Seeking the Real in Mysticism (part 1)
by Herbert Mason

Mention should be made at the outset that informing the following thoughts are the traditions of early Islamic mysticism, especially the controversial tenth-century mystic and martyr Hallaj, Catholic mysticism, the piety of both Islam and Christianity, the path of Zen Buddhism and the works and thoughts of certain poets, both eastern and western.

Further, there are certain assumptions I regard for this talk as necessary; namely, that there are two domains of reality that we can know as fundamental and predictable: one through texts, the other through observation, and both through gradually realized experience. They are the reality of God and the reality of nature, not in dualistic opposition, but one as primary source and the other as secondary extension of the first.

Discussion of mysticism is conditioned by our being in the between position, where two created bodies coexist and perhaps float, one decisively and the other indecisively: the angelic and the human respectively. The angels, including and perhaps especially, Iblis, the Islamic Satan, are contemplatives fixed in certitude with regard to God and nature; we are at least to ourselves more complex, being torn between the values of contemplation and of action and laden with uncertainty about God and our relation to nature with an often mercurial and hubristic impulse to improve upon both. We think of ourselves as independently clever and creative when in fact we are at times . aroused from our passivities to act and produce only by anguish brought on by fear of loss and separation from both realities. Something has gone awry for us and in us. Story tells us it is the fall from innocence, leaving us nostalgically and perpetually en route to a yearned for recovery, which yearning itself confirms our fall if not our folly. Mystics accept the fact of this human condition but struggle against nostalgia and the illusion of a lost romanticized past and seek, albeit imperfectly, even crudely, a union with their real primary source.

With that simple affirmation they are saying, like the Yogic novices, we want to live, not die. It is then, if they know their guide, their al-Khadir of the Koran, that they begin to confront their selves, their desires and illusions, and to begin to recognize the limits of their knowledge.

The thirteenth-century Muslim mystic Rumi alludes to Jesus as he distills for us most simply his guidance for The Mystic Way':

Plug your low sensual ear,
     which stuffs like cotton
Your conscience
 and makes dear
     your inward ear.
Be without ear,
     without sense,
     without thought.
And hearken
to the call of God,
Our speech and action
     is our outer journey,
Our inner journey
     is above the sky.
The body travels on its
     dusty way.
The spirit walks,
     like Jesus,
on the sea.

               (Rumi 1950, p. 74)

If the seekers don't have a guide, then Iblis, as Rumi also says, becomes their guide. The prayer of al-Khadir is for peace, calm, in the face of the satanic, both on the worldly and on the spiritual plane, and for an ever-deepening acceptance of God's will over one's own. Such, as some say, is the scandal and the heart, both, of monotheistic mysticism.

This may sound like a simple formula or paradigm for our existence and our spiritual life. Let's just say it is a working background description or setting enabling us to leap ahead and even sideways a little in our characterization of mysticism.


The following is a brief move sideways. What a poet of nature's reality, say, Robert Frost and the classical Sufis affirming God as the Real, regard as mysticism may be parallel in certain aspects, but are quite different. Infusions of nature and infusions (hulul) of God directly into one's soul are different in secondary and primary sense terms, but they may feel alike or similar. In Frost's terms the reason for this likeness may be due to the notion that druidic, or more modern divining poets, are seekers and in some sense knowers of the source, the spring, where the divine has visited and transformed, for our perception, its created nature. Frost, in his poem 'Directive', tells of the seeker's "awesome loneliness" in which one encounters "the wreckages of loss", the broken wing of a butterfly, the broken off career:

The earth itself
     is liable to the fate
of meaningless
being broken off.

Yet he perceives nature "so near the source" and metaphor bringing the poet near enough without labeling it Christian or religious; it is enough to know the nearness. "The waters and the watering are the same." The watering is the renewal, as it were, of a lost childhood, an American innocence, that is, a yearning for lost wholeness that nature can, he believes, provide even as age involves us "in the cobwebs and considerations of the world" (Judd Hall 1983, pp. 108-110).

Poets are not less spiritual than the priests or scholars of the Book, also the Source, whose guidance aspired to through deep and often esoteric meditation is, however, for direct union with God.

It is a cliche to say that poets are attuned to nature, when more subtly speaking they are readers of its elusive, inexpressible heart, the inmost essence of nature from which they desire inspiration. The friends of God (al-awllya' Allah), as the Sufi saints were called, are by contrast in their ecstasies of union, those empowered through recollectedness and self-diminishment to read our wavering human hearts and to form for us a disciplined path of life.

The poets as diviners of nature are distinguished from the formal Sufis in that the diminishment of self in union with the source is for poets but "a momentary stay against confusion," not nature's but their own, and not a determined and relentless discipline of self-removal and 'disappearance'.

Please understand that poets are our guides when we lack both formal religious guides and the devil to guide us, though they are not free from the whispering (waswasa) of Iblis, who plays on each one's self (nafs,) often unimpeded. Goethe, of all dramatic poets, I believe, knew this relationship most intimately and circumspectly, as an amateur orientalist, neo-classicist, quasi-rationalist, romantic, folklorist, mythologist, scientist, naturalist and Christian in grand eclectic array. And most impressive of all his achievements, he was able with the help of satanic dissimulation to make a knowledge-laden, aging academic interesting. By pointing one hand at nature, the other at transcendence, and by peering into a withering soul and finding a heart still capable of aspiration, he reenacted on our fully human plane, our too easily forgotten tragedy of hubris. In the end his 'hero' calls like Dante to the eternal feminine for guidance to salvation:

All that is changeable
Is but refraction:
The unattainable
Here becomes action.
Human discernment
Here is passed by;
Woman Eternal
Draws us on high.

               (Goethe 1976, Part II, Act V, lines 12104-12111)

Let us turn to look at the drama of self (nafs) and, without intending any offense, overstepping all of our recent and older experts on human behavior, let's recognize Satan (Iblis) as our guide, as Goethe would say, at least for a season or an evening in the theater.

Our education in self-expression, indeed self-absorption, has encouraged in the main our relative freedom from both religious tradition and the challenge of rigorous intellectual discipline. The result for many is a loss of adherence to religious practice and for some a crisis in rational thought. It was said once of Islam during its neo-Hellenistic period (of the ninth and tenth centuries) that philosophy (falsafa) prepared Muslims admirably to host the three favorite means for the wiles of Satan to manipulate humans: rationalism, sentimentalism and fatalism.

Let's assume for purposes of discussion that these three continue to be for the so-called 'fallen angel' or failed contemplative, Satan's easiest entrances into the human soul; that is, these three supposedly considered philosophical positions (remember that the devilishly clever never find humans so asinine as when they believe they're intelligent). Satan's intention, as always, is to separate humans from God by creating (if he creates) either disorder in their minds or encourages self-contentment through mental fixity: both of which thwart the mysticism of union with God and faith in the guidance of reason to realize it.

Rationalism can sharpen one's power of critical observation and research into the nature of things, but it can also lead the self-centered into equating acquirable knowledge with understanding one doesn't have; inflation of one's sense of power and importance can substitute belief in God, and nature with belief in self, which is one of the most time-honored thresholds of disillusionment and ni-hilism. Sentimentalism is seen through instantly by rationalism, which however can't destroy it, for it clings to its belief in its inspired mission to save the unhappy rationalists from themselves. The sentimentalists believe in the omniscient power of their inspiration. They and the rationalists are like two characters in an Irish play tied fatally together in a prison in Lady Gregory's one act plays or in some near-empty waiting place anywhere in Beckett's. One curses as the other weeps, each feeding off the other's incomprehension and boredom with their common human condition. The third, fatalism, which seems to have the final resolving authority in these plays, through a profound attraction to death. Fatalism believes in the clear and indisputable fact of mortality as the recognizable truth that governs and equalizes all existence (wujud). The fatalist doesn't have to do or imagine anything but observe what is obvious and can offer parables and homely sayings from life to support each observation. Yet the fatalist also believes in the self, only in different organs of the self, particularly the eye and the ear. The fatalist has no problem reconciling God and natural fate, reminding others somberly of what goes around with or without divine intervention comes around, known in Dublin and Boston as Murphy's Law.

Satan is attracted by all three, not to the persons, but to the arguments each produces to set apart God's and nature's contingent realities from the human consciousness, and thus to reaffirm Satan himself as the only true contemplative of the transcendent Real. The human convinced in each position is self-preoccupied and self-confounded. The human, thus convinced, turns from the simply Real to a more complex pseudo-mysticism of the self, which if once discovered to be aesthetically and sensually gratifying (as seen in the fin-de-siecle novels of' J.K. Huysmans, A Rebours and La Bas), needs no further help from Satan himself, but like the classic Onan, once left alone, guides himself.

Satan's interest is rekindled, however, when the human discovers and tires of the limitations of the self and seeks guidance from the Real directly and commitment to the path of its realization.

This is the path of gradual transformation, of what Suzuki and Herigel and others in Zen call "the decentering of self" stage; and this is when Satan's maverick competitiveness becomes most dangerous.

The heightened fear of loss aroused by the call to a decentering of self especially attracts Satan, who thrives on a divided humanity, on showing how brittle and spiritually contradictory we are. Our humanity is weak, our fatalism is strong, we believe "we are unworthy of God's creation and His redemption both. Satan, who contemplates God alone, not humanity, incessantly, without confusion of Primary with secondary sources, has by contrast with us only one limitation, which he whispers repeatedly to us: he cannot recognize in humanity God's gift of Himself. In this very fact of limitation, however, Satan is a teacher of mystics who seek the singular experience of direct union with and knowledge of God, especially when the seeker clings to an exhausted self and is skeptical of human guides. Satan teaches oneness by leading the seeker to despise his own humanity and all of God's creation as the last obstacles to knowing only God.


The tenth-century Muslim mystic and martyr Hallaj seems to have been just such a pupil of Satan when he welcomed the annihilation of himself as the way to fully knowing God. He declared willfully and hopefully that God "will be veiled to my glances until my body disappears in His Essential Light; and then no trace, no mark, no aspect and no memory of me will remain" (Hallaj 1957, 10).

During his long imprisonment for heresy and political opposition to Caliphal government policies, he wrote a dramatic profile of the motive and thinking of Satan in his refusing obedience to God's command to bow down before creation; he also wrote odes and short lyric utterances which both teach and express the experience of union with his Beloved Whom he called in his 'conversations' (shath) "Friend" or simply "You". Here Satan was the shadow guide, since Satan's wish for mortification of humanity is so central to the pure adoration of the transcendent God both feared and cherished by Hallaj in his imprisonment.

Properly speaking Hallaj assumes the mask of Satan articulating to God the fallen angel's point of view. By way of prelude he states that:

There has been no monotheist comparable to Satan among the inhabitants of heaven. The Essence appeared to him in all its purity; he forbade himself out of shyness even to wink at it and began to venerate the Beloved in ascetic solitude. He was cursed when he attained absolute aloneness and was challenged (by God) when, insisting further, he demanded (the priority) of his own uniqueness.
     God said to Him: "Bow down before Adam."
     And he said: "Not before another than You."
     God said: "Even if my curse falls upon you?"
And he said: "It will not hurt me, for I refuse Your command in order to affirm You in Your utmost holiness. I am going mad because of You! What is Adam? Nothing but for You! ...I who want no other way to You than through You Yourself. Am I to be a scorned lover? ...I am he who has known You from before eternity itself; I am worth more than Adam, for I have loved You for the longest time! No one of any of Your creatures knows You better than I! My every intention touches You, Your every intention touches me; we both existed before Adam! I must return to my source: You created me of fire, and fire returns to fire! ...Glory be to You ... in the Essence of Your inaccessibility for this pious servant, I myself, who bows down before no other than You! 0 my Adored One, I have to uphold the intention that was uttered first to me." (Mason 1988, pp. 49-53)

Hallaj applies to Satan, the inflated self, the word 'deformed'. Satan says to God:

You separated, dazzled, and expelled me so I would not confuse myself with You. You cast me far away from others in my zeal for You alone. You deformed me because I was dazzled. ...You distinguished me from others because You had afflicted my desire with weakness for You Yourself. So, I have not sinned, no, not against Your commandment (to worship You alone). And I am not disturbed by any distortion of my form... .My declaration is sincere. I am sincere in love! No one loves You more totally than I for Yourself alone. You have proven Your uniqueness to me. I have proven my fidelity to You. (ibid)
Hallaj, in his conclusion, detaches the mask from his own face and calls Satan, as if in a direct challenge, "not a true martyr of love." He says:

You are bitter and desolate. ...The spring you draw from is a stagnating pool, sucked dry; you suffer from paucity even when abundance flows; the verdant shade you covet is only the film that coats your eyes. ...The dark night is a yawning emptiness in which your mannerisms and vanities, ruses and falsehoods fall irretrievably into nothing. (ibid)

Finally, as if addressing himself, knowing he would soon be martyred, Hallaj says:

O brother! If you have understood (what you have written), you have pondered the narrow pass in its very narrowness, you have shown the imagination in its very unreality, and you have returned from it to reality through sorrow, filled with anxiety... The most eloquent of sages keep silent about Satan, lacking the strength to utter what they learn about him. [Yet] Satan is more informed than they about worship. ...He has drawn nearer than they to the Beloved.
And yet, alas, he was muddled. He ceased to trust in God. He said: "I am-worth more than he, Adam." He remained on this side of the veil. He wallowed in mud and embraced damnation for his eternity of eternities. (ibid)

Hallaj conveyed in these utterances both the process of union and the spiritual states it put him in. He preserved thus the experience for his friends and disciples who accompanied him on his journeys, whom he came to know in and beyond his world of Iraq and Iran, and who collected many of his works after his execution in Baghdad in 922 A.D. (See Mason 1995, pp. 69-74).

And even if, in the shadow, abandonment seizes you, move out into the light of the heart's peace. (Hallaj 1931, M. 4, line 4)

Returning briefly to Rumi, the later mystic honors the continuing effect upon himself of Hallaj's witness when he writes:

When union with the Beloved showed itself to Mansur,
it was right that the gallows should bring him to the heart's [Source].
     I snatched a cap's length from his robe;
his cap's length consumed my reason and (my) head and foot.
     I broke off a thorn from the top of the wall of his garden;
what itching and questing is in my heart from that thorn of his!
            (Rumi I960, no. 160)

Presented as the 1996 Thomas More Lecture at Yale University, January 30, 1996.


Goethe. 1976. Faust. Translated by W. Arndt. Edited by Cyrus Hamlinm. New York.

Hallaj. 1931. Diwan al-Hallaj. Paris

____. 1957. Akhbar Al-Hallaj. Edited by I. Massignon and P. Kraus. 3rd cd, Paris.

Judd Hall, D. 1983. Contours of Belief. Ohio State University Press.

Mason, H. 1988. Memoir of a Friend. Notre Dame University Press.

___. 1995 Al-Hallaj, Surrey, UK: H. Curzon Sufi Series.

Rumi. 1950. Mathnaivi. Translated by R.A. Nicholson as Rumi Poet and Mystic, 1207-1273. I.ondon.

___. I960. Mystical Poems of Rumi. Translated by A.J.Arberry. Chicago University Press.

Seeking the Real in Mysticism (part 2)
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