In my previous post I described how, by the spring of 2008, my life had gotten on the wrong track completely. I was working on a dissertation on reduction and emergence, a topic I no longer had much interest in. I felt hemmed in because what really interested me was philosophy of the old-fashioned "deep" kind, which searches for broader perspectives, and not the technical sort of hairsplitting that the professors would accept as a dissertation topic. But I decided to simply go through the motions, because I was tired of fighting. I started reading Nietzsche again, and became once again steeped in cynicism. And though I talked a lot about dropping out of the program, I didn't bother to set any wheels in motion.
My attitude changed radically after having what I now consider to be my third major mystical experience. Somewhere deep in my subconscious there was still a connection with the divine that could not be broken. But for this "still small voice" to be heard, it had to strike me with the worst terror I have ever felt in my life. Looking back on it, I don't think anything else would have done it. No positive experience could have forced me to change my ways, and I had grown used to the minor nightmares and flashbacks that struck me now and then. Call it a lightning bolt from God if you want, because that's exactly what it felt like.
Sometime in March or April of 2008 I woke at 4:15 a.m. from a horrifying nightmare. What exactly the dream was I have since forced from my memory. What I do remember is that when I woke up I literally believed that I was going to die. My heart was pounding in my chest like a jackhammer and I was almost certain that I would suffer cardiac arrest and die within seconds. The nightmare was still vivid in my head and I was doing everything I could to forget it, because I also believed that even if I survived I was on the verge of slipping into utter madness.
These beliefs were so strong in my mind that adrenaline flooded my system and I acted quickly out of desperation. Recalling a doctor once telling me that some patients were on a dose of 3000 mg of the medication I was taking (I was on 100 at the time), I decided to swallow another 1000 mg right there. I knew that it wasn't meant to be used this way (it's a long-term medication that you slowly build up) but I hoped it would shock my system into some kind of sanity. Next, I dialed my best friend Claire in California, who had been with me during my breakdown in college, hoping she could talk me out of it. When she didn't answer I called my dad. After talking with him for about 15 minutes, walking up and down the dark street outside to get fresh air, I realized that nothing he said was doing me any good. My heart was still pounding, my thoughts were racing, and in every way I felt that I was re-entering the manic state I had fought so hard to overcome in college. I no longer thought I was going to die, but somehow I couldn't shake the thought that I had lost my mind.
Suddenly, on a whim, I asked my dad to promise me that I could buy a ticket the next morning and fly home as soon as possible. The thought of leaving Pittsburgh turned out to be the only thought that could calm me down. Once he'd made the promise, I went back to bed and suffered through five hours of visual and auditory hallucinations as the medication took effect. By morning, I was doing all right again, though a little hungover. At this point there was no doubt in my mind that I had to change my life. Having come face-to-face with spiritual death, my faith in a higher power was renewed, and I was once again determined to follow my journey through to the end.
During the leave of absence that followed, however, I still had a tendency to meander from the path I needed to take. Somehow I knew that I needed to go through some kind of spiritual purification process, but I put it off because I was afraid, telling myself that I didn't want to risk another nervous breakdown. I resigned myself to working on my Progress project while studying the Old Testament, the Confucian Analects, and the Bhagavad Gita on the side. Reading these texts turned out to be a crucial decision, because I started to see that "religion" is in fact simply our name for what is profoundest in philosophy. I came to realize that genuine religion doesn't claim to give you the absolute truth, but rather helps you to come to terms with the fact that reality will always be beyond human understanding, and shows you how to build a better life based on what you do know.
I had finally started to make real progress. But there were still several things that were holding me up:
1) I was still afraid of practicing religion. In particular, I was afraid of praying because I felt that if I attempted to confront the infinite, my mind would be too weak and would crack again.
2) I was afraid to give my heart to God, because I felt that, being unable to comprehend Him, I would end up worshiping a mere idea or idol.
3) However, I believed that if I stripped away all the unnecessary superstitions and trappings of religion, I could rediscover the "primal" religion and comprehend what spirituality really was.
Each of these fears and delusions were resolved in turn by a set of three mystical experiences I had while living unemployed in a dingy student-apartment in Santa Cruz. I moved to Santa Cruz in late August of 2009, having saved up some money from a summer job and wanting to fulfill a promise and spend a few months living near Claire. She was an old college friend (majoring in mathematics and literature at Caltech), and through all of my experiences she had been the only person I could tell everything. She has always been there to nudge me back on the right path when I've lost my way. At the time, she too was having a number of life changing experiences, including mystical ones, and we needed to get together and figure things out.
The first experience I had in Santa Cruz was an incredibly vivid dream. I was hiking through the forest, searching for an ancient temple. A demigod was guiding me, a blond man who was flying around in the treetops saying, "Come and I'll show you the true religion of your ancestors, the religion in your blood." As we traveled the forest became flooded, the waters rising higher and higher. Somehow I, too, was able to rise above the waters. When we finally reached the temple I went inside and was met with a gaudy display. It was a giant grail, covered in jewels, carvings, and symbols. It was beautiful beyond description, but also somehow grotesque. I knew that by deciphering the symbols I would come to understand this true religion. But I found that the harder I tried to decipher them, the less I understood.
I woke up from the dream perplexed. It took me several days to figure out the meaning, but when I finally did -- with some help from Claire -- it fit every detail perfectly. By clinging to the religion of our ancestors we end up worshiping idols. This is why it's impossible to discover the one true "primal" religion. It's impossible to explain or comprehend what spirituality really means, because it's a relationship to the incomprehensible Infinite. These realizations led me to give up on my quest to find the best religion, or to rid myself of all superstitions. We are finite beings, and even if God could be expressed in symbols, like he was on the Grail in my dream, there would be no way for us to comprehend Him entirely. Claire herself told me once, "Sam, you're never going to find 'the best' religion."
After I had come to terms with these truths, I started to meditate more earnestly on God's divine nature. It invigorated me, and I suddenly felt like I was part of humanity again, most of whom believe in a higher power of some sort. It felt like I had tapped into a powerful source. Careful not to attempt to comprehend God, I was able to pray in a sort of half-hearted way, though it didn't feel quite right yet. Part of me was still scared that I was worshiping an idol.
This is when I had the second dream. In this dream I was in a large, middle-eastern city. I was out in the streets, and felt the urge to praise God out loud. When I did, first one person joined me, then two, then a dozen, and we were soon racing through the streets screaming at the top of our lungs, "Praise God!" Everyone in the city joined us, and the din was deafening, but we all kept yelling louder and louder.
Once again I woke up puzzled. This time I was up for about an hour working it out. I realized that worshiping God is about feeling his peace in your heart, not about screaming it from the rooftops and converting everyone you meet. It is about quietly studying the sacred texts, quietly praying, and quietly changing one's life. Jesus said:
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do no keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." (Matthew 6:5-7)
The third and most important mystical experience I had was not a dream at all. This time it was an experience of the joyful kind, the kind that brings one to tears. I was reading the Koran, and the phrase "Allah is merciful" which is repeated throughout, finally started to sink in. It meant that all that is needed for enlightenment is a genuine desire to live according to what is sacred. For example, according to the Koran, both Jews and Christians are saved because they follow God. Theism is not a straitjacket. It liberates you by showing you how to more easily avoid those paths that lead to self-destruction. By healing your own spirit and making it whole, you are in fact given more power to accomplish what needs to be done. God cannot expect you to be perfect -- only sincere.
Realizing this, I was finally able to kneel and pray wholeheartedly.
Within weeks my life was back on track. I stopped taking all my medications completely, stopped having nightmares, met my future wife, and began planning out a final draft for my book on progress.
If I were to formulate the two most basic things I've learned from these experiences, it would be these:
1) Pray or meditate every day.
2) Read some kind of holy scripture every day.
Even if you don't believe, try to finish reading at least 2 or 3 major religious scriptures at some point in your life. I doubt you will regret it, and I wager it will be cheaper and more effective than any amount of counseling.