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

Spiritual Experience, Kali, Yin-Yang and Morality

Kali, the Hindu deity simultaneously destroys and creates; embodying chaos and order in one being. This inseparability between creation and destruction makes no distinction between a positive and negative act, considering them both as one. Kali and the Chinese diagram Yin-Yang represent the paradox of antagonistic principles co-existing in the same divinity. In Western thinking, there is a tendency to see the two as separable and distinguishable. In simple terms, the creative act is essentially good and the destructive act, evil. They stand in opposition and do not belong to one another. An act which gives life and one that takes it away cannot be given equal value. But this dualist alternative to co-incidentia oppositorum has not always been the dominant Western approach, nor need it be. In ancient Celtic times, it was customary for couples to make love outside the home of the recently deceased thus performing a life-giving act in defiance of death. Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ fulfilled a divine plan for the salvation of the world even though it was an abhorrent act. In terms of spirituality, taking and giving life are both potentially as spiritual as one another. Meditative prayer can lead to consolation, peace and tranquillity but it can also prompt horrific, dark visions. St Jerome of the Desert and Padre Pio were frequented by grotesque demonic creatures during their prayers. If it be possible to adapt the Eastern notion that destruction and creation, chaos and order co-exist paradoxically in the same divinity to the Western concept of good and evil, then the two become in essence the same. The act of killing another human being is potentially as spiritual as saving one (serving as an instrument of grace in the salvation of another). Perhaps this is why a killer often craves the next kill and the experience of stillness is craved by the monk. Both are being ‘fed’ by the experience of taking life.
Turning to digital games, where the first-person shooter variety simulates reality in an eerily convincing manner. The experience of killing (albeit simulated) is potentially as spiritual as having encountered a religious experience in a virtual environment. Once the psycho-conceptual gap is closed between the artificial simulation of reality and the player’s sense of being present in real space, the game becomes real. This moment may only last for a few seconds or minutes and only after prolonged play; not too different from the experience of consolation during prayer – rarely does it last for more than a couple of minutes. The impact of the experience however, may last for a lifetime. When the player is convinced that the virtual environment is real, all subsequent emotional, psychological, physiological and spiritual responses are perceived as genuine and authentic. Prior to a shift from simulation to reality, all responses are judged in relationship to the real. Killing in a computer game only becomes real when the simulation convinces the player of being present in real space. This entry into the world of the game is not too unlike the meditative entry into ‘paradisic’ space. Afterall, focused prayer can lead to a convincing sense that one occupies a space far from that which one might physically occupy. In this sense it is likely and possible that the experience of simulated killing, under the right circumstances and after prolonged or frequent use, the player becomes so entranced by the game, that there is little perceived difference between the simulation and reality. Therefore, the player experiences the same cravings for the next kill (spiritual experience) as any serial killer might. Of course it would take a substantial conceptual leap for the player to actually plan and go about killing in real terms and at some level, there remains an acknowledgement and acceptance that what happens in the virtual world of the game, remains there.

The graphics in a game do not necessarily determine the potential for the experience of playing to convince the player that the experience is real. A sense of presence can be induced and evoked by simple suggestion and through the use of appropriate signifiers. A game like Wolfenstein 3D, with its primitive graphics, can potentially have the same effect on the player’s sense of reality within the game as a far more advanced game like Far Cry. Comparing the playing of digital games with meditative contemplation is however problematic. In some sense, the only thing the two have in common is that they both require prolonged or frequent use in order to have the desired effect. A player with a predisposition for spiritual experience may be more likely to find themselves absorbed in the game. The player is ‘lost in a game’ to the extent that all sense of being present in the physical environment is exchanged for the sense of being present in the simulated space of the game.

Michael Somoroff, Bill Viola, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller


Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet / Rideau Chapel, National Gallery of Canada

Walking on water

Michael Cross, Bridge, 2006