All knowledge furthers the development of vision. If one study structural engineering and look at a bridge, he will see what others cannot see. As a computer programmer, I look at lines of code and see purpose; physicists visualize whole universes in a few pages of mathematics.
In these terms, I think mysticism is the systematic development of one’s vision of the whole. Rather than enriching detail, it steps outside of the very eyes that see, giving one a glimpse of things from an ever-greater viewpoint.
For example, we see many of the events that make up our lives. We can learn about the content of those events, how they take place, etc. But we rarely see how they fit together. There have been movies – Shortcuts, Playing by Heart, Magnolia – that play on this theme, showing how several lives can interact with each other. Yet none of us see the whole mosaic. As Rumi tells it, we’re all feeling a single elephant in the dark, but each one of us is feeling a different part.
To see what is not there – is how one poet described faith. Is there a grand design that sheds meaning on all the chaotic happenings of life? Since no eye can ever view all the data – and it renews itself with every moment – we can never answer this question. Thus it takes a certain gift of absurdity to credit the idea that there is purpose where none is evident. Such absurdity is as wine for the mystic’s cup…
We begin with the assertion that everything has meaning, like a sea in which we swim. The question is, can one learn to see the water, even though we’ve lived it in for so long? Can one self-administer the “red pill”? The holy books say that the Grand Design aims at the upliftment of mankind: that every atom is ordained for the training of the soul. If so, then the value of events is very different from how I was taught to see things. In anger, there might be love; in war, peace. “No defect canst thou see in the creation of the God of Mercy: Repeat the gaze: Seest thou a single flaw?” (Qur’án)
It is always easy to disregard what the mystic seeks, however, because it is never rational. Whatever proof we offer presuppose the very system of reasoning it seeks to prove. That just won’t do. Our only justification is in changing the quality of life. After all, what is real? Is the way we see things real, or how it affects us that we care about? Is happiness made of atoms, or how we relate to those atoms? If a sunset grows insipid to one person, but always amazing to other: which sees “the real”?
I knew not what amazement was Until I made Thy love my cause. O how amazing would it be If I were not amazed by Thee![^1]
I think every school of thought defines its own normality, in all of which the mystic seems absurd; so too with the mystic, for whom all normality is thus. Mysticism is that vision which ever scorns itself for lack of vision: that keeps whole worlds in store, just when we think we’ve found its end. So if you, too, find yourself looking at the contents of your life – and then the next day as if you’d never seen them before – you might be one of us.