The Way of the Mystic

James Souttar


This piece is copied from a comment James Souttar made to an essay called The Five Practices. In his comment, which is worthy of publishing on its own, James delves into mysticism with greater specificity. He begins with a quote from The Five Practices.

Characteristics of the mystic

“My personal break from the mold was a gradual discovery of what worked and what didn’t” particularly resonated with me, too.

‘Mysticism’ is about doing, rather than about thinking or feeling (some might say it is about being, which is true, but in the sense of how one’s state of being is transformed by exposure, experience and practice, rather than through trying to be a certain way, which is just imitation).

[The] five points define a framework for a disciplined life which is, of course, a sine qua non for mysticism. But this is true of other enterprises, too. And these five could equally apply to the religious life. Indeed, my sense is that a person who applied just these five would become a religious person. By themselves they don’t open a portal into the mystical dimensions of life.

For me there are three things that specifically characterise the ‘way of the mystic’, which I don’t think is possible without them. And most of the practices ‘that work’ would seem to be connected with one or more of these.

a. Loosing the hold of self-reflection — as we go through life, we become more and more identified with a narrow version of ourselves which is almost cartoonish. This compulsion holds us transfixed, stuck in experiencing ourselves, and the world, in a specific, well-rehearsed way. We have only to think, for instance, of the person stuck in the ‘victim position’ to realise how claustrophobic and self-limiting this identification is. But we are all in a similar situation.

The mystic has to learn to look at herself/himself objectively and dispassionately, as if we were another person — overcoming the resistances that we have to doing this, and the temptation to fall into the exaggerated ‘mea culpa! mea culpa! I am so sinful’ (which is really just another way of remaining stuck). In the Sufi Way jokes and humour are used to do this. And, in the beginning, the student thinks they are jokes at someone else’s expense, but it is only when the penny drops and they realise that they are the butt of the joke that the humour can start to puncture the self-importance/self-pity which holds us gazing at a particular version of ourselves.

(This often seems to become distorted into a heroic ‘struggle against the ego’.)

b. Saving energy — we can’t do anything in ‘mysticism’ without energy. What is ‘energy’? Who knows? The answer to the question doesn’t seem to matter all that much. What does, though, is to have access to energy.

The novelist Doris Lessing, writing about her own experience of Sufism, noted that human beings come into the world with just enough vital energy for growth, survival, and to reproduce, with a very small amount left over (which, initially, is all the would-be mystic has to work with). And one of the hallmarks of a real mystic is how parsimonious they are with their energy. We lose energy in countless ways, most notably when we give it away to others through the various attachments and entanglements we form (but which can be painstakingly recovered). We can also generate and store it, be given it, and absorb it from certain places and objects. But without working to create a ‘vessel’ which can hold it, it just leaks away.

(This often seems to become distorted into the ‘struggle against attachment’, or such practices as celibacy, whose practitioners have lost the understanding of what the practice was originally intended to achieve and turned it into a virtue in its own right.)

c. ‘Travelling in one’s own land’ — With our consciousness no longer fixated on ‘me, me, me’, and with the energy needed to make the jump to a higher state of being, we are in a position to explore some of our vast interior. The famous dictum of the C12 Sufi poet Saadi of Shiraz points to this: ‘deep in the sea are treasures beyond compare, but if you seek safety, it is on the shore’. The mystic has to travel from place to place, getting to know this hinterland, and paying attention to what she/he experiences. But this is dangerous without a guide who knows the ultimate destination, and who can point out the traps and distractions of this unknown realm.

(This is often distorted into itinerant lifestyles, whether the wanderings of a monk or fakir, or the incessant journeying of the ‘New Age traveler’.)