Iamblichus, in his discussion of theurgy in De Mysteriis, talks about three different kinds of theurgic practice, each fitting for different kinds of people. The first level is the physical theurgy, or theurgic rituals using physical symbols for an anagogic purpose. The third level is non-physical theurgy, the theuryg of silence, that uses nothing physical as its purpose to contact the hypercosmic gods or divine thoughts. There is, of course, a median, one that combines, in varying ways, material and non-material theurgy and works as a transition from the lowest level to the highest. There is, I think, a direct connection between these modes of theurgic praxis and mysticism.
Typically, when one thinks of a "mystical experience," we think of the epiphanal moment. The blinding flash of light that changes everything. A review of the lives of various mystics demonstrates that such things do happen, but that they are also not what defines their lives or experiences as mystics. I suggest that, much as there are three modes of theurgic practice, there are three modes of mystical experience. Further, just as each mode has its proper time and place, so do the varieties of mystical experience. Finally, I suggest that each mode/experience is of equal importance within the context they occur.
One of the difficulties of discussing mystical experiences is the language which we use. English, for example, is an excellent quantitative language. It is somewhat horrific when it comes to the qualitative. The use of the word "experience" is an example. Part of what I will discuss as a "mystical experience" will bare almost no relation to what is commonly understood by an "experience." It is simply the only word I have to use.
The first kind of mystical experience correlates well to material theurgy. We might even call it "material mysticism," but that sounds less than poetic, so how about everyday mysticism? Or, if we want to engage a little more in a mystical style of language, "mundane mysticism," which is nicely contradictory. In De Mysteriis, Iamblichus discusses what are called symbolon (symbols), sunthemata (tokens or signatures), and a host of other things. These signatures are imprinted directly into physical reality by the gods and Demiurgos so that we may use them to go back to the gods and, ultimately, the One. The tokens are the means through which theurgy work because the tokens are objective divine symbols, not subjective human symbols. And they are everywhere and we can learn to see them and understand them for what they are. Through this way of thinking about the cosmos we can bring ourselves closer to the purposes of creation and the forces that are behind it, which is, ultimately, God. It is the beginning of the theurgy and demiurgy. But it is physical and so, though based on non-physical, divine and objective reality, subject to our subjective experiences and discursive reasoning. So, mundane mysticism is both objective and subjective, just as material theurgy is, as it a human performance of divine rites.
What is most interesting about mundane mysticism is that, first, it is learnable. We can learn to see the divine signatures and engage in them as diving signatures, not simply natural or scriptural phenomena. Second, an ephiphanal experience is not necessary to do this. Finally, reading the autobiographies of mystics suggests they spend most of their time in this objective/subjective mode. This mode is spiral in form. It is circular in that the mundane mystical experience informs the everyday life of the mystic, but is also informed by that everyday life. They are dependent upon one another. But this mode is not simply circular. The continued mundane mystical experience moves our interpretation and lives not so much forward as upward, closer to the divine. Our interpretations refine the experience and the experience enriches the interpretation and the spirit is moved.
The third mode (I'll keep to traditional Iamblichean writing style here and discuss the extremes before the median) is more difficult. It does not consist of an experience, per se, because experiences require bodies and minds and thoughts and this mode goes beyond that. It is henosis, union with the divine. The divine, however, at least within Neoplatonism, and within classical Gnosticism, exists beyond the level of Nous, Intellect (please insert here a lengthy discussion on the intelligible triad of Being/Life/Intellect common to Neoplatonism and at least Sethian Gnosticism that is otherwise off topic). By Nous I mean the divine mind or intellect, which is the lowest part of the mental world. Above it are the Platonic forms, the gods (or Aeons in Gnostic terminology), the pre-essential Demiurgos (in the Neoplatonic sense) and then the Good/One (i.e., God).
Henosis is a hyper-intellectual "experience." Yes, there's that word, "experience." Henosis isn't experience, per se, as it exists beyond the thing we usually mean when we talk about having those experiences. Henosis occurs beyond the soul (which is a product of Nous) and beyond even the divine intellect, occurring at the level of divine ideas . . . which is a little strange. How do ideas exist prior to the mind? Plato held that the contents of the mind pre-exist the thinking of them: our minds are not blank slates and learning is in fact remembering (this took me some time to understand, as Plato says the second part but doesn't really directly say the first). This level of the noetic realm reflects that ideology. The divine thoughts, the gods or Aeons, exist before the mind that experiences them. When henosis occurs it does so outside of time and space and material reality and, ultimately, we, the subjective human creature, may be entirely unaware of it occurring.*
The second kind of mystical experience is perhaps closer to what we generally think of when we hear the word "mysticism." This is the ecstatic moment, the ephiphany, the ah ha! But remember, this is a median mode. This is what we might call theosis, becoming god-like. Neoplatonically, we might say this level corresponds to a kind of union with the material gods, symbolized by the seven classical planets, but existing far beyond them. It can even include the soul's union with its source, Nous and a glimpsing of the the noetic realm or pleroma. It is a combination of gnosis on the one hand, and an dealing with that gnosis in the phsycial realm on the other. Gnosis might be liked to a complete, intuitive knowing. Gnosis, like henosis has its origins beyond the intellect. It does not require thought or discursive reasoning. It is simply knowing. But because it is experiential, because the conscious human being in a material body can have gnosis, maybe we should think of gnosis as a byproduct of henosis or its experiential component that falls to the level of Intellect, if not intellect.
But gnosis must be put into context. By "must" I mean we, as discursive creatures, do this, do it automatically and without necessarily realizing we are doing so (which, admittedly, is a poor use of one's discursive ability, a give from the Demiurgos, but that's a different post). We employ our moments of gnosis in practical and material ways. Our life experiences put help us put it in context and so make it "useful." When we read the writings of a mystic, even something like the difficult poetry of Rumi, this is what we're reading. It is an attempt to keep the gnosis as gnosis-like as possible while simultaneously attempting to come to terms with that gnosis in a way that makes sense. It is an attempt to understand the Universal in the mode of the particular.
Though the highest* form of mystical experience or mode of theurgy is the rarest, in some ways the median level is the most difficult. The highest mode is utterly ineffable. Not only is there no need to discuss it, there is no way to discuss it. But the median mode is with us, it is extreme, ecstatic and not only can be dealt with, it must be. This experience changes our lives even while being informed by our lives. By placing it in the genre of the particular the universal becomes understandable. But how the Universal comes to be understood is at least somewhat dependent upon who we are, where we live, how we grew up, i.e. our personal background. In order to mitigate this some mystical schools develop teachings to make sure everything moves in, what is for them, the right direction. Sufism created the doctrine of makamat, "spiritual stations," for this reason.
The key to surviving this, in my own humble estimation, is recourse to mundane mysticism, the most basic form of mystical endeavor, and so the foundation of an overall mystical praxis. And this is precisely what mystics in the past appear to have done.
*I fully understand that I am presenting mysticism and mystical modes in a very particular, largely Western, chronology, suggesting an ontological superiority of henosis over gnosis over mundane mysticism. I also fully understand that this reflect my personal experiences and Western, Neoplatonic and Kabbalistic background and is not meant to reflect a Truth or a Zaehnerian approach to mysticism.