“The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”
As everyone reading these words is well aware, 2020 brought us a ghastly pandemic and untold physical and emotional suffering, and as 2021 begins, despite the beginning of vaccine distribution, the tsunami of Coronavirus cases is only widening. In 2020 the word “diagnosis” was ubiquitous because a pandemic had engulfed us, and a majority of us fear being diagnosed with Covid-19. A “diagnosis,” of course, implies pathology—something harmful or unhealthy that needs to be corrected.
In a culture where rational, left-brain functioning is essentially sacrosanct, mysticism is not only foreign to most individuals but on one level is considered a pathogen from which we need immunity or recovery. Images of underfed, barely-clothed, gurus lying on beds of nails or flagellating themselves appear in our minds when we hear the word “mystic.” And yet, a mystical perspective and mystical practices may be the exact emotional and spiritual medicine we need in a time of pandemic horror, climate catastrophe, economic collapse, and the dizzying unraveling of a deeply dysfunctional civilization.
On the one hand, mysticism is difficult to define because it defies analysis and classification. It is primarily a right-brain experience, and that reality is frustrating for civilized minds who demand definitions. Yet in reality, even the mystic may be hard-pressed to precisely define the word. Mystical theologian, Matthew Fox, in his book The Coming of The Cosmic Christ, offers 22 characteristics of mysticism and adds, “My approach is nonlinear and best understood as a circle with each definition feeding into it.” Moreover, he adds, “everyone is a mystic,” meaning that sooner or later, everyone will be “diagnosed” with it. If you consider yourself a mystic, you are in good company. If you do not consider yourself a mystic, you may want to rethink that assumption after reading this article.
And yet, the origin of the word “mystic,” could not be simpler. A mystic is simply a person who is devoted to the mysteries—the mysteries of the universe and the mysteries of oneself. These mysteries cannot be limited or owned by any religion, group, or organization. In fact, mysticism has no perimeters; therefore, any attempt to confine it within any tradition is absurd. The characteristics offered by Fox are simply descriptive as opposed to definitive. Ironically, many people who claim to want nothing to do with mysticism could share more of the 22 characteristics than they had imagined . In fact, you could be “diagnosed” as a mystic if you embrace any or all of these characteristics.
- Experience: The mystic respects discoveries of the rational mind, but they are keen on experience. Mysticism cannot be read about or learned objectively. The mystic trusts implicitly in their own experience which is a trust of the universe and of oneself. The anti-mystic may protest that one’s experience is “subjective” and therefore unreliable. The authentic mystic, however, argues that both the right brain and left brain are necessary for comprehending reality. This argument is based on the next characteristic of the mystic which is
- Nondualism: The mystic seeks unitive experiences. As Fox reminds us, “All mystical experiences share in common the perspective of nonseparation or nondualism.” Ultimately, the mystic experiences what mystic and Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn calls Interbeing—the reality that everything is interconnected. (More on this below.)
- Compassion: Because the mystic has experienced the interdependence of all living things, they invariably develop compassion for all beings because for them, no being is separate from another. The mystic recognizes that the wellbeing of all must be taken into account.
- Connection-Making: Because the mystic seeks unity and unitive experiences, they seek to make connections where connections have been lost. Mystics are often found in the so-called “helping professions” in which connection-making is fundamental; however, artists may also be diagnosed as mystics, for they too are essentially connection-makers by way of the imagination.
- Radical Amazement: Awe is one of the most prized emotions among mystics. Fox describes it as, “a reverential fear based on a realization of the greatness of our existence, of our being included in the amazing twenty-billion-year drama that is the universe.” While the mystic respects rational analysis, their psyches are large enough for awe, and they revel in it.
- Affirmation Of The World As A Whole: The mystic affirms not the world laid waste by human neglect or greed-induced destruction, but a world that is whole and connected. They facilitate and strive to promote human connection and the wholeness of the Earth community. The mystic loves immersing themselves in nature because they experience viscerally and erotically that they are intimately connected with it.
- Right Brain: The mystic affirms and delights in the qualities of the right brain: Art, music, literature, dancing, and deep embodiment appeal to them instinctively. Intuition is the crown jewel of the right brain, and scientists tell us that intuition may be the highest form of intelligence.
- Self-Criticism: The mystic is self-critical without being judgmental. They understand the reality of the human shadow and are actively engaged in shadow healing. They are vigilant about projecting their shadow onto others and are willing to take a hard look at their own belief systems.
- Heart Knowledge: The mystic values heart knowledge and heartbreak over intellectual knowledge. They have experienced viscerally that to ignore or minimize the heart in favor of reason diminishes their humanity and compassion.
- A Return To The Source: The mystic may have many names for the Source, but they live their lives with reverence for something greater than the rational mind and human ego.
- Feminist: To be intimately connected with “the mysteries” is to have moved beyond patriarchal consciousness. Mystical awareness is inherently feminine and honors the feminine in the Earth and in all living beings. As stated above, the mystical inclination is relational; it fosters connection, and helps heal division and separation.
- Panentheistic: The mystic knows that all life is sacred because the sacred abides within all people and things. Panentheism is not atheism, nor is it the notion that the sacred is somewhere “out there.” Most atheism is a rejection of theism which usually celebrates divinity at the expense of the body and the senses. Matthew Fox writes, “I do believe that if the only option I was given by which to envision creation’s relationship to divinity was theism, I would be an atheist too.” To paraphrase Fox, the “God” you don’t believe in is the “God” that I don’t believe in.
- Birther Of Images: Every mystic is an artist because the mystery is found and expressed through images. Images, not complete sentences uttered in linear fashion, most aptly convey what is happening in the inner world. The mystic thinks and feels poetically and values poets, or as James Joyce called them, “priests of the imagination.”
- Silence: Mystics love silence and solitude. While the mystic may be extroverted and enjoy the company of others, they require silence. A left-brain culture, says Fox, is a culture ill-at-ease with silence because it is devoid of mysticism. The mysteries are not ubiquitous in the din of industrial civilization, but rather, in the silence.
- Nothingness and Darkness: The mystic knows that light is not found in light places, but in the darkness. They understand that they lived nine months in complete darkness before bursting forth into the light of birth. They have experienced firsthand the treasures that darkness holds, and they open to what it may ask of them next.
- Playfulness: Mystics enjoy fantasy and play. They do not repress their childlike spirit in order to appear mature or reasonable or spiritual. Humor is an essential nutrient for the mystic’s wellbeing.
- Justice and Activism: The mystic is not an apathetic person who is oblivious to the world around them. Because they passionately crave the mysteries, they also crave justice and mercy for all beings. Many Christian mystics, such as St. Francis, Hiledgard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Hellen Keller, and others were also activists and pioneers of social justice movements.
- Prophetic: The mystic is a prophet—a word with two distinct meanings. One role of a prophet is foretelling or the ability to see and forecast the future. Another role is forth-telling which is to speak truth to power, to say what is so, and to call out injustice.
- Being-With-Being: The mystic is committed to being present with other beings—to fully listening to them and offering presence and acceptance even when nothing else can be done and when disagreement and division seem insurmountable.
- Cultivation Of The True Self: The mystic understands the difference between the false self or the human ego and the sacred or True Self. Their lives are committed to the painful journey of daily surrender of the false, egoic self to the Sacred Self.
- Universal Consciousness: The mystic may prefer one tradition over another, but they absolutely honor all traditions. They are committed to inclusivity and acceptance of all beings.
- Animals: Mystics love and protect animals. Because they honor their own animal bodies and their own animal natures, they befriend and work for the safety and protection of animals. A mystic will almost always have one or more animal companions or be in daily contact with animals in their natural habitat.
Using the medical model, we could consider the above characteristics as “symptoms” of the mystical condition. To be a mystic in an industrially civilized culture is to be labeled as “eccentric,” “irrational,” “living with one’s head in the clouds,” or “dabbling in New Age nonsense.”
I find the characteristics offered by Matthew Fox invaluable because they underscore the reality that being a mystic has nothing to do with religion, dogma, or belief in a creed.
Even if you have not been formally “diagnosed,” you probably carry a number of mystical traits in your psyche. In fact, if you claim one or more of these traits, you may already be certifiably mystical.
If you are diagnosed as a mystic no one will be able to identify a specific cause. Some may conclude that you are a product of a dysfunctional family or that you have been traumatized or that you have “lost your way.” In fact, these are mystic-making situations because mystics do not normally arise out of comfort, affluence, “normality,” or privilege.
Sadly for some but happily for others, there is no cure for mysticism. The exception may be a tragic or traumatic experience that feels devastating to the mystic and causes them to forsake their mystical practices and become immersed in addictions or the daily drama of modern culture. These are capable of quashing the mystical impulse or misdirecting it into the false self and other-destructive sensibilities.
Many people live contentedly with mysticism for decades, and if you have the condition, it is not recommended that you do anything differently going forward. People can live with mysticism, but only by surrendering to it daily. Resistance to your mystical impulses is contraindicated.
Mysticism is a progressive condition, and if you continue your mystical practice, your mystical experiences are likely to increase. There are drugs that slow the progression such as compulsive busyness, refusal to change your living arrangements in order to accommodate reality, attachment to possessions, and attachments to outcomes.
There is an upside to the condition, however. Mystics may have a psychological and spiritual advantage in navigating the collapse of industrial civilization and the destruction of ecosystems. In fact, theologian, Karl Rahner, reportedly said that “The time is fast approaching when one will either be a mystic or an unbeliever.” A curious quote by Rahner which implies that belief and religious devotion are inadequate for these times.
Consistent with the “diagnosis” of mysticism in the medical model, I might add that many mystics have discovered the benefits of joining a “mysticism support group.” The camaraderie among mystics is especially appealing because authentic mystics do not compete for enlightenment or envy anyone else’s journey. Coming out as a mystic can provide enormous relief for those who have remained in the closet with their mysticism.
Mystics have also found satisfaction in committing to activism as a natural outgrowth of their mysticism. This may include “mysticism diversity” which is based on the concept of mystics in high places of service as well as mysticism diversity training which helps prevent discrimination against mystics. How many mystics serve on your city council or organizations you support? Nevertheless, if you identify as a mystic, remember that being pathologized almost always goes with the territory.
Hopefully, this article will alleviate any anxiety you have about being a mystic. Some readers may feel reassured that they already have the condition, while others may be completely surprised.
If you have been diagnosed as a mystic or believe you may be one, allow your heart and your right brain to guide you to connect with others who may be able to help you live the rest of your life with the condition.
 Matthew Fox, The Coming of The Cosmic Christ, p. 48.
 Ibid, p 21.
 Ibid, p 57.