The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lectures 16 and 17 : Mysticism | Summary



James begins this chapter by asserting that personal religious experience is rooted in mystical states of consciousness. To dispel misconceptions about what mysticism is, he provides four marks by which an experience may be called as such:

  1. Ineffability: This feeling or state defies expression, and words cannot adequately describe it.
  2. Noetic quality: Mystical states are also states of knowledge and provide insight into truths unavailable to the discursive mind. "As a rule they carry ... a curious sense of authority," an impression that remains after the mystic state passes.
  3. Transiency: Mystical states are, in most cases, brief. They are hard to remember in detail, but are recognized when they recur.
  4. Passivity: While mystical states may be coaxed through certain practices, the mystic's will is suspended once the mystic state arises. Mystic states "modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence."

The rest of the lecture is devoted to studying examples of mystic states, beginning "with phenomena which claim no special religious significance" and ending with "those of which the religious pretentions are extreme." James begins with the power of poetry to deeply move people. Next, he mentions "dreamy states," which are "sudden invasions of vaguely reminiscent consciousness." Such states provide a sense of "an enlargement of perception." He quotes from the biography of J.A. Symonds, an English poet and literary critic, who describes trancelike states that erased his sense of space, time, and sensation. James next mentions altered states produced by intoxicants (for example, alcohol) and anesthetics (for example, nitrous oxide and ether). Nitrous oxide stimulates "the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree," according to James, who actually tried it himself, but whatever "truth" revealed under the influence fades upon returning to a normal state; however, James's personal experience forced him to conclude that normal waking consciousness is only one form of consciousness, of which there are many available.

James's personal experience was one of "reconciliation." He says it were as if "the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity." The author also quotes Symonds's record of his own similar experience using chloroform, along with some other people's experiments with anesthetics. Symonds recalls his soul becoming aware of God in the "intense personal present reality," for example. These accounts under anesthesia are similar to testimony from others who had a sudden realization of the presence of God without the use of external means.

James next moves onto the explanation of cosmic consciousness provided by Dr. Bucke, a Canadian psychiatrist and author of Cosmic Consciousness, and provides some of Bucke's testimony about his mystical experiences. According to Bucke, consciousness of the cosmos provides "intellectual enlightenment" which puts a person on "a new plane of existence" and makes them "almost a member of a new species." Such a person also experiences "moral exaltation" and a feeling of "elevation, elation, and joyousness," along with "a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already."

James moves on to the methodological cultivation of mystical states found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. In India such training is ancient and done "under the name of yoga," which is the union of the individual with the divine. James claims yoga means the "the experiential union of individual with the divine" and that it is a system of "persevering exercise," with Yoga teachers varying their use of "diet, posture, breathing, intellectual concentration, and moral discipline." He quotes Swami Vivekananda's description of samadhi, in which the mind enters a "superconscious state," in which there is "no feeling of I, and yet the mind works, desireless, free from restlessness, objectless, bodiless." In the samadhi state the yogi knows themselves as "free, immortal, omnipotent, loosed from the finite, and its contrasts of good and evil altogether, and identical with the atman or Universal Soul." James claims the Vedantists (practitioners of the philosophy of Vedanta, of which Vivekananda was one) have said that when a person comes out of the state of samadhi, they are as an enlightened sage, whose whole character has changed and whose life has been illumined.

According to James, Buddhists also use the word samadhi to refer to higher states of contemplation as "dhyana," of which he mentions four stages. In James's understanding, practice begins with concentration of the mind on "one point" and ends with perfection of "indifference, memory, and self-consciousness," although he admits he doesn't know what that means. He mentions additional higher states of consciousness which still do not end in nirvana, the end point of Buddhist practice. He mentions the Sufi practices of Islam. (Note that James refers to Muslims as Mohammedans.) James provides an extensive quote (translated from Arabic to French to English) from the 11th-century Persian philosopher and theologian Al-Ghazālī, who says the Sufi's aim is "detaching the heart from all that is not God, and ... giving to it for sole occupation the meditation of the divine being." Al-Ghazālī speaks about the "transport" that occurs in mystic states, and James says the "incommunicableness of this transport is the keynote of all mysticism."

He then returns to Christianity, noting that Christian mystics historically "have been viewed with suspicion" by the authorities, although "a codified system of mystical theology" grew out of their accounts. The Christian system is based on "'orison' or meditation, the methodical elevation of the soul towards God." James notes that Protestants abandoned systematic methods to reach exalted states, which remain sporadic in their denominations, and he therefore discusses Catholic saints. He mentions the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and quotes from the famous text, The Dark Night of the Soul, by Saint John of the Cross. James names Saint Teresa of Ávila as the "expert of experts" in describing various mystical states—one of them being "the orison of union," and quotes from Saint Teresa's Interior Castle; in it she says that in this union "she is utterly dead to the things of the world and lives solely in God." While the normal faculties are suspended (seeing, hearing, understanding), the mystic knows without a doubt, upon returning to normal consciousness, that "she has been in God, and God in her." In such raptures breathing becomes depressed. To the nonreligious or medical mind these are "hypnoid states" and are considered pathological conditions. James allows that these particular mystics appeared to have "indomitable spirit and energy" and concludes that mystic states may "render the soul more energetic in the lines which their inspiration favors."

While in the previous lectures on the value of saintliness, James pronounced Saint Teresa's communing with the Divine as having no human use, he now says the "overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement." In all religions this is the same, "hardly altered by differences of clime or creed." James maintains that mystic experience "is on the whole pantheistic and optimistic." Next, he rules on whether mysticism is "authoritative" or furnishes "any warrant for the truth of the twice-bornness and supernaturality and pantheism ... it favors." He concludes that

  1. these states, "when well developed, usually are ... absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come";
  2. "no authority emanates from them" for those who stand outside of these experiences; and
  3. these states demonstrate there is more than one type of consciousness and "open out the possibility of other orders of truth."


James arrives at the "vital chapter" of his investigation, since his view is that mystical experience and personal apprehension of God are synonymous. His summation of the marks of religious experience are clear and though brief, comprehensive—clearly separating mystical experiences from New Age phenomena (which in his time would have been called New Thought phenomena) such as thought transference (clairvoyance, for example) or spirit-return (communication with ghosts or other nonmaterial entities). James then proceeds up the ladder of mystical experience, from the fleeting whisperings that arrive inadvertently to full-blown mystical states.

In describing the emotional feelings that come over people at times from reading lines of poetry or engaging in other types of aesthetic activity, he shows how everyone has experienced to some degree the feeling of being deeply moved, usually at the result of an external trigger. The emotions in such fleeting states are not readily identifiable but rather make people feel as if there is some deeper well of apprehension they have reached but which is not readily available in normal waking states. This is why he puts these experiences on the first rung of the mystical ladder. In the "dreamy states" James next identifies, what most people now call "déjà vu," a sudden feeling comes over a person, associated with the thought that everything they are saying and doing in the moment is an exact repetition of a previous moment that occurred in the past. Neuroscientists have recently come up with new explanations of déjà vu, relating to a temporary confusion in the information-processing parts of the brain.

James equates the mystical states induced by chemical agents with those that are arrived at naturally, not seeing any distinction between the two, although the religiously minded might disagree with him. From James's point of view as well as others who followed him, mystical states occur in the brain, and if they are induced by outside agents, that fact doesn't alter the quality of the experience. The question of whether mystical states induced by drugs are genuine hinges on how a person conceives God. For those who believe God is a manifestation of parts of the human brain not readily available to waking consciousness, then it makes no difference how those states are induced. For those who believe God is an external, nonmaterial entity, existing either in the world or outside the world, mystical experiences induced by chloroform or nitrous oxide—or in the late 20th century by psychedelic drugs—are a counterfeit of the real thing. For those who take a monist view that the manifest world is imbued with the consciousness of a higher reality or the Divine, then it probably doesn't matter how a person goes about accessing higher states of consciousness. Health-care practitioners have begun experimentally treating cancer patients with the drug psilocybin, which appears to alleviate depression and anxiety in people with life-threatening illnesses by inducing mystical experiences. Indigenous people in Asia, Africa, and the Americas have historically used plants with hallucinogenic properties to induce trance states or mystical experience as well.

The author himself, admitting to having no experience of naturally occurring mystical states, reports in The Varieties on his own experiments with nitrous oxide, saying they resulted in "a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance." In James's view "normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different." James chooses an important passage from Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness in which the author expresses his experience of immortality in the here and now, in his own physical body. The Upanishads, the texts in the Indian Veda associated with mysticism and religious practices to induce mysticism, express similar realizations and even name the apprehension of immortality as the goal of religious practice. A widely used prayer from those texts, called the Pavamana Mantra, asks: "Lead us from the unreal to Real, from darkness to the light, from the fear of death to the knowledge of immortality." This is an important aspect of mysticism, which differs from the external religious practice of orthodox institutions. While orthodox practice sees the final goal of religion as being united with God in the hereafter, mystical practice has as its goal union with God in the here and now, along with the experience of immortality in the here and now.

James's discussion of the Indian philosophies of Yoga and Vedanta are colored by the views of Swami Vivekananda, one of the earliest of the Indian spiritual practitioners to arrive on American shores as a missionary of Indian religion. James has the additional disadvantage, in his study of Indian religion, of limited access to texts, since there were few translations, many done by Westerners with limited knowledge of the religions whose texts they were translating. Nowadays, many Indian texts are widely available in translation by knowledgeable practitioners. Swami Vivekananda sought to simplify Yoga and Vedanta philosophy for the Western masses, and, therefore, his exegesis (interpretation of religious texts) is not entirely accurate.

James is incorrect in calling Yoga an example of "persevering exercise." Hatha Yoga, a type of practice that emphasizes the physical practices of asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing and breath-retention techniques) were something that came late to Yoga, and the more widespread practice of asana (still among a very small minority of religionists) began in India no earlier than the 17th or 18th centuries. Meanwhile the definitive written text of the system, the Yoga Sutra, dates somewhere between 200 BCE and 200 CE (and mentions only a few sitting postures and only breath-retention techniques). Oral transmission of Yoga dates from before the Upanishadic period of the Vedas, some 3,000 or more years ago. To say that Yoga means union with the Divine is a Vedantic idea, which doesn't even properly represent Vedanta, although this type of terminology is quite common, even today among people who practice American yoga. The goal of Yoga, which is a means for attaining spiritual liberation, is kaivalya, or separation of the transcendent aspect of reality (called purusha) from the manifest or material aspect of reality (called prakriti). These terms come from still another system of Indian philosophy, called Samkhya (also Sankhya), which is the philosophical underpinning of the dualistic system of Yoga.

While James says the Vedantists are fully enlightened sages when they come out of samadhi, he is repeating incorrect information, either from Vivekananda or other sources, which misrepresents the system of Vedanta as well as Yoga. Samadhi is not discussed in classic Vedanta philosophy, and in the Yoga system the stages of samadhi are practiced over time to reach kaivalya, in which the seer (who has an individual purusha) sees itself and abides in itself, separated from prakriti. This would be the equivalent of "enlightenment" in the Yoga system, while in the Vedanta system "enlightenment" is moksha (also moksa), a state in which the sage fully embodies the knowledge that he or she is not different from Brahman, the "One without a second, seated in the heart of all beings." But in truth, enlightenment is an English word with particular connotations that date back to the use of the term during the 18th century and has no equivalent in the Indian systems. Even in Buddhism a better translation for the Buddha is the Awakened, rather than the "Enlightened One."

It is important to make these distinctions among the end goals of the Indian systems because James is intent on proving that the varieties of religious experience end up having universal qualities, and he is not wrong. At the same time people experience what they expect to experience, which is a basic psychological fact, and the types of union with God or divine consciousness—or, on the other hand, a return to an original state of unitary consciousness described in some Indian texts—do have some differences that should not be glossed over. For example, Buddhism takes a radical position that there is no such thing as a self or a divinity, and it is impossible to understand intellectually what the Buddhists mean by nirvana, which at best can be called the state beyond suffering.

No doubt Indians share with Christians as well as Sufis a type of religious practice which aims at uniting the individual soul with a personal god. The bhakti (devotion) tradition in India, which some people in the West call Bhakti Yoga and which was aligned even in India with Yoga practices, is certainly similar to the Christian practices of Saint Teresa or Saint John of the Cross. And James is certainly correct in saying that all mystical paths seek to overcome the barrier between the individual and the Absolute. But he is not correct in equating mysticism with pantheism: Saint Teresa would never call herself a pantheist, since as a Christian she differentiates between herself and God. Further, Indian monism, as in the Vedanta, is not pantheism either. In the Vedanta the world is imbued with the consciousness of Brahman, but the manifest world is only an illusion, since only Brahman (transcendent consciousness) exists.

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