We often think of ourselves as our bodies. The “I” is the one that speaks through the lips, that looks with the two eyes, smells with the nose, feels with the touch, and tastes with the tongue. Most of us, despite believing in God and scripture, believe that the only way we can experience God directly is after death. We believe that the heavenly realms are only for the eyes of those dead, no longer with us, who are unable to share their experience with us.
But if you dig a little deeper, you will find, that each faith tradition has a small band of people known as “mystics.” These people report having extraordinary experiences with God, and some of them even visit heavenly realms. Their visitations and experiences are not bodily, but rather psychic or spiritual, and yet they have vivid recollections of their experiences. Mystics are able to use their senses during their experiences without their physical bodies, and surprisingly describe their senses as much more heightened than in their physical existence on Earth. It is almost as if they are experiencing some sort of hyper-reality.
Another interesting point to note is that all mystics, regardless of faith tradition or spiritual beliefs report very similar experiences and discover the same “ultimate” truth: God is the only reality & God is unconditional love.
Despite their enlightened insights, many mystics face opposition from their traditional brethren when they utter words the traditional/mainstream community finds problematic with their established understanding of faith and God.
There are several examples of mystics who faced the wrath of their fellow co-religionists by sharing their mystical insights. Here are a few from the Abrahamic faiths:
Rabbe Nachman is a well known (Hasidic) Jewish mystic from the mid to late 1700s till early 1800s. One of his ideas I really liked is that every person should spend an hour alone each day talking out loud to God just as one did to a friend. Although he was respected and followed by many, he nonetheless faced opposition from the orthodox Jews and even from within the Hasidic movement of his times, who saw his ideas as deviating from classical Judaism.
Jakob Bohme is a renowned (Lutheran) Christian mystic from the mid to late 1500s. He experienced mystical visions that prompted him to write about his new found insights about God. He found great support amongst his close circle of friends. But after a copy made it to a pastor, that pastor got infuriated by his claims and had Bohme’s books confiscated and was then banned from writing anymore. He stayed silent for a few years and then at the persistent encouragement of his close friends, he wrote a few more works, which were eventually discovered by the religious authorities, further enraging them against Bohme, pushing him into exile. Bohme was more concerned with faith and self-awareness than dogma and scripture. He presented a fascinating account of God and His power to manifest everything we see and experiences. It is obvious from some of his works that he struggles at times with using the best language and words to explain what he experienced and understood about God.
The most extreme case of abuse against a mystic has to be the Muslim mystic Mansur al Hallaj (858 -922). This mystic often expressed his love and understanding of God in unorthodox ways. Reading about his life, I saw him as a bit eccentric. It is reported that he once knocked on the door of his mentor, Al-Junaid, and when the mentor asked who was at the door, Al- Hallaj answered, “I am the truth.” Al Junaid warned him to be discreet with the “secret of God,” and not to disclose it to those who would not understand it. His followers interpreted his saying as “God has emptied me of everything but Himself.”
Although many admired and followed him, still many could not understand his sayings, and found him dangerous. Once, when he reached Mecca for pilgrimage, he was turned away by authorities who called him a heretic and a magician. Strangely, he had pre-cognition of the brutal end to his physical existence, but was not disturbed by it one bit. In a state of ecstacy, he stated, “I am the truth.” Truth or al-haqq in Arabic, is one of the names of God, which did not sit well with the authorities who interpreted him as claiming to be God, and who at the same time were weary of his growing prominence. He was executed in a brutal manner. He was tortured at first as his limbs and facial features were chopped off one by one before he was finally beheaded. The following day, his remains were burned and the day after, his ashes were scattered in the wind. While he was being tortured, he kept pleading to God to forgive those torturing him, that they did not know what they were doing.
I know that there are several in the Muslim community who consider the sayings and some practices of mystics heretical, and some go as far as considering them outside the boundary of Islam.
After careful analysis of mystics and their sayings, I sincerely believe that the problem lies in the limitations of language. As humans we are restricted to what a person is saying without access to the person’s mind. This causes us several problems in every day situations, whereby we routinely misunderstand others, and others misunderstand us.
This problem seems to be amplified when it comes to mystics. When they share their insights with the world, many misunderstand them because human language is limited to express what can directly be perceived by our physical senses. At the same time, our senses then filter reality according to our past conditionings and subconscious beliefs. This gives us a very narrow and “processed” understanding of reality, life, and God.
Now imagine if you were somehow able to transcend your conditionings and see the reality with no filters and biases. What kind of experiences would you have? You would definitely have different experiences than before. You would have mystical experiences.