Lecture Four: Mysticism 4.3

4.3 Self-transcendence


James’s survey reveals a soteriological twofold structure of religious life based on problem and solution. The problem consists in a sense of unsatisfaction, uneasiness, or even wrongness with ordinary life, affected by a perception of some sort of evil. The solution is provided by overcoming this problem through the opening up of the ordinary self to something that transcends it, which in Christian documents is commonly identified as God.

This basic pattern occurs in a simplified form in what James calls the ‘healthy mindedness’ (in his Lectures IV-V), an attitude towards life that tends to emphasize its inherently positive qualities, while dismissing evil as a pathological deviation. At the core of this approach lies the idea that surrender and relaxation can by themselves produce positive effects. Sustaining a positive attitude towards life and events and cultivating positive thoughts is regarded as having direct impact on biological and psychological aspects of one’s existence. As representative of this attitude, James focuses on the ‘mind-cure’ movement, originating in the United States in the nineteenth century. Today, he would have perhaps included the ‘mindfulness’ movement as well, started in the United States in the 1970’. James’s overall issue with this approach is that ignoring the reality of evil seems to bypass an important aspect of human experience too quickly and superficially. The sort of state reached through the ‘healthy mindedness’ approach is a sense of union with nature and a psychological relief. In itself, this state is not substantially different from that achieved by the more tortuous path that is confronted directly by evil and sorrow in ordinary life. For this reason, we can consider this ‘healthy mindedness’ attitude a sort of shortcut and focus on the more complex version of the unfolding of religious experience.

According to James, the problem of evil in life is real and cannot be entirely avoided or ignored. Even in the luckiest circumstances in which one is personally spared much suffering, the structural conditions of biological life are inherently shaped by their progressive moving towards decay and death. There is an irreducible degree of pain and sorrow in life that cannot be washed away, despite the goodness or pleasure that one might otherwise gain. As he writes:

In short, life and its negation are beaten up inextricably together. But if the life be good, the negation of it must be bad. Yet the two are equally essential facts of existence; and all natural happiness thus seems infected with a contradiction. The breath of the sepulchre surrounds it. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture VII, 139)

While James is drawing here mostly from Christian sources, it is not difficult to identify this sort of observation in a variety of different contexts as well. For instance, this is also the starting point of Buddhist reflection: any form of existence is inherently uncertain and doomed to become otherwise, and this makes it painful (e.g. SN 56.11, Ud 3.10). Uncertainty is on display everywhere. James recognizes that this sort of consideration leads to ‘religious melancholy,’ which is characterized by two key features: a loss of appetite for the values and goods of ordinary life, and a consequent sense of estrangement from the world. Both aspects are symptomatic of a state of crisis, which can be analogous to that encountered also in shamanic cultures, although in the present context this crisis is interpreted differently and receives a different solution.

Melancholy can be understood as an experience of division and contradiction within the personality. The ordinary reality one is confronted with is not accepted and taken as one’s own, and instead it is lived with a sense of alienation, as if one did not belong to it. I am in the world, but I do not belong to this world. I have this experience, but I cannot approve nor enjoy it. This condition is characterized not just by a factual lack of endorsement of the contents of experience, but also by an inability to fully endorse and embrace how life appears. Usually, adolescence is the period in which various strands in one’s growing personality progressively enter in a process of negotiation, out of which a more or less unified sense of being a particular person emerges. The greater the struggle between these strands or their mutual incompatibility, the greater the uneasiness and suffering that the process brings about. And if, or insofar as, the final unification is not successful, this sense of uneasiness will stick to the person. James sees religious life as undergoing a very similar process, in which ‘conversion’ marks the point of unification and the ‘faith-state’ expresses the achievement of unification through a stable sense of confidence, relief, and joyous happiness.

We already touched upon the psychological model of the ‘field of consciousness’ that James uses to account for this transition. Conversion and unification can be understood from two points of view. From the point of view of the divided and unhappy self that undergoes the experience (which occupies the centre of the field at that point), conversion is experienced as the opening up to something other or ‘more,’ that lies beyond the margins of ordinary consciousness. However, from the point of view of the whole field of consciousness, the same process amounts to a (partial, at least) removal of the impermeability that separates the sense of self from that which inhabits the spaces beyond the margins of ordinary consciousness. From this point of view, religious conversion consists in an integration between the different components of the field of consciousness into a more cohesive whole, which also makes the self experienced at the centre of ordinary experience less pivotal and more like a mere receiver of a much larger, vaster, deeper and happier influx of experiences coming from all around.

Conversion might be either a gradual process, or it can mature without being noticed and then be experienced in the last moment as a sudden and instantaneous switch to an entirely different way of experiencing reality. In either case, conversion is usually based on what James calls ‘mystical states,’ which he describes in his lectures XVI and XVII. In his account, these states are based on four primary qualities:

  1. Ineffability.—The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.
  2. Noetic quality.—Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.

These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical, in the sense in which I use the word. Two other qualities are less sharply marked, but are usually found. These are:—

  1. Transiency.—Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.
  2. Passivity.—Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XVI, 380-381)

Ineffability is usually due to two concurrent components: on the one hand, a pronounced emotional component, usually in the spectrum of joy, happiness, and love, while on the other hand, perceptual aspects are faint or even absent. In ordinary life, the feeling of joy is usually provoked by objects and perceptions that are associated with joyful states, although they are not inherently joyful in themselves (the joy of the sunset is in the eyes of who looks at it, not in the sunset as a natural phenomenon). The key point is that joy seems mostly to require an external trigger to be activated. But in a mystical experience, one feels joy (often significantly more intense than ordinary joy) without this being connected with any particular object of the senses that is currently perceived. In fact, mystical states can also unfold in such a way that ordinary perception is more or less completely suspended, and yet there remains the experience of feeling. Ineffability (in this context) results from the fact that these experiences are not something too deep for words to express, but rather from the fact that they are originally non-linguistic, and often intransitive (there is no concrete object to express or designate).

The noetic quality of mystical experiences should be further distinguished in two aspects. On the one hand, the working assumptions and presuppositions that shape the subject’s system of beliefs also shape the meaning attributed to the mystical experience itself. One who believes in the Christian God, will tend to interpret the mystical experience in terms that fit this belief, e.g., as  an encounter with that God and so forth. In this sense, the noetic quality of mystical experiences is confirmative: it tends to verify and provide direct experiential support to views, ideas, beliefs and convictions that the subject already held but that might not have been fully endorsed (especially prior to conversion) or that might not have been integrated as an active and dynamic force in the subject’s field of experience. James stresses this aspect as particularly salient:

The fact is that the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever 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. We have no right, therefore, to invoke its prestige as distinctively in favor of any special belief, such as that in absolute idealism, or in the absolute monistic identity, or in the absolute goodness, of the world. It is only relatively in favor of all these things—it passes out of common human consciousness in the direction in which they lie. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XVII, 425-426)

In his subsequent Lecture XVIII, devoted to the role of philosophy, James reinforces this point. He rejects attempts to use philosophy to either dismiss religious experience or to build systems of dogmatic theology. James envisages philosophy as a way of mediating between experience and intellect, and between individuals and their social contexts. In this way, philosophy can be a sort of moderator between different forces, and perhaps give rise to a ‘science of religion’ interested in exploring the most common and universal features that underpin all religious experiences. James is adamant on two points: mystical states do not entail (per se) any articulated belief about the ontological structure of reality, and mystical states do not occur in a vacuum but are affected by (and thus also interpreted on the basis of) preestablished beliefs and views. They are conceptually constructed, even if they might predominantly hinge upon non-conceptual experiences.

On the other hand, however, the mystical experience has a noetic content on its own, insofar as it reveals something about how experience itself works. If it is true, as James stresses, that it is impossible to distil full-blown philosophical insights from mystical states, this does not preclude them from fostering a certain form of understanding of one’s way of experiencing reality. For instance, one might observe that in mystical experiences perceptions and feelings seem to dissociate in such a way that the feelings arise without being triggered by perceptions (unlike in ordinary experience).

This point needs expanding on. However, the reason why it is neglected (even by James) is that most of the mystical experiences reported by Christians are either ‘spontaneous,’ in the sense that they arise without sustained training, or they are heavily shaped by strong and systematic theological views (like in the case of the Spanish early modern mystics, such as Ignacio de Loyola or Teresa of Ávila). In both cases there is no preliminary interest in understanding the working of experience as such, but rather a religious and soteriological interest in finding some relief from the form of melancholy already mentioned. Hence, the potential noetic import of mystical states for how experience itself works is overlooked and quickly set aside, while preliminary beliefs or theological agenda guide its interpretation.

Interestingly, in this context James cites the fact that among non-Christian mystics, and especially among adepts of Yoga, Buddhism and Sufism, not only are mystical states deliberately cultivated through specific methods, but are also conceived of in terms of mental composure or concentration (Sanskrit and Pāli samādhi). This means that what James calls ‘mystical states’ can also be rephrased in terms of ‘contemplations’ (Pāli jhāna) or certain ‘meditative states.’ While the term ‘mystical’ suggests an aura of mystery and secrecy, ‘meditative states’ might perhaps better convey the idea that these are just specific experiences that require specific conditions (and training), but when the conditions are provided, the experience unfolds in a rather predictable way, as in any other domain of experience. The mystery that surrounds mystical states is thus largely due to the insufficiency of the methods used to cultivate, develop, explore, and interpret these domains; or perhaps also to the philosophical and religious overinterpretation to which these states are subjected.

The last point listed by James, passivity, is connected with the emotional texture of mystical states. The feelings most often described are in the spectrum of joy, from sublime happiness and peace to intense and almost painful rapture. These feelings are associated with a fading of individuation, a melting of the ordinary boundaries of the self, and a sense of union and immersion. As the sense of self fades, it is natural that the experience turns more passive, as its unfolding is received without any discrete center of action being identified as its propeller. With the fading away of the ordinary self, the sense of a ‘doer’ that underpins ordinary experience is also progressively switched off.

Once again, it is possible to observe that the described union of the narrow ordinary self with a ‘God’ above it, can also be envisaged as the dissolution of the empirical self, which leave the field of consciousness without a sharply confined centre of action. The way this event is interpreted by Christian mystics (but also by all other practitioners that endorse more or less theistic views, including Indian followers of Yoga and Vedanta) is in terms of a merging with a superior entity. Since the sense of ‘my-ness’ usually associated with experience is dissolved, and ordinary perception is more or less significantly suspended, the resulting condition is no longer interpreted in terms of usual distinctions (myself vs. other, internal vs. external), and this results in a sense of unity and simplicity.

James mentions that mystical experience can change the way ordinary experience is interpreted.
He summarizes his view in three chief points:

(1) Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come. (2) No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically. (3) They break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the understanding and the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XVII, 422-423)

Ordinary consciousness can no longer be experienced as the only and ultimately authoritative judge on the whole field of experience. The cognitive functioning of individual life changes accordingly, and also in its practical way of acting in the world. The result of conversion is not just a change in beliefs, or a reconciliation of cognitive dissonances, but involves a powerful transformation in the way the individual lives. James discusses this point under the heading of ‘saintliness,’ which occupies five of his lectures. Focusing on its most general features, James lists four main practical consequences of the inner transformation that takes place through conversion:

  • Asceticism.—The self-surrender may become so passionate as to turn into self-immolation. It may then so over-rule the ordinary inhibitions of the flesh that the saint finds positive pleasure in sacrifice and asceticism, measuring and expressing as they do the degree of his loyalty to the higher power.
  • Strength of Soul.—The sense of enlargement of life may be so uplifting that personal motives and inhibitions, commonly omnipotent, become too insignificant for notice, and new reaches of patience and fortitude open out. Fears and anxieties go, and blissful equanimity takes their place. Come heaven, come hell, it makes no difference now!
  • Purity.—The shifting of the emotional centre brings with it, first, increase of purity. The sensitiveness to spiritual discords is enhanced, and the cleansing of existence from brutal and sensual elements becomes imperative. Occasions of contact with such elements are avoided: the saintly life must deepen its spiritual consistency and keep unspotted from the world. In some temperaments this need of purity of spirit takes an ascetic turn, and weaknesses of the flesh are treated with relentless severity.
  • Charity.—The shifting of the emotional centre brings, secondly, increase of charity, tenderness for fellow-creatures. The ordinary motives to antipathy, which usually set such close bounds to tenderness among human beings, are inhibited. The saint loves his enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as his brothers. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XI, 273)

Each of these aspects appears on a spectrum of manifestations, from mild to intense, from almost pathological to more healthy and functional forms. One common aspect that underpins all these practical transformations is the sense of surrender to a larger reality than one’s ordinary self. As the individual is locked into a new way of accessing and experiencing a reality that lies beyond the narrower self, the ordinary way of engaging with the world based on the latter loses its grip and is increasingly regarded as inadequate. The constant seeking of pleasures and avoidance of pain appear as bondages, while ascetic practices (usually based on more or less intense forms of renunciation to sensuality) help one to relinquish this bondage. In general, James is keen to stress the pragmatic potential of these religious attitudes, both as promises for more general and widespread improvements for human life in general, and as alternative to less ideal paths. Taking the case of asceticism for instance, he writes:

The metaphysical mystery, thus recognized by common sense, that he who feeds on death that feeds on men possesses life supereminently and excellently, and meets best the secret demands of the universe, is the truth of which asceticism has been the faithful champion. The folly of the cross, so inexplicable by the intellect, has yet its indestructible vital meaning. Representatively, then, and symbolically, and apart from the vagaries into which the unenlightened intellect of former times may have let it wander, asceticism must, I believe, be acknowledged to go with the profounder way of handling the gift of existence. Naturalistic optimism is mere syllabub and flattery and sponge-cake in comparison. The practical course of action for us, as religious men, would therefore, it seems to me, not be simply to turn our backs upon the ascetic impulse, as most of us today turn them, but rather to discover some outlet for it of which the fruits in the way of privation and hardship might be objectively useful. The older monastic asceticism occupied itself with pathetic futilities, or terminated in the mere egotism of the individual, increasing his own perfection. But is it not possible for us to discard most of these older forms of mortification, and yet find saner channels for the heroism which inspired them? (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XV, 364-365)

The question is open. James stresses that asceticism might be a better way of channeling forces and strivings that, at the time he was writing (two decades before the world wars), were more often absorbed by military life. Better appreciating life with a degree of ascetism (namely, by knowing how to become able to renounce certain pleasures, how to endure certain pains, without being bound to by one’s cravings) than embarking in human slaughter. Unfortunately, most of James’s contemporaries thought otherwise. Moreover, as James also notices, asceticism has not always come in extreme forms, and he quotes the Buddha’s own invitation to pursue a middle way between sensuality and self-mortification as the most promising path to freedom.

More generally, James argues that the value of what he calls saintliness depends on its practical fruits, not only for the individual ‘saints’ themselves, but also for the environments and societies in which they live. He readily grants that individuals might indeed fail to achieve their goals in terms of transforming the contingent historical conditions in which they operate, and some cases might strike as forms of more or less marked maladaptation. Nevertheless, if one takes a larger perspective into account, ‘saints’ appear to embody of a set of core values that are not only noble and worth pursuing, but are also essential for human progress. Regardless of how successful individual saints might be in their specific time or conditions, their commitment can be seen as a reminder for all human beings about what humans can do and what they can aim at. As James writes:

Momentarily considered, then, the saint may waste his tenderness and be the dupe and victim of his charitable fever, but the general function of his charity in social evolution is vital and essential. If things are ever to move upward, some one must be ready to take the first step, and assume the risk of it. No one who is not willing to try charity, to try nonresistance as the saint is always willing, can tell whether these methods will or will not succeed. When they do succeed, they are far more powerfully successful than force or worldly prudence. Force destroys enemies; and the best that can be said of prudence is that it keeps what we already have in safety. But non-resistance, when successful, turns enemies into friends; and charity regenerates its objects. These saintly methods are, as I said, creative energies; and genuine saints find in the elevated excitement with which their faith endows them an authority and impressiveness which makes them irresistible in situations where men of shallower nature cannot get on at all without the use of worldly prudence. This practical proof that worldly wisdom may be safely transcended is the saint’s magic gift to mankind. Not only does his vision of a better world console us for the generally prevailing prose and barrenness; but even when on the whole we have to confess him ill adapted, he makes some converts, and the environment gets better for his ministry. He is an effective ferment of goodness, a slow transmuter of the earthly into a more heavenly order. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XV, 358-359)

Once again, the practice that emerges from religious conversion can be understood from two perspectives. From the point of view of the saint, this practice is about embodying in the world the sort of view and values that arises out of religious experience, by thus bridging ordinary life and that centre of energy and relief that the saint has discovered in mystical states. From the point of view of the whole field of experience, instead, the saint instantiates a new way the individual and environment interact. To use the terminology of Lecture One, the saint enacts a different world, which is no longer based on a more or less sharp divide between self and others, but instead inspired by the opposite attitude of unity, friendship, compassion, and mutual assistance. At the personal and inner level, mystical experience comes with a softening (or dropping altogether) of the boundaries of the self. This is mirrored, at the practical level, by an equal softening or dismissal of self-interest, which is replaced by unselfish attitudes of generosity, gratitude and readiness to help. In this way, not only do the individual saints work differently in the world, but the world itself becomes a different world to a degree, since it is brought forth from a different point altogether.


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