Review of

Practical Mysticism


British writer Evelyn Underhill was a remarkable poet, essayist, novelist, and metaphysical writer.  She is widely known for her extensive writings about that rarest of all human states, that of mystical illumination.  Her most famous work is Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (1911), which is still regarded as the classic text in the field.  Not everyone these days is interested in those religious anarchists called mystics, but if you are someone who wants to pursue a spirituality free of tradition, dogma, scripture, organizations, power, and money, you would do well to study them.  Evelyn Underhill's books are the best place to start.

In Practical Mysticism, Underhill accomplishes what her title proclaims, namely practicality.  The information she gives us in this text is blessedly uncomplicated, sensible, pragmatic, and applicable to all.  She writes with great clarity and precision, and enlivens her prose with welcome notes of humor.  Of equal importance (at least as far as I'm concerned) is her recognition that the techniques she recommends will show us ways not only to enrich our spirituality, but to enhance our creative abilities and poetic sensitivity.  Spend and hour or two with this book, and you will discover a whole new way of being in this world.

So what are Underhill's techniques?  Nothing that unusual:  she emphasizes concentration, perception, ego-loss, and surrender.  Most of which the great sages of the East also emphasize.  But I am especially impressed with her emphasis on the importance of careful and deliberate perception as we go through our lives; her short anecdote about "Eyes and No-Eyes" is illuminating:

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.

So if you want to be a poet, not to mention develop a deeper spirituality, then you've simply to got open your eyes and start looking.  We all have problems in our lives, we all undergo stress and unhappiness, but we can turn our life into a "perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder" if we only make an effort to ... concentrate, loose ourselves in something outside of our egos, and pay attention.  The answers we need to find are right around us, every day of our everyday lives.

Here I must mention a couple of caveats.  I am always on the watch for the poison known as spiritual materialism.  If you are suffering under the delusion that mystical illumination will turn you into some kind of spiritual big shot, complete with halo and swarms of acolytes, you had better forget it.  True mystical experience comes only when your ego's boundaries begin to dissolve and your mind frees itself from thought and conceptualization--something which Underhill repeatedly emphasizes.  Craving any kind of experience, including that of the mystical, is a sign of your ego pursuing yet another unfulfilled desire or object outside of the self--and is the perfect recipe for vanity and self-aggrandizement.

Underhill also stresses the importance of emotion as the primary means of spiritual illumination; she tells us that mysticism is "above all else, a Science of Love."  With words like these, she is, of course, talking like any good writer of the Piscean era, when an emotional interpretation of reality was frequently the only thing that counted.  Ah, yes--the good old days of the last two millennia, when nasty stuff like thought, logic, and reason were denigrated to the point of nothingness (at least as far as huge numbers of spiritual thinkers were concerned).  Well, now that we are moving into the Aquarian era, I doubt that people will find much to admire in excessive emotionalism.  There is value to be found in the idea of ego surrender (Keats' idea of thoughtless awareness), but wallowing in emotional excess doesn't do anyone any good.  In the Aquarian era to come, people will find their way to the Divine, not through their emotions, but through their powers of rational thinking.  This will probably be a step forward in human evolution.

At any rate, if you want to start living a better kind of existence but don't quite know what to do or where to turn, give this book a try.