Getting Your Mystic On

Salvator Dali tarot cardAs someone who grew up in the Pentecostal tradition and then opted out of traditional religion into the countercultural eclecticism of Beats such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, I’ve always been open to mystical experience. Part of why I treasure the mystical is that it burns down creed, institution, and individuality itself, opening to a feeling of relationship with . . . well . . . the big ineffable.  

That was then and this is now and mysticism is making a big comeback. Take for example the book The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge by Dr. Jeffery J. Kripal who founded the GEM Program at Rice University. GEM, that’s gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism. Yeah, it’s something you can study in grad school. 

And now playing in religion news is Gen Z, which appears to be a generation with even less trust in religious institutions than Millennials. (Even among those who do participate in institutionalized religion, 52% say they don’t trust the institution.) 

Younger people are looking at the mystical, putting their trust in relationships, not institutions. (And I suspect there will be more GEM Programs coming to colleges near you.) 

Where’s the energy going that once went toward institutional religion? Tarot, it appears. And astrology. And mysticism. (more on the cards and the stars next week) Which sounds a lot like the counterculture of the Beats, a lot like the eighteenth century Romantic movement in Europe, and a lot like the Transcendentalist movement in the US in the nineteenth century. 

book cover The Flip showing summersaulting astronaut in spaceYes, cliche time: what goes around surely does come around. Younger people in growing numbers are trusting their DIY assemblage of eclectic practices.

Various thinkers through time (including that spark plug of Transcendentalism, RW Emerson) have argued that mysticism is the pinnacle of the religious experience—the point at which the human mind has freed itself of creed and dogma and sees reality for what it is. (In Christendom known as henosis.)

In 2009 49% of Americans told Pew researchers that they had had a mystical experience. That’s up—way up—from the 22% reporting similar experiences in 1962. The research also “finds that religious and mystical experiences are more common today among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion. And, yes, that 2009 research was a generation ago. I suspect 49% is way low now.

The current use of the word “mystic” in the English language dates from the seventeenth century.  The word comes to English from Greek: muein, “close the eyes or lips” and from muster, “initiated person.”

In other words, the word’s etymology doesn’t reflect the contemporary connotation of the word, the original meaning nowadays covered by such words as “hermeticism” and “esotericism.” (This, I suspect, is important in observing the trend.)

Pew researchers got nearer to the contemporary meaning when they defined mysticism as a  “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” We might quibble over the meaning of the word “religious” here, but you get the point. When someone says, “I had a religious experience,” chances are that mystical thing is what they mean.

And, yes, if you want a mystical experience, do what Emerson said and get out of those pews, folks.  

That mystical “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening” generally leads to a feeling of oneness with the cosmos (henosis) and to gnosis, spiritual knowing.

It’s a brave new world, but, oh, yeah, that’s a book published in 1932. What’s going around is coming around, which, for mystic types, makes perfect sense, because time is just another illusion. 

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