This is a very subtle, but important exercise – marking the distinction between two similar ideas, mysticism and esotericism. At least, similar at first appearance.
Yeah, I know that intellectuallizing everything is dangerous and, in a sense, redundant, but for me to start my journey I need to mark a starting point. This is it.
To here is “reality” as we understand it: mocha cappucinos, sports cars, three piece suits, showers, sunsets, the whole bit. Yet we know that there is more. It irritates us in the way a rock in our shoe does. With every step, we feel its presence, yet we know not what exactly we are being irritated by.
And when we decide to investigate, we begin our journey towards transcending.
How exactly one transcends “reality” to come to understand the Truth of reality is what this little exercise is about. Briefly I will examine what is mysticism and what is esotericism in order to make sense of things – mostly for myself to learn.
Most may not realize a difference, as mysticism and esotericism are routinely interchanged, but there is.
For starters, mysticism comes from the Greek adjective mystikos (μυστικός, -ή, -όv) which is simply used to denote anything connected with the mysteries. The word for initiation or mysterion (μυστήριov), a mystery or secret initiation, was the noun form normally used. For those individuals who have passed through the rituals in order to understand this “ultimate reality”, either through identification of it or by conscious awareness of it, the word mystes (μυστής) was used – the word we get mystic from.
Here is the heart of the matter. Was a mystic someone who passed through a set of initiations in order to learn about ultimate reality? Or was it an individual who, through his intuition, was pursuing this understanding of ultimate reality?
And what exactly was “understanding” of ultimate reality? Was it direct experience or was it indirect? Could you simply be told what ultimate reality is and agree upon it? Or did you have to experience it for itself?
As its purpose, a mystic is to utilize one’s tools, skills or practices in order to achieve union with this ultimate reality, this oneness of existence. There are many names for it – Nirvana, Gnosis, Samadhi, Illumination, etc. This alone would denote that a mystic was not someone who was simply intellectually engaged with the ultimate reality and what it consisted of, but rather that a mystic was someone who had direct experience of its existence.
Mysticism is not an intellectual practice, but a real, practical experience. The tools, skills or practices utilized by a mystic would have to be field tested and proved to be effective. They would have to work and yield results. Which leads us to the notion that some major religions have a mystical component, such as Kabbalah with Judaism, Sufism with Islam, Gnosticism with Christianity. Or we could talk about the ancient mystery cults, such as Orphism or the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Each body of knowledge would have developed effective methods for attaining unification with the ultimate reality, the Godhead, the divine or God, however one wishes to define it.
So, the mystic is an individual who is believes there is a deeper state of existence beyond the daily routine of existence and seeks the truth about the relationship of oneself and this ultimate reality. How the mystic chooses to do so depends on his various cultural influences, but the mystic uses these tools/skills in order to meet his goal of union with ulitmate reality. The mystic, therefore, relies on direct experience, and not on indirect knowledge or theory.
From the Greek adjective esoterikos (ἐσωτερικός, -ή, -όv) we get the word “esoteric”. This ancient Greek adjective actually is a comparitive form of eso or eiso (ἔσω or ἔισω), which means “within”. So, something that is esoteric is something that comes from or is characterized as something within or internal.
This characteristic, of something internal or found within, could refer to a group whose practices are only known to those who are a member of that group. For example, the principles and beliefs of the Gnostics as opposed to those of Christianity. In other words, the smaller group (Gnostics) within the larger group (Christians) may have more specialized beliefs built upon the larger framework of beliefs of the larger group. And only the members within that group would understand the teachings.
Or possibly it could refer to the body of knowledge – as meaning those ideas or concepts that are focused on internal issues, or issues of the soul such as self-transformation and transcendance. This inner work, found within an inner group, would have definetly been construed as secretive to the outside world, or the larger group from which these teachings would have been built upon.
Initiation would be an important feature in outlining how exactly the body of knowledge of an esoteric system would have been learned and transmitted. In order to understand the concepts, one would have to be exposed to them first. As a by-product of this process, esoteric knowledge would also have built-in a filtering process by which the initiate would have been identified as a possible candidate. If proven worthy, the candidate would pass through the initiations and arrive as a medium of the esoteric knowledge, functioning as a fully endorsed member of this select group.
The term esoteric has come to be associated with knowledge or teachings that are hard or difficult to assimilate or understand. Naturally, this would lead to the association of esoteric knowledge as “secretive” or even “occult”.
Mysticism vs. Esotericism
At first glance, it seems extremely hard to differentiate the two. Both fields seem to deal with very specific and difficult material – yet this is not true. Mysticism deals specifically with attainment of Truth, of understanding the ultimate reality for what it is and knowing one’s relationship to it. This is obtained through experience, through direct perception of the divine state, of God, of true “reality”.
Esoteric knowledge could contain more insight and more concepts, tools, skills or practices that may help guide a mystic, but it could also contain information that would build upon an already existing body of work. In other words, many mystical paths do not introduce supplemental spiritual knowledge, but instead insist on gaining the experience of union through practical means.
Thus a mystic is not necessary an esotericist, but esoteric knowledge could contain mystical teachings.