Most of us think about consciousness and unconsciousness are the two states our mind can be in. But in religious and spiritual contexts, there is also a transcendent state of consciousness that is harder to define and achieve.

I was reading about William James (1842–1910), the psychologist and philosopher who wrote about this in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.

He believed that the transcendent state of consciousness had several features as experiences in order to qualify as such.

One feature he called “ineffability.” That is a tricky feature because it means that “it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” In other words, it would be an experience that must be directly experienced and could not be explained adequately to others.

He also believed this experience would have a “noetic quality.” He meant that these mystical states are also states of knowledge with insight into depths of truth, illuminations and 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 parts can be explained to others and can be used for creating art and practical solutions.

Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. He found that they had “transiency.” His observation ws that they usually lasted half an hour, or at most an hour or two. Beyond that, they fade. He wrote that “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.”

His final quality of the transcendent consciousness is “passivity.” Though he noted that the initiation of these altered states may be from voluntary operations, when the transcendent state occurs, 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.”

William James listed initiating practices such as fixing the attention, and going through certain bodily performances from the fasting and abuse found in some religious rituals, to deep meditative practices.

James drew some of these conclusions from being not only a reader and philosopher but, empiricist that he was, from using his own body-mind as a laboratory. In his case, he used nitrous oxide, also known as  “laughing gas,” which produces a euphoric effects. As a mild hallucinogen, the nitrous oxide gave him a new perspective on own consciousness. He did not claim that it gave him a mystical, or transcendent, experience, but it allowed him to understand those states.

He separated some of the reported transcendent experiences of his time such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, and the trances of mediums. Without saying they were faked, he noted that because there was no recollection of the phenomenon later and they seemed to have no significance for the subject’s inner life, they were not mystical states. True mystical states are retained at least somewhat in memory, and remain as a profoundly important event that modifies the inner life of the subject.

 

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