In A Nutshell
Both practices involve the alleged ability of the human mind to reach out and experience that which is beyond our regularly experienced senses. Mysticism often exists within the context of organized, established religion, while the same religion condemns occultism. Occultism is an experience of conflict whereby the person practicing it is attempting to control something or learn something that they shouldn’t know, while those who practice mysticism are striving to exist in harmony and peace with the greater world.
The Whole Bushel
At a glance, both occultism and mysticism seem like they’d be pretty similar—they both involve dealing with things that many people would say are better left alone, after all. And while that’s true, there are some differences that those who practice and those who study them will attest to.
First, the similarities in brief. Both schools of thought are ancient, and both deal with contacting and in some way interacting with things that are beyond our everyday perception. It’s the connection with things that the everyday person can’t see, hear, or touch—things that many of those everyday people don’t even believe in.
The differences are much more significant.
The first is the general feeling that comes from each respective practice. For those that practice the different arts of mysticism, they report that one of the defining characteristics is a sense of being connected: being one with whatever it is that they’re contacting but cannot see, being accepted into it, and being a part of something greater than themselves. They’re in a dream state, they’re one with the greater good, and it’s a pleasant, all-encompassing feeling.
While working in union with the unknown world is part of mysticism, controlling it is part of occultism. Those who practice occultism do so in order to control or unnaturally influence part of their surroundings and to change the circumstances in which they exist. Occultism is equated with different types of magic when it comes to the religious definition—it’s the use of words, gestures, symbols, and incantations to manipulate unseen forces that are only known to the practitioners of the art.
Mysticism can exist alongside (and is often a big part of) religious traditions. In that it’s often seen as a person’s awareness of other things existing alongside us, just outside of the reach of our traditional senses, there’s more than enough room within religions like Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity for the experience of mystical events and sensations.
Occultism, on the other hand, exists so far outside of mainstream religion that they can’t even see each other. Even as far back as ancient Babylon, it was made clear that practicing dark occult magic wasn’t to be tolerated—there were punishments and ordeals spelled out for those found guilty even in the Code of Hammurabi. The Bible was full of warnings to stay away from the evil of magic and occultism, pushing its practice into the darkness and leading to the criminalization of the art. Catholic theology takes a direct shot at it, saying that occultism is very, very much against the religion as it tries to acquire knowledge in a way other than through God, the accepted source for everything mankind should spiritually need.
Broadly speaking, there are also two different types of mystical experiences—the inward and the outward. The outward experience is said to allow the practitioner to see how all the elements of the world are bound together by unifying forces that others can’t see or experience. And the inward version of mysticism is, as its name suggests, the ability to look inside oneself to achieve a feeling of complete peace—peace which is sorely lacking in accounts of occultism.