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Book Review: The Varieties of Religious Experience

VREThe takeaway: I thought this book would be amazing, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. James comes away saying one thing about religion throughout the book and then reached an incongruent conclusion at the end. He repairs this with a postscript at the prompting of what must have been a lot of questions from befuddled readers. Despite this problem, the book is a goldmine of quotes and raw information about mystical experiences. Worth the time to read. A free copy is available here.

First a confession: I actually listened to the audiobook version of this, rather than reading the written version. This was a good decision, and I encourage everyone to try it. The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) was originally not a book but a series talks, like turn-of-the-century TED talks, and even more interesting. Instead of jumbo screens, microphones, and spotlights, imagine a gaslit auditorium and a large chalkboard. Instead of geek glasses and smartphones, imagine people in bowler hats with handlebar mustaches taking notes with a pad and paper. The “chapters” in this book are the written copies of these talks, twenty in all, and are intended to be performed as much as read. There is a musical quality to them, an attentiveness to the sound and cadence of the language that is hidden in a silent reading. If you haven’t, check out the audio version and listen for yourself.

This book is such a classic, and has touched so many lives, that it is hard to review it, much less critique it, without feeling a twinge of unworthiness. It was published to rave reviews in 1902, has been in print for over a hundred years, and is one of those books that people describe as changing their lives, so it is hard to set aside the halo of reverence and simply take it as it actually is with a critical eye.

After listening for a while I began to realize something that helped me break it free from its gilded cage, and it is this: what James is doing is exactly the same thing prominent thinkers on religion are doing today.

In his talks James mentions vocal atheists, pop religious figures, and public philosophers all in the midst of heated debates over whether religion is simply harmful superstition leftover from the childhood of our species, or the only way to truth and prosperity. While listening, my mind kept leaping into the present, to images of Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, William Lane Craig, Joel Olsteen, John Lennox, Stephen Pinker, Sam Harris, Reza Aslan, and all the others having the very same debate today, but instead of pamphlets and booklets, it is now done with tweets and blogs. It is the same show, with a slightly different cast of characters, and seeing it that way made the book all the more fascinating. I suddenly had a context in which it all made sense – and oddly enough it is the context we still live in!

Here is the gist of what he claims in the book: religious experiences are all of the same category of experience because they come from a part of the unconscious mind that we cannot know rationally. They have different qualities and can even be classified into different types or families, but they are all the same sort of thing – the unconscious mind bursting into consciousness in a special way.

This claim has a lot of merit. I think he may be right. And if he is it has huge implications for the commonality between all religious traditions. But here is the strange thing: this idea is explained in lecture twenty, and it doesn’t match how he describes religious experiences in the rest of the book. What is weird is that up until that final lecture he goes on and on about the reality of mystical experiences, and strongly hints (through his choice of quotes and his own descriptions) that these experiences refer to a real transcendent cosmic reality.  He adds a postscript in which he attempts to explain his views further, so guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed the discrepancy between how he talks about religion and how he explains it. In the post script he states plainly that (despite his conclusion in lecture twenty) he does believe in the supernatural and that mystical experiences refer to a real transcendent reality. I’m glad the point became clear, but really, why put it in a post script?

Another issue with the VRE is that, while James purports to investigate religious experiences in all their variety, he really only looks at what we would consider mystical experiences in the most positive sense. He essentially ignores those kinds of religious experiences that make religion appear awful, and one can’t help sensing a strong bias in what he chooses to provide as examples of religious experience. Today we are swimming in a sea of religious violence and the people committing these acts appear to be ecstatic about what they are doing – and this is nothing new. In fact, it is not as bad today as it was during James’s time if Steven Pinker is to be believed.We could dismiss these as inauthentically religious actions, not true feelings of devotion and union with something larger with oneself. But are they really?

There are many stories of samurais working diligently on their enlightenment and whistling while they went about the work of war. There are crimes against humanity occurring in Burma right now sanctioned by Buddhist monks, one of whom has earned the nickname “the Bin Laden of Buddhism.” The Gita reads like a mutant mixture of military training manual and nondual guide to awakening. The violence in the Abrahamic religions hardly needs mentioning. It is hard to admit, but hybridized into even the most profound and mystical expressions of religion throughout history are violent acts which on the surface we instinctively wish to push aside or explain away with a metaphor. I have strongly felt the pull to do this in the past as I was looking for something true in these traditions, and I believe James felt this as well when writing the VRE. He mentions the crusades in passing, almost apologetically, but quickly moves on to more positive examples.

I feel like I’ve been too harsh on one of my heros, and despite my criticism let me be clear that James is a hero of mine. So let me point out why this is also an awesome book worth reading (or hearing). First, James has one of the best, most complete, and well sourced descriptions of the dark night. He focuses primarily on Christianity, but acknowledges that these experiences happen to people everywhere. In lectures 6 and 7 he calls this issue “The Sick Soul,” and gives a rich description of what a dark night is like. He proposes an interesting idea as to why it seems to happen so often to mystics: personality. James believes that the dark night is one of two basic experiences (healthy-minded or sick) that mystics can have based on their personal disposition. I found this idea utterly fascinating. I think there is some truth to it in that while everyone (in my experience) does indeed experience a dark night, some experience it as a mild sense of dissatisfaction while others find it overwhelming. Could it be the technique, or the particular path, doesn’t really matter when it comes to this, but that the personality of the person is what leads to these differences?

Secondly, he makes some brilliant points about why mystical experiences should be taken seriously by philosophers and scientists, and why they should become (and did become) a legitimate object of interest to rational people everywhere. In the process he does an amazing job of humanizing the lives of mystics, making their experience less alien to people who don’t understand what it is like to have such experiences first hand. Additionally, he openly endorsed the notion that certain kinds of drugs could usher in mystical experiences, a notion that was not common in academic circles at the time and likely cost him, but no doubt encouraged future generations to take the idea seriously. Finally, William James is an icon of academic rigor for a reason and it really shows in this book. He thoroughly researched his topic, and the book is a goldmine of quotes about mystical experiences from people in throes of them. He organizes them and brings them to life in a brilliant way that is really something to admire.

Overall, I can say that VRE was not what I expected. Once I was able to look at what James is claiming without becoming too star-struck I found myself having a lot of mixed feelings. This was unexpected, because the VRE has been on my reading list for so long, has been recommended by so many smart people, and is referenced in so many works I love, that I honestly expected that I would find myself nodding along, feeling inspired throughout. That wasn’t the case. Sometimes I found myself taken aback by the leaps of logic and the mental gymnastics he uses to argue his case, and often he makes predictions that simply haven’t come true (one advantage of reading it in the future). At other times, I thought he discussed and described aspects of mystical experience so well that it hasn’t been topped since. I came away not loving the work, and certainly seeing its flaws, but respecting it and glad I gave it my time.

Self Guided Retreats

Going on retreat is a right of passage for meditators. A retreat gets you outside of your comfort zone, gets you to interact directly with others who are committed to the practice and helps you to focus on your practice intensely. It increases the time you meditate from a small daily child vitamin dose to an all-day immersion. Because of this the effects of the meditation can be amplified and people often have their first “mystical” experience in a retreat setting.  Many meditators make it a part of their practice routine to go on a retreat one or more times a year for this reason.

But long retreats at a retreat center aren’t always an option. You might be low on funds or time. Getting out of work for the scheduled retreat center times can be difficult. It may be hard to find a suitable retreat. Also, folks with disabilities or medical conditions can have an especially difficult time finding a suitable retreat. If a traditional retreat will not work for any of these reasons or others, there is another option: the self-guided retreat.

Self-guided retreats are exactly what they sound like: you lead your own retreat, just yourself, and do so on your own schedule. They are a great way to engage in serious practice but they also require serious self-discipline. One of the big advantages of a formal retreat is that all the distractions are subtracted. Television is gone. The phones are off. Internet is out. Books, magazines and newspapers are unavailable. No talking allowed. This highlights a significant disadvantage of a self-guided retreat. The distractions are only as far away as the remote, the phone, or the bookshelf. In an instant the retreat could easily become a staycation, so extra diligence and commitment is required.

To really engage in a self-guided retreat you must be committed and motivated to put in a sincere effort. There is no one there to keep you accountable, so it is all up to you to plan it, set the rules, and follow them. Before trying a self-guided retreat, I would strongly recommend having at least one formal retreat. If you feel like you are ready to give a self-guided retreat a try, here are some guidelines that can help it be a success.

Check in with a teacher

It is a good idea to have a daily call or skype session with a teacher who can support you in your retreat. During a formal retreat you will have interview sessions with teachers who can answer your questions and give you tailored advice. This is one of the best things about retreats and if you can arrange for it during your self-guided retreat please do so. In fact, when you are out of a formal retreat setting it may be even more helpful to check in with a teacher because she or he can help you plan and problem-solve, firm up the practice goals for the retreat, and keep you accountable.


A retreat is backing away from the constant noise of daily life and taking refuge in a deep silence. Some places are more supportive of this than others, and the key to finding a good place to take a self-guided retreat is peace, quiet and a lack of interruption.

Home: No other place already has so few hassles with setting up the space, no other place is going to be as easy to get to, and no other place will be quite as available. But home is also full of temptations. If you’re like me there are dozens of books waiting to be read within arm’s reach. Not to mention that you are conditioned to use your home for lots of other fun things, and there will be a very strong pull to indulge in them. Also, if you have a family, partner, or roommate, then taking a silent retreat at home might become more than a little awkward. If you can get time at home to yourself, and feel strong enough to forego the distractions, then a home retreat may be the very best option for its simplicity.

Camping: this is by far my favorite option. It’s cheap. It’s fun. It is simple. You don’t have to fight the temptation to surf the net or watch the news. All you need is a tent, food and a few basics. The difficulty is in finding a good location. Campgrounds are often a bad option. Many campgrounds these days have camping spaces that are absurdly close together, like a series of canvas-thin suburban cul-de-sacs, but without the privacy. Most campers are right up next to you, and they are on vacation, which isn’t exactly a good mix with a meditation retreat. I did this once. Within a day the other campers gave me wary looks. Why, they seemed to wonder, would a grown man sit quietly, by himself, all day long, and do nothing. Nothing! What is wrong with this guy? It’s best to avoid the whole problem entirely by avoiding campgrounds. You can usually find perfect camping spots on public lands, off of hiking trails, and even on private land if you live in a rural area. This is a great way of getting the silence and privacy you need while also getting out in nature, which is a great place to meditate (as long as the weather is not too extreme). For public land you will usually need a permit to camp and for private land always get the owner’s permission. In my own experience farmers and land-owners are often generous and allow folks to camp if you approach them respectfully.

Rentals: Another option is to rent a space for the retreat, which is a much cheaper and easier option than you might expect. Private community organizations such as the YMCA and most state and national parks have simple cabins that can be rented for a small fee. The most that I have paid for a cabin rental was $35 per day, though if the cabin is in a choice location or has great amenities the price can jump to $100 or more. This is probably the best option of all, as it has all the basics with none of the distractions. Many of the cabins available are very similar to the monks’ kutis found in retreat centers and monastic settings. And since your plan is to meditate the whole time, you can find a great deal during the off-season.

Use your friendly dharma network:  Folks who meditate are pretty generous and they will go out of their way to help people who wish to focus on practice. Some people who have posted on forums and in other settings that they are looking for a place to retreat and have been given very generous offers to stay in guest houses, camp on private land, or use parked camper.

Get Specific with your Practice

Have a very clear idea of exactly what practice you will be doing. It is not enough to spend a day “meditating” or “being mindful.” Ask yourself “what will I be mindful of?” Define your terms of your practice ahead of time so you can dive right in and know what you are doing. Something along the lines of “I will spend the entire retreat practicing concentration on the breath”, or “I will practice metta the whole time” or “I will practice noting in the morning and concentration on a kasina in the afternoon.” This is the kind of specificity you are looking for. It is also important that you stick with your plan. Sometimes when going deep into a practice we hit a wall and it seems as if the meditation “isn’t working.” Stay with your plan. Often these walls are exactly what you need to be working on, so don’t give in to the temptation to switch to a different kind of meditation in the middle of your retreat.

Set Some Ground-rules

You’ll want to set some rules for yourself. Some obvious ones are:

No intoxicants. Nothing will wreck meditation faster than drinking or getting high.

No television. (This should really fall under intoxicants).

No internet. You can give it up for a little while.

No phone. This includes texting.

No hanging out with friends.

No video games.

Some less obvious and optional rules can be:

No talking. This could be a non-issue  or a major problem depending on where you are and who is around. If you are going by this rule it is best to be on your own. If you can’t get away, try to let everyone around you know ahead of time.

No reading. Sometimes people will make reading a certain dharma book part of the retreat, and that is fine. I would even recommend it for certain practices. However, I’d recommend restricting reading time to a limited time each day. Otherwise you run the risk of spending the whole time reading and “pondering” rather than getting down to it.

Restricted diet. Some people go vegetarian for retreats. Others back off on foods they feel are harmful to their concentration (like sugar or caffeine). This is totally up to you.

No music. While it may seem like music can put you in a meditative state, it actually burns off concentration pretty quickly (the same goes for talking and reading). However, some people like to listen to traditional monastic chants or other contemplative music. The choice is yours.

No (insert your favorite activity here). Playing guitar, gardening, drawing or painting… most of us have activities that we are personally tempted to do rather than meditate. Anticipate the thing that will pull you away from the cushion and resolve not to engage in that during the retreat so that you can focus on practice.

Overall, there is one important guideline for trying a self-retreat for the first time: go easy. The rules and schedule you set should not be too much of a burden. It is not a contest where you pit yourself against yourself. Instead, it should be freeing because it removes obstacles to practice. The place you choose should be comfortable and calming, and the practice should be one that you really want to take a far as you can. You can make the retreat fit your needs in a way that is not possible in most settings, so ahead of time do a realistic assessment of what is possible for you at this stage of practice and what you need.