The Mystical and the Occult or Psychic

Excerpts from Chapter Three of New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality by C. Alan Anderson and Deborah G. Whitehouse

After our expedition into the complexities of metaphysics, we may turn to the topic of religion with the happy assumption that it will be vastly simpler. Alas, we shall be wrong if we hold to that hope. Religion is about as complicated as is metaphysics. . . .

Religion and Spirituality

There are many conflicting definitions of religion. Some emphasize the solitariness of religious experience, some the community aspect of religion. Some stress belief, some feeling and attitude, some action (both ceremonial and in the world doing good works). Philosopher Edgar S. Brightman maintained that the most comprehensive definition of religion must include belief, attitude, and action in relation to what one considers the ultimate source and promoter of value.

We might consider spirituality the raw material out of which the various religions are manufactured. The term is used in various ways. In recent years it has referred to the inner, value-centered life of people in their relation to the divine apart from organized religion, or at least not dependent upon it.

We are seeing the ascendancy of spirituality over religion in the minds of many, ranging from mystics and their kindred near-death experiencers to people who have had no unusual experience yet hunger for something beyond the standard brands of religiosity. It is therefore important to seek approaches to religion that take away something of its relatively bad name. At its best, religion can be spirituality, or at least a major repository of spirituality. At its worst, religion may restrict spirituality and hide or obscure it within buildings, rituals, and allegiance to manmade authorities and doctrines.

The Spiritual-Mystical and the Occult

Not all experiences that go beyond the range that we consider usual (normal) are of a religious or spiritual nature. It may be that there is no kind of experience that is religious, or non-religious, apart from our interpretation of it. Any experience can be interpreted in various ways. Perhaps the most commonly disputed type of experience is that called mystical. A mystic is one who experiences what he or she thinks is unity with God. For the mystic this is the ultimate perspective, the most utterly sane insight; for some psychiatrists it indicates mental instability. Mystical enlightenment may come as the result of long meditation, or it may dawn as a complete surprise. In any case, it leaves its recipient profoundly changed.

The mystic typically goes through stages variously counted and named by different observers: (a) a preparatory stage, sometimes divided into conversion and purgation, (b) an illuminative stage in which he or she literally sees the light, and (c) a fully unitive stage of oneness with God. Sometimes between the second and third stages there may be a loss of a sense of the divine (the loss called the "dark night of the soul"), and some Eastern mystics speak of a final stage of dissolution of human selfhood. The progression onward in mysticism is called the mystic way.

The essence of mysticism is love. William James gives the characteristics of mystical experience as (a) ineffability, (b) knowledge-giving quality, (c) brevity, and (d) passivity. Anglican writer Evelyn Underhill emphasizes that mysticism (a) is traditionally active and practical, (b) has exclusively spiritual aims, not concerned with exploring or improving the world, (c) has God as the personal object to be loved, rather than known about, and (d) produces a remaking of character through the releasing of a latent form of consciousness. This is a qualitative awareness, easily distinguishable from any others by anyone who has the experience. Richard M. Bucke, a nineteenth-century Canadian psychiatrist, in his classic Cosmic Consciousness, impressively presents many cases of mystical consciousness.

There may be no more misused word than mysticism. It often is confused with magic or spookiness. Using the term correctly, many advocates of mysticism claim that mysticism is the great common denominator of all religions. However, some scholars maintain that mysticism is significantly different from one religion to another.

When you go beyond the range of usual experience, you can follow either of two paths: the mystic or the psychic. As we have seen, the mystic is concerned with union with God, who is Love. The psychic is concerned with the extension of knowledge and activity in realms beyond the usual senses. The area concerned with the psychic long has been called occultism (from occultus, hidden, covered). For more than a century it has been known as psychical research (as in the British and American Societies for Psychical Research, started in the 1880s). For more than half a century it has also been known as parapsychology, especially when associated with laboratory research in the area. Sometimes occultism or occult philosophy is referred to as esotericism, especially when considered in the context of overall spiritual orientation. The realm of the psychic or occult includes:

EXTRASENSORY PERCEPTION (ESP):

telepathy: mind reading
clairvoyance: supersensory knowledge about material objects or events not obtained from another mind
precognition: extrasensory knowing about a future event
retrocognition: extrasensory knowing about a past event
mental mediumship (channelling), which could be considered a form of telepathy: obtaining information from a discarnate being
PSYCHOKINESIS (PK) (the direct application of mind to matter beyond one's own muscles):
 psychokinesis proper: the direct, purposeful action of human mind on physical objects
telekinesis: the spontaneous movement of objects without observable force or energy
physical mediumship: the production of physical objects, especially those having the shape of the body, or part of it, of a deceased person
poltergeists: habitual disturbances associated with a particular place or person
paranormal healing
Perhaps magic should be mentioned hereþnot magic as trickery performed for amusement, but as genuine wonder-working. Magic that purports to be genuine is divided into white magic, performed to do good, and black magic, done to do harm. Although recently there have been objections to recognizing magic as clearly different from various religious practices, magic often has been distinguished from religion on the ground that magic is an attempt to work one's own will on the powers that be, whereas religion is an attempt to bring oneself into conformity with a divine will.

Whatever may be the truth about claims made in these areas, it is important to keep them separated from mysticism. However, there are overlaps: mystics also may see visions, which are psychical, rather than mystical experiences. Whether the light associated with mystical experience should be considered psychical is open to question. The great test is the presence of overwhelming love in mysticism, a life-changing reality qualitatively different from ordinary experience. In contrast, psychical experience is extension of ordinary experience beyond its usual range in the physical world or into dimensions not ordinarily experienced. Mystical experience can be thought of as a vertical extension of experience, while psychical experience is a horizontal extension.

Theologian Paul Tillich, who defined religion as "ultimate concern," considered the existence of separate religious and secular realms to be an emergency measure based on humankind's estrangement from its true being. One of the characteristics of New Thought is that it attempts to remove the wall between the sacred and the secular. It finds the spiritual not so much in the sense of some unapproachable yet fascinating mysterium tremendum (Rudolf Otto's term), but more in the mystic's magnificent, overpowering realization of God as overwhelming Love. New Thought appropriates this love not only as a source of inspiration in daily life, as the author of The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence, did, but as a power and guide in bringing about ends usually considered secular.

There are various ways of slicing up religion. One way is by considering the standard brands such as (alphabetically) Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and others. This can be helpful, but a better procedure for our purposes cuts across the various religions and takes note of the types of approach to religion found in varying degrees in probably all religions.

Basically, there are the ways of the priest, the prophet, and the mystic. The priestly, or sacramental, path emphasizes sacred objects and formal observances. The prophetic approach stresses revelation, receiving messages taken to be directly from God, and often denounces religionists for falling away from divine ways. The primary meaning for prophet is one who speaks out; only secondarily does it relate to one who foretells the future. The mystic way is the way of personal union with the divine, most commonly held to be God, but sometimes relating to a similar sense of oneness with one's soul or with nature. A roughly similar way of classifying religious types refers to ways of rites and works, knowledge, and piety or devotion or mysticism. Each religion tends to favor one of the three emphases over the others.

New Thought at its best is much inclined toward mysticism, both for its own sake and as part of the process of attaining overall wholeness. This combination is suggested in the name of one of the smaller New Thought groups, the Society of Pragmatic Mysticism. However, some New Thoughters tend to treat New Thought as if it were a matter of knowledge, to the exclusion of mysticism. The Publisher's Preface to Ella Wheeler Wilcox's 1902 (1993 reprint) The Heart of the New Thought says:

That which was vague, mystic, unreal, has become, in the hands of Mrs. Wilcox, a lovable philosophy of simplest construction. The backbone of this philosophy is The Power of Right Thought.
Many who have emphasized impressing the subconscious mind might well agree, as in Joseph Murphy's The Power of your Subconscious Mind, which recognizes God, but concentrates on subconscious mind. On the other hand, great leaders of New Thought have emphasized moving forth from mystical awareness to claiming one's good. A recent book by Dorothy Elder, From Metaphysical to Mystical, urges New Thoughters to move more clearly to mysticism from what the book, in a popular way, refers to as metaphysics. . . .

If we desire not only spiritual depth and practical outworkings of it in our life, as well as solid theoretical foundations to explain what is going on, we have good reason to turn to New Thought, especially now, when it is beginning to rethink its foundations in terms of a process panentheism.


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Created November 19, 1995
by Alan Anderson
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Latest update (not of text) June 19, 1998