A recent Pew report indicates that worldwide, more than eight in ten people identify with a religious group. These 5.8 billion religiously-affiliated individuals around the globe represent nearly 85% of the earth’s population of 7 billion people.
The global religious landscape is dominated by Christians (2.2 billion adherents is 32 percent of all humans), followed by Muslims (1.6 billion/23 percent), Hindus and Buddhists (1 billion and 500 million followers, respectively). Approximately 7 percent of the population follow folk or “other” religions, including Judaism and Taoism.
The question is how many of these 6 billion "religious" people consider themselves mystics? After all, the founders of all these world religions were themselves mystics (Moses, Christ, Buddha, the Hindu Rishis and also Mohammad, to name a few). Shouldn’t a follower of an ethos pattern herself after its founder? Did the founders of Christianity and Buddhism themselves practice rites and rituals, recite lengthy prayers and worship idols? Precisely the opposite.
Through Moses the Lord condemned idol worship as a pagan ritual; Christ overturned the tables in the temple, and urged his disciples to reject the Pharisees' penchant for observing the law in name but not in form. Buddha, himself a Hindu, moved away from the Hindu rituals propounded in the Vedas for the revealed truths touched on in the more metaphysical Upanishads. And before there was the Koran, telling Muslims which way to pray and what to say, there was Muhammad communing directly with God in composing these scriptures.
As you can see, the founders of all major religions were themselves mystics, and as a follower of any of the above creeds, unless your religion be a big waste of time, you'd do best to consider yourself a mystic as well. And once you do, you are no longer a follower, because you accept personal experience as authority and listen to the deity dwelling within your own heart, heard in the silence and stillness of meditation.
For as William James discusses in his lectures on mysticism (see his Varieties, 299-366),all personal religious experience has its root and center in mystical states of consciousness.
What do you think of when you hear the word "mystic"? The term mysticism is often used in reproach, hurled at opinions we regard as "vague and vast and sentimental, and without a base in either facts or logic.” Mystics have been associated with such phenomena as thought-transference, mind reading and astral projection.
In the interest of exactitude, James proposed four marks that justify calling an experience mystical. The first is ineffability. The mystical experience defies expression, and cannot be adequately reported merely by using words. The mystical must be experienced directly, not imparted to others. It is like experiencing a symphony or seeing sunlight. Someone can tell you about these sublime beauties, but if you haven’t had the experience yourself, if you are deaf or blind (or merely lazy), you will never know symphonies or sunlight, or in James' case mysticism, for to know the mystical is to feel it.
The second is their noetic quality. Mystical states are states of knowledge, unique in that they represent truth that cannot be plumbed by the intellect. Rather than learned, they are revealed. Mystical states are more convincing than any lecture or book because of this first-hand experience.
They are also transient, in that they cannot be sustained for long. Muhammad had to journey to the mountain several times to receive revealed truth. Also there is a certain passivity about mysticism. Where certain practices such as breathing exercises, mantras or fixing the attention within can induce the trance-like state, once it is in process the mystic feels “as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”
Mystical states always linger in the memory, and the subject is left permanently altered by their profound sense of importance, his inner life forever transformed. Using these criteria we can see how the founders of all religions were mystics. Christ was led into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. Buddha meditated for 49 days beneath the Bo tree until enlightenment was achieved. Muhammad’s inspirations on the mountain. Moses’ experiences with the burning bush, where he heard the voice of God and received the commandments.
These experiences may differ in their particulars, but all shared the same basic feature: they are instances of revealed truth gained by first-hand experience with a superior power which although appearing without (externally, in voices or visions, which the mystic attributes to God) are actually manifestations of the Divine whose source resides within.
Betwixt the sage and the scholar stands the often-insurmountable barrier of thought. The scholar deals in it, thought is the intellectual's hard and fast currency; the philosopher and person of letters consider concepts before setting them down in composition. In contrast, the sage, who is also the mystic, sits firmly and yet tranquilly in the silence itself. He goes beyond thought. Try it sometime. How to do so? The mystical writings of ancient India shed light on the time-honored practice.
It says in the Chandogya Upanishad: "All shall be ours if we but dive deep within, even to the lotus of the heart, where dwells the Lord."
And more precisely in the Swetasvatara Upanishad: "To realize God, first control the outgoing senses and harness the mind. Then meditate upon the light in the heart of the fire - meditate, that is, upon pure consciousness as distinct from the ordinary consciousness of the intellect. Thus the Self, the Inner Reality, may be seen behind physical appearance."
This new religion is universal and yet it is also individual, for the One Reality dwells equally within every heart.
Oh, and what of the 15% of humans worldwide who do not follow an organized religion? Are these freethinkers the truly evolved? Reluctance to follow a prescribed set of norms and worship a personalized God may indicate spiritual progress, rebellious as it may seem, and however surreptitiously. For who considers the atheist a holy person? Perhaps many of the nondenominational minority, who nevertheless number over 1 billion persons worldwide, are worshipping at the altar of the heart, where sits the Self, Lord of all. If so, they stand up there on the hill right beside Moses and Muhammad and other pioneers and prophets. Which isn't such a bad place to be.