Reynold Ruslan Feldman, Ph.D. - Author, Editor, Nonprofit Consultant, Wisdom Coach
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The Dangers of Mysticism

Mysticism is dangerous. But first, you ask, what is mysticism? There are lots of definitions. My personal favorite, by the 20-Century British writer on the subject Evelyn Underhill, is “mysticism is first-person religion.” To paraphrase the rationalist Thomas Paine, Revelation is only for the person who received it. For everyone else it is mere hearsay. Yet at least the three Abrahamic religions are based on revelations to others. We “believers” are simply taking their experiences on faith. Our religions are thus third-person affairs. Think of the Black hymn “Where you there when they crucified our Lord?” Nope. And neither were you. “Where you there when they laid Him in the ground (cave)?” Ditto. Or how about “Where you there when He rose up to the Sky?” I rest my case. None of us was there. It’s all hearsay—hearsay which some of us choose to believe.

So let’s talk a bit about mysticism and why it’s dangerous. Saul of Tarsus, a self-admitted Pharisee of the Pharisees, had been deputized by the Chief Priest in Jerusalem to arrest Christians in Damascus. On the way there, he heard the voice of the dead Jesus asking why he, Saul, was persecuting him, Jesus. The latter went on to say that Saul was on the wrong side of history and implied that he should get with the program. To underscore the point, Saul was struck blind for three days. As a result, Saul became St. Paul, the major founder of Christianity. Now that’s first-person religion.

So mysticism is dangerous, to begin with, because it can turn your world upside down, create a new you in you, change your values, affiliations, even your religion. Secondly, it can get you killed. Besides Socrates, Jesus, St. Paul, and more recently the Bab, the co-creator of the Baha’i Faith, I think of the Persian Sufi Al-Hallaj, who made the mistake of uttering while in an ecstatic state, “Ana al-hak!”; “I am the Truth.” Now since “Truth” is one of the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah, he basically said, “I am God!” If you want to get yourself martyred in the Islamic community, that’s not a bad place to start, even today.

Finally, mysticism is dangerous because the guardians of formal religions just hate it when you go direct. I mean, religions espouse the wholesale approach, while mysticism is frighteningly retail. “Why does one need Sufism?” A well-dressed female Algerian doctor asked Cedar and me on the Tangier-to-Rabat Express. “Muhammad’s sunnah [the rules and regs of traditional Sunni Islam] contains everything a person needs to obey the will of God.” Well, maybe. But maybe not. To paraphrase Robin Meyers’ main point in Freeing Jesus from the Church, the Sermon on the Mount is all about behavior, while the Nicene Creed is all about belief. To behave differently, as Saul showed us, requires transformative first-person experience, not conventional group belief in someone else’s. But remember: If you agree with me and start seeking out the former, watch your back. History clearly shows that mysticism is nothing if not dangerous.

26 Comments to The Dangers of Mysticism:

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Michael Saso on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 10:02 AM
Hi, Reynolds, thank you for this insight. According to Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism is the personal, now, one on one experience of Transcendent Presence, w/no word, no concept, non-desired, in order to experience. Sufi, Kabala, Teresa de Avila, Juan de la Cruz, Daoism, and Madhyamika Buddhism, all agree.
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Reynold Ruslan on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 12:09 PM
Thanks, Michael, for your professional additions. Yes, the point per Prof. Diana Eck and the Harvard Pluralism Project is, it's all about inclusiveness. When we're exclusive, we make God exclusive, i.e., into something that's not God. This alas is often the result if not the intention of one-true-way religions. So Elisabeth, I agree with you too. Also, as you say, mystics appear in any and every age, those first-person experiencers. I am familiar with several of the ones you mention but not all. Thanks for bringing them to my attention. Cheers, Reynold Ruslan


Elisabeth Smith on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 11:42 AM
There are some modern day mystics who have very interesting insights about spiritual matters. A few favorites of mine are Jim Rosemergy, Eric Butterworth, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Rocco Errico, who has done extensive research on the metaphysical meaning of bible teachings. My personal insight is to practive inclusiveness, not exclusivitis...
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Reynold Ruslan on Thursday, August 18, 2011 11:41 AM
Thanks, Elizabeth, for your comment. I replied along with my comment to Fr. Michael Saso. Hope you saw it there. Cheers, RR


Illene Pevec on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 4:14 PM
Dear Reynold, It seems to me that mysticism has nothing to do with words and everything to do with inner experience, as you explained via Saul/Paul's experience. How can the mind comprehend that which has nothing to do with thought?It hurts my brain to wrap it around the unwrappable.. xxoo xxoo
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Reynold Ruslan on Thursday, August 18, 2011 11:45 AM
Thanks, Illene. I agree. Mystical experience is beyond words and cognitive thought. But mystical experience when formalized into traditional religion is much more about words and cognitive thought. The felt experience of a mystical moment is at once particular to the person and cosmic. Religion however in the name of the Most High can become quite low, narrow, and exclusivistic. That, I guess, was the distinction I was trying to make in my blog.


Aliman Sears on Sunday, January 08, 2012 1:38 PM
Let me say a few words here about our role as helpers in Subud and reason/logic. It's fine to say that mystical experience is beyond the mind as long as we don't fall into misology (not appreciating reason or thinking that reason is impotent or unimportant). After all, we are embedded in a world of reason, argument, rationale, explanation, critical thinking, clarification, justification, and most importantly, description. E.g., in terms of a candidate meeting, proper description of our experience may lead to illumination to the listener. Bapak wanted us to be his helpers. This means using reason along with divine guidance, and choosing the right explanations, so that our descriptions of our experience can lead to an illumination or spark something in the candidate. This is what may occur on an individual level, say at a candidate meeting. But there’s also the larger level, of how we as helpers comport ourselves in general. Say from the perspective of our co-workers. We can’t live life in a mystical, reasonless, non-thinking way. Yes, when we actually do latihan we surrender our thinking. But during the rest of our lives we’re always thinking, arguing (I don’t mean fighting, I mean putting together reasons and forming conclusions) and we’re constantly making decisions. This is the way reality is structured. We’re always (hopefully) being open to divine guidance during our daily lives at work and bringing that guidance to bear on our decisions, but we’re always thinking and deciding nonetheless. So, for me, the question becomes, how do we effectively implement our divine guidance, and do and say things in our lives such that co-workers and others, over weeks or months or years, look at us as a good example of a human being? How do we surrender and then USE reason rather than reason using us? There’s also the deeper philosophical and psychological point, which I won’t argue here, but will only mention: When we receive a revelation or divine guidance or something from beyond, we must receive it in terms of our rational thought structure; it must be an idea that conforms to logic and reason. Otherwise, we can’t think about it, we can’t use it, we can’t talk about it, we can’t comprehend it. In fact, we wouldn’t even be aware of receiving it because such a feeling doesn’t fit in with our experience! Think of anything you’ve ever received in latihan. It must always be received in terms of logic and reason. Even things that we think don’t make sense, eventually do make sense. One of the most powerful receivings I’ve ever had was the word “GO!” I got it simultaneously in all six senses. It was similar to being hit on the head with a baseball bat! I was totally shocked! It literally almost knocked me down (I was in the shower so I was able to grab onto the handles on the walls, and that probably prevented me from falling and possibly being injured!). This receiving made no sense to me, yet how could I ignore something so powerful? Then a moment later, it hit me. I realized it meant I had to “go” to Natural Beef Farms in Virginia and work at the Subud enterprise there. As long as we’re alive, nothing can happen which isn’t touched by logic and reason. Of course, the point is that most of us let logic and reason dictate our lives and behavior, rather than us USING logic and reason based on our divine guidance. Aloha!


Jim on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 7:05 PM
If mysticism is dangerous, the lack of it is more so. Few mystics have started wars, practiced genocide or led nations into disasters. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela's leadership is celebrated. I'd err on the side of mysticism.
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Reynold Ruslan on Thursday, August 18, 2011 11:55 AM
Hi, Jim, I agree totally and certainly wasn't trying to put mysticism down. Quite the contrary! I was simply trying to point out that while mystics can have a direct, immediate experience of the Great Life of the Cosmos, religions, based on others' mystical experiences, prefer more controlled, MEDIATED worship in a group setting, where the words, music, lessons, liturgies all come from someone else, not the individual him- or herself. Orthodoxy has therefore always been understandably suspicious of "lone-wolf" mystics who have their own direct connection with God. I mean, think about it. If everyone did or had that, formal religion would go out of business. Compare it with this situation: What if all the world's criminals decided to reform themselves and did so successfully? Tens of millions of individuals employed by the criminal-justice system worldwide would be out of jobs: the criminal attorneys, public defenders, DA's, wardens, guards, criminal court stenographers, police personnel, car makers dependent on making cop cars and black Morias, on and on. Anyway, my 2 cents in response to yours. Cheers, Ren Ruslan


levi on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 8:08 PM
My dearest brother. If you wish to discuss the dangers of mysticsm, I suggest you read about Rabbi Akiba and the garden. There were four great Rabbis who lives during the time of the Second Temple and they were practicing mystical meditation. One went crazy, one became and Aposte, I think one died and only Rabbi Akiba emerged the way he entered. In the Gemora Hagiga, it discusses the mystical techings of that time. I wont dare to praphrase except to say it could only be taught on a one to one basis since if there were two students, something might be lost. Subud is a mystical organization. Just think of testing for a moment. One more thing. May I suggest a book I discovered in a bookstore in Louisville,where I am visiting my daughter and granddaughters. The book is Beyond Mindfulness by Heneola Gunaratana. He is an 83 year old Buddhist monk. his first book 20 years ago was Mindfulness in Plain English. In this book he describes the higher states of meditation in the clearest forms possible. If I wasn't in Subud this would be my path. Read it. It is an amazing work and I don't think there has ever been anything like it. All the best Levi
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Reynold Ruslan on Thursday, August 18, 2011 11:58 AM
Thanks, Levi, for the story about the four rabbis and the recommendation of the book by the octogenarian Buddhist monk. I appreciate as always your comments. Blessings, Reynold Ruslan


Levi on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 8:10 PM
After thought. This is a new book about Thomas Merton and the Sufis that looked interesting
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Reynold Ruslan on Thursday, August 18, 2011 12:03 PM
Thanks for this recommendation also, Levi. More riches. Shalom, Reynold Ruslan


Jan Duniewicz on Thursday, August 18, 2011 11:17 AM
Well... mysticism or lack of it for me is as dangerous and as useful as anything, eg: as a hammer or an axe. All depends on what spiritual, moral, ethical level have the ones who use it. And, Ruslan, I like this wording of my own feelings that: "Revelation is only for the person who received it. For everyone else it is mere hearsay". This "hearsay" can again become a wise inspiration or tool or a dangerous weapon depending on the user. Jan
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Reynold Ruslan on Thursday, August 18, 2011 12:02 PM
This is useful, Jan, and true. I once saw Bapak take a teaspoon and hit first a fine teacup, then a Coke bottle. The first made a beautiful sound, the second went "Clunk! Clunk!" He explained: "God's Grace comes to each of us in equal measure. In some cases the results are beautiful, in other cases ugly. It all depends on who is receiving God's gift." Cheers, Ruslan


Jan Duniewicz on Friday, August 19, 2011 5:58 AM
Reynold, What you write is for me a "hearsay" of Bapak's revelation. Using Bapak's example, my "revelation" is such that if I would be a creator with omnipotence, and created a "fine teacup, then a Coke bottle", I would not expect from them and in the least blame them for giving a "beautiful sound" versus "Clunk! Clunk!" I would also not treat hitting them with a teaspoon as a "gift" or a "grace". The similar in my "revelation" applies to human beings. :-) Jan
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Reynold Ruslan on Friday, August 19, 2011 7:25 AM
Hi, Jan, We'll talk more about your observations here in our upcoming Skype conversation. However, in case anyone else is following these exchanges, let me make a brief response now. First, I agree with you that although I have incredible gratitude to Bapak for the gift of both the latihan and his frequently useful guidance, I also have taken to heart that you and I and other Subud members--and not just Bapak--are Subud, and if our spiritual training is worth its salt, we need to have and follow our own revelations and guidance. Once again, first-person religion. I am not simply hitting established religion for formalizing the receivings of others; I include all mystics, including Bapak. That said, I found his metaphor of the teacup and the Coke bottle instructive and useful. It is a variant on Jesus' parable of the seed and the different qualities of the earth. I don't think Bapak had in mind to blame the teacup and Coke bottle for their respective natures and, consequently, the contrasting sounds they made when similarly struck. We're all by some measure doing the best we can. Abused children for example have a much better chance of becoming abusive adults than kids who were well treated by their parents or guardians. Bapak went on to say in that Chicago talk I witnessed that unlike the bottle and the teacup, we human beings by turning toward the Great Life Force have the possibility of refining our inner natures so that when life touches us, we will respond in a good, beautiful way rather than in a less good, less beautiful one. Bapak was of course talking to a bunch of Subud members and was referring our Subud spiritual exercise. My own sense, as a Subud universalist, however, is that the Great Life Force has created all sorts of ways and paths up the Mountain, not just ours or anyone else's. So that's my real point. As the popular bumpersticker says, "God don't make no junk!" In that regard, I believe the Universe can make available to each of us a pathway to our biggest, noblest selves that fully accords with our capacities. In fact, this belief is my personal sense of what Grace means and is. All God's chillen, per the Black American spiritual, got wings. It's a matter of learning how to unfold them and fly. Okay. C'est tout pour maintenant. Talk with you soon. Love, Ruslan


Jan Duniewicz on Friday, August 19, 2011 10:38 AM
Thank you, Ruslan, for this more elaborate explanation of your experiences and reflections. As our Skype connection somehow strangely fails I will then continue on this topic here. I’m very grateful and respectful to Bapak and for his introducing me to the latihan, especially while stressing that he was “just a janitor”. Latihan has become my continuous “revelation”; it has been inspiring me and leading me through unexpected “revealing” events, experiences, reflections. At the same time it has awakened me to extremely painful “dark nights of the soul” and resulting still unanswered questions to God that caused me to stop considering the concepts under the terms of God’s “grace”, “gift”, “blessing”. I feel them now as inexplicably selective. Jan
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Jillene Moore on Friday, August 19, 2011 7:08 PM
What if we're all alive in the mystery every day? What if this thing we call religion is just a way of connecting with ritual, in order to create meaning? What if it's an excuse to form community? What if the biggest danger is creating an intellectual framework of ideas that's just trying to explicate what is lived ~ a task that some would say is impossible anyway! Although Ruslan's words and those of other commentators are lovely, none can even come close to clearly describing a lived moment. What if this very moment, whether ordinary or transcendent, is the very best thing I can expect?
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Jan Duniewicz on Sunday, August 21, 2011 7:41 AM
Thank you, Jillene, for reminding me about this essential and integral element of my leadership life of being “alive in the mystery every day?”, I would even say “every now and here”. This is what I’ve been reminding myself and learning all the time. I don’t see this in conflict (unless I get caught into a trap for too long) with respecting someone else’s wisdom whether it comes from a religion, science, own revelations and inspiration, from exploring, observing, experiencing and... like I’m doing here: formulating my reflections into words and hoping others would share theirs... Thank Jillene. Jan
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