Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Talk about the "mystical experience" in the company of scientists and you'll often get looked at as if you were going on about crop circles or astrology. This not quite fair, I think. The "mystical experience" is too well documented in the religious literature of the world to be so easily dismissed.

Granted, people who report these experiences often invoke the language of supernaturalism, and the language is properly suspect. But we use the descriptive categories we are familiar with, and supernaturalism is deeply ingrained in our culture.

Is there a way of talking about the "mystical experience" that places it firmly within the natural order? And, if so, what is the "mystical experience"?

Even amoebas are in some sense aware. They must find nutrients and sources of energy, and they have evolved the chemical machinery to do so. Multicelled, sexual organisms must be aware of potential mates and pathogens, and they have evolved special cells -- neurons -- to help. The human brain contains something like 100 billion neurons, each in contact with about 1000 other neurons, and out of this prodigious tangle comes something called self-awareness, a sort of internal spectator to awareness.

Psychologists tell us that the working memory can hold about seven pieces of information at once, seven bits of information of which we are at any moment self-aware. Mostly, these seven things are as prosaic as a shopping list. Occasionally, the seven things collapse into one thing, and the brain experiences an extraordinarily acute sense of self -- and of the self as part of a wholeness. Poets report these moments. Artist, too. And the so-called mystics. These are the moments that Sylvia Plath writes about in Black Rook in Rainy Weather that come now and then out of the mute sky, "thus hallowing an interval/ Otherwise inconsequent/ By bestowing largesse, honor,/ One might say love."

Nothing supernatural about any of this. We know that certain drugs, mental exercises, or physical rigors can sometimes send the brain spiraling into states of acute awareness. The description of the experience may sometimes be delusional, but the experience itself is real, and often electrifying.

I don't pretend to be a "mystic," nor do I claim to have experiences as intense as those of a Sylvia Plath or a Julian of Norwich. On the whole, I prefer a life of quietly ordered observation and patient ritual. But I know what it means to have the seven ordinary, day-to-day things be overwhelmed by the one thing, and in those infrequent moments to feel a sense of participation in something greater than myself. Not an "out-of-body" experience. Very much an "in-body" experience -- those 100 trillion synapses just doing their thing.

Einstein was not adverse to using the term "mystical" for these moments of rapture. They are, he said, the source of all true art and science.