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How (Not) to Think Like a Mystic

How (Not) to Think Like a Mystic

Browse your favorite bookstore and you can find all sorts of books with titles that begin “How to Think Like…” — How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, even How to Think Like a Horse.

Perhaps it is an ordinary quality of human curiosity: when we find a person — or an animal! — or even a group of people we admire, we want to get inside their heads, figure out “what makes them tick.”

With books promising to teach us how to think like a graphic designer or a scientist or a CEO, perhaps we need a book called How to Think Like a Mystic.

Or maybe not…

Once, many years ago, I saw a T-Shirt with this clever slogan:

Meditation. It’s Not What You Think

Likewise, we could say that mysticism — whether Christian or otherwise — is “not what you think.” Put another way, a more useful approach to getting into the head of a mystic would carry this title: How to Be Silent Like a Mystic.

Mystical thought — whether we are talking about spiritual wisdom, myth, theology, philosophy, or even poetry — is like the setting of an engagement ring that holds a diamond in place. The setting is made of a precious metal, gold or silver or even platinum, but its value is nothing compared to the diamond it holds.

For mystics, the “diamond” is silence. Pure, wordless, non-conceptual, ineffable silence. Even if you’ve got a brain that gallops along a mile a minute, the only way to unlock the mysteries of mysticism is to find the silence that hides between and beneath all the words or images or feelings that comprise the stream of thoughtful consciousness.

But just as gold is a precious metal, it’s reasonable to explore this question: “How do I think like a mystic?” In other words, how do I train my brain to think in such a way that respects, and holds lightly, the silence wherein the heart of mystery may be found?

This is where the distinctions between different types of mysticism come into play. Silence, after all, is the same regardless of what era you live in or what corner of the earth you call  home. You could be a Zen Buddhist, a Vedantist, a Sufi, a Christian contemplative, or any other type of spiritual seeker, and yet the silence at the heart of the mystery is always the same. That’s the sense in which all mysticism is “one.”

But as soon as we step back from the universality of silence, and engage with the syntax and vocabulary of language — of philosophy, of religion, of whatever wisdom tradition we happen to have been born into or have chosen for our own — as well as other cultural symbols (icons, rituals, architecture, mythology, and so forth), then we are in place where each tradition has its own internal logic, its own value system, its own map for personal and communal growth, healing, and wellness.

So when we talk about “how to think like a mystic,” then we have to ask, what kind of mystic? A zen master and a Christian contemplative will think in different ways, even though they both ultimately surrender their thoughts to the same silence. But even the way they approach silence will be different, embedded in their social and cultural and theological/philosophical constructs.

To give a very obvious example, a Christian contemplative enters into silence as an act of worship or devotion: “Silence is praise,” as Psalm 65:1 (when translated literally) proclaims. But a Buddhist is just as likely to be an atheist or agnostic as a theist, and may simply have no thought or concept of “God” at all when entering into silence. So while the silence is the same, they way they approach it, understand it, interpret it, and draw meaning and sustenance from it, differ considerably, based on their cultural and religious/philosophical distinctions.

Since I am a student of Christian mysticism, I can only begin to answer this question — how do I think like a mystic? — by considering it in terms of Christian mysticism. Keep in mind that the rest of this essay operates within that restricted framework. Talk to a practitioner of another contemplative path, and none of what I’m about to say may be relevant to his or her practice.

Anyone who has ever learned a foreign language appreciates that, to become fluent in the language, you’ve got to immerse yourself in it. Speak it, listen to it, read it, write it, watch TV programs or films where that language is spoken, go to live in a land where it is the primary language. That’s the only way to learn a language, at least fluently. You want to speak Gaelic? Move to the Scottish highlands or maybe Cape Breton Island. French? Go to France or Quebec. And so on.

So to think like a Christian mystic, we begin by striving to become fluent in “Christian spirituality.” And that means immersing ourselves in the Bible, in the liturgy and prayer traditions of the Church, and in the writings of the many great mystics who have come before us, ranging from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries, down to visionary writers of the last century like Thomas Merton or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

A knowledge of Christian theology and ethics would certainly be helpful, but since mysticism is about prayer and meditation, the liturgy and the devotional or didactic writings of the mystics is more important than just cracking the thought of Karl Barth or Paul Tillich. In fact, many theologians of the last 600 years or so are to a greater or lesser extent anti-mystical, so if we want to immerse ourselves in theology as a way to embrace mysticism, it’s better to look into the past (Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux) when theologians often were mystics (and vice versa). An exception is Eastern Orthodox theologians, who often have done a better job at retaining a mystical consciousness than their western counterparts.

Christianity is more than just a “head trip,” and that holds true for mystical Christianity as well as any other dimension of the faith. So to fully enter into the mind and heart of contemplative Christianity, we need to do more than just become immersed in the literature — we have to begin to practice the spirituality, in an embodied and daily way.

The easiest place to start here is with the words of Jesus himself. Jesus promoted service before mastery, hospitality before hostility, compassion before control, humility before pride, trust before anxiety, mercy before legalism. He insisted on loving not only God and our own family and friends, but even strangers and enemies. He was impatient with social conventions that led to external acts of piety but left interior lives untransformed.

So learning how to think like a Christian mystic also requires that we learn how to behave like a follower of Christ.

Just like you don’t become fluent in a foreign language overnight, learning how to  think (and behave) like a Christian mystic is a long-term process. And to keep the sense of mystery, of unknowing, of contemplative wonder at the heart of our practice, all the focus on prayer, literature, and action must be immersed in a regular practice of silence.

But we’ll take a closer look at that another day.

Carl McColman
Carl McColman

Carl McColman is a Christian contemplative writer, speaker, retreat leader, and spiritual director. He studied Christian meditation at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation and trained in spiritual direction at the Institute for Pastoral Studies in Atlanta. He is a professed member of the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, a community devoted to the practice of contemplation within the context of marriage and family, outside of a traditional monastery. Carl is the author of over a dozen books, including Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality, and The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. Read his blog at <a href="https://www.carlmccolman.com/">www.carlmccolman.com</a>.