Spiritual Mysticism

Spiritual mysticism is a direct experience of the ground of all being. (Many words are used to describe the mysterious unity with which we seek connection — the Sacred, God, the Void, Brahman, the Absolute, and many others. I use “ground of being” because it is difficult to personify.) Direct experience precedes language; we have the experience first and then we attach language to it. I can look into the Grand Canyon and invariably have several direct experiences in my being. I can then attach various descriptors to these experiences, such as “awe,” “stillness,” or “wonder.” But these words are not the experience, they are simply words that can lead me back to it.

When I was a six I was singing a song called “This Little Light of Mine” and I experienced being filled with radiance. I interpreted this as light in me. But it was a light that did not burn — it simply was. All of my verbiage about this experience came after, but my experience of being filled with radiance was a mystical experience. I have had this experience many, many times since then.

Whether one has mystical experiences depends to some extent on how open one is to them. Some people are fearful of the idea of having mystical experiences. Others seek them out, but find that mystical experiences come on their own terms. One sage described spiritual practice in this way: “Leading the spiritual life is ‘keeping the room clean.’ No matter what else happens you have the experience of having a clean room. But you may also have a beloved visitor.”

One thing I am fairly sure of: for spiritual mysticism to occur there must be an awareness of contemplative inner space. This is a main purpose of all forms of meditation and other contemplative practices. Aging is related to mystical experience through the general tendency to turn inward, which provides an opportunity to become more aware of inner space. Of course, many elders who have what I would call mystical experience do not use this language. They can describe the experience but have no label for the category.


About Robert Atchley

Robert C. Atchley is a distinguished professor of gerontology emeritus at Miami University, OH, where he also served as the director of the Scripps Gerontology Center. Atchley was previously a professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the Naropa University, in Boulder, CO, and is the author of Social Forces and Aging (published by Wadsworth) and of Continuity and Adaptation in Aging and Spirituality and Aging, both published by Johns Hopkins

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