The Mystical Mindset

I have very low blood pressure. It’s a hereditary trait. I haven’t done anything particularly virtuous to deserve it – one of my favorite things is salty food. But, this trait runs in my family. I get it from my father’s side. Low blood pressure has some funny side effects, including occasionally seeing little sparkling flashes of light, particularly if someone with low blood pressure stands up quickly. The way I experience it, it looks a bit like flecks of glitter drifting around me for a moment. I was raised on fairy tales, Narnia, Tolkein books and Jim Henson shows and movies, so as a child, the most logical conclusion when that happened was that I was seeing fairies. 

It made sense at the time. 

Years later, I was talking to my mother about some of my blood pressure issues and told her that when I was little I thought the sparks of light were fairies. 

She paused for a moment, then said “Maybe they were.” The conversation stayed with me as you can see. And, just for context, my mom is a left-brain dominant community organizer from an engineering family. She is most known for a logic-driven style of thinking.

Healthy mysticism is the ability to experience a layer of reality that falls outside the rational, logical explanations, without losing one’s grip on the practical, mundane world. It’s a way of allowing magic and wonder to inform and elevate the experience of living. A healthy connection to mysticism also means that when we have a big experience that doesn’t conform to the rules of reality as we know them, we’re better able to address that experience and find constructive ways to process it. To make it make sense for us. 

The way my mother phrased it was effective. Maybe there’s more to life than the logical explanation. Allowing a mystical layer to reality doesn’t mean we reject the mundane underpinnings. I have low blood pressure and seeing stars is a symptom that goes with it. A mystical mindset is simply a lived pluralism, a way of approaching the world that includes a both-and philosophy. I have low blood pressure. And, I am an adult in my mid-forties who has spent the last 25 years as a teacher of mystical and magical practices through Pagan spirituality. If anyone was going to regularly encounter some wild magic flickering in their peripheral vision during childhood, it is someone like me. Perhaps there was something more happening. Perhaps that was one of the ways the great mystery could reach me as a child. So, it did. Both, and. Science AND mystery. As the new Inspirations statement says in our new UU Values and Covenant: “We draw upon, and are inspired by, sacred, secular, and scientific understandings that help us make meaning and live into our values.”

We live in a culture that as a whole is uncomfortable with mysticism outside a very narrow set of parameters. For most of us, our first instinct when hearing about someone’s mystical experience is to deny it or try to rationalize it. This is part of why people tell children to “stop daydreaming” when they say something that seems unusual. One of the most common reasons people turn up in the classes I teach and ceremonies I lead is that they’re trying to reconnect with some of how they experienced the world as children. They miss the mystery that got crushed out of them. 

Since the enlightenment period, mysticism has been widely regarded as dangerous and potentially evil. That wasn’t always the case, though. You only have to skim the writings of the Catholic St Teresa of Avila to see that mysticism once had a respected place even in religions that are not known for mystical thinking these days. The age of enlightenment and its focus on reason and logic was a gift in a world that too often took mystical information to an extreme. The last execution for witchcraft in Britain occurred in 1727, just as the enlightenment period was beginning. We needed a healthy dose of logic at that time.

However, good things can still be taken to an extreme. One of the many functions of religion is to offer various frameworks for spiritual experiences. Enlightenment thinking caused mysticism to be stripped out of most forms of Christianity and many of the Western belief systems that emerged since then. Religions can be beautiful containers for spirituality. But, without the mystery, wonder, and unusual experiences that often go along with spiritual practice, we end up with a beautiful container that doesn’t hold anything. A vase with no flowers. One of the other common reasons people end up in my classes and ceremonies is because they feel that their faith of origin is empty or meaningless. A structure without a purpose or greater connection. A container holding nothing. A remnant of course-correcting a religious structure a little too hard. 

We can begin to reclaim healthy mysticism by opening to a gray area within our experiences. It’s okay to not always have a logical explanation for everything that happens to us – those experiences can live in the gray area. The truth is that there really are some things that are not replicable in a laboratory with double-blind protocols, or able to be dissected in a petri dish. We need to be able to reclaim the idea of mystery and have it as its own category in our experiences. This is where you can put things like ghostly encounters, times when it felt like wild animals were trying to give you a message, omens that occurred in life and then were followed by something that confirmed the omen, seeing the future in dreams, senses of a powerful presence in certain places, or any number of other styles of messages and encounters. There are so very many ways humans experience the numinous, and simply allowing those moments to have a home within a category of “mystical experience” is incredibly helpful. The world doesn’t always have to make sense. Indeed, sometimes it’s better if it doesn’t. 

We can cultivate mysticism in a healthy way, as well. As with so many areas of life, healthy mysticism involves the intentional selection of a middle path. An approach that holds mystery in one hand and pragmatism in the other. There are some useful tools when it comes to this middle path. The first is to remember that a mystical experience is a kind of stimuli that generally doesn’t occur frequently and involves parts of our brains that aren’t entirely set up for contact with the numinous. As earthly beings, the majority of our neural wiring is for the survival of this experience of being incarnated. When we communicate a mystical experience, we’re trying to put words around something bigger than language can hold, often including feelings and experiences we don’t even have language for. Our experiences are also filtered through the lens of our lives and cultures. The myth cycles of the world’s religions were originally someone’s mystical experience that got written down. Taking those writings literally is one of the problems with religious fundamentalism of all stripes. Encounters with the greater mystery do not translate well, and are always flawed when in written form simply by virtue of having to be translated in the first place. Holding that gray area of mystical experience gently and exploring but not fully dissecting it is a good middle path. We can contemplate something without fully interrogating it. Allowing soft edges and some feelings and images that simply cannot be spoken about clearly is a good approach. 

Another useful thing to be aware of when we’re processing a mystical experience are our thought patterns. Most of us have some areas where we can be self-destructive. As an example, I have a tendency to overcommit. My desire to help has to be carefully managed so I don’t end up overscheduled, exhausted, and sick. I think of this part of my psyche as Superhero Syndrome. This means when I have a mystical experience that feels like a call to action, I know to hold the experience gently in my mind. Some of the message of the experience is probably true. But, my helium hand tendencies can act up in unhelpful ways. Awareness of our own destructive traits means we can put a mystical experience through a logic filter without completely losing the experience. It just means using two categories when we’re processing: mystery and mindset. What parts of my ego, or self-destructive tendencies, are getting in the way of the experience? 

Likewise, healthy mysticism respects boundaries. As I frequently tell my students, if you have an experience that seems to be telling you to act in malicious or dishonorable ways, or in ways that will harm you, it’s safe to ascribe that experience to some of the less helpful parts of your psyche. 

Creating space in your spiritual practice for healthy mysticism and for experiences that can begin to take up that gray area category is also largely intentional. It is possible to have a transcendental experience while standing in line at the grocery store, but it’s not likely. As someone who deliberately seeks encounters with the numinous, I put myself into situations where they are more likely. 

For starters, I spend a lot of time outside. And, when I do so, I open to messages and experiences of mystery. This means that when I’m watering the garden in the morning, I view it as a meditative experience. I greet my land spirits and tell them how beautiful they are, how much I appreciate the flowers, fruit, and veggies they’re growing. I listen to the birdsong and allow my vision to be soft. I place myself into a receptive state. I’m open to the possibility that there is more present on the land I belong to than the physical shapes and forms around me. 

When I go hiking or on an adventure outdoors, I carry offerings with me. Depending on where you’re going, an offering can be as simple as sharing some of the water from your water bottle. One of my preferred offerings is tiny chips of amber local to the east coast. The kind I use comes from the New Jersey area. When I encounter a particularly beautiful or evocative place, I pause to leave an offering in gratitude to the spirits there. What’s interesting is that sometimes that simple act opens the way to a mystical experience. 

One of my favorite parks in Maryland is Swallow Falls State Park. It’s out near Deep Creek, and if you haven’t been there yet, I highly recommend it. The park has several beautiful waterfalls. My spouse and I were there for my birthday a few years ago and the day was overcast. I went to make an offering as I usually do. I was standing just next to the flow of a waterfall and placed a small chip of amber into my hand. I was contemplating the amber and all that I was grateful for in that moment and a single beam of sunlight broke through the clouds to illuminate just the inside of my hand. When I released the stone into the water, the light faded and the sky was once again a solid wall of clouds. Sure, there’s a logical explanation we could go with, and, perhaps while I was reaching out with gratitude, the very spirits I was offering to reached back with a touch of grace and light. Both, and. Weather patterns AND mystery. 

Another technique for allowing some mysticism into your life is omen seeking. When I am struggling with a decision or complicated situation, I often bring in elements of mystery to help me untangle the thread. This can take the form of going for a walk and noticing what species and plants are most present. It can be a direct invitation to the Powers That Be to help me through my current struggle and a request that they speak to me through the nature around me. If the weather isn’t conducive toward outdoor omen-seeking, I will light incense or a candle and observe the smoke or flame. When I do so, I soften my mind and gaze, allowing myself to see images and patterns and then draw connections from them. Is it the air currents in my house? Sure. And, it is also a way for the great mystery to reach me. Both, and. 

One of my favorite quotes about modern day mystics is that we see color and texture where others see nothing. We hear music where others hear silence. We feel presence where others feel isolation. It is a beautiful thing to live in such a rich world. It informs a sense of purpose and connection, and supports a life aligned to a robust spirituality. 

So, consider adding a little gray area to your life. Be open to the possibility that there’s more to the world than what you see at the surface. Get a little more comfortable with the idea that not everything that happens can be explained logically, or put into words at all. Go outside and see what messages are waiting for you. 

And, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see some fairies too.

This sermon was offered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick on Sunday, July 7th, 2024.

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