Agenda of Mysticism

What is mysticism?Our English word is derived from the Greek mysticos, meaning theoccult knowledge veiled in mystery that can only be known through subjectiveexperience. Mystics are those who, through contemplative, meditativetechniques, attain altered states of consciousness beyond the thinking mind toexperience unmediated union with the Divine, the All, the Source, theUniversal, the Force, the Energy, or the Void, depending on which tradition onefollows. Mystical spirituality awakens supernatural “revelations” of nondual[1] consciousness,giving the impression of transcending the biblical binaries that distinguishCreator from creation, male from female and good from evil, so that all areintuitively joined into One. Hinduism’s yoga traditions call this state theawakening of Shiva’s mystic Third Eye, a so-called state of esotericenlightenment that destroys the “demon” of distinctions. Thomas Keating andRichard Rohr, contemporary Catholic mystics with large followings amongEvangelicals, also refer to the contemplative state of consciousness as theThird Eye because it awakens a way of seeing reality beyond binarydistinctions. In Buddhism, this state is called Nirvana, a state of blissfulperception that a Unitive Void is the highest reality beyond the illusion ofmaterial existence.

Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation can actually refer to twodifferent practices, both of which alter consciousness and change the way wethink. One form is practiced as a sittingmeditation that focuses concentration on the breath to intensify awareness onthe present moment. This form is very similar to the meditation practiced inyoga, which also focuses on the breath as a technique to prepare the body andmind to enter into deeper meditative trance states through single-pointedmental focus. But Mindfulness can also be practiced continually throughout thenormal course of the day by experiencing each moment’s activity through thelens of intense, non-judgmental concentration on the point of the present now.Life is thus perceived in sequential progression from one present moment to thenext, allowing thoughts to arise without critical evaluation. In this type ofmeditation, the practitioner becomes a neutral observer of the self,experiencing a continuum of present moments. The mind is thus detached fromobjective reality and enters a kind of waking trance-like state. Because allmoral judgment is suspended toward the attitudes and actions of oneself andothers, the mind easily dissociates from normal evaluative response patterns.In other words, Mindfulness changes the interpretive grid through which themind processes reality.

The goal of mysticism, in general, is to alter one’sperception of reality, redefining the self, the world, and the Divine accordingto mystical intuitions of Universal Consciousness as Ultimate Reality. Thus mysticism serves as the basis for a collectivespirituality that transcends religious distinctions and is therefore the forcebehind the growing interfaith movement in which “Christian” mysticism plays animportant role.

This really shouldn’t surprise us, though, since themedieval mystics, who now hold such powerful influence in many Evangelicalcircles, were themselves heavily influenced by the Oneist religious philosophyof Neoplatonism. Somewhere between the late 5th andearly 6th centuries, a man writing under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite (pretending tobe Paul’s Athenian disciple recorded in Acts 17:34) repackaged Plotinus’spagan philosophy of Neoplatonism in Christian terminology. Revered withnear apostolic authority, pseudo-Dionysius (as he is now properly known),introduced Christianized Neoplatonism as a foundational worldview for Catholicmysticism.

But Neoplatonism is anything but Christian. According to Neoplatonism, an impersonal, universal DivineEssence spontaneously overflowed itself, emanating in a progressively downwardspiral from the pure spiritual realm, first into cosmic mind (nous),then into universal soul (psyche), until the lowest state, that ofmaterial existence, was reached. The universal soul was then fragmented andbecame trapped in individuated bodily existence as an inner spark of Divinity. Sothe Fall, according to Neoplatonism, is not man’s moral failure through sin,resulting in separation from God, but the fall of spirit into entrapment withinmaterial existence. Thus, meditative and contemplative techniques coupledwith ascetic disciplines induce altered states of nondual consciousness devoidof distinctions, in order to experience the soul’s mystical reunion in theDivine Essence. This process is called “transformation,” a kind of spiritualalchemy by which human consciousness is mystically transformed into DivineConsciousness.

What is expressed in Neoplatonism is the ontological unityof everything, meaning that everyone and everything share in the Essence ofDivine Being. Meditative techniques are designedto awaken perception of inner Divinity flowing within the stream of DivineConsciousness pulsing throughout the cosmos. It is theorized that ifreligions could only tap into this stream, the experience would eclipsereligious distinctions and serve as a catalyst for interreligious harmony.

Though Neoplatonism is a thoroughly pagan religiousphilosophy, pseudo-Dionysius successfully infused it into medieval Catholicspirituality through his influential works TheMystical Theology and The Celestial Hierarchy, treatisesthat were spiritually formative to John Scotus Eriugena, Teresa of Avila, Johnof the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Jan van Ruusbroec, Johannes Tauler, and a hostof other medieval mystics.

But the Christianized Neoplatonism of pseudo-Dionysius isalso responsible for the modern revival of interest in contemplativespirituality. In the fourteenth century, ananonymous English monk wrote TheCloud of Unknowing, a book the author credits in its entirety to theteachings of pseudo-Dionysius (whom he calls St. Denis): “Anyone who readsDenis’ book will find confirmed there all that I have been trying to teach inthis book from start to finish.”[2] Inthe early 1970s a dusty copy of The Cloud of Unknowing wasdiscovered by Trappist monk William Menninger in St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer,Massachusetts. Inspired by The Cloud’s mystical “Christian”allegory, William Menninger, Abbot Thomas Keating, and fellow Trappist M. BasilPennington developed Centering Prayer as a revival of medieval contemplativespirituality. In his influential book on Centering Prayer, OpenMind, Open Heart, Keating defines contemplative prayer as “a process ofinterior transformation… [leading to] divine union”[3] duringwhich “[o]ne’s way of seeing reality changes in this process.”[4] Whattakes place during contemplative meditation is the exchange of worldview fromTwoism to Oneism, which Keating describes as “A restructuring ofconsciousness…which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond withincreasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyondeverything that exists.”[5]

Having become convinced of the ubiquitous nature of Divinityby the “Christian” Neoplatonism expressed in The Cloud of Unknowing,Abbot Thomas Keating began sponsoring interreligious dialogue as a leader inthe growing interfaith movement. To this end, in the early 1970s, Keatingopened the doors of St. Joseph’s Abbey to Zen roshis (Buddhistspiritual masters) for intensive Buddhist meditation retreats called sesshins,first for the Catholic monks and eventually for the general public. St.Joseph’s eventually became known not only as a Catholic monastery, but also asa prominent Buddhist retreat center. Deeply drawn to Buddhism, Keatingcollaborated with Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche,[6] founderof the Naropa Institute for Tibetan Buddhism, which still incorporatesKeating’s teaching on Centering Prayer into its curriculum.[7] Trungpafounded the Naropa Institute in order to advance his mission to induct Westerninitiates into the occult secrets of Tibetan Buddhism, understanding thatinterspiritual collaboration between Catholic and Buddhist monks would serve totranscend distinct belief systems, facilitating a unity based on sharedmystical experience.

We must consider what this means in practical terms, sinceCatholicism is officially based on Trinitarian theism and Buddhism is based ona nontheistic monism. On the surface, there appears tobe no ground for genuine spiritual unity between Catholicism and Buddhism. Yet,if we consider the degree to which Neoplatonism was infused into Catholicmysticism very early on, we realize that while Catholic doctrine outwardlyadheres to Trinitarian theism, its inner mystical experience is based onNeoplatonic Oneism. So we can see that beneath the surface differences,contemplative experience unites both Catholic mystics seeking union with theDivine (understood as Twoist in theory, but Oneist in experience) and Buddhistmonks seeking escape from existence through blissful nonduality in the UnitiveVoid. The implications of this melding of Catholic and Buddhist mysticismshould not be underestimated as Evangelicals come increasingly under theinfluence of Catholic mysticism.

In his book The Mystic Heart, Catholic monkWayne Teasdale recognizes the historic significance of uniting Catholicism andBuddhism. Inspired by insights from British historian Arnold Toynbee,Teasdale asserts that “if Christianity, taken as representative of all theistictraditions, and Buddhism, a nontheistic religion, or as some call it, apsychology, can somehow reconcile their differences, then perhaps all thefaiths can similarly be brought into harmony.”[8] Theultimate goal of this merger is universal religious harmony, which mysticsbelieve will manifest in a united world religion, spreading peace and harmonyaround the globe. To attain such lofty concord Teasdale suggests atechnique based on the principle of include and transcend.While acknowledging the contradictions between Catholicism and Buddhism,Teasdale asserts a resolution based on transcending the differences until “somethingnew will be born that moves beyond both while including each.”[9] Thisamounts to a dialectic process by which the distinction between thesis andantithesis is blurred into an indistinct synthesis, claiming to embody theessence of each while actually expressing neither – well, almost. Whatactually takes place is the victory of Oneism over Twoism, as doctrinaldistinctions are included in theory while being transcended andexcluded in actual practice.

Teasdale’s assertion that the synthesis of Catholicism andBuddhism would serve as a powerful catalyst to harmonize all the religions iscertainly demonstrated in Thomas Keating’s tireless service to the advancementof interfaith dialogue and practice. To this end, Keating established the SnowmassConference for Interreligious Dialogue in 1982, inviting fifteenrepresentatives from different religious traditions to participate in an annualweek-long retreat designed to advance interreligious dialogue andcollaboration. The group, which met for twenty years, was committed to theunifying guideline, “The World religions bear witness to the experience of UltimateReality to which they give various names: Brahman, Allah, (the) Absolute,God, Great Spirit.”[10] Thisstatement illustrates the principle of include and transcend intangible application. Each of the religious representatives active in theSnowmass Conference retained their own distinct religious identity (include)while joining hands on the ground of shared mystical experience (transcend).When the Divine is defined as an “Ultimate Reality” called by many names,religious distinctions lose all meaning. Mystics from every religion thusbecome priests mediating a new interspiritual age.

As a believer in the universal brotherhood of mystics,Keating has continued as an energetic leader in the interfaith movement. In2008 he partnered with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, head of the Golden Sufi Center (Sufismis the mystical branch of Islam) in presenting the conference “Oneness& the Heart of the World.” The intent of the conference was described as“Th[e] unique meeting of two mystical traditions [Catholicism and Islam]explor[ing] the oneness that is at the heart of all spiritual traditions.”[11] Keatinghas also served as the president of the Temple of Understanding, founded in1960 by Juliet Hollister in order to promote the mystical unity of religions.Thomas Keating also collaborates with Ken Wilber, a leading integralphilosopher who practices the tantric sexual mysticism of Kundalini Yoga.Keating currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for ContemplativeMind in Society, an organization founded by Vietnamese Zen master Thich NhatHahn and Hindu guru Ram Dass (formerly Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert). TheCenter’s goal is to transform education from intellectual knowledge tocontemplative experience in order to attain “the realization of ourinextricable connection to each other, opening the heart and mind to truecommunity, deeper insight, sustainable living, and a more just society.”[12]

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society seeks to shiftthe pedagogical paradigm from education of the mind to the mysticalre-education of the heart, using contemplative techniques including CenteringPrayer and Mindfulness Meditation to accomplish that goal. Throughthese mystical techniques the Center is influencing education away fromintellectual development of critical thinking skills to the passive mentalstate acquired in contemplative practice, which leads to the sense of universalinterconnectedness, emphasizing participation in the global community overpersonal salvation and growth towards mature and responsible living. Educationturns into indoctrination, with common experience serving as the default gridthrough which reality is interpreted. The Center’s website makes this pointclear: “The experiential methods developed within the contemplative traditionsoffer a rich set of tools for exploring the mind, the heart, and theworld.”[13] Thecitizen of the developing contemplative world will clearly be a mystic ratherthan a theologian and experience will reign over belief. We need to understandthe serious implications of the contemplative mindset.

Another active proponent for changing the Western mindthrough contemplative education is the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader ofTibetan Buddhism and the self-proclaimed ambassador for global compassion. Since the 1980s the Dalai Lama has been inspiringEast/West dialogue exploring the effects of Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation onneurological brain function as a means of curing disease and changing the waywe think from cognitive recognition of distinctions to the nonjudgmentalMindfulness of universal compassion – the ever-elusive utopian dream. Under hisguidance and inspiration a group of leading visionaries established the Mindand Life Institute in 1987 to explore the interface of science and Buddhism asa means “to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by integrating sciencewith contemplative practice and wisdom traditions.”[14]

This ongoing dialogue of nearly thirty years has resulted inestablishing the field of “contemplative science” as a credible scientificdiscipline with degree programs offered in leading universities. For example,Brown University offers a degree concentration in “Contemplative Studies” thatintegrates neuroscience with Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Sufism(Islamic mysticism), and Christian monasticism (contemplative prayer). Facultymember Willoughby Britton, a participant in the Mind and Life dialogues withthe Dalai Lama, is assistant professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior atBrown University Medical School and is a leading champion for the benefits ofMindfulness. But she also admits that meditation doesn’t always end well. Shehas therefore opened Cheetah House as a recovery center for those suffering theoften intensely negative effects of meditation, which Britton equates with the“dark night of the soul,” experienced by medieval mystic John of theCross. An article in The Atlantic[15] featuringBritton’s work at Cheetah House reveals that problems arising from meditationcan range from “confusion” to “psychological hell” and even to seriousphysiological problems. One distraught meditator described a thought thatdemanded, “Let me take you over.” Another thought urged him, “kill yourself.”Another meditator lost the ability to digest food for several years,devastating his health, and yet another was tormented by an “onslaught ofunwanted sexual thoughts … a sexual Rolodex of every taboo,” to which hefinally yielded. Another man thought he was becoming schizophrenic as a resultof meditation.[16]

The terrifying effects that sometimes result from meditationshould come as no surprise, since the interface of science and mysticism hasgiven scientific and academic credibility to the forbidden realm of the occult.Mysticism has long been understood as the science of consciousness,by which human consciousness is transformed into Divine Consciousness throughmeditative techniques. This experiential mythology awakens psychicphenomena because it often taps directly into the spirit world. The biblicalworldview understands this as the forbidden and dangerous realm ofspiritualism, yet our post-Christian society is woefully ignorant of the veryreal dangers that meditation has of opening oneself to the occult spirit world.

Other cultures are not so naïve. In the case of TibetanBuddhism, novice monks must undergo secret initiation rituals, includingreception of a spirit as a prerequisite to learning the sacred arts ofmeditation and magic that form the core spirituality of their religion.Advanced Tibetan monks are renowned for their supernatural abilities, which canonly be explained by the psychic powers they receive from the spirit world. Oneexample is evident in the supernatural powers exhibited by those who master thetechnique of Tibetan Tummo Meditation and are able to sit naked in Himalayansnow for prolonged periods, suffering no ill effect to the body. This isbecause their bodies mysteriously radiate the heat of an inner fire duringthe practice of Tummo Meditation and actually feel hot to the touch. Thosedocumenting their supernatural feats have witnessed steam emanating from theirbodies as the snow melts around them.

Though the Dalai Lama attributes this feat to the “secretdoctrines” and “Tantric disciplines” of Tummo yoga,[17] scientistshave sought to understand the phenomenon in medical terms by measuring thebrain waves and cardio-vascular responses of Tibetan monks during deepmeditation. Similar medical testing has been carried out on Hindu yogis aswell. Because there is demonstrable evidence that meditation affects brainactivity, scientists have wrongly concluded that meditation is a purelyscientific technique for stress reduction and cardio-vascular health, entirelymissing the presence of the supernatural forces behind the psychic powers.Thus, occult meditation techniques are promoted with scientific authority tosoothe body and mind. This may sound far-fetched to those who have not taken aclose look at the occult nature of Tibetan Buddhism and other Easternreligions, but an insider’s glimpse provided by the Dalia Lama gives insight.

In his autobiography Freedom in Exile, the DalaiLama unmasks the occultism of Tibetan Buddhism, documenting his own reliance onthe Nechung Oracle, who channels the wisdom of Dorje Drakden (theprotector deity of Tibetan Buddhism) during mediumistic trance states.[18] Accordingto the Dalai Lama, “The ceremony begins with chanted invocations and prayers,accompanied by the urgings of horns, cymbals and drums,”[19] invitingDorje Drakden to enter. The oracle is then clothed in a ceremonial robe andheaddress as the spirit possesses him. Tibetan lamas assist and protect theoracle during the violent manifestation of the Nechung spirit, which tosses himlike a rag doll as it hisses and prophesies to the Dalai Lama through him. Whenthe spirit departs the oracle collapses in “a rigid and lifeless form,signifying the end of the possession.”[20]

The psychic phenomena and spiritual manifestations ofTibetan Buddhism may seem disconnected from the Western contemplative practicesof Centering Prayer and Mindfulness Meditation. Yet we need to understand thatthe medieval mystics also experienced psychic phenomena and spiritualmanifestations, awakened by their contemplative meditative practices. Oneexample is Teresa of Avila, whose book The Interior Castle isstill widely read, even by Evangelicals. Teresa was a Carmelite nun who wasdeeply devoted to Mary and lived a life of severe asceticism, practicingpenance and prayer to fulfill her sense of calling to a “vocation ofreparation” for the sins of the world. Teresa believed, as did most medievalmystics, that her own participation in the sufferings of Christ was not onlynecessary to shorten her time in Purgatory and save her soul, but was alsoefficacious in freeing others from their bondage to sin. She thus believedthat her own suffering had to be added to Christ’s work on the cross in orderto fully affect salvation. To this end, she practiced self-imposed torturessuch as self-flagellation along with denial of adequate food and sleep. Hersevere ascetic practices coupled with the altered states of consciousnessawakened through contemplative meditation resulted in multiple visions, voicesand ecstasies that often terrified her. They also imparted psychic powers suchas the spontaneous levitations she experienced during celebration of the mass.A prolific writer, Teresa also experienced what is known as automatic writing,during which a forceful rushing of words would descend on her with suchvelocity that she was barely able to write fast enough to record the spiritualrevelations she was receiving.

Contemplative techniques are designed to subdue the body andmind into passive openness to mystical experiences that impart the convincingimpression of tapping into a higher plane of reality beyond that which can beunderstood with the rational mind.Organizations like the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and the Mindand Life Institute are dedicated to changing the way the West perceives realityby shifting consciousness from the thinking mind to the mystical heart throughcontemplative practices. Thomas Keating’s revival of Centering Prayer and theDalai Lama’s promotion of Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation have deeplyinfluenced Western spirituality toward mysticism. By training the public atevery level of education in these contemplative, meditative techniques, societybecomes enslaved to subjective, emotional experience and loses its ability tothink and act for the real common good by setting the glory of God as thehighest priority. The biblical fear of the Lord, which is the very beginning oftrue wisdom, is lost in the confusion of mystical perceptions of UniversalConsciousness. As Evangelical Christians, we need to regain our focus on Paul’sexhortation to present our bodies as living sacrifices in the service of Christas we devote our minds to the transformation that can only come through thereasoned study of God’s Word and its heartfelt application to our lives.[21]


[1] “Nondual” simply means “Not two,” indicating all isOne.

[2] William Johnston, editor, The Cloud ofUnknowing, (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 139.

[3] Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart,(New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 1992), 4.

[4] Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart,(New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 1992), 4.

[5] Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart,(New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 1992), 4.

[6] The title “lama” designates one believed to be thereincarnation of a Tibetan master and the term “Rinpoche” is a title of distinction,indicating a high level lama.


[8] Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart, (Novato,CA: New World Library, 1999), 44.

[9] Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart, (Novato,CA: New World Library, 1999), 45.

[10] Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart, (Novato,CA: New World Library, 1999), 212.





[15] Tomas Rocha, The Dark Night of the Soul,The Atlantic, 2014,

[16] All these negative effects of meditation werementioned in Tomas Rocha, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Atlantic,2014,

[17] The Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile, (NewYork: HarperCollins, 1991), 210.

[18] The Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile, (NewYork: HarperCollins, 1991), 212.

[19] The Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile, (NewYork: HarperCollins, 1991), 213.

[20] The Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile, (NewYork: HarperCollins, 1991), 214.

[21] Romans 12:1-2.


October24, 2016 by Pam Frost

About Pam Frost