virus: Russell's Mystical Experience

Fri, 19 Mar 1999 10:35:06 -0800

When I pulled "How to Think About Weird Things" off the shelf to quote the passage about the Dali Lama attending a conference on neuroscience, I found this sidebar on Russell's Mystical Experience on the same page. Everything after the double line is a quotation from Schick, Vaughn, and Bertrand Russell, so if you have a beef, take it up with them.


Russell's Mystical Experience

Although Bertrand Russell denies that the transforming powers of mystical experience are a sign of their validity, he nonetheless was himself transformed by a mystical experience. The following is an excerpt from his autobiography:

When we came home, we found Mrs. W undergoing an unusually sever bout of pain. She seemed cut off from everyone and everything by walls of agony, and the sense of the solitude of each human soul suddently overwhelmed me. Ever since my marriage, my emotional life had been calm and superficial. I had forgotten all the deeper issues, and had been content with flippant cleverness. Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region. Within five minutes I went thru some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that... At the end of those five minutes I had become a completely differnt person. For a time, a sort of mystic illumination possessed me. I felt that I knew the inmost thoughts of everybody tht I met in the street, and though this was, no doubt, a delusion, I did in actual fact find myself in far closer touch than previously with all my friends, and many of my acquaintances. Having been an Imperialist, I became during those five minutes... a Pacificst. Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty, and with an intense interest in children and with a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable. A strange excitement possessed me, containing intense pain but also some element of triumph through the fact that I could dominate pain, and make it, as I thought, a gateway to wisdom. The mystic insight which I then imagined myself to posses has largely faded, and the habit of analysis has reasserted itself. But something of what I thought I saw in that moment has remained always with me, causing my attitude during the first war, my interest in my children, my indifference to minor misfortunes and a certain emotional tone in all my human relations.