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Transcriber's note:

In the original book, the Table of Contents was located after
the Preface, but I have placed it at the beginning of the text
for this online version.





PRACTICAL MYSTICISM

by

EVELYN UNDERHILL

Author of "Mysticism," "The Mystic Way," "Immanence: A Book of Verses."







"If the doors of perception were cleansed,
everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up,
till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern."
WILLIAM BLAKE



New York
E.P. Dutton & Company
681 Fifth Avenue
Copyright 1915 by
E.P. Dutton & Company



TO THE UNSEEN FUTURE



CONTENTS

Preface vii
I. What is Mysticism 1
II. The World of Reality 13
III. The Preparation of the Mystic 21
IV. Meditation and Recollection 56
V. Self-Adjustment 29
VI. Love and Will 74
VII. The First Form of Contemplation 87
VIII. The Second Form of Contemplation 105
XI. The Third Form of Contemplation 126
X. The Mystical Life 148



PREFACE

This little book, written during the last months of peace, goes to
press in the first weeks of the great war. Many will feel that in
such a time of conflict and horror, when only the most ignorant,
disloyal, or apathetic can hope for quietness of mind, a book
which deals with that which is called the "contemplative" attitude
to existence is wholly out of place. So obvious, indeed, is this
point of view, that I had at first thought of postponing its
publication. On the one hand, it seems as though the dreams of a
spiritual renaissance, which promised so fairly but a little time
ago, had perished in the sudden explosion of brute force. On the
other hand, the thoughts of the English race are now turned, and
rightly, towards the most concrete forms of action - struggle and
endurance, practical sacrifices, difficult and long-continued
effort - rather than towards the passive attitude of self-surrender
which is all that the practice of mysticism seems, at first sight, to
demand. Moreover, that deep conviction of the dependence of all
human worth upon eternal values, the immanence of the Divine
Spirit within the human soul, which lies at the root of a mystical
concept of life, is hard indeed to reconcile with much of the
human history now being poured red-hot from the cauldron of
war. For all these reasons, we are likely during the present crisis
to witness a revolt from those superficially mystical notions
which threatened to become too popular during the immediate
past.

Yet, the title deliberately chosen for this book - that of "Practical"
Mysticism - means nothing if the attitude and the discipline which
it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone: if the principles
for which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of
events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duties of the
national life. To accept this position is to reduce mysticism to the
status of a spiritual plaything. On the contrary, if the experiences
on which it is based have indeed the transcendent value for
humanity which the mystics claim for them - if they reveal to us a
world of higher truth and greater reality than the world of
concrete happenings in which we seem to be immersed - then that
value is increased rather than lessened when confronted by the
overwhelming disharmonies and sufferings of the present time. It
is significant that many of these experiences are reported to us
from periods of war and distress: that the stronger the forces of
destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision
which opposed them. We learn from these records that the
mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who
possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can
disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck.
Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly
calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life.
Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the
human spirit not - as some suppose - a soothing draught, but the
most powerful of stimulants. Stayed upon eternal realities, that
spirit will be far better able to endure and profit by the stern
discipline which the race is now called to undergo, than those
who are wholly at the mercy of events; better able to discern the
real from the illusory issues, and to pronounce judgment on the
new problems, new difficulties, new fields of activity now
disclosed. Perhaps it is worth while to remind ourselves that the
two women who have left the deepest mark upon the military
history of France and England - Joan of Arc and Florence
Nightingale - both acted under mystical compulsion. So, too, did
one of the noblest of modern soldiers, General Gordon. Their
national value was directly connected with their deep spiritual
consciousness: their intensely practical energies were the flowers
of a contemplative life.

We are often told, that in the critical periods of history it is the
national soul which counts: that "where there is no vision, the
people perish." No nation is truly defeated which retains its
spiritual self-possession. No nation is truly victorious which does
not emerge with soul unstained. If this be so, it becomes a part of
true patriotism to keep the spiritual life, both of the individual
citizen and of the social group, active and vigorous; its vision of
realities unsullied by the entangled interests and passions of the
time. This is a task in which all may do their part. The spiritual
life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world
of things. It is a part of every man's life; and until he has realised
it he is not a complete human being, has not entered into
possession of all his powers. It is therefore the function of a
practical mysticism to increase, not diminish, the total efficiency,
the wisdom and steadfastness, of those who try to practise it. It
will help them to enter, more completely than ever before, into
the life of the group to which they belong. It will teach them to
see the world in a truer proportion, discerning eternal beauty
beyond and beneath apparent ruthlessness. It will educate them in
a charity free from all taint of sentimentalism; it will confer on
them an unconquerable hope; and assure them that still, even in
the hour of greatest desolation, "There lives the dearest freshness
deep down things." As a contribution, then, to these purposes,
this little book is now published. It is addressed neither to the
learned nor to the devout, who are already in possession of a
wide literature dealing from many points of view with the
experiences and philosophy of the mystics. Such readers are
warned that they will find here nothing but the re-statement of
elementary and familiar propositions, and invitations to a
discipline immemorially old. Far from presuming to instruct
those to whom first-hand information is both accessible and
palatable, I write only for the larger class which, repelled by the
formidable appearance of more elaborate works on the subject,
would yet like to know what is meant by mysticism, and what it
has to offer to the average man: how it helps to solve his
problems, how it harmonises with the duties and ideals of his
active life. For this reason, I presuppose in my readers no
knowledge whatever of the subject, either upon the philosophic,
religious, or historical side. Nor, since I wish my appeal to be
general, do I urge the special claim of any one theological
system, any one metaphysical school. I have merely attempted to
put the view of the universe and man's place in it which is
common to all mystics in plain and untechnical language: and to
suggest the practical conditions under which ordinary persons
may participate in their experience. Therefore the abnormal states
of consciousness which sometimes appear in connection with
mystical genius are not discussed: my business being confined to
the description of a faculty which all men possess in a greater or
less degree.

The reality and importance of this faculty are considered in the
first three chapters. In the fourth and fifth is described the
preliminary training of attention necessary for its use; in the
sixth, the general self-discipline and attitude toward life which it
involves. The seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters treat in an
elementary way of the three great forms of contemplation; and in
the tenth, the practical value of the life in which they have been
actualised is examined. Those kind enough to attempt the perusal
of the book are begged to read the first sections with some
attention before passing to the latter part.

E. U.

_September_ 12, 1914.



CHAPTER I

WHAT IS MYSTICISM?

Those who are interested in that special attitude towards the
universe which is now loosely called "mystical," find themselves
beset by a multitude of persons who are constantly asking - some
with real fervour, some with curiosity, and some with disdain -
"What _is_ mysticism?" When referred to the writings of the
mystics themselves, and to other works in which this question
appears to be answered, these people reply that such books are
wholly incomprehensible to them.

On the other hand, the genuine inquirer will find before long a
number of self-appointed apostles who are eager to answer his
question in many strange and inconsistent ways, calculated to
increase rather than resolve the obscurity of his mind. He will
learn that mysticism is a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of
religion, a disease; that it means having visions, performing
conjuring tricks, leading an idle, dreamy, and selfish life,
neglecting one's business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions,
and being "in tune with the infinite." He will discover that it
emancipates him from all dogmas - sometimes from all morality -
and at the same time that it is very superstitious. One expert tells
him that it is simply "Catholic piety," another that Walt Whitman
was a typical mystic; a third assures him that all mysticism comes
from the East, and supports his statement by an appeal to the
mango trick. At the end of a prolonged course of lectures,
sermons, tea-parties, and talks with earnest persons, the inquirer
is still heard saying - too often in tones of exasperation - "What
_is_ mysticism?"

I dare not pretend to solve a problem which has provided so
much good hunting in the past. It is indeed the object of this little
essay to persuade the practical man to the one satisfactory course:
that of discovering the answer for himself. Yet perhaps it will
give confidence if I confess pears to cover all the ground; or at
least, all that part of the ground which is worth covering. It will
hardly stretch to the mango trick; but it finds room at once for the
visionaries and the philosophers, for Walt Whitman and the
saints.

Here is the definition: -

_Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a
person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or
who aims at and believes in such attainment_.

It is not expected that the inquirer will find great comfort in this
sentence when first it meets his eye. The ultimate question,
"What is Reality?" - a question, perhaps, which never occurred to
him before - is already forming in his mind; and he knows that it
will cause him infinite distress. Only a mystic can answer it:
and he, in terms which other mystics alone will understand.
Therefore, for the time being, the practical man may put it on one
side. All that he is asked to consider now is this: that the
word "union" represents not so much a rare and unimaginable
operation, as something which he is doing, in a vague, imperfect
fashion, at every moment of his conscious life; and doing with
intensity and thoroughness in all the more valid moments of that
life. We know a thing only by uniting with it; by assimilating it;
by an interpenetration of it and ourselves. It gives itself to us, just
in so far as we give ourselves to it; and it is because our outflow
towards things is usually so perfunctory and so languid, that our
comprehension of things is so perfunctory and languid too. The
great Sufi who said that "Pilgrimage to the place of the wise, is to
escape the flame of separation" spoke the literal truth. Wisdom is
the fruit of communion; ignorance the inevitable portion of those
who "keep themselves to themselves," and stand apart, judging,
analysing the things which they have never truly known.

Because he has surrendered himself to it, "united" with it, the
patriot knows his country, the artist knows the subject of his art,
the lover his beloved, the saint his God, in a manner which is
inconceivable as well as unattainable by the looker-on. Real
knowledge, since it always implies an intuitive sympathy more or
less intense, is far more accurately suggested by the symbols of
touch and taste than by those of hearing and sight. True, analytic
thought follows swiftly upon the contact, the apprehension,
the union: and we, in our muddle-headed way, have persuaded
ourselves that this is the essential part of knowledge - that it is, in
fact, more important to cook the hare than to catch it. But when
we get rid of this illusion and go back to the more primitive
activities through which our mental kitchen gets its supplies, we
see that the distinction between mystic and non-mystic is not
merely that between the rationalist and the dreamer, between
intellect and intuition. The question which divides them is really
this: What, out of the mass of material offered to it, shall
consciousness seize upon - with what aspects of the universe shall
it "unite"?

It is notorious that the operations of the average human
consciousness unite the self, not with things as they really are,
but with images, notions, aspects of things. The verb "to be,"
which he uses so lightly, does not truly apply to any of the
objects amongst which the practical man supposes himself to
dwell. For him the hare of Reality is always ready-jugged: he
conceives not the living lovely, wild, swift-moving creature
which has been sacrificed in order that he may be fed on the
deplorable dish which he calls "things as they really are." So
complete, indeed, is the separation of his consciousness from the
facts of being, that he feels no sense of loss. He is happy enough
"understanding," garnishing, assimilating the carcass from which
the principle of life and growth has been ejected, and whereof
only the most digestible portions have been retained. He is not
"mystical."

But sometimes it is suggested to him that his knowledge is not
quite so thorough as he supposed. Philosophers in particular have
a way of pointing out its clumsy and superficial character; of
demonstrating the fact that he habitually mistakes his own private
sensations for qualities inherent in the mysterious objects of the
external world. From those few qualities of colour, size, texture,
and the rest, which his mind has been able to register and
classify, he makes a label which registers the sum of his own
experiences. This he knows, with this he "unites"; for it is his
own creature. It is neat, flat, unchanging, with edges well
defined: a thing one can trust. He forgets the existence of other
conscious creatures, provided with their own standards of reality.
Yet the sea as the fish feels it, the borage as the bee sees it, the
intricate sounds of the hedgerow as heard by the rabbit, the
impact of light on the eager face of the primrose, the landscape as
known in its vastness to the wood-louse and ant - all these
experiences, denied to him for ever, have just as much claim to
the attribute of Being as his own partial and subjective
interpretations of things.

Because mystery is horrible to us, we have agreed for the most
part to live in a world of labels; to make of them the current coin
of experience, and ignore their merely symbolic character, the
infinite gradation of values which they misrepresent. We simply
do not attempt to unite with Reality. But now and then that
symbolic character is suddenly brought home to us. Some great
emotion, some devastating visitation of beauty, love, or pain, lifts
us to another level of consciousness; and we are aware for a
moment of the difference between the neat collection of discrete
objects and experiences which we call the world, and the height,
the depth, the breadth of that living, growing, changing Fact, of
which thought, life, and energy are parts, and in which we "live
and move and have our being." Then we realise that our whole
life is enmeshed in great and living forces; terrible because
unknown. Even the power which lurks in every coal-scuttle,
shines in the electric lamp, pants in the motor-omnibus, declares
itself in the ineffable wonders of reproduction and growth, is
supersensual. We do but perceive its results. The more sacred
plane of life and energy which seems to be manifested in
the forces we call "spiritual" and "emotional" - in love,
anguish, ecstasy, adoration - is hidden from us too. Symptoms,
appearances, are all that our intellects can discern: sudden
irresistible inroads from it, all that our hearts can apprehend. The
material for an intenser life, a wider, sharper consciousness, a
more profound understanding of our own existence, lies at our
gates. But we are separated from it, we cannot assimilate it;
except in abnormal moments, we hardly know that it is. We now
begin to attach at least a fragmentary meaning to the statement
that "mysticism is the art of union with Reality." We see that the
claim of such a poet as Whitman to be a mystic lies in the fact
that he has achieved a passionate communion with deeper levels
of life than those with which we usually deal - has thrust past the
current notion to the Fact: that the claim of such a saint as Teresa
is bound up with her declaration that she has achieved union with
the Divine Essence itself. The visionary is a mystic when his
vision mediates to him an actuality beyond the reach of the
senses. The philosopher is a mystic when he passes beyond
thought to the pure apprehension of truth. The active man is a
mystic when he knows his actions to be a part of a greater
activity. Blake, Plotinus, Joan of Arc, and John of the Cross -
there is a link which binds all these together: but if he is to make
use of it, the inquirer must find that link for himself. All four
exhibit different forms of the working of the contemplative
consciousness; a faculty which is proper to all men, though few
take the trouble to develop it. Their attention to life has changed
its character, sharpened its focus: and as a result they see, some a
wider landscape, some a more brilliant, more significant, more
detailed world than that which is apparent to the less educated,
less observant vision of common sense. The old story of Eyes and
No-Eyes is really the story of the mystical and unmystical types.
"No-Eyes" has fixed his attention on the fact that he is obliged to
take a walk. For him the chief factor of existence is his own
movement along the road; a movement which he intends to
accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks not
to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the
caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges
along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but
oblivious of the light which they reflect. "Eyes" takes the walk
too: and for him it is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder.
The sunlight inebriates him, the winds delight him, the very effort
of the journey is a joy. Magic presences throng the roadside, or
cry salutations to him from the hidden fields. The rich
world through which he moves lies in the fore-ground of his
consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at every step.
"No-Eyes," when told of his adventures, usually refuses to
believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his
companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by
agreeable hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the
contrary unless we persuade him to look for himself.

Therefore it is to a practical mysticism that the practical man is
here invited: to a training of his latent faculties, a bracing and
brightening of his languid consciousness, an emancipation from
the fetters of appearance, a turning of his attention to new levels
of the world. Thus he may become aware of the universe which
the spiritual artist is always trying to disclose to the race. This
amount of mystical perception - this "ordinary contemplation," as
the specialists call it - is possible to all men: without it, they are
not wholly conscious, nor wholly alive. It is a natural human
activity, no more involving the great powers and sublime
experiences of the mystical saints and philosophers than the
ordinary enjoyment of music involves the special creative powers
of the great musician.

As the beautiful does not exist for the artist and poet alone -
though these can find in it more poignant depths of meaning than
other men - so the world of Reality exists for all; and all may
participate in it, unite with it, according to their measure and to
the strength and purity of their desire. "For heaven ghostly," says
_The Cloud of Unknowing_, "is as nigh down as up, and up as
down; behind as before, before as behind, on one side as other.
Inasmuch, that whoso had a true desire for to be at heaven, then
that same time he were in heaven ghostly. For the high and the
next way thither is run by desires, and not by paces of feet." None
therefore is condemned, save by his own pride, sloth, or
perversity, to the horrors of that which Blake called "single
vision" - perpetual and undivided attention to the continuous
cinematograph performance, which the mind has conspired with
the senses to interpose between ourselves and the living world.



CHAPTER II

THE WORLD OF REALITY

The practical man may justly observe at this point that the world
of single vision is the only world he knows: that it appears to him
to be real, solid, and self-consistent: and that until the existence -
at least, the probability - of other planes of reality is made clear to
him, all talk of uniting with them is mere moonshine, which
confirms his opinion of mysticism as a game fit only for idle
women and inferior poets. Plainly, then, it is the first business of
the missionary to create, if he can, some feeling of dissatisfaction
with the world within which the practical man has always lived
and acted; to suggest something of its fragmentary and subjective
character. We turn back therefore to a further examination
of the truism - so obvious to those who are philosophers, so
exasperating to those who are not - that man dwells, under normal
conditions, in a world of imagination rather than a world of facts;
that the universe in which he lives and at which he looks is but a
construction which the mind has made from some few amongst
the wealth of materials at its disposal.

The relation of this universe to the world of fact is not unlike the
relation between a tapestry picture and the scene which it
imitates. You, practical man, are obliged to weave your image of
the outer world upon the hard warp of your own mentality; which
perpetually imposes its own convention, and checks the free
representation of life. As a tapestry picture, however various and
full of meaning, is ultimately reducible to little squares; so the
world of common sense is ultimately reducible to a series of
static elements conditioned by the machinery of the brain. Subtle
curves, swift movement, delicate gradation, that machinery
cannot represent. It leaves them out. From the countless
suggestions, the tangle of many-coloured wools which the real
world presents to you, you snatch one here and there. Of these
you weave together those which are the most useful, the most
obvious, the most often repeated: which make a tidy and coherent
pattern when seen on the right side. Shut up with this symbolic
picture, you soon drop into the habit of behaving to it as though it
were not a representation but a thing. On it you fix your attention;
with it you "unite." Yet, did you look at the wrong side, at the
many short ends, the clumsy joins and patches, this simple
philosophy might be disturbed. You would be forced to acknowledge
the conventional character of the picture you have made
so cleverly, the wholesale waste of material involved in the


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