Section I. The Nature of the Problem
And the reason for it must be that the Hinayana version of Buddhism with which alone it is probable that James was at all fully acquainted, is generally regarded as atheistic and also without any such concept as the Absolute.
1. Is there any set of characteristics which is common to all mystical experiences, and distinguishes them from other kinds of experience, and thus constitutes their universal core?
2. If there is such a universal core, is the argument for objectivity which has been based upon it a valid argument?
I shall devote this chapter to the first problem, and the following chapter to the second, discussing also in that chapter any other arguments for objectivity which may present themselves, and endeavoring to reach a conclusion on that matter.
(In regards to the so-called characteristics common to mystical experiences viz: James, Bucke, D.T. Suzuki)
Thus we can hardly expect much light from past writers whose statements have plainly been more or less haphazard. We shall have to tackle the problem ab initio. There is only one way of doing this. We must quote a number of representative descriptions of their experiences which have been given by mystics, taking them from all historical times, places, and cultures, as widely separated as possible; and by an examination of these descriptions we must try to arrive inductively at their common characteristics, if there are any.
The typical and central mystical states shade off through borderline cases into the wholly nonmystical. This may be illustrated by a diagram: (image of diagram)
The diagram is perhaps oversymmetrical in that there are probably not two distinct sets of family resemblance groups one at each end. This feature of the diagram is meant merely to emphasize the centrality, or essentiality, of the nucleus. For it will be seen that, in the situation described, the central core of mystical experiences is of far more importance to our argument than the family resemblance groups.
Section 2. Visions and Voices Are Not Mystical Phenomena
Let us begin by excluding from the class of mystical states certain experiences which popular opinion may perhaps tend to regard as mystical, but which are not genuinely so.
The introvertive kind of mystical states are, according to all the accounts we have of them, entirely devoid of all imagery. Extrovertive experiences may indeed be called sensuous, since they consist in a transfiguration of actual sense perception, but even this is not imagery but is direct perception by the eyes. Extrovertive experience, there is some reason to think, is no more than a stepping stone to the higher introvertive state, and in any case is of less importance. These assertions will, of course, be fully explained and documented in the proper place. Introvertive experience is alleged by the experients of it to be void of content and formless. Eckhart and Ruysbroeck and many other mystics warn us that sensuous imagery must be forcibly extruded by a mind which seeks the goal of the mystic.
St. Teresa frequently saw visions. She was not an intellectual as Eckhart was, and not capable of much analytical or philosophical thinking. Yet she was aware that her visions, or at least some of them, were hallucinations.
The Upanishads are of course among the earliest known documents of Indian mysticism, or indeed of any mysticism, dating as they do from the first half of the first millennium B.C. They invariably describe the mystical experiences as being "soundless, formless, intangible," (10) i.e., devoid of sensuous content. But in the mention of the practices of controlled breathing and concentration and other spiritual exercises in the Svetasvatara Upanishad we find the statement:
As you practice meditation you may, see in vision forms resembling snow, crystal, wind, smoke, fire, lightning, fireflies. the sun, the moon. These are signs that you are on the way to the revelation of Brahman.
Section 3. Discounting Raptures, Trances, and Hyperemotionalism
In the characteristic phraseology of Christian mysticism "rapture" is a semitechnical term which includes not only extreme joy, as in the popular meaning of the word, but also certain violent and abnormal bodily changes. According to St. Teresa "rapture" and "trance" are two different words for the same thing.
Ramakrishna's biographer, Nikhilananda, tells us that on one occasion "Sri Ramakrishna remained six months in a state of absolute identity with Brazman:' And Ramakrishna himself referring to this occurrence later said:
For six months I remained in that state from which ordinary men can never return; generally the body falls away after three weeks. . . . I was not conscious of day or night. Flies would enter my mouth and nostrils just as they do a dead body's but I did not feel them.
St. Teresa (17) describes herself in one passage as "beside myself, drunk with love." This excessive emotionalism of some saints and mystics is, according to this writer's taste, an unpalatable characteristic, tending to show lack of balance and of good judgment and critical ability.
That mystical experience brings blessedness, bliss, joy, and peace is the common statement of those who have it, and such words obviously express the emotional side of it. But these emotions may be - and in the highest instances are - calm, serene, and unexcited. Hence, they are a source of power, whereas hysterical emotionalism is a source of weakness.
Section 4. Towards a Solution
Our task in this chapter is essentially psychological. We have to examine the psychological or phenomenological characteristics of the mystical consciousness. But most of the great mystics lived before the rise of science or of scientific habits of thought, and especially before even the beginnings of a science of psychology. They had therefore little or no sense of the importance of attempting to make their introspective descriptions as accurate. and precise as possible. In this respect their descriptions may often be vastly inferior to those of quite minor mystics of our own time. Accordingly, we shail sometimes find it a useful technique to quote the descriptions which contemporary persons have given of their mystical experiences.
A distinction should also be made between those mystical states which have come to men unsought, without any effort on their part, and often quite unexpectedly, and those which, on the other hand, have been preceded by deliberate exercises, disciplines, or techniques, which have sometimes involved long periods of sustained effort. The former may be called "spontaneous," the latter - for lack of a better label - "acquired."
Spontaneous experiences are usually of the extrovertive type, though not invariably. Those which are acquired are usually introvertive, because there are special techniques of introversion - which differ only slightly and superficially in different cultures. So far as I know there are no corresponding techniques of extroversion. The man to whom a brief spontaneous extrovertive experience comes may never have such an experience again. Or he may have a series of such experiences. But he can as a rule neither induce nor control them. By a single such experience of only a few moments' duration a man's life may be revolutionized. He may previously have found life meaningless and worthless, whereas now he feels that it has acquired meaning, value, and direction, or his attitude to life may sometimes be radically and permanently changed.
The acquired introvertive experiences, once achieved, can as a rule be thereafter induced almost at will at least over long periods of life, but there also tend to come periods of "dryness" and "darkness" when nothing which the subject can do will induce them. Although introvertive mystical states are usually intermittent and of relatively brief duration, there are rare cases in which the mystical consciousness is believed to become permanent, running concurrently with, and in some way fused and integrated with, the normal or common consciousness. In the Christian tradition this state is technically known as "deification:' It is also sometimes referred to as "spiritual marriage," or as the "unitive life." It was apparently reached by St. Teresa, Ruysbroeck, and some others. According to tradition the Buddha also reached a permanent enlightenment consciousness. This is the meaning of the Buddhist assertion that it is possible to attain nirvana in this life and in the body, and that the Buddha, and no doubt others, did so. For nirvana simply is the final condition of a permanent mystical consciousness. Such an achievement is rare, whether in the East or the West, but it is believed by mystics to be the supreme summit of the mystical life.
The two main types of experience, the extrovertive and the introvertive, have been distinguished by different writers under various names. The latter has been called the "inward way" or the "mysticism of introspection," which is Rudolf Otto's terminology and corresponds to what Miss Underhill calls "introversion." The other may be called "the outward way" or the way of extrospection. The essential difference between them is that the extrovertive experience looks outward through the senses, while the introvertive looks inward into the mind. Both culminate in the perception of an ultimate Unity - what Plotinus called the One - with which the perceiver realizes his own union or even identity. But the extrovertive mystic, using his physical senses, perceives the multiplicity of external material objects - the sea, the sky, the houses, the trees - mystically transfigured so that the One, or the Unity, shines through them. The
introvertive mystic, on the contrary, seeks by deliberately shutting off the senses, by obliterating from consciousness the entire multiplicity of sensations, images, and thoughts, to plunge into the depths of his own ego. There, in that darkness and silence, he alleges that he perceives the One - and is united with it - not as a Unity seen through a multiplicity (as in the extrovertive experience), but as the wholly naked One devoid of any plurality whatever. In the next few sections we shall begin examining the detailed evidence for these remarkable assertions.
Meanwhile, the fact that there exist two such very different types of consciousness, to both of which the one adjective "mystical" is nevertheless applied, should not be considered inconsistent with the alleged existence of a universal common core of all mysticism. For (1) the two types have important characteristics which are common to both. Indeed, this is evident even from the brief remarks which have already been made, since both, as we noted, culminate in the perception of, and union with, a Unity or One, though this end is reached through different means in the two cases. Nor is this the only thing they have in common, as we shall see. And (2) there is good evidence that both types are universal in the sense that both exist and have existed alike in all times, ages, and cultures. If this were not so - if, for example, one type occurred only in the East and the other only in the West - this might tend somewhat to undermine our confidence in a universal core, though not wholly so, since even then we could point to the important set of characteristics which are common to both types.
Section 5. Extrovertive Mysticism
...whereas the literature of introvertive mysticism is vast and the number of recorded cases enormous, the literature of the less important and influential extrovertive type is comparatively scanty and the number of recorded cases not so numerous.
Any writer who is honest about mysticism, as well as familiar with it, will know that it is utterly irreconcilable with all the ordinary rules of human thinking, that it blatantly breaches the laws of logic at every turn. Many writers will attempt to explain this away, to soften the shocks, to round off the angles, to make the subject palatable to what they call common sense, and thus to reduce it all to the level of the common-place. But to do this is to falsify the whole matter, and nothing of the sort will be countenanced here.
Mystics in general do not distinguish between the introvertive One and the extrovertive One. It obviously never occurred to Eckhart, who plainly was subject to both kinds of experience, to raise any question of their identity or difference. There is no reason at all to suggest that the external One to which he refers in the passage on which we are now commenting was not thought of by him as God or the Godhead. And it is an essential and explicit part of the message of many mystics that the external and the internal unity are identical.
The experienced unity is called by Plotinus the One, and also the Good. In ancient Hindu mysticism, as expounded in the Upanishads, it is Brahman, the One without a second, or the Universal Self. By the modern Hindu mystic Ramakrishna it is sometimes conceived as Brahman, but more often as the goddess Kali. By contemporary western mystics such as Bucke and "N. M." - who will be quoted later - it is not usually given any theological interpretation.
If a religious interpretation is given, then since the formula of the extrovertive type of experience is "all things are One," this necessarily becomes "all things are God" and so gives rise to pantheism.
Nor need the fact that the incident of (Boehme) gazing at the polished disc makes us think of self-hypnotism in any way disturb us or make us doubt the value of Boehme's experience. We are concerned with what the experience in itself was, not what produced it. And the mystical state is not in the least like the hypnotic state, although they both might share similar causal backgrounds.
Follows the account of the (extrovertive) mystical experience of N. M. after ingesting mescalin.
N. M.'s suggestion that one who knows what really exists will be wholly satisfied with what exists, this of course lays itself open to the age-old argument of the theologians and moralists that pantheism can make no distinction between good and evil, or else that it has to deny that evil "really" exists at all, since it regards all that exists as good and divine. But it is doubtful whether atheism can make any better showing with the problem of evil than pantheism can.
My next example is from the famous nineteenth century Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna. He was at one time priest in charge of a temple of Kali, the Divnne Mother. His extraordinary doings caused much embarrassment to the temple authorities.
In spite of its eccentric setting and oddity of wording, the experience which it describes is of essentially the same kind as that ot N. M. All material objects in sight of the experient are recognized as identical with Kali and with one another. This one inner subjectivity in all things, spoken of as "life" by N. M., now becomes "consciousness" for Ramakrishna. We may turn next to the case of Plotinus. Most of the passages in which he can be recognized as describing mystical states refer to the introvertive type. But Rudolf Otto suggests that the following quotation refers to an extrovertive experience:
They see all not in process of becoming, but in being, and they see themselves in the other. Each being contains within itself the whole intelligible world. Therefore all is everywhere. Each is there all and all is each. (29)
This gives us the paradox of the essential identity and oneness of all things, It implies the sense of objectivity. But it does not mention the ernotional element or the inner subjectivity of the oneness.
Finally I quote R. M. Bucke's description of his experience - which came to him only once and was never repeated. But it carried with it such an overwhelming conviction of its objective reality and such a high feeling of beatitude that the memory of it was sufficient to reorient his life and thought.
Finally I quote R. M. Bucke's description of his experience - which came to him only once and was never repeated. But it carried with it such an overwhelming conviction of its objective reality and such a high feeling of beatitude that the memory of it was sufficient to reorient his life and thought. It was this single momentary flash of cosmic consciousness which caused him to collect and study patiently all the records he could find of other people's similar experiences and to reflect on them and publish his conclusions about them in his book. This is his description:
I had spent the evening in a great city, with two friends reading and discussing poetry and philosophy. . . . I had a long drive home in a hansom cab to my lodging. My mind . . . was calm and peaceful. . . . All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-coloured cloud. For an instant I thought of fire . . . somewhere . . . in that great city; in the next I knew that the fire was in rnyself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exaltation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things I did not merely come to believe but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence. I became conscious in myself of eternal life. . . , I saw that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation of the world . . . is . . . love. . . . The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone, but the memory of it and the sense of reality it left has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed, I knew that what the vision showed was true. . . . That conviction . . . has never been lost.
We are now in a position to list the common characteristics of extrovertive mystical states of mind as evidenced in these seven typical and representative samples selected from different periods, lands, and cultures. They are:
1. The unifying vision, expressod abstractly by the formula "All is One." The One is, in extrovertive mysticism, perceived through the physical senses, in or through the multiplicity of objects.
2. The more concrete apprehension of the One as being an inner subjectivity in all things, described variously as life, or consciousness, or a living Presence. The discovery that nothing is "really" dead.
3. Sense of objectivity or reality.
4. Feeling of blessedness, joy, happiness, satisfaction, etc.
5. Feeling that what is apprehended is holy, or sacred, or divine. This is the quality which gives rise to the interpretation of the experience as being an experience of "God." It is the specifically religious element in the experience. It is closely intertwined with, but not identical with, the previously listed characteristic of blessedness and joy.
Another characteristic may be mentioned with reservations, namely,
7. Alleged by mystics to be ineffable, incapable of being described in words, etc.
This has not been specifically brought out in our analysis of our sample cases. But it is universally affirmed by mystics. Bucke speaks of his illurnination as "impossible to describe." Such phrases as "inexpressible," "unutterable," "beyond all expression" bespatter the writings of mystics all over the world. Nevertheless, as is evident, they do describe their experiences in words. What is rneant by this alleged ineffability is not clear at present. There is some difficu!ty about verbalization, but what it is we do not yet know. The problem will be investigated in our chapter "Mysticism and Language." I do not therefore simply list "ineffability" as a common characteristic, as has been done by William ]ames and others. I list only "alleged by mystics to be ineffable."
Section 6. Borderline Cases
British poet John Masefield. At a certain period, he explains, he was in despair about his creative work. His inspiration seemed to have dried up. His spirit was barren, and he could produce nothing valuable. One day, on a country walk, he relates: I said to myself: "Now I will make a poem about a blackguard who becomes converted." Instantly the poem appeared to me in its complete form, with every detail distinct!
The other borderline case which I will quote was reported by Margaret Prescott Montague in an essay entitled Twenty Minutes of Reality. Miss Montague was convalescing in a hospital after a surgical operation, and her bed had for the first time been wheeled out onto the porch. From there she looked out on a rather dingy winter scene, the branches "bare and colorless," "the half-melted piles of snow a forlorn grey rather than white." Her account proceeds:
Entirely unexpectedly (for I had never dreamed of such a thing) my eyes were opened and for the first time in my life I caught a glimpse of the ecstatic beauty of reality . . . its unspeakable joy, beauty, and importance. . . I saw no new thing but I saw all the usual things in a miraculous new light - in what I believe is their true light. . . . I saw . . . how wildly beautiful and joyous, beyond any words of mine to describe, is the whole of life. Every human being moving across that porch, every sparrow that flew, every branch tossing in the wind was caught in and was part of the whole mad ecstasy of loveliness, of joy, of importance, of intoxication of life. . . . I saw the actual loveliness which was always there. . . . My heart melted out of me in a rapture of love and delight . . . Once out of all the grey days of my life I have looked into the heart of reality; I have witnessed the truth.
Section 7. Introvertive Mysticism
(Follows Stace's introduction to the introvertive mystical experience.)
5uppose that, after having got rid of all sensations, one should go on to exclude from consciousness all sensuous images, and then all abstract thoughts, reasoning processes, volitions, and other particular mental contents; what would there then be left of consciousness? There would be no mental content whatever but rather a complete emptiness, vacuum, void. One would suppose a priori that consciousness would then entirely lapse and one would fall asleep or become unconscious. But the introvertive mystics - thousands of them all over the world - unanimously assert that they have attained to this complete vacuum of particular mental contents, but that what then happens is quite different from a lapse into unconsciousness. On the contrary, what emerges is a state of pure consciousness - "pure" in the sense that it is not the consciousness of any empirical content. It has no content except itself.
One may also say that the mystic gets rid of the empirical ego whereupon the pure ego, normally hidden, emerges into the light. The empirical ego is the stream of consciousness. The pure ego is the unity which holds the manifold of the stream together. This undifferentiated unity is the essence of the introvertive mystical experience.
...what the mystic is affirming is the ego in the sense of what Kant called "the transcendental unity of apperception."
How is it possible to reach this extraordinary psychological condition which the mystic thus describes? Methods and techniques for attaining it had apparently been discovered and worked out in great detail in India before the age of the Upanishads. They constitute the various practices and kinds of Yoga.
In the nature of the case, the introvertive type of mystical consciousness is usually acquired, often only after long years of effort, and does not come spontaneously as does the extrovertive kind of experience. Nevertheless, spontaneous and unsought introvertive experiences do occasionally occur, one of them being that of J. A. Symonds to be quoted below.
I will now begin the presentation of examples of this kind of experience selected from the literatures of as wide a spread of cultures, ages, and lands as possible with a view to discovering their common characteristics.
The following is from the Mandukya Upanishad. The composer of the Upanishad begins by mentioning three normal kinds of mental condition, waking consciousness, dreaming, and dreamless sleep, and then proceeds:
The Fourth, say the wise . . . is not the knowledge of the senses, nor is it relative knowledge, nor yet inferential knowledge. Beyond the senses, beyond the understanding, beyond all expression, is the Fourth. It is pure unitary consciousness wherein awareness of the world and of multiplicity is completely obliterated. It is ineffable peace. It is the Supreme Good. It is One without a second. It is the Self.
But the word "self" as thus used in the Upanishads - and the passage quoted is typical and not exceptional - is systematically double meaninged. It is in the first instance the individual self. It is I who have reached my pure I-ness. But it is also the Universal or Cosmic Self, which is the absolute or ultimate reality of the world.
...according to the advaita (i.e., nondualistic) Vedantic interpretation of the experience, the individual self and the Universal Self are not two existences but are identical. I am the Universal I. This identity of my pure ego with the pure ego of the Universe, which is discovered in the mystical consciousness, is the Upanishadic equivalent of the Christian mystic's belief that he has in the mystical experience achieved "union with God." The Christian interpretation of the introvertive experience as union with God and the Hindu interpretation of it as identity with the Universal Self are not identical interpretations. They are, however, very closely equivalent or correspondent to each other.