William James Commentary: 
7. Mysticism


Jackson Snyder

James defines mysticism in four "marks:" mystical experiences are ineffable, defying description, thus can't be readily transferred to others; they are noetic, revelatory insight and knowledge is gained; they are transient, they do not last long; and the mystic is a passive though conscious recipient whose will is in abeyance to the experience. The first two marks are primary characteristics of all mystical experiences, the second two are often so (299-301).

James uses the metaphor of a ladder to describe increasingly potent mystical experiences. The lowest rung includes the very commonest of experiences where a one has "a deepened sense of the significance of a maxim or a formula which occasionally sweeps over" (301). Simply put, this is the eureka experience, or a certain familiarity brought on by a particular word, sight, smell, etc. The next ascending rung is that of the deja vu experience of "having been here before." The third rung is dreamy states, trances, and other-worldly raptures. Upward - "anaesthetic revelations" are brought on by intoxication with alcohol, ether, nitrous oxide, chloroform. Such open a portal in the psyche for which we "have no map," but one is not needed, since it is "as if ... all our difficulties and troubles were melted" (306). (James brushes past alcohol, condemning its use, but is very positive about the use of gaseous substances in producing mystical visions."

The top rung would seem to be religious type experiences in which the mystic feels a oneness, immediacy, or presence of an entity and/or nature personified, often accompanied by intense pleasure, happiness, "cosmic' or "mystical consciousness," and a momentary sense of immortality or nothingness (314).

Mysticism has been developed as adjunct to formal religion. James sites yoga, defined as "the experimental union of the individual with the divine" (314), as a holistic method of achieving a mystical experience through exercise, diet, posture, breathing, meditation, and moral discipline. The higher state achieved is known as samadhi. Buddhism's four-staged dhyana seems similar to some of eastern orthodox methods - using a point of concentration to achieve perfect self-consciousness (315).

In trying to answer the question, "Do mystical experiences establish the truth of saintly theology?" James uses primarily the so-called "classic" mystics (He admits to very little personal experience). He observes that the thread running through the writings of Paul of Tarsus, (Pseudo) Dionysius, Ekhart, Boeme et al is Nothingness (self-absorption?) is the gateway to entrance into unity with god. Behmen is quoted, "I am nothing, for all that I am is no more than an image of Being, and only God is to me I AM" (328). James temporarily concludes that the general traits of the mystic range of consciousness - mysticism "is on the whole pantheistic and optimistic, or at least the opposite of pessimistic. It is anti-naturalistic, and harmonizes best with twice-bornness and so-called other worldly states of mind (331).

Then he questions his own summary. Are mystical truths authoritative, offering the "truth" of pantheism, optimism, etc.? Three points answer. (1) Mystical truths are authoritative to those who have such experiences - such experiences can't be taken away, thus mystics are, in the sense of knowing, invulnerable. (2) But the authority of mystical knowledge does not extend outside the mystic. As such, James claims that the charge of pantheism does not hold true. (I wonder what his definition of pantheism is.) Nevertheless, institutional religion and mysticism may form a "marriage" where mystical tenets may be help up as desirable, truthful, and helpful. (3) The very existence of mystical knowledge overthrows the universal authority of non-mystical knowledge - mystical truth is genuine and demonstrable (332-336).

As a final note on this page, James also gives a sentence to "diabolical" mysticism (334). This subject is worth two lectures in its own right.

_____In 1973, a friend gave me a book called The Natural Mind. As I recall, the premise of this book is that each person has an innate, physiological need to "get out of oneself," just as one has the need for sleeping, eating, etc. According to the author, experiencing frequent altered states of consciousness, whether through religion, drugs, or whatever, is essential to emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being and health. Suppression of drugs and punishment for users can only lead to deprivation of an essential need, compensationary overindulgence, and possible paranoia. (Don't quote me, I couldn't find my book to review.) This being the case, "the paranoid and the mystic share much in common: paranoid persons believe there is a conspiracy in the universe against them, mystics believe there is a conspiracy in the universe on their behalf."

I had been initiated to mysticism through a very intense religious experience in 1967. As James wrote, I became invulnerable to religious dogma that dictated the invalidity of my visitation. By 1973, I was experimenting with drugs - the occasion for receiving the book was a friend's concern that I try to understand my own (and everybody's) need for such experiences. I had confessed to this friend that I had tried LSD, and then had attempted to narrate the ineffable story of the "trip" to her.

I feel that I have already had an incredible share of both mystical religious experiences and (certainly) drug-induced states (never at the same time). (By the way, I do not take illegal drugs now, nor have I for many years.) Both my religious and "anaesthetic" revelations, though always very, very different, were extremely helpful to my knowing of something, I'm not sure I could explain what (Of God? Of the supernatural world? Of the fourth dimension?). Obviously, that is a contradiction, but it is a knowing that I can't transfer through the medium of paper.

It is for the reason of such knowing that I feel it is of priceless value for church people to experience something mystical in life. (I call this type of experiencing fourth dimensional.) The medium for such experience (in my work) is (intangibly) the Holy Spirit, and (tangibly) what has become known as the "charismatic movement." Both Spirit and movement are active within and without the mainline church.

Insofar as the importance of experiencing the fourth dimension for humanity (exclusively), I agree with Matthew Fox, who envisions a "global renaissance" in which mysticism is the very power of resurrection that could rescue a dying earth, dying creativity, dying wisdom, dying youth, and dying native peoples and their religions. The validity and worth of what James calls "mystical knowledge" has been completely denied in this sinful society at large and in the church, culminating in ecological disaster on "mother earth." Two examples of this denial: Fox tells the story of a woman that he was helping guide on Ekhart's four paths. The woman related, "I told my psychiatrist ... that I thought I might be a mystic. Her response was: 'You probably have epilepsy. Take these chemical tests....'" This well expresses the attitude of the western world toward mysticism. Last Saturday night we had a healing service at one of my churches. There was a full house, and, in the course of 4 hours, many people were transported, and several received obvious physical healings. I was talking about the service with a young classmate at school, trying to convince her of the importance of mysticism. An older seminarian overheard, and offered these words of advice: "Make sure you don't tell your ordination board about that - they really frown on that sort of thing." Yes, that is the general attitude of the church. It frowns on the very ministry of its savior!

James criticized excessive saintliness as causing a person to be worthless to the world. The world, and, in some aspects, the church seems to have the attitude that any mysticism is excessive, worthless, and of no temporal good (James would not agree with this assessment). The great liberal theologian and founder of the social gospel movement, Walter Rauschenbusch (a contemporary of James), was a deeply evangelical and committed Christian in the traditional sense. And he was very influential in changing America's religious attitude away from mysticism. He envisioned a Kingdom of God on earth where all would share equally. The ills of the world would be addressed and conquered through civility, democratic effort, and godly morality. Yet R. downplays the need for mysticism in the life of faith as

"a steep short-cut to communion with God.... The mystic way to holiness (read social action) is not through humanity but above it. We can not set aside the law of God that way.... Any mystical experience [that is so] is dangerous religion."

This attitude may be one of many reasons for the decline of the mystical in religion, and the dying of the earth, its nature, and its people. R.'s attitude toward mysticism may be the very thing that prohibited his utopian dream.

A final note: It would be wonderful to revisit a contemporary James on this subject, in light of all the latest biological/ psychological developments, especially the right brain/ left brain theories. Fox tells us that the emphasis in society of left brain analytic functions has caused the population in general to suppress right brain creativity and mysticism. Consequently, right-brain function has atrophied. This seems to be something that I have experienced in these past years of higher education. I think James might agree with Fox's assessment. Addalena Menzel certainly does: (from a book I picked from the "free book" box at the Shepherd's Center): "Our Imagination... is in right use when our physical eyes are closed to outer attentions, our minds are closed to past experiences and we lift our eye of Soul to the Great White Light beyond the stars...."