The author of Care of the Soul in Medicine and A Religion of One’s Own explains how to identify -- and increase -- the presence of the profoundly spiritual in your life.
By Thomas Moore
Many people use the word "mystic" pejoratively, to indicate someone who is seriously and deliriously out of touch with reality. As a student of religion, I say the opposite: Mystics are the ones who have actually gotten in touch with what is real. They have powers of receptivity and sympathy that are particularly acute. They are porous and have the ability to be so open as to stretch beyond the usual small and protective ego, and they are often unusually courageous. Out of that wide, and sometimes painful, stretching of an ego they find ethical opportunities special to them.
Anyone can be an ordinary mystic. You may not experience a regular loss of ego and absorption in the divine, but now and then you may feel lifted out of your body and become lost in a beautiful piece of art or scene in nature. As a parent, you may have a moment of bliss as you step back and look at your children. As a creative person, you may finish a project and suddenly feel light-headed with the joy of having created something worthy. You may enjoy occasional bursts of wonder and know what it means to extend the boundaries of a self.
The mystical moments multiply, and over time you extend the borders of your self, you are less prone to protecting yourself and you have more empathy with the people and the world around you. If you define religion as a strong sense of the divine, your daily mysticism contributes to that sense by drawing you out of yourself and into nature and then beyond.
It helps if you take these experiences seriously and make something of them. Just having one sublime experience after another isn't enough. You have to weave them into your thinking, feeling and relating. They become part of your life and identity. The mystic is empty and lost in a positive way, and yet she is alert, ready for the next revelation and opportunity.
Religion begins in the sensation that your life makes sense within a larger one, that you and the animals have a bond, that the trees and rocks and rivers are to the body of the world as your bones and hair and bloodstream are to your body. You understand, at least in some primal way, that your happiness depends on the happiness of the beings around you. You may even realize, ultimately, that your soul participates in the world's soul.
If you go deep enough into yourself, you will come up against mysterious creative forces. You can't know yourself completely, and you may realize, again, as mystics have pointed out, that some of your problems stem from your resistance against that deep, unknown source of vitality. If you could get out of the way, who knows what you could become? The divine creator not only makes a world but also creates a self.
You don't need to meditate formally for hours or swoon from absorption in the infinite. All you have to do is feel the rain pouring over you on a wet spring day. All you have to do is take a walk in the woods to the point where you forget your daily routine and the busyness of life.
Of course, you can go much further and learn how to meditate. You can take up a craft or art as a spiritual practice. You can study the Zen tea ceremony, the Zen art of archery or calligraphy. You can make music, paintings, gardens or furniture. If you really want to, you can join a strict monastery in any part of the world, but you can also be a mystic in your kitchen.
One effective way some people blend tradition and their personal spirituality is to become involved with an established monastery or spiritual community. When I visit Ireland, I try to spend time at Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine community just outside the city of Limerick. I meet people there who are formally attached to the monastery and are called oblates. They maintain their lives at home and at work and enjoy their formal connection to the monastery -- another good way to shape a personal religious style.
Call this a mysticism of the soul in contrast to the spirit. It is connected to everyday life and to the things of the world. It is physical, sensual and bodily. It may require craft, and getting your hands dirty. I know for myself, as an occasional woodworker, that I can get involved in a project, measuring, cutting wood, marking, joining and finishing, and the time goes by like magic. I seem to slip away from the domain of the clock and into a space-time situation quite different from normal life. Why couldn't this be my form of mysticism?
Woodworking always brings to my mind a line from the Gospel of Thomas. Jesus says: "Split a piece of wood. I am there." You could extend that beautiful comment and say, "Pull open a banana: I am there. Put your shovel into the earth: I am there. Listen to the song of the robin: That's me." You don't have to believe that anyone is literally behind the song, or in the banana, or in the earth. You don't have to speak of God. You don't have to talk like a theologian. You only have to use your spiritual imagination to establish a world alive and mysterious and home to a presence impossible to describe but also impossible to deny.
This excerpt was taken from A Religion of One's Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2015, Thomas Moore.