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American Academy of Religion

On Mystical Experiences as Support for the Perennial Philosophy

Author(s): Jonathan Shear
Source: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), pp.
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Journalof theAmericanAcademyof ReligionLXII/2

On Mystical Experiencesas
Support for the Perennial
Jonathan Shear

MOSTMODERN,empirically-orientedphilosophers the so-

called "perennialphilosophy" is likely to appear, at best, as a
quaint throwbackto an earlier,less scientific age. For its central
notions appear to be based either on empirically ungrounded
rationalistic intuitions or on mystical experiences that defy
rational empirical analysis. Neverthelessthe basic notions of this
"philosophy"have, as its name would suggest, persisted through-
out history, and majorthinkers continue to discuss it in a serious
way. In particular,philosophers of the status of BertrandRussell
earlier in the century, and Huston Smith and Steven Katz today,
continue to debate the question of whether the perennialphiloso-
phy can properly draw empirical support from our knowledge of
the phenomenological content of mystical experiences. Interest-
ingly, while all threeof these philosophersrejectthe notion of such
support, their rejectionsare developed in very differentand often
mutually conflicting ways. The thesis of the present paper is that
reflection on these conflictingrejectionsshows (1) that each is cor-
rect and incorrect in different,importantways and (2) that when
taken together they suggest a conclusion quite different from the
empiricallynegative one they each arriveat individually.

Let us begin by outlining four theses often associated with the
"core"of the perennialphilosophy: (1) The phenomenalworld is
the manifestation of a transcendentalground; (2) human beings
are capable of attaining immediate knowledge of that ground;

JonathanShearis AffiliateProfessorof Philosophyand ReligiousStudiesat VirginiaCom-

monwealthUniversity,915 W. FranklinStreet,Richmond,VA23284-2025.


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320 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

(3) in addition to their phenomenalegos, human beings possess a

transcendentalSelf which is of the same or like nature with that
transcendentalground;and (4) this identificationis life's chief end
or purpose.'
These theses often have been closely related to mysticalexper-
iences, especially to what are generallydescribed as the two "core"
types of mystical experience. The first of these, often called the
"introvertive" mystical experience (or "IME"),is characterizedas
being pure, contentless awareness,gained at the depths of self
within, and completely devoid of all determinatephenomenologi-
cal contents (sense perceptions,images, thoughts, emotions, sense
of individual identity, etc.) whatsoever.2The second, or "extrover-
tive"mysticalexperience ("EME"), is characterizedas being aware-
ness this same empiricallycontentless, abstract,transcendental
"reality"as underlying every object in one's experiences, external
(trees, the sky, etc.) as well as internal (thoughts, feelings, etc.).3
It is not hard to see why these experiences have traditionally
been closely associated with the theses of the perennial philoso-
phy. For the IME experience could easily appear to give some
empiricalsupport to the notion of a transcendentalground of self,
beyond the phenomenal ego, within. And the EME experience
would appear to give primafacie support to both the thesis that
there exists a transcendentalgroundto the phenomenalworld and
the thesis that this groundis at least closely akin to, if not the same
as, that of the self within. Indeed, these conclusions have often
been drawn by mystics and perennialiststhroughouthistory.

For those of us who are empirically minded, and who may
never have had any experiences corresponding to the standard
characterizationsof the IMEand EMEexperiences,the above con-
clusions are likely to seem premature,at the very least. But the

1Takenfrom Huston Smith,afterAldous Huxley'sformulation(Smith 1987:554). Smith

uses the term "Divine"insteadof "transcendental."
2CompareStace: "akind of consciousnesswhich has no objects,""pureconsciousness ...
without any empiricalcontent,"etc. (82).
3Use of the locution "awarenessof .. ." to referto the IME-likeaspect (as well as the ordi-
nary, empiricalcomponents)of the EMEexperienceis for stylistic simplicityand natural-
ness alone;no suggestionof intentionalstructureor empiricalcontent(forthis aspectof the
experience)is intendedthereby.

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Shear:MysticalExperiences 321

existence throughout history of descriptions of experiences corre-

sponding to these characterizations would naturally appear to sug-
gest that the perennialist theses described above at least could have
some empirical content-and even support-and do not necessarily
have to be treated only as non-empirical, non-corroboratable arti-
facts of abstract metaphysical and religious speculation. Katz,
Smith, and Russell however have argued that even this rather mod-
est empirical response to the experiences in question is ill advised.
Katz's critique is perhaps the most basic, for he argues that the
IME and EME experiences cannot be used even to give content to,
much less ground, the theses of the perennial philosophy for the
simple reason that they do not exist at all. Katz, of course, does
not disagree that descriptions that appear to correspond to the
characterizations of these experiences are found in the mystical
literature of diverse cultures throughout the history of the world.
His argument instead is on general epistemological grounds. For,
according to Katz
All "givens"are . . the product of the processes of "choosing,"
"shaping,"and "receiving."That is, the "given"is appropriated
throughacts which shape it into forms which we can make intelli-
gible to ourselvesgiven our conceptualconstitution. (1978:59)
Thus, mystical experiences, like all others, must
involve memory, apprehension,expectation, language, accumula-
tion of prior experience, concepts, and expectations, with each
experiencebeing built on the back of all these elements and being
shaped anew by each fresh experience.(59)
Katz then applies this thesis to mystical experiences in general,
and the IME experience in particular, in the following way. Every
experience, whether mystical or not, must be the shaped "product"
or "outcome" of one's prior, complex epistemological history and
activity (62). This "shaping" is thus built up of "images, beliefs,
symbols," etc. which "define, in advance,"what all of one's exper-
iences will be like (33). Thus, since these components are largely
culture-dependent and culture-specific, all of one's experiences,
including mystical experiences, must be culture-dependent. Katz
then concludes, hermeneutically, that there can be no given experi-
ence which is the same across different religions, cultures, etc.
Thus, in particular, it is simply a mistake to talk about the IME
experience at all.

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322 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

It is easy to see, however,that, whether or not Katz's general
epistemological argument may turn out to be correct for most
experiences, it does not apply to anythingthat fulfills the defining
characteristicof the IMEexperience. For the defining characteris-
tic of this experience,as we have seen, is that it contains no empiri-
cal content whatsoever. That is, experiences described in the
mystical (and other) literatureof the world are identified as IME's
only when they make it clear that they have no empirical content,
that is, no sensory qualities, images, thoughts, sense of identity,
etc. Thus theseexperiences clearly have none of the kinds of con-
tent Katz is concerned with (images, beliefs, symbols, etc.).
Indeed, the relevant descriptions often even make it quite clear
that, phenomenologically,they do not even have any spatio-tempo-
ral manifold in which such contents can be located. Thus, while
Katz's argumentmay be relevantto many experiences,mystical or
otherwise, it has no force with regardto any experiences which
fulfill the defining characteristicof the IMEexperience. And a sim-
ilar analysis readilyshows that it can have no force with regardto
the specifically mystical, IME-likecomponent of the EMEexperi-
ence either. In short, Katz's argument that the mystical exper-
iences in question cannot be used to give empirical significance
and/or support to the perennial philosophy fails on the ground
that his a priori epistemologicalanalysesdo not applyto the exper-
iences in question at all.4 Since these points have been developed

4Alternatively,one can equallywell arguethat the experiencesin question directlyfalsify

Katz'scentralthesis of the necessaryculture-dependent elements-and-constructionnatureof
experiencesin general. See, for example,Shear(1990a).
We can also note that, in a lateressay, Katzhimself makesexceptions(to the supposed
universalhermeneuticalrule of culture-dependence) for experienceson the simplest,most
"infantile,and sensate level."(1988:755). This, presumably,is because such examplesare
too simple to be constructedout of the complex socially conditioned components Katz
argues constituteour experiencesin general. Such exceptions,of course, vitiate Katz'sa
priori general argumentfor the supposed universalrule of culture-dependenceand show
that this "rule"cannot simply be presumedto apply to any given experience(such as the
IMEexperience) independentlyof considerationof its phenomenologicalcontent. More-
over,it is easy to see that this rule is, if anything,even moreinapplicableto the IMEexperi-
ence under discussion than to the exceptions Katz himself allows. For as
phenomenologicallyqualitylessand devoidof all internaldistinctionswhatsoever,this expe-
rience if anythingis even simplerthan Katz'sexceptions-fornothingcould be phenomeno-
logically simplerthan an experiencewith no empiricalcontentat all. Thus once againwe
see that this experience(and the IME-likecomponentof EMEexperiences)lies outside the
properdomain of Katz'shermeneuticalargumentsand culture-dependence "rule."

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Shear: Mystical Experiences 323

at length elsewhere,5 let us now turn to one of Katz's arguments

about the relationship of the experiences in question to the peren-
nial philosophy which does appear to be well taken.

In an exchange of articles between Huston Smith and Katz on
the question of the empirical significance of the IME and other
mystical experiences, Smith argued, on grounds akin to those
above, that Katz is mistaken, and that it is in fact intelligible to talk
of IME experiences as existing throughout diverse cultures and his-
torical epochs. Smith then made clear that he himself is a staunch
supporter of the perennial philosophy. But then, surprisingly,
Smith argues that Katz's attack is not really germane to the ques-
tion of the truth of the theses of the perennial philosophy at all.
For, according to Smith, the claims of the perennial philosophy "do
not appeal to experience at all":
The doctrines derive from metaphysicalintuitions, and it is to
these that the perennialphilosophy appeals. To discern the truth
of a metaphysicalaxiom one need not have an "experience."The
ontological discernmentsof pure intellection,which must be dis-
tinguished from rational argumentation. . . have nothing to do
with mysticalraptureor access to [IME]states of "pureconscious-
ness." (1987:554)
Thus, for Smith, "metaphysical intuitions" and "discernments of
pure intellection" are primary, and experience, whether mystical or
not, is secondary. For the perennialist, on Smith's account, prop-
erly arrives at his or her ontological conclusions "more deductively
than inductively" (560). And these independent conclusions, far
from drawing support from the experiences in question, serve
instead to "elucidate" and "validate"them (554).
Thus Smith's point (unlike Katz's) is not at all that the exper-
iences do not exist (as a coherent class). He holds that they do,
and is well versed in the relevant literature. His point is simply
that they are epistemologically secondary to the appropriate "meta-
physical intuitions" and "discernments" insofar as the task of
determining the truth of the theses of the perennial philosophy is
concerned. This, of course, is a radically non-empirical and non-

5See, for example, Shear (1990a) and Forman. These works also contain various accounts,
both traditional and modern, of the IME and related mystical experiences.

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324 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

scientific sort of approach. Smith is clear, and non-apologetic,

about this.6
Katz, not surprisingly, takes strong issue with this approach,
pointing out that such a deductivemethod of arrivingat ontologi-
cal conclusions will "hardly[be] persuasivefor anyone who is not
alreadya true believer"(1988:754). For it appearsto proceed
as muchby way of testimonyas by way of analyticor historical
scholarship.... [and]substitutesa prioriandnon-disconfirmable
intuitionsfor reasoned,defendabletheoriesor generalizations.
For those of us who are empirically-mindedratherthan rationalis-
tic in orientation,Katz'scriticismhere will thus appearwell taken.

And there are, I think, good reasons for being empirically-
minded here. Establishing the existence of things outside the
realm of thought requiresgoing beyond the realm of thought, and
deduction by itself remains within the realm of thought. This, of
course, is the insight underlying many centuries of (many of) the
critiques of Anselm's "Proofs."And it is a methodological main-
stay of scientific method. While there are of course those who
remain highly rationalistic (and even some who are convinced
Anselm is correct)today, the problemswith this approach,and its
tendency to support dogmatism rather than the critical falsifica-
tion and progress characteristicof empirical science, are all too
well known.
Thus, from the empiricist perspective,ontological statements
ought to be empirically testable. And to be relevantly testable,
their central (non-logical)terms need to be empiricallyinterpreta-
ble. Here the mysticalexperiencesin question would appearcapa-
ble of playing an important role. For centuries they have
traditionallybeen taken to give the relevantexperientialcontent for
the crucial but otherwise utterly abstract(and seemingly empiri-
cally non-significant)notions of "transcendentalgrounds"of the
self and the universe central to the theses in question. Indeed,
many of the world's major mystical traditions have insisted that

6Indeed, he introduces these ideas under the section-heading, "The Central, Neglected
Claim of the Perennial Philosophy" (554).

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Shear:MysticalExperiences 325

these experiences have to be had beforeone can fully comprehend

the theses in question. And as we shall see, it can be argued that
only these experiences can give appropriateexperiential signifi-
cance to their central concepts.7 In short, these experiences pro-
vide the most obvious and naturalbasis both for giving the theses
of the perennialphilosophy some experientialsignificanceand for
treating them as significant,empiricallyfalsifiableclaims.
Thus it seems that while Smithis correctabout the existence of
the experiencesin question, Katzis correctabout their importance
for understanding and evaluating the perennialist theses in an
empirically significantway. Assuming,then, that the experiences
exist and that their phenomenological nature accords at least
roughly with the paradigmaticdescriptionsof them made over the
centuries, it would seem reasonableto attemptto evaluatethe per-
ennial philosophy in terms of these experiencesto see if they are in
fact capable of renderingits centraltheses empiricallyintelligible,
and even of lending them some empirical support, as has intui-
tively been thought for centuries.

Bertrand Russell, however, in his classic essay, "Critiqueof
Mysticism,"suggests that this seemingly commonsensicalattempt
is entirely hopeless. Russell both accepts and emphasizes the
"remarkableunanimity"of mystics with regard to categories of
experiences and some intellectualcomponents central to the per-
ennial philosophy. He also holds that these basic experiences
appearto be evocableby means of meditation,yoga, and austerity
(fasting, etc.), especially as practiced in the Far East. Thus one
might think that such methodically evocable experiences could
serve as important beginning points for evaluatingthe perennial
philosophy in a scientific way.
Russell, however,thinks that they cannot. Whateverindividual
mystics themselvesmay feel about it, their experiences should not
be taken as the basis of any significant assertions about the
The man of science,when he wishes othersto see what he has
seen,arrangeshis microscopeortelescope;thatis to say,he makes

7See, for example, Shear (1990b:Chapters 4 and 7).

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326 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

changes in the externalworld, but demands of the observer only

normal eyesight. The mystic,on the otherhand, demandschanges
in the observer,by fasting,by breathingexercises,and by a careful
abstention from external observation [i.e., in meditation].
The mystic's observations thus come about by a change in the
observer. As a result they cannot be regarded as providing reliable
information about the world observed, even if the changes in the
observer are brought about systematically and produce congruent
experiential responses in different people (86). Many things (e.g.,
alcohol and drugs) affect our perception, and the results of altered
perception are often simply false. Thus, Russell concludes,
From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction
between the man who eats little and sees heavenand the man who
drinks much and sees snakes. (88)
Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has
abnormalperceptions ... [and] in abnormalperceptionsthere is
no reason to expect ... correspondence[with fact]. (88)
Consequently mystics' experiences should not be counted as evi-
dence at all about the nature of the universe, or, of course, for the
claims of the perennial philosophy (88).

Russell's argument thus contains three basic points: (1) the
mystic changes his (or her) own physiology rather than his objec-
tive means of observation, (2) altered physiological states are often
associated with conspicuously false and unreliable perceptions,
and (3) from a scientific standpoint there is no relevant difference
between the kinds of alteration associated with intoxicants and
hallucinogens and those associated with the mystical experiences
in question. However plausible this argument may seem at first
glance, two of its arguments bear reconsideration. Point (2) above
is, of course, incontestable. But the significance of point (1) is not
so obvious. For it is not at all clear that changing the physiology of
the observer should in itself render resulting observations suspect.
The central nervous system is itself an instrument for perception
and cognition. And it is not obvious that there is an in principle
difference between changing an internal instrument vs. changing

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Shear:MysticalExperiences 327

an external one. The critical thing is whether the change is an

improvementor not, and whether we can establish whether it is.8
Thus the relevant question is not one of whether the observer
(rather than external objective means of observation) has been
changed, but how we are to evaluate the results, perceptual and
cognitive,of any change. ConsequentlyRussell'sthirdpoint is also
at best premature. For "froma scientific point of view"determina-
tion of whether or not we can make any relevant distinction
between the kinds of alterationassociatedwith intoxicatingchemi-
cals and those associated with traditionalyoga and meditation
practices surely ought to be a result of objectivescientific evalua-
tion of the alterations in question rather than mere intellectual
The seeming force of Russell's argumentthus comes from the
fact that we generally, and quite rightly, associate alteredphysiol-
ogy, perception,and cognitionwith disorderedphysiology,percep-
tion, and cognition. But, logically, this is not the only way that
physiology and/or perception can differ from the norm. A per-
son's physiology and cognitive and perceptual abilities logically
could be more highly orderedand effectivethan the normal. This
opens the logical possibility that someone might perceive things
that most of us do not because of a physiologyand mind which are
functioning better (ratherthan worse) than the norm.9
The relevant question, then, is whether we have grounds for
thinkingthat unusual perceptionsare associatedwith a physiology
and psychologywhich is differentfromthe norm by virtue of being
(a) disorderedor (b) unusually orderly and effective. That is, in
our present context, the question becomes one of whether the IME
and EMEexperiences are betterunderstoodas productsof physiol-
ogy and psychology which are of the former or the latter type. If
the former(disordered),then it would be reasonableto presume,in
the absence of other relevant evidence, that the unusual percep-
tions are likely to be delusive, and Russell's stance would appear
reasonable. But if the latter (unusually orderlyand effective),then

8Radialkeratotomy,for example,when successfulproducesa changein a person'svisual

apparatuswhich conspicuouslyimprovesperception,and we have more than a little evi-
dence that alteringa person'sbrainchemistrycan sometimesimproveobjectiveevaluation
of the environmentby reducingand/or eliminatingdelusiveperceptionsof various sorts.
9Consider,for example,the case of people whose eyesightis so sharp that they can see
paramecia'sspiral motion with their unaided eyes, and the status of their observational
reportsin a society which does not yet have magnifyinglenses.

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328 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

we would have reason to consider seriously the possibility that the

perceptionsreflect aspects of objectiverealitythat the rest of us are
missing, and to attempt to devise ways of evaluatingtheir signifi-
cance independently of the truth claims of the unusual people
reportingthe experiences.

At the time Russellwrote the articlecited above,objectivescien-
tific investigation of this topic was hardly possible. The exper-
iences in question werevery rare,and in the Westernworld we had
little experience with systematicprocedures for producing them.
The recent widespread dissemination of traditionalEasternmedi-
tation techniques(first Zen and Yoga,then TranscendentalMedita-
tion [TM]) throughout the Western world in general, and the
scientific communityin particular,however,has providedthe basis
for a large and growingbody of scientific researchrelevantto this
The mental and physiological functioning associated with
intoxicating drugs has of course been recognizedthroughouthis-
tory as often being significantlyimpaired. Traditionally,however,
the mental and physical functioning associated with the kinds of
mystical experiences we have been discussing has generally been
taken to be betterthan normal, often even conspicuously so. This
understanding is reflected in traditionalstories about saints and
sages, both East and West;it is a centralcomponent of the claims
of many Easternphilosophicaland spiritualtraditionsthat empha-
size meditation and yoga; and comparable,althoughgenerallyless
systematic, claims have been made throughoutthe history of the
Western spiritualtraditions.10And in the present century similar,
although more modest, claims of enhanced mental functioning in
association with the experiencesin question are found in the work
of Maslowand other psychologistsin their studies of creativityand
Most importantlyfor our purposes, thereis now a considerable
body of research on the physiological,psychological, and behav-

10ComparePlato and Neo-Platonistssuch as Plotinusand Proclus,Catholicsaints such as

Teresaof Avilaand St.John of the Cross,etc.
1lFor an analysis of the "peakexperiences"of creativegeniuses such as Einstein and
Brahmsin terms of the phenomenologyof experiencesof the sort we havebeen discussing,
see Shear(1990b:Chapter5, and 1982).

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Shear:MysticalExperiences 329

ioral correlatesand apparenteffects of these experiences as gained

through traditionalmeditation techniques. Traditionallythe IME
experience has regularlybeen associatedwith a unique physiologi-
cal state characterizedby significant reduction of metabolic rate,
and reduction and even complete suspension of respiration.12
Contemporaryresearch now supports the association of the IME
experience with such a physiological state, adding, to be sure,
knowledge of features (such as EEG coherence) unknown to
prescientificpeoples. The researchalso providessome support for
traditionalassociations of this experience and physiologicalstate
with enhanced physicaland mental functioning. Enhancedcentral
nervous system functioning (EEGcoherence, autonomic stability,
speed of interneuralresponse), perceptionand mind-bodycoordi-
nation (selectivity and accuracyof attention, reaction time, hand-
eye coordination),and psychologicalfunctioning(intelligence,cre-
ativity, field independence, self-actualization),for example, have
been reported as direct correlates of the experience and/or the
practice of traditionalmeditation techniques associated with it in
the researchliterature.13
Not everyonewho practicesthe relevantmeditationtechniques,
of course, reports having the IME experience. In addition, the
enhanced physiologicaland psychologicalfunctioningreported in
the research literatureis generally not so dramatic as the tradi-
tional anecdotal meditation-relatedliterature(about Zen masters,
yogis, etc.) might lead one to expect. Indeed, many of the reported
differences (EEGcoherence, field-independence,intelligence,etc.)
are described as developingso gradually,and/or as being so sub-

12Thisassociation is found throughoutclassical texts of meditation-orientedtraditions

such as Yoga,Vedanta,Buddhismand Taoism,and in the autobiographicalaccounts of
Western mystics such as St. Teresaof Avila. CompareYogaSutras (81), BhagavadGita
(277), Chuangtze(633), and Teresaof Avila(97-98).
13ForEEGcoherence,autonomicstability,speed of interneuralresponse,etc., see Gallois
and Orme-Johnson; forselectivityand accuracyof attention,reactiontime,etc., see Banquet;
for a reviewof studies of intelligence,creativity,field independence,self-actualization,etc.,
see Alexander.These arerepresentative samplesof the hundredsof studiesof the IMEexpe-
rience and associatedmeditationpracticespublishedin researchjournalsoverthe past few
decades. This researchwas first conductedlargelyin associationwith Zen and Yoga,and
now most often (perhapshalf the articlesnow foundin a typicalliteraturesearch)in associ-
ation with the TranscendentalMeditation(TM)technique,presumably,as frequentlystated
in the literature,because the ease of learning and practice and apparentconsistency of
effects of this techniquemake it unusuallywell-suitedfor empiricalscientificinvestigation
with its randomassignmentprotocols,need for statisticallysignificantexperimentalpopu-
lations, etc. Forstudies on TM,see CollectedPapers:VolumesI-V. ForZen and Yoga,com-
pare Akishige,Sugi, Hoenig,Wenger,and Bagchi.

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330 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

tie, that careful laboratoryand/or psychologicaltesting is needed

to display them with clarity, or even at all. We should also note
that the researchshould of course not be interpretedas applyingto
all reports of the experience in question (for even crazy people,
too, might reportit), to other types of "mystical"experiences, or to
proceduresdifferentfrom those actually studied. Nevertheless,if
we confine ourselvesto the IMEexperienceas actuallystudied, the
researchreportsvarious types of enhanced functioningat least in
the direction of that described in the non-meditation-relatedpsy-
chological studies of peak experiences, creativityand self-actuali-
zation, and, to a lesser degree, of that described in many of the
world's meditation-relatedtraditions. Moreresearch,to be sure, is
needed. But the currentresults reportingnervous system and psy-
chological functioningat least modestly better (and definitely not
worse) than normal clearly militate against Russell'spresumption
of subnormal functioningwith regardto the IMEexperience.
The case with the EMEexperienceis somewhat different. Very
little research has so far been conducted on this experience, pre-
sumably because it is less frequentlyreported and thereforeless
availablefor objectivescientific study.14Thus the researchresults
described abovedo not in generalapplydirectlyto this experience.
Nevertheless, the close historical association of the EMEexperi-
ence with both the IME experience and meditation procedures
alreadycorrelatedin the researchwith enhancedphysiologicaland
psychological functioning, would at least suggest that the EME
experience, too, is likely to be found in conjunction with such
enhanced rather than subnormal functioning, especially when it
occurs in conjunctionwith the experiencesand proceduresalready
In short, the current research now suggests, contrary to Rus-
sell, that we have good empiricalreason (1) to differentiatethe IME
experience, and by inferenceperhaps the EMEexperience as well,
from experiences produced in conjunction with dysfunctional

14Stace,and others following him, have described the IME experience as being more
"advanced" than the EMEexperience,apparentlybecausethe formerexperience,havingno
empiricalcontent at all, appearslogically most unlike (and thereforefarthestfrom) our
ordinary,"non-mystical" experience. But traditionssuch as Zen, Yoga,and Vedantahave
long often held, in agreementwith the currentresearchliterature,that what we have been
callingthe EMEexperiencegenerallycomes only aftersufficientacquaintancewith the sim-
pler IMEexperience. (The logic would seem to be that the EMEexperience,somehowcom-
bining the contents of our ordinarynon-mysticalexperiencesand the nature of the IME
experience,would normallyrely on prior familiaritywith the simplerIMEexperience.)

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Shear:MysticalExperiences 331

physiological states, and (2) to take seriously the possibility that

these "mystical"experiences may have some objective significance,
despite their unusual nature.

We have so far seen that if one approaches the topic empirically
rather than aprioristically, it appears that the experiences we have
been discussing (1) exist, universally and culture-independently,
(2) appear to give otherwise absent empirical significance to the
theses of the perennial philosophy, (3) are highly relevant to evalu-
ating the truth of these theses, and (4) and have become the subject
of a significant body of scientific examination in their own right.
This, is to be sure, is only a beginning. Even if the above con-
clusions are accepted, neither the objective significance of the
experiences in question nor the truth of claims of the perennial
philosophy have so far been established. This would require
extended conceptual and empirical analyses and empirical studies
quite beyond anything possible here. But such an empirical
approach, rather than the largely aprioristic ones of Smith, Katz,
and Russell, would appear to be the sensible way to begin to
attempt to resolve the questions raised.
Let us see briefly how such an examination might proceed.
Consider, for example, the third of the four basic theses of the per-
ennial philosophy articulated by Smith and Huxley. This thesis,
stating (in part) that there is a pure transcendental basis to the
self, has traditionally been thought to be given content and (par-
tial) corroboration by the pure qualityless IME experience. This
connection between the IME experience and the transcendental
ground of self is, of course, found in wisdom traditions throughout
the world. In the words of the Mandukya Upanishad, for example,
Turia[the "fourth"state of consciousness, afterdeep sleep, dream-
ing, and ordinarywaking]is not that which cognizes the internal
(objects), not that which cognizes the external (objects),not what
cognizes both of them, not a mass of cognition, not cognitive,not
non-cognitive.(It is) unseen, incapableof being spoken of, ungras-
pable, without any distinctivemarks,unthinkable,unnameable...
The fourth [state, turia]is that which has no elements,which can-
not be spoken of... non-dual... He who knows it thus entersthe
self with his self. (Mandukya:698 and 701)
Similarly, classical Chinese Zen insists

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332 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

When the mind is reducedto impotency,it is compared... to that

of a withered log, an unconscious skull, a wooden horse, a stone
girl and an incense burner in a deserted temple . .. The mind,
thus stripped of all its activities [thought, feeling, experiencing,
etc.], will be reducedto impotencyand will vanish sooner or later,
leaving its place to the self-nature[i.e., self-naturealone remains.
Thus] . . . This death of the mind leads to the resurrection of the
self nature. (Luk: 20-21)15
And as put by the medieval English author of The Cloud of
It is through this passing beyond yourself and every other thing
(and therebycleansingyourselffromall worldly,physical,and nat-
ural love, and from everythingthat can be known by the normal
processes of mind) that you will be caughtup beyond the range of
the intellect... Enterinto this darknesswith love .. . this supreme
and dazzelingdarkness.. . [and come to experience]the self in its
naked, unmade,unbegun state. How? No one knows but only he
who tries it. (Pseudo-Dionysius:209-13)
Thus we see examples from the Vedic, Zen and Catholic tradi-
tions of India, China, and England, respectively, of claims that the
true nature of the inner self is revealed by the logically unique,
empirically qualityless IME experience, gained when one tran-
scends all perception, thought, and other empirical contents.16 It
is just such claims, of course, that have given rise to the perennial
philosophy in the first place.17
Let us thus take it as a given that accounts such as the above
express (a significant part of) the meaning of the perennial claim
about self, and turn to an examination of two very different kinds
of question, namely, (1) how well the above traditional sorts of
identification of the IME experience and self measure up to the

15Comparealso, for example,JapaneseZen's

The Buddhistteachingconsists in recognizingthe Mind, and there is nothing very
difficultaboutit ... Youmust makeyourmind up and determinedlyplungeyourself
right into the bottomlessabysswhich you think you are encounteringas "nothing-
ness" (nihil) or the void. (Suzuki:8)
16Thelogicaluniquenessof this IMEexperiencefollowsimmediatelyfromthe fact that its
identifyingcharacteristicis "havingno empiricalqualitiesin it." Thus no instance of any
such experiencehas any qualityin it to distinguishit fromany other(qualityless)instance.
17Itshould be noted that the perennialistclaim is that theirbasic theses are "perennial"in
the sense of recurringin diversetraditionsthroughouthistory, not that they are universal
(i.e., supportedby all traditions,or even all exponents of any given tradition). Thus it is
taken for grantedthat texts that do not supportthese theses are often to be found (even in
traditionsthat largelysupportthem), as well as texts, such as the above,that do.

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Shear:MysticalExperiences 333

critiques offeredby Smith,Katz and Russell, and (2) how intelligi-

ble this identification is in the context of modern philosophical
theories of self.'8

Consider first Smith's position. Smith, as we saw, holds that
the theses of the perennialphilosophy are arrivedat and known by
a special mode of understandingthat does not need experience
either to corroborateit or to give it content. Smiththen attemptsto
account for the less than generalacceptanceof these perennialthe-
ses by drawingan analogyto mathematics,pointing out that grasp-
ing even the meaning of the theses of higher mathematics,to say
nothing of recognizingtheir truth, requireslong years of rigorous
specialized training. Thus, he argues,
Emphatically it [one'sunderstanding]knows[therelevanttheses
of the perennialphilosophy],but likehighermathematics, whatit
knowsis so littlecontiguouswithordinaryknowingthatscarcely
a hint of it can be conveyedto the uninitiated.(1976:110)
The reason the majorityof carefulthinkersrejectthe theses of the
perennial philosophy, then, Smith suggests, is that they simply
have not undergone the necessary lengthy and rigorous training.
Smith'sposition here is thus closely akin to that of the rational-
ists who for centurieshave arguedthat many of their centralmeta-
physical theses, including their postulate of a transcendentallevel
of self, are knowablethroughthe use of pure, unaided reason. Per-
haps, as in abstractmathematics,one may need to reason long and
hard. But when one does, one will come to recognizethe truth of
these theses, without needing experience either to verify them or
give them content, just as with the truths of mathematics. This
rationalist analogy to mathematics, however, is now generally
soundly rejected. Foralmost anyonewith a reasonablykeen intelli-
gence and a few years of hard work can be expected to come to

18Thequestion at hand is the logical one of the evidentialrelationshipof the IMEexperi-

ence to the perennialistthesis aboutself, ratherthanthe historicalone of the ultimatesignif-
icance of traditionaltexts. Thus the texts quoted above, standardlytaken to reflect the
perennialistthesis in question,arepresentedmerelyby way of illustration.Thereforewhile
detailed analysis of their nuances, in their originallanguagesand in the contexts of their
respectivetraditions,would be necessaryto determinethe historicalquestion of how well
they ultimatelyaccordboth with each other and with the relevantperennialistthesis, such
scholarlyanalysisis neithernecessarynor appropriatein the presentcontext.

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334 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

recognizethe truthof the basic theoremsin any given field of math-

ematics. This, of course, is one of the reasons that there is in gen-
eral little long-standingdisagreementabout what has and has not
been provenin mathematics. But this is hardly the situation with
the basic theses of rationalistmetaphysics. For three centuries of
work have failed to generate anything even resemblingagreement
among highly trained, intelligent specialists that any convincing
proofs exist here at all. Indeed, if anything,the consensus is that
they do not. Thus the rationalistappealto an analogywith mathe-
matics to explainwhy their theses do not need experienceeither to
give them content of corroboratethem simply fails.
All of these problems,and more, hold for Smith'sposition. For
the appeal to the analogy of mathematics,which does not succeed
even for the rationalists,is significantlyweakenedby Smith'saddi-
tion of a supposed special intellectualfacultyof "metaphysicaldis-
cernment,"a faculty that is if anythingeven fartherremovedfrom
empirical experience than the rationalintellect used in mathemat-
ics and emphasizedby the rationalists. Appeals to such a special
faculty thus have quite understandablyhad negligible effect in
resolvingthe problemsaboutthe natureof self raisedby Descartes,
Hume, and Kant'sanalyses.19Moreover,if questions of the nature
of self are a factualratherthan merely logical matter, as common
sense would insist, experience, rather than reason alone, surely
ought to be relevant to resolving them, Smith's objections
The IME experience appears to be precisely the relevant one
here. For, as we will see, knowledge of this experience appears
able to give the perennialistthesis about the existence of a tran-
scendental level of self the kind of experientialcontent and empiri-
cal support it needs in order to be taken seriously by objective
thinkers who are unconvinced by rationalistica priori reasoning
and (like most of us) unawareof havingany special mode of "meta-
physical intuition." Before turning to this topic, however, let us
continue our discussion of Katz and Russell'scritiques.

19Thepoint being madehere is not that no higherfaculty(e.g., prajna)of the sort claimed
by Smithcould exist, but that its supposedexistenceis not enough to resolvethe questions
at hand. Indeed, even traditionssuch as Zen and TibetanBuddhismpostulating such a
facultyoften pointedlyinsist that its supposed self-reportedactivationbe corroboratedby
highly demandingempirical(behavioraland/or physiological)testing,as the relevantlitera-
ture amply shows.

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Shear:MysticalExperiences 335

As we saw, Katz's hermeneutical critique poses no obstacle to
identification of IME experiences as "the same" across different
cultures for the simple reason that instances of these experiences
are identified precisely by the absence of all empirical content,
including in particular all the kinds of content hermeneutical
thinkers are concerned with. Nevertheless, the relevance of herme-
neutical concerns to questions of whether the identification of this
experience with the self can also be thought of as being culture-
invariant still remains to be explored. Fortunately, however, the
analysis turns out to be quite straightforward.
In the first place, the identification occurs in different tradi-
tions in very different cultures, as the passages quoted earlier
show. Secondly, it is obvious that the identification of the inner
nature of self with the pure, qualityless IME experience in itself
implies that the relevant aspect of self must be conceived as quali-
tyless as well, regardless of how other aspects of self might turn out
to be conceptualized. Indeed, traditional discussions of self often
make this explicit, as the following passages from the Upanishads
He who . .. is other than the earth . .. waters . .. fire . .. space ...
wind [i.e., the five "elements"supposed to constitute the entire
empiricaluniverse]... other than the sky ... sun . . . space ...
stars ... atmosphere . . . darkness . .. light ... other than all
beings ... other than the life breath ... the eye ... the ear ... the
mind ... the understanding... He is the unseen seer, the unheard
hearer, the unthought thinker ... He is your atman[self].
That atman[self]is not this, not this ["neti,neti,"i.e., no specific
thing at all]. It is ungraspable,for it cannot be grasped ... It is
indestructible... untouched ... [etc.] (709)
Such passages make it clear that this aspect of self, like the IME
experience itself, is conceived of as independent of all the empiri-
cal qualities and phenomena of thought and experience. In other
words, as expected, it is taken by the relevant traditions to be
independent of all the phenomena hermeneutical distinctions are
concerned with. As a result, since the IME experience and the rele-
vant notion of self in these traditions are both independent of the
empirical distinctions hermeneutical analyses are concerned with,
their identification in these traditions must be independent of such

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336 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

distinctions as well. In short, the hermeneutical critique once

again poses no problem for our analysis.

Russell'scritique,too, poses no new problemhere. We saw ear-
lier that this critique,which questions the significanceof mystical
experiences on the ground of their presumed association with
abnormal central nervous system functioning, does not apply to
the case of the IMEexperience. For,as we saw, both the traditional
anecdotal literatureand the contemporaryscientific researchindi-
cate that this particularexperience is correlatedwith nervous sys-
tem functioning and objectivebehaviorwhich are if anything even
better than normal. This general observation remains sufficient
for the case at hand. We can howevernote one furtherimplication
of the empirical research. For the fact that the IMEexperience is
highly correlatedwith (and apparentlyenhances) characteristics20
that psychologists,independentlyof the discussion at hand, often
referto in terms of "self-actualization,"suggests an intuitive,empir-
ically significant association between this experience and what we
ordinarily call self. Thus the research tends if anythingto support
ratherthan weaken the traditionalidentificationof this experience
with knowledge of the self.

Let us now turn to the question of the applicationof the IME
experienceto modern philosophicalanalysesof self. The natureof
the self has, of course, long been one of the most intractabletopics
in modern Western philosophy. Descartes arguedintuitively,and
influentially, that the self has to be single, abiding, self-identical,
and the most indubitable aspect of all of one's experience. But
Hume called this conclusion radically into question. For, he
argued, introspection displays no quality or perception corre-
sponding to this notion of self. Thus Descartes' seemingly com-
monsensical notion of the self appearsto be empiricallyvacuous.
Furthermore,Hume argued,since the self is supposed to be that to
whichall of one's perceptionsappear,it oughtto be distinct from all

20E.g.,objectivityabout self, self-acceptance,inner-directedness,

sensitivityto own needs,
spontaneity,capacityfor warm interpersonalrelationships,etc.

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Shear:MysticalExperiences 337

our perceptions and therefore unperceivable as well as

unperceived. As a result, he concluded, the notion of self
employed by both Descartes and common sense is both unsup-
ported and unsupportable by experience, and therefore simply
Kant's analysis then deepened the problem significantly. For
he concluded paradoxicallythat both Descartes and Hume were
importantly correct,because the self has to be thought of both as
(a) single, simple, and abiding,and as (b) completelyvacuous and
empirically unintelligible. Simply put, he reasoned as follows:
(a) Every one of one's experiences is extended in space and/or
time. Furthermore,for it to exist at all, all of its parts must be
given to a single experiencer;for if no one experiencedthe parts in
conjunction, the original experience could not have been said to
exist at all. Consequently there must be a single self underlying
each and every one of one's experiences.21 On the other hand,
however, (b) one's self obviously must be compatible with all of
one's possible experiences,whatevertheir qualitiesmay be. There-
fore it can have no qualitiesof its own at all (for otherwise it could
be incompatiblewith some of its own possible experiences). Con-
sequently it can only be a "pureconsciousness," a "bareconscious-
ness" having nothing in it to be experienced,and "known"only as
an empty, merely logical, empiricallynonsignificant "object= X"
(Kant:136[A107], 137[A 109], 331[B 404], 382 [B 430], etc.).
Thus, in short, Descartes argued commonsensically that the
self, as single, simple, and self-identical, is indubitable; Hume
arguedintrospectivelythat we have neither experience nor knowl-
edge of any such self; and Kant argued paradoxicallythat both
were right, for the self is both logically necessary and in principle
unexperienceableand empiricallyunknowable. Given such diffi-
culties, it should not be too surprisingto find that Hume remarked
that the topic of self is "toodifficultfor me,"that Kantheld that the
paradoxesinvolved"mockand torment"even "thewisest of men,"
and that contemporaryphilosophers often simply deny the intelli-
gibility of the notion of self entirely-common sense not

21Kant took this observationto be so fundamentalthat he called it "theSupremePrinciple

of all Employmentof the Understanding"(Kant:155[B136]).

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338 Journalof the AmericanAcademyof Religion

Descartes, Hume and Kant'sproblematic,mutually conflicting
analyses of self were of course, developed in the context of ordi-
nary non-"mystical" experience. Once we expand the relevantuni-
verse of discourse to include the qualityless IME experience,
however, a very different,and apparentlymuch less problematic,
analysis immediatelysuggests itself. As WalterStace noted a gen-
eration ago, when we become aware of the relevant literatureit
appears that
a vastbody of empiricalevidence,thatof the mysticsall overthe
world,affirmsthatHumewas simplymistakenon a questionof
psychologicalfact,andthatit is possibleto getrid of all themental
contentsand find the self left overand to experiencethis. This
evidence ... [also] can be taken as implyingthat it [the self] is a
pureunity,thesortof beingwhichKantcalledthe"transcendental
unity"of the self. (Stace:82)22
Analyzing this philosophical topic adequatelyhere would take us
too far afield. Butwe can note here that as soon as we entertainthe
possibility of the existence of this empirically qualityless experi-
ence, it can be shown not only that Descartes, Hume, and Kant's
analyses cease to be utterly problematic,as Stace noted, but that
these traditionalanalyses offer strong criteria for identifying the
IMEexperience as being experience of the self. Very briefly put,
the logic is as follows: As we saw earlier, there can be only one
absolutelyqualitylessexperience. This experiencethereforeis logi-
cally the only experience which could fulfill Kant's qualityless
"pureoriginal unchangingconsciousness." It is also the only one
which could be distinct from all empirical qualities and percep-
tions, as Hume required. And it is the only one which could abide
as single, simple, and unchangingthroughoutall of one's changing
experiences as Descartes (and common sense) insist self must.
That is, it is the only experiencewhich can fulfill Descartes,Hume
and Kant'scrucial, otherwise problematicand conflicting charac-
terizations of self as (1) simple and abiding, (2) distinct from all
empiricalperceptionsand qualities,and (3) qualityless"pureorigi-
nal unchanging consciousness."23Thus (i) insofar as Descartes,

22As we have seen, the merelyanecdotalevidenceavailableto Stacehas now been substan-

tially augmentedby researchon self-actualizationand meditation-related
23Kant,of course,denied,as an unexplainedfact of humannature,that any experienceof
"pureconsciousness"could exist. Examinationof the logic of his denialwould take us far

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Shear:MysticalExperiences 339

Hume, and Kant'sanalyses are correct,and (ii) insofar as the IME

experience is the only experience which can fulfill their central,
otherwise problematic characterizationof the self, these histori-
cally influential analyses and characterizationswould straightfor-
wardlyappearto identify the IMEexperienceas being experienceof
Muchmore of course would need to be said beforewe would be
justified in holding the thesis that the IMEexperience is in fact
experience of the self and displaysits true transcendentalnature.24
Nevertheless the above analysis should be sufficient to indicate
that the identification of this experience as displaying the inner
nature of the self, made "perennially" in differentculturesthrough-
out history, is not only philosophically significant, but may well
even be able to providethe basis of a theory of self more intelligible
than those generatablein ignoranceof the existence of this unique

Earlier, before beginning the above examination of self, we
came to the conclusion that the IMEand other related mystical
experiences appear to (1) exist, universally and culture-indepen-
dently, (2) give otherwise missing empiricalsignificanceto the per-
ennial philosophy, (3) be relevantto evaluatingits the truth of its
theses, and (4) be worth examining in their own right. We also
came to the conclusion (4) that Smith,Katz,and Russell'scritiques
did not apply significantlyto the empiricalapproachwe have been
taking. Our empirically-orientedexamination of the perennialist
thesis about self has now reinforcedthese conclusions. It has also
hopefully shown in a little more depth the usefulness of such a
non-mysticalempiricalapproach,utilizing contemporaryscientific
research as well as traditionalanecdotal literature,for evaluating
the significance of the perennial philosophy and the questions it
A great deal more, to be sure, needs to be said on these topics.
the aboveanalyses,while empirical,have been largelyphenomeno-
logical in nature, and nothing has been said about the ontological

afield. Hereit is sufficientto note that the existenceof IMEexperiencesimplies that Kant
was simply factuallymistaken.

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340 Journalof theAmerican
of Religion

aspects of the perennialist claims, fundamental to their view of

reality. Moreover,almost nothing has been said about three of the
four majorperennialisttheses outlined earlier. Thus so far as the
present analysis is concerned, these remain completely open top-
ics.25 Yetperhapsenough has been said here to indicate something
of the potentialimportanceof reevaluatingthe claims of the peren-
nial philosophy from a contemporaryempiricalperspective.


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