The Mystical Is Often Metaphorical

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the term “mystical,” whether from a religious practice or simply from an investigation into the subject generally, can usually agree that it includes a whole range of possible experiences which may qualify.  In his classic volume, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James writes:

“The adjective ‘mystical’ is technically applied, most often, to states that are of brief duration…They are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are…if you do have them, and have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief.”   

In Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, mystical is defined in this way:

“Of or relating to mysticism, spiritually true or real in a way which transcends man’s reason.”

There are as many different interpretations of what constitutes “spiritually true,” as there are of what might be described as “transcending man’s reason,” over the whole history of human thought, and it’s easy to get bogged down in the variety of ideas available, but in reviewing a number of different sources for this blog post, I looked for explanations that resonated with my general understanding, and which felt close to echoing my own recollections of mystical events in my own experience.

One such source I encountered was a volume entitled, “The Essential Mystics,” collected by Andrew Harvey—one of the nation’s most celebrated authorities on mysticism—which presents examples from a wide range of essential texts on the subject.  Andrew writes:

“Mystical experience is the direct, unmediated experience of what Bede Griffiths beautifully describes as ‘…the presence of an almost unfathomable mystery…which seems to be drawing me to itself.’ This mystery is beyond name and form; no name or form, no dogma, philosophy, or set of rituals can ever express it fully.  It always transcends anything that can be said of it and remains always unstained by any of our human attempts to limit or exploit it.”

For some, this approach of limiting what can be said about the mystical in trying to describe it, inevitably lends itself to the application of metaphorical references when describing an actual mystical event.  My own account of one such event, which occurred one day while assigned to training in California as a young soldier, appeared in a posting from February of 2014  entitled, “Two Worlds Merge:”

“Suddenly, without warning, I was overcome by joy. I felt an overwhelming sense of inner peace and confidence that was astonishing given my inability to move. The sun was filtering through the trees as before, only now the beams of light seemed to glow brilliantly—more than I would expect. The leaves and the grass became luminously green.  It seemed that all of my senses were heightened beyond the usual levels. I started to laugh. I felt giddy. I felt the blood running through my veins and arteries. I went limp and laid back on the ground.  It seemed I could sense the rotation of the Earth. It felt almost as though my spirit was being pulled out of my body; as though gravity had suddenly increased.  After a few minutes, I was able to turn my head and noticed that there was absolutely no movement anywhere around me.  I was totally alone, but felt as though I was part of everything.  I was euphoric with absolutely no cause that I could discern.  I have no idea how long this sensation lasted, but once it seemed to lessen in its intensity, I was able to stand. It felt silly to be giggling like a child, but I couldn’t help it.”

Afterwards, I referred to the memories evoked by this event as being “set in my heart and mind as are the great stones buried deep within the mantle of the world, and as formidable as the roots of the mighty oak that hold so firmly to their place through the relentless passage of time.”

“Christian mystics emphasize “presence.” They believe that consciousness or awareness of God’s presence, rather than actual experiences of his presence, defines mystical activity. This awareness can lead to new ways of knowing the divine and translating that knowledge into love for one another. In a turn of phrase, this “presence” became known as “religious experience” in the work of William James. Religious experience reiterates the importance of mysticism in helping Christianity to ward off secular and scientific critiques.”

–Jeremy Bradley from

In “Mysticism: An Essay on the History of the Word,” French scholar Louis Bouyer says it refers to closing the eyes, while other sources suggest it refers to keeping your mouth shut. In fact, both of these meanings make sense. Yet another source suggests the word means “to initiate into the mysteries,” hence “to instruct.” Mysticism thus involves shutting, closing, and hiddenness, but also initiation, learning a secret, and keeping your mouth shut long enough to listen for what’s really going on…that important essay by Louis Bouyer, “Mysticism: An Essay on the History of the Word” is found in an old anthology called Understanding Mysticism.

–excerpt from

Throughout my investigation into the mystical through the years, it has often been the case, where even in the various cultures and religious traditions, a kind of universal experience can be found, in spite of the specific cultural influences.  Once again, Andrew Harvey puts it all in perspective:

“The Christian revelation at its richest contains and reflects the Kogi and Hopi knowledge of the interconnection of all life, the Taoist sense of organic balance and the mysterious conjunction of opposites, the Hindu awareness of the grandeur of the soul, the Buddhist devotion to compassion and clear ethical living, the Jewish awe at the unutterable holiness of God and the sacredness of ordinary life, the Greek adoration of divine beauty, and the Islamic passion for God as the Beloved.”

All across the spectrum of religious and spiritual beliefs, as well as within the community of secular philosophy and psychology studying these spiritual phenomena, we see why we often must defer to a more metaphorical approach when attempting to describe or explain the mystical, since our awareness of the life within us, sometimes referred to as “the soul,” or “the human spirit,” are themselves only an inference of something beyond the physical, even without a religious connotation.

British poet and essayist, Frederic W. H. Myers, in an essay on “Subliminal Consciousness,” wrote:

“Each of us is, in reality, an abiding psychical entity far more extensive than he knows—an individuality which can never express itself completely through any corporeal manifestation.  The Self manifests through the organism; but there is always some part of the Self un-manifested; and always, as it seems, some power of the organic expression in abeyance or reserve.”  

While all of our individual experiences of our everyday temporal life can have visible causes and consequences, and be described in terms that most people can appreciate generally, regardless of whatever talents and shortcomings we bring to them, the experience of the mystical, when it occurs, appears to be fairly universal in character and consequences, based on the many accounts of such events across a wide range of epochs and human cultures.

Next time: “The Man, The Myth, The Legend”

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