The word “mysticism” has taken on various meanings throughout history, as have the practices and beliefs of those who term themselves “mystics”. Mysticism can refer to seeking ecstatic union with God, insight into hidden truths, or a radical transformation of the individual through various means. Defined broadly in this way, mysticism may be found in nearly all world’s religious traditions, though its form varies from case to case.
Bahá’í mysticism incorporates many of these same elements, but emphasizes a practical outcome: That is, it is not enough to feel union with the Divine, one should see the Divine in every soul until it results in concrete actions of brotherhood and love; hidden truths are not meaningful unless they embrace and enrich the outward truths governing our daily lives; and transformation of the individual is without merit until that individual becomes a source of good for his society.
In this way, Bahá’í mysticism is a positive mode of belief, and seeks unity of the inward and outward forms. It is not considered helpful, or in some cases, even lawful, to employ fasting, asceticism, denial of pleasure, and withdrawal from society, as a means for advancement along this path. Mysticism should fundamentally connect the individual to the greater whole of humankind – at the level of our common, Divine origin – until one arrives at a conception of life such that the happiness of others is our happiness too, and all our actions are motivated from this attitude.
In terms of specific practices, there are no rituals prescribed, and people are mainly free to adopt whatever works for each person. Prayer, meditation, and study of the Divine Texts, are the primary tools. The influence of the Holy Spirit, God’s unfailing grace, and ecstatic love, are indispensable. Combined with reflection, imagination, and various art forms, a foundation is established for one to act and reflect, examine motivations, question one’s understandings, and observe how one’s effect on the world is improving day by day.
What makes this fundamentally mystical in character is that Bahá’ís believe in a spiritual world that is both greater than this life, and yet contains this life within it, similar to a child gestating in the womb of its mother. The embryo is aware of its own sphere, but lacks perception of the larger world outside, even though most of its future is determined by the beings of that world. The mother and father are very much aware of the child, even when it has no awareness of them.
Similarly, a much greater, far more wondrous, existence awaits humanity after this physical life; yet that spiritual world exists also here, and affects us far more than we can ever realize. The mystic comes not only to expect these otherworldly influences, but to employ them directly in his day to day life, such as using prayer to overcome difficult problems. However, as mentioned above, inward and outward must be in harmony: Prayer alone is not the way; it is prayer followed by action, undertaken with the expectation that one’s prayers will be answered.
This mystical path, because it does not rely on extreme measures, or practices divergent from ordinary belief, can be somewhat difficult to follow. In the end it amounts to a fundamental, almost Copernican, shift in orientation: placing God at the center of one’s life, and revolving everything – knowledge, opinions, even thought itself – around that center. When the purpose of life is seen not as fulfilling the will of the individual, but wholly in terms of the Will of God, it changes how one sees even the most mundane of things. And it is this: seeing beauty where other see plainness; seeing purpose where others see chaos; seeing God where others see only dust and decay: that truly sets apart the path of the mystic.