The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions
By Wayne Teasdale
Publisher: Novato CA: New World Library, 1999.
In The Mystic Heart, Wayne Teasdale (1945–2004) explores the spiritual dimension which he believes can be found in and experienced through all the world’s religions. Teasdale, who taught at Columbia University in New York and the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, describes himself as “a lay monk, a Christian sannyasi” (in the Hindu tradition a sannyasi is one who has renounced the world). Having been initiated into sannyasa by Father Bede Griffiths in India, he writes, “I have embraced a Christian form, but … from this vantage I strive to integrate humankind’s spiritual wisdom within the depths of my own mystic heart.”
Mysticism, he claims, is neither unique to any particular tradition, nor the privilege of a few rare, gifted souls. Mysticism is “really the story of every person who awakens to himself or herself – to the mystery within, without, and beyond us.”
Every one of us is a mystic. We may or may not realize it; we may or may not even like it. But whether we know it or not, whether we accept it or not, mystical experience is always there, inviting us on a journey of ultimate discovery.
In the first, and longest, section of the book, titled “Finding What Unites Us,” Teasdale discusses the nature of mystical spirituality as expressed in the various religious traditions. He describes six basic forms of mysticism, “each valid in its own way”: natural mysticism, theistic mysticism, mysticism of love, bridal mysticism, mysticism of knowledge, and mysticism of the soul. Across all these different forms, he finds that one simple definition of mysticism can be applied to all: “Mysticism means direct, immediate experience of ultimate reality.”
Teasdale expresses deep respect for “the world’s rich diversity of religious expression,” yet he also makes a distinction between the outward forms of religion and the inner work of spirituality.
Spirituality draws us into the depths of our being, where we come face to face with ourselves, our weaknesses, and with ultimate mystery. Many understandably prefer to avoid this frightening prospect by sinking into external religiosity and the safe routines of liturgy or ritual. A genuinely spiritual person passionately commits to this inner development.
He claims that “The real religion of humankind can be said to be spirituality itself, because mystical spirituality is the origin of all the world’s religions.”
Teasdale explores the concepts about consciousness in different spiritual traditions, including not only Eastern and Western religions, but also the Greek philosophers and the insights from modern physics. He discusses “natural mysticism,” which he defines as “the perception and awareness of the numinous reality of the source in, surrounding, and emanating from nature and the cosmos.” Analysing various spiritual paths, he differentiates between those focusing on the inner path, which he calls the way of contemplation, and those working through the outer path, which he calls the way of action. His analysis leads to the conclusion that the paths are many, but the goal is the same. Ultimately, the inner and the outer must become fully integrated. “When we have cultivated a subtle spiritual awareness, no separation between inner and outer exists.”
Regardless of the tradition, the effects of the spiritual journey on the person are the same. Contemplatives, mystics, and sages, in whatever form of spirituality, undergo a radical refashioning of their being: the theosis, or deification of the person, a transformation that affects their entire life. Their consciousness is greatly enhanced and deepened; they acquire a transcendental, subtle awareness. Their character becomes saintly; their will is fixed on love and compassion, mercy and kindness… They are not victims of their feelings, nor ruled by their desires. They are free and so are capable of giving to others and their communities.
Coining the terms ‘interspirituality’ and ‘intermysticism,’ Teasdale celebrates the idea that we live in a unique period of human history, “the Interspiritual Age.” Throughout history most human beings have lived in circumstances in which they could only be familiar with their own religious tradition. Fear, hatred, and judgment of other traditions has been the natural outcome of this relative cultural isolation. Today’s increasingly global world has spawned a dialogue among spiritual leaders from various traditions, shedding new light on the core of mystical spirituality which is common to all. Teasdale recounts the history of a number of “pioneers of interspiritual wisdom” from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, who through their own spiritual seeking and attainment synthesized Eastern and Western mystical traditions and laid the groundwork for the vibrant exchanges today between spiritual seekers from many different religions.
The second part of the book is titled “The Practical Nature of the Mystical Way.” In it Teasdale discusses spiritual practice, which he calls the “the crux of inner change” and without which, he says, “spirituality is a hollow affair; it has no substance.” After describing briefly a number of different forms of spiritual practice, including Zen and Vipassana meditation, yoga, chanting, and the Catholic mass, he examines in detail one spiritual practice: the “centering prayer” as taught by Thomas Keating, the abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, from 1961– 1981. “Centering prayer” may be thought of as “the Christian answer to Hindu and Buddhist meditation.” Abbott Keating found it described in The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous fourteenth-century mystical treatise. There are four basic guidelines for centering prayer. First, you choose a sacred word to repeat. “You are not choosing it for the meaning, but simply to carry your intention to surrender to the divine presence within your being.” The second guideline is to sit quietly, close your eyes, and remain still for the period of centering. The third guideline is about what to do when thoughts distract you from the practice. Never fight the thoughts, or you will drive them deeper into your consciousness: “just turn ever so gently back to the sacred word, thus renewing your intention to assent to the divine’s presence.” The fourth guideline is to transition gently at the end of the period of prayer, remaining still for another two minutes, rather than jumping up abruptly.
Teasdale describes “the mystic character,” that is, the character traits that slowly and gradually develop as a natural result of mystical practice: moral capacity, solidarity with all living beings, and deep nonviolence.
Life is a journey from hypocrisy to sincerity, from self-centredness to other-centredness and love, from self-deception, ignorance, and illusion to self-honesty, clarity, and truth. We are all immersed in these struggles, whether we realize and accept them or not…. It is really only through an intense life of spiritual practice that we become aware of our human condition. As long as people are content not to look, not to embrace their ultimate vocation to become deified beings, they will chase after every distraction that comes along as a substitute for a life of depth.
Each chapter opens with an inspiring quote. Illustrating the essential unity of mystical insight, these quotes range from William Blake – “if the doors of perception were cleansed, then everything would appear as it actually is, infinite” – to Black Elk:
The heart is a sanctuary at the centre of which there is a little space wherein the Great Spirit dwells, and this is the Eye. This is the Eye of the Great Spirit by which He sees all things, and through which we see Him. If the heart is not pure, the Great Spirit cannot be seen.
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