Nicholas F. Gier

Department of Philosophy

University of Idaho

Presented at the conference "Pions and Beyond," University of Idaho, April, 1998

    There is widespread misuse of the word "mystical." Even religious scholars do not use the word precisely. In common parlance its meaning is so loose that the word has lost its power to communicate anything intelligible. The popular books The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters have done much to educate the general public about the wonders of contemporary physics, but their authors are incorrect in describing it as "mystical" in its theory of reality. In what follows I will define mysticism, offer a typology of mysticism, and demonstrate how common usage conflicts with my definition. I will argue that the terms "holistic pluralism" and "organicism" best describe the world that 20th Century physics has discovered.

    The adjective "mystical" comes from Latin mysticus and Greek mustikos. For the Greeks it meant one who was initiated into one of the mystery religions. I usually find etymologies very helpful, but this one is misleading. Theses derivations might lead us to believe that mysticism has something to do with esoteric religious practices. This unfortunately intensifies the misunderstanding of the mystical as the mysterious or the occult. The literal meaning of mustikos is "close the mouth"--i.e., to keep tight-lipped about the religious instruction that one has been given. Mysticism East and West has generally not been esoteric, and mystics have usually not kept their experiences or even the methods to attain them secret. Therefore, there is a significant difference between esoteric knowledge (kept secret except for those who are initiated) and the ineffability of the mystical experience.  That which is esoteric can be put into words and known to the chosen ones, but mystical experience can never be known in this way.

    The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the "mystical" as "spiritual union with God transcending human comprehension." This I believe is a good basic definition but it needs to be revised to include those mystics who claim union with an impersonal reality, such as Plotinus' One or the Hindu Brahman. Both Plotinus and some Hindus (specifically followers of Advaita Vedanta) believe that in the mystical experience the individual self is completely dissolved and identified with the ultimate reality. (The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart is the best representative of this view in the Christian tradition.) In philosophical terms this type of mysticism implies what is called "absolute monism," a view that holds that all of reality is a divine unity, an undifferentiated one, and that individuals and particular things are only derivative or ultimately illusory. While mystics name ultimate reality differently, they all agree that the mystical experience is ineffable, confirming the second part of the OED definition "transcending human comprehension." Therefore, we have two necessary but only together sufficient conditions for a mystical experience: a union with ultimate reality that is ineffable.

    St. Catherine of Genoa, a medieval mystic, speaks of the dissolution of the self into God in the following way: "My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself."(1) Catherine's position is a mystical interpretation of Paul's famous phrase "Not I, but Christ." This is essentially the same as the Hindu saying "Not I, but Atman (=Brahman)," or the Buddhist saying "Not I, but the Buddha nature." For the mystic the ego-self is an illusion; in Christian terms it is the fallen, sinful self. The true soul is the Godhead or the divine One. As Meister Eckhart said: "The knower and the know are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge."(2)


    After the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco one commentator said that it had destroyed the "mystical" beauty of the Bay Area. (On a recent visit I did not see any evidence of the damage, so this person must have meant only a temporary interruption in its beauty.) The general experience of beauty is not mystical because it fulfills only the ineffability criterion. Usually we do not claim that we have become one with the beautiful object. As with most of our experiences there is certainly a unity in our perception of beautiful things. Many of our experiences also involve a loss of self, but to call these experiences, even those of great aesthetic quality and intensity, mystical would extend the meaning so far as to make it imprecise and unusable.

    I once read an article about Chinese paintings that described the objects as located in a "mystical" space. Following our definition mystical space would be undifferentiated, but clearly any painting that could be recognized as such would have differentiated space. Perhaps the author meant that the paintings' space was in some way connected to the "nature" mysticism (defined below) of Chinese philosophy, or maybe he thought that the space was mysterious compared to Western paintings. The confusion of the mysterious and the mystical is obviously playing a role in the commentator on National Public Radio who claimed that llamas have" mystical" stress relieving qualities. Another NPR announcer claimed that George Harrison's introduction of the sitar, an Indian instrument, gave the Beatle's a new "mystical" sound.

    When people say that a book, a religion, or a philosophy is "mystical," they usually mean that it is deep, profound, speculative, metaphysical, esoteric, or just plain philosophical. (They could of course be using the word correctly if the book fit our OED definition.) The confusion between metaphysical and mystical is especially common. To a trained philosopher metaphysics is simply a study of being or reality, which could range from a belief that all things are material to all things being mental or spiritual. We can contrast this with the New Age movement, where "metaphysical" means esoteric or occult teachings, ranging from reincarnation, lost civilizations, to alien visitations. This means that, according to our definition, many New Age ideas are not mystical either. Aside from some Buddhists and the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, most mystics assume a metaphysics, but, as we have seen, a very specific monistic system based on an ineffable union with spiritual reality.

    In our English literature classes we learn that William Blake was a great "mystical" poet, but his major poems describe visions not mystical experiences.(3) A vision is full of vivid images and has a narrative line, one that can be explained in words. By contrast the ultimate mystical experience has little if no content and the mystic confesses that the experience cannot be expressed in words. Christian mystics speak of themselves being dissolved in Christ or God, but they also say that Jesus sometimes appeared to them and spoke to them. I believe that it is essential to distinguish the first as mystical from the second as visionary, or once again the word mystical loses its meaning.

    Although some meditative techniques lead to mystical experiences, there is no necessary connection between meditation and mysticism. In early Buddhism there are two types of meditation: calming meditation (samatha-bhavana) and insight meditation (vipassana-bhavana). The first is designed to calm the passions, to rid people of their craving selves, and to maximize sympathy for all living beings. The second technique is more intellectual and results in prajna, the highest form of knowledge the Buddha attained. It consists of basic propositional knowledge and can be phrased in sentences such as "all things are impermanent" and "there is no Atman." It is clear that neither of these types of meditation leads to mystical experiences according to the OED definition. The virtue of compassion requires that we have sympathy for beings other than ourselves. Prajna is not mystical knowledge for at least two reasons: (1) it is knowledge of a differentiated reality of a myriad transitory events; and (2) as propositional it is eminently sayable and clearly not ineffable. With its concept of the Dharmakaya (the universal body of the Buddha) Mahayana Buddhism does combine meditation and mysticism, but this concept is not found in the early Buddhist writings.(4)


    Except for some Buddhist and Chinese philosophers, traditional mysticism both Asia and Euro-America has assumed a substance metaphysics. From Aristotle onwards a substance has been defined as an unchanging substrate somehow related to a changing world. Substances ranged from an immutable spiritual substances such as God and the soul to immutable physical substances such as the atom. The discoveries of 20th Century physics, I believe, offer strong empirical disconfirmation of substance metaphysics. Instead of unchanging substances the universe appears to be a dynamic whole made up of changing processes. Heraclitus, Laozi, and the Buddha were the great "process" philosophers of the ancient world and they have now been vindicated by the new "process" physics. This common ground in process philosophy is the real meeting point of contemporary physics and Asian philosophy, at least the Buddhist and Chinese traditions. Unfortunately, Hinduism maintains Brahman-Atman as spiritual substance and the original Yoga philosophy had a substance dualism even more extreme than Cartesian dualism.

    If we apply strictly the revised OED definition of mysticism to the earliest Yoga philosophy (i.e., before it was synthesized with Vedanta), we get a very surprising result. Here there is a basic dualism between matter and spirit in which even higher level mental activities are placed on the material side, leaving the spiritual self as a very abstract entity. When yogis reach liberation, their spirits do not fuse with Brahman or anything equivalent; rather, their disembodied souls float to their own isolated regions of space.(5) Therefore, there is no experience of unity (except an internal one) and the Yoga Sutras describe this experience with great confidence. The Buddha was also an expert in yogic techniques and his enlightenment does not appear to meet the two criteria of mysticism either. Like the yogis he explains his experiences in great detail, discovers that all things flow, and boldly proclaims that Atman and all other substances are metaphysical fictions. Again there is no fusion with any ultimate reality and there is no claim to ineffability. Later Buddhism does make the Buddha into a cosmic being, one with whom all beings can merge in mystical union, but there is nothing like this in the early sutras.

    There is much value in Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav's Dancing Wu Li Masters, but both of them are misusing the term "mysticism" when they compare contemporary physics with Asian philosophy. Instead of the word "mystical," Capra and Zukav should have used the terms "holistic" or "organic." The wu li of Zukav's title is Chinese for "physics," but literally and appropriately it means "patterns of organic energy," and the neo-Confucian philosophers had view of vibratory energy roughly similar to the new physics. Zukav claims that Bell's theorem demonstrates that there are no such things as separate parts, a conclusion that he says is the same as the mystics.(6) I propose that this is better explained by a theory of organic wholes, with internally related parts, not mystical wholes with no real individual parts. In a strict sense modern physics is the very opposite of mysticism, because it has divided up reality into literally hundreds of discrete subatomic particles, each with its own distinct signature. Each of these particles is an instantiation of a holistic energy field, but each maintains its identity nonetheless. What we have is a radical pluralism not an absolute monism. The cosmos is an organic unity with diversity, not a mystical union without remainder.

    Einstein thought that if we separated paired subatomic particles, we could eliminate quantum indeterminancy by measuring one particle and making up for the observational disturbance by assuming that the other particle would remain unchanged. Quantum theory fooled Einstein, not the other way around. Imagine the cosmos as a gigantic dance floor and two paired particles are doing a synchronized dance. Even if the particles were at opposite ends of the cosmos, their movements would match each other perfectly--a change in one would affect a change in the other. At least two assumptions of classical physics are undermined completely: (1) there is no action at a distance; and (2) particles are self-contained, self-sufficient entities externally related to one another. Zukav is correct in saying that subatomic particles are "connected in an immediate and intimate way,"(7) but this is not a mystical relation nor a mystical unity. Rather, it is an internal relation, where one entity is dependent on another (asymmetrical internal relation) or both are dependent on each other (symmetrical internal relation). Just as our "dance" particles preserve their individual integrity and are not dissolved into each other, so too do the terms of internal relations maintain their separate identities. The mechanical model is based on external relations; the organic model is based on internal relations; and the mystical model ultimately has no parts that can relate at all. The Buddha's doctrine of interdependent coorigination is the best Asian model of internal relations, so it is Buddhism once again that offers the most constructive comparisons with the new physics.

    Schrodinger's wave mechanics is best conceptualized in organic terms rather than mystical terms. The wave packets are discrete packets, intimately related to other packets, and are recognizable by instruments. Unwittingly mixing organicism and mysticism, Zukav himself describes the wave function correctly: "It would be a sort of organic whole whose parts are changing constantly. . . ."(8) Earlier, he refers to the organic model when he states that "all that exists by itself is an unbroken wholeness that present itself to us as webs [patterns] of relations. Individual entities are idealizations which are correlations made by us."(9) There are at least two problems with this passage: (1) the whole cannot be literally unbroken if the parts are "changing constantly"; and (2) individual particles are not made by us but constituted by relations. The passage he uses from Henry Stapp clearly indicates this: "Not a structure built out of independently existing unanalyzable entities [classical atoms externally related], but rather a web of relationships between elements whose meanings arise wholly from their relationships to the whole."(10) This is the Buddha's view as well: all things are constituted by their relations to other things. The Buddha rejects the idealist position that human minds construct reality.

    In The Tao of Physics Capra repeatedly claims that Asian mysticism has been confirmed by contemporary physics. Here is one sample passage: "The harmony between their views confirms the ancient Indian wisdom that Brahman, the ultimate reality without, is identical to the Atman, the reality within."(11) But of course there is no such confirmation. Atman and Brahman are immutable spiritual substances, and I maintain that this is incompatible with today's physics for at least two reasons: (1) contemporary physics appears to make the idea of any substance impossible; and (2) physics is irreducibly pluralistic not monistic. (It may be said to be monistic only in the sense that all things come from energy.) One might say that the naked singularity of the moment before the Big Bang is such a mystical reality, but just a little scrutiny will show what a rash claim that might be. We know that the singularity would have been infinitely dense, but the mystics tell us that the divine unity is infinitely expansive.

    Capra believes that Buddhist interconnectedness and the equivalent idea in physics are found in Tantrism.(12) Tantric philosophy is widely expressed in the worship of the Hindu Goddess, which offers a powerful alternative to the abstract spiritualism of yogic isolation on the one hand and total dissolution in Atman-Brahman on the other. The Goddess exhorts her followers to return to the world, to the body, and to society.(13) The Sanskrit root for the word Tantra means "to weave," and to say that reality is like an interwoven fabric is to imply that it has a warp, a woof, and distinguishable threads. This metaphor again lends itself to an organic model of pluralistic holism not mystical unity.

    Zukav believes that the idea reality is dependent upon perception is a mystical notion that is confirmed by quantum physics.(14) But this idealist philosophy is also found in Euro-American philosophy where most idealists are not mystics. (To say that reality is dependent upon perception is not the same thing as claiming that this same reality is a unity without differentiation.) Instead of Zukav's idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics ("our reality is what we choose to make it"),(15) I side with Stapp's idea that things are constituted by their interrelations with all others things (not just human consciousness), which is the most acceptable Buddhist view as well. Therefore, we must reject Zukav's claim that physics has become a branch of psychology, or that physics now actually reflects the structure of consciousness.(16)

    The foregoing is also the view of Amit Goswami in his book The Self-Aware Universe.(17) The premise that the cosmos as a whole is self-conscious is a speculative idea that has no supporting evidence. On the issue of consciousness I would rather support a bottom-up emergent evolutionary view, one such as Alfred North Whitehead's, rather than a top-down view of the universe as a cosmic mind. In other words, conscious appears only in those places in the universe where evolution has reached a very complex stage of development. In addition to the problem of divine consciousness appearing as a deus ex machina, there is also the issue of internal consistency in Goswami's own Vedantist philosophy. In its ultimate form Brahman is an undifferentiated unity: highest Brahman does not know, is not aware, and does not act in any way. These facts make it very difficult to understand how Brahman can reduce the wave packet. It is, therefore, misleading to describe Brahman as a divine mind. It is a divine One, a mystical unity without any distinctions or qualities whatever. Even if we propose that Brahman is energy in its most abstract sense, physicists would still ascribe certain qualities to energy, not least of which would be power itself.

    Zukav also argues that the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics "sounds like a quantitative version of a mystical vision of unity."(18) But, as I understanding this theory, the Many Worlds concept is not one of unity but of disunity--namely, all possible worlds contained in the wave function are already actualized in separate universes. This does remind us of an Asian view, but it not a mystical one. It is the odd view explained above: the early yogis' belief that each liberated soul will float freely in spiritual space, each not knowing the other and each contemplating its own perfection. This is not a universe, but a multiverse and clearly not a mystical unity.

    Capra suggests that the Many World hypothesis can be conceived as an infinite number of identical worlds, a view expressed in the Hindu story of Indra's pearls.(19) In Indra's heaven there is a string of pearls and they are so constituted that the entire cosmos is contained in each one of them. Later Buddhists adapted this by saying that every thing has its own identical Buddha nature. The story of Indra's pearls is used by Capra and Zukav to link physics and mysticism by means of a holographic analogy. Both Indra's pearls and holographs, however, still represent a differentiated reality, so they are not analogous to the absolute monism of the mystical vision. Furthermore, the many worlds of quantum mechanics would represent instantiations of all different possible worlds. In contrast Indra's pearls and holographs give us copies of the exact same world.


    Theistic Mysticism. The mystics can be categorized according to the way in which they describe the ultimate reality they claim they have become one with. Jewish, Islamic, and Christian mystics say that they have unified themselves with God, so we can call this "theistic" mysticism. Examples are St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross, and the Sufi mystics of Islam. As I have already said, Christian mysticism is sometimes a mix of mystical union and vivid visions.

    Nontheistic or Monistic Mysticism. Asian mystics, neo-Platonists like Plotinus, and some Christian mystics, such as Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme, claim that the ultimate reality is an impersonal One. We can call this a nontheistic or monistic mysticism. Eckhart speaks for them all: "This identity out of the One into the One and with the One is the source and fountainhead and breaking forth of glowing love."(20)

    Some Buddhists and Eckhart have a provocative version of this type of mysticism. The Mahayana Buddhists call the highest reality shunyata and Eckhart sometimes called God, in his medieval German, bloss nit. Both of these terms mean nothingness--not just emptiness, but a nothingness which is all--a no-thing-ness--no particular thing. This undifferentiated reality is the focus and true object of the mystical experience. As Eckhart states: "The Godhead is poor, naked and empty as thought it were not; it has not, wills not, wants, not works not, gets not. . . the Godhead is as void as though it were not."(21) Comparative philosophers have pointed out the obvious similarity between Eckhart's Godhead and the Hindu Brahman.

    Nature Mysticism. Nature mysticism is the most widespread form of mystical experience. Many people have had powerful experiences of unity with nature that they have declared to be ineffable. William Rowe's distinction between introvertive and extrovertive mysticism clarifies the difference between nature mysticism and the first two types above.(22) Whereas theistic and monistic mysticism involves a blocking of the senses, a "self-emptying" of the soul, and a withdrawal from the world, nature mystics merge with nature and their senses become more acute, seeing things as "they really are." Zen Buddhism and Chinese Daoism are very good examples of nature mysticism. We ordinary folk think that we perceive mountains, streams, and valleys, but Zen techniques jolt us out of these banal perceptions so that we come to see mountains, streams, and valleys for the very first time.  The first chapter of the Daodejing speaks of the Dao as ultimate reality, beyond God (di) and nature, and it insists that the Dao is nameless.  The ineffability criterion of the OED definition is even stronger here in Daoism.  Even so the Daoist agrees with the Zen Buddhist in the ability to apply names to the differentiated world of mountains, streams, and valleys.

    Performance Mysticism. Even amateur musicians speak of the experience of union with their instruments and all performers have to admit that they cannot tell us in words how it is that they use their fingers or their lips. Performance mysticism is central to Zhuangzi's philosophy and his most famous character is Cook Ding, who knows the joints of the animals he carves so well that he never dulls his knife, claiming to cut through the nothingness between the bones and ligaments. One might say that in nature and performance mysticism we are straying from the experience of total union the theistic and monistic mystics claim. While the criterion of ineffability is still fulfilled, the world of the nature and performance mystic, especially the latter, is fully differentiated. One might say that the perception of a beautiful object and the playing an instrument may approach the same type of unity experience.

    Chemical Mysticism. Some might speculate that the mystical experience is "all in the head," and might propose that it is nothing but an altered state of consciousness. If this is so, then the experience could be created either by some form of brain stimulation or the ingestion of a drug. In his book The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley reports about his experiments with the drug mescaline and the altered states of consciousness that it produced. Most drug experiences, however, appear visionary rather than mystical, because they usually contain vivid content and most subjects appear to be able to give some account of them. Furthermore, neuroscientists such as James Austin claim that Zen satori cannot be induced by drugs.(23) But it is possible that we will one day find a way to stimulate the brain or find a drug that simulates the mystical experience. Such a reductionistic account is unsatisfying for most religious scholars, but we cannot rule out the possibility.

    I am prepared to defend the mystics against a very common charge, one brought often by scientists and others who prize rational thought. This charge is that the mystical vision is irrational. I believe that this criticism is misdirected. On the face of it, there is nothing logically incoherent about a view that reality is an undifferentiated unity. In fact, the Greek philosopher Parmenides, the only pre-Socratic thinker who had a clear grasp of the principle of contradiction, used logic to attempt a proof of absolute monism. Mysticism is not necessarily irrational; rather, it is just highly improbable given what we know about the world. The other aspect of this charge is that mystical experiences are irrational because they cannot possibly happen. With some exceptions of course, I believe that we should believe mystics when they claim that they have had these experiences. It is the interpretation of the experiences that we can challenge, and I believe that we can do that very successfully. I am personally convinced that the total unity they experience is in the mind and not in reality.



1. Quoted in Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 11.

2. Quoted in ibid., p. 12.

3. I was gratified to learn that Alfred Kazin agrees with me: "Actually the keystone of Blake’s creative work is not mysticism, but vision, and his deepest concern was ‘that he should get all his vision down, through all the arts open to him" (William Blake, ed. Alfred Kazin [New York: Viking Press, 1946]), backcover.

4. I have drawn the two types of meditation from Damien Keown’s excellent book The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992, pp. 77-80), but if I am correct then R. M. Gimello is incorrect in calling these meditative experiences "mystical" (cited in ibid., p. 81).

5. In my own work I call this "spiritual Titanism." See my "Hindu Titanism," Philosophy East & West 45:1 (January, 1995), pp. 73-96. See also my Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000).

6.  Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), p. 257.

7. Ibid. I owe the dance metaphor to Jørn Bindslev Hansen, a Danish physicist.

8. Ibid, p. 258..

9. Ibid., p. 72.

10. Quoted in ibid.

11. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (Boston: Shambhala, 3rd ed., 1991), p. 305

12. Ibid., pp. 139-40.

13.  See my "The Yogi and the Goddess," International Journal of Hindu Studies 1:2 (August, 1997), pp. 265-87. This article as been expanded as Chapter Six in Spiritual Titanism.

14. Zukav, p. 29.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 31.

17. Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe (New York: J. P. Tarcher, 1995).

18. Zukav, p. 84.

19. Capra, p. 296.

20. Quoted in Huxley, p. 88.

21. Quoted in Huxley, p. 25.

22. William L. Rowe, Philosophy of Religion (Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing Co., 1987), chap. 5.

23. James M. Austin, Zen and the Brain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998).