The Blazing World

And I was like “whoa” and he was like “whoa” and the sevenheaded beast was like “blergh”.

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.

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75 comments
  1. Fascinating post. Thanks for introducing Barbara Ehrenreich, I really enjoyed reading her piece on cancer. My mother in law, a survivor of breast cancer, and now recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer will I’m sure appreciate it as well.

    • Release said:

      Oh, fantastic! It helped a (sadly: now deceased) friend of mine as well. She didn’t feel at ease in the “cancer community”. Let me know what you mother in law thinks if she reads it!

      • Will do! Thank you.

  2. bonita imagen publicada Dios bendiga a todos

  3. Beautiful piece; it opens up so many worlds. Thanks for your elegant and insightful writing.

  4. Whether you think there is a “presence” in/behind the physical things of the world, or whether you regard the world through a materialist lens as being merely “stuff”; whether or not you feel you are merging with “the All,” or believe that there is a “living substance” manifesting in all things, or whether you think your experiences are just an epiphenomenon of brain chemistry, or that they actually are indicative of some transcendent reality hidden behind material appearances: aren’t these all equally matters of faith, of holding to some concept(s) about the meaning of experience — concepts that can neither be proven nor disproven, and that don’t have any real grounding in the experiences themselves? Isn’t this all just a matter of interpretation and projection?

    • Release said:

      I think I would disagree on several points here. First of all that there are differences in the falsifiability of the various statements you mention. We can probably test by experiment the statement that transcendental experiences are an epiphenomenon or an emergent property of brain actions. The statement has testable consequences and can therefore be disproven and can be a matter for scientific study (by Karl Popper’s account of science). So, conceivably, might also the idea of transcendent realities or a presence in the world, but I suspect not. So these are not all equally matters of faith. Some of them are grounds for rational inquiry. And a lot of this territory has been taken over by science from philosophy and religion in the past two centuries.

      So that’s one thing. The other is that matters of faith and values can be more or less rational. We can definitely critique values and faiths and evaluate one against the other. The trouble is that much of this evaluation needs to be judged by less rigorous standards than a scientific inquiry. It is a lot more intersubjective, dialectic and rhetorical.

      • Well, I’m not sure what kind of test would prove whether an experience is truly transcendent (and I’m not even really sure what “transcendent” means in this context) or merely an epiphenomenon of brain actions.

        And I suspect there are even more basic problems with claiming knowledge that lies outside of what one actually experiences.

        Here’s the way I’m looking at it. There is what I actually experience — and nobody can deny that. For instance, I see a certain shape and it is of the color green. If anyone were to tell me otherwise, I would just think “Not true, I really do see a green shape!”

        Then there are the (I think) unverifiable interpretations of that experience. For instance, I think: my experience of a certain shape that is colored green is being caused by a thing I will call a “leaf”. Or another interpretation might be: I am hallucinating a patch of green, but it is not being caused by any actual material object.

        How could either interpretation be proven true or false? To ask someone else their opinion, or to use some kind of scientific measuring device, would merely be to accrue another experience — which I might then try to interpret, but how would that interpretation be any more verifiable than the first?

        And if there isn’t ultimately any way to know for sure whether or not my experiences are caused by or correspond to objects in the material world, how could one ever prove or disprove statements such as “God created this leaf,” or “This leaf is a manifestation of “the All””, or “there is (or isn’t) a transcendent reality that lies above (or beyond) the material objects of this world,” etc.

        Of course, on a practical level, what I really care about are things like, is this a leaf I can eat (and maybe I should put some salad dressing on it!), or should I not touch that leaf because (uggh! poison ivy!) it will give me a rash.

        I would happily eat the salad (especially with a good olive oil dressing!), but would be cautious about passing ultimate ontological judgements, or arriving at any conclusive opinions on matters that go beyond what I actually experience.

        How do you see it?

  5. splitpantics said:

    Great post. I have been thinking a lot about this kind of thing lately… but you’ve written this so clearly and concisely that you’ve put my convoluted thought pattern to shame!

  6. kennedycobb said:

    Do u want to be my frinde

    • Release said:

      That would be hard for me since I don’t know you.

  7. Monicle said:

    So good to hear an atheist say this! New theories in science are starting to match old ideas of mysticism. Of course we don’t believe in some authoritative figure punishing us for being what he created. But so many ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’. You never forget a mystical experience, you can remember every detail of what you felt, it transcends time. “Take us from the unreal to the Real”. The dialogue shouldn’t be ‘does God exist?’ but ‘What is God’?

    • You may first try to find out who GOD is and then your question will be answered

      • Release said:

        @Miniglover: yeah, good luck with that.

        @Monicle: Not sure I’m with you on this one. While many old, mystical intuitions have been proven, many — indeed, I would argue, most — have been disproven. I think the question should rather be “what did the word ‘God’ stand for in primitive societies”? And we should do something similar with transcendent experiences: try to figure out what they mean, how they can be explained, how we should talk about them both in a scientific and a personal, subjective way.

      • It was only when one of Jesus’ 12 began to doubt that he began to sink. And who am I to question One who is Omnipotent? Many who have gone before me have tried and met with bitter ends. I beg to differ with you on the question of “What.” But rather, “Who” God is, and how can I get to know him.

      • Release said:

        Well, to ask a pertinent question, how do you know that God exists, that he is the Christian God, and that he’s omnipotent?

      • Set aside any personal experiences with Him, how would you explain the make up of lighting? He explains it as a combination of fire and ice. How would you explain the progression of man and woman’s fall from grace to their current state? How do I know that GOD does indeed exist? Because HE knows and knew these things before and when they happened and tried to make sure that we were made aware of them also. Much like a father and mother who will tell their children not to play with fire.

      • The point I’m trying to make here is that when Christ taught us “The Lords Prayer, ” he was literal in his reference to GOD as our Father. Now if you happen to be talking to HIM, I’m sure that HE is most gracious to that approach.

      • GOD created us for HIS own amusement and so that HE could interact with us. That’s why HE is a jealous GOD when we choose to become the amusement to a thing that certainly conspires to destroy us.

      • Suppose that you put all of what you are capable of into your own flesh and blood to make the way better for him and /or her only to watch them wander away into self destruction with a destructive thing or person. How stirred would your jealousy be then?

      • Remember then that you cannot kill them ; they are your own flesh and blood. Who then, if not GOD, can even one of your cries for Salvador for them and you go up to?

  8. I like the candid open-mindedness about this. I wish Atheists and Theists alike could climb out of their trenches and declare every day a Christmas Day Truce, not for the sake of obscurantism but for the sake of candid dialogue. Thank you.

    • Release said:

      Thanks yourself! I agree, but at the same time we need to recognize why such dialogue is hard. These are incommensurable worldviews and for people who are strongly committed to their faith, or to not accepting an irrational view, overcoming that hurdle is hard. Lots of things happen in the middle ground, but these are competing ideologies.

  9. I also found Ehrenreich’s comments very interesting. I am a skeptical neo-pagan panentheist, who would love to be a simple atheist. But my own mystical moments — that I cannot blame on sleep deprivation, etc, keep me groping forward for explanations of a “something out there” beyond normal definitions.

    I do believe altered moments of being ARE human inheritance and it is not wise to ignore them, as they may speak of connections to our world that we are better off exploring and understanding.

    • Release said:

      I agree that we are better off exploring and understanding them, and remain very, very skeptical of the idea of connections. But those altered moments are the stuff of life, and we need to be very engaged with them, in all ways. And I think if you find yourself owning a car, the best thing to do is learn how the engine works and get under the hood and look around.

      • Pretty much….it is rather hard to manage the commute while denying the accelerator has ought to do with the forward motion!

  10. katherinejlegry said:

    Hi… I’m new to reading your blog and found this post interesting.
    Here’s a quote you might like by William James from Principles of Psychology, Vol. I,
    “Each of us chooses, by his way of attending to things, what sort of universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.”
    and here’s a quote by C.C. Chang from, The Practice of Zen,
    “The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening; the smaller the doubt, the smaller the awakening. No doubt, no awakening.”
    Tig Notaro is a female comedian cancer survivor, you might be familiar with, definitely worth checking out as she continued to do live shows and talked about it thru her process-journey. Her candor is amazing. It was sometimes hard for me to laugh, as I listened to the audience laugh…and while there I was in tears, but she captivated everyone with sincerity and talent and how to find catharsis.

    • Release said:

      I’ve always been very interested in the Zen Buddhist mindset. It appears to accord closely in some ways with aspects of my own, atheist view of the world. And the subjectivist idea James makes is not a bad one. I would say that our subjective viewpoints are much more powerful in influencing our being in the world than we think, but I would still want to emphasise the meeting between the brute facts of reality and our view of them. In the interplay there, our perception of the world arises.

      I love Tig Notaro! She’s a class act.

      • katherinejlegry said:

        I will contemplate the “interplay” you’re talking about.

        Thanks for sharing the link to the pod cast. I enjoyed it very much and was mildly disappointed when the Q&A with Owen Flanagan ended.

        I look forward to your future posts!

      • Release said:

        Well, at least there’s also the book. Haven’t read it, so if you check it out, let me know!

      • katherinejlegry said:

        Okay, I will keep you posted. Thank you, again. Currently I am reading Capital by Thomas Picketty about economics… and need to do some Zen meditation to transform my perception of pain into simple “energy”, right? I think I can suddenly talk about “Brute Realities” and my perception of the world with a bit of interplay between the two… LOL!
        All my best to you.

      • Release said:

        I’m reading Picketty, too. Marvelous work!

      • katherinejlegry said:

        Thank you also for the introduction to Barbara Ehrenreich’s work!

  11. If you guys apprciate this blog, then read the Tao of Physics. Very interesting book. Also Self Aware Universe is ok, but i felf it was just a knock-off of the first one I mentioned. I am hoping the spiritual side of things will become a new branch of science. to be studied, measured, and not ridiculed and dismissed. We are long overdue for an update when it comes to religion and spirituality.

    • katherinejlegry said:

      Hi ijustwanttobeleftalone… hope it’s ok to bother you… Just thought you might be interested in Zen and the Brain by James H. Austen… he is a neuroscientist and zen practitioner… and analyzes brain chemistry and zen states in his book. It’s an older book (1998) and it reveals (accidentally or otherwise) some of the limitations of breaking down or thinking about zen meditation in a scientific manner, as well as how little we know about the brain still…but it’s ambitious and not without merit.

      • Thanks for the info. Of course your suggestion does not bother me. LOL i was in a really bad mood when I started this. Im going to change that screen name thingy, so that it is not so anti social.

      • katherinejlegry said:

        Oh, I see your new user name is gamesandmoviereviews… I guess that means you were quoting Greta Garbo before? I like classic films…
        I’m certainly glad you’re in a better mood but your previous name was okay too… like how cats seem drawn to the people who are allergic to cats.

  12. jmchri13 said:

    Why I am a double major in environmental science and English.

  13. Your open mindedness and clear sentences are refreshing. I have found a path between the two sides. Food for thought on my way to discuss my way and conclusions to my orthodox family.

      • I appreciate your reply. I shall let you know how it goes.

  14. Povonte said:

    It’s nice to see you back, especially with such a lovely post.

  15. Excellent post! I think it is important for scientists to at least think about potential experiments that may shed light on such matters in ameaningful way. I come from an applied physics background, and I can see that research moves ever so rapidly towards technology and away from philosophical concerns. Unfortunately, I for one don’t know how experiments can address such concerns in a manner agreeable within the scientific community, because I have not been trained to approach science from this perspective. But I think it can be done.

  16. Release said:

    Hello, everyone. Thanks for many interesting comments! Apologies for not replying in a timely fashion. I’ve been held up by family things all weekend. Will drop by sometime tomorrow and reply to everyone. Best, R.

  17. rly1987 said:

    I document all the strange phenomena that happen to me not currently explained by science. These things are important, especially when they match up to independent accounts from people all over the world from different time periods. Don’t forget, in psychology, multiple disorders come to be known through repeated testimony alone, and are only in our present age followed up by brain scans. Certain atypical personality types were categorized through repeated testimony and observation and we are now only coming to understand the chemical and neurological bases.

    That’s why I made a composite of important testimonies by multiple well-known figures:

    http://poramics.wordpress.com/enlightenment/

    …A perfect—paralyzing Bliss—…
    …I speculate no more—…
    -Emily Dickinson

    • Release said:

      That’s interesting. Large data sets have made available a whole lot of new human universals to interpretation. Back in the 1700s, that’s largely what science was. Collecting data. Finding out how things were.

      • rly1987 said:

        Exactly, it’s as simple as the symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar etc. which are universal whether you live in the Amazon rainforest or a New York City apartment. And now science has linked it to chemical phenomena and neurological phenomena as well as environmental stressor. Now if only society would decrease the environmental stressors that trigger such things in the first place….

  18. Thanks. Just bought her book on the system rigged against us. As for *anomolies”, for me they make the world go round.

    • Release said:

      Nickeled and Dimed? It’s a great piece of reporting!

  19. Deep piece. I would be delighted you check out my blog though. Again, fascinating post. 🙂

  20. Okay, i just love the image and the caption is frikkin GOLD! *blergh*

    • Thank you! I put many seconds of work into it!

  21. I just love the caption on the drawing!
    Thank you for sharing your experience. I had something like that when I was in junior high school, and could never come up with what I should (was meant to?) do with it. But I have, since I learned what the word meant, felt like a mystic or some sort or fringe-dweller. So it’s good to know there is someone else out in the desert, too.
    Truly, I’m like “whoa!”

    • Release said:

      Right, anomalous experiences feel like they SHOULD be meaningful, even if maybe they are not.

  22. Amazing. One of the big problems / opportunities of my life, if not the biggest. Being European I guess somewhat explains the first adjective I’ve used. I mean, I never cease to be surprised about a. how our mutual (2 sides of the pond) approaches are different; b. how they are complementary; c. how they reach the same conclusion(s). I’d have more to say. Another time.

    Giovanni
    (Man of Roma)

  23. Reblogged this on Man of Roma and commented:
    Introduction will come later since we are writing ‘Why we like the Germans’ num 2.

  24. Bryton Gore said:

    I like this

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