Taking a page from Jerome Gellman, mysticism is a series of practices and experiences aimed at aligning ourselves with a higher power. Through this alignment comes feelings of euphoric transformation, as the benefits of mysticism bring about newfound clarity for our environment, relationships, and purpose in life.
My deep dive into mysticism’s etymology reveals some interesting details regarding the word’s origins. The word first appeared in the 13th-century during the Middle Ages and was predominantly used as a term to describe the feelings Christians felt when praying. The word is a combination of mystic + ism, the former being an off-shoot of the Old French word mystique, meaning “mysterious” or “full of mystery.” The latter is a distinctly English suffix referring to “a belief in ideology.”
By this logic, to successfully practice mysticism, one must disregard the tangible in favor of the ethereal and embrace what is unknown and mysterious to human convention.
But this is easier said than done. For those beginning their spiritual journeys, finding comfort in abstract ideals or an unseen force appears counterintuitive to the ultimate goal of reaching betterment and peace. I’d say that this is partly due to today’s trends regarding the benefits of instant gratification—"the desire to experience pleasure or fulfillment without delay or deferment."
Practicing mysticism is converse to this ideal.
Undergoing mysticism is an arduous and intimate process that requires many of us to rewire certain perspectives and suspend beliefs grounded in what is “real” or “knowable.” Mysticism is an opportunity to explore the inward spiritual journeys we experience in this lifetime. Through mysticism, we can discover the interconnectedness of all that’s around us, feel the relief of a higher guidance, and experience the joy of the present moment.
As I explore the topic of mysticism, I’m transported back to high school. For context, from 2013-2017, I attended a private religious school. Moments spent reading The Great Gatsby or learning elements of the periodic table were interspersed with courses about biblical doctrine and the world’s belief systems. Weekly chapel services were the norm and often consisted of a lighthearted skit concerning a specific Bible verse, Christian rock performances by members of the school’s band, and a prayer led by a teacher or other faculty member.
It was an odd time. I was navigating the most awkward years of my life, and at a young age also faced questions concerning my faith and existence. I envied friends and peers who could talk about their faith with enthusiasm and an unapologetic willingness. It perplexed me how unquestionable they were towards their faith, but I didn’t fault them. After all, for many of them, religion and all its aspects were always part of their lives. They went to Sunday church services, attended Bible camps at a young age, and regularly volunteered with religious-centric organizations. Unlike them, my experiences with religion had been confined to whatever was taught in school or the billboards placed throughout the Las Vegas valley demanding me to repent for my sins or face eternal damnation.
At the time, I found myself grappling with a dilemma:
Was it possible to reap the benefits of spiritual and mystic practice without a religious context?
While I was somewhat appreciative of the idea of a higher being watching over and indirectly guiding me towards success, much of Christianity’s beliefs regarding certain social issues–particularly those concerning sexual and gender diversity–opposed what I stood for.
Today, I understand that more nuanced and positive interpretations regarding the Bible’s stance on same-sex relationships and gender identity exist, but the dogma of homophobic rhetoric was too deeply engrained within my high school’s curriculum and environment. Because of this, I viewed religion and my sexual orientation through a binary lens–one could not exist without compromising another.
I settled on the latter and became a staunch atheist. I criticized the act of praying and the idea of putting one’s faith and energy into something intangible and invisible to the eye. I mockingly called it a waste of time and characterized the process as fantasy. Even rituals outside of the Christian framework, like astrological readings, spiritual cleansing, and meditation were given similar disdain. I denounced the mystical in favor of the rational, opting for other ways to achieve the satisfaction others found in these practices.
It was a Las Vegas summer. A dry, swelter enveloped every facet of the valley--the type of heat that made your fingers jump from the steering wheel and lapped your nape in sweat. Some time had passed since my transition towards atheism, and I found myself going through a tumultuous period of depression and anxiety. At the time, I was experiencing stagnation within my work and personal life. Dissatisfaction with my life’s current trajectory compromised my mental and physical health. Days felt emotionally foggy, and all I yearned to do was stay in bed and shield myself from the notion of doing anything.
During this crisis, my sense of reality warped.
Disillusioned thinking led me to do irrational things. I isolated myself and dwelled only on negative thoughts. And as I continued to ignore the problem, it was only a matter of time before it eventually boiled over.
I reached one of the lowest moments of my life, and the one way I could think of easing the issue was turning towards the one thing I had chosen to demonize for several years.
I can’t recall exactly what I prayed for, all I know is that the relief I felt afterward was comforting. But this incorporation of daily gratitude and affirmations wasn’t easily implemented. It was uncomfortable, almost feeling a bit ridiculous, and in some way felt like a devolution to the ideals I’d been fostering.
It took incredible self-introspection for me to realize exactly why I’d been so adamant about pursuing the mystic.
I was angry. Angry, believing that only a select few had the privilege of experiencing the euphoria brought by mysticism. Angry, believing that belief or worship in the Divine meant negotiating with a system historically known for opposing the rights of those like myself in the queer community. Angry, believing that the benefits of spiritual and mystic practice existed only within a religious context.
I realize now that these beliefs were the product of previous experiences atypical of mysticism’s actuality.
For so long, I was taught to believe that mysticism’s benefits were only attainable under the guidance of a religious institution. However, this was a misconception that grossly skewed my understanding of mysticism as a uniquely individual process. Viewing mysticism in this manner limited my understanding of what practices were deemed “acceptable,” all while cultivating a toxic relationship with the way I viewed myself, others, and the world around me.
Regardless of my complex journey rediscovering mysticism–now having incorporated meditation and spatial cleansing into my routines–I’ve come to view spiritual and mystic practices no longer as binaries, but rather a spectrum where I am the sole decider in what practices I’d like to incorporate and how to exercise them.
I can’t quite call it a state of equilibrium, but my poor regard for mystic practice and once strenuous relationship with the Christian faith has reached an absolution. I view these experiences as components that have shaped my spiritual journey. Though I don’t attend Sunday service or pray to God, the principle of finding and undergoing rituals that enforce positive perceptions of myself and surroundings remains constant within my life. My journey with mysticism is ever present and continuously expanding, and through this ebb and flow, I look forward to what’s to come.
About the Author:
Aaron Talledo is currently pursuing his BA in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He finds inspiration from literature, music, and film and expresses creativity through writing. In his free time, Aaron enjoys fitness, meditation, and video games.