Saturday, February 9, 2008

Oceanic Feeling, Part 2

I started discussing Oceanic Feeling in a previous post. The term, used by Romain Rolland to represent his ideas about nature mysticism, appeared in some correspondence between Rolland and Sigmund Freud which was mentioned in André Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.

I was surprised to find that quite a lot has been made of this material over the years, presumably because Freud took the subject up in Civilization and Its Discontents. At least one book has been written about it, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling by William Parsons. A related reference also mentions the Freud/Rolland correspondence, albeit more briefly, Mystical Encounters with the Natural World by Paul Marshall. I requested both titles through inter library loan and have read significant portions of them over the last few weeks. I have not, unfortunately, found much of interest in either.

Parsons attempts to develop a more accurate understanding of Rolland’s ideas about mysticism, after concluding (with some justification) that Freud and Rolland were speaking at cross-purposes. He argues that what Rolland intended by the phrase was a mature and persistent mystical connection with the absolute, rather than a transient, mystical feeling he experienced several times in his youth (between the ages of 15 and 20), which is how Freud apparently interpreted the phrase. Freud decided Rolland’s experiences, and mystical experiences in general, result from a regression to a post-natal state prior to ego differentiation from one’s environment and categorized it as a component of the “common man’s religion.” In other words, a set of illusory and naive beliefs from which people often derive comfort when faced with life’s trials and tribulations.

Parsons, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, is interested in pastoral psychology, and is understandably concerned to show that Freud misinterpreted Rolland and failed to do justice to mystical experiences in general. A significant problem with his analysis, however, is that Rolland’s comments about his own mystical experiences are not profound. They are somewhat ambiguous, were written 40 or more years after the fact, and ultimately provide a weak foundation for the considerable weight of theorizing and interpretation Parsons subjects them to as he attempts to "unpack" (a favorite term) their hidden meaning.

Marshall’s Mystical Encounters with the Natural World, based on doctoral thesis work, again, in religious studies, appears to be more directly concerned with mystical experiences. These are differentiated as “extrovertive mystical experiences,” which are oriented to the world, and “introvertive mystical experiences,” which are not. Marshall concentrates on EMEs. Surprisingly, only a few reports of these are provided, and they occur in the early pages of the book.

In his introduction Marshall makes the disingenuous observation that “Some theorists, particularly in the early years, gave credence to transpersonal factors by allowing persons to reach beyond themselves in ways that are not covered by the perceptual, biological, psychological, and social processes admitted by naturalistic science.” Transpersonal explanations are counter-poised against intrapersonal explanations, which include what is commonly understood as neurological science. Predictably, Marshall proceeds with a strenuous transpersonal argument. Although he promises to evaluate current science, the subject is almost entirely disregarded. In fact, the section presumably intended to cover contemporary science, "The Mystical Brain," largely concerns itself with Aldous Huxley’s filtration theory, a hypothesis that the brain functions like a valve to filter ideas from “Mind at Large” (a sort of consciousness in nature). One is left wondering if Marshall actually believes such ideas represent neurological science.

In his conclusion Marshall states: “When brain function is understood in greater detail, it may be possible to say with confidence that intrapersonal factors are primary. Alternatively, neuroscientific advances may help confirm the view that the nervous system acts as a filter in its perceptual operations, as Bergson and Huxley had supposed, in which case transpersonal explanation would be favored.” This is an appeal to ignorance pure and simple — we don’t know that transpersonal factors are not involved in mystical experiences, therefore we must keep an “open mind” on the subject. The obvious retort, of course, is considering that all empirical evidence supports the idea that mental states are entirely the result of brain (and body) physiology, and no verifiable evidence supports any sort of cosmic consciousness, telepathy, clairvoyance, or indication that near-death experiences relate to higher states of being (topics frequently mentioned in the text), the only reasonably objective position is to reject transpersonal explanations of mystical experiences.

So what does that leave?

Well, not to be disingenuous myself, I should say I became interested in André’s description of his mystical experiences because they are similar to experiences of my own (though I have never thought of myself as a mystic). André writes that his oceanic experiences occurred when he was younger, and as he has grown older they have occurred less frequently. He, like Rolland, is writing at some remove from the actual events. My experience has been somewhat the opposite. As I have grown older these experiences have occurred more frequently. In all honesty I have not written about it before, which probably seems odd because to some people it is such a startling experience. Although, come to think of it, neither Rolland nor Comte-Sponville wrote about their experiences at the time they occurred.

I have always had a sort of intuitive thought pattern. That is, when I work on a problem, and initially this sort of thing typically happened when I was writing papers in high school and then college, I assemble lots of information about a topic (everything I can get my hands on), read through it, start mulling it over, and then start writing down my thoughts and ideas. Sometimes, in doing this, I would get stuck at one point or another, and not be able to fit an idea into the structure of whatever I was working on. Rather than getting frustrated by this, I would just keep working around it, or mucking about with bits of information, ponder it while doing other activities ( a good way to get hit in the head with a basketball, incidentally). Often, the answer would come to me in a flash, a moment of insight that transformed everything I had thought and written on the topic. The old joke is a light bulb turning on, which is humorous, but the experience is one of sudden illumination. When it occurs, it is accompanied by surprisingly intense feelings of elation and euphoria. It takes one out of oneself in an odd way, as though nothing else exists or matters. I don't know if it would be correct to say that time stands still, but the passage of time stops being a consideration for a while. This sort of thing might last for a few minutes, but the afterglow often lasts for an hour or more.

My writing rate during such times increases dramatically, as words tumble out, and I almost have trouble writing (now typing) fast enough to keep up. I even find myself wondering where the words are coming from, or marveling at how precisely ideas fit together. It isn’t all perfect. Later, bits and pieces have to be edited or revised, but the gist of everything, the part that really matters, is seen in a flash. And when it appears, it is instantly recognized as correct. I mean with absolute confidence.

I suppose this would be categorized as an introvertive experience, because it is focused inwardly on some topic or idea I have been contemplating rather than on external objects. I also don’t believe this sort of experience is that unusual. And it is not limited just to writing. I suspect almost any activity can be the source of such experiences. People experiencing this may not perceive it as unusual because they are accustomed to it.

Here is an example. I am not a good golfer but my younger brother is. Considerably better than the average golfer. Although Jim lives in Florida, we play together when he visits Missouri. We enjoy each other’s company, and Jim enjoys outdoing his older brother. Sometimes, like when we are coming up to the first tee, other people will be present. A situation which makes most golfers nervous and often results in mistakes. (Something familiar to me.)

The result with Jim is usually the opposite. In fact, if a stranger makes a comment about the difficulty of a shot, the result is predictable. Jim will make the shot. If a starter, for example, says, “You can go ahead and tee off,” when a group is ahead of us on the fairway by about 300 yards, Jim will say, “I think I’ll wait.” “Oh, they are well out of range,” the starter responds. Jim just smiles. I know what is coming next just as sure as I’m standing there. A crashing 300 yard drive down the middle of the fairway and a look of stunned disbelief on the starter’s face. The thing is, Jim can’t always do that. When no one is watching, when he isn’t under a lot of pressure to prove himself, he can miss-hit terribly. (He still makes plenty of good shots, whether anyone is watching or not.) But he almost invariably hits an excellent shot in the former situation.

Jim couldn’t tell you how he does that. I’m not sure he even recognizes what sets the thing up, though it always puts him in a confident mood because he knows from experience how it is going to turn out. He becomes so focused on making the shot he forgets about everything else. He is so determined to prove himself. Afterwards, though he has never described this, it is easy to see the peace and elation. The glow can last for half a round or more. He would probably laugh if he heard this described as a mystical experience, but it has all the key ingredients. And if you don’t think time stands still after hitting a great drive on the golf course, you just don’t understand golf. :-) I also find it ironic that Jim’s ego, his intense determination to prove himself, becomes a means for controlling his ego, that is, silencing its internal monologue so he can hit a magnificent drive. But little ironies like this are what add piquancy to one’s experiences. (More on managing the ego below.)

At this point you might be thinking “Now, wait a minute, I have experiences like that.” Probably when doing something you’re really good at. But can those really be described as mystical? It may be, probably is, that the level of intensity in such experiences varies. I’m not sure how this could be objectively measured. It seems reasonable to suppose, however, that the physiological processes involved in the most intense mystical experiences are not different in kind from the milder occurrences encountered more frequently. They are just stronger. From your own experience, you can probably recall episodes when you were particularly successful in whatever activity (activities?) at which you excel and, comparing these with other similar experiences, can get an idea of comparative the intensity levels.

So, on to nature mysticism. While similar in some respects to experiences previously discussed, which I take to be more introvertive, extrovertive experiences include items not found in the former. Here are some included in table 1.1 “Feature list of extrovertive mystical experience” (Marshall, p. 27):



  • Unity: Feeling part of the whole; the world contained within; everything intimately connected; community

  • Self: Relaxation of individual identity; identification with persons, animals, plants, objects, even the entire cosmos; discovery of deeper self

  • Knowledge: Intuitive, all-encompassing knowledge...insights into order, harmony, and perfection of the world...

  • Love: All-embracing love; sense of being deeply loved

  • Beauty: Extraordinary beauty; everything equally beautiful

  • Miscellaneous feelings: Bliss, joy, elation, uplift, peace, relief, gratitude, wonder, power, fearlessness, humor, surprise

  • Time: Time ‘stops’; past, present, future coexist; harmonious flow

  • Reality: Sense of contact with normally hidden depths of reality

  • Realness: ‘Very real’ — ordinary experience seems less real

  • Life: Everything animated with ‘life’, ‘consciousness’, ‘energy’; things once thought living are lifeless in comparison


Descriptions of extrovertive mystical experiences vary from person to person. The preceding list includes items common to such reports, though it is not necessary for an experience to include all (or even most) of these features to be categorized as an EME. It should also be understood that the experience does not have to involve the natural world per se, that is it does not have to take place in a natural setting like a woodland, ocean shore, etc. It is only necessary for the experience to be centered in the external world, which might be some room in one's home, at the office, etc.

My own experiences of this kind do occur in natural settings: typically while I am hiking in the woods or during an astronomy session under the night sky. They are most intense when I am by myself. A few years ago Elly and I purchased a small RV from neighbors and since then have been able to regularly visit Missouri state parks. (Elly and tents have never been a successful combination.) Although we live happy lives, the time we spend surrounded by nature is probably our happiest. We find it relaxing, enjoy seeing all sorts of birds, animals, and plants that don’t frequent urban areas, and enjoy being away from all the noise and hustle of city life. Elly likes hiking in the woods, but not to the extent I do, so it often happens that she stays at the RV and reads, in the company of our dog Samba (who is not friendly to strangers), while I have a ramble in the woods. At these times, with nothing on my mind but exploring the woods, viewing birds I come across, photographing wild flowers and other interesting plants, it is not unusual, after a few hours, to slip into a blissful state. The feeling is one of total unity with the natural world, of being where one belongs, accepting one’s role in the cosmos, intuitively understanding the harmony of nature. Time stands still. Only the present matters. The past and future seem unimportant. Unreal, even.

A similar thing happens after hours spent in solitude with a telescope under the night sky, listening to owls and coyotes, the rustling of trees, watching the heavens wheel overhead. I have heard people comment that the night sky makes them feel puny and unimportant. André Comte-Sponville himself refers to this. I have never felt that. Instead, I feel intensely alive, part of everything before me. I feel serenity, elation, bliss, joy. Again, the deep sense of belonging. A total absence of care and concern. And, most especially, a deep awe and reverence for the miracle of the universe of which we are a part. As much as I enjoy getting together with friends to observe, the experience is never as intense. Part of it has to do, I think, with the silence: not speaking for hours at a time, not devoting any energy or thought to conversation.

During these times I do not experience, as some report, deep feelings of love or of being loved, or of a divine presence. Nor do I have a sense that hidden wisdom is somehow being revealed or about to be revealed. Through science, we have learned an extraordinary amount about the natural world, one of our greatest achievement as a species. Undoubtedly, we will learn much more. But the ultimate mysteries of why the cosmos exists, why there is order in it, why there is life in it, and what its ultimate fate might be, lie forever beyond our reach. Accepting that this is so, accepting that the only characteristic of the Absolute we can truly experience is its ineffability and mystery, seems to me an appropriate, and profoundly spiritual response.

Others, however, report deep feelings of love, and/or of a divine presence. Of God, in fact. Are they mistaken? It may be the answer to that question, or, at least, a way forward to understanding it, lies in understanding what causes mystical experiences themselves. What brings them about?

A widespread belief is that mystical experiences represent union with ultimate reality. All major religions feature this idea in one form or another. In achieving the state, mystics are said to access knowledge which surpasses that available through normal use of the human senses and intellect. A key element of this belief is that mystical experiences represent “transpersonal” communication in one form or another. The problem, of course, is that mystical experiences are entirely subjective, as is the resulting knowledge or wisdom they are purported to convey. Simply put, no empirical or objective evidence has been found to support the claim that these experiences are transpersonal. The obvious alternative, and one that does not conflict with current neurological science, is that mystical experiences are intrapersonal. That is, they represent comprehensible (albeit somewhat unusual) brain states.

Consider the enormous complexity of the human mind, which, by conservative estimates, incorporates something like 100 trillion synaptic connections. Consider what a small part of brain functionality is represented by our conscious awareness. Is it so hard to believe that some people, whether through design (practices and exercises intended to invoke mystical states) or happenstance (some neurological quirk), are able to quiet their conscious awareness and experience their subconscious more directly than normal?

We all do this while dreaming, perhaps mystics have the ability to do it while awake. In such a state, a common experience is one of unity with reality. Well, why not? Subconsciously our minds are aware of and track many times the amount of sensory data we consciously notice. Mystical experiences are accompanied by intense, usually pleasurable, emotions. This too makes sense. Literally. Our emotions are intimately connected with sensory experience. If the intensity of those experiences, or, our awareness of them, is heightened, our emotional responses would surely be heightened as well. Feelings of love, or of being loved, are surely consonant with this.

So what about feeling a divine presence? It would not be surprising to find these feelings consistent with the religious system in which an individual has been raised or trained. In other words, they could easily be interpretations based on the intellectual and emotional content of one’s religious and social context, which is a significant contributor to our thought processes. This is not to say a presence is not felt. Or, even that something corresponding to that presence does not exist. Only that the feelings themselves do not constitute proof of anything external to the person having the experience.

None of this is meant to be reductionist. Concluding that mystical states, like other mental states, result from our physiology and brain chemistry, does not diminish their value or desirability from my point of view. Those who accept such experiences as proof of something beyond their own intimate connection with the cosmos will doubtless disagree. I can only point out that a naturalistic explanation is consistent with the verifiable evidence so far uncovered, and does not rely on complicated hypothetical constructions involving a “cosmic consciousness” or similar unproven (improvable?) things. It therefore has the advantage of simplicity and intellectual economy.

Mystical experiences are not less wonderful, not less beautiful in the light of a naturalistic explanation, any more than a knowledge of sound waves makes a symphony by Mozart any less wonderful or beautiful. These experiences have enriched my life, and, like André Comte-Sponville, I find them to be a source of solace and comfort. I encourage others to be receptive to mystical experiences wherever they might be encountered. Perhaps, fans of the movie Tin Men are thinking of a smorgesboard...

2 comments:

ole meph said...

Would like to discuss natural mystical experience with you

Fiske said...

Happy to discuss. Please contact me via email (see link at top of my blog). Thanks.

Fiske