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Mystical Experiences

By William James

Much interest in the subject of religious-mysticism has been shown in philosophical-circles recently. Most of the writings I've seen have treated the subject looking-in from the outside. I know of no one personally who has spoken with direct experience. I am also an outsider, and very likely what I say will prove the fact loudly.

My theory is that states of mystical-intuition may be very sudden and great extensions of the ordinary field-of-consciousness. This extension of awareness appears to consist of an immense spreading of the margin of the field of perception, so that knowledge that is ordinarily at the fringes of our waking-consciousness becomes more central. As for the causes of these extensions-of-consciousness, it is hard to say.

Fechner’s 'wave-scheme' illustrates this type of shift in consciousness. First, imagine that a 'wave' of present awareness rises, steeply, above a horizontal line that represents the plane of the usual 'threshold' of what we are aware of. Imagine that this 'wave' then slopes away below the threshold very gradually in all directions. A fall of the threshold, however caused, would produce a state of things similar to what we see on an unusually flat shore at the low-point of a spring-tide. In other words, vast tracts, which are usually covered by 'water' are suddenly brought into view. There are glimpses of the 'water's bed', shortly before great parts of the scene are submerged again, whenever a new wave washes over them. This metaphor illustrates the wave-like, mystical states of consciousness-expansion, followed by consciousness contraction. We become momentarily aware of more of 'ourselves' than is possible during normal waking consciousness.

Some people naturally have a very wide field of consciousness. Others have a very narrow one. The narrow-field may be represented by an unusually steep form of the 'wave'. When, by any accident, the threshold lowers in persons of this type — I speak here from direct personal experience — so that the field of awareness widens, matters usually subliminal come into view. This larger panorama fills the mind with exhilaration, and a sense of mental power. It is a refreshing experience; I feel that when it occurs in an exceptionally extensive form, it gives us a mystical experience.

This widened-field is composed, at all times, of a mass of present sensation. It is a cloud of memories; emotions; concepts, etc. Yet all these ingredients, which have to be named separately, are not separate, as the conscious field contains them all. This field can be experienced all-at-once, It is possible to percieve a unity in which sensations; memories; concepts, and impulses coalesce and are dissolved. The present-field of awareness, as a whole, comes continuously out of its predecessor, and will melt into its successor as continuously again. One sensation-mass passes into another sensation-mass and gives the character of a gradually changing present to the experience; while memories and concepts carry time-coefficients. These place whatever is present in a broader, historical-temporal perspective which is vast.

When the threshold of awareness drops — or our 'consciousness expands' — what comes into view is often not the next mass of sensation; for sensation requires new physical stimulation to produce itself. Instead it is often something internal (or 'subconscious'). Nobody knows exactly how far we are semi-conscious of these non-ordinary states at ordinary times, or how far beyond the margin of our 'everyday' thought they exist.

There is no definite boundary to be set between what is central and what is marginal in consciousness. The margin itself has no definite boundary a parte foris. It is like our field of vision, which the slightest movement of the eye will extend, revealing objects that always stood there to be apparently newly discovered.

My hypothesis is that a movement of the threshold-of-awareness outwards will, similarly, bring a mass of subconscious memories; conceptions; emotional feelings; and perceptions of relation, etc., into view all at once. This enlargement of the nimbus that surrounds the sensational present is vast. While no single thing it contains attracts your attention exclusively, you will have the conditions fulfilled for a kind of consciousness that, in all essential respects, is mystical.

This mystical state will be transient if the change-of-threshold is transient. It will be an experience of reality; enlargement; and illumination — possibly rapturously so. It will be an experience of unification. The present coalesces in it together with vistas of the remote which are quite out of its reach under ordinary circumstances. A sense of relation and relationship will be greatly enhanced. Its form will be intuitive or perceptual, not conceptual. The remembered, or conceived, objects in the enlarged field are not supposed to attract the attention singly, but only to give the sense of a tremendous muchness suddenly revealed. If any element of the experience attracted attention separately, you would rapidly return to the ordinary steep-waved consciousness, and the mystical character would depart.

Persons who know something of mystical experience will no doubt find in my 'outsider' perspective much to criticize. The notion I have tried (at such expense of metaphor) to set forth was originally suggested to me by experiences of my own. These experiences can be described as very sudden and incomprehensible enlargements of the field of consciousness. These enlargements brought with them a curious sense of cognition of real fact. All of these experiences occurred within five years of each other. Three of these experiences were similar in type, the fourth was unique.

In each of the three similar cases, the experience broke in abruptly upon a perfectly commonplace situation and lasted perhaps less than two minutes. In one instance, I was engaged in conversation, but I doubt whether the person I was talking with noticed my abstraction. What happened each time was that I seemed, all at once, to be reminded of a past experience. This reminiscence, before I could conceive or name it distinctly, developed into something further still, and so on, until the process faded out. This left me amazed at my sudden vision of increasing ranges of distant-fact of which I could give no articulate account.

The mode of consciousness I entered was perceptual, not conceptual. The field expanded so fast that there seemed to be no time for understanding or identification to get in its way. There was a strongly exciting sense that my knowledge of past (and present) reality was enlarging pulse by pulse. This happened so rapidly that my intellectual processes could not keep up the pace. The content of my visions were therefore entirely impossible to decipher later. The experience quickly sank into the limbo into which dreams vanish as we gradually awake. I had a feeling — I won’t call it belief — that I had experienced a sudden opening. I felt that I had seen distant realities that incomprehensibly belonged with my own life. The sense that I had peeked through a mystical window was so acute that I cannot shake it off today.

My inability to make an articulate report of my experiences of expanded-awareness, is often characteristic of those who have experienced mystical states. The point of difference is that, in my case, only certain special directions in the field of my reality seemed to get suddenly uncovered. Whereas, in classical mystical experiences, it appears often as if the whole of reality is uncovered at once. Uncovering of some sort is the essence of the phenomenon, at any rate. To return to the language of the Fechner wave-metaphor, I use the expression 'the fall of the threshold' to describe this widening of awareness.

My fourth experience of uncovering had to do with dreams. I was suddenly made aware of a pair of dreams that I could not remember myself to have had. They seemed, however, somehow to connect with me. I despair of giving the reader any accurate idea of the bewildering confusion of my mind when I was thrown into this. It was the most intensely peculiar experience of my whole life. I wrote a full memorandum of it a couple of days after it happened, and added some reflections later. Even though my experience casts no light on the conditions of mysticism, it seems as if my record is worthy of publication, as a contribution to the descriptive literature of pathological mental states. I present it to the reader here, as originally written, with only a few words altered to make the account more clear.

“San Francisco, Feb. 14th 1906. The night before last, in my bed at Stanford University, I woke at about seven in the morning, from a quiet dream of some sort. Whilst gathering my waking wits, I seemed suddenly to get mixed up with memories of a dream of an entirely different sort. This other dream seemed to telescope into the first one. It was a very elaborate dream, of lions, and tragic. I decided this must have been a previous dream of the same night's sleep. This apparent mingling of two dreams was something very strange, which I had never before experienced.

On the following night (Feb. 12-13), I awoke suddenly from my sleep, which appeared to have been very heavy, in the middle of a dream. Thinking about this dream, I became suddenly confused by the contents of two other dreams that shuffled themselves abruptly between the parts of this newest dream. I couldn't grasp the origin of these dreams. 'Where do these dreams come from?' I asked myself. They were close to me, and fresh, as if I had just dreamed them; and yet they were far away from the newest dream.

The contents of the three dreams had no obvious connection. One had a cockney atmosphere, it had happened to some one in London. The other two dreams were American. One dream involved the trying on of a coat. Was this the dream I seemed to wake from? The other dream was a sort of nightmare and had to do with soldiers. Each dream had a wholly distinct emotional atmosphere that made its individuality discontinuous with that of the others. Nevertheless, these three dreams had alternately telescoped into and out of each other. I seemed to have been their common dreamer.

The dreams seemed quite distinctly not to have been dreamed in succession, in a single night's sleep. When had I dreamed them all then? Not on a previous night, as far as I knew. When, then? Which dream was the one out of which I had just awakened? I could no longer tell. Each dream was as close to me as the others, and yet they entirely repelled each other. I seemed to belong to three different dream-systems at once, none of which would readily connect itself with the others or with my waking life.

I began to feel curiously confused and scared, and tried to wake myself up wider. However, I seemed already wide-awake. In the next moment, cold shivers of dread ran over me. Am I intruding into other people's dreams? Is this a telepathic experience, or an invasion of double (or treble) personality? Or is it a thrombus in a cortical artery? Is it the beginning of a general mental confusion and disorientation which is going to develop who knows how far?

"Clearly I was losing hold of my self, and becoming aware of a kind of mental distress that I had never known before. Its nearest analogue was the sinking, giddy-anxiety that one may have when, in the woods, one discovers that one is really lost.

Most human troubles look towards a terminus. Most fears point in a direction, and concentrate towards a climax. Most assaults of the 'devil' may be met by bracing oneself against something: Your principles, your courage, your will, your pride. But during my experience everything was diffusing from a center point, and my footholds were swept away. Whatever ideology I tried to brace myself against disintegrated all the faster as I sought its support more. Meanwhile, vivid perception (or memories) of the various dreams kept washing over me in alternation. Whose dreams? Whose? WHOSE? Unless I could attach them to something, I would be swept out to sea with no horizon and no bond. I was lost.

The idea aroused the creeps in me again, combined with this fear of falling asleep again and repeating the process. The experience had begun the previous night, but then my confusion had only gone one step, and had seemed simply curious. Tonight, I appeared to have taken the second step. Where might I be after a third step had been taken? My teeth chattered at the thought.

“At the same time, I found myself filled with a new pity towards persons passing into dementia, or experiencing invasions of a secondary personality. We often regard these people as simply curious; but what they want — in the awful drift of being exiled from their customary self — is any principle of steadiness to hold on to. We ought to assure them, and reassure them, that we will stand by them, and recognize the true-self in them to the end. We ought to let them know that we are with them and not (as too often we must seem to them) a part of the world that confirms and publishes their alienation.

“Evidently I was in full possession of my reflective wits because, whenever I objectively thought of the situation in which I was, my anxieties ceased. But there was a tendency to relapse into the dreams and reminiscences, and to relapse vividly. Then the confusion recommenced, along with a dreadful feeling it should develop further.

“I looked at my watch. Half-past twelve! Past midnight. This gave me another reflective idea. Habitually, on going to bed, I fall into a very deep slumber from which I naturally awaken after two. I never typically awaken, therefore, from a midnight dream, as I did tonight. Of midnight dreams my ordinary consciousness retains no memory. My sleep seemed terribly heavy as I woke tonight. Dream states carry dream memories. Could the two curious dreams be memories of twelve o'clock dreams of previous nights? Were these dreams swept, along with the just-fading dream, into the just-waking system of memory? Might I be tapping, in a way precluded by my ordinary habit of life, the midnight stratum of my past experiences?

“This idea gave great relief. I felt now as if I were in full possession of my anima rationalis. I turned on the light, resolving to read myself to sleep. But I didn’t read. I felt drowsy instead. I put out the light and soon I was in the arms of Morpheus.

“I woke again two or three times before daybreak with no dream-experiences. I awoke to the new day at seven with a curious, but not alarming, confusion between two dreams, similar to the confusion which I had experienced the previous morning. Nothing peculiar happened the following night, so the thing seems destined not to develop any further.”

"Several ideas suggest themselves that make the observation instructive. First, the general notion, now gaining ground in mental medicine, is that certain mental maladies may be foreshadowed in dream-life, and that therefore the study of the latter may be profitable.

"Then the specific suggestion, that states of ‘confusion,’ loss of personality, apraxia, etc., so often taken to indicate cortical lesion or degeneration of dementic type, may be very superficial functional affections. In my own case the confusion was foudroyante; a state of consciousness unique and unparalleled in my sixty-four years of the world’s experience. It alternated quickly with perfectly rational states, as this record shows. It seems, therefore, merely as if the threshold between the rational and the morbid state had, in my case, been temporarily lowered, and as if similar confusions might be very near the line of possibility in all of us.

"There are also suggestions of a telepathic entrance into some one else's dreams, and of a doubling up of personality. In point of fact I don't know now 'who' had those three dreams, or which one ‘I’ first woke up from, so quickly did they substitute themselves back and forth for each other, discontinuously. Their discontinuity was the pivot of the situation. My sense of it was as 'vivid' and 'original' an experience as anything Hume could ask for. And yet they kept telescoping! Then there is the notion that by waking at certain hours we may tap distinct strata of ancient dream-memory."

The distressing confusion I felt during this experience did not seem to me like mystical illumination, and equally non-mystical was the definiteness of what was perceived. But the exaltation of a sense-of-relation was mystical. I was perplexed that the three dreams both did, and did not, belong in the most intimate way together. My sense that reality was being uncovered was mystical in the highest degree. To this day I feel that those extra dreams were dreamed in reality but when, where, and by whom, I cannot guess.

In the Open Court for December, 1909, Mr. Frederick Hall narrated a fit of ether-mysticism which agrees with my formula very well. When one of his doctors made a remark to the other, he chuckled, for he realized that these friends:

“believed they saw real things and causes, but they didn’t, and I did...I was where the causes were and to see them required no more mental ability than to recognize a color as blue... The knowledge of how little [the doctors] actually did see, coupled with their evident feeling that they saw all there was, was funny to the last degree... [They] knew as little of the real causes as does the child who, viewing a passing train and noting its revolving wheels, supposes that they, turning of themselves, give to coaches and locomotive their momentum."

"Or imagine a man seated in a boat, surrounded by dense fog, and out of the fog seeing a flat stone leap from the crest of one wave to another. If he had always sat thus, his explanations must be very crude as compared with those of a man whose eyes could pierce fog, and who saw upon the shore the boy skipping stones. In some such way, the remarks of the two physicians seemed to me like the last two ‘skips’ of a stone thrown from my side... All that was essential in the remark I knew before it was made. Thus to discover, convincingly and for myself, that the things which are unseen are those of real importance, this was sufficiently stimulating.”

It is evident that Mr. Hall’s field-of-consciousness was enormously enlarged by the ether. However, it was so vaguely defined in any detail that what he perceived was mainly the causal integration of its whole content. That his perceptual-widening brought with it a tremendous feeling of importance and superiority is typical

I have treated the mystical states as if they consist in the uncovering of tracts of consciousness. Is this consciousness already there waiting to be uncovered? And is it a revelation of reality? These are questions which I do not touch. In those who have had mystical experiences, the 'emotion of conviction' is always strong, and sometimes absolute. The ordinary psychologist disposes of the phenomenon under the conveniently 'scientific' diagnosis of petit mal, or 'nonsense' or 'trash.' But we know so little of the noetic value of unusual mental states of any kind that in my opinion we had better keep an open mind. We should collect facts sympathetically for a long time to come. It is likely that we will not fully understand these alterations of consciousness either in this generation or in the next.


1. Originally from the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 1910, 7, 85-92.
2. Transmarginal or subliminal, the terms are synonymous. Some psychologists deny the existence of such consciousness altogether (A. H. Pierce, for example and Münsterberg apparently). Others, e.g., Bergson, say it exists and carries the whole freight of our past. Others again (as Myers) believe it extends (in the telepathic mode of communication) from one person's mind into that of another. For the purposes of my hypothesis, I have to postulate its existence; and once postulating it, I prefer not to set any definite bounds to its extent.

This article originally appeared in Psychedelic Review, Issue Number 5, 1965 under the headline 'Suggestions about Mysticism'. It was lovingly transcribed from an original edition of Psychedelic Review by volunteers at The Castalia Foundation in Millbrook, USA. After this transcription, William James' writing was heavily edited to render it more readable for a modern audience. Despite substantial tweaks, the editors have sought to carefully retain the author's original meaning and intent.

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