Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 16: The Sensitives > Chapter 1: Mystical Life in The Modern World

Mystical Life in The Modern World

Mysticism is simply an attempt to provide a system for those whom ordinary religion has ceased to help. It says, in effect, here is a practical means and a demonstrable method whereby you may verify for yourself the essential basic truth that there is a soul in man.

The devotional life consists of prayer and worship; the mystical life consists of intuition and meditation.

Mysticism is not a new creed which one slips on with the ease with which we slip on a new dressing gown; it is a LIFE.

Few are able to have genuine mystical experiences and yet be able to reflect on them impartially and knowledgeably. One who is able to do this successfully should go far on the Spiritual Quest.

Mysticism is a mode of feeling which elevates consciousness to its highest self.

There are certain conditions of the mystical life which remain indispensable, quite irrespective of the century or the milieu in which aspirants live. There are certain laws of mystical progress which remain immutable under any or every kind of human situation.

Despite the large variations of belief, doctrine, method, and experience, it would be fair to say there still remains a considerable number of important principles which have been held in common by mystics everywhere.

The dangers of a misguided mysticism are real, but with the proper safeguards and protective disciplines they vanish. The shaping of a sound, worthy, and strong character as prerequisite and accompaniment to all intuitive or mystical experiences is the very first of these safeguards.

Mystical life is not merely a matter of set times only, but is, for other types and temperaments, a matter of constant remembrance and continual thinking which leads in the end to precisely the same result as got by those who practise formal exercises at set periods. I know of mystics who have attained the goal of self-realization without having passed through the formal practice of meditation in the orthodox sense.

If the differences of view and teaching in mystical circles are wide and striking, they ought not be allowed to obstruct the more significant fact that the resemblances far outweigh them. Here on their foundation there exists ready-made the material for a synthesis of Truths that would be incontestable and universal.

Mysticism is not a thing we learn from clever textbooks. It is life!

It must be clearly understood that mysticism is distinct from religion; yet nonetheless, it is deeply religious.

The definitions of mysticism vary as widely as the standpoints of the definers themselves vary. Thus we arrive at a curious situation. A Theosophist like Annie Besant could applaudingly call it "esoteric religion," whereas a theologian like Karl Barth could only disgustedly call it "esoteric atheism."

It is a hard fact that few people possess the mystical faculty and an even harder one that most people cannot acquire it by conscious effort.

The list of things which are classified as mystical has come to include such contradictory matters as the diabolical and the divine. Could there be greater confusion in any field of thought?

My Webster defines a mystic as "one who relies chiefly upon meditation in acquiring truth." This is a good dictionary definition, but it is not good enough because it does not go far enough. For every true mystic relies also on prayer, on purificatory self-denial, and on a master.

So many persons make the mistake of confusing not only religion with mysticism but also occultism with mysticism. The true mystic possesses in himself all that is best in religious feeling but does not necessarily show any outward signs of being religious.

Mysticism extends both in thought and practice to points far beyond the limits of religion.


There is no justification in this century, as there was in an earlier one, for any mystic to make a statement of truth so obscure and ambiguous that it needs another mystic to interpret it.

Culture has been continuously developed and enriched, revised and enlarged, improved and perfected as human mentality and experience have themselves expanded. Mysticism as a branch of culture cannot exempt itself from this growth.

Such will be the shape of mysticism to come. It will not seek to keep the old traditions alive but rather to create new ones in conformity with twentieth-century needs.

After all, the prime business of such teaching is to illumine the mind. Yet these exponents do their utmost through heavy veilings, cryptic symbolism and overmuch mystery-mongering to darken it!

Life is too short, our days too hard-pressed to spare the time to dig out the shadowy meanings of these unnecessarily obscure writers of occultism and alchemy when the plain statements of those writers who do not belong to such cults will yield clear meanings with only one-twentieth of the study. It is an insult to modern intelligence to ask it to get itself involved with all the tortuous draperies which have been wrapped, fold upon fold, around truth.

Certain schools of medieval writers on mystical subjects leave most readers the impression that the subject is too unintelligible and too mysterious to be worth troubling about. They were overly fond of writing in riddles, leaving their unfortunate readers to decipher toilsomely much that could have been stated plainly. The tortuous expressions and mystery-mongering phrases for which the alchemists, especially, acquired a reputation irritate rather than inspire the modern mentality when it takes up their belauded work--weighty with a dark jargon and mazed by a plethora of cryptic metaphors. This applies to the interpretative side, while on the material side one looks in vain for authentic evidence of successful results. How many of the whole crew of medieval alchemists who wrote elaborate treatises on the art of turning lead into gold, themselves died as paupers! The consequence is that those moderns who do not investigate more deeply form the natural but hasty conclusion that to adopt mystical practices is to turn back the clock and to revert to worn-out superstition. But this conclusion is unfair and mistaken. First, because amid all the ponderous gibberish and inflated imaginations of the medieval stews of pure mysticism and adulterating magic, there was an important residue of genuine irrefragable truth. Second, because the price of religious heresy in those times was often persecution, imprisonment, or even death and consequently mystical writers had to express themselves guardedly, brokenly, symbolically, and vaguely. Today they are under no such necessity. Today, on the contrary, it is their duty to try to leave no opposite impression in their writings. The highest meanings can now be expressed in the plainest possible manner. All mystical teachers are now free to put their thought into direct and understandable language. And if they do not do so, it is because they fail to remember that this is the twentieth and not the fifteenth century, because they are mesmerized by the past, and because their enlightenment is a borrowed and not a directly personal one. The wise student will waste no time with them but rather will study the work of those whose thoughts leave their pens not in dark symbol but in direct clear-cut statement. For only those who know what they are thinking about are likely to know what they are writing about. And only those readers who know what they are reading about are likely to derive any profit from it.

The time has come for the more intelligent among those who have followed these paths to re-examine their techniques and re-define their goals. The others would deem such a procedure damnable heresy. But history is curiously eloquent about the heresy of today being the orthodoxy of tomorrow.

Mysticism must try to extend itself today to bring the everyday life of ordinary people within its sphere. But can this be done? It seems so hard, nay impossible. Yet how else are those who feel attracted towards it to benefit by it? Merely to spend the years reading about its achievements in other and earlier times under other and different skies may be interesting but does not solve the present problems.

The time has come when the ancient religions--however many and fine the truths which they contain--must take note of the changed circumstances in which we live today, must ruthlessly prune their teachings and dogmas by the light of enlightened science without deserting the religious intuition. If this is not done then new, vigorous, and modern sects will keep on coming to birth, because they have more and better appeal to the young minds.

It is dangerous to use terminologies and vocabularies which the past and the present have associated with particular cults, movements, groups, and organizations. It is better to find new ways of presenting spiritual truths, new words with which to name them.

The seekers of the modern era still gaze backward into the past, mesmerized by its revelations and fascinated by its records. In doing this they are still antique or medieval and as out-of-date as a bullock-cart on a transcontinental journey. The wisest among them, however, will refuse to sell their birthright as twentieth-century individuals. They cannot regard the ancient methods of devotional or introspectional patterns as ones to be undeviatingly followed. It is true that all the forms and techniques which they have at their disposal are not necessarily superior to those which the ancients had. But the task of bringing both up-to-date has become historically necessary. Therefore, contemporary living needs must dictate the pattern under which to absorb them. Of course, the reference here is not to the essential truths of the mystical life; its needs of sinking intellect in intuition, ego in soul, and desire in serenity are unshakeable by time. They will never change by one iota.

The time has come in this twentieth century to bring into the daylight of scientific understanding all those occult matters which have hitherto been playthings of esoteric societies, and the hour is ripe to skim all useless verbiage from those explanations which have been handed down to us by Oriental tradition. We may then find something useful where before we could formerly find only difficult symbolism or incomprehensible mystification; we may then be able to express in clear terms such ideas and facts as are infinitely important for the life and well-being of modern man.

The modern mind does not favour the ancient wrappings of mystery and magic around these deeper layers of human consciousness. It believes that knowledge today ought to be shared and spread.

How can the Western mentality, brought up on logical thinking and the scientific method as it is, become naturalized in the incoherencies of Zen enigmas, puzzles, and riddles any more than it can do so in the modern attempts to resuscitate the obscurities of medieval alchemy and medieval occultism?

To try to live in blind imitation of the ways of medieval men is sentimentality, not by itself spirituality.

Mystical human experience does not alter and cannot alter from age to age. At its highest and best, it is always and ever the same. But because human intelligence is itself evolving, then our thought about such experience must evolve too. If the voice of contemporary inspiration is to speak faithfully, it must speak in its own way and utter its own ideas.

Continuing the tradition

The mystic who offers his special experience of living to others may be ridiculed or ignored by a materialistic epoch, but the fact is that he belongs to a continuing tradition that extends backward to the beginnings of human culture. And because this experience is rooted in what is basic and best in the human entity, the tradition will extend forward so long as any culture remains at all.

Until a few years ago, very few had done more than play with these ideas and not many had even heard of them. Here and there some solitary individuals or occasional groups took them up and made queer and freakish cults out of them. But today there are several signs of rapid change.

The occult groups and religious sects have multiplied in our time--and not only among the uneducated or even the half-educated.

It is good that world catastrophe, religious decay, and scientific advance are turning more and more people towards mysticism. But it will be bad if they turn towards an uncritical mysticism.

The failure of the historical element in orthodox religion to withstand modern scientific examination is also one of the reasons why educated minds have turned towards mysticism. For here they become quite independent of the truth of the records or falsity of the myths of certain past events.

Today the mystic is no longer a voice crying in the wilderness, even though mysticism is still far from having a multitude of voices.

Mysticism cannot continue to remain forever an esoteric system cultivated only by an exclusive coterie and unknown to the rest of humanity. It could easily remain aloof and apart only under the old forms of civilization, but not so easily under the new forms which are emerging today, with the immense widening of culture, communications, and privilege involved in them. We are indeed coming closer and closer to the time when more people shall be able to understand its teachings and many more people follow its techniques. The reasons which kept this knowledge hidden in the past, or in extremely limited circulation, are to a large extent less valid today. The spread of popular education helps to support this view, but there are other grounds. The fact is that esotericism has largely accomplished its function. So many conditions and circumstances which formerly justified its continuation have been so altered by time that they now justify not its cessation but, rather, its modification. The truth in its dazzling fullness could not be dispensed to the multitude while there was still no inward preparedness for its reception. If today the ban has been partially withdrawn, that is because there has been sufficient development to justify it. The old obscurantist attitude which would forbid public instruction in mysticism and prevent promiscuous circulation of mystical books cannot be fully justified today. The power which has been manifesting itself will sweep aside the resistance of such selfish exclusionists with the force of stunning shocks. If the esoteric path cannot entirely be made into a common highway, it can at least be made into a useful one for the increasing number of war-awakened minds who are fit to understand and follow it. Although the promiscuous communication of these teachings is still a rash and ill-advised undertaking, its judicious communication is now so no longer. If this integral philosophy can be interpreted to those few whose right knowledge and timely inspiration will thereby be used for the mental and physical betterment of the masses, it will surely be helping, however indirectly, the masses themselves. Taken as a whole, the masses are still not ready for the higher philosophy. But there are individuals as well as large groups among them who are quite ready for mysticism. It is a duty therefore to make it available to such individuals, to see that their inner needs are not neglected, and to leave all others to be taken care of by religion. The patriarchal age cannot last forever. Humanity is on the move. It is beginning to develop intellect, to read, learn, think, and observe for itself. This is to some degree apparent everywhere, although its result will be apparent to the fullest degree only in a few. And these are the few who will accept and appreciate the philosophic mysticism here expounded. The others can be greatly helped by religious mysticism.


What the mystic seeks is a direct experience of the soul. This is an uncommon goal and calls for an inner boldness, a spiritual venturesomeness which orthodox religion usually prohibits.

The rites and forms of religion arise logically from the point of view that God is separate from, and external to, the creatures in the universe. Hence the worship of, and communion with, God must be an external affair too. The theories and exercises of mysticism, however, arise from the point of view that God is internally linked to all creatures.

If the mystics' world is a world of imagination therefore, from a practical standpoint, some imagination is worth having for we have to live personally as well as enquire analytically. Art and its creations are not rejected even if imaginary but on the contrary they are most valuable in everyday life. Similarly the peace and absorption of the mystical experience may even be imaginary but they provide a useful if temporary refuge from the pressure of troubles and burdens. Even the illusiveness of his fantasy experience is not entirely worthless when it reveals little-known powers of the mind in giving back to man what he has once thought, thus proving their subconscious existence. And like dreams, his mysterious visions and occult experiences illustrate the wonderfully creative powers of the same mind. If the forms taken by these phenomena are the working of imagination, the activating power behind them is not necessarily so. We must never forget that the initial movement of these experiences (in those cases where they are authentic and inspired) starts in the Overself and is a manifestation of its Grace. If, therefore, we want to understand the mystic's highest experience aright we have got to get away from its concrete details and the intellectual paralysis that often accompanies them and pay attention primarily to the state of being in which it arises. He often tells us that its atmosphere is so sublime, so peace-fraught, as to be beyond all human verbal description. It is indeed a temporary expansion of consciousness because through it he has been led into the presence of the Overself.

Yoga methods, meditation practices, and religious mysticism have all been given to the world for a twofold purpose: (a) as temporary disciplines, to sharpen the mind and enable it to concentrate on abstract themes, and to purify the character so that strong worldly desires should not interfere with one's power to think without prejudices such as, for instance, the preconception that the material world is ultimate reality, and (b) because at the end of enquiry, when all ideas are seen never to reach the Thinker, the Yogi enters the Silence.

The right kind of mysticism is definitely useful. At the least it helps those who are out of tune with life and brings a serene temperament, a poised mind, equable emotions; it brings awareness of spiritual truths about oneself which flood life with illumination.

It is wise and proper to recognize the limitations and admit the mistakes of mysticism. But to ignore or abandon it on that account is foolish and wrong.

The intellectual metaphysical and rational path is secondary to the mystical feeling path, which is primary. For the Overself has much more to be felt as a presence than merely thought as idea.

If there were nothing other than our ideas of things, and if it were impossible to cross their boundaries, all that we could discover would never be anything more than an exploration from our own imaginings and conceptions. Then, everything holy and divine would be robbed of its value and meaning. But mystical experience intrudes here to show us a world beyond thoughts, a reality beyond ideas.

When we tire of groping our way through the misty profundities of metaphysics without ever arriving at any worthwhile goal, we return to mysticism.

The true mystic does not look to other men for enlightenment, does not fix his gaze outward but inward. He cultivates over a long period, and at last fixes, the habit of sitting in quiet introspection, in perfect repose, and in mental stillness.

Reject the one-sided narrowness of V.S. Iyer and John Levy, successor to Atmananda, which makes them reject mystic experience and mystic feeling. For then the intellect alone is made to serve the quest so that the result is hardly a balanced one. Fanaticism is too limited a way to trace down truth. Mysticism has its valuable service to render on its own level in feeling and devotion.

Mysticism makes communion and worship wholly an interior process.

Those who consider the mystical experience as being a private hallucination or a piece of wishful thinking, are themselves in error.

The mystic quietly declares that he has experimental knowledge of a higher self, a diviner self than the everyday one.

Even if these mystical doctrines are doing nothing more, they are at least bringing peace and solace and comfort to troubled souls who can find help nowhere else.

The illusions and aberrations of historical mysticism or religion need not make anyone reject its values, beauties, intuitions, facts, and experiences. They remain unassailable and are entitled to exercise their influence.

In religion the Divine is regarded as utterly beyond, something outside, transcending the familiar or the ordinary, and quite unreachable. But when this inaccessibility of the Supreme lessens and finally disappears, a tremendous mystical experience arises.

What is often criticizable in persons who pursue mystical studies is unfortunately quite true of most and partly true of many others, since they turn to mysticism in search of escapism or consolation and, more often than not, it remains little more than a branch of religion for them. However, such criticism is thoroughly unjust to the few who are earnest seekers of Truth. To those pioneers, mysticism, with or without its pleasurable experiences--more often without--represents a necessary step forward on their path of spiritual progress, one which will help to bring them closer to their Goal.

These explanations of mystic experience are not intended to explain it away altogether. We must not discount either its reality or its value merely because it may not be quite what the mystic himself sincerely believes it to be. We must not dismiss it as worthless phantasy. We must comprehend that it is the way in which a genuinely transcendental existence necessarily expresses itself to the human mind at a certain stage of the latter's development.

If the metaphysician rejects the fallacies of religion, if he abandons the exaggerations of mysticism, and if he expunges the deceptions of occultism, let it not be forgotten that he also retains whatever is valuable in them.

Here in mysticism is a world of thought, doctrine, practice, and achievement which seems strange, remote and mysterious, for which most people simply do not have the time but to which a few people are tremendously attracted.

The masses are entitled to their surface satisfactions of which several kinds exist. But a smaller group exists which seeks better and higher ones. It is not the sensational and dramatic occult experience they want, nor the self-flattering psychical one, but rather entry into the inner stillness. They are the connoisseurs.

Though it moves in a quiet and unobtrusive manner, the work of mysticism is no less vital and important.

The rhapsodic experience which culminates devotional mysticism gives an intensity of bliss which amply pays for whatever renunciations the mystic himself has made.

It is an error to say that mysticism and metaphysics are on equal levels. The first is more important than the second. There is no way to realize the Self which does not include going inside consciousness. Thinking, however metaphysical, cannot do it. Action, however self-denying, cannot do it. It must be found inside in the heart. The other things are needful but secondary. Without the inner consciousness, action becomes at best humanitarianism and thinking a photographic copy of the Real.

The scientific and the superstitious

The point was reached where the possession of strong interest in mysticism was regarded as an archaic and singular superstition, suitable only for the neurotic among the educated and for the credulous among the uneducated. But this picture is now changing before our eyes. There is more respect, more attention, and more study of this subject than there has been for two hundred years.

If we have the satisfaction of knowing that we do not live in those miserable medieval times when the mystically minded were persecuted with fire and steel, we nevertheless have the less lovely fact that today we may be regarded as dupes and fools, as hallucinated at the least.

Where the factual and the fictional are so mixed together that one can hardly be separated from the other, it is not surprising that so many people sceptically dismiss the whole subject as unworthy of investigation.

In the minds of several scientists the very term mysticism is a synonym for credulity. This is as deceptive for them as it should be disturbing for us.

The materialistic opponents and critics of meditation fasten triumphantly on its unhealthy phenomena as constituting sufficient grounds for condemning the practice outright. Nevertheless we reply that those so-called scientific psychologists who analyse and expose only the fantastic aberrations of mysticism, in the belief that they are analysing and exposing mysticism itself, are themselves self-deluded. For unless they can approach mysticism from the inside, from their own personal experience, as well as from the outside, from what the observing world sees, they will blunder badly into undue scepticism, unnecessarily materialistic explanations, and even wholly false interpretations. But because few scientists possess such equipment, few can offer an accurate, fair, sympathetic yet critical estimate of mystical claims, or comprehend that all mystical experiences are not on the same level, or that even those which are differ in kind and degree.

People with genuine mystical experiences are rare enough--so rare that they are looked upon either as abnormal by sceptics or supernormal by believers.

Religious people denounce a mystic as a heretic. Worldly people denounce him as a fanatic. All this because he has the moral courage to withdraw from religious tradition and to deviate from worldly custom.

That the mystic can possess dignity and display intelligence is what has to be shown. That he is not necessarily a charlatan but may well be a man of virtue is what also has to be shown.

Despite the swiftly begotten yet swiftly forgotten enthusiasms and amid all this shallow omniscience which skims the surface of a multitude of subjects and penetrates to the core of few, there is undoubtedly a genuine public interest in mystical experience.

Because some kinds of mystical experience are clothed in forms which are really projections of ordinary all-too-human feelings, the materialist rejects the whole experience as being a fantasy. He tears it to pieces by his criticism and imagines he has satisfactorily disposed of the subject. But he fails to account for that part of it which is the deepest and least human, the holiest and least ordinary, the truest and least imaginary. He fails to account for the message which every genuine mystic receives when standing on this sacred ground: that here is the ultimate significance of all experience, including everyday experience.

The difference between a practising mystic and a talking one is hard for the ordinary observer to detect.

For a long time--a hundred years at least--the world did not want us mystics, had no use for our mysticism. And now it is beginning to want us again. The wheel has turned full circle.

It is a poor logic which asserts, because some "mystical" experiences are admittedly pathological and others illusory, that all mystical experience is pathological and illusory. The fairest criticism such detractors could make would be silence, so that they would then cease to profane what they cannot understand.

The perils which beset the mystic's path have been eagerly pointed out by critics and used by them as being sufficient reason for forswearing that path altogether. We may admit the perils without admitting the absurd counsel based upon their existence.

Mystics who have dared to carry a brightly flaming torch into the dark places lit only by dim candles of avaricious priests, have been reviled and slandered by the many, but received with love by the intuitive few. Their accomplishments are not to be measured by the narrow and decaying walls of societies and cults which are built by later followers. The mystic's work is infinitely wider than that, and lives on apart.

Most critiques of mysticism stem from a character and an experience which have certain limitations. Most are satisfied with current scientific psychologic knowledge because they know almost nothing of Oriental mysticism, which has thousands of years of experience and tradition behind it.

To say that mystical experience has no validity because it is subjective, is to say little.

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