4.4 Mystical mastery
The religious experiences discussed by James are based on a sense of self-transcendence. This transcendence can be interpreted as the reaching out towards a superior entity (God), or the opening of oneself up to a heavenly world. However, it can also be seen as the increased permeability of the boundaries of the self, and its integration with the broader field of experience that lies beyond the margins of ordinary consciousness. This process moves from a sense of self-constriction and uneasiness (religious melancholy) to a sense of relief and happiness in the surrender to a more encompassing whole or unity (conversion). In turn, this transformation has very concrete practical consequences not only for the individual who undergoes it, but also for the world that the individual is part of. The turning point in this process is constituted by what James calls ‘mystical experiences,’ which can be understood as meditative states in which feelings and perception drift apart, by thus allowing the emergence of absolutely positive feelings that are not conditioned or dependent upon any worldly or sensory perception. These states reveal that the scope of conscious experience is broader than what constitutes the field of ordinary experience, thus contributing to a relativization of the value of the latter and showing its incompleteness in mapping out the whole spectrum of experience. Mystical states do not come with a fixed theoretical view of how reality is, but are often associated with a range of beliefs that individuals have usually already absorbed and which they tend to confirm.
Nevertheless, transcendence also poses new problems, both philosophical and experiential. Transcendence is the melting of the boundaries of the self, and yet it also indirectly preserves their reality. James carefully avoids the issue of immortality in his lectures, and in his Postscript he acknowledges that he has done so deliberately, since he does not take the belief in immortality to be essential to religious experience. This belief, however, is somehow already at play in what has been described so far. If the self can be detached from the body that it inhabits, then it arguably survives the death of this body (for how long, and in what forms, it is matter of debate). In Lecture Three, we saw that shamanic experiences presuppose a weak form of embodiment, since agency is not necessarily bound up with a single individual body. In mystical experiences, though, experience is seemingly independent from sensory objects or contents, thus strongly suggesting that the experiencer is not necessarily tied up at all with the sensory world, hence with the body. From weak embodiment we move towards metaphysical disembodiment.
Especially in the context of theistic religions, transcendence goes hand in hand with the assertion of immortality (or the assertion of the genuine reality of the self as an eternal and self-standing substance). Christian mystics, for instance, usually do not take their mystical experiences as proofs of the non-existence of the self or of its non-immortality, quite the contrary. They do not operate in this way by chance, but guided by the logic itself of transcendence, which entails that the ontological reality of the self needs to be asserted (and aptly conceptualized) if the process of its transcendence has to be experienced as real at all. In other terms, as mystics tend to ontologize the broader reality with which they get in touch (making it into a God), they also have to ontologize the subject that undergoes this experience (making it into an eternal soul). Descartes’s argument in the fifth Meditation, that if the soul can be conceived of apart from the body (conceptual and experiential claim) it must be such that it could also exist independently from the body (ontological claim), might be seen as a somewhat secularized rehearsal of a major trend in the interpretation of mystical experiences. This operation can be accomplished in different ways, and with different degrees of sophistication, and yet it seems to remain a necessary move.
A common strategy for reconciling the experiential loosening of the ordinary sense of self and the ontologizing of a disembodied experiencer that witness its mystical union with the ultimate ground of reality, is to draw a distinction between two selves. There is an ordinary, embodied, ‘fleshy’ self, who experiences a certain crisis and undertakes a certain training or path. In this process, this empirical self is either permanently dissolved or demoted in the axiological structure of experience. In religious terms, this is a way of ‘dying to the world.’ Alongside this empirical self, one thus acknowledges a more profound, hidden, and yet real self, with no specific personal history, physical connotations, or other individualizing features (since they would all depend on specific sensible contents that are silenced or dropped in mystical experiences). This hidden Self is eternal, unchanging, immortal, and either has access to a degree of union with God (in Christian tradition), or acknowledges itself to be the ultimate ground of reality (as in some Indian traditions, as we shall discuss in Lecture Six). This latter eternal Self is the one that Augustine searched for inward, and which provides (in Taylor’s reconstruction) the paradigm for subsequent early modern Western secularized conceptions of a disengaged rational agent, or for a ‘transcendental I’ (as Kant would call it).
From the point of view of our leading theme, mysticism provides an extreme solution to the problem of uncertainty by undermining the ordinary endorsement of contents (hence the fading or dissolution of the ordinary self), and even withdrawing from the experience of any sensible content (thus making the issue of mastery idle, since there is nothing left to master). In the state of mystical union, another attenuated sense of selfhood is enacted, which can no longer be identified as the empirical person that lives embodied in the world, although that person can still be regarded as the fleshy ‘vessel’ of that disembodied Self or soul. This whole structure, by leading to an experience that is aptly interpreted as proof of some form of contact with an ultimate, eternal, unchangeable, and thus completely certain reality, is how a form of selfhood is preserved. To put it shortly, mysticism sees the self as an eternal soul capable of union with an absolute reality, and in doing so it provides the supreme remedy to uncertainty, since it shows a domain of experience in which uncertainty seems to be completely overcome. The price of access to this dimension is leaving behind one’s empirical self and remaining content with the attenuated, diaphanous, almost impersonal soul or ‘pure consciousness’ that is left.
- For a more detailed investigation into Descartes’s historical debt to the mystic tradition of his time, and to Teresa of Ávila in particular, see Christia Mercer, ‘Descartes’ debt to Teresa of Ávila, or why we should work on women in the history of philosophy’ (2017). ↵
- It takes just one further step to recognize in the scientific ideal of the third-person detached spectator of the natural world a secularized form of the metaphysical and mystical notion of selfhood. As we shall discuss in Lecture Nine, Nietzsche was perhaps the most acute Western philosopher in spotting the continuity between metaphysics and modern science on this front. ↵