The word “mysticism” has taken on various meanings throughout history, as have the practices and beliefs of those who term themselves “mystics.” Mysticism can refer to seeking ecstatic union with God, insight into hidden truths, or a radical transformation of the individual through various means. Defined broadly in this way, mysticism may be found in nearly all world’s religious traditions, though its form varies from case to case.
The Baha’i teachings contain a deep reservoir of mysticism:
I pray God that by thee He may graciously enable His servants to sound the inmost depths of the Ocean of Divine Unity, that through thy remembrance He may aid them to drink deep from the stream of Everlasting Life, that through thine utterance He may cause them to quaff the mystic wine of the knowledge of God, that He may assist thee to triumph by the Hosts of understanding and wisdom in such wise that by thee He may gloriously conquer the citadels of worlds and of hearts! – Baha’u’llah, Star of the West, Volume 8, p. 151.
Baha’i mysticism incorporates many spiritual elements, but emphasizes a practical outcome: it is not enough to feel union with the Divine, the Baha’i teachings say—instead, one should see the divine in every soul until it results in concrete actions of brotherhood and love. Hidden truths have little meaning unless they embrace and enrich the outward truths governing our daily lives. Transformation of the individual has little merit until that individual becomes a source of good for society.
In this way, Baha’i mysticism represents a positive mode of belief, and seeks unity of the inward and outward forms. Baha’is don’t employ asceticism, denial of pleasure, and withdrawal from society as a means for advancement along the mystical path. From a Baha’i point of view, mysticism should fundamentally connect the individual to the greater whole of humankind—at the level of our common, divine origin—until we arrive at a conception of life where the happiness of others becomes our happiness too, and all our actions are motivated from this attitude of unity and oneness.
In terms of specific mystical practices, Baha’is have no prescribed rituals, and remain free to adopt whatever works for each person. The primary tools—prayer, meditation, an annual fast, and study of the divine texts—supplement the influence of the Holy Spirit, God’s unfailing grace, and ecstatic love. Combined with reflection, imagination, and various forms of artistic expression, these mystical tools establish the basis for every Baha’i to act and reflect; examine motivations; question understandings; and observe how his or her effect on the world improves day by day.
What makes this Baha’i approach fundamentally mystical in character? Baha’is believe in an eternal spiritual world both greater than this life, and yet which contains this life within it, similar to a child gestating in the womb of its mother. The embryo, only aware of its own sphere, lacks perception of the larger world outside, even though most of its future depends on the beings of that world. The mother and father are very much aware of the child, even when it has little awareness of them.
Similarly, a much greater and more wondrous existence awaits humanity after this physical life; yet that spiritual world also exists here on this plane of existence, and affects us far more than we can ever realize. The mystic comes not only to expect these otherworldly influences, but to employ them directly in his day-to-day life, such as using prayer to overcome difficult problems. However, as mentioned above, the inward and the outward must harmonize: Prayer alone is not the way; it is prayer followed by action, undertaken with the expectation that one’s prayers will be answered.
This mystical path, because it does not rely on extreme measures, or practices divergent from ordinary belief, can be somewhat difficult to follow. In the end it amounts to a fundamental, almost Copernican, shift in orientation: placing God at the center of one’s life, and revolving everything—knowledge, opinions, even thought itself—around that center. When the purpose of life involves not just fulfilling the will of the individual, but in fulfilling the will of God, it changes how one sees even the most mundane things. For a Baha’i, mysticism means seeing beauty where other see plainness; seeing purpose where others see chaos; seeing God where others see only dust and decay; and drinking deep from the stream of everlasting life.