On Being a Mystic

I'd like to tell you a quick story. Back in 2003 I was arriving home from work one evening when I heard a voice say something really random and curious. I’d just gotten off the tube, London’s subway system, near where I was living.

As I entered the garden and walked toward the side entrance, I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular when all of the sudden I heard a voice say, “You are a mystic.” I remember putting my key in the lock and thinking, “A what? Huh, I wonder what that means.”

Oddly, even though I thought about it for a few days, I don’t remember googling, “What is a mystic?” I just sort of let it go.

Over the years, the term started to crop up more frequently. It’s not as obscure now, more people use the word mystic to describe themselves. And probably for good reason.

Unless you were someone like me, who felt drawn toward spiritual things but often perplexed or frustrated by religion, you may not realize how far our culture has come in the last twenty years. We’re far more accepting of the search for meaning outside of traditional theological or ideological explanations. “Spiritual but not religious” is a legit category people now check on forms. But that feels like a fairly recent development.

So what is a mystic? I’d say that “mystic” is one way of identifying those who are motivated by a deep need to understand the parts of life that aren’t easily articulated. Whatever lies beyond, or behind, or underneath, all the goings and comings of our lives. “What is the purpose? What is the meaning? Why does it matter how I live or what choices I make?”

Mystics don’t seek knowledge, they seek wisdom. And one of the first revelations is how much they will never know. The more you learn, the less certain you become. You see how everything is in constant expansion and evolution; the questions, the answers, the paradigms, the relationships. And so the quest changes from searching for answers, to searching for experiences. I can never capture knowledge completely, but I can enter moments of connection and elevation that confirm I’m on the right track.

We often associate mystics with religion, and its true that most do start out their search in a religious context. But you can find mystics across all faith traditions and if you pay attention, you discover they sound more like one another, than they do the theological teachers of their religious tradition. Eventually, mystics cannot help but shed religion. Not that they renounce it, but they see it as only an entry point for what is bigger than what any group of humans can claim authority on. 

Personally, I felt quietly isolated for much of my life, alone not just in my beliefs, but in my profound need to explore them. I never set out to shed my religion, as a young person I was willing to sacrifice anything at all in order to be on the path I thought was Truth. I originally assumed truth was found in my native religion. But I discovered, quite painfully, that finding truth meant asking questions that religious people didn’t like asked. It meant being in places where religious people didn’t go. It means having experiences that religious people didn’t have.

Not all mystics are the same. Not all arrive at the same exact beliefs. How could they? The landscape of reality is too vast, and a lifetime is too short, for a single destination. But their characteristics and life features tend to be remarkably similar. They suffer for finding the status quo unacceptable. They suffer for lack of companionship. They suffer in fear of being misunderstood.

For years I struggled with what felt like codeswitching. Before the phrase “spiritual but not religious” was so familiar, in my experience, people were generally religious, secular, or “New Age.“ I always feared being found out for the freak I thought I was. When I was with "religious" people, I could easily communicate with their vocabulary and concepts. But I feared being found out as a heathen based on my wide exploration. When I was with "secular" people, I could present myself articulately and reasonably. But I feared being discovered as a deeply religious person. (And I avoided New Agers, they clearly were freaks.)

The truth was, my codeswitching was never an attempt to deceive or be in authentic. I was in a long process of learning and unlearning; becoming. I think of it less as codeswitching now, and more as being a spiritual polyglot. If you are an atheist, I can discuss my perspectives and experiences in terms that make sense: philosophy, biology, psychology, sociology, physics. If you are religious, I can communicate with theology, historical and Biblical knowledge. If you are spiritual but not religious, let’s face it, you’re New Age and we’ll be shutting the party down together.

I mentioned that mystics quickly trade a search for knowledge and answers, to a search for experience and unarticulated knowing. Along with this comes the understanding that you cannot provide answers to others. You can tell your stories and explain your perspective, but there is nothing to convince anyone else of.

Truth that isn’t found within, isn’t truth, it’s just information. We are not transformed by information. We are transformed by revelation. But revelation is an inside job, a response to hunger and searching.

Not everyone who is a mystic knows it. It was news to me when I first heard the term. But embracing a label or identity is not the point, finding regular satisfaction for our perpetual hunger is. My aim now is to tell the stories and describe the experiences I’ve had the last three decades. Whatever your reason to listen, I hope you’ll find them meaningful.