Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Articles > The Garden Of Mysticism, Part I

The Garden Of Mysticism, Part I

Lee Irwin

An image of a pink flower, in close zoom.
Flower image courtesy marcopoulos, used under the Creative Commons license.

The garden of mystical teachings has many flowers, each unique in beauty and each offering a nuance and variation on the possibilities of the mystical life. The flower that attracts, the specific form, delicacy, and brilliance of a particular blossom, indicates a path whose attributes are shared by other members of that species. While there are many varieties of mysticism, a multitude of paradigms within the Hermetic garden, there are also many shared traits, clusters of characteristics, that give an aire de famille to various realizations. The tendency in discussing these similarities is to look toward the tradition or mystical school, to the discourses and mystical writings within those traditions. However, as Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote, we must learn to distinguish the perfume from the flower, to perceive the deeper subtlety or scent that creates the intoxication of deep mystical awakening. It is not the flower that represents the goal of the mystical life, it is something more profound, flowing out of Mystery through an endless variety of forms, creating each unique realization, uncontainable in any flower. The teaching is the form, the flower, but the elusive realizations cannot be contained in the forms. Always, the fertile ground gives birth to more variations.

“There are no limits in Spirit and the mystical life is not bound by any human rules or teachings; it is like a vast symphony of which we hear only a narrow band, a harmony whose resonance is perceptible only on the creative occasion of our own ability to attune to the Mystery, beyond limitation and ideology, beyond authority and hierarchy.”

When we see all the flowers of the garden, the tremendous diversity and range, from the simple forest white to the multicolored hybrids, we can imagine that only through this diversity is it possible for us to see the ground from which all these forms emerge. The sacred ground of this diversity is our own human, spirit-given capacity for creative realization and subtle innovation in spiritual practices or mystical perceptions. It is not the tradition or the teaching that is the ground of these realizations, but the sacred human, the soul gifted with illumination seeking to give expression to the Inexpressible. All of life participates in this sacred source, according to the inner capacity for transformation. Within the human being, we can touch the shared fields of co-creative relations from which the newness and uniqueness springs forth. This ground is deep and vast, beyond any single summary or condensation; it is fertile beyond imagining, vivid and alive with a surplus of potency that overflows every being, every soul, every creature and created being to fill the world with a profound vitality so valued in the mystical life.

Do We Need a Path?

What we learn from a path or teaching is a way to direct our thoughts, an explanation that offers moral direction, cosmological interpretation, prophetic pronouncements and guided instructions for the next stage. Formal teaching can provide the necessary, crucial catalyst for genuine spiritual awakening. The path can also offer community, shared concerns and goals in a context of striving and aspiration. It can give a center and a sense of purpose beyond simply pursuing collective goals or habits. However, the ground of the sacred human is uncontainable, it overflows toward ever greater depths, always revealing the yet unknown and unrealized aspects of possible spiritual realizations. Thus there is a balance between what is received and transmitted and what is discovered and yet unknown. The past is not a collection of final templates but of patterns of possible transformation; we should honor and revere these teachings, paths, traditions—incarnational or transcendental—and the All between them. Yet Spirit overflows, sometimes shattering the vessels that would contain it, pouring itself out on to the simple and unsophisticated as well as on to the adept and master. There are no limits in Spirit and the mystical life is not bound by any human rules or teachings; it is like a vast symphony of which we hear only a narrow band, a harmony whose resonance is perceptible only on the creative occasion of our attuning to the Mystery, beyond limitation and ideology, beyond authority and hierarchy.

“The return to sobriety is part of the task, to sink deep into ecstatic communion, to Be in the Now, but also to come back into the world-work of collective transformation, to offer our gifts, however great or small.”

The paradigms of the mystical life are transglobal and cannot be limited to a romanticized past nor to an idealized image of the spiritual life. All the flowers have not yet been seen and the perfume of these flowers, as it melds and mixes, will without doubt expand the palate of the sacred human. Perhaps we are like bees in the holy garden of revelation—the activity of “beeing” is found in the distillation of essences, the various nectars drawn from the flowers of spiritual traditions can produce a sweetness of soul most profound. But like a jar of local honey, it carries the taste of its ingredients, a flavor created by purity of soul, the subtlety of distillation, the abundance or poverty of its sources. No tradition can guarantee the purity of all its members and no individual can represent all possibilities of the community. Each person, each sacred human, is a path, a way toward a more complete realization, a testament of spiritual possibility—now, in the present, today.

A Millennial Sacred Human

The sacred human today is not the sacred human of a thousand years ago; we have changed, discovered, found new paradigms, struggled and conflicted. The mystical life is emergent and we are challenged to discover new ways of thinking, believing, practicing. But our roots sink deep into our collective history, the ground of being is preserved in Spirit; it does not disappear or dissolve. Our shared histories remain as substance and soil for the work of transformation, the home or the planetary soul, which offers us both the stability of the past and the innovations of the future. We stand between paradigms, honoring the realizations of great-souled beings, seeking to constitute a similar realization fully in accord with our present, our real world of contested being. Thus we are called to the work of fully actualizing the sacred human through dedicated efforts, inward reflection, unique spiritual intuition, and a creative adaptation of insights to real world problems and challenges. The authentic mystical life is not about escape or world renunciation, it is about engagement, commitment to world transformation, and the presence of deep, abiding love. We cannot heal what we do not love and the illumined mystical heart is the center of this loving, healing transformation.

This article is continued in Part II.

Lee Irwin is a Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the College of Charleston where he teaches world religions with an emphasis on Native American traditions, western esotericism, hermeticism, contemporary spirituality, mystical cosmology, and transpersonal religious experience as related to dreams and visions. He is the Vice President of the Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) and a board member of the Sophia Institute and the Institute for Dream Studies. He has been a workshop leader and group facilitator for over twenty years, particularly in the areas of visionary cosmology and the development of the sacred human. He is the author of many books and articles, including: The Dream Seekers, Visionary Worlds, Awakening to Spirit: On Life, Illumination, and Being, The Alchemy of Soul, and Coming Down From Above: Prophecy, Resistance, and Renewal in Native American Religions.

Read more about Lee Irwin

Comments (12)
  • Hello Lee, How beautiful the fragrance of these words from the garden, It was great to ‘bee’ with you even shortly on the frosty night when winter has returned knowing blooming is continual.

    — DAniel ( ALi Jemal ) Mount on March 10, 2009

  • “We seek to cultivate awareness of the unity of existence….”; “synthesizing knowledge from the past”. Yet the only mention of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan on the “history” page is a brief paragraph under Hazrat Inayat Khan’s heading and a reference to Pir Vilayat’s 1972 participation in a Lindisfarne conference.

    Very puzzling indeed.

    — Azimat Kennedy on March 10, 2009

  • I appreciate the stillness of thought.  The drive to be still, to reflect, to connect, to know.  I crave more!  In these times of challenge, we can always turn to our ability to think.
    Thank you

    — Marti Chitwood on March 12, 2009

  • Hi Lee,
      If ever I can lend some Spiritual Music to a lecture or program you are doing, I would be happy to play my Native American Flute for you.

    — Kathie Corley on March 18, 2009

  • Lee,
    “..the ground is deep ..fertile beyond..” as I read this piece I am suspended in balance ,in the center of a circle. Outside the horizonal and vertical lines suspend and support as they are unseen inside the circle of mystery where I exist. Today your words pulled me to a place from chaos to still peace.
    Thank you.

    — Sandra Lee on March 18, 2009

  • yes

    — alima on March 19, 2009

  • Sometimes the stripping of the ego on the path to oneness is tough to bear. This is a lovely article, which brings the spiritual aspirant some comfort like a spring rain in an arid land in need of revitalization.

    — Leela on March 20, 2009

  • It is the first day of Spring, and I am grateful to learn about this work and look forward to learning more and applying this wisdom within our lives.

    — Kathryn Samia Potter on March 21, 2009

  • Nov 11, Remembrance Day & we choose the symbol of the poppy to wear on our lapels.
    Thank you for reminding us the scent of flowers , flowers serve to re-member us.

    — maria on November 12, 2010

  • Hello Dr. Irwin,  I find your writing to be rich and intricately woven.  A source of inspiration and profoundly mixed knowledge.  What you say about a path is very helpful. I have explored many spiritual paths and it can be overwhelming. What you have said about this is the most clear and sound statement regarding how to handle the plurality of spiritual paths in today’s world as I have seen.  Thank-you.

    — Randy Collins on February 2, 2011

  • Hi Randy—Thanks for the comment, it certainly is true that the many paths we face challenge us. Another way I think about this plurality is to emphasize a “path of the heart” - one based in positive, loving human relationships, a path that acknowledges our shared support for one another. While there are many paths, what matters most deeply to me is the ways in which our paths intersect and mutually support each other, including our differences. If I stay centered in the heart, caring about others, allowing love to guide my interactions, then the intellectual differences become less significant. If you can follow a path with heart, you create a filed that can support differences and yet allow you to be your unique self. From my perspective, the light that illumines the heart is a primal source that urges us toward cooperation and reconciliation. if the glass of the lamp is clear and open the light illumines whatever it touches, and the shape of the glass can still be individual and unique. Thanks for your comments; may your light be ever bright!  Lee (al-Basir)

    — Lee Irwin on February 3, 2011

  • First of all, I love this project/mission. I’m all in when it comes to soeithmng that’s so completely POSITIVE. I hope this grows beyond your wildest dreams.As for what I, personally, hold sacred, several things came to mind pretty much at the same time. Family, Faith,and the American flag.As a wife and mother (3 daughters, 4 cats, 1 son-in-law, 1 future son-in-law, and 1 to-be-determined-son-in-law!), my beloved family is the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night. When I’m weak, they give me strength and when I’m strong they make me invincible.My faith is sacred because it’s mine, all mine! I believe in God as much as I believe in my next breath. I know He’s there and no one could ever convince me otherwise. When you feel your faith down in the core of your being, it’s a part of who you are   even more so than your DNA.Finally, the American Flag should be sacred to every American. Men and women have fought for, and given their last breath for, the stars and the stripes. They do so even today. Our country is a beautiful mixture of many races and fascinating cultures and I think of all of us when I look at the American Flag and it never fails to stir my emotions.

    — Evyatar on April 26, 2012

1 March 2009

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mysticism, sacred, transformation, spiritual guidance, flower, co-creator,
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