Healthy People Have Mystical Experiences
some riffing on a tweet
I think this tweet is basically correct and really important.
It’s also incomplete, in one important way: as anyone who’s ever spent time near a mental hospital will tell you, unhappy people also have mystical experiences. However, those experiences tend to be a little different. Mystical experiences of those kinds tend to be wrenching, bracing, haunting, and life-altering in a good or bad way.
When you’re healthy, the mystical experience is often not as much of an assault. It tends to feel just kind of like: yes. Ah, of course. That is the way it is. The entirety of the universe is not composed of the little games I play in my human costume. How tawdry and sad that would be. How relaxing it is that I am only one fleeting mote in this strange dust cloud, that the stakes for me are not the whole of the drama. It is fresh air.
If this sounds weird, note that this is something that human beings have experienced routinely during worship since the dawn of humanity. Also, for more on this, please read the author’s follow-up thread, written in response to some discussion the original tweet generated.
I would also like to add a personal note.
A statement like “healthy people have mystical experiences” would have made me angry at one point. I know because someone close to me once told me “spiritual experience is your birthright” and I was furious, and became condescending. I told her that maybe other people have wacky experiences like that, but that I, a more grounded person, was much more focused on material reality.
And I think the reason for this petulant response was just defensiveness. I knew she was correct. At times, I sensed that there was something greater, in passing moments. They were tiny foregleams, little openings when I felt a simple, obvious, strange connection to a Being beyond myself. But it was easier to dismiss these moments as passing fancies rather than considering them samples of sustenance I was missing. Mostly I had them on drugs. So maybe they were just drugs.
Listen: when you hate yourself, or are otherwise completely neurotic, there are wounded parts of you that want absolute dominion. Their goal is to take over the agenda. They insist that there can be nothing bigger, nothing in the universe more significant than your homeliness, clumsiness, lack of talent, current social conflicts, whatever. You get so welded to these parts that they seem like the whole of you, the essential truth.
And this, ultimately, is protective. These parts are trying to keep you hidden, because they think there will only be pain in not being hidden and huddled. That’s what they’ve learned. And, in a way, this constant state of inner tension is safe, if miserable. The risk is very low, in a certain sense. You will go emotionally hungry, but you probably won’t die. There is a sick safety in the narcissism of the wounded, where you are so pathetic that it’s extremely important—world-defining—how pathetic you are.
You can’t win this fight by yelling at these inner voices. There is no such thing as winning the fight, on their terms. You have to end the fight by loving and understanding them, even though they’re presently your most subtle and constant enemies. Someone has to end the arms race, and it’s probably going to be you. That can be tricky, a matter of hours of practice. It can also be a matter of instantaneous realization.
When you release this conflict, it’s not that you move on to having different, but equivalent, conflicts. It’s that these knots of self-conflict simply disappear. That energy stops being expended. The self at the center of your perception, which was so muddy and thick and tangled, becomes clearer, more prismatic. The idea that you are composed of some sort of special, unique pollution, separate from everything else, becomes laughable. In place of that delusion, something else can be realized. When it appears, you see why people did such a bad job of describing it to you previously, although they may have been trying hard. In the words of Wittgenstein: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”
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