Semantics and symbolism in mystical experience
Union of opposites
Mystical experience is flanked with a communication hazard, a "polar identity." The linguistic liberties and
extravagances are part of the logical impossibility of having to describe one order of experience in terms of
another. Hence, the rhetoric of mysticism is largely one of symbols and paradoxes. The most striking of the
strategies, as the medieval Christian scholar Nicholas of Cusa put it, is coincidentia oppositorum ("union of
opposites"). Since the opposites coincide without ceasing to be themselves, this also becomes an acceptable
definition of God, or the nature of the Ground. God, said Heracleitus, is day and night, summer and winter, war
and peace, and satiety and hunger--all opposites. A 5th- to 6th-century-AD Christian mystical writer called
Dionysius the Areopagite advised people to strip off all questions in order that we may attain a naked
knowledge of that Unknowing and that we may begin to see the superessential Darkness which is hidden by the
light that is in existent things.
This use of language or view of things is obviously not normal.
Old myths and archetypes are full of examples of such dichotomy. The Zoroastrian tradition has Ormazd (the
Good Lord) and Ahriman (the Lie); the Gnostic myth speaks of Christ and Satan as brothers; and the same idea
is found in the Vedas, where the suras ("good spirits") and asuras ("bad spirits") are shown to be cousins. In a
different context there is the androgyne ("man-woman"), the ardhanarishvara in Indian myth. As for the Hindu
jivanmukta, the liberated individual, he is liberated from duality. This is also part of what the Lord Krsna
(Krishna) said, when he asked the hero Arjuna to rise above the three gunas ("modes"). The Tantras refer to the
union of Shiva (a Hindu god) and Shakti (Shiva's consort) in one's own body and consciousness and provide
appropriate practices to this end. The Chinese had their Yang and Yin (opposites), the Tibetans their Yab and
Yum (opposites), and Buddhism its samsara and Nirvana as aspects of the Same. In Prajnaparamita, a
Mahayana (northern Buddhist) text, the Illumined Ones are supposed to engage in a laughter in which all
distinctions cease to exist.
Emptiness and fullness
Mystical experience permits complementary and apparently contradictory methods of expression: via
affirmativa ("affirmative way," or fullness) as well as via negativa ("negative way," or emptiness). For fullness
and freedom both are needed. This is because the reality affirmed contains its own opposite. In fact, the
apparent negations--neti-neti, ("not this, not that") of the Upanisads, the shunyata ("void") of the Buddhists, or
the Darkness beyond Light of Dionysius--perform a double function. They state a condition of being as well as
its utter freedom from every determination. As Dionysius explains it, "While God possesses all the attributes of
the universe, being the universal Cause, yet in a stricter sense He does not possess them, since He transcends
them all." The "negative way," a way of turning the back upon the finite, is part of an old, positive, verified
insight, at once the last freedom and, as far as many men are concerned, perhaps a lost freedom.
Symbolism of divine messengers
Experiences relating to these realities could not at any time have been common or widespread and must have
come mainly through consecrated channels: yogis (Hindu meditation practitioners), gurus (Hindu teachers),
prophets, mystics, saints, and spiritual masters of the inner life. This channelling through human agents has
given rise to a host of divine messengers: a hierarchy of angels, intermediaries, and incarnations, singly or in
succession. This manner of approaching or receiving the divine or holy is the justification of avatars
(incarnations of God) and the man-God in various religions. "God was made man in order that man might be
The mystical experience is a renovation of life at its root; that is, of the forgotten language of symbols and
symbolism. The mystic participates in two worlds at once, the profane and the sacred. Rituals and ceremonies
become the means of integration with a higher reality and consciousness. But symbols cannot be deliberately
manufactured, nor do they make an arbitrary system. "Being for ever communicating its essence" is the source
of their abundance, potency, and unity. Even a nontheistic mysticism, such as Buddhism, has deployed symbols
freely, of which perhaps the most well-known is the formula om mani padme hum ("the jewel in the lotus").
Symbols point beyond themselves, participate in that to which they point, open up levels of reality that are
otherwise closed to man, unlock dimensions and elements of the soul that correspond to reality and cannot be
produced intentionally or invented. Symbols may be inner or outer. To some, nature symbolism comes easily.
Symbolism of love and marriage
A far more risky but inescapable mode of symbolism than pantheism has been the use of the analogy of human
love and marriage. Not all the mystics have been deniers or champions of repression. The soul, it may be added,
is always feminine. The Christian mystics St. Bernard and St. John of the Cross, the Islamic Sufi poets, and
the Hindu Dravidian and Vaisnava saints could teach lovers. Not only the church but the faithful are viewed to
be among Christ's brides and speak the language of love. "O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your
mouth!" The speaker is the bride, thirsting for God. St. Bernard has shown that through carnal, mercenary, filial,
and nuptial love the life of man moves toward the mystery of grace and union.
The hermeneutics (critical interpretation) of "the Bridegroom-Word" is that "the soul's return is her conversion
to the Word, to be reformed through Him and to be conformed to Him." In the West, the roots of the tradition
go back to the Song of Solomon in the Bible, not, perhaps, the best of models. The Hindu lilas ("love plays") of
Radha and Krsna have been freely misunderstood in spite of the repeated disclaimer that the events described
are not facts but symbols. The charge of immorality has been loudest against the Tantras, which had made a
subtle, bold, and strict experiment in sublimation, whose inner sense may fail to be intelligible even to those
who are attracted by it. That the marriage symbol should find a readier response among the brides of Christ is
only to be expected. In The Interior Castle, St. Teresa has been fairly outspoken: "He has bound Himself to her
as firmly as two human beings are joined in wedlock and will never separate Himself from her." But this was
not a monopoly of nuns. The medieval theologian Richard of Saint-Victor has described as well as explained
the "steep stairway of love" made up of betrothal, marriage, wedlock, and fruitfulness. In a slightly different set
of symbols, St. John of the Cross states that after the soul has driven away from itself all that is contrary to the
divine will, it is "transformed in God by love."
Symbolism of the journey
Another prominent mystical symbol is the way, quest, or pilgrimage. Having lost the paradise of his soul, man,
as the 16th-century physician and alchemist Paracelsus says, is a wanderer ever. A Christian monk, St.
Bonaventure, has written about the mind's journey to God, and an English mystic, Walter Hilton, has described
the Christian journey thus:
Right as a true pilgrim going to Jerusalem, leaveth behind him his house and land, wife and child, and maketh
himself poor and bare from all that he hath, that he may go lightly without letting: right so, if thou wilt be a
ghostly pilgrim, thou shalt make thyself naked from all that thou wouldst be at Jerusalem, and at none other
place but there. (From The Ladder of Perfection.)
According to the Sufis, the pilgrim is the perceptive or intuitional sense of man. Aided by attraction, devotion,
and elevation, the journey leads, by way of many a wine shop (divine love), to the tavern (illumination), "the
journey to God in God." In his Conference of the Birds, the 12th-century Persian Sufi 'Attar refers to the seven
valleys en route to the king's hidden palace: the valleys of quest, love, knowledge, detachment, unity,
amazement, and, finally, annihilation. Others have gone further and spoken of "annihilation of annihilation." In
the symbolic universe, denudation may be viewed as a way of fullness.
Men are called to the journey inward or upward because of a homing instinct. Eckehart put the matter simply:
earth cannot escape the sky. All men are called to their origin, which implies God's need of man. A mutual
attraction, the tendency toward the Divine cannot be stifled indefinitely, since it returns after every banishment.
For some, paradise is not enough; it is too localized and perhaps perishable. They strain toward eternity, a leap
beyond history into the incommunicable forever. A white radiance to some, to others it is "a ring of pure and
bright light." The Veda speaks of the kalahahamsa ("the swan of time") winging back to the sky and nest,
Essentially a way of return, ricorso, the final aim of mysticism is transfiguration. But by what alchemy shall this
lead of mortality be turned into that gold of divine Being? But if they are not in their essence contraries? If they
are manifestations of one Reality, identical in substance? Then indeed a divine transmutation becomes
conceivable. (From Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine.)
This is a clue to the Vedas, those hymns to the mystic fire and the inner sense of sacrifice, burning forever on
"the altar Mind." Hence the abundance of solar and fire images: birds of fire, the fire of the sun, and the isles of
fire. The symbol systems of the world religions and mysticisms are profound illuminations of the human-divine
mystery. Be it the cave of the heart or the lotus of the heart, "the dwelling place of that which is the Essence of
the universe," the third eye, or the eye of wisdom--the symbols all refer back to the wisdom entering the
aspiring soul on its way toward progressive self-understanding. "I saw my Lord with the Eye of the Heart. I
said, Who art Thou?' and he answered, thou'." Throughout the ages man, homo symbolicus, has been but
exploring the endless miracle of being. Mystical experience is a living encyclopaedia of equations and
correspondences, pointer readings that partly reveal and partly conceal.
Systematic exposition of mystical experience
Attempts of mystics to record the nature of their experiences
The theory or interpretation of mysticism is not mysticism. Generally, there are two sides to the theory:
philosophical and practical. There may be another: confessional and justificatory. Though some mystics have
been content to record what happened, others have worked out manuals of praxis (techniques), or sadhana. As a
rule, mystical method, experience, and exegesis cannot be sharply set apart from one another. However
ineffable, raids on the inarticulate and expositions of the same have not ceased. The expositions have formed
part of a particular framework of culture, tradition, and temperament. The 8th- to 9th-century-AD Indian
philosopher Shankara and the 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross are not likely to talk in the
same tone or accent. However universal in intent, all expositions tend to be localized.
The study of comparative mysticism as well as the spirit of the age make it possible and perhaps mandatory for
modern man to move toward an open and untethered mysticism, the "ocean of tomorrow." Indications of this
change in attitude and emphasis are not wanting, especially in the 20th-century writings of the Indian mystic
philosopher Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin, who represent something totally new but allied. R.C.
Zaehner has explained that both, though unknown to each other, not only accepted the theory of evolution, but
enthusiastically acclaimed it, indeed were almost obsessed with it. Both were profoundly influenced by
Bergson, both were deeply dissatisfied with organized religion, and both were vitally concerned not only with
individual salvation or "liberation," but also with the collective salvation of mankind.
The value and meaning of mystical experience
Among the attempts to explain the value and meaning of mystical experience, a few features may be indicated.
Claimed to be a guarantee for order and reconciliation, mysticism does not take away mystery from the world,
nor is it essentially irrational. Though in their penchant for the beyond or God-intoxication some mystics have
inclined to reject the world, the maturer variety has not divided the world of spirit and matter but has tried to
mediate between spirit and matter with the help of emanations, correspondences, and a hierarchy of the real. As
a giver of life, mysticism is meant to fulfill and not to destroy. Thus, it need not be world negating.
Pointing to a scale of senses and levels of mind, mysticism provides an escape from a life of uninspired
existence. It magnifies man and gives him a hope and destiny to fulfill. With its abiding sense of the "more,"
mysticism may be called the religion of man or the religion of maturity. It offers not irrational developments or
inducements but the working out of inherent potentials. Evolution, according to mystics, is not yet ended.
The mystical life is not for those who are well adjusted and other oriented. In Ramakrishna's homely phrase, at
some point or other one has to "take the plunge." A change so radical calls for a kind of attention other than
what most people seem prepared to give. To make it his supreme business one must have a call to holy living.
He who seeks the divine must consecrate himself to God and to God only.
Problems of communication and understanding
The problem of communication, of tidings from another country, is obvious. Transvaluation of values is not
easy to accept, adjust to, or express. The dialogue between mystical and other pursuits is an unsolved problem.
After he had undergone a spiritual experience, the 13th-century Christian philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas is
reported to have said, "I have seen that which makes all that I have written and taught look small to me. My
writing days are over." This, from the author of the voluminous Summa theologica ("Summary of Theology"),
is not without its importance.
Even if it is difficult to describe visions and dangerous to systematize, the direction in which mysticism points
is clear: relational transcendence. The 20th-century crises and the mass media suggest the possibility of a
mysticism brought up to date that will serve "the Creative Intention that past ages have called God." Whether it
comes through symbols, systems, paradigmatic examples, or extreme situations, there will probably always be
some response to the call of the real.
Mysticism as a social factor
Mystical experience is no doubt solo, the experience of a singular person. But more than "a flight of the alone to
the Alone," it could also be a redemption of solitude no less than of society. In the mystic experience, as Jakob
Bohme said, the world is not destroyed but remade. At times a protest against heteronomy (i.e., external
authority and ecclesiastical machinery), mysticism has expressed itself in diverse backgrounds and flourished
during dark periods of history.
Because of its other-worldly bias, the belief still persists that the solitary mystic, absorbed in a vertical relation
with God or reality, owes no social responsibility. Altogether an outsider, he has deliberately undergone a civil
death. This is not an ideal or wholly accurate picture. "A Mystic who is not of supreme service to the Society is
not a Mystic at all" (from preface to R.D. Ranade, Mysticism in Maharashtra). According to Zen Buddhism,
the great contemplative--even when "sitting quietly, doing nothing"--has been a man of action, perhaps the only
kind of action that leaves no bitter residue behind. The less extravagant forms of mysticism represent attitudes
and principles of charity, detachment, and dedication, which should guide the relation of the individual to the
group. The mystics have fought the inner battle and won, creating themselves and their world.
Mysticism proves the individual's capacity to rise above the conditioning factors of nature, nurture, and society
and to transform collective life, though this has not been generally recognized. With a hidden and potent force,
mystics have tried, as best as circumstances permitted, to mend the universal ill. As in the classic resolve of the
bodhisattva ("buddha-to-be"), they have looked forward to universal enlightenment. If the attempt by mystics to
create a new order or a better society has failed, the incapacity or defection of the majority may be the reason
for the failure.
"Revolution" is a word too often profaned. The change suggested is mainly, if not wholly, from without. In such
contrived salvation by compulsion, the inner core is hardly touched. "But it is an eternal law that there can be no
compulsion in the realm of the spirit. It is essentially a world of free creative choices" (Rufus Jones, Some
Exponents of Mystical Religion). Mystics insist on a change of consciousness, a slower and more difficult
process, and also on a scrupulous equation between ends and means. Impatience, deviations, and subterfuges in
this respect can be costly, ironic, and instructive. According to mystics, the individuals who will most help the
future of humanity will be those who recognize the unfinished and ultimate revolution--the evolution of
consciousness--as the destiny and therefore the great need of all men as of society.
Holiness does not mean a retreat from or a rejection of the world. To be a mystic or a seer is not the same thing
as being a spectator on the fence. As the Swedish secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold,
proved with his life, in the modern era the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action. Many
with a mystical frame of mind look beyond what mystics call quasi-revolutions to a great life--an entire
civilization, the civilization of consciousness. The need of synthesis places its stake on the future and the All.
The outcome of the world, the gates of the future, the entry into the super-human--these are not thrown open to
a few of the privileged nor to one chosen people to the exclusion of all others. They will open only to an
advance of all together. (From Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man.)
According to mystics, here may be the outline of a revolution whose message has reached but a few. The hope
of a Kingdom of Heaven within man and a City of God without remains one of mysticism's gifts to what many
mystics view as an evolving humanity.