by Diane Linsley
Anyone who is on the spiritual path needs to know the difference
between magical thinking and mysticism. Most people who think
they are mystics are actually magical thinkers. In this article, I'm
going to explain the difference.
Here are two examples of spiritual teachers who are mystics. They
are highly intelligent people who developed the rational mind, then went beyond it.
Bill Harris advanced the practice of meditation with binaural beat technology. With this technology, one can progress through the stages of spiritual and cognitive development much faster. One year of Holosync meditation is equivalent to about 8 years of traditional meditation. It's an amazingly effective program. Bill teaches about neuroscience, spirituality and personal growth. Ken Wilber earned degrees in the sciences before he became a world-renowned philosopher. Early in his career, he sought to integrate science and spirituality by creating a map that encompasses them both.
According to Ken Wilber, there are three stages of thinking - magical, rational and mystical. These levels are progressive, so you must start at the bottom and work your way up. You cannot skip a level. Magical thinkers cannot become mystics without first developing the rational mind.
Stage One: Magical Thinking
When I was going through some very painful health problems in my twenties and thirties, the so-called spiritual people in my life often asked me, "What did you do wrong?" or "Did you pray about it?" I was deeply offended by their hints that my health problems were caused by sinning, or that God was withholding a healing because I didn't have enough faith.
When I finally found a scientific way to control my illness with diet and supplements after many years of studying alternative medicine, nobody congratulated me. In fact, they seemed to think I had cheated. They assumed that if God had created the illness because I was a sinner, then I had no right to cure myself. If God wanted me to be healthy, he would have cured me through a miraculous faith healing.
Magical thinkers are suspicious of science because they don't understand it. They are always talking about having faith in God. New Age magical thinkers just substitute the Law of Attraction for God.
I thought I'd escaped from magical thinkers when I left the church. But I found just as many magical thinkers in the outside world - except they didn't call it God or faith. They called it energy or vibration. One person said to me, "You're not really healthy because you never found the underlying spiritual cause of your illness, so you didn't change your vibration."
I replied, "I looked for a spiritual cause, and I couldn't find one. So I decided to forget about it and cure myself with diet and supplements." That's not cheating. As far as I'm concerned, success is success.
Bill Harris says that magical thinkers are looking for magic words to take away their problems. I see that in both organized religion and the New Age movement.
In Grace and Grit, Ken Wilber talks about the well-meaning friends who hurt his wife's feelings by pressuring her with New Age cures when she was diagnosed with cancer. Religious or not, magical thinkers are true believers in whatever dogma they are attached to. In The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things, Larry Dossey says that research has found no consistent pattern in spontaneous remission of disease. Spontaneous healings happen to religious people and atheists alike. They happen to both positive thinkers and people who have given up hope. It is cruel to accuse people who do not get well of being unfaithful or weak-willed.
Magical thinkers are offended by beliefs that contradict what they have already decided is true. They resist learning new information. This is in direct contrast to the attitude of rational thinkers, who are open-minded and eager to consider many different perspectives.
A common Law of Attraction belief is that it's dangerous to stay in a "low vibration" for more than 17 seconds. I've coached some people who deteriorated into near-panic during coaching calls when negative thoughts spontaneously arose. They felt like they had failed in their quest to always think positive thoughts and stay in a high vibration in order to prevent bad stuff from happening to them.
Some Law of Attraction followers avoid associating with "negative people" because it might lower their vibration. They try to live in a bubble of positive thinking in order to be safe. I agree that it's not good to hang out with pessimistic people. But surrounding yourself with yes-men can prevent you from expanding your perspective. It may be painful to your ego to listen to people who think differently than you do, but that's how we learn and grow.
Ken Wilber calls the New Age movement the religion of narcissism. And, yes, it is a religion because it has dogmas and rules that you must follow in order to get what you want, which usually means money and popularity. Unlike the long-standing religions of the world like Christianity and Buddhism, it's not about transcending the ego and serving others. It's about gratifying your own egoic desires.
I'm not talking about narcissistic personality disorder, although that is rampant these days. Magical thinking is just the immaturity of a child's way of thinking. A narcissistic religion does not satisfy the soul in the long term.
My training as a Law of Attraction coach was frequently the opposite of everything I had previously learned in Zen Buddhism and Christianity. It's definitely not the Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva or the Christian idea of the Saint, which are higher levels of spiritual development. But the coach training gave me some balance and a different perspective.
Stage Two: Rational Thinking
It's no wonder that some rational thinkers are highly suspicious of anything that smacks of spirituality. But the rational thinker has his own ego problems. The rational thinker believes that he has discovered the one right way to think - with the rational mind.
I began my journey as a rational thinker in high school. Sadly, I was shunned by many of the kids who thought I was "too smart." My best friend was also a rational thinker, but she criticized my continued interest in religion, and she tried to talk me out of it with rational arguments.
That didn't bother me too much because I enjoyed our intellectual conversations. She had made the common mistake of demonizing spirituality when she became rational. Ken Wilber says that when we go to a new stage of development, we need to "transcend and include" the previous stage, not disown it.
The task for the rational thinker is to learn how to operate in the world with a scientific paradigm. As a rational thinker, I believed that there was a rational explanation for everything. Rational thinkers are not faithless. They have great faith in rationality and science to solve the world's problems. Carl Sagan is an example of an optimistic rational thinker who helped to change the world.
Rational thinking helps us learn and grow. Magical thinkers often short-circuit their growth by saying, "God did it." Then they don't have to strain their brains to learn.
Each stage of development is a response to problems that could not be solved at previous stages. I couldn't solve my health problems with magical thinking, so I learned how to solve them rationally. Without problems, we cannot progress.
Stage Three: Mystical Thinking
I had a spiritual awakening at age 42. According to Osho, this is the proper age for enlightenment. This has to do with the physical maturity of the brain. Of course, it doesn't happen to everyone. The term enlightenment refers to a very specific type of spiritual awakening.
A mystic is someone who has been through the rational stage of development and transcended it in order to bring in information that is beyond what the rational mind alone can access. I'm going to present a rational view of mysticism in order to help clarify it.
When I began meditating, I started having remarkable spiritual experiences. Luckily, I had Bill Harris as a teacher, and he provided explanations with neuroscience that helped me make sense of the changes that were taking place in my brain. But there were some things that science couldn't explain. This is the mystery of mysticism.
Many of the great scientists are mystics. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison are classic examples. They used rational thought, as well as meditation (delving into the unconscious mind), to solve problems.
Everything you've ever experienced is stored in the unconscious mind. In any given moment, you are only aware of a small slice of Reality (the whole). Most of the things you are exposed to bypass your conscious mind and go directly into your unconscious mind.
Here's an example: I've read over a thousand books in my life - science textbooks, novels, scriptures, psychology books, gardening books, medical books, etc. I can't possibly remember all that detail with my conscious mind. But it's all stored in the unconscious.
When I have a problem to solve, if I can't think of a solution right away, I take a break and do something else like dance, read a book, or listen to music. If it's a really big problem, I may have to sleep on it for a few days or longer. In the meantime, I keep learning new things.
At some point, the solution comes to me. It may appear in a dream or in a visionary experience while I'm meditating. This isn't magic. It's just how the unconscious mind communicates.
Mystics use rational thinking to solve their problems most of the time, but they have expanded their toolkit to include mystical experiences like kenshos, dreams and OBE's.
If you could use the superpower of the unconscious mind to solve problems, wouldn't you choose to do so? Of course you would. It's a rational conclusion!
How to be a Mystic
My goal is to learn as much as I can and progress to the highest level of development that is possible for me. That means I have to expose myself to many different perspectives and experiences.
Any time you encounter information that requires you to expand your map of reality, you are going to feel uncomfortable at first. If you are dedicated to personal growth, you will learn to live with discomfort, and you will continue to seek new knowledge - especially in the fields that you are weak in.
If you've gone too far to the scientific side, read more spiritual books. If you need more rationality, read more science books on any topic that you are interested in. My interests in health and gardening led me to study medicine and botany.
When I first started studying medicine, my brain hurt! I could only tolerate a small amount of new information each day. But I stuck with it because my life depended on it.
One day I was reading a medical book for the second time, and I suddenly realized that I understood what I was reading! From then on, whenever I came across something I didn't understand, I kept on reading - trusting that my unconscious mind would make sense of it eventually.
Some people say, "My brain doesn't work that way." That's an excuse to avoid challenging subjects. You are the one who trained your brain by avoiding some things and moving toward other things. We all do that. But with enough incentive (like the need to cure a deadly disease), you will find that your brain can adapt. That's what brains do. If you doubt it, read The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey M. Schwartz.
Ignorance is not bliss. It's hell. What you don't know can hurt you.
Mysticism is not a religion or a belief system. There are mystics in every major religion, and there are mystics who are non-religious. Some mystics, like myself, believe in the existence of the soul, and others have scientific explanations for their spiritual experiences.
Now that I've demystified the subject of mysticim, some people may feel deflated. Mysticism is not magic. Magic is the child stage of spirituality. The adult stage is learning how to use all of your brain - both the rational and the intuitive.
It may not be magic, but I think it's the most exciting thing ever! I believe that it's possible for any intelligent human being to become a mystic if they really want to. When I first learned about this possibility, I made it a priority.
Albert Eintstein said, "I want to know the mind of God; the rest is details." This is the driving desire of the mystic.
Carl Jung was a mystic, but his family tried to keep it a secret by removing the parts of his books that mentioned OBE's and other mystical experiences before presenting the manuscripts to his publisher. They didn't want anyone thinking that the great man was crazy.
One of the first things I learned as a mystic was to stop expecting other people to understand me. I tell the truth of my experiences, and people can think what they want.
In my lucid dreams, whenever I am presented with a fork in the road, I always choose the difficult path. This path leads me into darkness, danger and excitement. Sometimes I wake up from these dreams wondering if there's something wrong with me. Why do I choose the uphill, rocky path rather than the flat, meandering path by the sunny beach?
The easy path represents the known. The difficult path through the darkness represents the unknown. Who knows what will happen? "Bad stuff" might happen, but that's a risk I'm willing to take. It's new and exciting, and it challenges me to grow.
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