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Humans can depart from normal states of consciousness in many different ways—by holding their breath, dancing together, taking drugs, or contemplation. What happens differs from case to case, but people often claim such experiences as a direct encounter of God or other supernatural spirits. Most religions made room for such mystic visionaries, and their lives often inspired new departures, especially when organized groups arose to pursue mystic visions together.
Mysticism is a type of religious experience claimed to involve a direct and personal experience of God, or of some eternal, spiritual element in the universe. Most of the major world religions have a significant mystical dimension to their faith. It is sometimes the case, however, that such mystical trends are not regarded as an orthodox feature of the religion. Although mystical experience differs somewhat from religion to religion, there appear to be features in common. Mystics typically subscribe to forms of spiritual discipline involving meditation or the repetition of the name of the divine. Such disciplines may often involve asceticism or withdrawal from the world. Mystics usually aspire to achieve a form of merging with God, or of spiritual salvation. The process of spiritual training undergone by mystics is often supervised by a spiritual adept or teacher. Within a particular religious tradition, the experiences associated with mysticism may be written in spiritual texts or transmitted orally. However, since the mystical experience is essentially individualistic and subjective, there may be difficulties in comparing the experience of one person with that of another.
It seems reasonable to suppose that people have, from very ancient times, attempted to gain a direct relationship with spiritual elements in the world around them. But documented traditions within the major faiths are much more recent. Hinduism has many traditions that may legitimately be described as mystical, most notably the practice of yoga. This mystical philosophy may be dated to the Upanishads of approximately 500–400 BCE and has been practiced in various forms until the present day. Yoga emphasizes the control of breathing as an aid to concentration and meditation. It is often accompanied by a renunciation of the world and by a tendency toward asceticism. The goal of yoga is that one should obtain union with Brahman, the spiritual force of the universe, and hence release from the cycle of rebirth. The use of yoga postures, or asanas, is but one element of yogic mysticism. In more recent times, celebrated practitioners of yoga include Ramakrishna (1836–1886) and Vivekananda (1863–1902).
Sikhism also espouses a form of mysticism whose goal is a direct experience of the divine. The principal approach is that of nam japan, or repetition of the name of God. This method, along with a meditation upon the nature of God, was the mystical approach advocated by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (1469–1539?). In another Indian religion, Jainism, there is an emphasis upon asceticism, and also meditation. Jainism was founded by Vardhamana (Mahavira), who lived from approximately 599–527 BCE. The ultimate goal of Jaina mysticism is moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and death.
Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Gautama (c. 566–c. 486 BCE), subsequently known as the Buddha, is arguably a mystical religion, although it does not incorporate any form of divine figure. The practice of Buddhism is derived from the enlightenment experience of the Buddha, achieved after a prolonged period of meditation. The express purpose of Buddhism is to enable human beings to eliminate their feelings of suffering, and the practice of meditation is one of the principal methods used to achieve this. The initial aim of meditation is to calm the fluctuations of the mind, and then to gain insight into the nature of existence. In this way the Buddhist comes to understand that the world is impermanent, and that through nonattachment to the world, one can begin to eliminate feelings of suffering. Eventually the Buddhist aspires to a state of supreme calmness and equanimity known as enlightenment. Buddhism spread from India to Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Cambodia, and north to Tibet, China, and Japan. The Buddhist tradition that developed in Japan became known as Zen, and one of its main exponents was Dogen (1200–1253). Zen has had an important influence on Japanese art and poetry, an example being the work of the poet Matsuo (Basho) Munefusa (1644–1694). Buddhism continues to influence Japanese cultural life to this day.
The Daoist tradition in China advocates a tranquil life, and one in which the aspirant seeks to live in tune with the natural world. The Daoist attempts to live in harmony with the Dao, or the creative energy that is present throughout the natural world. The I Ching is usually regarded as the principal text of Daoism, and was historically attributed to Laozi in approximately the sixth century BCE.
The mystical tradition in Islam is known as Sufism, a term that may be derived from suf, the Arabic for wool. This may refer to the tradition of Sufis wearing a cloak of rough wool. This very much reflects the ascetic tendency, which is an element in Sufism much as it is in other mystical traditions. The aim of Sufis is a direct experience of God. Sufis often traditionally associate themselves with a religious community, led by a sheikh or spiritual leader. Sufism continues to be an active tradition in the present day.
The approach to mysticism within Judaism is known as kabbalah, and it emphasizes a direct understanding of God as being the force behind the entire universe. Judaic mysticism utilizes meditation and contemplation, and encourages the aspirant to develop a sense of love toward humanity.
Within Christianity the history of mysticism is connected to some extent with that of monasticism, which evolved in Egypt during the third and fourth centuries CE. The early monastics led extremely simple lives, withdrawing from the world and devoting themselves to God. The monastic tradition was placed on an established basis by Saint Benedict (c. 480–547 CE). Noted Christian mystics include Saint John of the Cross (1542–1591), Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), and Jakob Bohme (1575–1624).
Mystics have generally attempted to seek the most direct spiritual experience of their particular religious tradition. In so doing, they have often been perceived as a threat by the religious orthodoxy. From time to time, mystics have given expression to subjective experience, and while this may have been contrary to established tradition, it has been a reminder of the attempt to seek direct understanding of the divine. To that extent, mysticism is still an important contemporary tradition, particularly for those who seek that form of religious experience.
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