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The Essential Mystics, Poets, Saints, and Sages
A Wisdom Treasury
By Richard Hooper
The Perennial Philosophy
Mysticism is not merely an adjunct to a religion, nor is it a religion unto itself. It is, rather, what Aldous Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy, the viewpoint and doorway that leads to the path that ends in union with Ultimate Reality, or the Ground of All Being. Mysticism is the attempt to gain direct experience of Ultimate Reality through achieving a state of consciousness that Eastern religions call "Enlightenment."
Most mystical traditions evolved out of formal religions, or at least within a specific religious milieu. There were, of course, the ancient Greek mystic philosophers like Pythagoras, Plato, Democritus, and Plotinus. Even the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria held ideas similar to those found in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Still, these men were philosophers, and philosophers approach the problem of existence from the outside, while mystics turn within themselves for answers. Philosophers can theorize that "All is One," yet they cannot experience the Reality itself unless they follow the path of the mystics.
The word "mysticism" means different things to different people, but in this book it will refer only to the inner-directed effort of the individual to realize complete union with the Absolute—to realize our already existing Oneness with all things, or Ultimate Reality.
This Ultimate Reality, the mystics tell us, is both immanent—pervading all that exists in the phenomenal world—and transcendent—pervading all universes and whatever lies beyond all universes. According to most mystics, this "God," if you will, is entirely impersonal and may or may not even be aware of Itself. The "Ground of Being" may or may not be Self-conscious.
The cosmology associated with mysticism is monistic rather than dualistic. In mysticism, there is only one Reality in the universe, not two. "God" alone exists. But "God" is not simply equal to all that exists (pantheism), but is also beyond all things (pan-en-theism). The Absolute contains all things, but it is simultaneously beyond all things. It is immanent and transcendent simultaneously.
Mysticism is the realm of higher consciousness and altered reality. The All may be known only when the individual mystic—the ego-self—completely disappears, so all that remains is the One.
Anyone who has lived long enough on this planet to observe history and human nature can easily be frustrated that religion—indeed, all human endeavors—has not succeeded in making the world what it could be. We can have sympathy for the mindset of the biblical author of Ecclesiastes who declared twenty-three hundred years ago that all human endeavors are, in the end, vanity.
Were it not for this recognition, this disappointment with the world, mysticism might never have arisen in any religion—for it is this very frustration that leads some to conclude that if we cannot change the world, we can change our perception of it.
Both the Buddha and Jesus understood the human condition and the nature of the illusory world. While they counseled their followers to heal the sick and feed the hungry, they also told them that they should not expect to find happiness in this illusory realm. Instead of trying to change the world, they taught, we should turn inward in an effort to change ourselves.
Ironically, it is only when interior illumination is finally attained that one suddenly perceives the world in an entirely different way—as transformed! The Kingdom of God, Jesus said, has always been here—both within us and all around us—we simply haven't been capable of seeing it. And it is only when our eyes are completely open that we become fully capable of having compassion for all living beings.
One thing we may perceive in growing older is that good and evil are inextricably mixed. Knowledge, happiness, success, and perfection turn out to be idealized illusions. The Buddha was correct: suffering is the human condition, or at least one aspect of it. And the Buddha would also agree that traditional—religious, political, or social—approaches to ending suffering will always fail.
In the end we cannot change how the universe works. If we still want to be happy in life, we are left with only one option: change ourselves; that is, change our own perception of the world. Mysticism holds out the possibility that with enough insight into the nature of Reality, we might just discover that all things are as they should be—the way they are meant to be, if not the way we would prefer them to be.
The Kingdom of God is not something outside of ourselves; it has been within us all along. The Kingdom of God is not some perfect utopia yet to come. It is here, now; it is within us and all around us. But we can only enter it when we develop mystical eyes to see and ears to hear. The Kingdom becomes evident the moment our perception of Reality changes.