Consciousness and Super-Consciousness
A short chapter from one of Gopi Krishna’s books, it is not clear which from this disorganized website of early internet vintage.
Note the way that the distinction of consciousness and self-consciousness (Bennett’s sensitivity and consciousness) arises in Krishna’s formulation under a different pair of terms.
None of these formulations are really adequate, and the question of super-consciousness has problems. But the basic issue is clear.
Consciousness and Super-Consciousness
In the preceding chapters I have tried to show, firstly, that the number of the mystics that had the genuine experience, throughout the course of history, has been extremely small, and that all those who claim knowledge of the spirit are not really enlightened. Secondly, that the present world is woefully deficient in the knowledge of the brain and that the learned, in dealing with mind or the origin and nature of the universe, usually leave the encephalon out of count, as if human intelligence exists incorporeally and independently, and does not depend for its manifestation, quality and performance on the activity of an organic instrument, beyond our scrutiny at present. The result is that much of our knowledge, at the moment, is unilateral and speculative, nescient of the nature of the ‘Knower’ itself. An intelligent species with a brain that shows an altered perception of time, an easy possibility, would frame an entirely different picture of the universe.
The aim of this writing is to draw attention to this serious lacunae which keeps us in ignorance about our own selves. The position that I am taking up is that the human mind, as we know it at present, is not a constant, unalterable entity. It can change and with it the whole picture of the universe, which we perceive with our senses. This is a bold statement to make, and is not likely to be accepted for the simple reason that it undermines the very foundation on which science is built, namely, the reality of the objective world and the validity of the empirical observation conducted by the mind.
The issue boils down to this: if it is admitted that the human mind is variable and that this variation can affect the very image of the universe, and all the phenomena observed, it would clearly imply that the cosmos is not, in reality, as we perceive, assess and measure it with our intelligence, but only a creation of our mind liable to change in other dimensions of the perceptive faculty. From this it would follow that the temporal knowledge gathered by us is relative also and that what is accumulated in one dimension of consciousness can prove incomplete, deceptive or erroneous in the other.
“Our conception of the structure of the universe,” says William de Sitter, “bears all the marks of a transitory structure. Our theories are decidedly in a state of continuous, and just now very rapid evolution. It is not possible to predict how long our present views and interpretations will remain unaltered and how soon they will have to be replaced by perhaps very different ones, based on new observational data and new critical insight in their connection with other data.”1 Where from is this new critical insight to come except from a more evolved mind and brain?
An affirmation of the same position comes from no less than an authority than Max Planck. He says: “How do we discover the individual laws of Physics, and what is their nature? It should be remarked, to begin with, that we have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future. It is perfectly conceivable that one fine day Nature should cause an unexpected event to occur which would baffle us all; and if this were to happen we would be powerless to make any objection, even if the result would be that, in spite of our endeavors, we should fail to introduce order into the resulting confusion. In such an event, the only course open to science would be to declare itself bankrupt. For this reason, science is compelled to begin by the general assumption that a general rule of law dominates throughout Nature.” 2
Once the position is accepted, the conclusion becomes unavoidable that all the contexts of our day-to-day experience of the world–the events which befall and the sights we see, the good and evil, noble and base, beautiful and ugly we meet, or the ideas of God, Soul and the Hereafter we entertain, all emerge from the unfathomable depths of our consciousness. This means that all we come across during the pilgrimage of life is not an objective reality, but a stupendous, realistic drama, presented by our own mind, and another enigmatic stuff, we call material energy. The latter is becoming more and more of a paradox and the more we try to reach its bottom the more paradoxical and unpredictable it becomes. For all we know, it might be a twin brother of our mind, both off-shoots of the same tree or a projected image of mind itself. The corollary that follows this view of creation, forced on us by the latest concepts in physics, is that since our brain is the junction-point, where this incredible exchange between the mind and his brother takes place, it is to the brain that we must look for a solution of the mystery.
The matter does not end there. What should now become obvious, beyond doubt, is the fact that when contemplating a grand spectacle of nature, during the day, or the shimmering firmament at night, the sense of admiration, awe or wonder felt does not come from the magnificence, loveliness or the vast extent of these external objects, inherent or dwelling in them, but from the grandeur, beauty and the immensity residing in our own consciousness. In other words, it is we who lend grandiosity, charm and vastness to an object, also horror, cheerfulness, humor or sadness to what appears to us as a dreadful, merry, ludicrous or tragic scene. What the world will look like to a mind, dead to emotions and bereft of the sense of beauty and color, I leave it to the reader to imagine.
This still does not complete the picture. The other conclusion that follows is that all the over four billion human creatures on the earth, the multi-millionaire and the pauper, the king and the beggar, the strongman and the cripple, the philanthropist and the thief, the beauty-queen and the leper, as long as they live, share the same incredible wonder in their interior, as they share the sun, the moon, the stars, the air and water, the precious bounties of nature that make life possible on earth.
It is a staggering position. But there is nothing incongruous in what I say. The scriptures of all the current faiths point to the same conclusion. Since the Soul is held to be immortal, incorporeal and divine, it must always stay immaculate, above the corporeality and the blemishes of the mortal frame. It would be blasphemous to say that there could be a sightless, lecherous, leprous or penniless Soul. It is because of an impure frame of mind that attaches more importance to the externals of religion than to its beatific interior that we are denied access to the Glory that dwells in all of us, irrespective of our station in life.
The main task of religion is to bring awareness of the divinity within to every human being. In this unique treasure of heaven no one is richer, stronger, superior or better than the other. This divine Splendor all share alike, irrespective of their position, wealth, learning intelligence, strength or looks. Like the brilliant orb of the day, it shines alike on the rich and the poor, the wise and the fool. The glaring differences and discrepancies, elegance and squalor, virtue and vice or excess and want we see around, belong to the stage and the dress of clay and not to the divine actor, ever undefiled, like a dancing beam of light. The aim of human life is to explore this ‘wonder’ in every one of us whose pleasure-ground is the universe.
This is the Message which for the last over three thousand years the exalted class of true mystics has brought to the world. This is the Message which juvenile science, at first, cared not to heed like an impetuous youngster refusing to listen to his more seasoned elders, ultimately in his declining age to regret the rebellious thoughts of his early years. There are myriads who, in their closing days, review with sorrow their reckless youth. Were there no surprises and no innovations in the province of thought in store for the human wit in the ages to come, she would die of boredom in a few centuries. It is change that keeps her alive. The pendulum is now swinging in the other direction to usher in a new era of thought in which the spirit and not matter, the mystic and not the skeptic will dominate.
An indication of this change is provided by the thoughts expressed by many eminent scientists of recent times. This is a sample of one of them: “Yet I repeat once more,” declares William James, “the existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe. As a rule, mystical states merely add a super-sensuous meaning to the ordinary outward data of consciousness. They are excitements, like the emotions of love or ambition, gifts to our spirit by means of which facts, already objectively before us fall into a new expressiveness and make a new connection with our active life. They do not contradict these facts as such, or deny anything that our senses have immediately seized. It is the rationalistic critic rather who plays the part of denier in the controversy, and his denials have no strength, for there can never be a state of facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascends to a more enveloping point of view. It must always remain an open question whether mystical states may not possibly be such superior points of view, windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world.” 3
The present-day concepts of physics no longer contradict the experience of the mystic but, on the other hand, find it more consistent with the new insights into the nature of the physical world. This view has been expressed by many of the leading physicists of our time. “A rainbow described in the symbolism of physics,” writes Eddington, “is a band of ethereal vibrations arranged in systemic order to wave-lengths from about .00004 centimeters to .000072 centimeters. From one point of view, we are paltering with the truth whenever we admire the gorgeous bow of color, and should strive to reduce our minds to such a state that we receive the same impression from the rainbow as from a table of wave-lengths. But although that is how the rainbow impresses itself on an impersonal spectroscope, we are not giving the whole truth and significance of experience–if we suppress the factors wherein we ourselves differ from the spectroscope. We cannot say that the rainbow, as part of the world, was meant to convey the vivid effects of color; but we can perhaps say that the human mind, as part of the world, was meant to perceive it that way.” 4
Another eminent physicist, James Jeans write, “In more recent times, Bertrand Russell has expressed what is essentially the same argument in the words: ‘So long as we adhere to the conventional notions of mind and matter, we are condemned to a view of perception which is miraculous. We suppose that a physical process starts from a visible object, travels to the eye, there changes into another physical process, causes yet another physical process in the optic nerve, and finally produces some effect in the brain, simultaneously with which we see the object from which the process started, the seeing being something “mental,” totally different in character from the physical processes which precede and accompany it.’ This view is so queer that metaphysicians have invented all sorts of theories designed to substitute something less incredible…
“Everything that we can directly observe from the physical world happens inside our heads, and consists of mental events which form part of the physical world. The development of this point of view will lead us to the conclusion that the distinction between mind and matter is illusory. The stuff of the world may be called physical or mental or both or neither as we please; in fact the words serve no purpose.” 5
“Even if the two entities which we have hitherto described,” continues Jeans, “as mind and matter are of the same general nature, there remains the question as to which is the more fundamental of the two. Is mind only a by-product of matter, as the materialists claimed? Or is it, as Berkeley claimed, the creator and controller of matter?
“Before the latter alternative can be seriously considered, some answer must be found to the problem of how objects can continue to exist when they are not being perceived in any human mind. There must, as Berkeley says, be ‘some other mind in which they exist.’ Some still wish to describe this, with Berkeley, as the mind of God; others with Hegel as a universal or Absolute mind in which all our individual minds are comprised. The new quantum mechanics may perhaps give a hint, although nothing more than a hint, as to how this can be.” 6
“It seems, at least, conceivable,” Jeans adds, “That what is true of perceived objects may also be true of perceiving minds; just as there are wave-pictures for light and electricity, so there may be a corresponding picture for consciousness. When we view ourselves in space and time, our consciousness is obviously the separate individuals of a particle-picture, but when we pass beyond space and time, they may perhaps form ingredients of a single continuous stream of life. As it is with light and electricity, so it may be with life; the phenomena may be individuals carrying on separate existences in space and time, while in the deeper reality beyond space and time we may all be members of one body. In brief, modern physics is not altogether antagonistic to an objective idealism like that of Hegel.” 7
I know it will be hard for me to make myself understood, as I tread on unmapped territory in the effort to bring into focus in the province of religion and science both, a vital element that has been ignored so far, namely, the center of life in the body, that is the brain. Since the organ is indispensable for all our activity and even existence in the human form, it is inconceivable that our consciousness can take a leap beyond its normal periphery without affecting its substance in any way. There is no historical precedent of a higher animal, say a horse, ever attaining the mental stature of a human being, and co-mingling with other humans on a basis of equality. How can it then be possible for a human being to consort with gods without some kind of change in the brain? Those who long for self-awareness, clairvoyant gifts, miraculous powers, communication with the spirit world, encounters with masters, or adventures in the occult realm would do well to give second thoughts to their cherished dream. The world did not produce another Christ or Buddha, Vyasa or Socrates, Plato or Mohammed, Rumi or Shankaracharya, Francis of Assisi or any other great mystic or master of the occult, because the mystery of the part played by the brain in these accomplishments remains unsolved so far. The aim of this writing is to make this hidden knowledge accessible to humanity.
I am confident of my stand, as a psychological cathartic is necessary to crown the revolution caused by science, and its off-spring, technology, in human life and thought. Without this psychological climax, mankind will continue to move in the accustomed groove and utilize the resources of the earth and also of her fertile intellect only to enhance and satisfy her physical needs as she is virtually doing now. Her most pressing need at the moment is to become aware of the spiritual goal planned for her by nature and the methods to attain it. Once this knowledge is gained and the unmatched splendor of the crown destined for her realized, no efforts of pharisees or saddusees, who thrive on the credulity and nativity of human beings, can make the race deviate from the course.
A tidal wave of skepticism, doubt and disbelief, symbolized by the materialist ideology, is sweeping over the earth, not because Satan and the Anti-Christ have become dominant nor because it is Kali-Yuga of the Indian mythology, but because the time for a further elaboration and enrichment of the religious creeds and spiritual ideals of mankind has come. Like a cocoon, man weaves a tough sheet of dogma around himself to lie inert and passive until nature tears it open with a revolution to allow him freedom. But he soon starts to weave it afresh in the newly introduced pattern of life or thought to entomb himself once again. This is true not only of religion but also of political orders, social customs, educational systems, even scientific institutions and other long-standing ideas and beliefs. It is easier, sometimes, to bore a tunnel through a mountain than to break open the shell which the conservative element in human nature builds around itself.
To believe that the universe consists of only those elements and forces that are perceptible to our senses or detected by our instruments is to belie the latest assessments of science. The very size and the extent of the Universe, the new formations discovered in the sky and the problems created by them, the marvels of the ultra-microscopic world and the possibility of even superior types of life in other parts of the Cosmos provide more than sufficient material to make it clear that the creation round us is too complex, too vast and too full of unsolved riddles to make us complacent about the fact that what our senses perceive or minds apprehend is all that exists in it. Such an attitude of mind at this stage of our knowledge can only emanate from one not in touch with the progress of today.
The first impact of genuine mystical experience on the mind of the experiencer is something like this that the world he was perceiving and his own individuality, as he was conscious of it so far, were not true realities but only the figures of, say, a relatively speaking, dream state from which he has just awakened to the full bloom of another sun shining on a splendrous world, entirely unlike the one which his senses were revealing to him before. It should be remembered that for this state of cognition, it is not necessary that the percipient should be insensible to the sensory world. Not at all. What makes mystical ecstasy an increasing wonder is the incredible fact that both the sensory and supersensory worlds can be perceived simultaneously. But how? Like the radiant sky showing a mirage on it, both visible side by side.
The real status of the ‘mystic’ has not been correctly adjudged. He is not a dreamy idealist prone to visions, conjured up by his subconscious or to epileptic seizures or to hysterical swoons or to ecstatic trances, brought about by a suppressed libido, or his own obsessive occupation with the supernatural or by a pathological condition of the brain. In those cases, where these symptoms have been exhibited by true mystics, the abnormalities were the concomitant features of the extrasensory mental state, as in the case of genius, and not the causative factors responsible for it. These are mere conjectures of the learned made in absence of an accurate knowledge of the phenomenon. Nor is he a special protege of the Almighty, sent to the earth to preach His glory among mortals and to exhort them to surrender their all for His sake and, himself intoxicated with His love, to infuse this intoxication in others also. The human intellect has since outgrown the anthropomorphic picture of the Creator and it is time she outgrows the current picture of the mystic too.
Every mystic born has been a specimen of the man to come. His self-imposed penances and his religious beliefs were the creation of his culture, faith and the environment around him. But his vivid descriptions of the new visions gained, the new worlds unfolded and the basic teachings about the way to be followed to reach the same state of perception were the outcome of knowledge gained in the new dimension of consciousness to which he had attained. The descriptions are diversely colored and at times contradictory and conflicting because they are, as it were, the first reports of a few space travelers, separated by long stretches of time and distance, viewing the gigantic planet, Jupiter, at a distance of hundreds of thousands of miles from different angles through glasses of varied magnifying power.
Nature repeatedly produced the prototype of the future man to awaken humanity to her destiny. But the multitudes, including the scholars and the divines, misinterpreting the hint, erected for themselves the four walls of ritualistic religions to confine themselves within, with a fanatical zeal which led to some of the greatest horrors in history, still repeated at times in some parts of the earth. That the followers of every faith arrogate to their own creed the highest station among all the religions, to their founder or founders the highest stature among all the prophets and to themselves the most favored position with the Almighty, makes it obvious that the human ego has been as strongly at work in this holy territory, where humility is the law, as in the other spheres of life. This shows that self-worshiping man does not even spare his Maker in the fulfillment of his selfish ends and makes of Him, too, a tool to bolster his own vanity.
I have purposely introduced the prosaic figure of the human brain in this discourse to serve as an anchor to the otherwise highly mobile vessel of thought, prone to be carried away here and there by the wind of prejudice, dogma, idiosyncrasy, stubbornness and the rest, especially when sailing on the waters of religion, philosophy or metaphysics. It is only experiments on the brain that can call a dead halt to these arbitrary flights of human thought when dealing with the phenomena of mind. In order to explain why this need has arisen, I can do no better than refer the reader to the views expressed by some of the writers on mysticism in recent times. For instance, Evelyn Underhill, in answering for her self-formulated question, “What then is the nature of this special sense–this transcendental consciousness–and how does contemplation liberate it,” proceeds to explain:
“Any attempt to answer this question brings upon the scene another aspect of man’s psychic life: an aspect of paramount importance to the student of the mystic type. We have reviewed the ways in which our surface consciousness reacts upon experience: a surface consciousness which has been trained through long ages to deal with the universe of sense. We know, however, that the personality of man is a far deeper and more mysterious thing than the sum of his conscious feeling, thought and will: that this superficial self–this Ego of which each of us is aware–hardly counts in comparison with the deeps of being which it hides. ‘There is a root or depth in Thee,’ says Law, from whence all these faculties come forth as lines from a center, or branches from the body of a tree. This depth is called the center, the fund, or bottom of the soul. This depth is the unity, the Eternity, I had almost said the infinity of the soul, for it is so infinite that nothing can satisfy it or give it any rest, but the infinity of God.” 8
“Since normal man is utterly unable to set up relations with spiritual reality by means of his feeling, thought and will, continues Underhill, “it is clearly in this depth of being–in these unplumbed levels of personality–that we must search if we would find the organ, the power, by which he is to achieve the mystic quest. The alteration of consciousness which takes place in contemplation can only mean the emergence from this ‘fund or bottom of the soul’ of some faculty which diurnal life keeps hidden ‘in the deeps.’”9
To draw a parallel for her own conclusion, Underhill turns to the widely used concept of the ‘unconscious mind,’ a handy device of modern psychology to explain whatever is unexplainable or unintelligible in the area of mind. “Modern psychology,” she continues, “in its doctrine of the unconscious or subliminal personality, has acknowledged this fact of a range of psychic life, lying below and beyond the conscious field. Indeed, it has so dwelt upon and defined this shadowy region–which is really less a ‘region’ than a useful name–that it sometimes seems to know more about the unconscious than about the conscious life of man. There it finds, side by side, the sources of his most animal instincts, his least explicable powers, his most spiritual intuitions: the ‘ape and tiger.’ and the ‘soul.’ Genius and prophecy, insomnia and infatuation, clairvoyance, hypnotism, hysteria and ‘Christian’ science–all are explained by the ‘unconscious mind.’ In his destructive moods, the psychologist has little apparent difficulty in reducing the chief phenomena of religious and mystical experience to activities of the ‘unconscious,’ seeking an oblique satisfaction of repressed desires. Where he undertakes the more dangerous duties of apologetic, he explains the same phenomena by saying that ‘God speaks to man in the subconscious,’ by which he can only mean that our apprehension of the eternal has the character of intuition rather than of thought. Yet the ‘unconscious’ after all is merely a convenient name for the aggregate of those powers, parts or qualities of the whole self which at any given moment are not conscious or that the Ego is not conscious of.” 10
I have reproduced these passages at some length for two reasons. Firstly, to show the similarity between my ideas and the view expressed that mystical vision is the herald of a ‘new birth,’ the symbol of a profound transformation in the personality of an individual which reaches down to the roots of his being, making him perceptive of spiritual realities denied to the average human folk. Secondly, to bring into focus the usual tendency among modern writers on religion, metaphysics or psychology to keep out the brain in their discussion as if it does not come into the picture at all. This habit allows too loose a rein to fancy. We know very well that even a slight alteration in the chemistry of the brain, brought about by a drug, a shock, or loss of sleep can cause an explosive change in consciousness or the personality of the subject for the time being. Hence to suppose that such a signal event as the experience of God or the entry into supersensory planes of creation can be possible without involving the cranial matter in any way is but to confess the fault, now common among scholars, of dissociating thought from the brain, both inseparable chums from birth to death.
The answer to Underhill comes very near to the commonly accepted explanations for the extraordinary experience of mystics and saints. The notion is that there are submerged capacities and potentialities in the human soul which can make these enrapturing flights to the holy precincts of divine consciousness possible for those who apply themselves heart and soul to the task. Linked inextricably to the idea that mystical ecstasy represents a union with or, at least, a vision of God, and that the human soul is a particle of the divine essence, an explanation of this kind has every semblance of plausibility and usually puts the doubts of the inquirer to rest.
Every human being is aware of himself as a self-contained independent unit of consciousness. The brain does not protrude into the personality at all. For this reason, we do not think of it any more than of other parts of the body and at times, even less. On account of the fact that a serious injury to the head can easily prove fatal, all that the people exposed to accident risk do is to take greater precautions to protect it. But even so, it does not figure more in their thought, and the idea is usually absent that the brain is our workshop and all that we observe, think or imagine happens inside its bony frame.
There are glaring discrepancies in the conventional argument adduced by Underhill. The lyrical mystical ecstasy which attracts and inspires us is comparatively of recent origin, dating at the earliest from a period of not more than three thousand years before the birth of Christ. Before that the picture of religion and the ecstatic trance is more ugly than beautiful. We should not forget the trance of the Shaman, the medicine-man, the witch-doctor and the magi which, too, among their contemporaries betokened ascent to the spirit-world or intercourse with supernatural beings. But often there was hardly any element of the divine or the sublime as we understand it today, in those states of entrancement. The rapture, the clearly marked expansion of self and the sense of identity with all creation, which marked the later expressions of the ecstatic state, are not noticeable in the earlier types, or at least in the remnants of them which survived during historical times. It is a moot issue whether the subjects of those ecstasies were mentally advanced enough even to entertain those feelings as the later mystics did.
There were many gods and goddesses, human, divine or demonic even in the form of animals, birds, reptiles and fish, that demanded bizarre types of worship and ritual, including human sacrifice, cannibalism, self-mutilation, infanticide, obnoxious ceremonies, revolting sexual orgies and the like. It is not wise to overlook, in our zeal to find a supernatural explanation for mystical ecstasy, the dark side of religion or religious experience in the primitive phases of human culture nor the barbarous features that attended the birth and growth of current faiths–forced conversion, ruthless persecution, bloody wars and massacres, pillage and rape, the curse of untouchability, the revolting custom of sati, self emasculation, the horrors of the Inquisition and the rest.
The mystics, whose writings or recorded histories are before us, do not even form one billionth of the population that lived on earth and passed away during this period. Why they alone were gifted that way we do not know. Why even now hardly one out of myriads reports success in the same endeavor is still an enigma. Millions of aspirants to Samadhi in India abandon their homes, dwell in solitude, practise every form of austerity, penance and self-discipline, meditate and pray day and night without coming anywhere near this state of indescribable beatitude. Were the ‘sense’ of Timeless Being an integral part of man’s spiritual consciousness, as argued by Underhill, then the Vision of Reality would be equally accessible to all, of course, with variations in the degree of success gained, as happens when a class of students attends a university course to widen their knowledge or a group of athletes works in a gymnasium to streamline their bodies. If this view were correct, the ‘Vision’ would have been the same for the cave dwellers of the neolithic age as it is for the cultured products of this day. But we know this is not the case and the two are poles apart. Why in our religious beliefs do we overlook the past?
The extreme rarity of success in this enterprise has been clearly recognized in India. “Among thousands of men,” says the Bhagavad-Gita, “scarce one striveth for perfection, and of the successful strivers, scarce one knoweth me in essence.” But even this rare one who achieves the blessed union has, according to the Indian tradition, behind him an accumulated store of meritorious actions done in previous lives, which form the seeds of success in his present one. Explaining this, the Gita says: “But a Yogi, laboring with assiduity, purified from sin, fully perfected through manifold births, he reacheth the supreme goal.” This is emphasized again at another place: “At the close of many births, the man full of wisdom cometh unto Me; ‘Vasudeva is all; saith he, the Mahatma very difficult to find.” 11
It is obvious that the glorious consummation of human life, of which the Gita sings, and of which a glowing picture is presented in the writings of all great mystics of the past, cannot be the work of a day or even of a lifetime, unless there are constitutional factors favorable to the climax, of which we have no knowledge yet. In this respect, the great mystics can be classed with the great secular geniuses of the earth. The mystical consciousness of an Eckhart, or Al-Ghazali or a Chaitanya, is not possible for even one out of hundreds of thousands of earnest practicers of yoga or other spiritual disciplines, in the same way as the intellectual achievement of a Shankara, or Einstein is not possible for every scholar or university professor. What these constitutional factors are, it will be my endeavor to explain.
I have briefly touched on the views expressed by Evelyn Underhill, as representative of a religious bent of mind, which believes in God and the divine nature of the Soul. For the views representative of modern psychology, I shall turn to William James and quote him at some length to show the wide divergence in the two points of view. The trouble starts when the Freudian psychologists on the one side, behaviorists on the other, transpersonal on the third, anthropologists on the fourth, physicists on the fifth, philosophers on the sixth, theologians on the seventh, the laity on the eighth, the Vedantists on the ninth, the occultists on the tenth and, to crown it all, the mystics themselves on the eleventh, express highly divergent views on the same phenomenon, using all the embellishments of language and the resources of intellect to make their point, without even one calling in for evidence the one single witness of all the happenings in this historically ageless scene. Not one of them even mentions the brain.
“The last aspect of religious life which remains for me to touch upon,” writes James, “is the fact that its manifestations so frequently connect themselves with the subconscious part of our existence. You may remember what I said in my opening lecture about the presence of the psychopathic temperament in religious biography. You will in point of fact hardly find a religious leader of any kind in whose life there is no record of automatisms. I speak not merely of savage priests and prophets, whose followers regard automatic utterance and action as by itself tantamount to inspiration, I speak of leaders of thought and subjects of intellectualized experience. Saint Paul had his visions, his ecstasies, his gift of tongues, small as was the importance he attached to the latter. The whole array of Christian saints and heresiarchs, including the greatest, the Bernards, the Loyolas, the Luthers, the Foxes, the Wesleys, had their visions, voices, rapt conditions, guiding impressions and ‘openings.’ They had these things because they had exalted sensibility, and to such things persons of exalted sensibility are liable. In such liability there lie, however, consequences for theology. Beliefs are strengthened wherever automatisms corroborate them. Incursions from beyond the transmarginal region have a peculiar power to increase conviction. The inchoate sense of presence is infinitely stronger than conception, but strong as it may be, it is seldom equal to the evidence of hallucination. Saints who actually see or hear their Savior reach the acme of assurance. Motor automatism though rarer is, if possible, even more convincing than sensations. The subjects here actually feel themselves played upon by powers beyond their will. The evidence is dynamic; the God or spirit moves the very organs of their body.” 12
“When, in addition to these phenomena of inspiration,” adds William James, we take religious mysticism into account, when we recall the striking and sudden unification of a discordant self which we saw in conversion, and when we review the extravagant obsessions of tenderness, purity and self-severity met with in saintliness, we cannot, I think, avoid the conclusion that in religion we have a department of human nature with unusually close relations to the transmarginal or subliminal region. If the word ‘subliminal’ is offensive to any of you, as smelling too much of psychical research or other aberrations, call it by any other name, to distinguish it from the level of full sunlit consciousness. Call this latter the A-region of personality, if you care to, and call the other the B-region. The B-region, then, is obviously the larger part of each of us, for it is the abode of everything that is latent and the reservoir of everything that passes unrecorded or unobserved. It contains, for example, such things as all our momentarily inactive memories, and it harbors the springs of all our obscurely motive passions, impulses, likes, dislikes and prejudices. Our intuitions, hypotheses, fancies, superstitions, persuasions, convictions, and in general, all our non-rational operations, come from it. It is the source of our dreams, and apparently they may return to it. In it arise whatever mystical experiences we may have, and our automatisms, sensory or motor; our life in hypnotic and ‘hypnoid’ conditions, if we are subjects of such conditions; our delusions, fixed ideas, and hysterical accidents, if we are hysteric subjects; our supra-normal cognitions, if such there be, and if we are telepathic subjects. It is also the fountainhead of such that feeds our religion. In persons deep in the religious life, as we have now abundantly seen–and this is my conclusion–the door into this region seems unusually wide open; at any rate, experiences making their entrance through that door have had emphatic influence in shaping religious history.” 13
This is where we land at the end–the bottomless hollow of the unconscious, the sub-conscious, below-the-surface, transmarginal and subliminal mind. This is the hidden region of our personality which, they say, stalks on the stage in dreams, hypnotic and somnambulistic conditions, in hysteria and insanity, in genius and inspiration, in mediumistic displays and extrasensory perception, in possession, obsession and fixations, in cracks, twists and kinks in the brain; in fact, in all the abnormal, paranormal, extraordinary or inexplicable conditions of the mind.
But has anyone explained why in some it leads to nightmares, in some to happy dreams, in some to a mixture of the two and in some to dreamless sleep? Why some are somnambulists, others not; why some are suggestible and more intractable; why, in some, it leads to the highest purity and nobility of character, as in mystics and, in some, to revolting compulsions or horrible perversions; which make them act more like brutes than human beings; why in some it leads to the horrors of insanity and in some to the joy of creation? What rational solution is this that leaves everything unexplained? To say religion and religious experience come from the unconscious is to shift the venue to another compartment of the same mind. But, whether from this compartment or that, mind is the bastion from which these incursions and invasions, insidious or sudden, come. This we know, but how?
Were we to believe implicitly the saga of the ‘unconscious,’ the suggestion would be irresistible that we harbor in our interior the arch-fiend himself, and fall victim to his machinations every moment of our lives. He turns into psychopaths the rare few who have the Vision of God, into lunatics the handful who create or discover new treasures for the race, shocks the pure and innocent in dreams or maddens the good and gentle with appalling fear in wakefulness! Where is the man who can truthfully declare that he has subdued this invincible giant? Who has taken a census yet or alleviated the anguish of myriads who watch daily with horror, grief or shock the unpredictable obliquities of their own mind? Does all this cart-load of fears, sorrows and sins rumble out of the cavernous ‘unconscious’ or does it symbolize a slice of the torment reserved for rebellious man for partaking of the forbidden fruit?
1 William de Sitter, Relativity and Modern Theories of the Universe
2 Max Planck, Universe in the Light of Modern Physics
3 William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
4 A. S. Eddington, Science and Mysticism
5 James Jeans, Some Problems of Philosophy
8 Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism
11 Bhagavad-Gita, 7:19
12William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience