Defining Mysticism

Commentary on William James'
"The Varieties of Religious Experience" &
"A Suggestion about Mysticism"

~Sandra Stahlman

In these lectures, James attempts to define mystical states of consciousness as "real" experiences, that is to say a valid topic of investigation and study, and to show them as available to most people. He begins with the crucial point of definition; without a clear idea of what is being discussed, misunderstandings are bound to occur. Many things can be referred to as mystical, but James uses the term "mystical states of consciousness" to encompass a spectrum of experiences, from the non-religious to the most religiously profound.

Beginning with the "simplest" sort of mystical experience, James notes the strong sense of significance and knowledge associated with the experience, it's "noetic" quality. It is one of four qualities that James uses to define mystical states of consciousness. "Ineffable" is another characteristic which marks an experience as mystical; the experience defies expression. Due to its subjective nature, the experience is much like state of feeling. James asserts that these two qualities "entitle any state to be called mystical." However, there are other qualities usually associated with the experience. He explains that the experiences are generally transient. Fading quickly, it is hard to recall the quality of the experience in memory; they remain just out of reach. But, some memory content always remains, and this can be used to "modify the inner life of the subject between the time of their recurrence." When having a mystical experience, however, individuals do not seem to actively process the information. Instead, it is a passive experience - James' fourth characteristic mark. Even though many people actively study and/or practice techniques to produce mystical states of consciousness, once occurring the experience seems to happen without their will.

Later, James goes on to suggest that these experiences occur as our "field of consciousness" increases. One can assert these "simple" experiences connote a slight widening of this field, whereas the more profound experiences come when consciousness expands to include items usually filtered, hidden, or just out of reach. Such could include memories and sensations. As awareness increases to include more external and internal information, a sense of self, a boundary between self and environment, expands, and seems to dissipate. The experience is one of unity with information formerly defined as non-self. This expansion of the self, often referred to as loss of self, may not be beneficial for someone who does not have a "strong" sense of self to begin with. To these people, a mystical experience can be frightening and confusing, to say the least. James calls this a "diabolical mysticism;" half of mysticism, he explains, is not religious mysticism, but cases where "mystical ideas" are seen as symptoms of insanity. He refers to these as "lower mysticisms," springing forth from the same psychological mechanisms as the classic, religious sort. However, the messages and emotions are experienced as negative.

James points out the importance of keeping the definition of mystical states of consciousness value-neutral. All mystical experience, he explains, whether experiences as positive or negative, deserves recognition as available states of consciousness. He does not debate whether they are a superior form of consciousness; instead he suggests that, like our rational states, mystical states encompass both truth and deception, pleasure and pain.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Penguin Books: Canada.
James, William. "A Suggestion about Mysticism." Understanding Mysticism. Image Books: Garden City, 1980.


This article has been indexed by StudyWeb.Com

Written by Sandy Stahlman, 1992, at the University of Rochester

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