Sharing the ecstasy…

This post contains a very interesting list of experiences which the author, at least, interprets as experiences of God. He doesn’t think it’s an exhaustive list. I agree. It excludes, for instance, the wonder experienced in scientific discovery, or merely in contemplating the beauty of scientific or mathematical forms. It excludes the “aha!” moment, when something previously concealed or unknown is revealed – and sometimes this is available via humour.

However, it takes me back to an early part of my forays into the internet, back in the 1990s when I joined several forums on Compuserve, and in one of them (the European Forum) I found myself talking about the concept of God with a number of French atheists. It was an extremely long-running thread, as these things go, lasting around a year and with, eventually, thousands of messages. I found, if I stripped out the title “God” (actually “Dieu”, as the thread was so titled and the discussion was in French), I could actually talk about experiences which many believers (such as the author of the article I link to) would interpret as experiences of God, and find that pretty much all of the atheists had such experiences. I’ve written before about how I had to use a symbol – [   ] – to indicate what we were talking about; as soon as I tried to put any label on this box, I ran into the problem that all sensible labels for it carried so much freight of religious dogma for my interlocutors that they immediately started backtracking.

My theory was this. I had had a particularly intense initial experience of [   ], and had (after some agonising) interpreted it as a God-experience – but only because most mystics who wrote about their experience used God-language. That had pointed me at various practices and concept structures which various spiritual traditions seemed to use to promote mystical experience, and after some years of experimentation I had settled down to be able without too much effort to recall what I described as “an edge” of the full spectrum experience. This suited me really well – a full blown mystical experience renders it impossible to do anything else at the same time (or, commonly, for some time after it has passed) and also, while it is ecstatic (in the true meaning of the word) it is also very scary – there is a distinct element of the extinguishing of the self, and that feels to at least some levels of my mind too much like death, or at least too much like loss of control. While the “edge” isn’t ecstatic, it is very pleasant and tends to come with some insights into problems which may have been mulling around at the edge of consciousness.

I had also found that the practices and concept-structures seemed not to work for everyone, and, indeed, from what I could see only really worked for people who described an initial peak experience which they had usually not been working towards; once there had been one, it seemed that most if not all could achieve a repeat – and the more times it was repeated, the easier it became. Practice, it seemed, did make perfect – but only if there was something on which to build in the first place.

However, I was interested in whether the kind of “edge” experience which my French atheists described (or the article above describes) could be built on as a start point, and not just the full-blooded “fall off your horse on the road to Damascus” variety. Those seem to come only “out of the blue” and to a very limited number of people. Obviously, the objective was to find a way in which others could have the same kind and quality of experience as mine; I was certainly better for having had (and worked on) my own, and I wanted to share that.

It proved impossible to persuade any of my atheist friends that this was worth the effort, despite my best purple prose about how mind-blowingly good the experience could be (and, curiously, I found I did purple prose in French far easier and better than I do it in English). However, that did persuade me, as the article indicates, that pretty much everyone has some experiences which might serve as a basis.

This was not really a surprise to me. Way back in my early 20s, I had briefly gathered around me a small group who were intensely interested in my accounts of my experience and who actually wanted to have similar experiences themselves. However, almost without exception, it proved that they thought either that I could do it for them (a situation rather like that of the priest or monk who “does religion” so the rest of us don’t really have to) or that I could magically confer on them the ability to do it, perhaps just by osmosis by being around me a lot. Now, maybe on occasion a Zen master might find just the right wording to induce an “aha!” moment in a student which is sufficient to start the process, but I still have no idea how the Zen master does it, and Zen was not the way I eventually decided to go. I resolutely refused to accept the mantle of guru – I knew I didn’t have the answers they were looking for, and while I would have been happy to study, learn and practice alongside them, that isn’t what they wanted.

But, for anyone who is interested, I do have some tips. Firstly, if you scan down the list in the article, there are situations and places which particular people find very conducive to the “edge” experience for them (and it isn’t necessarily the same for everyone). Pick one, and spend a lot of time with it. Possibly, if they will combine sensibly, pick more than one…

Secondly, getting scared during the start of such an experience is fatal, so get comfortable, still the mind and calm the emotions. Avoid if possible circumstances where you’ll get interrupted, as well.

Thirdly, analysing what is happening while it is happening is fatal, so stop analysing. Mindfulness meditation is very good practice for this (and for the previous one).

Fourthly (and one of the group from my 20s has never forgiven me for this) try not to try. It needs to be natural and easy.

And lastly (and this helps a lot with no. 4) practice, practice and more practice.

I make no guarantees.

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