Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Interlude I: Mystical Experiences

If you've been following my blog for awhile, you might have noticed that I jump around a lot. First I promise to talk about the history of civilization, then the history of evolution, and then the struggles I'm having with the department here, quickly getting caught up in tangents at every point. I apologize for this. But on the other hand this is a work in progress, and as I write I get a better idea of what I actually wanted to say. Perhaps later I'll come back and start organizing things.
 
In my last post I talked about my time off, and the philosophical difficulties I ran into as I tried to find purpose in the world without "Progress." If it's true that there are as many poor people in the world as there has ever been, then what is all this technology and bureaucracy for? What is civilization for? Up until I doubted progress, I had devoted my life to advancing science. Without progress, I was just no longer sure what to do with my brain.
 
But things were not as bad as they seemed -- back in 2009 living as a confused philosopher-hermit -- because all of my experiences so far had somehow prepared me for the next step, namely, an acceptance of the incomprehensible divine in everything.
 
No argument can possibly prove the existence of God (or the Tao, or Buddha-nature, or whatever). This is because the nature of the divine is beyond all human understanding. Then why even think about it? asks the atheist. But that's just my point, you can't. What you can do is come to an acceptance of your own inability to grasp it, and do your best to understand those aspects of the divine that can be contemplated by humans.
 
Why is it even important to think about God? For me, it brings a sense of purpose and of peace with my place in the world. But it is more than just a warm fuzzy feeling that I need to feel better about things. Through a number of extremely painful psychological lessons, I've come to learn that some notion of sacredness is necessary if one is to think and act freely and independently. Without it, you get caught between the rock of conformism, and the hard place of pure madness. In my case, conformism meant blindly following the academic path, and pure madness meant inventing a purpose for myself out of nothing.
 
The story of my relationship with God stretches back a long time, and to understand the life-changing mystical experiences I had in the winter of 2009, it is necessary to tell the whole story.
 
I first became an atheist some time around the age of 16 or 17, after reading the book Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. This book convinced me that the mind can be explained as nothing more than a collection of neurons firing. This convinced me that science had the only explanations worth thinking about.
 
This tendency in my thinking began to reverse in college, when I became fascinated with the experience of poetic inspiration. I found that reading poems like Wallace Stevens's "13 Ways to Look at a Blackbird" and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" altered my experience of the world in a way I couldn't explain logically. I still believed (and do believe now) that an advanced-enough science could, theoretically, explain poetic or mystical inspiration. But what I realized was that poetry gives you new and interesting ways of understanding certain things. At the time I was starved for meaning, and grasping at the most profound-seeming ideas at hand -- namely science and art -- I tried to create for myself a new and better world view combining both. This quest is what eventually led to my nervous breakdown around the time of graduation in 2004.
 
At the height of the breakdown, during what my doctors were calling a "psychotic break with reality," I had my first full-blown mystical experience. This is the most difficult of my experiences to explain, because I was so far off track it came to seem that my entire reality was breaking down. I'll try to be brief here because it's not worth dwelling on all the details, details that are all-too-painful to recall ...
 
During the three weeks leading up to this experience, I was having what the doctors were calling a "manic episode": racing thoughts, inability to sleep or concentrate, decreased appetite, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur. My thoughts were moving so fast that every second seemed like a minute, every minute and hour, and every hour like several days. After three weeks of this I decided that I had to do whatever I could to end it. After another sleepless night, around 11 a.m., I finally took some Tylenol PM and dozed off for seven hours, waking at 6 p.m. Though I felt somewhat better, I could not even think about work yet and asked my girlfriend if she wanted to take a trip to the beach, so I could relax and clear my head.
 
I drove us down okay, but once we were there, the sight of the ocean under the darkening sky suddenly hit me with a vision of Eternity. I felt that I had finally come in contact with the most sacred and infinite thing in the world, and it caused me to break down in tears.
 
It was an immense relief. But I was far from cured. It took another week of off-and-on mania before I felt relatively sane again. My doctors told me I had manic-depression, and I believed them and started taking medication. I would continue taking this meditation until my final set of experiences in Santa Cruz in the winter of 2009.
 
After the experience of 2004 I noticed several dramatic changes in myself. First, I believed in God again, because I had experienced Him directly. During the next several years there were only fleeting periods when I doubted again. Second, I became more sensitive and compassionate. I had far less tolerance for violence in movies and music. It became much more painful when I said something that hurt the feelings of a friend.
 
But simply believing in God and being a nice person is not always enough. In my case, I still suffered from excessive pride and ambition, and I lacked any firm foundation upon which to build my philosophizing. But there I was, an intelligent student in philosophy grad school, being told that all that was needed for good philosophy was logic. My newfound mystical streak led me to doubt this dogma. My biggest problem was I had nothing to put in its place.
 
One day while driving my car to Cleveland in 2006, I was contemplating my frustration over pure logic, coming at it from every angle I could to figure out what about modern philosophy was driving me up the wall. I was contemplating the history of civilization, the future of humanity, and the purpose of philosophy -- and then I was hit with what I would later consider to be my second major mystical experience. I broke down in tears and had to pull to the side of the road for several minutes before I was collected enough to drive again. To explain what such an experience is like is impossible. But I have no doubt that again I came in contact with the Divine. After the experience I noticed that a great deal of my ambition had been broken. I no longer cared about philosophy or degrees or academia. I realized that what I really wanted, more than anything else, was to help people. From then on my only goal in philosophy was to make it into something that could change people's lives for the better, to give them the things that had been missing from my own life since I had fallen in love with pure science as a teenager.
 
Mystical experiences, I've found, can be either painful or pleasurable. Their impact on one's life is generally positive, but sometimes what one really needs a kick in the pants.
 
When I need a kick in the pants, it normally comes in the form of a nightmare. I mean literally -- a dream that causes me to wake up in a cold sweat, heart pounding furiously until I can decipher its meaning. This has happened to me dozens of times since my breakdown in 2004, and -- looking back on them -- I deserved every one.
 
The most intense nightmare I've ever had struck in the spring of 2008. I had been thinking about taking a leave of absence for some time, but suddenly my dissertation on reduction and emergence started to come together, and I figured that I would postpone this plan until after graduation.
 
I'm now very glad that I didn't, because it would have landed me in the fast track to nowhere: a dissertation on a topic that doesn't interest you is bound to land you in a job that doesn't interest you (as I've realized fully only in the last few months).
 
It took the worst nightmare of my life to change my mind. ... But I've got to leave this for next time, because it's time for me and Emily to spend some movie-watching time together. :)

(to be continued)

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