Is Egotism Inherent In Mysticism?

My friend, Patty, wrote to me last week with a revealing question about some mystics:  “Many of the self-professed mystics I’ve encountered seem incredibly egostistical, as if they held a truth no one could touch.  Is this phenomena somehow inherent in mysticism?”   Below is my attempt to answer her question to best of my ability:

Some long time ago, Patty, I knew a man who took extraordinary pride in having once been to Santa Fe, New Mexico. For years, he went about his small town repeating the story to anyone who would listen, and he seemed to imagine he should be revered for his travels. He even had a way of giving an impression to many people that he looked down on them, who had not also been to Santa Fe.

It is interesting how the ego aggrandizes itself. Anything and everything is grist to it. Sometimes the results are obvious, as with the man who once traveled to Santa Fe, and sometimes the results are more subtle. I think we usually call only the most obvious egotism “egotism”, but it seems the process of ego aggrandizement is essentially the same, regardless of whether it is obvious or subtle.

Because the ego will readily use anything and everything to aggrandize itself, there is really no need for the mystical experience to have anything special about it for the experience to lend itself to egotism. Nevertheless, the mystical experience does indeed have at least a couple of attributes that seem almost designed to encourage egotism.

By most accounts the experience tends to leave someone with the impression all their former notions of themselves and of the world were flawed. The implication, of course, is that whatever other people who have not had such an experience might think of themselves and the world is just as flawed as the mystic’s former notions are flawed. This is fertile grounds for egotism.

Another attribute of the mystical experience that lends itself to egotism is the overwhelming sense, feeling, or perception that one is experiencing things in a way that is primal — e.g. more real or truer than how one normally experiences things. The notion one has “seen the truth” is, once again, fertile grounds for egotism.

So the mystical experience — or at least it’s aftertaste — does not come without challenges. It is of course up to the individual how they deal with those challenges.

To qualify all that I’ve said here, most people rightfully point out how mystical experiences most often tend to ameliorate egotism. That, however, was not your question: So, I haven’t addressed it here.

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22 thoughts on “Is Egotism Inherent In Mysticism?

  1. Believing that your perception of the world is truer and more reliable than other people’s is definitely egotism, in my book.

    And it can have a disastrous effect on people’s ability to relate to others. My ex claimed to be able to read my energy/aura and thus know more about what was going on inside my mind than I did… He was so certain he was right that if I dared to disagree he told me I was being dishonest or not paying attention to what was really going on. Unsurprisingly this brought our relationship to a painful and abrupt end.

    Mysticism shouldn’t involve egotism – but on that criteria I’ve never met a true mystic.

    PS – Welcome back Paul – you’ve been missed!

  2. One of the first things to go for the true mystic is the ego. One of the early indications of the mystical experience alone the mystic path is great sorrow and regret for the thoughtless harm the individual has caused others in the past. Then, for the individual seeking the mystic experience, there is the dark nights of the soul that can come and go and last for some time where doubt and fear comes at times as a fierce fever gripping the individual with cold dark confusion and deep doubt.

    It is only with the first sense of what is termed light that the realization of absolute unity begins to be realized for the mystic and the voiceless awareness begins to spill into the silence of meditation and contemplation.

    This realization of total and absolute unity and the expanded voiceless awareness is the mystical experience which initiates the mystic into a new vision of reality and existence.

    The only message a true mystic can then offer another individual is that “we are one with all”, and that in the stillness of every individual mind naturally exists the point of connection with the source of what is called the mystic experience by some and prayer by others. (It does not matter what it is called)

    As a brother mystic now called Jesus once taught: Anyone can retire to a quite place and speak directly with what he termed the father God of all people…Our father which art in heaven…

    An indication that the one now called Jesus was a true mystic was that he excluded none, and he taught that the process was automatic in that anyone could speak or communicate directly with what he called God without the necessity of any theology or intermediary.

    A direct experience with absolute reality is what the true mystic seeks. A mystic with an ego, is simply not a mystic.

    Visit sometime at Mystics Haven

  3. @ Lirone: Yikes! Your ex sounds like a piece of work! I don’t want to be too critical of anyone’s ex, but I confess there’s a part of me that’s happy you’re no longer with him.

    @ tecumsehshawnee: Welcome to the blog! I’ll certainly take you up on that invitation to visit yours.

    I have learned to resist the temptation to divide those who call themselves mystics into true mystics and false mystics. So far as I can see, most people who have a mystical experience handle it rather well. But a few who have a mystical experience seem to handle it in a way that leads them to believe themselves superior to those who have not had such an experience. Personally, I think that’s almost pathological — it’s as if they have learned nothing.

  4. Much wisdom in not describing or determining the mystic experience to be true of false, however, an individual who views the world through the lens of the ego and reacts in a purely primal manner does not demonstrate basic mystic indications.

    I feel that many magicians, wiccans, shamans, and such call themselves mystics; however, they are usually follows of the old religion in some way and are actually the personification of primal ego in human form. The connection they refer to is with the ancient sons and old men of renown that are written about in Genesis 6. This is something very different from what I refer to as Mysticism.

    It is noteworthy that Mystics and Mysticism have established so many generalizations over the centuries that today Wikipedia has information about mysticism that meets with a consensus of agreement among most realized mystics.

    The reason that I can allude to an indication of a true mystic experience is because of so much empirical evidence gained from various mystic descriptions of the experience. The correlations and similarities of discriptions over the ages are remarkable. (For example the Wikipedia article)

    Practical Mysticism written by Evelyn Underhill in 1915 and The Cloud of Unknowing published in the 14th century still inspire and aid individuals today on what is called the mystic path. To be valid, the mystic experience must be repeatable and available to anyone so inclined.

    I, personally, feel that any prayer, meditation, or contemplation that is joined by God, or whatever is uttered as an indication of what is there, is a mystic experience. Particularly if new knowledge and understanding is aquired or material reality is in some way affected by the experience. (Our prayer was answered, for example).

  5. Some interesting comments, TS!

    There are, of course, many different experiences that people have chosen to call “mystical”. In writing about mysticism, I am usually referring to only one kind of mystical experience — an experience in which there is a sudden end to the perception of a subject/object divide.

    In limiting myself to usually discussing only that sort of experience, I am, of course, leaving out the vast majority of experiences people have described as “mystical”. Yet, I find that particular experience the most fascinating of all.

    From what I’ve seen, it is indeed possible for a person to have such an experience and subsequently become egotistical about it. To be sure, that egotism contradicts the very nature of the experience — which, among other things, is an experience of selflessness. Yet, this isn’t the first time life has surprised me.

  6. It is only in the past two years, and only because of the Internet, that I began to consider myself part of a larger community of mystics. Up until that time, mysticism was a hidden part of my life revealed only within a small circle of family and friends.

    Therefore, I must admit that I know little about public mysticism. I still consider myself veiled behind the Internet and only slightly public.

    This discussion did cause me to remember and reread what Evelyn Underhill wrote in 1915 in her little book Practical Mysticism referenced prior. Quoting from Chapter one titled What is Mysticism?

    Those who are interested in what special attitude towards the universe which is now loosely called “mystical”, find themselves beset by a multitude of persons who are constantly asking—some with real fervor, some with curiosity, and some with disdain—“What is mysticism”. When referred to the writing of the mystics themselves, and to other works in which the question appears to be answered, these people reply that such books are wholly incomprehensible to them.

    On the other and, the genuine inquirer will find before long a number of self-appointed apostles who are eager to answer his question in many strange and inconsistent ways, calculated to increase rather than resolve the obscurity of his mind. He will learn that mysticism is a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of religion, a disease; that I means having visions, performing conjuring tricks, leading an idle, dreamy, and selfish life, neglecting one’s business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions, and being “in tune with the infinite”. He will discover that it emancipates him from all dogmas—sometimes from all morality—and at the same time that is is very superstitious. One expert tells him that it is simply “Catholic piety”, another that Walt Whitman was a typical mystic; a third assures him that all mysticism comes from the East, and supports his statement by an appeal to a mango trick. At the end of a prolonged course of lectures, sermons, tea-parties, and talks with earnest persons, the inquirer is still heard saying—to often in tones of exasperation—“What is mysticism?”

    I dare not pretend to solve a problem which has provided so much god hunting in the past. It is indeed the object of this little essay to persuade the practical man to the one satisfactory course; that of discovering the answer for himself. Yet perhaps it will give confidence if I confess at the outset that I have discovered a definition which to me appears to cover al ground; or at least, all the part of the ground which is worth covering. It will hardly stretch to the mango trick; but it finds room at once for the visionaries and the philosophers, for Walt Whitman and the saints, Herei s the definition:

    Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.

    Considering what sister Evelyn wrote back over 500 years ago, and what I am reading in this blog today, I must concede that taking the cloak of the mystic or expounding on the mystic experience does not assure the absence of ego after all. I would suggest that these individuals are simply playing the role, however, yet they must be considered a part of this emerging public community of mystics that appear to be dawning at this time in human history.

  7. I anticipate the internet, Tecumsehshawnee, will bring together mystics from around the world and considerably increase our understanding of mysticism. It might even be possible the future will see a sort of mystic’s Renaissance.

  8. yes, without the internet as a veil, i would be hesitant to speak openly. i have no interest in being personified as a mystic in public. i prefer more the personification of an excellent gardener in that circumstance.

    I do feel drawn, however, to communicate. Not to discomfort anyone, but to, as you might have envisioned, to join in a mystic’s Renaissance.

    That is a pleasant thought to me. Yet, after our converse, I hesitate at the after-thought of being associated with a bunch of ego-toting mystics flaunting their mysticism around in public while alluding to a secret only they understand.

    There are so many valid and beneficial ways to attune with ultimate reality, and so many valid and wonderful manners to conceptualize and model this Truth, that we can all join together in harmonious wonder and adoration.
    .

  9. Hi Tecumsehshawnee! When Patty wrote to me about egotistical mystics, I was pretty sure who she had in mind — a couple of folks who frequent the same internet forum she and I do. I have never met any other mystics near to rivaling those two for their egotism. So, that makes only two mystics out of the dozens I’ve met.

  10. Paul, I am caused to realize that I do not know anyone living that would consider themselves a mystic, but then, only a very few i know would consider me to be such.

    I did make a brief connection with Vilayat Inayat Khan who died recently and still feel the depth of his gaze. But mostly my knowledge of others who are considered mystic is through reading. Until recently, I saw no reason to discuss the subject with anyone. To me. mysticism is still a very personal and private matter. If a person is pointing their consciousness in what i would consider the appropriate direction, regardless of how they model the concept, i would see no reason to bewilder them with mysticism. Moving outside the social and theological paradigm of the group or culture is very dangerous. I would not recommend the mystic path unless a person is so inclined and self determined.

    I have experienced, however, some sense of exhilaration in being able to express my feeling somewhat openly and out loud to others; knowing that they somewhat share my point of view, so to speak, and to be sure that I am not inadvertently causing needless questions and concerns for others not of the mystic persuasion.

    I can only wonder why mystics would be revealing themselves at this time. Particularly since I have been opening up myself regarding mysticism for seemingly no reason. One of my greatest concerns has been that I might cause someone, like my wife for instance, to think that I do not believe in her religion and her faith, or for them to think that I feel they or others should take the mystic path to find true reality for themselves.

    I still feel that the mystic should be careful to communicate within the mindset and particular vernacular of each individual. The mystic should be able to see the correlations and refractions of the Truth expressed in the religion or tradition of the individual and converse in the reality paradigm of that individual without confusing them with the abstractions of mysticism.

    If we mystics are going to take off our cloaks in public, we might should consider how we might present ourselves to mainstream society.

    How do we contribute to expanding human consciousness toward further realization of Truth without being a confusing distraction to the many?

  11. “How do we contribute to expanding human consciousness toward further realization of Truth without being a confusing distraction to the many?”

    That is an excellent question and one that I wish I had some insight into, TS. The only thing I might say about it is this: Perhaps we should be careful to put forward our ideas hesitantly, rather than dogmatically. But how would you answer that question?

    By the way, most of the mystics I’ve met, I’ve met over the internet. The net is indeed bringing people together.

  12. Paul, i read your post this morning and have waited all day for some thought to come to mind.

    I have a deep concern regarding this issue. Mysticism, and my association with mysticism, is not something I will discuss with anyone in person except for five people of my personal acquaintance, and of that number, only two understand what being a mystic means to me.

    I do not look on mysticism as an evangelistic type of tradition to be used in explaining or searching for a way to rationalize, and mentally model, existence and ultimate reality. I rather think people fall into the dark hole of mysticism for a variety of reasons and have to find their way out or go mad. I think many go mad initially in the darkness of such bewildering uncertainty.

    To direct or throw someone into that hole and walk away is unthinkable to me. To then try to rescue them by pulling them out would leave them too focused on you (the savior) not themselves.

    In my mind and experience, when I walk into a social or religious setting where people are acknowledging a reality beyond the obvious and confirm that a connection with that reality can be accomplished and maintained by the individual when alone; then we are in agreement and I am comfortable in the environment. I feel no inclination to tell them there is another approach.

    In other words, if a person can pray alone, without intervention, and feels they are interacting with the ultimate direction of that prayer with their personal satisfaction, why would I interfere, unless thay want to harm or kill me, of course.

    Yet, there may be many now that are confused and find no reasonable rational in the various ultimate reality paradigms presented as mental models for their consideration by the religions and spiritual traditions available today.

    And, there appears to be an increasing interest and participation in mysticism.

    So I would say, after a mere day of casual consideration, that Schools of Mysticism similar to some Schools or Kabbalah might be the answer.

    For me this answer raises more questions than it actually answers in further consideration, but, that is my initial thought.

  13. John, your reflections strike me as deeply thoughtful and profound, and I thank you for the time you put into responding.

    The notion of “Schools of Mysticism” impresses me as simply brilliant. Do you think the internet lends itself to helping such schools flourish?

    By the way, I’m taking the liberty of linking to your blog in my sidebar.

  14. The ego is a defense mechanism created at an early age. In its attempt to exist and protect us, it will use anything it can get. This is the “spiritual materialism” described by Chogyam Trungpa, amongst others.

    It’s almost universal: wanting to be a mystic, or wanting spiritual development, to be a better lover, or a smarter philosopher, or a more pious believer, or whatever.

    Real mysticism is shocking as it strips away these accretions and exposes what the Divine had in mind for you all along, which is what the ego was obscuring.

  15. Paul, some have suggested that the Internet is a continuation of the ongoing globalization of consciousness. The current World Wide Web is perhaps then only an infant’s step in that direction. If this is the time for a mystic renaissance, then yes, the internet would lend itself to helping schools of mysticism flourish in the same manner the internet now gives voice and community to us solitary souls.

    It would be interesting to further conceptualize the formation and functioning of such institutions, however, this, perhaps, should be assigned to another post. So many considerations and potentials come to mind initially that I hesitate to interrupt the thread of your post with such off the subject comments.

    I would like to make a further comment regarding the ego:

    I prefer to think of the ego as a beast. (The primal animal part of my being.) Not a gruesome beast, but rather like a pet animal that is loved dearly. A pet dog is innocent in its sins. It might kill a smaller animal just to hear it squeal without any awareness of the cruelty. While we can work at changing the behavior of the pet dog, we cannot make the dog fully understand why it is wrong to kill so casually another innocent creature. We have to begin by understanding the true innocents and limitation of the pet animal. We do not cease to love the animal or treat it cruelly. Even when it approaches us wagging its tail for approval, blood still dripping from its lips, we might scold it to dissuade such behavior in the future, yet we end by taking the pet in our arms with total reconciliation and love in reassurance that our dissuasion was not an indication that we loved the beast any less.

    One whose consciousness has evolved beyond the ego consciousness should not be opposed or hostile to the more primal bodily consciousness that has loved and protected our being from birth as abdulkahhar has noted so well. Often the ego is most frightened with feelings of confusion and abandonment and ultimate death. Rather than subdued with love, often the ego is treated with cruel judgment and hostility as if an enemy by the evolved consciousness.

    I feel the mystic should certainty be the master of the ego, but a loving, kind, and understand master.

  16. As Paul related, ego tends to mix itself up with everything. I no longer worry much about whether or not my ego is involved or if I have an agenda…of course there is ego involved and of course I have an agenda. Just ask me about it and I’ll be more than happy to expound upon it! They are both related to this little thingy we call subjectivity, and each person has their own set of experiences, hopes and aspirations that act as the resource for their subjective judgment about life, the universe and everything.

    Still, I can’t help but suspect that there are mystics that really do “get it” even if perhaps I do not. One indicator that impresses me is an event my favourite midwestern sect held in Canada a couple of years ago, attended by mystics from a number of traditions, including Native American, Jewish, Sufi and Buddhist spiritual paths. It seemed from all appearances that despite the paths being separated by historical distance both in geographical origin and in terms of time that somehow they were all on the same page in the Book of Life.

  17. The individual ego is the self awareness of the body. The ego is born with the individual body and dies with the body. All the functions of the body, from breathing to thinking, are expressed consciously as the ego. As Alan points out, the ego simply is. As long as the heart beats and the organization of individualized form continues with conscious self awareness, the ego is alive and ever struggling for survival and pleasure. This is the subjective perspective regarding reality.

    In the context of this vernacular, the next level of conscious awareness could be termed Objective. In this conscious progression, the level could be termed Objective Empathy, not subjective empathy where the subjective level of awareness is projected, but in a projection of a less self centered from of empathy.

    Continuing with this same vernacular then, the mystical level of consciousness would be termed
    Universality. This would be why when mystics meet they are on the same page, so to speak. There are no conscious boundaries or separations at this level of conscious and intellectual awareness, simply the same universal ocean of intellect washing up on various shores, again metaphorically so to speak.

    It could be perilous and fool hardy for one at such a lofty conscious level, however, to forget and deny that the foundation and very infrastructure of conscious awareness is expressed as the ego.

    In this vernacular, the ego becomes the student to be taught and comforted by the mystic. When the individual intellect understands the universality of all existence, the ego is comforted somewhat and comes to understand better that death is only transition and that the constant reality is the universality.

  18. Paul, after some further consideration, I think this is my ego’s final statement regarding this subject.

  19. Pingback: The Study of Mystical Awareness « Café Philos: an internet café

  20. Pingback: The Study of Mystical Experience and Mystical Awareness « Café Philos: an internet café

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