mystical experiences, religious mysticism world faiths
mystical experiences, religious mysticism, william james, varieties of religious experience
william james, varieties of religious experience

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Mystical Experiences & Religious Mysticism

The great distinction between teachers sacred or literary, ... between men of the world, who are reckoned accomplished talkers, and here and there a fervent mystic, prophesying, half insane under the infinitude of his thought, is, that one class speak from within, or from experience, as parties and possessors of the fact; and the other class, from without, as spectators merely, or perhaps as acquainted with the fact on the evidence of third persons. It is of no use to preach to me from without.
I can do that too easily myself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

The term " Mysticism " can mean different things to different people. These meanings can range from fortune telling and magick to mainstream religious mysticism as promoted by any of the Great Faiths of the World.

This age-of-the-sage page will consider mystical experiences that are associated with the religious mysticism that lies at the very heart of the teachings of the World's Great Religions.

William James book ' The Varieties of Religious Experience ' (1902) is the most well known treatment of such mystical experiences from the western point-of-view.
James' four defining marks of mystical experiences are:-
  • Ineffability
  • Noetic Quality
  • Transiency
  • Passivity
The following text is taken from 'Lectures XVI and XVII: Mysticism' in ' The Varieties of Religious Experience ' by William James

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.

Comparative Studies in
Religious Mysticism

Click on these links to review quotations
about "Central" spiritual insights
drawn from sources as indicated :-

Christianity Islam
Judaism Hinduism
Buddhism Taoism

There may well be other faiths (not least Sikhism) that should properly be included in any definitive consideration of Mysticism in world religions !!!

The above links take you to pages that feature impact-FULL quotations drawn from several World Faiths. A fuller treatment of these important issues is available through the sequenced series of links to the right of this page!!!

Introductory quotations
"Central" mysticism insights
"Other" spiritual wisdom
"Central" poetry insights
"Other" poetry insights
Sources of

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