness, detachment, flexibility, receptiveness, spontaneity.

Hindu: In India there is a rich tradition of mystics creating traditions within the spiritual discipline of Yoga. These traditions often have a mantra which was revealed mystically to the founding guru and has been handed down through a lineage of yogi masters. The mantras are to be repeated in meditation, leading to spiritual transformation. One of my spiritual teachers passed down to me a mantra that he had learned from a mystic who is his Hindu guru. The mantra is "Om Namah Shivaya" which is universally understood to mean something like "I honor the divinity within myself" or "I honor that which I am capable of becoming." Gatherings of followers of this guru often include a prolonged meditation in which this mantra is repeated over and over. Since learning the mantra, and sometimes using it in meditation, I find that when I am nervous and on edge, repeating the mantra can calm me down.

Western Religion: In Western religions, mystical insight tends to come from actual hearing the voice of the divine. Abraham, the father of three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, heard the voice of God commanding him to leave his native land and his father's house for a land that God would show him, promising to make of him a great nation, bless him, make his name great, bless those who blessed him, and curse those who cursed him. The Jewish people are descendant from his son Isaac, and Muslims from his son Ishmael. Jesus was a Jew and thus also a descendant of Abraham.

Judaism: The Jewish Kabbalah is a set of teachings systemized in the 11th century meant to explain the relationship between an eternal and mysterious Creator and creation. It is a set of scriptures that exist outside the traditional Jewish Scriptures and meant for study by a special esoteric group of scholars. It seeks to define the nature of the universe and the human being, the nature and purpose of existence, and various other religious questions. And it presents methods to attain spiritual realization.

The Hassidim are the modern-day mystical sect of Judaism, the men of whom you might recognize with long curled side-burns, black cloaks and hats. The Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, founder of Hassidic Judaism in the 1700s, created a faith characterized by a panentheistic conception of God. That is, he declared the whole universe, mind and matter, to be a manifestation of the Divine Being; that this manifestation is not an emanation from God, as is the conception of the Kabbalah, for nothing can be separated from God: all things are rather forms in which God reveals Himself. The worship life of the Hassidim is characterized by a joyful spirituality, the immanence of the Divine giving value to prayer and gratefulness for everything.

Islam: Mohammed, the founder of Islam had mystical experiences in which the Koran was revealed to him. Sufism is the mystical sect in Islam. One of the most prominent Sufis is Rumi, a 13th century Muslim Persian poet, mystic, jurist and theologian. He wrote the quote at top of your order of service: "What you seek is seeking you." The general theme of Rumi's thought, like that of other mystic and Sufi poets of Persian literature, is union with his beloved from which he has been cut off, and his longing and desire to restore it. He believed passionately in the use of music, poetry, and dance as a path for reaching God. For him, music helped devotees to focus their whole being on the divine, and to do this so intensely that the soul was both destroyed and resurrected. It was from these ideas that the practice of "whirling" dervishes developed into a ritual form.

Sufism is widely referred to as the inner dimension of Islam. Though smaller than other Islamic sects, the Sunnis and the Shi'a, it exists in widespread areas of the world, including a group that meets in Fremont.

Christianity: In Christianity, Jesus had truths revealed to him, and both Roman Catholicism and various Protestant sects have a rich tradition of Mysticism. In Roman Catholicism, mystics include St. Teresa, St. John the Divine, St. Francis, Meister Eckhart, and Julian of Norwich, (the song for our interlude). Meister Eckhart's most famous single quote, "The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me", is commonly cited by thinkers within neo-paganism and some Buddhist sects as a point of contact between these traditions and Christian mysticism.

Julian of Norwich who lived in the 14th century and wrote the words of our Interlude, is thought of as one of the most important English mystics. The truth that was revealed to her was that love lasts forever and all will be well.

In Protestantism, the Quakers, the Moravians, and the Brethren have clear mystical roots. Here is a quote from George Fox, the originator of The Society of Friends, the Quakers that describes what it felt like for him to have a mystical experience: "I saw also that there was an ocean or darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God..." "All things were new; and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter."

History of Mysticism within UUism

Mysticism has its clearest effect on Unitarianism through Ralph Waldo Emerson and the 19th century Unitarian Transcendentalists, Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), Henry Ware, and Henry David Thoreau. They stressed the importance of the individual experience of the divine, frequently finding its expression in nature.

The contemporary UU minister Tom Owen-Towle calls UUs Free Thinking Mystics with Hands, or engaged Mysticism. We commune with the holy to find inspiration and direction, and then engage in the world to make it a better place to live for all Beings.

Our Transcendentalist forebears believed, we ought to be able to maintain our rational powers while also freely accepting and sharing our experiences of those transcendent moments of reverence, mysticism and unity.

You might think that with our tradition of humanism and honoring the path of the atheist and agnostic, that UUs would have a difficult time reconciling the mystical and the rational. Charles Francis Potter, a 20th century Unitarian Humanist deeply appreciated the importance of mystical experience, but he thought that it can be interpreted naturally, and not as having come from God. What is important, he maintained, is the experience of peace, unity and clarity, not the particular theological explanation that one might put on it.

Mystics and Mad Men

William Blake - the 19th century poet and painter had many mystical experiences. He wrote the words to the Hymn #398 in our hymnal, To See the World. Blake was widely thought by his contemporaries to be mad.

That brings us to the often discussed subject of what is a mystic experience and what is madness. One could listen what a mystic would describe as an experience of God, and notice that it has similarities to the hallucinations that a psychotic person experiences. What is the truth? How do we tell the difference? Is it important to do so? These are questions that I struggle with in my ministry. When I try to distinguish between mental health issues and spiritual awakening, I ask:

- Does the person describe the experience as mystical, as near death, as a revelation of a universal religious truth, as finding who he or she really is?

- Does the person have a curiosity about the experience?

When the answers are yes, and the experience has been helpful to the person, I believe it is an experience of the holy and needs to be respected and honored as such. Clearly, in my case, the "psychotic" experience was beneficial and life-changing to me. It set me on a truer path for my life.

If any of you have had mystical experiences and would like to share them, I'd love to talk to you about what they have meant for your life.

I'll close with William Blake's words from Hymn #398:

To see the world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wildflower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

So it was.
So it is.
So it will be.


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