Such words can have loosely interchangeable meanings depending on whom you are speaking with. But are they really interchangeable, what do they actually mean, and is it important at all that one differentiate them? They are not, in fact, interchangeable, and it is critical to any thinker to differentiate between them because the essence of what each one represents is absolutely different, and how they cause growth and movement in life differs as well.
We will discuss each of the following concepts: Philosophy (mentation, mental understanding, and theory), Spirituality (the movement that follows deep inner longing for growth and/or union with higher understanding and experience), Mysticism (non-linear, sometimes unorthodox practices to experience ‘something deeper’), and Religion (broad prescriptions by religious leaders for soul growth).
What do they all mean?
The definitions of these words as provided by the Oxford Dictionary, are:
Philosophy: “a particular set or system of beliefs resulting from the search for knowledge about life and the universe”
Spirituality: “the quality of being connected with religion or the human spirit”
Mysticism: “the belief that knowledge of God or of real truth can be found through prayer and meditation rather than through reason and the senses”
Religion: “the belief in the existence of a god or gods, and the activities that are connected with the worship of them, or in the teachings of a spiritual leader”
Obvious mistakes (which we shall ignore) aside, such as religion being referred to as a belief in the existence of a god (where Buddhism is also a religion but does not worship nor believe in an omnipresent, perfect God), these definitions are largely appropriate. Philosophy, for instance, can’t be said to discuss strictly worldly matters; that would be a theory. For instance, scientific management in the sphere of business is a theory, not a philosophy. Likewise, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is a theory and not a philosophy. Philosophy utilizes human intellect and applies it to understanding human nature (on the existential level rather than psychosomatic) and the nature of the universe at large. Therefore, even though philosophy is a restrictive word, that which it discusses, paradoxically, is without limit.
Oxford’s definition of spirituality is also largely accurate, although it offers discrepancies. The general field that the word refers to, being the human spirit, is not incorrect, but that the word applies in limitation to just this along with connectedness with religion is a false limitation. In reality, spirituality encapsulates all thought and effort that may go into understanding, connecting with, or interacting with the spirit after a connection is established. As such, it includes philosophy, mysticism, and religion, but refers to the fundamental purpose behind all these fields of study, which is to deepen one’s spirit. Additionally, communing with spirits of nature and animals, or of the dead, can be considered a spiritual practice; spirituality is certainly not limited to the quality of being connected solely with the human spirit, as Oxford suggests.
Mysticism is a unique concept amongst all these in that it implies a specific kind of practice or effort. Rather than refer to the general subject of spirit and the universe, it is about a conscious effort to attain some conscious experience of spirit. Oxford’s definition is largely correct, here too, but mysticism is not a belief. Any practice, of any kind, including using reason and senses, to illuminate one’s own divinity or the divine at large, is mysticism. Indeed, a simple thought such as ‘what is God’, consciously mused upon, can be considered mysticism because of the state of mind it can cause. Essentially, mysticism is any effort that can result in a state of experience that may be classified as within the realm of spirit rather than the mundane.
How they are connected to us:
We can learn from this that the majority of humans in the mundane human condition are indeed aware of these ‘higher thoughts and pursuits’ and that their understanding is even quite accurate. But most people choose to remain connected only at a religious level, attending religious gatherings and attempting to follow a moral code at most. Why?
All have to do with the evolution of consciousness through various strata. At the most gross, that which exists simply as form trying to sustain itself and survive must be given directive based on its most fundamental emotion: fear. Based on fear, it must be coerced to serve and ‘be good’ if it is to sublimate from gross matter and survival to a more conscious, self-reflective being. Hence, religion works best for the masses and has, in fact, been designed for the masses. Where spirituality attempts to create a conscious vessel through which God can be experienced (and can experience itself!), religion attempts to turn gross consciousness into something usable by God, to experience conscious spirituality if it survives through transformation into a morally positive identity later on.
Philosophy and mysticism, on the other hand, are two steps on the same ladder. Philosophy begins with conscious musing on the nature of things and ends when the intellect realizes that it is not meant to grasp such a vast knowledge from its limited perspective. Spirituality then begins when a soul learns that to go beyond philosophy, it must attempt to stop trying to understand the spirit and instead experience it.
Finally, mysticism begins when a spiritual soul learns how to commune with the divine with relative ease and at will, and bears fruit through long and arduous transformative periods of deep contemplation and surrender to God.
All these concepts, philosophy, spirituality, mysticism, and religion, while different in essence, are beads on the same metaphorical string. The string Buddhist and Christian monks keep is perhaps even symbolic of such a process, named and described differently in different cultures and traditions. But the core truth remains the same: from thought man moves to experience, and from experience, man transforms with the grace of higher light into something that can live beyond the need to experience.