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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MYSTICS
A. EUSTACE HAYDON
University of Chicago
The mystic experience is found in all races and religions. It claims attention as
a non-rational, yet real, experience.
It may be denned as an immediate awareness of the nature of reality. The
mystic feels a joyous certainty of the truth of his religious ideas.
The significance of the experience is not in its psycho-physical phenomena.
The Orient knew long ago how to induce the experience by normal means.
Nor is its significance in its revelation of truth for no new truth is attained in
Its significance is that it gives emotional value to any world-view whatsoever and
makes the individual unshakably certain of his worth and security in tie system.
Examples from monistic, theistic, and non-theistic mystics.
Each new world-view must develop its own mystics for mysticism tends to be a
The mystic experience is known wherever baffled human-
ity has sought the meaning of the eternal mystery of life.
It is a racial phenomenon and challenges attention as
to its value, as an experience, without confusion with the
specific theological or philosophical implications attached to
it by the mystics themselves. With the development of
psychological science, the reaction from other-worldliness and
the steady effort to organize our understanding of the world
of experience in scientific concepts, mysticism has fallen
into neglect as a non-rational experience. But it is just as a
non-rational, yet real, experience that it deserves considera-
tion. Creative intelligence is really a late arrival in the cosmic
drama. We have learned to appreciate how little intelligence
has functioned in the long tragic ages of human history, to
see the progress of the race as a blundering exfoliating of the
will to five, to interpret the individual, human organism and
the social complex of ideas, customs, and traditions, which
180 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
molds him, as alike the products of vast ages of suffering and
striving, and to recognize the submerged realm of the
unconscious as a potent factor in the shaping of life. We
could afford to be more hospitable to the mystic experience.
It is true that mysticism carries with it a vigorous support of
its associated world-view. That is part of its significance.
But mysticism is not a world-view. It is an experience and,
as an experience, it has the same quality quite irrespective of
its attendant religious ideas. The student of religious philoso-
phies, wandering in the bypaths of the centuries, may be for-
given for renouncing the findings of the mystics so far as their
interpretation of reality is concerned, for he sees that the
religious philosophers themselves have only rationalized into
cosmic proportions the ideas of historical religions achieved,
not by reason, in the dimly lighted past. The mystic is not
to be blamed if he fails to reach higher intellectual heights
than those who claim to be intellectual, which is not his claim.
His is an experience, which gives him a sense of peace, a quiet,
glad at-homeness in the universe. He is no longer an alien,
for in a moment of insight, he has seen the warm sunlight of
familiarity light up the face of the Ineffable Mystery.
The experience may be defined in the broadest way as an
immediate awareness of the nature of reality. It has the
qualities of joy, peace, and security. In rare moments, when
the play of the senses is subdued and conscious thought is
stilled, the mystic experiences an immense extension of being,
feels himself naturally, inevitably involved in a vaster exist-
ence, which is one with his own. He acquires an unshakable
conviction that he has come face to face with the true nature
of reality and carries the "sense of presence," "cosmic con-
sciousness," or the feeling of "more" as an emotional glow
into the daily routine of living. The mystic is sure that no
words can describe his experience, yet a mystic's description
is the best means of defining the nature of his vision. An
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MYSTIC'S EXPERIENCE 181
example, which is fairly typical, may be taken from a theo-
sophical work. 1
There are moments, supreme and rare moments, that come to the
life of the pure and spiritual .... when the senses are tranquil,
quiet and insensitive, when the mind is serene, calm and unchan-
ging; when fixed in meditation the whole being is steady and nothing
that is without may avail to disturb; when love has permeated every
fibre, when devotion has illuminated, so that the whole is translucent;
there is a silence and in the silence there is a sudden change; no words
may tell it, no syllables may utter it, but the change is there. All
limitations have fallen away. Every limit of every kind has vanished:
as stars seen in boundless space, the self is in limitless life and knows
no limit and realizes no bound: light in wisdom, consciousness of perfect
light that knows no shadow and therefore knows not itself as light;
when the thinker has become the knower: when all reason has vanished
and wisdom has taken its place. Who shall say what it is save that it
is bliss? Who shall try to utter that which is unutterable in mortal
speech — but it is true and it exists.
This shows all the marks of the experience — ineffability,
transiency, quiescence, the sense of immediate contact with
reality, bliss, and complete assurance of truth.
Here, then, is an experience which challenges question on
two points. Does it transcend explanation in terms of psy-
chological science? Does it yield truth as to the nature of
On the first point the answer is swift and confident.
Modern psychology finds nothing mysterious in the phenom-
ena of the experience. All the phases, from the milder sense
of presence to the ecstatic trance, fit somewhere into the
formulas of psychological science. The actual psycho-physical
mechanism of the experience is sufficiently accounted for by
the activity of the fringe of consciousness or the subconscious,
by auto-suggestion or hypnosis, by sex-repression, by the effects
of drugs, dancing, or anaesthesia, by unification of discordant
1 The Self and Its Sheaths, p. 71, quoted by C. R. Jain.
182 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
elements of consciousness, or by the many phenomena of dis-
sociation of personality. That modern science should explain
the psychical conditions under which the ineffable vision comes
does not disturb the mystic. A thousand years ago the Orient
had worked our the normal method of producing the experience.
It included strict control of the senses, repression of disturbing
elements of thought, concentration of vision to induce hypnosis
and meditation on a single thought. That the experience has
a natural explanation may be taken for granted, but what of
the truth immediately realized in the experience ? That, for
the mystic, is the important thing.
On this point Professor Pratt says:
But I think we may say at least this much: that while the psychol-
ogy of religion must have a free hand, and while it is hopeless to look to
it for a proof of anything transcendent, nothing that it can say should
prevent the religious man, who wishes to be perfectly loyal to logic and
loyal to truth, from seeing in his own spiritual experiences the genuine
influence of a living God. 1
No genuine mystic ever needed such encouragement. It is
the nature of the mystic experience to give an unshakable
assurance of the truth realized in the vision. If he is a believer
in God he will be convinced that God is and will be confirmed
in his belief in him with a certainty that reason never could
give. But here enters a difficulty. There are non-theists who
are also mystics, and in their times of immediate awareness of
reality they do not find God but a clear realization of the truth
of their own already accepted world- view. So we find the
answer to our second question. It has already been excellently
stated by Professor Coe 2 and others. The mystic experience
gives no new truth. The mystic comes from his intuitive con-
tact with reality with just that truth which he took with him,
namely, what he had accepted as true as a result of his training
or of his social heritage. It is neither in its miraculous nature
1 The Religious Consciousness, p. 458.
J "The Sources of the Mystic Revelation," Hibbert Journal, Vol. VI.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MYSTIC'S EXPERIENCE 183
nor in its worth as a revelation of truth that the mystic experi-
ence has significance and value. In the Orient this was known
The central significance of the mystic experience is that
it adds an emotional driving power, a glow of worth and
enthusiasm to whatever religious interpretation of the world
the mystic may adopt. A touch of mysticism, and the most
coldly rational view of reality takes on life and interest. The
confident assurance of being intimately united with the deepest
reality gives a dignity and beauty to living and a wonderful
spiritual exaltation which lights up the dreary, daily, common-
place facts of existence. While the mystic experience adds this
reinforcement to any world- view its peculiar, psychic quality
of unification, vastness, and infinity lends itself best to monistic
interpretations. But since the self is always central, even
impersonal or naturalistic monisms take on the feeling of
personality. Tagore has pointed out that, while for the
thinker ultimate reality is impersonal, for the religious wor-
shiper it must always be experienced as personal. The theist
will find the personal God in his mysticism. Although a
religion may demand a personal God, the experience itself
is one of unity, infinity, and eternity, with the result that
in such writers as Ramanuja, Kabir, Tauler, and the Sufi
poets there is a strange blend of the two types of expression.
St. Teresa was even assured, in a moment of union, of the
truth of the Trinitarian dogma. The more philosophical
Vedantist finds only the impersonal Absolute and a con-
firmation of his maya doctine of the phenomenal world.
In the bhakti types of Hinduism the predominant note is that
of ecstatic union with a loving, personal God. But in all
theisms the impersonal and personal are inextricably com-
bined in the descriptions of the mystics. Kabir sings:
"When I am parted from my Beloved, my heart is full of misery: I
have no comfort in the day. I have no sleep in the night. To
whom shall I tell my sorrow?
184 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
The night is dark; the hours slip by. Because my Lord is absent, I
start up and tremble with fear.
Kabir says: "Listen, my friend! There is no other satisfaction, save
in the encounter with the Beloved."
But he also says:
"The river and its waves are one surf: where is the difference between
the river and its waves ?
"When the wave rises, it is the water; when it falls, it is the same
water again. Tell me, Sir, where is the distinction ?
"Because it has been named as wave shall it no longer be considered as
"Within the Supreme Brahma, the worlds are being told as beads:
"Look upon that rosary with eyes of wisdom." 1
Both the personal and the impersonal forms of expression
fail to reach the full meaning. "Kabir says: It cannot be
told by the words of the mouth. It cannot be written on
paper. It is like a dumb person who tastes a sweet thing —
how shall it be explained ?"
It is only necessary to seek out the mystics of the various
lands and religions to be convinced that any interpretation
of reality may find support in this experience. Ramakrishna
was able to achieve the mystic experience equally well in rela-
tion to Kali, Krishna, Allah, and Christ, and so, to conclude
that all religions are one and all are true. The experience is
one and all mystics talk the same language.
The idealists of China who thought of reality as a monistic
Tao unfolding in the phenomenal world-order may be repre-
sented by Chuang-tse. 2 Every mystic will understand him.
"In tranquillity, in stillness, in the unconditioned, in inaction
we find the levels of the universe, the very constitution of
Tao." "Take no heed of time, nor of right or wrong. But
passing into the realm of the Infinite, take your final rest
therein" and so "we are embraced in the obliterating unity of
1 One Hundred Poems of Kabir, LII, XIV, LXXVL
* Chuang-tsu, Mystic, Moralist and Social Reformer, pp. 191, 31, Giles translation.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MYSTIC'S EXPERIENCE 185
Turn now to another type of world-view. India has had
several non-theistic religions, and mystics in all of them Here
the center shifts from a Supreme Soul to the individual self as
the ultimately real. The Sankhya philosopher teaches that
souls are eternal and only by nescience are deluded into adopt-
ing as their own the experiences of the psycho-physical state
of existence. In the mystic revelation the soul is convinced of
its eternal isolation, breaks the bondage and escapes the
tyranny of the world. Life is endurable with this insight.
The Jains have always repudiated the idea of a supreme God
as well as the monistic view of reality. Because mysticism
has been associated in their thought with this dreamy monism
they dislike being called mystics. They insist that a man must
arrive at a clear understanding of the nature of reality by
reason and then follow the mystic way to find the confirma-
tion of the truth. "The real yoga for man is to know and
realize his own divine nature and to establish himself in the
beatific state of blessedness and bliss by subduing and mortify-
ing the little, self-deluded, bodily self." The goal of yoga is
"to establish the soul in the state of Sat-Chit-Ananda-ship." 1
As ignorance of the godly nature of the soul has been the cause of
trouble in the past the change of belief in the right direction now must
bring about the state of at-one-ment with the self. All the yoga that
need be performed by the jnani therefore consists in the unshakable
conviction of the truth of the Atman, i.e., the soul, being the Paramatman,
that is God. Feel this and you are free.
The yogi loves only the thrill of delight characteristic of wholeness
and perfection. In the conscious enjoyment of real joy he finds it
difficult to keep back the words "happy, happy. I am happy," which
constantly rise to his lips. No royalty under the sun can lay claim to
any such experience. The world reads, "Blessed are the poor in spirit
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" but it is the yogi who realizes and
enjoys it. Men only vaguely talk of God but the yogi knows himself
to be the enjoyer of the divine status and feels his own heart beating in
harmony with the ' ' divine heart. ' ' This is the very last stage of progress.
When the aspirant gets established in this state he is said to have attained
1 Jagadisha Chandra Chatterji, The Hindu Realism, pp. 150, 151.
186 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
to samadhi (i.e., the ecstatic trance). He has touched the summit of
attainment and like a conqueror stands triumphant, his mind like a
calm and boundless ocean spreading out in shoreless space holding the
powers of life and death in his hand. 1
The Hindu school of the Nyaya-Vaisheshika is also non-
theist and just as self-conscious in their use of the mystic
experience. Yoga, they maintain, is not philosophy, but the
means by which man may achieve "a direct knowledge or
realization of what he has already learned by reasoning." So
He may realize all the facts and principles pertaining to the tran-
scendental i.e., the supersensible and may finally realize himself, that is to
say, the Atman, as separate from and independent of, everything else.
When this is done he no longer feels that he is the body or the mind.
With this realization all identification of himself in thought and desire
with any specific form of existence ceases and the man is free. 2
Exactly the same use of the mystic way is found in modern
non-theistic Buddhism. The experience gives a complete
and joyous conviction of the true nature of reality and of
Nirvana. The training leads the Buddhist up to the concen-
trated state of mind.
His ultimate goal being still ahead, he makes his concentrated mind a
powerful and effective means for the development of insight in order to
fully realize the true nature of the world. Wherever he turns his eyes
he sees naught but the Three Characteristics — Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta —
standing out in bold relief. Nowhere, neither in heaven above nor in
earth beneath does he find any genuine happiness, any reality, any
fond object of desire to which he can cling. Whereupon he takes that
one of the Three Characteristics which appeals to him most and intently
keeps on developing his insight in that particular direction until one
glorious day there comes to him, like a flash of lightning, the intuition
of Nibbana — that "unshakable deliverance of the mind." Instantly he
realizes that what was to be accomplished has been done; that the heavy
burden of sorrow has been finally discarded. He now stands on those
celestial heights with perfect Sila, mind fully controlled, far removed
from the passions and defilements of the world, realizing the unutter-
able bliss of eternal deliverance. 3 ....
1 C. R. Jain, The Key of Knowledge, pp. 383, 402.
'Ibid., pp. 432, 475. 3 The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon, 1921. p. 28.
TEE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MYSTIC'S EXPERIENCE 187
It would merely add examples to the monistic and theistic
types of mysticism to follow Mahayana Buddhism through its
Dharmakaya idealism and the faith-religion centered around
Amitabha. All alike find assurance of the truth they believe.
During recent years in the West many have been forced to
break with the old-world view of Christian philosophy. For
some of these the mystic attitude has served to vitalize a
new vision of reality. Edward Carpenter sees the doom of
all the old religions and the sublimation of their values in a
new religion of humanity. His is a social idealism in which
the self is linked by innumerable bonds to the whole growing
world and to all mankind. His mysticism has the glow of the
Vedanta. He describes the vision.
Thus at last the Ego, the mortal, immortal self — disclosed at first in
darkness and fear and ignorance in the growing babe—; finds its true
identity. For a long period it is baffled in trying to understand what it
is. It goes through a vast experience. It is tormented by the sense of
separation and alienation — alienation from other people and persecution
by all the great powers and forces of the universe: and it is pursued by
a sense of its own doom. Its doom truly is irrevocable. The hour of
fulfilment approaches, the veil lifts and the soul beholds at last its own
true being At last there comes a time when we recognise — or
see that we shall have to recognise — an inner equality between ourselves
and all others; not of course an external equality, for that would be
absurd and impossible, but an inner and profound equality. And so
we come again to the mystic root-conception of Democracy. 1
Under the strain of war H. G. Wells gave us an excellent
example of the mystic assurance of the reality of the God he
needed to have. He had long ago abandoned the Christian
God. He had given up the hope of relationship with the
"First Cause" of Ultimate Beginnings — the "Veiled Being."
Equally unsatisfying he found the Reality of which Mr. Shaw
and M. Bergson can write with mystical fervor — the "Life
Force." His God must be finite, heroic, the synthesis of the
highest human values, a "strongly marked and knowable
1 Pagan and Christian Creeds, pp. 306, 308.
188 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
personality, loving, inspiring, and lovable." Mr. Wells does
not need to "argue" about his God, for he has had the mystic
moment of insight and so he "relates."
Suddenly, in His own time God conies. This cardinal experience is
an undoubting, immediate sense of God. It is the attainment of an
absolute certainty that one is not alone in oneself. It is as if one was
touched at every point by a being akin to oneself, sympathetic, beyond
measure wiser, steadfast and pure in aim. It is completer and more
intimate but it is like standing side by side with and touching some one
that we love very dearly and trust completely. "Closer is He than
breathing, nearer than hands and feet." 1
There can be no doubt of the value for life of this experience
of complete assurance of the truth. It deserves to stand side
by side with St. Teresa's words of assurance as to the reality
of the Trinitarian God of whom Mr. Wells makes mock.
But how, you will repeat, can one have such certainty in respect to
what one does not see ? This question I am powerless to answer. These
are secrets of God's omnipotence which it does not appertain to me to
penetrate. All I know is that I tell the truth; and I shall never believe
that any soul who does not possess this certainty has ever been really
united to God. 2
It is needless to multiply examples. Mr. Blood, pluralist
and evolutionist, found in the anaesthetic revelation a clear
realization of the "inevitable vortex of Becoming," an under-
standing of "the genius of Being" and a consciousness of the
complete security of the self in the cosmic flow. A well-
known scientist, who had had no religious experience but had
from childhood been steadily devoted to natural science found
the mystic experience in mountain climbing and, while clearly
conscious of exhilarating life, felt his own being interpenetrate
and become one with mountain, trees, and stones. This
might easily be a mystic naturalism. But give the identically
same experience a theistic turn and it becomes a consciousness
of divine presence, as the literature of Christian and Indian
mysticism abundantly proves.
1 God, the Invisible King, p. 23.
' Quoted by William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 410.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MYSTIC'S EXPERIENCE 189
The mystic experience, then, will justify any world-view
and therefore can prove the truth of none. Our knowledge
and understanding of the nature of reality must be secured in
the full light of intelligence. When it is so achieved or accepted
on authority, mysticism comes or, by proper technique may
be induced, to light it up with beauty and give it emotional
value and the conviction of certainty. We have seen that
some religious groups develop the experience with this conscious
purpose. But it is an essentially conservative force and each
new religious world-view will have to develop its own mystics.
It is at this point that the evolutionary naturalism of our
Western science has failed. Some have carried over the old
"sense of presence" into the new system of thought; some
have found that it is only a step from the mystic "feel" of
the old monistic idealism to that of the new humanism. But
most religious people still feel that the world-view yielded by
modern science is what Carlyle called it long ago — "a gospel
of mud." And the anguish of suffering humanity as they
gather the first-fruits of the age of machines is not reassuring.
There is a deep sense of loneliness. If humanism is to have
emotional driving power it must learn how to use our common
human capacity for mystical feeling and mystical insight to
give us the sense of deep-rooted security in cosmic develop-
ment; to show us our affinity with the forms of life unfolding
about us in the world of nature; to link us, by its clear vision,
with our whole humanity in the bonds of mutual service and
so, make possible that warm awareness of personal significance,
worth, and responsibility in the shared life of the race.
The mystic attains this joyous certainty, that his own
life is safely and inevitably bound up with the meaning of
reality. The nature of the world-view does not matter.
Spontaneously, or with the appropriate, controlled technique,
the ineffable experience comes and, as with a fairy's wand,
touches the structure of thought and suffuses it with "the light
that never was on sea or land." In this emotional reinforce-
ment lies the secret of its significance for religion and for life.