Adulthood and Mystical Experience: William James on Mysticism


1.    Identifying a religious or spiritual dimension to human life; locating this dimension in the life-cycle

2.    Adulthood and Self-Transcendence

a.    Erikson: Happiness in Adulthood acquired via some form of self-transcendence.  Attaining less egoistic perspectives on our lives.

b.    Searching for meaning, attaining a moral compass in life, acquiring wisdom in the face of death - these require a transformation in our grasp of reality.

                                          i.         Evoked by limit experiences in areas of meaning, morality, and finitude

                                        ii.         Adaptation to life’s mysteries and deepest challenges < ability to take a cosmic perspective

1.    At this developmental stage the modes of thought evoked are often non-rational or mystical in that they view life from beyond its physical appearances.

                                       iii.         Sometimes the transformation is occasioned by developmental challenges (as mentioned above); sometimes it comes suddenly and unexpectedly in a mystical apprehension of a More.

3.    Mystical Experience: Characterized by a breakdown of the ordinary waking state of consciousness dominated by information supplied by the physical senses

a.    The psychological structures that select, limit, organize, and interpret perceptual stimuli, are temporarily dismantled; and perceptual capacities that are responsive to ranges of stimuli ordinarily ignored are activated.



Characteristics (James):

1.    Ineffability: cannot be adequately expressed in words and thus can only be known by those who have them

a.    Entail an extraordinary, unusual cognitive structure and cannot be literally described or communicated to other with conventional words

b.    Vedanta’s neti neti, Buddhist tortoise

c.    Mystical experiences leave a long-lasting impression; provide moments of illumination, insight, revelation to which the rational intellect is blind.

d.    And yet, James argues that such experiences are at the heart of religions:

p. 379.  “One may say truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness; so for us . . . such states of consciousness ought to form the vital chapter from which the other chapters get their light.”

2.    Transience: fleeting, hour or so, leave a lasting impression on the inner life, immediately recognized when they occur

3.    Passivity: can be actively facilitated, but when they occur, the person feels no longer in control.  One might feel grasped or held by the Other who is encountered.

A continuum along which mystical experiences range: James’ Mystical Ladder

James suggests a method of serial study: study phenomena from their germ to their over ripe decay - his “Mystical ladder”


1.    Sense that some word or sensory impression has a deeper significance -- some maxim, word, play of light, musical pattern (hardly any religious significance claimed)

2.    Sudden sense of having been there before -- deja vu. (cf. vuja de).  Sweeps over you.

3.    Feeling of being surrounded by incomprehensible truth.  Dreamy state

4.    Obliteration of sensory experience, leaving nothing but an abstracted self -- beyond the realities of space and time.

5.    Feeling of ecstatic union with the deepest truth -- e.g., awakened by experiences of nature

6.    Full scale cosmic or mystical consciousness. Al-Ghazzali, Saint Teresa, Ignatius, Dionysius the Areopagite.  Self-consciousness obliterated; consciousness of all of life. An extension of normal consciousness.


Mystical states spring from the great subliminal or transmarginal region of mind..



The noetic quality of mystical experience:


1.    Experienced as states of knowledge, as sources of deeply significant illuminations.  The truths revealed in mystical states have their own authority

a.    Visions of the future, sudden understanding of texts

2.  James is open to the possibility that mystical states may constitute superior point of view, as windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world.


Fuller: Consciousness is our sole guide to reality.  The farther reaches of human consciousness would thus seem to hold important hints.  These should be taken into consideration in any attempt to understand the universe in its totality.