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Over and over again in these lectures I have raised points and left them
open and unfinished until we should have come to the subject of Mysticism.
Some of you, I fear, may have smiled as you noted my reiterated
postponements. But now the hour has come when mysticism must be faced in good earnest, and those broken threads wound up together. One may say
truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its root and centre
in mystical states of consciousness; so for us, who in these lectures are
treating personal experience as the exclusive subject of our study, such
states of consciousness ought to form the vital chapter from which the
other chapters get their light. Whether my treatment of mystical states
will shed more light or darkness, I do not know, for my own constitution
shuts me out from their enjoyment almost entirely, and I can speak of them
only at second hand. But though forced to look upon the subject so
externally, I will be as objective and receptive as I can; and I think I
shall at least succeed in convincing you of the reality of the states in
question, and of the paramount importance of their function.
First of all, then, I ask, What does the expression “mystical states of
consciousness” mean? How do we part off mystical states from other states?
The words “mysticism” and “mystical” are often used as terms of mere
reproach, to throw at any opinion which we regard as vague and vast and
sentimental, and without a base in either facts or logic. For some writers
a “mystic” is any person who believes in thought-transference, or spirit-
return. Employed in this way the word has little value: there are too many
less ambiguous synonyms. So, to keep it useful by restricting it, I will
do what I did in the case of the word “religion,” and simply propose to
you four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in
calling it mystical for the purpose of the present lectures. In this way
we shall save verbal disputation, and the recriminations that generally go
- 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.
- 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:–
- 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.
- 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.
These four characteristics are sufficient to mark out a group of states of
consciousness peculiar enough to deserve a special name and to call for
careful study. Let it then be called the mystical group.