I have been troubled by the definitions of mysticism, mystical, and mystic. I have looked up these words many times and read and studied so-called mystical poems and mystic writers and poets and, as a secular observer and thinker, walked away from the problem dissatisfied. So, given all these premises, humbly (with a humble attempt), I sketch my own collective definition and present a poem from each of the poets I included in my earlier post “Mystics and Membrane.”
As one who does not believe in the supernatural, I wonder what then might remain once scientists and deep observers and thinkers finish with the Universe? Well, it’s my belief that no matter how deep scientists and “penetrators” penetrate the nature of the universe (or the nature of the Mind that seeks to penetrate the Universe), they will never get to the bottom of the unknown. Beyond the latest, newly discovered, tested, and verified phenomenon or relationship, there will remain a vast unknown to perplex the great knower, we human beings who think we have to get to he bottom of the Universe, to know the All.
Thus, that which will and must remain forever unknown, ever out of reach of the curious mind, is mystical, the ever-approached but never fully-known unknown—which implies we should relax a little and bask a bit in what we do know and even in what we don’t, like the man bathing in riches who finally says, “I have enough. I can sleep deeply now and if a few gold coins tumble out of my great boat not jostled by storms, let them be gathered up by some needy soul or be lost forever.”
Mysticism is the practice of seeking the unknown while knowing the unknown is not altogether knowable and perhaps sharing the experience with others (or not). Seeking to know all and, worse, striving to control all, is vanity and, I have to judge, not spiritual, but to live close to the unknown and then find beauty and ease in it is, indeed, a healthy spirituality.
A mystic is one who practices mysticism, who lives in or close to the unknown and is more or less conscious of it, who makes a spiritual practice of it. I might also suggest that a mystic is a teacher, one who doesn’t merely gather followers about him like a false guru but who shines in such a way as to cause the open-minded to question his or her own “perceptions” or assumptions about knowing, about what is knowable, and about why we insist on knowing to the point of self-destruction (nuclear combustion being the great example).
A mystic poet is one who finds beauty and meaning in practicing mysticism and shares that beauty in ecstatic or contemplative language or poetry. The five poets whose pictures I included in the earlier post “Mystics and Membrane” are Rumi, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Theodore Roethke. Here’re some short poems I feel to be mysterious, if not mystical, by each of these poets, along with a comment or two:
Note: Rumi’s idea of nothingness resembles that of the Zennists. In the face of nothing everything has meaning.
Note: Blake’s poem underscores the admonition that we love our enemy rather than hate him. Sound familiar?
Note: Dickinson’s poem is tough to penetrate. I’d suggest that something as seemingly trivial as a fly is what’s real in the end. The biggest event in our lives may end with nothing more than a buzz and not golden trumpets blaring.
Note: I’ve spent a lot of time with this poem as a college English instructor. The last two clauses are stunning surprises to the open spirit. Great art is here to make a difference. We can work our lives away, but some acts and artifacts carry tremendous meaning in the seeming meaninglessness of our existence.
Note: if the past is gone and the present not arrived, then the moment, in a sense, is all there is. But how great does the moment feel as we are carried along in and by it? And yet because it’s always flowing, we’re hard put to grasp it, to dwell deeply in it. Perhaps the deepest of our paradoxes.
Note: Since the world without is experienced within, then what we experience is merely a mirror of the universe. But how is our mirror smudged? That is the universe in there, after all, isn’t it?
Here are two more by Rumi, for those of you who’re into this:
Note: Rumi’s poem here suggests that not until we can acknowledge the great nothingness can we become truly spiritual beings. Religion often gives us an easy way out, as if by simply joining a church all our spiritual concerns will be taken care of. I’m reminded of a Woody Allen character by this poem.
Note: Rumi’s poem here really gets at the problem with our trying to control Nature or the Universe