Mysticism - The direct, unmediated experience of the Divine




The Whirling Dervishes

Dervish literally means "doorway" and is thought to be an entrance from this material world to the spiritual, heavenly world. In the past the Turkish Sultans would often consult the Dervishes for guidance. They believed that the dervish was in prayer and that the spinning created a hypnotic and relaxing affect which opened his body to receive the energy of God.

The Sema

The sema is the inspiration of Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi (1207- 1273) as well as of Turkish custom, history, beliefs and culture. It is part of a sacred ceremony in which the dervish rotates in a precise rhythm. While whirling, the dervish aims to empty himself of all distracting thoughts. As he enters into a trance, he is released from his bodily awareness and conquers his dizziness. Dervishes believe that their souls are released from earthly ties, able to freely and jubilantly communicate with the divine. The Sema has seven parts, of which the whirling is the fifth.

Rumi's description:

"While whirling his arms are open, his right hand directed to the skies ready to receive God's beneficence, looking to his left hand turned toward the earth, he turn from right to left around the heart. This is his way of conveying God's spiritual gift to the people upon whom he looks with the eyes of God. Revolving around the heart, from right to left, he embraces all the mankind, all the creation with affection and love."

Dervishes dancing, working toward a mystical trance


Krsna playing the flute, and achieving a mystical trance



Vedanta is based on two simple propositions:

  1. Consciousness is Brahman.
  2. The aim of human life is to realize that Consciousness is Brahman.

Vedanta represents the philosophical portion of the ancient scriptures of India, the Vedas. Specifically, it refers to the final portion of the Vedic literature, the Upanishads, but it also includes the Bhagavad Gita, the great epics of India, as well as the Puranas, as well as many other texts, hymns, and writings. The basic teaching concerns the ultimate identity of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul. The goal of Vedanta is for the seeker to have the direct experience of his or her true nature, and it is held that each and every one of us is qualified to have that highest illumination, if we are willing to put forth sincere and intense effort.

The goal of Vedanta is a state of self-realization or cosmic consciousness. Historically and currently, it is assumed that this state can be experienced by anyone, but it cannot be adequately conveyed in language. Since it is direct and unmediated by the senses, it is ineffable.



Bernini's "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa"

Let him kiss me with the kisses of the mouth, for your breasts are better than wine. (Song of Solomon 1:1)

This opening verse from the "Song of Songs," with its enigmatic address (who is speaking to whom?) and erotic imagery of kisses and breasts, was one of the central scriptural foundations in the history of Christian mysticism.

Bernard McGinn, a leading authority on the history of Christian mysticism, notes:

It was only in the post-Enlightenment period that the Song became in some way suspect - a kind of embarrassment to 'decent' Christians. For fifteen and more centuries, pious Jews and Christians viewed it as a central, we might even say the central, text of God's revelation to his people. Origen was typical in seeing it as the greatest of the Bible's songs, the one that expresses the highest form of its whole inner teaching. Indeed, if Christianity had not had the Song of Songs, it might well have had to create one, in a way analogous to how Sufi mystics utilized pre-Islamic love poetry (Qasida) in order to express their pursuit of the Divine Lover.

Various denominations of Christianity have developed certain practices in order to make oneself disponible to direct communion with the Divine. The Eastern Orthodox Churches have the tradition of the Hesychia, or Jesus Prayer. Julian of Norwich speaks of the three ways in which mystics directly experience the Divine:

First, bodily visions, meaning to be aware with one's senses—sight, sound, or others; second, ghostly visions, such as spiritual visions and sayings directly imparted to the soul; and lastly, intellectual enlightenment, where her mind came into a new understanding of God.

Juan de la Cruz offers his principles of detachment, where he states that the soul must always be inclined:

not to the easiest thing, but to the hardest; not to the tastiest, but to the most insipid; not to the things that give the greatest pleasure, but to those that give the least; not to the restful things, but to the painful ones; not to consolation, but to desolation; not to more, but to less; not to the highest and dearest, but to the lowest and most despised; not to the desire for something, but to having no desires.

Later theologians have deemed this the "via negativa," [the way of self-denial; definition through negation; the path of darkness; the cloud of unknowing - a famous medieval Christian mystical text].

Since the experience in ineffable, mystics speak about their communion through analogy. The most common analogies throughout the centuries have been sexual in nature. That is, communion with the Divine is like communion with another person through sex, only better.


Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD. Divine Intimacy. Rome: 1952

Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Love. Trans. John Skinner. NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1996.

McGinn, Bernard. "Mysticism and Sexuality." The Way Supplement 77 (1993): 46-54.

"What is Vedanta?" Vedanta Center of Greater Washington, DC. 2012. 2 December 2012. Web.