A mystic is essentially a person who pursues a truth or understanding beyond those normally associated with the human experience. He or she may or may not be initiated into any number of spiritual or religious mysteries, and may or may not have achieved the insight they are pursuing. What links all such people together is the belief in, and pursuit of, a transcendent truth that surpasses exclusively rational understanding or knowing.
In the popular conception, a mystic is often a person who embraces esoteric practices, or studies magic or the occult. Although people who do these things may identify as such, not all are involved in such practices. Mysticism has a surprising number of faces, and trying to define it beyond a pursuit of transcendent truth becomes difficult. There are, however, some major strains of mysticism which have common traits.
Nearly all religious traditions have their own strains of mysticism. In many monotheistic and some polytheistic faiths, this person is usually concerned with finding a direct connection to God Himself, often through meditation or prayer. In Christianity, mystics often refer to this state as Union or Oneness with God. In Islam, this state is called Irfan, which literally translated means knowing. In Jainism, a state called Moksha parallels this unity, referring to an ascendance to a spiritual state in which all reality is seen to be illusion.
Within many mainstream religions there are varying degrees of mysticism. There are also often separate groups, which may or may not be viewed as heretical by the mainstream religious establishment. Within Islam, for example, the Sufi tradition is a mystic tradition that espouses a Divine unity and rejects the dualistic conception of Self and God as distinct. Within Christianity, Gnosticism is viewed by many as a heretical offshoot and predecessor to mainstream Christian churches.
Many modern mystic paths are heavily influenced by ancient Greek rites, most notably the Eleusinian Mysteries, dating from around the 15th century BCE. The Eleusinian Mysteries focused on a myth cycle involving Demeter and Persephone, invoking the concept of death, and the resurrection that can come by triumphing over death. They remained intact for nearly two millennia, and over that time laid much of the groundwork for myth cycles other faiths would adopt.
Many of these faiths, particularly those outside of the monotheistic tradition, make heavy use of myths and symbolism to convey their deeper meaning. Fundamentally, the knowledge sought cannot be communicated with logic or words, and so cannot be transmitted in the same way traditional religion can be passed on. Instead, certain rites or symbols are used to help open an initiate’s consciousness to a new level, acting as a catalyst for his or her own mystical awakening, rather than directly transmitting information.
From the 17th century on, various fraternal organizations incorporating mystic elements began to become popular throughout Europe. The Rosicrucian Order and the Freemasons are perhaps the best known of these groups, and they continue to enjoy widespread popularity to this day. Beginning in the 19th century, there was a resurgence in mysticism in the west. These paths often used occult elements, such as communication with spirits, as part of their practice. The Theosophist movement is perhaps the most well-known of these more modern mystic paths. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was another such movement around this time, which went on to influence many more modern faiths, most notably Wicca.
As well as symbols, myth structures, meditation, and prayer, some of these traditions make use of various psychedelic drugs, or entheogens. These drugs are thought to break down the barriers in the mind that block off a deeper knowing, allowing the initiate to attain a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe, which can then be integrated into his or her life.