William James was an intellectual swashbuckler and daring psychological pioneer. In his essay “Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide” he wrote about the signature experience of that drug:
“With me, as with every other person of whom I have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination. Truth lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding evidence. The mind sees all the logical relations of being with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel;”
During one such nitrous oxide experiment, he experienced an ecstatic revelation of universal truth and wrote it in his journal:
“Overall there is a smell of fried onions“.
(From the same essay) “…only as sobriety returns, the feeling of insight fades, and one is left staring vacantly at a few disjointed words and phrases, as one stares at a cadaverous-looking snow peak from which sunset glow has just fled, or at a black cinder left by an extinguished brand.”
The common-place take away from this is that your big mystical moment is just hooey; That all such revelations are delirium, a waste of time, self-indulgent or worse. I disagree, I think we must pull back the camera and consider the ecstatic mind and ordinary mind together without bias. After all, the ordinary mind is like a common plant and ecstasy like an astonishing flower blooming there.
Ecstacy is always elusive and in short supply. It is also a round trip ticket. However we achieve it, we have to let go and return from it to the ordinary world as if “Whatever goes up, must come down” applied equally to thrown rocks and inspiration. For every peak experience, there is a descent. Ecstacy is like glowing white heat before some entropy cools us back down to room temperature. While the comparison seems fair, it also muddies the issue. Why would gravity and entropy be natural behaviors of the mind? Why would feeling and thinking obey a physics engine? I think this gravity/entropy inside us (the force that brings down whatever goes up) is our inevitable return to the social world where we conduct all business with each other. We surface here if submerged and land here again after being uplifted. This is the homeostatic balance point of our kind, our default neurological coordinates.
Extreme highs and lows aren’t conducive to social intercourse, business, or survival. These default settings are like the central area of the human Venn chart, where we overlap enough to “act normal” with a shared sense of what that means. This is the flat behavioral X-axis of predictability. The social self defines the normal mind. The part of us that worries over the impression we make and strives to get along with others…the set point of NORMAL. A person at the ecstatic top or brutal bottom of the behavioral Y–axis is out of sync with the herd. They might destabilize the behavioral algorithms that promote survival.
This is a clear sign that our genes understand us primarily as social beings who must obey the “traffic laws” of the group. “Team players” have personality differences, private thoughts, and secrets but their main job is: Obey the group survival algorithms. If I’m right about this, many people would be hostile toward anything that moves a person too high or low on the behavioral Y-Axis, whether up toward lofty ecstasy or down below inhibitions. Ecstacy allows a person to see through rigid cultural rules and roles, and possibly even giggle at them. Shame, guilt, and fear of social disapproval might lose their power to control people who’ve looked down from too great a height.
The normal mind is moralistic and biased against anything ecstasy has to say. The normal mind is social. It cooperates with the other normal minds to define and police social behavior. A communications matrix of shared concepts, language, and symbols forms. It connects and surrounds the group like a membrane or skin. I call it Flatland.
The social web of normal life is linguistic, composed of words and concepts: They are the building blocks and connective tissue. It is a virtual environment, rather like an operating system. The human community is so completely contained within this verbal\conceptual structure that few even notice that it exists. We don’t see our communications matrix just as fish don’t notice water. Within this domain, we don’t usually feel mentally limited or cramped but only those realities that can be sealed inside words or concepts can exist here. These can be considered, shared and exchanged, but like a nerd’s action figures, only if still sealed in the original container. Flatland is a reality composed of things with no objective reality, it is equally Plato’s Cave and Keanu’s Matrix. We weave it together and alone like a tea-cozy set over the nakedly objective world.
Even though these words, concepts, and the logic substrate they bind to are purely abstract human inventions and not objective clumps of matter, if something falls confusingly outside our thought domain we challenge its existence, even the possibility of it. These symbolic scrabble tiles of meaning are where our species is compelled to restrict reality. We nest inside our conceptual nutshells. Individually we narrow ourselves still further by accepting only tiles we generally care about, in areas such as religion, science, politics, or economics. Intense social pressure to share the same religious, political and economic scrabble tiles as the local community shrinks our collection down to a small handful. These are often compulsory tiles but even the knowledge that they are compulsory is often masked behind how automatically and transparently we blend with the core beliefs wherever we are born. In this realm flags are countries, and symbols are literal vessels or instances of what they symbolize. The simpler a person is the less they can distinguish between the name and the thing with that name. “They can’t tell the difference,” Alan Watts said, “between the map and the territory”.
Flatland vs Ecstacy
Flatland rules can only interpret an ecstatic experience of deeper truth as an almost magically powerful concept artfully composed of words. But words and concepts are at least partly about maintaining a respectful distance from reality and staying in the tribe. Words lack the inherent volatility and potential energy to combust and achieve escape velocity from Flatland. There is no phrase that contains power in itself. The something or nothing that happens when it is spoken depends completely on the nature and preparation of the person hearing it. Brilliantly mixed, words can electrify but even then their power can’t touch the hearts of people who aren’t in the mood to care. Words rely on us to provide our own catalytic enthusiasm, and without it, words simply drone, mumble and fall mute.
This is our POV as we consider the phrase: “Overall there is a smell of fried onions” in the context of “Things to Know about Reality”.
It’s a ridiculous, goofy, philosophical fortune cookie message. If this is the voice of so-called mysticism or transcendent experiences then that voice is a joke. Its scrabble tiles have been caught in the spotlight of rational truth and recognized as useless garbage. Anyone arriving at a different conclusion is objectively considered an idiot.
Flatland is our cultural, linguistic, and rational Möbius strip reality…it is the box we don’t think outside of. If we did think outside of it we’d just shrug and go back in.
Here is William James again:
“No part of the unclassified residuum [of human experience] has usually been treated with a more contemptuous scientific disregard than the mass of phenomena generally called mystical. Physiology will have nothing to do with them. Orthodox psychology turns its back on them. Medicine sweeps them out; or, at most, when in an anecdotal vein, records a few of them as “effects of the imagination”–a phrase of mere dismissal, whose meaning, in this connection, it is impossible to make precise. All the while, however, the phenomena are there, lying broadcast over the surface of history.”
There’s more to the story (than the story)
This time it’s personal
–“New Organs of Perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.” Sufi wisdom–
I told you all that, so I could tell you this. A few months back I began experiencing a spiritual awakening. It began with an emotional crisis so intense that it broke the fourth wall of a hitherto invisible spiritual dimension. A hole was torn in the sky over my part of Flatland and I saw a bit of what is outside the box.
My need for a breakthrough and the relief of a deeper perception was so intense and painful that it was exactly as if that increased necessity gifted me with enhanced organs of perception. What I saw and experienced then was a remarkable gift to me and is still improving and deepening my life. I struggle with shame to find the courage to tell you some absurd things about the universe that were revealed to me. What I saw is profoundly real but composed of utter nonsense if observed from the view-port of Flatland. That is not a functional lens for things that are …outside.
There is an extra helping of reality on our plate. It is exactly where all the other reality is, overlapping and interpenetrating our dimension. Our only distance from it is perception. Perceiving it is based upon readiness which is natural in some and discovered eventually by others… my perception of it waxes and wanes…it comes and goes like a faraway late-night radio signal. It contains beings I cannot define for you save that they are well beyond my ken, that they are driven completely by love and concern for all evolution toward intelligence, love, and freedom. The universe is full of love which is undetectable from Flatland.
–“How should I reveal to you that last night in the tavern, intoxicated and unsteady as I was, great good tidings were brought to me by the angel of the hidden world?” – Hafiz–
So what about the fried onions? What about the “wisdom” we bring back that dissolves into foolishness upon review?
A peak experience of spirit is a bit like going on one of the early NASA “pop-gun” space flights without any astronaut training (or warning).
It is a quantum jump from a realm where only words, concepts, and connecting logic are believed to be real, and Occam’s razor is the universal solvent applied to mysteries, to a blatant contradiction of all that. You are suddenly madly out of your depth and inexplicable beings are communicating deep messages. Thrust into a staggering reality that isn’t made of concepts and words we have no choice but to jam the experience into our concepts and words machine to describe it…even to ourselves. We may try with all our strength to shove that reality into some of our boxes but as the experience floods us, no word is that much more useful than another, and all are misshapen. None of our coins fit the slot. We try to capture dragons in cricket cages because cricket cages are all we can bring through customs as we return to Flatland.
No fundamentalist of any faith or discipline truly understands. True mystics don’t fall for the trap of literal thinking. This is why they use fairytales, fantasy, and humor. To retain the truth received outside of Flatland we must be changed by it. To be changed by it makes Flatland visible to us, and distances us internally from the intensity of the symbols drawn on the scrabble tiles that make up every inch of our common ground with the rest of the human beings.
Know, don’t tell
This hard biscuit has been talked about, but only to say how futile and unreal it is to merely talk about it.
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.”
― Laozi, Tao Te Ching
The tireless and brave William James gets the last word because he can say it better than I can:
I myself made some observations on . . . nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.
TLDR: Ecstacy isn’t disproven by the flat, normal world. The place we return to after ecstasy isn’t REALITY, it’s the human social talk box.