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Lectures XVI MYSTICISM
Over and over again in these lectures I have raised points and left them open and unfinished untilwe should have come to the subject of Mysticism. Some of you, I fear, may have smiled as younoted my reiterated postponements. But now the hour has come when mysticism must be faced ingood earnest, and those broken threads wound up together. One may say truly, I think, thatpersonal 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, suchstates of consciousness ought to form the vital chapter from which the other chapters get theirlight. Whether my treatment of mystical states will shed more light or darkness, I do not know, formy own constitution shuts me out from their enjoyment almost entirely, and I can speak of themonly at second hand. But though forced to look upon the subject so externally, I will be asobjective and receptive as I can; and I think I shall at least succeed in convincing you of the realityof 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? Howdo we part off mystical states from other states?

The words "mysticism" and "mystical" are often used as terms of mere reproach, to throw at anyopinion which we regard as vague and vast and sentimental, and without a base in either facts orlogic. 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 ambiguoussynonyms. 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 justifyus in calling it mystical for the purpose of the present lectures. In this way we shall save verbaldisputation, and the recriminations that generally go therewith.

1. Ineffability.--The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical isnegative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of itscontents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; itcannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like statesof feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had acertain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know thevalue 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 toconsider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiencesan equally incompetent treatment.

2. Noetic quality.--Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those whoexperience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truthunplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance andimportance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious senseof authority for after-time.

These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical, in the sense in which I use theword. 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 anhour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light ofcommon day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; butwhen they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuousdevelopment in what is felt as inner richness and importance.

4. Passivity.--Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminaryvoluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or inother ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort ofconsciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeedsometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connectsmystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such asprophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions arewell pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon, and it mayhave no significance for the subject's usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mereinterruption. Mystical states, strictly so-called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory oftheir content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner lifeof 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 peculiarenough to deserve a special name and to call for careful study. Let it then be called the mysticalgroup. Our next step should be to gain acquaintance with some typical examples. Professionalmystics at the height of their development have often elaborately organized experiences and aphilosophy based thereupon. But you remember what I said in my first lecture: phenomena are bestunderstood when placed within their series, studied in their germ and in their over-ripe decay, andcompared with their exaggerated and degenerated kindred. The range of mystical experience isvery wide, much too wide for us to cover in the time at our disposal. Yet the method of serial studyis so essential for interpretation that if we really wish to reach conclusions we must use it. I willbegin, therefore, with phenomena which claim no special religious significance, and end withthose of which the religious pretensions are extreme.

The simplest rudiment of mystical experience would seem to be that deepened sense of thesignificance of a maxim or formula which occasionally sweeps over one. "I've heard that said allmy life," we exclaim, "but I never realized its full meaning until now." "When a fellow-monk,"said Luther, "one day repeated the words of the Creed: 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins,' I sawthe Scripture in an entirely new light; and straightway I felt as if I were born anew. It was as if Ihad found the door of paradise thrown wide open."[226] This sense of deeper significance is notconfined to rational propositions. Single words,[227] and conjunctions of words, effects of light onland and sea, odors and musical sounds, all bring it when the mind is tuned aright. Most of us canremember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young,irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang oflife, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. The words have now perhaps become mere polishedsurfaces for us; but lyric poetry and music are alive and significant only in proportion as they fetchthese vague vistas of a life continuous with our own, beckoning and inviting, yet ever eluding ourpursuit. We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept orlost this mystical susceptibility.

[226] Newman's Securus judicat orbis terrarum is another instance.

[227] "Mesopotamia" is the stock comic instance.--An excellent Old German lady, who had donesome traveling in her day, used to describe to me her Sehnsucht that she might yet visit"Philadelphia," whose wondrous name had always haunted her imagination. Of John Foster it issaid that "single words (as chalcedony), or the names of ancient heroes, had a mighty fascinationover him. 'At any time the word hermit was enough to transport him.' The words woods and forestswould produce the most powerful emotion." Foster's Life, by Ryland, New York, 1846, p. 3.

A more pronounced step forward on the mystical ladder is found in an extremely frequentphenomenon, that sudden feeling, namely, which sometimes sweeps over us, of having "been herebefore," as if at some indefinite past time, in just this place, with just these people, we were alreadysaying just these things. As Tennyson writes:

"Moreover, something is or seems That touches me with mystic gleams, Like glimpses offorgotten dreams-"Of something felt, like something here; Of something done, I know not where; Such as nolanguage may declare."[228]

[228] The Two Voices. In a letter to Mr. B. P. Blood, Tennyson reports of himself as follows:-"I have never had any revelations through anaesthetics, but a kind of waking trance--this for lackof a better word--I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. Thishas come upon me through repeating my own name to myself silently, till all at once, as it were outof the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, individuality itself seemed to dissolve andfade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state but the clearest, the surest of thesurest, utterly beyond words--where death was an almost laughable impossibility--the loss ofpersonality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life. I am ashamed of my feebledescription. Have I not said the state is utterly beyond words?"Professor Tyndall, in a letter, recalls Tennyson saying of this condition: "By God Almighty!

there is no delusion in the matter! It is no nebulous ecstasy, but a state of transcendent wonder,associated with absolute clearness of mind." Memoirs of Alfred Tennyson, ii. 473.

Sir James Crichton-Browne has given the technical name of "dreamy states" to these suddeninvasions of vaguely reminiscent consciousness.[229] They bring a sense of mystery and of themetaphysical duality of things, and the feeling of an enlargement of perception which seemsimminent but which never completes itself. In Dr. Crichton-Browne's opinion they connectthemselves with the perplexed and scared disturbances of self-consciousness which occasionallyprecede epileptic attacks. I think that this learned alienist takes a rather absurdly alarmist view ofan intrinsically insignificant phenomenon. He follows it along the downward ladder, to insanity;our path pursues the upward ladder chiefly. The divergence shows how important it is to neglectno part of a phenomenon's connections, for we make it appear admirable or dreadful according tothe context by which we set it off.

[229] The Lancet, July 6 and 13, 1895, reprinted as the Cavendish Lecture, on Dreamy MentalStates, London, Bailliere, 1895. They have been a good deal discussed of late by psychologists.

See, for example, Bernard-Leroy: L'Illusion de Fausse Reconnaissance, Paris, 1898.

Somewhat deeper plunges into mystical consciousness are met with in yet other dreamy states.

Such feelings as these which Charles Kingsley describes are surely far from being uncommon,especially in youth:-"When I walk the fields, I am oppressed now and then with an innate feeling that everything Isee has a meaning, if I could but understand it. And this feeling of being surrounded with truthswhich I cannot grasp amounts to indescribable awe sometimes. . . . Have you not felt that your realsoul was imperceptible to your mental vision, except in a few hallowed moments?"[230]

[230] Charles Kingsley's Life, i. 55, quoted by Inge: Christian Mysticism, London, 1899, p. 341.

A much more extreme state of mystical consciousness is described by J. A. Symonds; andprobably more persons than we suspect could give parallels to it from their own experience.

"Suddenly," writes Symonds, "at church, or in company, or when I was reading, and always, Ithink, when my muscles were at rest, I felt the approach of the mood. Irresistibly it took possessionof my mind and will, lasted what seemed an eternity, and disappeared in a series of rapidsensations which resembled the awakening from anaesthetic influence. One reason why I dislikedthis kind of trance was that I could not describe it to myself. I cannot even now find words torender it intelligible. It consisted in a gradual but swiftly progressive obliteration of space, time,sensation, and the multitudinous factors of experience which seem to qualify what we are pleasedto call our Self. In proportion as these conditions of ordinary consciousness were subtracted, thesense of an underlying or essential consciousness acquired intensity. At last nothing remained but apure, absolute, abstract Self. The universe became without form and void of content. But Selfpersisted, formidable in its vivid keenness, feeling the most poignant doubt about reality, ready, asit seemed, to find existence break as breaks a bubble round about it. And what then? Theapprehension of a coming dissolution, the grim conviction that this state was the last state of theconscious Self, the sense that I had followed the last thread of being to the verge of the abyss, andhad arrived at demonstration of eternal Maya or illusion, stirred or seemed to stir me up again. Thereturn to ordinary conditions of sentient existence began by my first recovering the power of touch,and then by the gradual though rapid influx of familiar impressions and diurnal interests. At last Ifelt myself once more a human being; and though the riddle of what is meant by life remainedunsolved I was thankful for this return from the abyss--this deliverance from so awful an initiationinto the mysteries of skepticism.

"This trance recurred with diminishing frequency until I reached the age of twenty-eight. Itserved to impress upon my growing nature the phantasmal unreality of all the circumstances whichcontribute to a merely phenomenal consciousness. Often have I asked myself with anguish, onwaking from that formless state of denuded, keenly sentient being, Which is the unreality--thetrance of fiery, vacant, apprehensive, skeptical Self from which I issue, or these surroundingphenomena and habits which veil that inner Self and build a self of flesh-and-bloodconventionality? Again, are men the factors of some dream, the dream-like unsubstantiality ofwhich they comprehend at such eventful moments? What would happen if the final stage of thetrance were reached?"[231]

[231] H. F. Brown: J. A. Symonds. a Biography, London, 1895, pp. 29-31, abridged.

In a recital like this there is certainly something suggestive of pathology.[232] The next step intomystical states carries us into a realm that public opinion and ethical philosophy have long sincebranded as pathological, though private practice and certain lyric strains of poetry seem still tobear witness to its ideality. I refer to the consciousness produced by intoxicants and anaesthetics,especially by alcohol. The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power tostimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and drycriticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands,unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the YES function in man. It brings its votaryfrom the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth.

Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in theplace of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should bevouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is sodegrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and ourtotal opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole.

[232] Crichton-Browne expressly says that Symonds's "highest nerve centres were in somedegree enfeebled or damaged by these dreamy mental states which afflicted him so grievously."Symonds was, however, a perfect monster of many-sided cerebral efficiency, and his critic givesno objective grounds whatever for his strange opinion, save that Symonds complainedoccasionally, as all susceptible and ambitious men complain, of lassitude and uncertainty as to hislife's mission.

Nitrous oxide and ether, especially nitrous oxide, when sufficiently diluted with air, stimulate themystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree. Depth beyond depth of truth seems revealed tothe inhaler. This truth fades out, however, or escapes, at the moment of coming to; and if anywords remain over in which it seemed to clothe itself, they prove to be the veriest nonsense.

Nevertheless, the sense of a profound meaning having been there persists; and I know more thanone person who is persuaded that in the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysicalrevelation.

Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication,and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and myimpression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal wakingconsciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilstall about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousnessentirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply therequisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types ofmentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account ofthe universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quitedisregarded. How to regard them is the question--for they are so discontinuous with ordinaryconsciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open aregion though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accountswith reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight towhich I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance. The keynote of it is invariably areconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make allour difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species,belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself thegenus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself. This is a dark saying, I know, when thusexpressed in terms of common logic, but I cannot wholly escape from its authority. I feel as if itmust mean something, something like what the hegelian philosophy means, if one could only layhold of it more clearly. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear; to me the living sense of itsreality only comes in the artificial mystic state of mind.[233]

[233] What reader of Hegel can doubt that that sense of a perfected Being with all its othernesssoaked up into itself, which dominates his whole philosophy, must have come from theprominence in his consciousness of mystical moods like this, in most persons kept subliminal? Thenotion is thoroughly characteristic of the mystical level and the Aufgabe of making it articulatewas surely set to Hegel's intellect by mystical feeling.

I just now spoke of friends who believe in the anaesthetic revelation. For them too it is amonistic insight, in which the OTHER in its various forms appears absorbed into the One.

"Into this pervading genius," writes one of them, "we pass, forgetting and forgotten, andthenceforth each is all, in God. There is no higher, no deeper, no other, than the life in which weare founded. 'The One remains, the many change and pass;' and each and every one of us IS theOne that remains. . . . This is the ultimatum. . . . As sure as being--whence is all our care--so sure iscontent, beyond duplexity, antithesis, or trouble, where I have triumphed in a solitude that God isnot above."[234]

[234] Benjamin Paul Blood: The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy, Amsterdam,N. Y., 1874, pp. 35, 36. Mr. Blood has made several attempts to adumbrate the anaestheticrevelation, in pamphlets of rare literary distinction, privately printed and distributed by himself atAmsterdam. Xenos Clark, a philosopher, who died young at Amherst in the '80's, much lamentedby those who knew him, was also impressed by the revelation. "In the first place," he once wrote tome, "Mr. Blood and I agree that the revelation is, if anything non-emotional. It is utterly flat. It is,as Mr. Blood says, 'the one sole and sufficient insight why, or not why, but how, the present ispushed on by the past, and sucked forward by the vacuity of the future. Its inevitableness defeatsall attempts at stopping or accounting for it. It is all precedence and presupposition, andquestioning is in regard to it forever too late. It is an initiation of the past.' The real secret would bethe formula by which the 'now' keeps exfoliating out of itself, yet never escapes. What is it, indeed,that keeps existence exfoliating? The formal being of anything, the logical definition of it, is static.

For mere logic every question contains its own answer--we simply fill the hole with the dirt wedug out. Why are twice two four? Because, in fact, four is twice two. Thus logic finds in life nopropulsion, only a momentum. It goes because it is a-going. But the revelation adds: it goesbecause it is and WAS a-going. You walk, as it were, round yourself in the revelation. Ordinaryphilosophy is like a hound hunting his own tail. The more he hunts the farther he has to go, and hisnose never catches up with his heels, because it is forever ahead of them. So the present is alreadya foregone conclusion, and I am ever too late to understand it. But at the moment of recovery fromanaesthesis, just then, BEFORE STARTING ON LIFE, I catch, so to speak, a glimpse of my heels,a glimpse of the eternal process just in the act of starting. The truth is that we travel on a journeythat was accomplished before we set out; and the real end of philosophy is accomplished, not whenwe arrive at, but when we remain in, our destination (being already there)--which may occurvicariously in this life when we cease our intellectual questioning. That is why there is a smileupon the face of the revelation, as we view it. It tells us that we are forever half a second too late-that'sall. 'You could kiss your own lips, and have all the fun to yourself,' it says, if you only knewthe trick. It would be perfectly easy if they would just stay there till you got round to them. Whydon't you manage it somehow?"Dialectically minded readers of this farrago will at least recognize the region of thought of whichMr. Clark writes, as familiar. In his latest pamphlet, "Tennyson's Trances and the AnaestheticRevelation," Mr. Blood describes its value for life as follows:-"The Anaesthetic Revelation is the Initiation of Man into the Immemorial Mystery of the OpenSecret of Being, revealed as the Inevitable Vortex of Continuity. Inevitable is the word. Its motiveis inherent--it is what has to be. It is not for any love or hate, nor for joy nor sorrow, nor good norill. End, beginning, or purpose, it knows not of.

"It affords no particular of the multiplicity and variety of things but it fills appreciation of thehistorical and the sacred with a secular and intimately personal illumination of the nature andmotive of existence, which then seems reminiscent--as if it should have appeared, or shall yetappear, to every participant thereof.

"Although it is at first startling in its solemnity, it becomes directly such a matter of course--soold-fashioned, and so akin to proverbs that it inspires exultation rather than fear, and a sense ofsafety, as identified with the aboriginal and the universal. But no words may express the imposingcertainty of the patient that he is realizing the primordial, Adamic surprise of Life.

"Repetition of the experience finds it ever the same, and as if it could not possibly be otherwise.

The subject resumes his normal consciousness only to partially and fitfully remember itsoccurrence, and to try to formulate its baffling import--with only this consolatory afterthought: thathe has known the oldest truth, and that he has done with human theories as to the origin, meaning,or destiny of the race. He is beyond instruction in 'spiritual things.'

"The lesson is one of central safety: the Kingdom is within. All days are judgment days: butthere can be no climacteric purpose of eternity, nor any scheme of the whole. The astronomerabridges the row of bewildering figures by increasing his unit of measurement: so may we reducethe distracting multiplicity of things to the unity for which each of us stands.

"This has been my moral sustenance since I have known of it. In my first printed mention of it Ideclared: 'The world is no more the alien terror that was taught me. Spurning the cloud-grimed andstill sultry battlements whence so lately Jehovan thunders boomed, my gray gull lifts her wingagainst the nightfall, and takes the dim leagues with a fearless eye.' And now, after twenty-sevenyears of this experience, the wing is grayer, but the eye is fearless still, while I renew and doublyemphasize that declaration. I know--as having known--the meaning of Existence: the sane centreof the universe--at once the wonder and the assurance of the soul--for which the speech of reasonhas as yet no name but the Anaesthetic Revelation." --I have considerably abridged the quotation.

This has the genuine religious mystic ring! I just now quoted J. A. Symonds. He also records amystical experience with chloroform, as follows:-'After the choking and stifling had passed away, I seemed at first in a state of utter blankness;then came flashes of intense light, alternating with blackness, and with a keen vision of what wasgoing on in the room around me, but no sensation of touch. I thought that I was near death; when,suddenly, my soul became aware of God, who was manifestly dealing with me, handling me, so tospeak, in an intense personal present reality. I felt him streaming in like light upon me. . . . I cannotdescribe the ecstasy I felt. Then, as I gradually awoke from the influence of the anaesthetics, theold sense of my relation to the world began to return, the new sense of my relation to God began to fade. I suddenly leapt to my feet on the chair where I was sitting, and shrieked out, 'It is toohorrible, it is too horrible, it is too horrible,' meaning that I could not bear this disillusionment.

Then I flung myself on the ground, and at last awoke covered with blood, calling to the twosurgeons (who were frightened), 'Why did you not kill me? Why would you not let me die?' Onlythink of it. To have felt for that long dateless ecstasy of vision the very God, in all purity andtenderness and truth and absolute love, and then to find that I had after all had no revelation, butthat I had been tricked by the abnormal excitement of my brain.

"Yet, this question remains, Is it possible that the inner sense of reality which succeeded, whenmy flesh was dead to impressions from without, to the ordinary sense of physical relations, was nota delusion but an actual experience? Is it possible that I, in that moment, felt what some of thesaints have said they always felt, the undemonstrable but irrefragable certainty of God?"[235]

[235] Op. cit., pp. 78-80, abridged. I subjoin, also abridging it, another interesting anaestheticrevelation communicated to me in manuscript by a friend in England. The subject, a gifted woman,was taking ether for a surgical operation.

"I wondered if I was in a prison being tortured, and why I remembered having heard it said thatpeople 'learn through suffering,' and in view of what I was seeing, the inadequacy of this sayingstruck me so much that I said, aloud, 'to suffer IS to learn.'

"With that I became unconscious again, and my last dream immediately preceded my realcoming to. It only lasted a few seconds, and was most vivid and real to me, though it may not beclear in words.

"A great Being or Power was traveling through the sky, his foot was on a kind of lightning as awheel is on a rail, it was his pathway. The lightning was made entirely of the spirits ofinnumerable people close to one another, and I was one of them. He moved in a straight line, andeach part of the streak or flash came into its short conscious existence only that he might travel. Iseemed to be directly under the foot of God, and I thought he was grinding his own life up out ofmy pain. Then I saw that what he had been trying with all his might to do was to CHANGE HISCOURSE, to BEND the line of lightning to which he was tied, in the direction in which he............
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