I had mentioned in one of my posts earlier the categories “mystic” and “esoteric”, and that there is a distinct difference between them. I ran into this distinction in a really excellent book by Richard Smoley titled “Inner Christianity“. Since the distinction is his I’d best let him clarify it:
Esotericism is characterized by an interest in these different levels of consciousness and being. Mysticism is not quite so concerned with these intermediate states; it focuses on reaching God in the most direct and immediate way. The mystic wants to reach his destination as quickly as possible; the esotericist wants to learn something about the landscape on the way. Moreover, mysticism tends more toward passivity: a quiet “waiting upon God” rather than active investigation.
I had mentioned that Eckhart Tolle, for example, is a mystic, whereas I think Ken Wilber is more of an esotericist. Myself, I’ve wandered back and forth as the mood strikes me. This distinction is similar to Ken Wilber’s distinction of “ascending” vs. “descending” spiritual currents. The “ascenders” focus on finding God in the absolute, infinite unity of being. They often disdain the physical manifestations. This group includes such folks as most gnostics, particularly Manicheans. Also in this category would be the Christian contemplatives and practitioners of Raja yoga.
The “descenders” on the other hand, celebrate God in the infinite variety of physical manifestation. Most forms of wicca, paganism and shamanism fall into this category, along with tantric yoga and “social” Christianity. The descenders often seem somewhat unconcerned with higher reality as a goal.
Both currents of spirituality are important, because God exist equally as the infinite one, and as the infinite many. Perhaps this makes esotericism a sort of compromise, because it seeks the divine unity while making plenty of interesting tours of the infinite many on the way up.
What can be frustrating about esotericism is that the “facts” of the esoteric tend to vary somewhat from teacher to teacher and from school to school. One of my favorite topics, for example, is angeology. But although nearly every religion and every esoteric school agrees that there ARE angels, and that they are important – none agree about exactly what they are, what their nature is, or their names, activities and heirarchy.
The trick seems to be to pick a system and stick with it, while realizing that all esoteric systems are somewhat arbitrary – vehicles for focusing the efforts of the student as he or she progresses on the spiritual path.
How about you? Are you a mystic or an esoteric?