You may have heard the term mysticism floating around. It comes with all sorts of connotations and just about everybody has some sort of preconceived notion about it. Whether the word conjures up images of inspired mountain gurus or navel gazing hippies, you probably have some sort of opinion about it. Truthfully, what mysticism is could be either of those, and most likely is neither. Mysticism, in its purest form, is simply the experience of God. A real and direct experience of the eternal by one who is mortal.

You may have a mystical experience when walking in the woods, while doing the dishes, or (and this may seem strange) while in the midst of great suffering. There is no formula or criteria. You do not necessarily have to reach a place of complete inner stillness. You do not necessarily have to climb to the top of a mountain and yell your name to the sky. You do not necessarily have to sit at the feet of a spiritual master and let them guide you. Though, I do actually suggest you do all of those things at some point in this fleeting life.

Mystical experience can come in many forms and from many places but there is one thing that most all of the mystics agree is essential. Something has to break the habitual patterns we form. Not just the outward habits, but the inward ones. Something has to break our sure sense of who and what we are and what life is all about. As long as we have life all figured out and nicely compartmentalized and neatly sorted and understood we will not be able to break out of those boxes to see the vast expanse of reality in which we actually reside.

This is one of the reasons so many mystics have experienced great hardship. Nothing shatters your sure sense of self and others like a heart wrenching body aching uncontrollable catastrophe. The problem is suffering doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom. It can lead to resentment and selfishness just as easily. This is why so many spiritual traditions have rites of passage for young people. Fasting in the wilderness is one almost universal example of a spiritual practice that can break our sure sense of self and open us to what is beyond our grasp. This has definitely been the most formative of my spiritual practices over the years and I owe a great deal to it. If you ever get the chance to fast on a mountain top with the guidance of a spiritual master, take it. But even if you don’t there are other ways to slowly chip away at that sure sense of self so that when life throws a catastrophe your way you will be able to accept it as a blessing and not become bitter and broken.

If you’re expecting to buy a book on mysticism and study it dutifully and come out the other side a transformed person then you’re barking up the wrong tree. If you think that fasting on its own, or great acts of piety will break your ego and open your heart to the great mystery you are wrong. The real work of the mystic is to come to know the patterns of your understanding. It is to be able to step back when a coworker picks a fight with you and see what buttons they pushed and why it upset you and how silly the whole thing is.

The reality of a mystical life is not in cosmic principals or esoteric symbols, it is not in anything other than a critical look inward. It is to know yourself, with all your flaws and triggers and fears and passions, and then to let that all go. Once you’ve let yourself go, then you can see the big picture. Then you can look at an ant hill and see an entire civilization at work. You can look at the night sky and see the vastness of reality far beyond anything that has you as the main character. You can see the face of God in both friend and stranger.

Once you see the big picture you are having a mystical experience and you realize that doing the dishes is just as sacred as Holy Communion or an ancient Buddhist temple or anything else. So, my dear friends, I pray you take the time to know yourself. Sit down and spend a good amount of time looking at how your past affects your future, how your parents and siblings still shape your character, and how your society has molded you into the person you are today. Ask yourself who you would be without all of that, because that, my dear friend, is who you really are. You are the person underneath all of that. You are a child of God.

Justin Coutts is a contemplative teacher living on the beautiful and mysterious Manitoulin Island. While his practice is primarily Celtic Christian today his religious life has been very diverse. He spent many years as an apprentice to an Ojibwe elder helping people on vision quests deep in the Canadian wilderness. He was also raised in a traditional rural Quaker community which is still an important part of his contemplative practice. Today, Justin is the author of In Search of a New Eden and is working to find the intersection of these traditions and lineages. Through Celtic Christianity he hopes to bring people closer to the natural world and closer to their own souls – that we all may return to Eden like the Prodigal Son and live once more in harmony with the wind and waves, the trees and moss, the rocks and stars.

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