Characteristics of Spiritual Experience – William James

“A paradise of inward tranquility seems to be faith’s usual result… The transition from tenseness, self-responsibility, and worry, to equanimity, receptivity, and peace, is the most wonderful of all those shiftings of inner equilibrium, those changes of personal centre of energy, which I have analyzed so often; and the chief wonder of it is that it so often comes about, not by doing, but by simply relaxing and throwing the burden down.” ~William James

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“The characteristics of the [spiritual] experience which… should, I think, be called the state of assurance rather than the faith-state, can be easily enumerated, though it is probably difficult to realize their intensity, unless one has been through the experience one’s self.

The central one is the loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer conditions should remain the same. The certainty of God’s ‘grace,’ of ‘justification,’ ‘salvation,’ is an objective belief that usually accompanies the change in Christians; but this may be entirely lacking and yet the affective peace remain the same… A passion of willingness, of acquiescence, of admiration, is the glowing centre of this state of mind.

The second feature is the sense of perceiving truths not known before. The mysteries of life become lucid.. and often, nay usually, the solution is more or less unutterable in words.

A third peculiarity of the assurance state is the objective change which the world often appears to undergo. ‘An appearance of newness beautifies every object,’ the precise opposite of that other sort of newness, that dreadful unreality and strangeness in the appearance of the world.. This sense of clean and beautiful newness within and without one, is one of the commonest entries in conversion records.

A paradise of inward tranquility seems to be faith’s usual result… The transition from tenseness, self-responsibility, and worry, to equanimity, receptivity, and peace, is the most wonderful of all those shiftings of inner equilibrium, those changes of personal centre of energy, which I have analyzed so often; and the chief wonder of it is that it so often comes about, not by doing, but by simply relaxing and throwing the burden down.

This abandonment of self-responsibility seems to be the fundamental act in specifically religious, as distinguished from moral practice. It antedates theologies and is independent of philosophies- and it is capable of entering into closest marriage with every speculative creed. Christians who have it strongly live in what is called ‘recollection,’ and are never anxious about the future, nor worry over the outcome of the day.

Of Saint Catharine of Genoa it is said that ‘she took cognizance of things, only as they were presented to her in succession, moment by moment.’ To her holy soul, ‘the divine moment was the present moment. ‘

And when the present moment was estimated in itself and in its relations, and when the duty that was involved in it was accomplished, it was permitted to pass away as if it had never been, and to give way to the facts and duties of the moment which came after. Hinduism [and other Eastern traditions] all lay great emphasis upon this concentration of the consciousness upon the moment at hand.

When we survey the whole field of religion, we find a great variety in the thoughts [and beliefs] that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for Stoic, Christian, and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives.

The theories which Religion generates, being thus variable, are secondary; and if you wish to grasp her essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements.

[Therefore] I feel bound to say that religious experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as unequivocally supporting [a singular] belief. The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.”

~William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

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About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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4 Responses to Characteristics of Spiritual Experience – William James

  1. penniewoodfall says:

    Amen…
    The greatest discovery of my generation is that man can alter his life simply by altering his attitude of mind. W.J

  2. howardat58 says:

    “William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience”
    This was the most amazing book that I read, when I was 20 or 21, so long ago!
    Read it !

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