Barbara Ehrenreich is a trained scientist and a hardcore atheist historical materialist. And, like me, comes from a socialist tradition. She has written one of the best, most no-nonsense pieces on having cancer I’ve read, and she has taken part in the shredding of some of the most persistent irrational myths in modern American life: the “power” of positive thinking and the possibility of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps when the game is rigged against you.
So imagine my surprise when I read a piece by her in The New York Times on her mystical experiences in childhood and adolescence.
Something happened when I was 17 that shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. Years later, I learned that this sort of event is usually called a mystical experience, and I can see in retrospect that the circumstances had been propitious: Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.
There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and talk to Barbara Ehrenreich once at a thing, and this is about as far from what I imagined her inner life to be like. And yet, she expresses something I find extremely important and that those of us, like me, who are atheists and rationalists need to grapple with. And the thing is, while I suspect that her talk of conscious matter and bursting forth of possibilities won’t necessarily lead anywhere, I think she is spot on right, as she said in a recent interview with NPR, that
I think I have a responsibility to report things, even if they’re anomalous. Even if they don’t fit whatever theory I had in my mind or most people have or anything. It’s in that spirit that I take this risk.
That is precisely the spirit of rational inquiry which also lead me to insist that the humanities and the sciences need to engage in dialogue, as is now finally happening in neuroscience and psychology, precisely the fields in which these fields of interest meet. But we should certainly expand the circle of subjects we can discuss in this way.
As Ehrenreich mentions, rationalists like Virginia Woolf (who famously heard birds singing to her in Greek during psychotic episodes) or the exceptionally atheist writer and scientist Sam Harris have written about mystical and numinous experiences. I think Sam Harris — a man I disagree about most things with — is right when he says that the rationalists and the atheists need to be able to grapple with and engage with the language of spiritual experience. Of the transcendent, the mystical and the spiritual. These experiences are real — I’ve had them myself — and while they should almost certainly be explained as emergent properties of the physical brain interacting with the environment, that’s not the language in which those experiences are best discussed. To people, as I say, these are real experiences, a presence in their lives as clear and real as whatever you are reading this on. Harris talks of altered consciousness as what humans do, the ordinary business of living. If we dont’ accept that, we are being irrational.