Mystic personality

Western mystics describe similar experiences, but there is no mystic personality type. Nor, strictly speaking, are they necessarily solitaries or even introverts.

For example: Hildegard of Bingen was a strong-willed and creative artist willing to confront bishops and bureaucrats. Meister Eckhart was a scholar who preached regularly to a parish of intellectually humble minds. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were consummate administrators. Angelus Silesius passed his best years in fruitless proselytizing. Jonathan Edwards, the New England preacher, is not remembered for his youthful experiences of mystic rapture but for his fire and brimstone. The list goes on.

With Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, and perhaps the unknown author of “Cloud of Unknowing” we approach a parallel of mystical and hermit life. Solitude becomes a dominant theme, a priority for daily life, not merely a stage or setting for mystical experience. Including elaborations of imagery and symbolism in mystic experiences with descriptions of solitude and eremitism risks smothering simplicity. Those experiences which are especially controversial or hagiographical ought to be excluded at once from exploring a mystic personality. Otherwise, we verge toward the classic hysteria so repugnant to reason and authority.

As an antidote to mysticism as irrationality is the book titled “Quantum Questions” usefully assembled by Ken Wilber. It consists of “mystical” writings of 20th-century physicists. These are serious scientists, including Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Einstein, Planck, Eddington and others. They show that mysticism has little to do with epistemological frames of mind and even less to do with personality. They redefine and rescue mysticism.

The popularizer Evelyn Underhill wrote (in her “Practical Mysticism”) that

Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in a greater or less degree, or who aims at and believes in such attainment.

This description seems too literal, making mysticism an advocacy or station in life, an aspiration or goal like a vocation. Underhill describes the task of the simple reader turned want-to-be-mystic as a mundane one that merely requires an open mind or heart, as it were, toward Reality. If mysticism fits our personality, than we can safely pursue it.

These ambiguities are cultural and social. The Western world has little tolerance historically for hermits, anchorites, and solitaries, let alone mystics, most of whom were objects of suspicion of heresy. Inevitably, the subjective content of their experiences were bound to enrich their understanding of theological definitions, and therein confront ecclesiastical necessity of controlling dogma and teaching. Unwisely expressed, mysticism in the West was an intolerable projection of subjectivity. But so too was eremitism.

In contrast, Eastern cultures have not only tolerated hermits, solitaries, and mystics but fostered them. In the East the content of belief is fluid, not in the sense of relative but in being ultimately a matter of individual integration, with social and cultural latitude for this internalizing process and consequent expression.

Such a subjective process does no harm to culture and society in the East because it is viewed as a refinement of a personal gift cultivated individually and returned in a creative way to society at large.

In such a context, a mystic personality seems possible, even if stereotypical to critical Western onlookers. The life of the hermit, whether from historic India, China, Japan, Tibet, Thailand, or elsewhere in the East, does not threaten society or accepted beliefs. The lives of hermits are sources of edification in such social contexts. Where the lives of saints in the West serve to accommodate personality types and dispositions, this function is not taken literally but as a metaphor for expressions, carefully tempered. In the East, the saints are colorful, garrulous, even literal. It is hard to see them as merely mundane.

The famous photo of Ramakrishna in an ecstatic state confirms to every Western viewer the stereotype of the mystic. There are some equivalents in the West but they would not be allowed such a prominent influence in spiritual practice because mysticism is an uncontrolled element in the West. Yet this ecstatic state is not a norm, and is not expressed as a norm anywhere, for the East has a more carefully mapped study of enlightenment than exists elsewhere. Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen master, was always insistent that enlightenment was not a priority, a pursuit, or a conceit. For the mundane, it is all the same to just practice.

For the solitary in the West, the dominance of psychology and social conformity still permits a discrete pursuit of mystical themes, as even the great 20th-century physicists show. So, too, does solitude and silence have to underplay their presence in our public lives in order to safeguard themselves not from a past ecclesiastical authority but from the conformist society of the present.