The experience of "presence"

In the Wall Street Journal (8/24/2009 Section A11, New York: Dow Jones.) Michael Ybarra reviewed the book The Third Man Factor (Geiger, J. 2009, New York: Weinstein Books).  This book describes “Accounts of experiencing a supportive presence in extreme situations—sometimes called the ‘third-man phenomenon’…” This phenomenon appears particularly prominent in extreme mountain climbing and survival  situations.  In discussing the book Ybarra quotes, “All have escaped traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a companion and helper.”(e.g. of Sir Ernest Shackelton and his companions ALL of whom felt the ‘presence’ of an additional person, which led T.S. Elliot to include this passage in “The Waste Land,” “Who is the third man who always walks beside you? When I count there are only you and I together.”) Geiger addresses the various explanations for the third man phenomenon, from the actual presence of God or a divine spirit, to a survival oriented brain capacity and further notes that the ‘presence’ of imaginary friends, the presence of a deceased spouse, or other felt ‘presences’ appear to abound.

So here we are over a hundred years later with a modern offering of a very similar discussion of “presence” found in Wm James third chapter in Varieties of Religious Experience, “The Reality of the Unseen.”  James points out that some individuals have a strong sense of “presence” of something or someone and this strongly suggests to those individuals the reality of an unseen world.  This phenomenon is actually more common than you would expect.  If you ask a group if any of the members have had such an experience about 15% endorse having had a somewhat similar and powerful experience, and relate that they were often embarrassed to discuss the experience in non-supportive venues.  In the book Alcoholics Anonymous in Chapter 2, and elsewhere, there are references to A.A. members who experience “God-consciousness.”  James notes that whatever this means about the nature of reality the experience is authoritative and significant for the individual who has it and thus qualifies as a mystical experience.   
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