Demystifying MysticismPlenary Presentation at a conference on Pediatrics and Spirituality, Houston, October 27, 2011.
Adam Blatner, M.D.
The thesis being presented today is that mysticism,
properly understood, is simply a more complex and intense form of
spirituality. This is relevant because the complexities of the
psychospiritual crisis that accompanies an illness, children and
families need to engage in a spiritual process. Going beyond the use
of simpler formulas and answers, sick children and their families
need to engage in an active and creative process of finding their own
way to meaning and peace of mind, generating these elements out of the
particulars of their own unique psychological make-up. Helpers can be
more effective when they understand the basic dynamics of this process.
Good morning. I’m honored to be here.
Thirty years ago such a conference would have been almost unheard of,
and I’m happy to be part of a process of a broader integration of
disciplines and activities that are relevant to serious illness in
children and the plight of their families. I have given this theme much
thought over the years as both a child and family psychiatrist. This
talk also represents an opportunity for me to speak out about another
interest of mine—one that is the key theme of this conference: What is
spirituality and how does it have relevance?
Let’s address that first and then come back to it. The religion of
people’s youth tends to work for many, but a crisis—especially one
involving an innocent child---evokes the questions posed in the Book of
Job in the Bible. Conventional truisms and comments from relatives and
what is heard in most sermons just don’t reach the heart of the people
involved. Something extra is needed, and that something involves a
creative process of meaning-making! CREATIVE PROCESS OF MEANING-MAKING!
Wow. This bridges into why it’s important to demystify mysticism,
because there are a lot of approaches used by the mystics of many
religions that can be tools for facilitating that creative process of
meaning making, for helping kids and families in crisis work out what
works for them to bring them some peace of mind. I’ll be explaining
these ideas further and for those who might want to chew on them a
bit—some people learn better through reading than hearing—this talk is
also on my website—just Google Adam Blatner and Demystifying Mysticism.
So, I’ll be making several points. First, I’ll add to Dr. Graham’s
keynote definitions of spirituality, with a view towards bringing forth
the practical applications; and of course, define mysticism,
recognizing that the word has been used in two senses.
Second, I’ll link the psychological dynamics
involved to something you all know about—bonding, attachment, the depth
of feeling connected, which can apply not only to newborn babies and
their mothers, but also between people and their Higher Power.
Third, I’ll note that meaning-making is part of this process, and much of it is non-rational.
Fourth, this process must be
individualized—people’s deep minds are made up of many, many different
combinations of temperament, ability, interests, and personal
backgrounds so that each person is truly unique.
Fifth, because of that, every individual
needs to work out his or her own creative solution. As a corollary, we
as helpers cannot pretend to know “answers”—it doesn’t work that way.
.. the Sixth point speaks to what we can do: We can create the
circumstances within which people have a much greater chance of working
out their own conclusions—and such conclusions may not take the form of
an answer or a set of formulas that can be put into words. But that
doesn’t matter—if it works for them, we have done the best that can be
done—and often this extra piece of healing doesn’t happen in modern
life. So adding it contributes to a holistic approach. Finally, I’ll
present a few brief examples, case studies, where I used these
The reason mysticism needs to be de-mystified is that the word
is indeed mystified, artificially made mysterious, and this is for two
reasons: First, in the popular sense mysticism seems like mumbo-jumbo.
There is widespread ignorance and subsequent prejudice about a many
activities that have been going on for centuries in the United States
and for millennia before that. This misunderstanding applies not only
to mysticism, but also to related phenomena, psychic experience,
stigmata, symbols, esoteric studies of all kinds, etc. Note that most
of these dimensions of mysticism had little place in the modern world
of the later 19th through the mid-20th century—that’s an important
point—and it seemed no harm was done to discard and devalue all such
Another reason for dismissing the idea of mysticism is that many clergy
in the last several centuries did clearly not take classes in
comparative religion or anthropology or even examine their own
religious history in depth—and people tend to discount what they don’t
know, treat it as if it wasn’t worth knowing. A saying about this is
that a pickpocket at a convention of saints would only see their
pockets. Also, the fields I mentioned hardly existed back then, and the
growth of knowledge in all these fields has expanded significantly in
just the last half-century.
So the first sense of the word mysticism is that to many people it all
seems like a bit of a con, phoney baloney, big words, and so forth. In
this sense, Johnny Carson in the early 1970s donned a turban and
pretended to psychically read notes. That kind of mysticism was
mystifying, magical–in the sense of show magic, trickery.
Now what I want to emphasize is that since the 1960s, especially,
mysticism means simply the activity of more intensely seeking a deeper
connection with the Holy Source of Everything, God, Allah, Great
Spirit, Brahama, Nirvana, whatever. The study of mysticism and related
religious phenomena goes back many centuries, but more recently has
expanded and been examined more closely from the perspective of many
fields---comparative religion, psychology, anthropology, history, and
so forth. Many researchers have been address the phenomena associated
with the way some people personally take their religious activities to
levels that are hard to understand by normally pious people.
So this word having two senses, a disreputable sense and a highly
reputable one, is the reason for the seemingly paradoxical title of
this presentation. Mysticism, because of its being widely
misunderstood, really needs demystifying. So, after a fair amount of
study, I want to suggest that mysticism is a more intense practice of
spirituality, and in a moment I’ll explain what spirituality is about.
Defining Spirituality and Religion
Dr. Graham used the word, “quest.” Another word is
“activity”—something you do. It’s not something you are—I’m more
spiritual than you nyah nyah. It’s not something you get. Spirituality
is and activity. It’s the activity of deepening one’s sense of feeling
connected to whatever is imagined as one’s highest power or source or
what the theologian Paul Tillich called the Ground of Being. So, first,
it’s an activity, and second, it’s subjective. It’s whatever works to
evoke in you a deeper sense of closeness or connectedness. And as I’ll
explain, that really differs with each person.
Now, religion. You can be religious and not spiritual, or spiritual and
not religious, or both, or neither. I’ll explain. Religion is the
social organization of the spiritual impulse. It adds communion,
we-ness, structure, some working out of an agreement about how to
cultivate or propagate whatever is discovered spirituality. So,
spirituality can be enhanced by communion, but often it is more what
goes on deep in the psyche of the individual.
Religion requires some agreement—it is social, and it tends to become
organized, which makes it vulnerable to all the faults that accompany
any organization made of people who are themselves less-than-perfect.
So, given this, let’s start with religious but not spiritual—which is
perhaps most people. They’re good people, but just not into a process
of questing. Indeed, no one has suggested that they should quest, that
they need to deepen or develop their relationship with God. It suffices
that they come to church, pay their dues, follow the rules, sing the
hymns, say the prayers. They’re religious, good people but they don’t
do spiritual activities.
Then there are those who are spiritual and also religious. They quest,
and they do so within the matrix of their preferred religion. Indeed,
most of the mystics of the past—not all, but most—pursued their more
intensive quest to feel connected with God operating somewhat within
their general religious context.
Now it must be acknowledged that many people are neither religious nor
spiritual, and there are growing numbers of those who find no value in
traditional religion and are dropping away, especially in some European
countries and diffused through this culture. This is not the time to
comment on that whole dynamic—for our purposes, just recognize that
A growing population are those who are to varying degrees spiritual but
not religious. This means they don't fully commit to any organized
body, any particular church, denomination. Occasional mystics have also
transcended the religious framework of their origins, such as
Ramakrishna, who lived in the mid-19th century, or Meher Baba, who
lived in the early 20th century.
Anyway, back to spirituality—because that’s the key: The operative word
is more, quest, activity, there’s a direction, seeking more. This quest
can be mild, but still present. For example, in 1971 in the Broadway
play, Godspell, there was a song you probably have heard:
Day by day, day by day, oh, Dear Lord, three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly; love thee more dearly;
Follow thee more nearly, day by day."
Later on I'll describe a case of a patient who thought himself neither
spiritual nor religious, but in the crunch, something like spirituality
Spirituality may be thought of a an activity that can be done
lightly, moderately, or quite intensively. Many activities have this
range. For example, singing may be done in the shower, or as a kid in
camp around the campfire, or with some practice in a church choir or a
community chorus—but there are some people who really get into it,
professionally, we’d say. They take lessons, they learn operas, or
jazz, or some genre, they become highly proficient, and they love it,
they want to take it as far as they can. These folks---opera singers
and top pop singers---are to ordinary singing what mystics are to
spirituality. You could say the same about dancing or drama or any art,
about cooking, and those who go off to cooking school. About poetr, for
example, there is the story of a poet who was asked why he was a poet
and he responded, “I’d die if I couldn’t write poetry.”
With mysticism it’s a bit sociologically unclear, because one’s rank in
the church hierarchy doesn’t necessarily jibe with one’s spirituality,
for all sorts of reasons. The roles are different. A great opera singer
does not generally become a producer or president of the opera guild.
And indeed, the personal nature of mysticism is such that many seemed
rather eccentric if not heretical to the church hierarchy. So, the
point here is that spirituality can be developed all the way and that’s
So mysticism is important to demystify because of two reasons. One is
that for those who want to take spirituality farther than we might, it
offers a category whereby we don’t need to devalue them as weird. They
just want to take it further than some of us might find necessary for
The second reason is that mystics sometimes discover ways to feel
connected that in the long run can help other people just starting out
on their quest to make a bit of progress. Pioneers in music or dance
come up with some innovations that in a few generations become part of
the beginning curriculum. That’s just the way progress occurs in many
I should note, though, that just because someone has had some very deep
experiences, that doesn’t in itself qualify this person as an
authority. Some of these folks haven’t developed other qualities,
ethics, etc., that fit with their spiritual sensitivity. So we should
not overly idealize a mystic. Nor should we overly devalue them.
They’re just people who want to take a kind of deep desire or talent or
sensitivity to a more intense level. My emphasis is that it’s useful to
recognize and demystify this process so that those who want to benefit
from reading about mystics can do so more easily. Also, some of the
writings of mystics can be helpful to some people in crisis, which
links this talk back to the problem of using the full range of
resources in pediatrics.
Mysticism as Bonding
The second point here is that this dynamic of
spirituality and, as a more intense form, mysticism, is all an
extension of the deep psychological instinct or archetype called
“bonding.” It’s also called “attachment.” Some call it Love. It’s more
obvious and organismic between a newborn and a mother and vice versa,
but very quickly the circle expands to include Daddy and other
relatives, and then selected friends and others. Depending on the
culture and historical events it can expand with surprising intensity
to include patriotism, loyalty to one’s platoon in the military, or any
group or cause that evokes deep devotion.
Depth psychology is too often identified with Freud’s ideas, but that
is only a little valid. Freud himself fell into a process of what a
later psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson called “premature closure of
identity.” Erikson was referring to a problem some teenagers made for
themselves—he didn’t mean for it to apply to Freud—but I see it that
way. Freud is great for opening some doors but he then came to
conclusions too soon. It turns out that sex isn’t the only source of
our motivation, nor aggression, but there are lots of other sources.
The mind is complex. And many other earlier innovators in psychiatry
were in part about identifying some of the other dynamics that Freud
One of these basic needs was for bonding, for generating and
maintaining an adequate sense of being in relation to others. That’s
what part of the social media facebook fad speaks to. By the 1940s
there were pioneers challenging the more orthodox Freudians and
promoting what came to be called object relations theory, and other
theories of relationship took off from that. I’m just noting that
another type of relationship needs to be recognized: people develop
deep relationships with the Ground of Being or God or mysterious
More-ness that some folks sense quite vividly.
The third point takes the previous point and deepens it
in another way: When people feel deeply connected, that confers a
strong sense of meaning. Just being here with you. Being with your
beloved. It feels meaningful. It’s not a matter of intellectual
concepts all fitting into place. At a certain point of maturation, and
more for some people who value that sort of thing, a more intellectual,
conscious, rational foundation for philosophy counts. But for most
folks, meaning is a very deep experience—things feel more or less
meaningful—based on a host of circumstances—relationships being part of
Meaning can be drained out of a situation by it becoming impersonal, or
savage. The loss of meaning in life is a major factor adding to
post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—and it also is a symptom of this
condition. PTSD occurs also when major illness enters a family.
The point here is that meaning is a subjective experience, one that
depends on non-rational as much as rational elements—probably more—;
and as such, the sense of meaning often doesn’t fit what others say is
the meaning or should be the meaning attributed to a given situation.
Meaning is a feeling of what the world is about, an unconscious inner
map of sorts.
Complexity and Individuality
This leads to the fourth point---that because people are
complex and unique, no one from the outside can do this for you. Each
person is a combination of scores of sub-variables of temperament, and
more of abilities, and of different interests, and family make-up,
historical circumstances, ethnic backgrounds, and so forth. (I expand on this in another paper on my website.) So one size does not fit all. Like that song, You got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself, in the sense that nobody else can walk it for you. But I like to emphasize that others can walk it with
you. As I’ll be emphasizing, we can help not by thinking that we have
or trying to provide answers, but by doing other things to help
facilitate people finding their own way to a creative solution that
fits their individuality.
Going Beyond "Answers"
Extending the principle of individuality, then, the fifth
point is that it’s not even a matter of answers. There is a certain
level of consciousness in childhood where a plausible answer satisfies
in many cases. Culturally, too, the power of answers, formulas, dogmas,
offered sufficient structure for a sense of meaning. As culture and
life became more complex, though, a new level of maturity has been
needed. The key is complexity, because for many situations, simple
answers just don't suffice.
In the mid-20th century, it seemed as if there really were right
answers to the major questions in life. The general sense was that if
you knew the right answers, you did right. If you didn’t know the
answers it’s because you committed a sin of omission, you didn’t
study.From that world-view, dynamic psychology seemed worse than
suspect—if offered what seemed like excuses.
However, gradually, in the last century we have begun to realize a few things:
1. There were many situations that didn’t have pat answers of right and wrong but rather required problem solving.
2. These were complex and you needed to understand underlying principles.
3. Psychology wasn’t just about sex and excuses, but rather it
offered a window to self-deception, hypocrisy, and increased ability to
discern right and wrong.
This all shifted the paradigm of being a good person from the childish
just follow the rules to the more adult processes of trying to
figure out what was going on and how can we more creatively address
what we find. In other words, responsibility moved from something
closer to mere accountability—how many good things have you done versus
bad things, the old image of judgment being simple weighing the soul in
the balance—an image dating back to Egyptian mythology as well as other
myths— to a more complex type of ability to respond because one really
was empowered with a new set of skills, understandings, tools for
thinking and evaluating.
The idea of mysticism as an activity of deepening in this light may
become less mystifying: Think of mysticism as a process of becoming
more complex in one's spiritual quest. As an analogy, one can
glimpse at the way more advanced students or practitioners learning to
do music or art or science in more complex ways. Perhaps they co-create
those more complex ways! Certainly mere obedience to conventional
answers doesn't apply at these "higher" levels that push the envenlope.
The knowledge base is appreciated as not covering all the answers;
there are indeed new problems, new variables, new aspects and
boundaries that transcend the simple world of right and wrong.
It has taken a large part of the world centuries to make this change
and lots of folks have not realized this yet. But mysticism is really
applying a kind of personal psychology and other techinques for
deepening one’s own personal bonding with the everything, with what
some call God.
Mysticism is irrelevant is what life is about is simply following the
rules, and a century ago, that’s all that most preachers and teachers
could understand. The holy scriptures as a rule book. Sure, there was
some interpretation needed. And not only the Catholics objected to the
translation of the Bible into the common tongue—the question of who
would use it to make the rules was still a matter of hierarchy even
among many Protestant groups.
But there are many for whom spirituality transcended the challenges of
just following the rules. These folks wanted to find out what all that
spiritual source was about, and many in the Church hierarchy in
many religions—not just Christianity—really didn’t understand the need
The need for—the deep desire for—to see Thee more clearly—is a taste not shared by everyone, but it is a taste shared by some.
Helping People Cope
The sixth or final point before the case conferences is
this: What has been discussed so far now may be applied to the
challenge of this conference: These kids and their families are in the
crisis that to them feels a bit like what happened in the story of Job
in the Bible. Why me? What does this mean? Ordinary answers work for a
few, but don’t suffice for many. What can we do if we don’t have
answers? We now know there is something else operating—we can have
faith in the human spirit, but we have to husband it, nourish it: We
generate the circumstances for creative coping and people will more
likely respond positively. There’s no guarantee. We’re not in control.
But I can guarantee that this approach will fail far less than the old
ways of just trying to tell people what to think and what to feel. We
shift from instructors to being more like midwives, counselors who draw
forward and yet are not clear how in any detail our clients will find
their way forward.
Having a broader repertoire of tools is one of the ways our art of
healing advances, and the workshops and approaches at this conference
begin to make sense in this light. Some will respond more to art
methods for re-stablizing their sense of meaning and peace of mind, and
some will respond more to music.
Applying Spirituality in Practice
I will finish with a couple of case illustrations. Doctors and
chaplains need to work with people where they are, and they often don’t
fit the model.
When I served as a consulting child psychiatric consultant to an
affiliated specialty pediatric hospital, I was referred two
patients—young people in their 20s. They had cystic fibrosis, both of
them, and part of their treatment included some group breathing
lessons; unexpected was that after meeting they fell in love, and since
they were adults, they courageously decided to and did marry even
though they didn’t expect to make it past age 30, if that long. The
first consultation was for the wife—call her Mary—and I was called
because although Mary was dying, her husband wanted some help in
promoting some reconciliation with her family. Her parents,
fundamentalist Christians, had become alienated from my patient who had
dared to explore the nature religion called Wicca. There was a
potential healing or a potential tragic alienation that could happen.
Meeting with Mary and especially working through her husband as an
intermediary, I learned more, asked questions, drew out the history.
There is a bit of healing just in laying out the story and having
someone take care to understand that story so that the person feels
The bridge here seemed to be a re-framing, a bit of spin-doctoring,
because the patient—the woman, the wife—was really a very nice person.
Her husband raved about her goodness. It’s that her operative symbol
system—note those terms—we all generate a symbol system, a mixture of
images and stories that touch our hearts—sometimes in ways that
reassure us, sometimes, alas, in ways that scare us and make us feel
more abandoned. But her connection to nature was loving, and I worked
with the theme of loving—having the husband talk about his wife as
loving to his anguished in laws. They were torn because officially she
was going to Hell, no doubt about it. But Love is a powerful theme, and
they came to their own peace knowing that Jesus would resonate
with her love and she would go to heaven. People work it out in their
own ways—they wanted this bridge—the theme of love—that would obscure
The second story happened two years later. Well, it began one year
later—the husband, a young man, knew his breathing was getting worse,
Soon he’d be on oxygen full time. Cystic fibrosis gunks up your lungs
so that you very slowly sort-of drown. He knew he’d be dying. I worked
with his other docs and we recognized that near the end he’d be using
morphine which not only fights pain, but reduces air hunger. It’s
possible to die without suffering. But it takes time and the key is
that people don’t have to die alone—which is what happens all too
often. I worked with this fellow to make that process as emotionally
supportive as possible.
I remembered a technique I had read about in the Tibetan Books of the
Dead—really just a text that they read out loud to those who were dying
to remind them of what they believed. Could I adapt this technique? The
problem is that John didn’t believe anything—he was pretty much of an
atheist! Really? Nothing? Patient discussion with no pressure brought
two things he did believe—both pretty irrational, if you think about
it—but we’re talking here about people’s “symbol systems”—what images,
feelings, intuitions, thoughts make sense—and this is very personal,
and it often does not follow lines of strict logic, and it’s okay.
We’re looking for what works. So one thing John believed was that
Mary’s spirit would be waiting for him on the other side. There was no
sense of God and Heaven in the traditional sense, but the nature of
their intimacy, their love, was that this unbeliever in general did
believe in that, and, hey, we’d go with that. The other thing he
believed in, strangely enough, was the Force. Yes, that Force, the
invisible principle mentioned in the Star Wars movies. This was his
symbol system. I chose not to instruct him in the Tao te Ching, the
ancient Taoist Chinese text—but the point here is that the idea that
there is a kind of flow force in the cosmos that is fundamental was not
thought of by the movie makers. It’s an old, old idea. And for him, The
Now here’s the point. He liked the idea of having his morphine-muddled
mind re-minded—the idea of re-minding—bring attention back to the key
images that lifted him—this felt good to him. He wanted me to do it. So
I promised him that I would and when his breathing became bad enough so
that he needed to go on full time morphine, I’d visit and remind him,
and we spent his last night this way, my rubbing his back and reminding
John to stay with the Force and that Mary is waiting for him; and his
drifting in and out until he stayed out.
Mysticism is a more intense form of spirituality, and
helping people to find the depth in life, beyond that which can be
immediately perceived by the external senses, is also a kind of
healing. Healing is related in its word root to the term, wholeness,
and to holy, and wholeness is similar in meaning to integrity,
integration, bringing together that which has been comparmentalized by
the mind or the society. In this case, spirituality seeks to reunite
what is perceived most strongly through intuition, and integration
involves bringing a sense of coherence and meaning to that integration.
It's so personal and complex that no one else than the person going
through the process can create this synthesis. We can help set up the
circumstances that allow for this creative process to operate freely.
Pushing what we think are the answers can stifle this natural
re-organizational process in the psyche. Instead, we listen, ask
questions, draw forward, and, especially, offer unconditional respect
and support. It's not easy to do if we are attached to what works for
us---the temptation is to tell them our solution and expect that to
work for them. Often they may work with moderately or very different
symbol systems. Instead, we focus on the process, promoting the
activity of spirituality to work its way in the deep psyche of our
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