Mysticism, Sufism and Positive Unknowing

I’ve been thinking about whether my spirituality can be classified as mystical. At the outset, it’s important to note that I define mysticism as a serious form of spiritual practice, but one that does not rely on tradition necessarily. But what is mysticism?

I’ve seen two different, albeit similar types: The first is what I would call literary mysticism (Blake, Whitman, Emerson, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg). This consists in the development of character, metaphor and other literary devices to enhance ecstatic self expression, typically as a way to extend one’s self into nature, art, and creation until the lines of each become blurred.

In this post, I’m interested in looking at the second type of mysticism: the way in which religious practice promotes altered states, new levels of consciousness, and union with the individual and the divine.

I’ve seen religious people, including myself, enter into mystical states of prayer, most notably during my stay in an Indian Hare Krishna village, where I was roused out of bed to experience a dawn prayer and chanting session that had a most profound other-worldly experience on me. I’ve also noticed that many religious traditionalists think very highly of mystical states and the attainment of them is generally seen as a positive, mainly as the attainment of something unknown, unseen, and that which requires a degree of time and contemplation to achieve.

Attaining a mystical state usually involves breaking with established liturgical rules and laws. For example in Islam it is often frowned upon to pray in effusive gestures. I’ll reference the experience of a friend but keep it anonymous. He was praying in Saudi Arabia and someone in the mosque actually moved his entire body a matter of inches so that he could be more perfectly aligned with Mecca during his prayer.

This experience is shared by many religions, and yet there remains a lot of ambiguity as to what classifies as “Mystical” in our spiritual expressions. If we define mysticism as negative theology; or the road to discovering God as a pure entity, beyond any capacity of mental conception and so without any definitive image or form, then we have a basis for which to start. Yet, if by holding true to this definition, the next logical conclusion would be that a mystical state is required to attain such a conception of God.

Here I’d like to point out that value in a philosopher like Deleuze, who referred to a form of positive thought without knowledge. Deleuze had in mind the development of a positive praxis of unknowing, which I see as very compatible with what mysticism is all about. I think that the attainment of mystical states requires a degree of discipline and concentration, i.e.: in order to reach “other-worldly” states, we must renounce knowledge.

In a recent lecture by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf on the life of al-Ghazzali, (arguably the greatest mind and spiritual master of Islam) he mentioned how after a long career of knowledge cultivation, al-Ghazzali was left with a major spiritual crisis. His crisis consisted in the fact that his knowledge acquisition impacted his ego rather than cessating it. Might this experience be generalized? With the continual attainment of spiritual knowledge, there comes a need to condition the body – when seeking mystical states and experiences, to let that knowledge pass through you, to empty that knowledge.


I think part of the problem that we have with religion, and part of the reason why we have such a turn away from traditional / institutional religion is the emphasis on knowledge as a path to God. It’s fascinating to see how Evangelicals rank amongst the least religiously literate compared to their co-religionists, and even compared to atheists. While Evangelicals are not what I would classify as mystics, they do however place an emphasis on experience, transcendence and ecstatic states. There are two types of knowledge in spiritual traditions: that aimed towards understanding, and that aimed towards spiritual mastery. The two are inter-changable, but for our discussion of mysticism, both forms of knowledge must be emptied in order to inhabit a state of positive unknowing, more of which I will develop below.

This tension can be seen in Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he first went to black Baptist churches in the United States. He felt something that had plagued him his entire life in European Lutheran congregations: the way that they prayed so openly and expressively led to a new-found sense of sanctorum communio, the community of holiness. This experience was resounding for Bonhoeffer, I would argue, based on his letters from prison, because of the way in which they prayed – effusively, deeply, and with an embrace of Christ that was more authentic and lived than their European/white counterparts.

The black Baptist emphasis on lived experience and suffering was a mystical source for Bonhoeffer, a source that shaped his spirituality towards positive unknowing.

Positive Unknowing and Inhabiting the Negative Space:

Continental philosophy can offer some insight into how mystical states can inhabit the space of positive unknowing. As Deleuze reminds us, aesthetics, dance, music, and some forms of poetry are able to articulate this negative space from where positive unknowing emerges. Philosophy, like religion is also often unable to penetrate into realms of unknowing, and often times, neither is religion, or at least, neither is the way in which our liturgy allows us to experience negative space.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben talks about the challenge in articulating the unknown in language. When we look at how a word refers to a thing in linguistics there are zero points where signifiers do not link to any signification at all. These are referred to as, “a zero phoneme to a marked term.”

All of Saussarian linguistics could not function without a zero degree of the mark. The signifier with no signification responds to signification as such. Levi-Strauss points out that when we experience signification, culture works to connect a meaning to a signifier, but there is always an exceeding signifier that simply refers to signification as such. And Derrida ground in Of Grammatology looks at the idea that there is signification even when there is no signifier.

This zero-degree in language, what Lacan would develop out of the real as the phallus covers an aspect in language that relates to something ex nihilo, a commandment that emerges from nothing. This is what I’d like to call the basis of the dimension of unknowing. In many ways, this is for me the definition of the real – as that which resists access. So if prayer is typically only able to stay within the symbolic (language, meaning, etc.) how do we create a form of expressive prayer that penetrates beyond into this domain of pure unknowing.


One way of entering the negative space is through mystical poetry and prose. In mystical religious poetry, the poem is something that is total on the plane of language – what happens in the poem is that language is shown as such, as pure means. It shows language as an inoperative system, which makes poetry when it is done in a certain way able to inspire an entirely new usage.

St. John of the Cross, in his poem, Night of the Soul uses language as capable of articulating a zone of unknowing. Yet for St. John, the dark night of the soul is like the experience that Christ has on the cross in uttering the words that doubted God, “my father, my father, why have you forsaken me.” St. John’s poem seeks a way out of the darkness into a spiritual discovery or maturity, yet, the darkness becomes, similar to the Hegelian night of the world, where the owl of Minerva flies at dawn, that which offers the sweet entrance into a new mode of consciousness – a new mode of unknowing.

The late Catholic poet Anne Porter gets at this inability of language to articulate the divine union:

What was it like, to listen to the angels,
To hear those mountain-fresh, those simple voices
Poured out on the bare stones of Little Portion
In hymns of joy?
No one has told us.
Perhaps it needs another language
That we have still to learn,
An altogether different language.

Anne Porter

I’d like to end this blog post with a reference to the Oblivion Seekers, a book which one critic called the “strangest human documents that a woman has ever given to the world”, Isabelle Eberheardt wrote The Oblivion Seekers about a number of sufi’s in the late nineteenth century who were traveling and seeking escape from the confines of the decadent and rigid mores of Europe. This is from a sufi brotherhood chant and dance:

As the night grows perceptibly cooler, the members of that enlightened brotherhood, the khouan, pound on the tambourine and draw strident sounds from the oboelike rhaita. The also sing, slowly, as if in a dream. And they dance beside the flaming fumes of benzoin and myrrh. Through ecstasy they hope to reach the final target of unconsciousness (Pg, 76).

4 responses to “Mysticism, Sufism and Positive Unknowing”

  1. St. John of the Cross said “All that the imagination can imagine and the reason conceive and understand in this life is not, and cannot be, a proximate means of union with God.”

    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

    Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

    Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

    (quoted from “the greatest achievement in life,” my free ebook on comparative mysticism)

  2. Laura

    Thanks for thie great article. I’m especially intrigued by your experience in India — morning prayer and chanting has the potential to be absolutely mind-blowing. I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing a chanting session in another country or culture, but some of my most contemplative moments have been in a room full of chanting people.
    Thanks for the ‘Oblivion Seekers’ recommendation – haven’t read that.
    Have you heard of Master Charles Cannon? He’s an inspiration of mine in the field of spirituality and mysticism. I love his book “The Modern Mystic” and I just picked up his newest book, “Forgiving the Unforgivable” (

  3. […] Mysticism, Sufism and Positive Unknowing ( […]

  4. Thanks Daniel, great article. Especially enjoyed the pointing out of Deleuze’s notion of “positive unknowing”. Finding connections, links, ways in to/through post-structural thought for the mystical and the Mystery is a tangled web, oft confusing. A neglected subject, perhaps, yet one that holds profound implications for the whole business and function of philosophy.. Appreciated. “Somewhat-a-modern-mystic”-slabbb-

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