by Ian G Graham.
The occurrence of religious and preternatural experiences within different cultures over many centuries has been well documented and attempts by modern scientific materialists to dismiss them as delusions or mental health issues has not been entirely successful. The fact is, of the millions of people who have unusual experiences of various kinds, most are healthy everyday well- adjusted people.
Individuals can experience unusual phenomenon that is frequent or rare, from the more common experiences we’re all familiar with like: gut feelings, premonitions, distant knowing, deja vu, ESP, telepathy and events involving synchronicity, to more intense life-changing events where one might experience something ineffable – a mystical union of oneness with a divine reality or a religious epiphany. Here are a few typical examples of the more common experiences people report:
Pizza Place Premonition:
While I was working at XYZ, I started to feel like I was about to die. Just an absolute feeling of death. [I] asked my boos to leave, and did. I felt fine once I got to my car and got home.
We got robbed later that day, at gunpoint, by the other manager.
A Timely Tantrum:
My son (three at the time) threw a huge tantrum when we were trying to leave the house he ‘didn’t want to crash and die.’ After about ten minutes he stopped and was ready to go.
As we were walking out of the house there was a very bad accident on the street in front of our house – right where we would have been driving if he hadn’t thrown his fit.
Bizarre Signs Links Dream World to Real World:
When I was a senior in high school, I had a dream about a purple $5 (US) bill. It had a purple tint on the front of it and a big purple “5” in the bottom corner on the back.
I woke up from the dream chuckling to myself at how ridiculous the thought of purple money was to me…
A few months [passed] and I’m working the register when this old woman hands me a $5 bill. I noticed a slight purple tint to the front of it and my eyes widened.
I flipped it over and lo and behold there is the large purple “5” on the back.
Foreseeing the Challenger Explosion:
When I was a kid I had a dream that I walked outside and there were dozens of people in the street pointing to a big fireball in the sky and crying. No one would tell me what happened, and I woke up thinking that a comet had exploded.
A couple of days later the Challenger spaceship exploded. The news footage of the explosion was exactly what I had dreamed. (Source: online www.theepochtimes.com Nov 18, 2013)
Bewildering as it is, mainstream science with its emphasis on the study of biological mechanisms, treats the investigation of psychic phenomenon (psi as it’s referred to or parapsychology) as taboo. I say bewildering, because staring the supporters of science in the face, is popular cultural influence which takes a completely different view – an obsession with supernatural themes in literature and movies that attract a massive following and vigorous discussion.
The brilliant scholar and interpreter of myth Joseph Campbell once commented that movie theatres are the new churches and temples where people go in modern times (the secular age as many call it) to experience transcendence in their lives. Here’s a few I’m sure you’re familiar with: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Green Mile, Minority Report… and so on. Are they really just fantasy and entertainment or do we engage with them to teach ourselves something?
Without us being aware, our lives are full of transcendental experiences which transport us beyond the senses on a magical journey, away from the rationalities of everyday consciousness. Many experiences are deeply connected with nature or the cosmos as a whole in its orchestration of the sublime. A fine example of this is expressed in the memoirs of the German idealist Malwida von Meysenbug:
I was alone on the seashore as all these thoughts flowed over me liberating and reconciling; and now and again, as once before in distant days in the Alps of Dauphine, I was impelled to kneel down, this time before the illimitable ocean, symbol of the infinite. I felt that I prayed as though I had never prayed before, and knew now what prayer really is: to return from the solitude of individuation into the consciousness of unity with all that is, to kneel down as one that passes away, and to rise up as one imperishable. Earth, heaven, and sea resounded as in one vast world-encircling harmony. It was as if all the chorus of the great who has ever lived were about me. I felt myself one with them, and it appeared as if I heard them greeting: “Thou too belongest the company of those who overcome.” (source: Memoiren einer Idealistin, 5te Auflage, 1900, 111, 166 in William James The Varieties of Religious Studies, Collins London, 1960, p378.)
Another fine capture of nature as a transformative experience – something that transmits an extra-ordinary power awakening mystical moods is quoted from Starbuck’s manuscript collection in William James’ The Varieties of Religious Studies:
I felt myself at one with the grass, the tress, birds, insects, everything in Nature. I exulted in the mere fact of existence, of being a part of it all – the drizzling rain, the shadows of the clouds, the tree trunks and so on. In the years following, such moments continued to come, but I wanted them constantly. I knew so well the satisfaction of losing self in a perception of supreme power and love, that I was unhappy because that perception was not constant. (Source: The Varieties of Religious Studies: W James, Collins London, 1960, pp379)
What if it was proposed to you that everything is reflected beyond the light of consciousness as you experience it in wakefulness? Is there an infinite structure of realty and truth outside our limited understanding of the predictable unfolding of experience in linear time and causality? These questions become worthy of some thought, especially when one absorbs the profound experiences of those who have attempted to write about them. Most people say that words are insufficient because the events they experience of this tincture are ineffable, as if one is in an eternal dream.
This amazing account from Marcel Proust in his great novel A la recherche du temps perdu (In Pursuit of Past Time) the central character engages in deeper self-realization – a transcendental experience that transports him beyond time and mortality to one of immortality and infinity. The event is ignited by the simple offering of tea and bun called ‘madeleine’. When he tastes the cake he reports the following experience:
At the very moment when the mouthful mixed with the crumbs of the cake touched my palate, I shuddered, as I took note of the strange things that were going on inside me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded me – isolated, with no idea of what its cause might be. Immediately it had made the vicissitudes of life, indifferent, its disasters inoffensive, its brevity illusory – in much the same way as love operates, filling me with precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent or mortal. Whence should this strong joy have come to me? I felt that it was connected with the taste of the tea and cake, but that it transcended it infinitely and could not be of the same nature. Whence did it come? How to lay hold of it? (Source: Mysticism Sacred and Profane (1957) R.C. Zaehner, p45)
R.C. Zaehner in his book Mysticism Sacred and Profane (1957) writes that Proust’s experiences are not like those reported by those who experience a oneness with all things as is the case with mystical or religious experiences. Proust, he suggests, is describing an individual life integrated outside time. (Source: Mysticism Sacred and Profane (1957) R.C. Zaehner, p60)
Theistic experiences consist of the type found in The Way of Perfection, where St. Teresa describes her “Prayer of the Quiet,” and the resulting mystical consciousness:
“The soul rests in peace…all [her] powers are at rest. The soul understands, with an understanding quite different from that given by external senses, that she is now quite close to God and that, if she drew just a little nearer, she would become one thing with him by union. She does not see him with eyes of the body or the soul.…The soul understands he is there, though not so clearly. She does not know herself how she understands; she sees only that she is in the Kingdom….
It is like the suspension of all internal and external powers. The external man does not wish to make the slightest movement but rests, like one who has almost reached the end of his journey, that he may resume his journey with redoubled strength.…The soul is so happy to find herself near the fountain that she is satisfied even without drinking. She seems to have no more desire. The faculties are at peace and do not wish to move…However, the faculties are not so lost that they cannot think of Him whom they are near. Two of them are free. The will alone is held captive.…The understanding desires to know but one thing, and memory to remember only one. They both see that only one thing is necessary, and everything else disturbs it… I think therefore that since the soul is so completely happy in this prayer of quiet, the will must be united during most of the time, with Him who alone can satisfy it.” (Source: Quoted from The Way of Perfection (translated by Alice Alexander) in F.C. Happold in Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology.)
The subject of religious experiences is one I will explore in further posts. What stimulates my interest is the argument that they do not justify religious belief, which as one might expect has created a lot of opposition and debate about how religious experiences occur, however, in my opinion, many fall into biased generalizations. Those, thankfully not all, who attack religious experiences with such one-sidedness come from neuroscience and social commentators with anti-religious positions. While I don’t disagree with all their arguments, many I’ve read on the subject are underdone.