The other day, my therapist, Arun, told me that I would make a good therapist.
So, I told him he was projecting and suggested to him a twelve step program to overcome it.
The other day, my therapist, Arun, told me that I would make a good therapist.
So, I told him he was projecting and suggested to him a twelve step program to overcome it.
PROSELYTIZER: Hi! Just dropping by your cottage this morning to ask if you’ve found Jesus?
SUNSTONE I’m so sorry. I can’t talk now. I’m mourning a recent death in my family. Pets are family, aren’t they? (Wipes his eyes)
PROSELYTIZER: That’s terrible! I feel so bad for you. My beloved dog passed away last fall, and she too was just like family to me! She was with us for fourteen years. Yes, I know how you must feel. I’ll leave you to mourn in peace now.
SUNSTONE: Please! Can I ask you to pray with me for my pet?
PROSELYTIZER: Well, dogs don’t have souls that I know of….
SUNSTONE: But she was so good! And she never hurt anyone!
SUNSTONE: Please! You must know a suitable prayer. Just a brief one!
PROSELYTIZER: I suppose the Good Lord won’t take offense this one time. It is your hour of need, after all. What was the name of your dog?
SUNSTONE: Not a dog. An ant. I have an ant farm and I don’t name them.
PROSELYTIZER: I have to leave now. Like, right now!
(About a 10-minute read)
Two days ago it snowed, but the snow didn’t stick and the next day and today have been acceptably warmer. The earliest trees are in bloom now. White blossoms on one, red and magenta on the others. Some flowers have leapt up, seemingly overnight. Delicate, tiny blue ones, and of course, the yellow dandelions. As you know, this is the season of rebirth, of renewal.
Earlier today, a young woman, just touching her 30s, wrote to me saying she was on the very edge of her first real romance. She had denied herself for years to fulfill her parents vision for her, denied herself through university and law school. Now safely established in a legal practice, she wanted something for herself at last.
“I have met a man”, she wrote, “I feel stirrings for him. I like watching his lips, how he moves. Spring is a good time for romance, I am told, with a good chance to feel reborn. Can I find renewal in loving someone? Is that really possible? Please do not judge my question too harshly! It is sincere. I know no more about this than a 13 year old. ”
Sometimes we have memories of events that were so connected to a particular season, they tend to return each year in that season. I have a small handful of those, I don’t know how many in all, but not many I suppose. Yet one of those, the one that visited me today, can in some years be especially meaningful to me.
The young woman who wrote me earlier also raised a question about masculinity. But she raised it only in passing. There were much more heart-wrenching things she had to say. “I am petite, no more than five feet, and it has happened to me. A man found me alone in a cabin I had rented with friends for a vacation. Everyone else had gone to the store. It has happened to me only once, and I do not pity myself, but I have become scared, frightened of men. I carry now, concealed, but I am still frightened. I want a strong man to protect me. No sensitive poets.”
Sometimes, even in the midst of a storm, an incidental thing can be important. I tried as best I could to address her most important issues first. But it nagged at me how the hope or desire for a strong, but insensitive man could potentially mislead her into a miserable, callous relationship.
I didn’t want to try to actually persuade her to find a “better” man. Who am I to decide what that is for her? But I wanted this woman, this woman who moved me to empathy in so few words — I wanted her to more clearly know her options. And it was about then a young man’s death came back to me.
Especially, one brief moment came back that even today, even thirty-five or so years later, remains something of a mystery to me.
When I at last got to writing to her about masculinity, I wrote this:
When I look back at some of the toughest men I’ve ever personally known in my life — the fire fighters I once worked with some decades ago — I see how most of the men who struck me as exceptionally competent (they were all at least competent — you don’t hold down such a job if you’re not at least that) were so very often the men who had a noticeable feminine side.
The Fire Department had a policy that favored hiring ex-military, and almost everyone had served in one branch or another; several as Viet Nam combat Marines or combat soldiers. But I recall for certain that none of them — not even one of them — was “macho” in the perhaps superficial sense of the term. The sense of posturing, aggressively putting on a brave facade, or a false front. They were genuinely tough. And yet of these tough men, those who were the most “competent of the competent” so often seemed to me to possess a noticeable feminine side.
Of course, I don’t mean “feminine” in anything like the “girly”, “effeminate” or “hyper-feminine” senses, but rather in having marked “feminine” traits, such as superior empathy for others, caring-ness, and even remarkable gentleness at key times and in key ways. I don’t know how exactly that might fit in with their being more than usually competent to fight fires, but I think the correlation might be significant and perhaps suggest that having both feminine and masculine traits gives you greater flexibility in dealing with challenges.
I’ll give you one example. Something that has stuck with me for years, and in some ways is still a bit of a mystery to me. We were extracting a recently killed young man of about 20 or so from a vehicle accident. My job was to hold his body up at a certain angle so we could get the tools in to cut his corpse loose. Because of that odd angle, and the crumpled nature of the van he’d been driving, I had to hold his still warm body more or less as close as you would hold a lover in order to get the necessary leverage. There’s no more accurate way to describe it.
The work was unusually difficult and slow, and blood was still draining from some wound in his body in a stream as thick as my small finger. A third or half of me became soaked with it. I held that position for about forty five minutes, the whole while all but forced to stare into his open eyes, which were less than a foot from my own. I could look up, and I did from time to time, but only uncomfortably. Towards the end, there was no way I wasn’t feeling some grief for the guy, mourning him.
Then, if I am not entirely mistaken about this, one of my crew, a man I thought one of the more competent fire fighters, looked at me with an expression on his face that I can only describe as as one of the most compassionate looks I have ever received from anyone. I was almost startled by the purity of it! There was nothing like pity in it, he didn’t even seem noticeably concerned, none of that stuff; just pure, probably spontaneous compassion. It is still to this day as vivid as yesterday in my mind. But how on earth did he know or sense how I was feeling — for he certainly seemed to. You don’t know this about me, but I have a nearly perfect poker face, and I was certainly wearing it that day. There wasn’t even a hint of a tear in my eyes. Yet, unless I am utterly mistaken, he knew how I felt.
He was also very much a man you could wholly entrust your life to.
That’s what I wrote to the young woman today, along with a brief summation of my point that it could be realistic to expect of some men, at least, that they be both tough and sensitive. I did not include in my email the rest of the story because the rest was irrelevant to the point I wanted her to weigh.
Sometimes a tragic thing happens that does not turn us away from life, but turns us towards it, that in some perhaps paradoxical way, makes us want to live more fully — while we can. Here is the rest of the story now.
I would not suggest that the young man’s death had any intrinsic point to it, least of all that it happened because the universe or cosmos was somehow bent on teaching the few people who witnessed the aftermath some key lesson about life. It was simply unfortunate, about as unfortunate as these things can come. From our reconstruction of the accident, we guessed he’d been driving along a country road in the middle of nowhere at perhaps 60 or so miles an hour. He was following behind, at a respectful distance, a large semitrailer truck.
At a crucial point, we thought it probable that he took his eyes off the road to adjust the dial on his radio. Perhaps it was only for a few seconds, perhaps longer. In the end, it was long enough, it was too long. Ahead of him, the truck had stopped at an intersection. We don’t know whether he looked up at the last moment and saw the truck, or never looked up again. The scant evidence couldn’t resolve that issue. But his van plowed into the truck at speed. He died in an instant.
It was, as I said, simply unfortunate. Nearly anyone could have briefly taken his or her eyes off the road in much the same circumstances. A straight road. Going near the speed limit. Almost no traffic. A decent distance from the truck ahead, And, most likely, not noticing he was coming to an intersection. Who wouldn’t feel reasonably safe to glance down for a moment?
Some part of me now and then thinks the strange thought that if it had happened in another season, in the oppressive heat of a humid summer, in the fall when one can sometimes mildly expect death, or on a cold, lifeless winters day, then the season might have altered, if only to dull, the personal meaning I took from it. But this death happened in the Spring, the season of rebirth, the season of renewal, in the late morning.
A thunderstorm had passed over the area an hour or two before. You could still see it off on the horizon. The lush, wet, emerald grass in the fields around the intersection sparkled here and there in the come and go breezes. There were horses in one of the fields, including two, perhaps more than two, foals. The intersection was cloaked in that peculiar “country silence” in which each sound seems so discrete, so distinct from every other sound. Birds sang.
All of this “perfect Spring morning” I took in whenever for a moment or two I looked up from his eyes. I recall how strange it seemed to me that his eyes so much looked like he was still alive. You simply could not tell from his eyes alone that he was dead.
It was exactly the sort of Spring morning that passionately stirs so many of us to get out, go places, do things, make discoveries. Even perhaps the kind of Spring morning that might remind some of us of how we so often felt overwhelmed by a desire to play when we were little and the world was fresh.
Not every year, but perhaps every two or three years, the memory of the morning comes back to me about this time of the season, not as an old memory, but nearly as vivid as if the event were recent. Yet, I have never found the words to adequately express to anyone in a way that does not sound shallow or superficial to me how everything about that morning can sometimes — but only sometimes — come together to make me for a period acutely aware of how “precious” life is. When it comes, it’s not a poignant feeling, not a sad or regretful feeling, but more like a desire to be reborn. From the young man’s eyes to the horses, from the country silence to my crew mates compassion, it all somehow fits and reinforces that desire.
And it came again this morning. I think now that perhaps it didn’t just come back this morning with force merely because the young woman’s remark about masculinity reminded me of the sensitivity of my crew mate. Maybe the connection between her and my memory was bit stronger than that.
Could it happen that the heinous crime inflicted on her so suddenly and without warning jogged my memory of the young man’s abrupt death, made me realize once again how precarious, uncertain, and yet valuable life is? Could it have been that, but also in combination with her quite serious and understandable desire to be “reborn” after all the denial and after all the trauma in her life?
I think most likely it was several connections all at once. But whatever the causes, it once again seems so urgent now to live as fully as possible, simplistic and shallow as those words might sound.
[This poem is biographical. It’s about a woman I knew some twenty years ago. I have tried here to be as faithful to the facts of her life as my memory now allows. I think she deserved that much, but some folks might find her story disturbing.]
Gabrielle is dead.
I heard today.
Dead at 26.
She opened her veins
More than a month ago,
But the word traveled slow
And her body already has been left,
Left beneath the grasses of L.A.,
Left so far from here.
Mike knew her better than me,
Watched over her like kin,
Like a brother it seemed to me.
Maybe he even loved her.
He was trying to be hard,
Blinking fast, lying about dust in his eyes,
When around noon he told me the news.
She never said why
She returned to L.A.
Mike and I can only guess
And none of our guesses seem good.
Maybe even she didn’t know why.
Maybe it was fate that sent her back,
Back to who had raised her.
Neither Mike nor I believe in fate,
And we know it could not have been love.
Gabrielle is dead.
Gabrielle whose mind was shattered
Into three persons
While still a child
By the beatings,
By the cuttings,
By the burnings,
By the prostituted rapes,
By the thousand murderous
Cruelties of her parents
And of her johns.
Gabrielle is dead.
I remember her best when in the warmer months
She would sometimes sit with me
In the quiet of the morning sun,
Sit with me at a sidewalk table outside the coffee shop
With her feet up on the chair
And with her knees drawn up to her chest —
She would look at me, look at my face,
Not lifting her gentle, easy gaze,
Not glancing away to any distraction,
So that sometimes I thought,
“She’s trying to to connect
But she doesn’t always know how.”
And she would speak,
Speak for perhaps an hour or more
In a soft voice, in a quiet chant,
Speak all but without pause
Words that were soothing and pretty,
Words that were vibrant with colors and life,
Bright words that never strayed far from the light,
Gentle words that were lovely to hear,
But words strung in ways that made no sense,
That sustained no meaning:
Words fragmented, fractured from each other,
Homeless words, lonely words, isolated waifs —
— Until now and then
She would abruptly spin those words
Into some thread, some string of meaning:
A remark about the rent or groceries,
An opinion about the weather or sex,
Maybe something about a movie —
Or on one of her bad days,
Some fact or another that was
Crawling up out of her past,
That was clawing its way to her heart.
She said the Colorado wind could blow hearts down in the winter,
But far up in the mountains
The stars exploded in the night.
Sex bored her and she’d learned, “Love always turned her lonely”,
Yet she had seen two eagles court,
Cartwheeling through the sky.
She loved the sound of rain when it beat against her window,
And she wanted to find a dog
So she could make a friend.
She said she believed there was a god, but not there was a child
Who needed to be fucked until she bled
Then raised in closets and in chains.
Gabrielle is dead.
I never knew her violent.
I never knew her angry.
I never knew her rude.
Her sapphire eyes were open and innocent.
Her eyes were clear as a child’s eyes.
Yet she could not braid
The separated strings of her self
Into one person, and once said
A banshee inside wailed
At her by night and by day
To take a knife and cut her life,
Cut it loose.
Gabrielle is dead.
I wondered how despite it all
She move so gracefully
And kept her body firm and fit,
Her skin and clothes clean.
There was that about her body
That was whole and wholesome.
There was that about her body
That was beautiful.
And there was that about her
That stretched my heart to care
Beyond its normal caring,
That wanted her healed and happy,
That wanted for her the impossible.
Paula would kiss,
Her parted lips soft as the rustle of yellow grasses.
In a high meadow on Grays mountain
(Summer stars exploding in a moonless night)
When I couldn’t tell where I ended and she began
She whispered she felt complete.
Then for a while she loved a man in Utah I never met,
But she phoned to say he had turned her lonely —
So like her to understate it.
I think now for all Paula was,
She couldn’t find where the wind
Eddies among the rocks in winter, and she was exposed.
Inside her were enormous bands stretched across starlight
And hung on the cries of eagles
That brittled and snapped in all her loneliness,
Though in the end she got religion
For its promise of undying love.
Was that when she knew
She would not be coming back?
At Andersonville, the Union soldiers
Died for lack of salt
Which could not be dug from the red clay of their prison,
Nor provided by their captors.
Some in anguish
Tore the word “salt” from their Bibles
And ate the word,
Though the word was not salt.
(About an 18 minute read)
One of the greater joys of older gentlemen of an intellectual bent such as myself
is cackling at younger people in the park is discovering obscure philosophical problems that most likely won’t be solved within our own lifetimes. As it happens, that’s not so easy to do these days, since all the really good problems have already been discovered. Problems like, “If deity exists, then how do we know it exists?”, “What does it mean to live a good life?”, and of course, “What is the maximum number of chickens that can cross the same road in the same joke?”
But why indulge oneself in attempting to solve unsolvable problems in the first place?
As it happens, the world population can be divided into two kinds of people: Those who love their journey more than their destination, and those who love their destination more than their journey. If you are someone who most loves his or her destination, then you probably are not attracted to unsolvable problems, for such problems are pretty much all journey and no arrival.
Yet, if you most love — and perhaps even crave — the thrill of traveling in and of itself, then perhaps you are one of those relatively rare individuals who cherishes the way pondering an unsolvable problem can get you thinking creatively beyond the common assumptions we all have about things. And at least sometimes, you will be rewarded — not with a solution to the problem — but with a greater understanding of the issues involved.
As for myself, I fall into the latter category of humans. I savor the journey quite often more than the destination. At least when it comes to philosophical problems. In fact, I have taken to heart Kenko’s maxim, “The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty”, and all but find offensive most efforts to bring philosophical journeys to safe and secure destinations. Give me the climb, but not necessarily the mountain’s summit. I like the changing views on the way up best of all.
Now, despite how hard it is these days to discover new philosophical problems that are virtually insolvable, I myself am proud to say that I believe I may have found one. I’ve actually been mulling it over for a few years, and I believe that anyone who properly understands the issue will agree with me that it has no easy solution, if it has any solution at all.
Yet here’s the rub: The problem takes some explaining. The explanations are simple enough, once you grasp them, but they run to a little length. Let’s begin, however, by stating the problem: “Assuming that god exists, is there any guarantee that a mystical experience of god imparts knowledge of god?”
Put differently: “If you somehow first knew that god existed, and you had a mystical experience that at least appeared to you to be of god, could you say with absolute certainty that anything you learned about god during that experience was true?”
Once again, “Even if we were certain that god existed, are self-proclaimed prophets like Pat Robinson justified to believe that the messages they receive from god provide genuine knowledge of god’s will, character, etc.?”
To be sure, there is an easy answer to the question. Unfortunately, the easy answer seems to rest on a misunderstanding of the question. The easy way out is to say “no” on the grounds that we cannot know for certain that our experience of god is not a delusion, hallucination, brain fart, etc. But that answer ignores that the question asks us to assume we know god exists. Although most people will not make such a silly mistake, my experience of people says some are bound to.
Having said that, let’s now get on with my awesome explanation of the problem. We should first define “mystical experience”.
People commonly mean upwards of a dozen things by “mystical experience”. Things like clairvoyance, mind-reading, near death experiences, out of body experiences, and so forth. In this beautiful essay, however, we will mean one, and only one, thing by “mystical experiences”. Namely,
one’s first cup of hot, fresh coffee on a chilly morning the experience of “oneness with everything”.
The experience of oneness is famously difficult to describe to anyone who has not themselves had it. Yet, the experience seems to lie at the root of the notion there is some such thing as “spiritual enlightenment”. That is, moksha, samadhi, nirvana, satori, kensho, etc. It also seems quite likely to in many cases inform or influence notions of god — especially those notions commonly found in Hinduism (e.g. Brahman), but also in other religious traditions, such as mystical Judaism (e.g. Ein Sof), and even the Christian God. While many people who have had a mystical experience do not claim it was an experience of god, very many others do.
Now, I’m just enough a god-snob to believe that — if there is a god — the mystical experience is in all likelihood the purest, most authentic experience of that god that our noble and esteemed species of spear-chucking super-chimpanzees can have. I cheerfully peer down and sniff my perfectly handsome nose™ at auditory or visual “experiences” of god. How can any sensible person compare merely hearing the voice of god, or simply seeing an image of deity, to the overwhelming, earth-shattering, life-transforming, supreme experience of oneness? The very thought of it! Tsk. Tsk.
Like most snobs — whether god-snobs, social-snobs, or some other kind of snob — I myself have no extensive personal experience of the superiority I claim to be the highest available standard that can be aspired to. What modest experience I do have, I recognize as being anything but definitive of the whole range of mystical experiences that humans seem capable of having
unless you count that purely blissful moment when I first saw Terri’s breasts by the moonlight. So I am quite cautious about defining the mystical experience.
However, after 35 or so years of interest in the topic, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that all mystical experiences I’ve heard of have at least one thing in common. That is, they involve a specific, defining change in our perception of reality.
Now, grab hold of your seat, strap yourself in, for here comes the core description of what makes an experience “mystical”. A mystical experience can be distinguished from a non-mystical experience by the simple fact that it (1) involves an abrupt cessation of our normal, everyday, “subject/object perception”, and (2) its replacement by an awareness or experiencing of the oneness of all things.
I can only imagine, dear reader, that you are now in awe of the sheer elegance of my description. The experience of god, summed up in 41 words! Only my scurrilous two ex-wives would seek to distract you from the glory of my accomplishment by daring to suggest that I stole the description from someone!
Which, of course, I did.
I confess the basic idea is derived from the writings of Sam Harris, who — whatever else he is — is an author of beautiful, clear, and concise prose, genuine wit, and sharp insights. In fact, I am so struck by Harris the author, that I believe his only major flaw as an author is that he’s not me, poor man. But putting all that aside, what do we mean by “subject/object perception”?
The concept is simple enough once you get it. Merely look at whatever device you’re reading this on, and then observe that you have a sense or feeling of that device being distinct from your self. Or take note of anything else in your perceptual field, whether that something else is a sight, a sound, a taste, a touch, or an odor. Without usually thinking about it, you divide the world into self and non-self. “I see a tree, but do not see the tree as me.” “I hear a plane, but I do not hear the noise as part of myself.” That’s subject/object perception, which is our normal, everyday way of perceiving the world.
Now, it’s relatively rare — but it is still possible — for subject/object perception to come to an abrupt end while yet some form of awareness or experiencing continues. When that happens, the division of the world into me and not-me breaks down, and you are left with a perception that all things within your perceptual field are really, in some profound or fundamental sense, just one thing. Or, as Robert Plant famously sings in Stairway to Heaven, “When one is one and one is all”.
It is quite easy to interpret such an experience as an experience of god. For instance, what could be greater than that oneness? Absolutely nothing you perceive lies outside it, apart from it. Everything is included in it. Everything is embraced by it.
Second, that experience of oneness almost invariably comes with an overwhelming sense or feeling that it is real. Indeed, our normal, everyday sense or feeling that something is real pales in comparison. Were you to lower your head, snort like a raging bull, and then charge at full tilt and head first into a brick wall you would — if you survived the experience — have a nearly unshakable conviction that the wall was real. Perhaps you could later on intellectually convince yourself that it wasn’t real, that you were really a brain in a vat, and that the wall was a delusion, but I think it’s highly unlikely that you could convince yourself of that much beyond an intellectual level.
The experience of oneness is that feeling of realness on steroids. Which, I think, largely explains why so many people who’ve reported having it come away convinced that our normal, everyday reality is an illusion, and that the reality of oneness is the True or Ultimate Reality.
There are a few other generally present attributes to the experience, such as a feeling or sense of infinity, an experience of bliss or ecstasy, an experience of unconditional love, and so forth. Some people come away from such experiences convinced they have assured knowledge of god, such as that “God is infinite”.
But how can they be certain that god is infinite? Please recall that we are assuming god exists: Our question is only whether on not we can trust an experience of god to tell us something about the properties of god.
Now some — but not all — mystics are inclined to say the mystical experience is so convincingly real that it cannot possibly be the case that it is misleading. “My experience of X as real convinces me that X must be real.” But we know we can be convinced something is real without its actually being real. Many people are convinced the sky is blue, but we know the blueness of the sky is not an actual property of the atoms and molecules that comprise the atmosphere, but rather an effect of the diffusion of light through it. No matter how great the sense or feeling is that something is real, we cannot be certain on those grounds alone something is actually real.
Something else that might incline us to believe our experience of god has given us assured knowledge of god’s properties is the simple faith that “seeing is believing”, or put more precisely, “Experience or observation is conclusive evidence of fact”. But this too is quite obviously not the case. The floor lamp beside my desk looks solid, but we know from physics that it is comprised of atoms held in a matrix with more space between the atoms than there is space occupied by the atoms themselves. In other words, far from being that solid matter that I observe, my floor lamp is largely empty space — much like the mostly empty inside of a politician’s cranium.
So neither the conviction that something is real, nor the observation that something is real, can assure us that something is real. Hence, the experience of god as infinite cannot be certain evidence that god is infinite on either one of those grounds. Does that leave any other grounds for such a claim?
As it happens, some mystics make the curious claim that their experience of god is immediate. By “immediate”, they seem to at the very least mean that their experience of god is not mediated by the senses. Instead, they have a direct awareness of god, perhaps in somewhat the same sense of our having a direct awareness of the thoughts in our head.
Now, if it is true that mystics can have an immediate experience of god, then that would provide a different sort of grounds for the claim that an experience of god as infinite is conclusive evidence that god is infinite, for how can an unmediated experience be anything but a true experience?
To say that it could be a false experience would be like saying my experience of thinking could be a false experience, and that I might not be experiencing any thoughts at all even when I think I am thinking — a logical contradiction that, so far as anyone knows, has only been accomplished by the membership of the Ku Klux Klan.
Hence, we cannot say that an immediate experience of god as infinite could be false on anything like the same grounds that we can say the conviction that an experience is real could be false, or the observation that something is the case could be false. But does that still leave us with good grounds to doubt our experience?
When I think I’m thinking, are there ever any grounds to doubt that I’m thinking?
The answer is quite obviously, “no”. And yet, there remain good grounds to doubt that my experience of thinking accurately reflects or represents thinking itself. To illustrate, suppose I think about the most ecstatic experience of my first wedding night: The three fulfilling, blissful hours I spent in bed intimately lecturing my new wife on the epistemology of carnal knowledge. My thoughts of that taste of heaven on earth appear to me as their content. But I know from the sciences that in actuality those thoughts might somehow be the product of biological events in my brain, the mass firings of neurons. In which case, there is a crucial gulf between my experience of thinking, and my thinking itself.
Of course, that gulf is normally hidden from me. I have much less awareness of neurons firing in my brain than normal, healthy teenagers have of their mothers asking them to do their chores. Yet — assuming it is the case that all thought is ultimately the product of those neurons, and there is no such thing as a consciousness that exists independent of them — I have here sufficient grounds to doubt that even a direct, unmediated experience of god as infinite necessarily proves that god is indeed infinite.
After all, if there be a gulf between my experience of thinking and thinking itself, there could be a quite similar gulf between my experience of god as infinite and god’s “infinity”. For all I can know, my experience bears no or almost no resemblance to god’s infinity.
A somewhat imperfect analogy here might be colors. Most of us commonly see the various objects in our perceptual fields as having colors. Green leaves, pink sunsets, purple flowers, and so forth. But colors are not properties of those objects. Instead, they are manufactured in our heads. The objects themselves have no colors at all. Because they are manufactured in our heads
by tiny tiny little elves trust me! we can say we have an immediate experience of colors. But even the immediacy of that experience does not entail that they really exist apart from us. In somewhat the same fashion, it seems possible that god’s infinity might be manufactured in our heads.
So, even if we grant that god exists, and that our mystical experiences are somehow of god, we cannot be certain that any knowledge those experiences impart to us is true knowledge. But if that is indeed the case for what we have been calling here “mystical experiences”, it is also the case for merely auditory or visual experiences of god. To say — as a Pat Robertson might say — “God spoke to me last night and said, ‘I will send an earthquake to devastate Utah for I am angry with the Mormons who live there’.” is subject to the same uncertainties as mystical experiences. We have no way of knowing whether that message is assured knowledge of god’s will, character, or intentions.
But why stop there? If we cannot say with absolute assurance that god is infinite or that god is angry with virtually anyone who fails to contribute lavishly to our TV ministry, can we say that an experience of god imparts any certain knowledge of god at all? I think not. Even if we assumed something exists apart from our own brains that is the ultimate cause of our experiences of god, we could not say with complete assurance that we knew much of anything about that something. For all we could really know, god might be some as yet undiscovered combination of natural causes.
To be sure, quite the opposite of what we’ve been saying could also be true. Maybe an experience of god as infinite quite accurately reflects or resembles god’s infinity. The point here is not that such a thing is impossible, but that it is uncertain.
I do not wish anything I’ve said here to be misunderstood as poo-pooing the notion of god, nor as hostile to the notion that mystical experiences can be immensely life-affirming, to say the least. I have plenty of doubts about the notion of god, and plenty more doubts about certain specific notions of god, but I have far fewer fixed and firm convictions about god than perhaps most of us. And I have personal experience of how life-affirming
seeing Terri’s breasts in the moonlight mystical experiences can be.
Yet, like Jiddu Krishnamurti and some others, when it comes to these things, I believe certainty is largely or even entirely counter-productive. You might find the god you set out to find, but that god will be a projection of your own convictions about what a god should be. Or so it seems to me.
So what do you make of all this? What am I missing here? Your comments, questions, rants, and mouth-watering insights are welcomed!
For a larger and more general discussion of mysticism, see “Mysticism is a Whore: Allow Me to Introduce You“.
(About a 9 minute read)
One night, when I was about eight or ten years old, I woke up towards 11:00 PM and, sensing something was wrong, went looking for mom. She was not asleep in her bed, but there was a light on in our living room. I expected her to be awake reading, which she sometimes did. Yet, when I got to the living room, her favorite chair was empty. Almost the same moment, however, she came in through the front door. Naturally, I demanded to know where she’d been.
“I’ll tell you”, she said, “But only if you first promise me that you will not tell anyone where I’ve been.”
I solemnly promised that I would not, for she was using her serious tone of voice with me, the tone she reserved for when she wanted her words to sink in.
“I leased an apartment to a new tenant today, a mother and her five children, and I discovered that she was out of money and without food for herself or her family. She won’t get paid for a few days yet. So after work, I went to the store and bought some groceries for them. Then I waited up until I thought they would all be asleep before delivering the groceries to their doorstep. I’ve just now returned from doing that, and you must not tell anyone what I’ve told you, not even your friends.”
“But why, mom?”
“Because it could rob them of their pride if it ever got around how poor they are, Paul. Besides I don’t want them thinking they owe me anything.”
I don’t recall that I entirely understood her reasoning, but I did understand the gravity of my promise, and so I kept her deed a secret even from my two brothers. Looking back now, I can see how that event Illustrated three of her character traits: Her compassion, her sensitivity to others, and her modesty.
To many people in our community, she was above all else a strong, stoic person, even a bit on the strict side — and while I think there was a great deal of truth to that — I knew her as also caring, compassionate, and considerate. She was, however, a very private person, very modest about most things, and so somewhat difficult for most people to know.
In fact, I have wondered for some time how much even I and my brothers knew about her. Some years ago, when she retired, the local newspaper ran a full page article on her accomplishments, positions, and honors. My brothers and I were astonished to discover that about half of it was news to us. I would not call mom an “intentionally secretive” person, but there was so much about her that she had simply not thought important enough to mention to us.
For 33 years, she was the CEO of a small housing company at a time and in a community where women were not generally thought to be extraordinarily capable of running a business. She grew the company eight-fold. When she took it over, it was in the red. In relatively short order, she had it in the black, and she kept the company there for 30 consecutive years until her retirement. Yet, when you spoke with her about it, she would modestly ascribe her success “mainly to luck”. Mom seemed to feel no need for praise nor recognition. In fact, she tended to shun it.
Like many people in our hometown, both of my brothers think of mom as an especially strong person. My younger brother in particular has told me he believes “she was the strongest person he’s ever known”. A story that’s still told about her in the town concerns a huge, burly contractor who once went ballistic on her, yelling and screaming at her in her own office.
She had employed him to build a six-story apartment building. One day, she noticed a flaw in the brickwork and ordered him to tear down the wall in order to fix it. That’s when he lost his temper, threatening her with, “I’ll have your job”.
It was no idle threat. He was well-established and respected in the community, friends with several of her board members, and she was new to her job. Moreover, she had three small children to fend for, no husband to fall back on for support (our father having died a few years before), and no prospects for landing a similar job in the local economy if she lost the one she had. Yet, as the story goes, she didn’t blink. She stood her ground, calmly presented her case to the board, and in the end, the wall came down and the brickwork was fixed.
I too remember her as a strong person, but even more, I remember her as a stoic person. In all the time I knew her, I witnessed her crying once, and only once. If you’re curious, I blogged about that here. My brothers, on the other hand, never once witnessed her crying.
Only one of us ever witnessed her lose control of her temper, too. My older brother has a memory of her engaging in a shouting match with a neighbor when he was about five or so. That’s the only time anyone of us can recall her raising her voice in anger. Of course, she would get angry at times, but — excepting that once — she kept her anger in check, never lashing out irrationally or unreasonably.
In fact, she could be a bit too stoic, I think. During the earliest parts of my childhood, she found it difficult to express love or affection. A friend — a psychologist — noticed that about her, and convinced her to reform herself. Afterwards, she gradually got much better at it with practice, but I will always remember her very first, very awkward effort to express the love she felt for me. She shocked me one evening with a hesitant but abrupt pat on the head — after which, she was so embarrassed that she fled into the next room. Somehow I cherish that memory of her as much as any — it was, after all, part of her character.
Mom was an eminently reasonable person. There were many times when I thought she was wrong, but there were few, if any, times when I thought she failed to listen to my side of an issue. Even when as small children we challenged her rules, she would (at least at first) patiently explain her rules and seek to reason us into complying with them.
Only as a last resort would she fall back on, “When you’re old enough to make your own rules, you can make the rules you want, but you will obey this rule because I’ve made it, and I’m your mother, and responsible for you.” Sometimes we could even reason her into changing a rule — especially as we grew older — and provided that she thought we’d made a good case for ourselves. Friends of hers often enough remarked that she “spoke to us like adults.”
Mom was in the habit of gently interrupting us whenever we made an error in reasoning. She would then not merely point out the mistake, but also patiently explain to us precisely why it was a mistake. Naturally, as a child, I did not immediately appreciate her guidance in these matters. In fact, I came to think she was a wee bit obsessed. Or, as I once insightfully put it to my best friend, Dennis, “My mom is nuts”.
It wasn’t until I was at university taking an introductory course in logic that my opinion of her sanity began to change. When my class came to the section on informal fallacies, I was astonished to discover I already knew 35 of the 36 most common fallacies of logic – knew them backwards and forwards, and knew them only because mom had drilled them into my head over the years I was growing up. All I had left to do was learn their names.
She was quite reasonable in other ways as well. I’ve blogged about one of those ways in a funny post here. She also implemented a policy after we became teens that several parents in our community were inspired to adopt for their own kids. She told us that if we were out drinking and we even “so much as suspected” that we’d had a bit too much to drive safely, we could call her at anytime, no matter what the hour was, to come get us home — there would be absolutely no repercussions. She would not, she promised, so much as mention or hint about it the next day. My brothers and I took her up on her offer more than once or twice, and she was always true to her word.
Mom took religion seriously, so seriously that she believed children were too immature to make any firm decisions about it. Consequently, she forbade us from deciding whether we believed in God and such until we had, as she put it, “reached the age of reason” — by which she meant at least 18 and, preferably, our early twenties. She went further than that, though. She refused to tell us of her own beliefs while we were young on the grounds that we might go along with her just to ape our mother. Of course, her rules for us about religion scandalized a few people in the county who thought she was hellbent on raising infidels.
She did send us to Sunday school each week, and when we asked “why”, she told us it was “to expose us to our cultural heritage”. Around the age of eight, I got fed up with Sunday school for some reason that I now forget. I pleaded with mom to allow me to stay home.
At first, she was adamant that I should continue to go, but then I had a rare stroke of genius. The thought suddenly occurred to me that mom’s real objection to my staying home was that she cherished having an hour or so by herself without us kids underfoot. I promptly began fervently promising her that I would be quite well behaved during the “church hour”, exceptionally well-behaved, even silent as a mouse well-behaved.
She held her ground until I blurted out my newfound conviction that what she really wanted was quiet time to herself, and that since I was willing to give that to her, she should give me a chance in return. That struck her as reasonable, and so I was allowed to stay home on Sundays — on the strict condition that I kept my word. The very next Sunday, my brothers cut their own deals with her.
In her later years, mom would reminisce with us about the days we were growing up. What she herself seemed to remember best was the laughter. One day the four of us were eating in a restaurant when a man approached us to remark that he’d seldom seen a family laugh together as much as we were doing. And that was pretty typical of us. Whenever we were together, whether in a restaurant, around our kitchen table, at friend’s homes, or in our car, we were often enough laughing.
Unfortunately, most of the jokes were of the sort that would take some explanation, for we seldom recounted jokes we’d heard, no matter how funny they were. Instead, we made things up on the spur of a moment — and our family tended to see humor in nearly anything. My mother, for all of her stoicism, never had a problem with laughing, and she especially appreciated self-deprecating humor and genuine wit.
She drew the line, however, at malicious laughter. She simply did not believe in making fun of others if doing so risked wounding them.
The newspaper article published upon her retirement mentioned, among other things, that she had served on the boards of one university, one college, two poet’s societies, an historical society, a zoning and planning commission, and a welfare advisory council.
Much of that was news to us. At her visitation, my brothers and I were still finding out things about her from the guests. In some ways, I think I knew her well, but in other ways, I believe she will always remain a bit of a mystery to me.
She died peacefully, August 22, at the age of 99. We buried her the 2nd of September.
Something quite unplanned happened after the graveside service. We were each of us holding a red rose, quietly conversing, when one of my young nephews approached the grave, stood silent for a few moments, and then dropped his rose onto her vault, which had already been lowered into the ground.
One by one, the rest of us followed his example, without a word of direction from anyone, until we had all said our silent goodbyes.