Wednesday, October 28, 2009

William James and Mystical Experience

William James' four characteristics of mystical experience
“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:
3. 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.
4. 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. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon and it may have no significance for the subject’s usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures.” Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. London: Routledge, 1902 pg 235-236

1 comment:

  1. “If pain and emotion are expressive languages of the body, so, too, is sexuality. A renewed interest in the body as a source of human spirituality must therefore adjust our theoretical lens to view religious expressions through the true range of our sexuality. Just as John Corrigan is to be given much credit for his efforts to stimulate new approaches and interpretations of emotion in religion, Jeffrey Kripal deserves similar recognition for his imaginative reintroduction of sexuality into contemporary theory in religion. In addition to his recent entry on this topic in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Kripal’s Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism reminds us that erotic subjectivity is itself ecstatic, opening a doorway into “temporary dissolution of the self that can open one up to unusual, creative, often aesthetically beautiful experiences, not unlike any number of traditional mystical experiences” (Kripal, pg12). An understanding of the full range of sexuality offers hermeneutic insight into any number of religious topics, provoking in a particularly acute way a whole series of questions about the politics of desire, the self-other dichotomy, one’s emotional willingness to be challenged and transformed by the other, and how our own unrevealed secrets affect our understanding of the secrets of others.
    Kripal understands sexuality to be a biologically driven instinct that, although genetically determined to some degree, is nevertheless open to the powerful forces of cultural and historical conditioning. Sexuality, while rooted in
    the body, is also a culturally produced discourse about desire, secrets, and the self-other dichotomy. Thus while other scholars bring critical terms drawn from the political or social worlds to bear upon the study of mysticism and
    mystical texts, Kripal examines them as “cultural sites of sexual and gender liminality, as semiotic openings to a more polymorphous erotic existence that would be impossible within the more orthodox parameters of the social register in question” (Kripal, pg17).
    Kripal discerns a recurring vocabulary of homoerotic desire both within mystical encounters and the study of mysticism. He finds that the historical processes of certain male mystical traditions “created symbolic, doctrinal, and institutional structures that clearly privileged males who were inclined to homosexual desires and acts”(Kripal, pg12). While he is not suggesting that all the male mystics he studies engaged in homosexual acts, he does find significance in the fact that their textual traditions are rife with homosexual desire and frame mystical encounters within a male-to-male symbolic structure. Kripal’s decision to bring sexuality to the forefront of critical theory in religion generates any number of interpretation.
    Kripal’s contention that religious creativity flows most naturally from the primary processes of the mind linked to the pleasure principle and its libidinous energies is amply illustrated in his overview of comparative mystical thought.” Fuller, Robert C. Faith of the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Spirituality. Religious Studies Review. Vol.33 No.4 Oct 2007. pg 288