The mystical arms of the Islam, Christian, and Jewish traditions, along with western mystery traditions such as Gnosticism, all in large part have shared, developed, or stem from, ideas found in the ancient Zoroastrian religion. Established several thousand years ago, it posits life as essentially a battle between the forces of good and those of evil. Our original home was in a heavenly realm, but due to mishap, we have fallen from our previous, more blessed locale. The meaning of life is to regain this realm. And Zoroastrianism affirms that in the end, the powers of good shall triumph and we shall indeed return to a better realm of existence. The later mystical traditions have all used this as a metaphor to explain the transformation that a serious spiritual practitioner undergoes.
Techniques common to all these paths include renunciation, reliance upon a spiritual teacher, devotion, study, prayer, fasting, and contemplation.
Subsequent to the establishment of the Islam religion, Muslim mystical practices and understandings were chiefly taught by various orders of mystics and saints. Sufism has come to be identified with the principles common to all of such teachings. It was first recognised as a separate body of practice around the ninth century and today includes over seventy orders most of which are based within Muslim cultures. A few Sufi orders, however, have been founded in, and are oriented toward, western culture.
The Sufi path is grounded in Muslim orthodoxy. A practitioner is expected to follow the social and legal requirements of Islam. True spiritual value can only blossom forth from such a moral basis. The practice entails a progressive deepening and refining of emotional devotion to the Divine. The path starts with applying for acceptance into an order. During this time repentance, trust in God, poverty, and patience are key aspects to be developed. Once an aspirant is accepted, his or her relation with the spiritual teacher becomes paramount. At this stage, gratitude, submission, and renunciation of worldly values are important traits to be fostered. After time, the teacher will introduce further practical techniques to overcome the wholly self-centred mental and emotional framework that we are all encumbered with.
Prayer, in the form of constant repetition of the various names for the Divine, is the chief Sufi tool for such growth. This skill is first developed with the help of a rosary but after time it can become an integrated part of one's mental activities. So, regardless of one's activities, silent prayer can take place. Further techniques include fasting ( a 40 day retreat at some point is not uncommon ) and the use of music and movement to induce blissful trance-like, God-intoxicated states. The help of a teacher at this stage is vital, for the end goal is not merely a blissful experience but rather wisdom and communion with God. To this end, the student is aided in resisting total identification with the affects of trance--such as tears and intense love of God. By experiencing these exalted states but creating a mental space between them and one's awareness, gradually identification with the personal ego ( the little "self" ) is transformed into direct spiritual intuition of higher knowledge and being ( the big "Self" ). As for all of the world's mystic roads, the Sufi path finally leads its traveller home to her or his essential nature of compassion, wisdom, peace, and surrender to the Divine.
A special characteristic of Sufism is its utilisation of allegorical interpretation. Sufis don't deny the literal interpretation of the Qur'an, Islam's most holy book, but they emphasise its symbolic meanings. Likewise, their own teaching stories always have at least two levels of meaning. The literal story is used as a guise for deeper instruction. For instance, the antics of the Sufi, fool-saint, Mullah Nasruddin are at once both entertaining and, with a bit of reflection, thought provoking. Even deeper esoteric teachings are sometimes part of such stories, but they usually require the help of a spiritual mentor to point out their significance.
As some neighbours of Mullah Nasruddin came home one dark evening, they spied the Mullah digging about under a street lamp in front of his house. "Mullah, whatever are you doing?" "I'm looking for my keys which I have lost." Soon they were all scratching about in the dirt, searching for his keys. After a while, one of them spoke up: "This is no good. Mullah, think back. Where did you last have your keys?" He replied: "Well I lost them somewhere in the house, but I'm not sure where." "What! Why are you searching out here then?" Nasruddin answered: "Why because it is much too dark in the house, there is more light under the lamp."
Devotion, concentration ( through prayer ), and surrender play the key roles in conventional Christian mystic practice. Such efforts naturally lead one to a very pure and humble heart. Selfless service is also a major part of this approach. Thus it is that this mystical style has much in common with the Hindu paths of Bhakti and Karma Yoga. Eastern meditation techniques have only recently been discovered and their acceptance is still fledgling. Nevertheless, many a Christian mystic has achieved deep levels of communion with the Divine. And in fact, the constant remembrance of a transpersonal level of being is not unknown to this tradition. For instance, the 17th century English monk, Brother Lawrence, developed a technique--mostly through inspiration and intuition--which leads to results akin to those developed by the continued practice of either Zen or mindfulness meditation. In "The Practice of the Presence of God", he wrote
This made me resolve to give the all for the All: so after having given myself wholly to GOD, to make all the satisfaction I could for my sins, I renounced, for the love of Him, everything that was not He; and I began to live as if there was none but He and I in the world ... I worshipped Him the oftenest that I could, keeping my mind in His holy Presence, and recalling it as often as I found it wandered from Him. I found no small pain in this exercise, and yet I continued it, notwithstanding all the difficulties that occurred, without troubling or disquieting myself when my mind had wandered involuntarily. I made this my business, as much all the day long as at the appointed times of prayer; for at all times, every hour, every minute, even in the height of my business, I drove away from my mind everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of GOD. Such has been my common practice ever since I entered into religion.
There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with GOD: those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive; it is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because GOD would have us.
Repetition of a prayer is analogous to recitation of a mantra ( which is essentially, a short prayer ). The best known prayers and mantras from all of the world's traditions are charged with a spiritual energy and power well beyond the scope of ordinary words and phrases. This charging effect occurs due to the fervent practice with these prayers by countless humans throughout history. Two of the better known Christian short prayers are the Jesus Prayer from the Eastern Orthodox tradition:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.
and Hail Mary, from the Roman Catholic tradition:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Christian mysticism is one of the classic demonstrations that the Divine can be communed with through simple means. Of course, it is assured that with intense prayer and meditation, one can achieve great spiritual heights, but one of the most penetrating messages from this style of practice is that a simple heart and a clean devotion can prepare one for true spiritual insight and wisdom--well beyond that merited on one's own simple efforts. It is an affirmation that positive spiritual currents do exist and can provide support and guidance if they are just invited into one's heart with humility and faith.
These schools were among the first to present eastern metaphysical ideas in a way palatable to the western psyche. George Gurdjieff was a Russian mystic who synthesised strands from Buddhism, Sufism, and western alchemical and gnostic thought. He also incorporated ideas available from the science and psychology of the early 1900's. His chief student, P. D. Ouspensky, elaborated on his teachings a bit further and coined the name, Fourth Way, for this approach. The three traditional ways of the fakir, monk, and yogi ( austerity of body, emotion, and mind, respectively ) require withdrawal from worldly life in order for one to make spiritual progress. But according to this system, significant advance can be made while living in everyday circumstances.
The chief tools for this approach are self-remembering and a set of principles used to help guide one's actions. Self-remembering is somewhat similar to Vipassana meditation. To self-remember, one needs to be aware of one's actions throughout the day in a consistent and thorough manner. For example, often a person will have some snippet of an idea or tune that will repeat incessantly in his or her mind. It is not uncommon for the same phrase to repeat 5, 10, 20, or even more times without the person really being aware of the repetition. Through self-remembering one avoids such useless mental gyration and fog.
The three major principles are the laws of one, three, and the octave. The Law of One, points out the underlying unifying principle behind all phenomena. At a deep level there is a connection amongst all experience. The Law of Three states that any situation is composed of three forces: an asserting, a receiving, and a harmonising one. So any circumstance can be effectively dealt with by identifying the force that is active and asserting something, the force that is the recipient of that assertion, and a third harmonising force that can be used to moderate the dynamic of the situation. The Law of the Octave is a recognition of the fact that any undertaking will over the course of time undergo change and drift off course unless additional energy is put into the task. For instance, a spaceship flying to the moon will end up lost somewhere in the heavens unless it occasionally uses mid-course corrections to keep it on target.
This system acknowledges that there are multiple levels of reality but concerns itself primarily with ordinary experience and the next, more refined spiritual level, commonly known in spiritual traditions as the astral level. In keeping with gnostic thoughts, this school affirms that we can gradually work our way through this, the astral, and all other spiritual dimensions on our homeward journey to the source of existence. The primary task when beginning this journey is to develop a "magnetic centre". This concept is very similar to the Buddhist idea of renunciation, and is a metaphor for the mental-emotional state that has an overarching interest in spiritual growth so that, similar to a magnet, it will lead a practitioner towards fuller spiritual understanding and realisation regardless of the vagaries of earthly existence.
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