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The Varieties of Religious Experience

Lectures 16 and 17. Mysticism
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 therewith.
1. 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.
2. 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,