Tuesday, May 24, 2011

William James: Religious Experience and Higher Consciousness

Western science is just now coming face-to-face with the question of just 'what' consciousness is, although much of its work is still concentrated on the quest to find the neural correlates of consciousness - a sign that the scientific search is still for consciousness arising as a phenomenon of the brain, rather than as an independent phenomena. This, of course, indicates the Western bias for materialism.

William James
It is now over 100 years, however, since William James "threw down the gauntlet" (as Alan Wallace notes in a convincing Google TechTalk), challenging Western science to investigate just what "consciousness" is, and why there appear to be so many different forms - particularly higher forms -  of it. "

In his masterwork, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," James writes that: "(P)ersonal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness." And, describing the qualities of such higher states of consciousness, beyond our ordinary egoic, self-consciousness, he observes that "(t)hey 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."

Moreover, he notes, "(m)ystical 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. . . . They bring a sense of mystery and of the metaphysical duality of things, and feeling of an enlargement of perceptions which seems imminent but which never completes itself."
[Wm. James, "Varieties of Religious Experience," pp. 379-384.]

Richard M. Bucke
Two of the examples he cites are from the Canadian psychiatrist, Richard M. Bucke (author of the renowned book, "Cosmic Consciousness"), and the great Indian teacher and spiritual ambassador to the West, Swami Vivikenanda.

Writing of his own experience of a higher, transcendental consciousness, Bucke observed:
"Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run guaranteed. The vision lasted but a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed."
[Ibid., p. 397.]
Swami Vivekananda
The Indian yogi, Swami Vivikenanda, burst onto the Western stage with his appearance at the  Parliament of the World's Religions, held at Chicago's World Fair in 1893 and exposed Westerners, most for the first time, to the millennia-old yoga (or religious) teachings of the East. Vivikenanda's views on transcendental consciousness were extracted by James, from Vivkenanda's famous work, "Raja Yoga," in which he observed:
"(T)he mind itself has a higher state of consciousness, beyond reason, and . . .  when the mind gets to that higher state, then this knowledge beyond reasoning comes. . . . All the different steps in yoga are intended to bring us scientifically to the superconscious state or samadhi. . . . Just as unconscious work is beneath consciousness, and which, also, is not accompanied with the sense of egoism. . . . There is no feeling of I, and yet the mind works, desireless, free from restlessness, objectless, bodiless. Then the Truth shines in its full effulgence, and we know ourselves - for Samadhi lies potential in us all - for what we truly are, free, immortal, omnipotent, loosed from the finite and its contrasts of good and evil altogether and identical with the Atman or Universal Soul."
[Ibid., p. 400.]
When a man emerges from the experience of  Samadhi," James notes, "the Vedantists assure us that he remains "enlightened, a sage, a prophet, a saint, his whole character changed, his life changed, illiumined." The same conclusion is drawn of course by Bucke, and is a central tenet of his book, "Cosmic Consciousness."

All this goes to show, that the experience of individuals in the West and East (as amply demonstrated by both William James and Bucke) attests to higher states of transcendental consciousness beyond the mere egoic consciousness that the vast majority of us function and suffer (to greater or lesser degrees) in. Yet, it appears that Western-based science continues unabated in its attempt to find and map the neural correlates of these states of heightened consciousness, even while they have so far been unable to find the neural basis, or even come to a generally accepted working definition, of consciousness itself.

A video critique of William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" by the distinguished American philosopher, Richard Rorty, is included, below.

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