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“The Psychology of Mysticism” by U. A. Asrani

Mysticism and Religion

Mysticism has been called the vital core of religion, its personal or subjective form. It has also been described as religion minus its ritual and its theology. Even the ethical systems developed by religion do not fall within the scope of mysticism so long as they signify merely compliance with the moral codes imposed by the Scriptures, or by society. Ethics becomes a facet of the mystical life only when it is inspired by an inner urge toward the mystical transformation or transcendence of personality.

Religion itself cannot be justifiably defined in relation to any particular dogma, such as monotheism, pantheism, or atheism.

Hence many writers prefer to define the religious attitude either through reference to some transcendental Being, Power or Substratum, or to the basic human needs of security and protection from fear. Thus among many aboriginal tribes, religion is a symbolic projection of social cohesion and function.

Mysticism, however, which is the personal aspect of religion par excellence, appears to be just as universal a human need—one which has resulted in a method of dispelling frustration, fear and mental conflict, and of gaining peace, equanimity and joy. That is why it has appeared in all ages and among all peoples, and why there is a general similarity in the statements of all mystics, no matter what the cultural background. However, it should be noted that any purely transcendental definition of religion tends to minimize the role of mystical experience, and even excludes such prominent schools as the Buddhist and the Jain. Even Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, a widely revered method, gives a very subordinate position to Ishwara, or a personal God.

Still, if we must beware, in the interests of mysticism, of too lofty a definition of religion, so must we also be wary of one that is too broad, such, for example, as Bertrand Russell’s claim that any creed which is dogmatically held is religion.

A definition of this kind could easily include nationalism, fascism or communism. Embracing an ideology with fervor or even with self-denying passion is still not religion. It is apparent that the Communist definition is based on economic and political theory, without reference to the overpowering and persistent human need which has made religion, and the mystical tradition, survive throughout history, in spite of rationalism, bigotry, scientific discovery, or the influence of logical positivism.

Therefore, although there are many other definitions of mysticism which may be offered, we prefer something of this kind: Mysticism is an inward search for unity, whereby the narrow bonds of egotism are dissolved.

After this brief introduction, we should like to describe some of the more famous techniques which have been practiced with success in the East for many centuries.

Jnana Yoga


In his book Personality, Gardner Murphy writes that a psychotic uses three types of relatively tolerable defense against frustration, in addition to the unhealthy response of displaced aggression. These three means are: 1. making a mental picture of oneself, as superior to the frustrating circumstances; 2. making a mental picture of the world so that it no longer poses any threat; 3. making such a picture of the relation between the world and the self as would give confidence that the self can conquer the threat of the world. Murphy also states that a “normal” person uses similar defenses, but in a subtler form (1).

Now, even a slight acquaintance with the three principal maxims of Vedanta philosophy, on which Jnana Yoga is based, reveals that they present the votary with all three means to escape the frustrations of life. These three tenets are: 1. Brahman, the Infinite Substratum of the universe, is real; 2. the world is unreal; 3. the Jiva (the self) is identical with Brahman. These principles are logically supported by the Vedanta philosophy, which has been held in time-honored respect in India. Thus, Jnana can be regarded as a method of positive autosuggestion, if nothing more.

Faced with the seemingly haphazard and inequitable circumstances of human existence, the practitioner of Jnana Yoga renames the world and life therein as a Sport (Lila) of the Infinite Brahman, and thus accepts life’s losses as well as its gains in a spirit of sportsmanship. Hence the method of Jnana Yoga provides a mechanism for what psychologists call “identification” or “rationalization.”

The Nirvikalpa Samadhi, or the relaxation of the process of thinking-feeling, as well as of relinquishing the ego,  convinces the student of Jnana Yoga that the world—or at least our world-image, which is colored by our emotion—can be rolled up like a map. What is more, the highly enjoyable, tensionless state of mind which is experienced in Samadhi and which persists for some time thereafter, induces a state of equanimity which is resistant to tensions and conflicts. The result may be that the practitioner retires to live a life of quietude (which some might call escapism), or, if he is temperamentally inclined toward an activist role, he may succeed in conjoining a state of inner peace with a busy and active life. He then lives what the Christians call a “unitive life,” and the Hindus refer to as a state of Jivana Mukta—liberated in life. Such a life is both realized and thoroughly realistic; it has no need for any of the mechanisms of philosophic projection or rationalization, for it has achieved perfect non-attachment, freedom from egotism, and complete integration.

Buddhist Mysticism and Ashtanga Yoga

Buddhist methods utilize Mindfulness or Attentiveness— Samyaka Smritti, the seventh step of the Eightfold Path (3) (4). In this step, every item of life is viewed attentively, but as an unconcerned witness; it is a preparation for the eighth step of meditation or Jnana. Buddhism uses this technique of attentiveness in place of the autosuggestion of Vedantic metaphysics, or the mechanisms of identification which Jnana Yoga adopts. But it should be noted that this idea of the unconcerned witness is itself based on the Samkhya philosophy, which is also the philosophy of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, and its final step of Viveka Khyati. The concept involves a belief that the self—the Purusha—is untainted by any changes in nature, including the mind (5) (6) (7).

Hartman first pointed out that in building up motor and perceptional patterns in infancy, attention energies are required. With continued practice, these patterns become automatic. Gill and Brenman have suggested that we should de-automatize by reinvesting actions and percepts with attention (8). This is exactly what the Buddhist Samyaka Smritti does. Such a deautomatization prepares the ground for a new type of consciousness, different from that to which we are accustomed; it gives, in a sense, access to the consciousness of a child in the midst of adult life.

“The Psychology of Mysticism” by U. A. Asrani is an extract from The Highest State of Consciousness edited by John W. White, published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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