TThe Mysticism Group of the

American Academy of Religion

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For the AAR Annual Meeting

in Montreal, Quebec, Canada

November 5-10, 2009:


Mysticism Group

Saturday - 9:00 am-11:30 am

Laura Weed, College of Saint Rose, Presiding

Theme: Cognitive Science and Mysticism

The goal of this session is to explore recent developments in the cognitive science and psychology of religious experience and to probe the increasing interest of scholars of this field in exploring methodologies for studying mysticism and spirituality. The exploration of dreams proves to be a pivotal area in the shift of the discipline away from empirical reductionism towards a tentative accommodation of insights emerging from the study of mystical experience. Cross-disciplinary conversations between cognitive science, phenomenology, and the study of religion lend greater credence to the Jamesian position that views personal experience, cultural construction, and intersubjectivity as the chief explanatory categories for dreams/mystical states.

Eugene Taylor, Saybrook Graduate School
"Come Hither and Be Measured": On the Problematic Relation between Cognitive Science and Mystical Experience


Cognitive science is built upon the rational ordering of sense data alone, while spiritual experience refers to a total engagement of personality at all levels and the expansion of consciousness in all its various dimensions. About this difference, William James said that it was impossible for psychology to claim that it could build an entire house with only a hammer and a pair of pliers in its tool box if sense perception and logic were its only tools. So, regarding mystical states, is cognitive psychology just playing catch-up to an alternative psychology more relevant to human experience flourishing outside the academy? Or is the present new focus on positive psychology, resilience, and spirituality the first unconscious step toward a solution of the Hard Problem in the neurosciences — that mysterious relation between the mind and the brain — and, inexorably, toward the ultimate transformation of how cognitive psychology itself is conducted?

Kelly Bulkeley, Graduate Theological Union

Mystical Dreaming: Patterns in Form, Content, and Meaning


This presentation explores patterns of form, content, and meaning in self-described mystical dreams, drawing on extensive sleep and dream interviews conducted with one hundred contemporary Americans. Four major hypotheses regarding mystical experience are tested; mysticism as psychopathological, as culturally constructed, as a mode of pure consciousness, and as characterized by four Jamesian “marks” (ineffability, noesis, transience, and passivity). The data from this study indicate that mystical dreams are experienced by around half the population — women more than men — and their prototypical form involves good fortunes, friendly interactions, and unusual/non-human characters. These findings provide only limited validation for the psychopathology and pure consciousness hypotheses, and somewhat more support for the Jamesian and cultural construction approaches. Taken together, the results suggest that psychological efforts to understand religious mysticism will remain incomplete without systematic reference to contemporary dream research.


Matthew Day, Florida State University
Marsha Hewitt, Trinity College


Yoga in Theory and Practice Consultation and Mysticism Group

Sunday - 1:00 pm-2:30 pm

Purushottama Bilimoria, Deakin and Melbourne, Presiding

Theme: Spiritual Biographies in Modern Yoga: India, Europe, and America

This session will examine the “spiritual biographies” of key figures in the development and transmission of traditions of modern yoga in India, Europe, and America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In particular, we will examine how the innovation of yoga modernists exist in tension between the metaphysical moorings of the sectarian and religious traditions that their practices are rooted in and the cosmopolitan and modernist frames to which they have adapted their practices. Of particular interest in this discussion is the dynamic relationship between yoga as a form of “mysticism” or “spirituality” versus yoga as a form of physical culture aimed at health and material prosperity. It will be demonstrated how the tensions between yoga as spirituality and yoga as physical culture in these “spiritual biographies” have a number of implications with respect to issues of gender, authority, and identity within modern and contemporary yoga traditions.

Suzanne Newcombe, London School of Economics and Political Science:
Yoga Resumes and "Hidden" Autobiographies: The Transmission of the Yoga Tradition in the Twentieth Century


Being the recipient of ‘secret transmission' of the essential, timeless truths of yoga is commonly assumed to be an essential element of a ‘traditional’ yoga biography. However, this ‘mystical transmission’ is apparently at odds with the prevalence of certification and liability insurance required in the contemporary yoga milieu. This paper will explore how the ‘traditional’ biographies of two Indian-born yoga teachers were used to legitimize the practice of yoga in the British adult education system. It will argue that this can reveal how the current certificate-centred culture was created. The paper will then consider the implications of this shift of presentation with particular attention to the extent transformative life experiences are moderated by institutional expectations.

Elliott Goldberg, New York, NY
Transforming Surya Namaskar into an Elixir for Women: The Role of Louise Morgan in the Formation of Modern Hatha Yoga


In the late 1930s, British journalist Louise Morgan redirected surya namaskar (and by extension, hatha yoga) away from being a practice performed by Indian men to being a practice performed by Western women. In so doing, she played as critical a role in the formation of modern hatha yoga as that played by Shri Yogendra, Swami Kuvalayananda, K. V. Iyer, Shri Sundaram, Bhavanarao Shrinivasrao, T. Krishnamacharya, Apa Pant, Swami Sivananda, Indra Devi, K. Pattabhi Jois and B. K. S. Iyengar.

Ellen Goldberg, Queen's University
Swami Kripalvananda: Biography and Autobiography


Swami Kripalvananda: Biography and Autobiography In 1977 Swami Kripalvananda (1913-1981) moved from India to live in silence and practice yoga sadhana in a small kutir built especially for him on the property of the Kripalu Ashram in the rural area of Sumneytown Pennsylvania. He inspired a transnational community of devotees, and Amrit Desai named his center and his style of yoga teaching in his honor. Yet in spite of the popularity of the Kripalu name, the life of Swami Kripalvananda is little known and has yet to receive scholarly attention. In this paper I examine the biographical account of his fascinating life as told by two of his principal disciples and discuss his autobiography as an adept yogi in search of divine body (divya deha).


June McDaniel, College of Charleston

Mysticism Group

Monday - 9:00 am-11:30 am

Thomas Cattoi, Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, Presiding

Theme: Liminal Conjunctions: Exploring Emotions at the Edge

The term “liminality” indicates a transitory condition characterized by openness, indeterminacy, and ambiguity, in which one’s sense of identity is partially suspended and in which conventional limitations on self-understanding and behavior are suspended. In mystical experience it may also indicate transgressions of the line between conscious and sub- or non-conscious events, or between persons and spiritual beings or a panpsychic world soul. The presence of liminal experiences on the margins of mainstream religious practice challenges institutional and doctrinal claims to control and govern religious experience. This session will explore some instances of mystical liminality across the centuries, charting how mystics across cultures and traditions have used their own experience to subvert conventional constructs of religious authority, hierarchy, and gender.

Charlotte Radler, Loyola Marymount University
Liminality and Ambiguity: Christina the Astonishing as Co-Redemptrix, Healer, and Alternative Model of Authority


During the Middle Ages, Catherine of Alexandria emerged as one of the most popular and beloved patron saints. The purpose this paper is two-fold. First, I explore the relationship between asceticism, love, and knowledge in her narrative. I isolate the interconnection between her ascetical practices, her affective mysticism, and her intellectual capabilities. Second, I argue that Catherine’s narrative, on the one hand, contains archetypal features of saint such as a beautiful, young, virginal princess who resists impure advances, suffers unjust torture and dies, and inspires religious conversion. However, on the other hand, Catherine’s narrative is transgressive (and thus problematizes the archetype) because she as the intellectual converts non-Christians through secular reasoning and marries Christ. The narrative is also transgressive in and through its various appropriations where localized reconstructions (in terms of content and genre) destabilize the meaning and function of the narrative.

Sthaneshwar Timalsina, San Diego State University
Embodying Darkness: Negative Emotions in Tantric Non-Dualism


Contrary to mind-body dualism or transcendental non-dualism, the monistic Tantric world view incorporates cognitive and emotive processes as integral, and body and emotions play as instruments for self-realization. Rather than transcending somatic conditions in order to achieve the absolute reality, this approach embraces emotions as the path. Here not only positive feelings play a role in elevating self-awareness from the conditioned state of suffering; even negative emotions of rage, fear, disgust, and perplexity lead the practitioner to realize the true nature of the self. In this depiction the self is the totality of awareness. The central argument of this paper is that Tantric ritualistic and philosophical paradigms focus not on eliminating emotions but rather on altering the cognitive and emotional core through a shift of meaning occuring in the active and induced states of the drama of emotions.

David Fekete, Church of the Holy City
Gender Imagery as a Metaphor for God–Human Conjunction: A Comparison Between Tantric Hindu Shakta Yoga and Emanuel Swedenborg’s Theology of Mystical Marriage


The tantric Hindu Shakta yogic tradition and Emanuel Swedenborg’s mystical marriage system show striking similarities. Gender imagery is used by both systems analogously. In the Shakta system, the devotee is seen as the goddess Shakti, who is in ecstatic union with Shiva. In Swedenborg’s system, the devotee is seen as the bride in mystical marriage with Christ. Provocative similarities emerge when the subtle body in Shakta yoga and the spiritual body in Swedenborg are considered. In both systems the body is cosmologized and the cosmos is instantiated in the subtle body. Both systems identify similar pairs of left and right, sun and moon, right and left, white and red, and masculine and feminine. Finally inner breath is seen as a means for attaining mystical union between the devotee and God. In the Shakta system the prana and apana internal “breaths” are used, while Swedenborg's system speaks of “internal respiration”.

Jennifer Awes Freeman, Yale University
Penetration and Liminal Space in the Rothschild Canticles


This paper examines the importance of penetration and interpenetration to the larger mystical and meditative message of the 'Rothschild Canticles,' a 14th century illuminated manuscript. It will do so through a survey of relevant text-image pairs from the manuscript, many of which reference the mystical union of the Song of Songs. It is the goal of this paper to suggest that the images of penetration provide a framework for understanding the manuscript as a whole, as well as medieval conceptions of vision, body, and the mystical Christian life.

Business Meeting:

June McDaniel, College of Charleston