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The Pernnial Philosophy - Mysticism: What It Isn't, What It Is, and Why the World Needs Mystics

The 20th-Century Quaker mystic John Yungblut wrote: “. . . no word in our religious vocabulary has had such varying and conflicting connotations, nor been more abused than this word ‘mysticism’.” He then goes on to explain why: “It is much easier to explain what mysticism is not, than what it is.” Similarly, the pioneering psychologist Lawrence LeShan observes in his little million-seller classic How to Meditate (1974): The term 'mystic' has long been widely misunderstood in Western culture as referring to an individual who believes in things no one else can understand, who withdraws from the world and has little to do with its ordinary activities, who talks and writes in terms that communicate nothing, and who if not certifiably insane, has drifted so far from common sense that he or she certainly could not be considered sane. LeShan then names just a few in the world’s long list of mystics: Socrates and Buddha; Jesus of Nazareth, Meister Eckhardt, and George Fox; Lao-tzu and Confucius; Baal Shem Tov, Rumi, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint John of the Cross. He further appends these scientists to the list: Einstein, Planck, Bohr, and Heisenberg. We might also add these poets and writers: Wordsworth, Emerson, Walt Whitman, Kahlil Gibran, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, among countless others. Far from being insane, these individuals rank among the greatest and wisest of our species. What then IS mysticism? And why all the confusion? What is a mystic? How are mystics made? What is mystical experience, and is it necessary to become a mystic? What would our world be like without mystics? Are mystics special kinds of people, or are all persons, as Yungblut claims, “special kinds of mystics?” What is meant by de St. Martin when he wrote that all mystics “come from the same country and speak the same language”? In this course, we’ll explore all these questions and others, including why mysticism is the 'perennial philosophy.' Dave Pruett is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics & Statistics at James Madison University (JMU). In addition to three decades of mathematics teaching, Dave has a decade of aerospace-related research experience at NASA’s Langley Research Center. He is also the author of Reason and Wonder (hardback by Praeger, 2012, self-published paperback, 2015), the outgrowth of an award-winning JMU Honors seminar that explores the nexus of science and spirituality. Since his retirement in 2012, Dave has taught or team-taught a baker's dozen of Lifelong Learning courses and section hiked all 550 miles of Virginia’s Appalachian Trail. Dave is married to Suzanne Fiederlein, Director of JMU’s Center for International Stabilization and Recovery (CISR). They have one daughter, Elena, a public-defense attorney, cat lover, and outdoor enthusiast.

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