The title is reputedly what the intellectual swashbuckler and psychological pioneer William James found he had written down during a drug-induced revelation of ultimate truth: “Overall there is a smell of fried onions”.
In his essay “Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide” he wrote:
“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.”
We descend from ecstasy to the ordinary world as if “Whatever goes up, must come down” applied equally to airplanes and inspiration. Emotionally and psychologically it is as if Newtonian physics rules our inner lives. If there is a version of gravity in there I think it’s the inevitable return to the linguistic/rational level of human reality where we conduct all our business with each other. The human mind surfaces here when submerged and re-lands here after being elevated. This is the homeostatic balance of our kind, the default neurological coordinates of return from highs and lows. Notice that highs and lows aren’t being critically evaluated, merely suppressed as not conducive to social intercourse. The default settings for humanity are designed to function as the center of a common Venn chart, an area where we all overlap despite other differences.
This realm of normal life is completely dominated by words and concepts as if they were the fundamental atomic forces and structure here. Concepts and words (within a general logic framework) are everything here from the solid ground to a breathable atmosphere. The human community is contained within this verbal\conceptual structure but only a few even recognize its existence: Water isn’t perceived by the fish. Within this domain, we don’t usually feel limited or cramped but only realities that can be sealed inside words or concepts can exist here. These can be considered, shared and exchanged, but only, like a nerd’s action figures, 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.
All-day we travel pathways paved with these containers; we recombine, sort and stack them, returning obsessively to some, while angrily rejecting others. The self-consistent rules of this pragmatic primate dimension are so …convincing…to us that even though these words, concepts and the logic substrate they bind to are purely human inventions, not objective clumps of reality, if something falls outside this domain we instantly challenge its very existence, and even the possibility of it rather than question the legitimacy of the scrabble tiles where we as a species are compelled to confine reality. That is how bound and committed we are to our conceptual shell. We individually restrict ourselves still further by considering only special collections of these scrabble tiles that focus on aspects of reality we particularly identify with, such as religion, science, politics, or economics.
These flatland rules state that an ecstatic experience of deeper truth could only be generated by an almost magically powerful concept artfully composed of words. We overlook the fact that words and concepts are at least partly about maintaining a respectful distance from reality, and that as magnificently as words can be recombined they lack the volatility and latent energy to synthesize as explosive new compounds. Words flock, pattern, and flow. They migrate towards meaning in herds. If brilliantly shepherded, they 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 catalytic enthusiasm, without it, they drone, mumble and fall mute.
This is our position as we consider the goofiness of the Promethean fortune cookie message: “Overall there is a smell of fried onions”. It looks to us like so-called mysticism and transcendent experiences have been caught out by the spotlight of truth and revealed as hollow and false, even ridiculous. It looks like the Möbius strip reality of the linguistic/rational human realm wins it all in a walk.
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.”
But there’s more to the story (than the story)
I told you 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.
“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
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 to find the courage socially to tell you about the absurd things about the universe that were revealed to me.
“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
Mystical experiences are transformational. They are real and profound. They are the truest opportunity for personal change. Mystical experiences are where the hero’s journey becomes personal and vice versa. They mark the soul with truths that sound ridiculous if spoken aloud in Flatland.
Then what about the “wisdom” we bring back that dissolves into foolishness upon review? Just this: As temporary escapees from the realm where only words, concepts, and connecting logic are believed to be real, suddenly encountering a staggering reality that has less than nothing to do with concepts and words doesn’t stop us from babbling and taking notes. As the deepest reality we’ve ever touched floods us, no word is more relevant than another, all are equally silly. We try to capture dragons in cricket cages because that is what we can manage with the skills and knowledge acquired at home in Flatland.
I’ll let the honorable and brave William James “Play us out”:
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.