William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Lectures 16 & 17: Mysticism

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In these lectures, James considers something which he takes to be central to the religious experience:

personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness. [p 379]

Ineffability and the noetic quality

He understands mystical experience in terms of four characteristics. The first two of these are sufficient to identify a mystical experience. On the one hand, there is ineffability: the subject of a mystical experience cannot find words to describe it. On the other hand, there is the noetic quality: subjects claim that they have experienced revelations, insights into vital truths.

Transiency and passivity

The third characteristic of mystical experiences is their transiency: they rarely last more than an hour or two at most. The fourth characteristic is passivity: the subject feels a loss of control, of being in the grasp of a superior power. [p 381]

The range of mystical experiences

James offers a whole range of experiences that he wants to categorise as mystical, extending from the most trivial from the religious point of view to the most important. Thus:

The simplest rudiment of mystical experience would seem to be that deepened sense of the significance of a maxim or formula occasionally sweeps over one. [p 382]

James relates this to the power of poetry and music.

Déjà vu

Next comes the experience that we nowadays refer to as déjà vu:

that sudden feeling, ... which sometimes sweeps over us, of having been here before. [p 383]

James sees this sort of experience as making us vaguely aware of the possibility of things beyond our ordinary perceptions.

Mystical consciousness

Then there are degrees of what James calls mystical consciousness. [p 384] For these, the writer simply quotes from people who have experienced them. Charles Kingsley reports:

When I walk the fields, I am oppressed now and then with an innate feeling that everything I see has a meaning, if I could but understand it. and this feeling of being surrounded by truths which I cannot grasp amounts to indescribable awe sometimes ... [p 385]

Another subject describes being visited by trance states in which awareness of the world was obliterated, leaving a heightened awareness of the self.

Drug induced states

This brings James to the consideration of what we to-day call drug-induced states,

the consciousness produced by intoxicants and anaesthetics, especially by alcohol. [p387]

The writer states that his own experience of nitrous oxide intoxication [p 387] has led him to the conclusion that:

our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness, as we call it, is but one especial type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. [p 388]

What is more:

Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance. [p 388]

This is an example of what a friend of the writer called the anaesthetic revelation. [p 389]

Religious mysticism

Continuing his survey, James now reaches religious mysticism pure and simple. [p 393] This is where the experience is of the presence of God. As one of the writers quoted says,

I was aware that I was immersed in the infinite ocean of God. [p398]

Cosmic consciousness

At this point, James diverges slightly by introducing a variety of mystical experience identified by one Dr Bucke as cosmic consciousness. According to the latter:

The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe. [p398]

And again:

I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. [p 399]

Training for mystical experience

James completes his survey of the range of mystical experiences by looking at its methodical cultivation as an element of the religious life. [p 400] He starts with yoga, the experimental union of the individual with the divine [p 400] and the various levels of contemplation in Buddhism. Then he goes on to quote at considerable length an account that offers insight into Sufism.

Finally, the writer comes to the mystical theology of Catholicism as exemplified in three Iberian mystics, St John of the Cross, St Ignatius Loyola and St Teresa of Avila [1]. Two considerations that the writer dwells on are Illumination and Ecstasy. Thus St Teresa reports on the one hand on receiving privileged insights, such as into the nature of the Holy Trinity, and on the other hand on experiencing rapture of the mind and senses.

At one with the Absolute

The main benefit that James seems to see in all this is an overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute [p 419]:

In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. [p 419]

The significance of mysticism

The writer concludes his lectures on mysticism by considering what truth it might hold for us. He has three points to make. Firstly, the subjects of mystical experiences are themselves totally convinced by them.

But secondly, there is no reason why other people should share that conviction: different subjectsexperiences generate different messages. James suggests that mystical experiences, viewed overall, are non-specific in doctrinal content:

The fact is that the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content of its own. It is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies, provided only they can find a place in their framework for its peculiar emotional mood. [pp 425-426]

Yet thirdly, the existence of mystical experiences prevents us from rejecting out of hand the possibility of a world beyond our senses.

The supernaturalism and optimism to which they persuade us may, interpreted in one way or another, be after all the truest of insights into the meaning of this life. [p 428]


1 Saint Teresa of Avila

For comment, go to Saint Teresa of Avila on the Issues page. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2002

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