In a lecture given in London nearly eighty years ago, Dr Annie Besant spoke of a 'wave of mysticism passing over the world'. Such a wave seems to be apparent today, as so many people express a hunger, an inner yearning, for a genuine spiritual experience. Not satisfied with the answers which either science or religion has to offer, many have sought out teachers, gurus, psychics of varying degrees of reliability, anyone who seems to promise fulfilment of an inner need. At the same time, science today seems to be pointing beyond itself or at least beyond its materialistic boundaries to what we might call a 'meta-science' which admits the possibility that consciousness may be primary. And in many religious traditions, there has been a re-awakening to the esoteric wisdom hidden within the outer forms, an esoteric wisdom which by its very nature participates in the mystical.
The philosopher of religion, Hans Jonas, has suggested that there exists a historical sequence of development that leads from objectification, as he calls it, to interiorization. He refers specifically to the movement from religious knowledge or theory to the subjective inhabiting of the framework which such theory provides. In his view, one generation's conceptual structure becomes the next generation's guide to inner transformation. This is to say that our ideas, our beliefs, all that constitutes our basic world-view must become known experience in such a manner as to bring about a radical change in our lives.
Such a sequential development, however, is not only a development from generation to generation, but must occur within us in a kind of continual pattern of assimilation. Every great teacher, for example, has recognized the need to translate objective theory into practical experience. Theosophy itself, we may say, is not only a magnificent, internally consistent, coherent and all-embracing philosophy, founded on such basic principles as unity, periodicity, lawfulness, etc., principles which can be elucidated in books and study courses, it is also a way of life, a mode of being, a transformative path. No single definition of Theosophy will ever suffice to encompass the totality of wisdom the very term represents. To put the matter another way, we may suggest that from being a noun, Theosophy as the one Wisdom-Religion, as H.P. Blavatsky called it, must become a verb, a process which we are or should be continually experiencing.
A book very recently published, The Search for the Pearl, focuses on what the sub-title of the work calls 'A Personal Exploration of Science and Mysticism'. The author, Dr Gillian Ross, holds degrees in anthropology and behavioral science, but relinquished an academic career to work with holistic philosophies and practices, including yoga and meditation. As she writes in her introduction, 'This book is about our loss of the Tao and the path to its rediscovery'.
Essentially the experience which we may call mystical is the experience of our interconnectedness. Above all, as Dr Ross discovered in her exploration, [cf. her work, The Search for the Pearl] the mystic vision is an 'experience of the heart', and as such, to quote Dr Ross further, 'Mysticism and compassion are inseparable'. The vision that transforms becomes indeed transformative. Because we are the world, to put the matter simply, the vision that transforms us transforms the world. In our interconnectedness, the consciousness of each must reflect itself in the consciousness of all. Human transformation arises out of the transformation of individuals.
Speaking on 'The Meaning and Method of Mysticism', since published in her little book entitled Mysticism, Dr Besant said that we do not know the world; 'we only know,' she pointed out, 'the response of consciousness to impressions made upon us from what we presume to be an external world'. One cannot help but think how Annie Besant would have rejoiced with the developments in scientific and religious thought today that are expressing the same idea, even if in different language. The 'response of consciousness', to which Dr Besant referred, is determined by the level at which consciousness is functioning. There are, as she pointed out and we can certainly verify for ourselves, the impressions that come from the senses; further, there are those impressions which arouse feeling, while another set of impressions give rise to thoughts and ideas. The union of all these impressions--sensuous, emotional, mental--spell the 'world' for us.
But is this all there is to the world? Do we not all have experiences that speak to us of something greater than the sum of these various impressions? Annie Besant described it in these words:
A presence which in our quietest, our noblest, our purest moments, is more perceptible than in the rush and turmoil of the world; ...something so great that it enfolds our whole nature; something so profound that we know that nothing in our own nature is alien from it.One of the problems that inevitably arises is that of differentiating authentic mystical experiences from subjective and imaginary fantasies. Such a problem is due, at least in part, in the confusion of visionary content with mystical awareness. Visionary experiences may and often do point toward the mystical experience, but they do not necessarily do so. Authentic mystical experience implies a complete transcendence of any separate self sense and therefore an awakening to an awareness of non-duality. No one can deny the transformative nature of such awareness. At the same time, such an awareness--the awareness of non-duality or true unity--becomes grounded in the rational.
Dr Erich Newman, one of the foremost successors to Dr Carl Jung, once proposed that the human being is essentially homo mysticus, which is simply to say that the ground of our being is in that inexpressible reality which has been termed, in theosophical literature, the Atman. The mystical experience or vision is none other than the realization that Atman is Brahman, or in Upanishadic terms, tat tvam asi. That thou art.
While the experience, then, is immediate and by its very nature unitive, there may be defined both a development progression and the unique characteristic which are present at every stage in the developmental process. As Dr Neuman suggested, the true development of consciousness occurs through archetypal encounters which give a mystical stamp to the inner development of every person. Further, he proposed, it is possible to see the major phases of the life cycle in terms of the growth of mystical consciousness. The characteristics of the mystical vision or experience are the same at each stage, while at the same time there is a development of consciousness within the life pattern of each incarnation. Three major stages may be identified as early or source mysticism, associated with childhood, a zenith mysticism identified with maturity, and a last stage or death mysticism characteristic of the individual who has truly 'died' to the separated self, the one we often describe as liberated.
While these stages may be viewed as sequential, in the development of consciousness, they may also be seen as simultaneously present. From the sequential point of view, source mysticism extends back into that unknown sphere or the realm of the unconscious before the emergence of any sense of a separate 'I'. Zenith mysticism is experienced in those transcendent moments when the 'I' is not present, while death or immortality mysticism is the realization of the One without a second and is indeed the experience of the extinguishing of any sense of a separate self. Perceived as simultaneously present within us, these stages constitute the totality of our experiences of pure Being.
The mark of authenticity of the mystic vision, however, lies neither in some clearly demarcated progression in the growth of consciousness nor in some collective listing of characteristics of the mystical experience, but rather in the transformative impact which even a partial experience of the unitive state has upon our ordinary lives. All too often, visionary experiences end up being used in the service of ego-centered goals; the mystic vision not only results in an inner sense of renewal and peace, but even more profoundly in an outpouring of love and compassion for the suffering of the world. Quite simply, the authentic mystical experience tends to manifest in ordinary life as ethical behavior founded on a genuine realization, far more substantial than theory, that all life is one.
Annie Besant, in concluding her lecture on 'The Meaning and Method of Mysticism', referred to this essential transformative nature of the experience:
That is the splendor of the mystic life, this power of service which only this inner form of realization can possibly give to any one of us.... We are climbing towards it as we begin to understand something of its possibilities, as we live a little of the truth we know.... If you would become a mystic...never pretend to believe a truth which you are not willing to act out in the world...for truth is only truth when you have learned to live it.The mystic vision, then, may be said to constitute an in-break of the creative-sacred into our lives, in our immediate, existential, situation in such a manner as to cause an out-break of genuine and unconditional love for all beings. One writer has stated that the individual who has had such an experience, the authentic mystic vision of unity, must respond to a new calling, the truly human vocation, 'to serve the fullness of time and the brotherhood of humanity in the historical creation of an optimal way of life' which is a way of peace and happiness for all. From such a point of view, the mystic is the redeemer, self-redeemed and so the redeemer of the world. Or, as Hugh l'Anson Fausset, in his beautiful little work, The Lost Dimension, has expressed it, 'To be human is to bring the Kingdom of Light down to earth and to raise up earth to heaven.'
Mysticism for the mystic, however, is not an occasional experience; it is a life surrendered to the mystery behind the ordinary. In that surrender, the ordinary becomes miraculous. As the well-known Zen Buddhist saying has it: 'Before enlightenment, trees are trees and mountains are mountains. After enlightenment, trees are still trees and mountains are still mountains.' For convenience, we speak of a progress or path, but in actuality there is neither progress nor path. There is, if we may characterize it in any way at all, an ongoing and continual surrendering of intellectual knowledge to heart-wisdom, a continual awareness in the midst of daily existence of that mystery which animates the entire cosmos and which makes us all of one family.
I am reminded of the statement by the Buddhist scholar, Robert Gimello:
The mysticism of any particular mystic is really the whole pattern of his life. The rare and wonderful 'peaks' of experience are part of that pattern, but only a part, and their real value lies only in their relation to the other parts, to his thought, his moral values, his conduct towards others, his character and personality, etc.It is precisely in the relation of every part of our lives to the total pattern of our existence--our thoughts, feelings, actions, our moral and ethical values, our conduct toward others including animals, the environment, all the relationships we can think of--the relation of these to the total pattern of our being, that the authenticity of the vision reveals itself. Or, as the pseudo-Dionysius is said to have stated, 'We must not only learn the truth, we must suffer it.' We may paraphrase this to mean that we must not only have the vision of unity, we must carry that awareness into every aspect of our lives, because the totality of our lives--our entire life pattern--has been transformed by the unitive experience.
(from 'Mysticism and its Contexts' in Mysticism and Religious Traditions, edited by Steven Katz)
Not only what we see in the world, however, but how we see it determines how we will act toward all things. Using H.P. Blavatsky's definition of world, as the individual 'living in his personal nature', we begin to understand why the mystical vision authenticates itself by the transformation that occurs in that 'personal nature'. Both the world that is the self and the world that we have thought of as not-self are transformed because we now see the underlying unity of existence. We know ourselves as part of a greater whole in which the personal self no longer clamors for attention. The whole manner of our seeing, how we look at the world, is changed. That seeing, that looking, is itself the very perception of the truth of things. But truth, as Annie Besant said, 'is only truth when you have learned to live it'.
Our human destiny, it may be said, is to know. To know fully and wholly, not simply to theorize, to have opinions, to conjecture, to believe, but really to know is to be the mystic. To know is to encounter reality at every moment of time, in every place in space. Out of that encounter, which is truly the mystic experience, arises naturally a new way of living, a way of living that is both simple and beautiful, a way that is one of commitment to the cosmos, to our fellow human beings, to life itself, a commitment of the personal self to the One Self seated in the heart of all beings. One's action is one's presence in the world and one's presence in the world is action in accord with the ethic of love, compassion, harmony. Out of our encounter with reality, with the vision of oneness, we fulfill the challenge given by Krishna to Arjuna, when the Divine spoke to the human, saying 'Be thou the efficient cause'.
Out of the vision, the experience, the moment that we call mystical, arises a new being, a transformed being, whose very life is love and compassion. In the poetic words of The Voice of the Silence, that gem of transcendental wisdom given to the world by H.P. Blavatsky, dedicated by her to the 'few real mystics' among us, we find the summation of that transformation:
Know that the stream of superhuman knowledge and the Deva-wisdom thou hast won, must, from thyself, the channel of Alaya, be poured forth into another bed.
Know...thou of the Secret Path, its pure fresh waters must be used to sweeter make the Ocean's bitter waves--that mighty sea of sorrow formed of the tears of men.
...when once thou hast become like the fix'd star in highest heaven, that bright celestial orb must shine from out the spatial depths for all--save itself; give light to all, but take from none.
Now bend thy head and listen well...Compassion speaks and saith: 'Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?'
Miss Joy Mills is former National President of the TS in Australia.