Mysticism can be defined as self-transcendence and the practice of magical rites to bring about preternatural states of mind. Originally derived from the Greek word meaning ‘to conceal’, mysticism has more recently come to mean union with the Divine Source or the Infinite. Mystics experience intense moments of oneness with the cosmos leading to intuitive insight and revelation.
One of the earliest examples of this, is the 16th-Century Dominican friar and cosmological theorist, Giordano Bruno. He practised magic, argued that animals possessed souls, posited the idea of an infinite universe and believed planets existed that were populated by other life forms. Although he was ostracised for these ideas, Bruno refused to renounce his theories. He was tried by the Church for heresy and eventually burned at the stake for his beliefs in 1600. Bruno was an opinionated and disputatious man who would readily enter into heated arguments over the smallest disagreements. He once became embroiled in a violent altercation about the correct use of a compass.
The 19th-Century Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical movement in 1875, was once described by biographer Peter Washington as ‘a short, stout, forceful woman, with strong arms, several chins, unruly hair, a determined mouth, and large, liquid, slightly bulging eyes’. Passionate in her search for spiritual truth, Blavatsky would enter into heated discussions with her companion and fellow occultist Henry Steele Olcott. Sometimes she would bellow at him with such fury that passers by could hear her in the street below the rented rooms she and Olcott shared.
Born in Armenia just five years before Blavatsky published her first great Theosophical work, Isis Unveiled, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was a spiritual teacher. Gurdjieff believed that most people existed in a kind of absent-minded dream state. He argued it was possible to attain a higher transformative level of consciousness. This, he believed, could mold a human being into ‘what he ought to be’. To achieve this, he taught his students to explore a state of being which he termed the Fourth Way. In order to help them ‘awaken’ Gurdjieff’s followers endured a great deal of physical hardship. Gurdjieff would often rage at his students. He once leveled a tirade of abuse towards one student, the British intellectual Alfred Orage. In the middle of his bitter verbal assault on Orage, Gudjieff suddenly froze. In that moment, he appeared transformed by blissful tranquility. Then the moment had gone and he resumed his tirade once more.
The British writer and mystic Aleister Crowley also enjoyed behaving in an unconventional manner. He was opposed to orthodox religion and attracted to ideological movements such as Marxism which sought to replace established social structures. His counterculture tendencies led the British tabloid press to describe him as ‘the wickedest man in the world.’ Crowley founded the modern religious philosophy known as Thelema. He saw himself as the prophet of Thelema, ready to lead humanity into the 20th-Century or, as he described it, the Aeon of Horus. He believed that all individuals should be completely free to express themselves. The underlying principle of Thelema stated, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.”
There is a raging fervor within many great mystics, a wolfish hunger for the pursuit of deeply-held beliefs. Such intensity of feeling manifests as a transcendent inner fury, propelling the mystic towards union with the Source. Arguably it is this characteristic which is so attractive to the mystic’s followers. Through the ages, such great thinkers as Bruno, Blavatsky, Gudjieff and Crowley each attained their truth because they were driven by the engine of their passion.