[WilliamJames] Lecture 3, second chunk

Eric Purdy epurdy at uchicago.edu
Sat Feb 1 20:39:43 CST 2014

Lest the oddity of these phenomena should disconcert you, I will venture to
read you a couple of similar narratives, much shorter, merely to show that
we are dealing with a well-marked natural kind of fact. In the first case,
which I take from the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, the
sense of presence developed in a few moments into a distinctly visualized
hallucination,--but I leave that part of the story out.
"I had read," the narrator says, "some twenty minutes or so, was thoroughly
absorbed in the book, my mind was perfectly quiet, and for the time being
my friends were quite forgotten, when suddenly without a moment's warning
my whole being seemed roused to the highest state of tension or aliveness,
and I was aware, with an intenseness not easily imagined by those who had
never experienced it, that another being or presence was not only in the
room, but quite close to me. I put my book down, and although my excitement
was great, I felt quite collected, and not conscious of any sense of fear.
Without changing my position, and looking straight at the fire, I knew
somehow that my friend A. H. was standing at my left elbow, but so far
behind me as to be hidden by the armchair in which I was leaning back.
Moving my eyes round slightly without otherwise changing my position, the
lower portion of one leg became visible, and I instantly recognized the
gray-blue material of trousers he often wore, but the stuff appeared
semi-transparent, reminding me of tobacco smoke in
hereupon the visual hallucination came.

Another informant writes:--
"Quite early in the night I was awakened. ... I felt as if I had been aroused
intentionally, and at first thought some one was breaking into the house. ...
I then turned on my side to go to sleep again, and immediately felt a
consciousness of a presence in the room, and singular to state, it was not
the consciousness of a live person, but of a spiritual presence. This may
provoke a smile, but I can only tell you the facts as they occurred to me.
I do not know how to better describe my sensations than by simply stating
that I felt a consciousness of a spiritual presence. ... I felt also at the
same time a strong feeling of superstitious dread, as if something strange
and fearful were about to

Professor Flournoy<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Th%C3%A9odore_Flournoy>of
Geneva gives me the following testimony of a friend of his, a lady,
has the gift of automatic or involuntary writing:--
"Whenever I practice automatic writing, what makes me feel that it is not
due to a subconscious self is the feeling I always have of a foreign
presence, external to my body. It is sometimes so definitely characterized
that I could point to its exact position. This impression of presence is
impossible to describe. It varies in intensity and clearness according to
the personality from whom the writing professes to come. If it is some one
whom I love, I feel it immediately, before any writing has come. My heart
seems to recognize it."

In an earlier book of mine I have cited at full length a curious case of
presence felt by a blind man. The presence was that of the figure of a
gray-bearded man dressed in a pepper and salt suit, squeezing himself under
the crack of the door and moving across the floor of the room towards a
sofa. The blind subject of this quasi-hallucination is an exceptionally
intelligent reporter. He is entirely without internal visual imagery and
cannot represent light or colors to himself, and is positive that his other
senses, hearing, etc., were not involved in this false perception. It seems
to have been an abstract conception rather, with the feelings of reality
and spatial outwardness directly attached to it--in other words, a fully
objectified and exteriorized *idea*.

Such cases, taken along with others which would be too tedious for
quotation, seem sufficiently to prove the existence in our mental machinery
of a sense of present reality more diffused and general than that which our
special senses yield. For the pyschologists the tracing of the organic seat
of such a feeling would form a pretty problem--nothing could be more natural
than to connect it with the muscular sense, with the feeling that our
muscles were innervating themselves for action. Whatsoever thus innervated
our activity, or 'made our flesh creep,'--our senses are what do so
oftenest,--might then appear real and present, even though it were but an
abstract idea. But with such vague conjectures we have no concern at
present, for our interest lies with the faculty rather than with its
organic seat.

Like all positive affections of consciousness, the sense of reality has its
negative counterpart in the shape of a feeling of unreality by which
persons may be haunted, and of which one sometimes hears complaint:--
"When I reflect on the fact that I have made my appearance by accident upon
a globe itself whirled through space as the sport of the catastrophes of
the heavens," says Madame
"when I see myself surrounded by beings as ephemeral and incomprehensible
as I am myself, and all excitedly pursuing pure chimeras, I experience a
strange feeling of being in a dream. It seems to me as if I have loved and
suffered and that erelong I shall die, in a dream. My last word will be, 'I
have been dreaming.'"[6]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lecture_III#cite_note-6>

In another lecture we shall see how in morbid melancholy this sense of the
unreality of things may become a carking pain, and even lead to suicide.

We may now lay it down as certain that in the distinctively religious
sphere of experience, many persons (how many we cannot tell) possess the
objects of their belief, not in the form of mere conceptions which their
intellect accepts as true, but rather in the form of quasi-sensible
realities directly apprehended. As his sense of the real presence of these
objects fluctuates, so the believer alternates between warmth and coldness
in his faith. Other examples will bring this home to one better than
abstract description, so I proceed immediately to cite some. The first
example is a negative one, deploring the loss of the sense in question. I
have extracted it from an account given me by a scientific man of my
acquaintance, of his religious life. It seems to me to show clearly that
the feeling of reality may be something more like a sensation than an
intellectual operation properly so-called.

"Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more and more agnostic and
irreligious, yet I cannot say that I ever lost that 'indefinite
consciousness' which Herbert
so well, of an Absolute Reality behind phenomena. For me this
Reality was not the pure Unknowable of Spencer's philosophy, for although I
had ceased my childish prayers to God, and never prayed to *It* in a formal
manner, yet my more recent experience shows me to have been in a relation
to *It* which practically was the same thing as prayer. Whenever I had any
trouble, especially when I had conflict with other people, either
domestically or in the way of business, or when I was depressed in spirits
or anxious about affairs, I now recognize that I used to fall back for
support upon this curious relation I felt myself to be in to this
fundamental cosmical *It*. It was on my side, or I was on Its side, however
you please to term it, in the particular trouble, and it always
strengthened me and seemed to give me endless vitality to feel its
underlying and supporting presence. In fact, it was an unfailing fountain
of living justice, truth, and strength, to which I instinctively turned at
times of weakness, and it always brought me out. I know now that it was a
personal relation I was in to it, because of late years the power of
communicating with it has left me, and I am conscious of a perfectly
definite loss. I used never to fail to find it when I turned to it. Then
came a set of years when sometimes I found it, and then again I would be
wholly unable to make connection with it. I remember many occasions on
which at night in bed, I would be unable to get to sleep on account of
worry. I turned this way and that in the darkness, and groped mentally for
the familiar sense of that higher mind of my mind which had always seemed
to be close at hand as it were, closing the passage, and yielding support,
but there was no electric current. A blank was there instead of *It:* I
couldn't find anything. Now, at the age of nearly fifty, my power of
getting into connection with it has entirely left me; and I have to confess
that a great help has gone out of my life. Life has become curiously dead
and indifferent; and I can now see that my old experience was probably
exactly the same thing as the prayers of the orthodox, only I did not call
them by that name. What I have spoken of as 'It' was practically not
Spencer's Unknowable, but just my own instinctive and individual God, whom
I relied upon for higher sympathy, but whom somehow I have lost."

Nothing is more common in the pages of religious biography than the way in
which seasons of lively and of difficult faith are described as
alternating. Probably every religious person has the recollection of
particular crises in which a directer vision of the truth, a direct
perception, perhaps, of a living God's existence, swept in and overwhelmed
the languor of the more ordinary belief. In James Russell
correspondence there is a brief memorandum of an experience of this kind:--
 "I had a revelation last Friday evening. I was at Mary's, and happening to
say something of the presence of spirits (of whom, I said, I was often
dimly aware), Mr. Putnam entered into an argument with me on spiritual
matters. As I was speaking, the whole system rose up before me like a vague
destiny looming from the Abyss. I never before so clearly felt the Spirit
of God in me and around me. The whole room seemed to me full of God. The
air seemed to waver to and fro with the presence of Something I knew not
what. I spoke with the calmness and clearness of a prophet. I cannot tell
you what this revelation was. I have not yet studied it enough. But I shall
perfect it one day, and then you shall hear it and acknowledge its

Here is a longer and more developed experience from a manuscript
communication by a clergyman,--I take it from Starbuck's manuscript

"I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hill-top, where my
soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing
together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling
unto deep,--the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being
answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I
stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and
love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the
perfect unison of my spirit with His. The ordinary sense of things around
me faded. For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exaltation
remained. It is impossible fully to describe the experience. It was like
the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted
into one swelling harmony that leaves the listener conscious of nothing
save that his soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its
own emotion. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more
solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt
because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that *He* was there
than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of
the two.

"My highest faith in God and truest idea of him were then born in me. I
have stood upon the Mount of Vision since, and felt the Eternal round about
me. But never since has there come quite the same stirring of the heart.
Then, if ever, I believe, I stood face to face with God, and was born anew
of his spirit. There was, as I recall it, no sudden change of thought or of
belief, except that my early crude conception had, as it were, burst into
flower. There was no destruction of the old, but a rapid, wonderful
unfolding. Since that time no discussion that I have heard of the proofs of
God's existence has been able to shake my faith. Having once felt the
presence of God's spirit, I have never lost it again for long. My most
assuring evidence of his existence is deeply rooted in that hour of vision,
in the memory of that supreme experience, and in the conviction, gained
from reading and reflection, that something the same has come to all who
have found God. I am aware that it may justly be called mystical. I am not
enough acquainted with philosophy to defend it from that or any other
charge. I feel that in writing of it I have overlaid it with words rather
than put it clearly to your thought. But, such as it is, I have described
it as carefully as I now am able to do."

Here is another document, even more definite in character, which, the
writer being a Swiss, I translate from the French
"I was in perfect health: we were on our sixth day of tramping, and in good
training. We had come the day before from Sixt to Trient by Buet. I felt
neither fatigue, hunger, nor thirst, and my state of mind was equally
healthy. I had had at Forlaz good news from home; I was subject to no
anxiety, either near or remote, for we had a good guide, and there was not
a shadow of uncertainty about the road we should follow. I can best
describe the condition in which I was by calling it a state of equilibrium.
When all at once I experienced a feeling of being raised above myself, I
felt the presence of God--I tell of the thing just as I was conscious of it
as if his goodness and his power were penetrating me altogether. The throb
of emotion was so violent that I could barely tell the boys to pass on and
not wait for me. I then sat down on a stone, unable to stand any longer,
and my eyes overflowed with tears. I thanked God that in the course of my
life he had taught me to know him, that he sustained my life and took pity
both on the insignificant creature and on the sinner that I was. I begged
him ardently that my life might be consecrated to the doing of his will. I
felt his reply, which was that I should do his will from day to day, in
humility and poverty, leaving him, the Almighty God, to be judge of whether
I should some time be called to bear witness more conspicuously. Then,
slowly, the ecstasy left my heart; that is, I felt that God had withdrawn
the communion which he had granted, and I was able to walk on, but very
slowly, so strongly was I still possessed by the interior emotion. Besides,
I had wept uninterruptedly for several minutes, my eyes were swollen, and I
did not wish my companions to see me. The state of ecstasy may have lasted
four or five minutes, although it seemed at the time to last much longer.
My comrades waited for me ten minutes at the cross of Barine, but I took
about twenty-five or thirty minutes to join them, for as well as I can
remember, they said that I had kept them back for about half an hour. The
impression had been so profound that in climbing slowly the slope I asked
myself if it were possible that Moses on Sinai could have had a more
intimate communication with God. I think it well to add that in this
ecstasy of mine God had neither form, color, odor, nor taste; moreover,
that the feeling of his presence was accompanied with no determinate
localization. It was rather as if my personality had been transformed by
the presence of a *spiritual spirit*. But the more I seek words to express
this intimate intercourse, the more I feel the impossibility of describing
the thing by any of our usual images. At bottom the expression most apt to
render what I felt is this: God was present, though invisible; he fell
under no one of my senses, yet my consciousness perceived him."

The adjective 'mystical' is technically applied, most often, to states that
are of brief duration. Of course such hours of rapture as the last two
persons describe are mystical experiences, of which in a later lecture I
shall have much to say. Meanwhile here is the abridged record of another
mystical or semi-mystical experience, in a mind evidently framed by nature
for ardent piety. I owe it to Starbuck's collection. The lady who gives the
account is the daughter of a man well known in his time as a writer against
Christianity. The suddenness of her conversion shows well how native the
sense of God's presence must be to certain minds. She relates that she was
brought up in entire ignorance of Christian doctrine, but, when in Germany,
after being talked to by Christian friends, she read the Bible and prayed,
and finally the plan of salvation flashed upon her like a stream of light.
"To this day," she writes, "I cannot understand dallying with religion and
the commands of God. The very instant I heard my Father's cry calling unto
me, my heart bounded in recognition. I ran, I stretched forth my arms, I
cried aloud, 'Here, here I am, my Father.' Oh, happy child, what should I
do? 'Love me,' answered my God. 'I do, I do,' I cried passionately. 'Come
unto me,' called my Father. 'I will,' my heart panted. Did I stop to ask a
single question? Not one. It never occurred to me to ask whether I was good
enough, or to hesitate over my unfitness, or to find out what I thought of
his church, or ... to wait until I should be satisfied. Satisfied! I was
satisfied. Had I not found my God and my Father? Did he not love me? Had he
not called me? Was there not a Church into which I might enter? ... Since
then I have had direct answers to prayer--so significant as to be almost
like talking with God and hearing his answer. The idea of God's reality has
never left me for one moment."

Here is still another case, the writer being a man aged twenty-seven, in
which the experience, probably almost as characteristic, is less vividly
"I have on a number of occasions felt that I had enjoyed a period of
intimate communion with the divine. These meetings came unasked and
unexpected, and seemed to consist merely in the temporary obliteration of
the conventionalities which usually surround and cover my life. ... Once it
was when from the summit of a high mountain I looked over a gashed and
corrugated landscape extending to a long convex of ocean that ascended to
the horizon, and again from the same point when I could see nothing beneath
me but a boundless expanse of white cloud, on the blown surface of which a
few high peaks, including the one I was on, seemed plunging about as if
they were dragging their anchors. What I felt on these occasions was a
temporary loss of my own identity, accompanied by an illumination which
revealed to me a deeper significance than I had been wont to attach to
life. It is in this that I find my justification for saying that I have
enjoyed communication with God. Of course the absence of such a being as
this would be chaos. I cannot conceive of life without its presence."

Of the more habitual and so to speak chronic sense of God's presence the
following sample from Professor Starbuck's manuscript collection may serve
to give an idea. It is from a man aged forty-nine,--probably thousands of
unpretending Christians would write an almost identical account.
"God is more real to me than any thought or thing or person. I feel his
presence positively, and the more as I live in closer harmony with his laws
as written in my body and mind. I feel him in the sunshine or rain; and awe
mingled with a delicious restfulness most nearly describes my feelings. I
talk to him as to a companion in prayer and praise, and our communion is
delightful. He answers me again and again, often in words so clearly spoken
that it seems my outer ear must have carried the tone, but generally in
strong mental impressions. Usually a text of Scripture, unfolding some new
view of him and his love for me, and care for my safety. I could give
hundreds of instances, in school matters, social problems, financial
difficulties, etc. That he is mine and I am his never leaves me, it is an
abiding joy. Without it life would be a blank, a desert, a shoreless,
trackless waste."

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