From Heaven to Hell

In the first three chapters of my book, Dreaming the Universe (which you can find on this website), I describe my personal experience of three completely separate realities. The first chapter is about a “satori” or “spiritual enlightenment” experience I had by the river Isis in Oxford on LSD. For the few hours I was in this alternate state, I felt like I was in the “Pure Land” or Heaven. The second chapter describes a bad trip I had a couple of years previous, in which it seemed to me that I had descended into the lowest rungs of Hell.

The morning after my river experience, I was disappointed (to put it mildly) to find that I had come back down to Earth. I felt like Adam must have felt on being expelled from paradise. Apart from a splitting headache, everything was just as it was before. The morning after my psychotic experience at the all-nighter in Wales, I also had a splitting headache, but I was so relieved and happy to be alive and sane that I didn’t care.

A superficial reading of this tale of youthful folly is that the ingestion of psychoactive compounds altered the chemistry of my brain and that I consequently experienced two distorted versions of reality. In this reading, the ordinary “Earth” consciousness is real and the unusual “Heaven” and “Hell” consciousnesses are unreal. But maybe it’s not as simple as that.

My enlightenment experience had all the classic hallmarks of mystical experiences described the world over. The LSD may have been the catalyst in my case, but since many people have had the same or similar experiences without taking drugs, we can dismiss that objection. Anyway, since then, I have had many mystical experiences while sober.

So forget the LSD. We’re really just talking about unitive mystical experience. What is this state like? Well, there are several salient features, non-duality, ineffability and a sense of timelessness among others. But perhaps the simplest way to describe it is in the words of Mechthild of Magdeburg:

“The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.”

This is not your ordinary common-or-garden supernatural theism. It is an expression of “panentheism”: God both immanent and transcendent in creation. Although this is a profoundly non-dual experience with no clear demarcations between subject and object, self and other (“All is One”), it is ultimately a trinitarian vision. If it were monistic, if it was one “thing” called “God” in all directions for all time, it would be static and uniform with no dynamic relations. It would be boring (if you want to know what that’s like, see my post The Temple and the Pub). But non-dual enlightenment is far from boring.

Let’s unpack this using some famous Trinities. In Kashmir Shaivism, the basic trinity at the heart of enlightened consciousness is “Parashiva, Shiva, Shakti”. In Taoism, it is “Tao, Yin, Yang”. In Advaita Vedanta it is “Sat, Chit, Ananda” (Being, Consciousness, Bliss). In Christianity it is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

“God the Father” is “Parashiva”, “Tao” or “Sat” (Being). This is the transcendent Godhead which sustains the whole of creation. It is the God Mechthild was referring to when she said “all things in God”.

“God the Son” is “Shiva”, “Yang” or “Chit” (Consciousness). This is the immanent divinity present throughout creation, akin to the “Logos” of the Ancient Greeks and Stoics or the “ubiquitous sentience” of modern-day panpsychists. It is the God Mechthild meant when she said “God in all things”.

“God the Spirit” is “Shakti”, “Yin” or “Ananda” (Bliss). This is the energy which we experience as existence or “matter”. Ultimately, matter is an abstraction without any real substance beyond the qualities that make up our perception of it, as George Berkeley showed. According to quantum physics, there is no such thing as matter, there are just interacting fields of energy. Mechthild’s “things” in the above quote are also part of God, also made of “God-stuff”, if you will. They are the play of Shakti energy: the whole creation is experienced as a blissful expression of Spirit.

Anyway, that’s how reality appears when you are in Heaven. What about here on Earth? Well, Earthlings going about their business, whatever their professed beliefs, act as if reality was composed of two fundamental elements: “Mind” and “Cosmos” or “Consciousness” and “Form”. Earth people are basically “substance dualists” like Rene Descartes. You can divide it up however you like, Mind/Brain; Mind/Body; Mind/Matter, but the basic split is the same.

This version of reality works fairly well. We can experience things “out there” in the world like trees and stones and cats and other people, but we can also experience things “in here” like thoughts and feelings, music and dreams. Sometimes we’re “out there” and sometimes we’re “in here”. Sometimes we can flit quickly between the two, for example when we’re talking to someone. It’s a little bit schitzoid sometimes, but it’s okay.

Instead of the three dynamic elements of the trinitarian vision of reality, we have only two elements in a dualistic vision. We’ve lost one. Which one? Well, we experience the world as the duality between “Shiva” and “Shakti”, “Yin” and “Yang”, “Chit” and “Ananda”. We’ve lost the transcendent element, “Parashiva”, “Tao”, or “Sat”. We’ve lost “God the Father”.

In the West, this loss was made philosophically explicit through the gradual demotion of God the Father in three steps through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from the active God of classical theism to the absent God of deism and finally to the non-existent God of atheism. All that was left was God the Son as “Soul” or “Mind” and God the Spirit as “Nature”. Enter the Romantics.

The Romantics were basically pantheists. They believed in the interpenetration of Soul and Nature. They believed in the immanent God but felt they had no need for the transcendent one. Their main worry though, was what might happen if the Enlightenment philosophy underpinning the Scientific Revolution should continue further down the materialist path it seemed to be treading.

Galileo had intentionally split the objective world from the subjective world in order that science could focus exclusively on concrete phenomena. This was a good move. It is what made science so powerful. But Galileo himself had no illusions about the limits of the new natural sciences. They were designed only for one side of the Subject/Object divide and had nothing to say about the other side. What if this useful dualism was collapsed into monism though? What if the Soul of the World was taken out?

The meteoric rise of the natural sciences led people to suspect that if God the designer was an unnecessary fiction, then maybe the “ghost in the machine” didn’t exist either. Maybe it was just machine all the way down. It could be that what we experienced as “Soul” or “Mind” was actually an illusion produced by lots of little machines. The invention and development of ever more powerful microscopes certainly seemed to suggest that. Look at all those little invisible things we’re made up of! They may be little, but they’re still things. Telescopes revealed a universe of massive celestial bodies which moved with clockwork precision, like a machine. What if Reality is actually made up of machines within machines? This is what the Romantics were afraid of. No wonder William Blake had nightmarish visions of “dark satanic mills”.

Thus was born the dominant modern worldview of “scientific materialism”. There is no such thing as “Mind” or “Soul”. There is only “Matter”. That worldview is fine for the scientist busy in his lab, but when he goes home, he falls back into the ordinary dualistic view. He doesn’t treat his wife and kids like machines. He may deep down believe that his own experiences and those of his family are just an illusory product of material processes, but he acts as if they were real. If he didn’t, he would go mad. He would wind up in Hell.

Scientific materialism reduces the duality of Mind and Cosmos to the monism of only one thing, Cosmos. Mind is thrown out and we are left with a purely material universe. The philosopher called it “ontological reductionism”. Everything is understood as a manifestation of one basic substance, called “Matter”, or failing that (strictly speaking there is no such thing), “Energy”.

So now with naturalism, not only have we lost “God the Father”, we have also lost “God the Son”. There is no more Soul, no more “Shiva”, no more “Chitta”. There is no room for any Consciousness at all in this materialistic, mechanistic vision of Reality. All that is left is the intricate, complex play of energy, “Shakti”. However, this is not experienced as Bliss (“Ananda”) any more. Divorced from “Shiva”, her eternal lover, “Shakti” becomes a source of meaninglessness, pain and despair.

The Hell of paranoid schizophrenics is often experienced as a soulless world of machines. Hell is not other people, as Sartre supposed. Hell is other machines. Now, if you were a denizen of Hell and I asked you about the nature of Reality, you would tell me that it is all just infinite forms of Matter or Energy, nothing else. I wouldn’t be able to convince you otherwise, because you would be right. But you would only be right about Hell.

If you were an Earth dweller, based on your own experience you would give me a dualistic description of some sort, even if you professed belief in God and followed a religion. Whether you think Reality is best understood as Mind and Cosmos, Soul and Body or God and Creation makes no difference. It’s the same duality. Again, you would be right. But you would only be right about Earth.

From a neurological point of view, we could say that Earth people have a good working relationship between the two hemispheres of the brain, whereas people in Hell live only in the left hemisphere. People living in Heaven have access to both hemispheres but also enjoy a higher integration of the two.

If I asked an enlightened person in the Christian tradition, they would explain that Reality is an eternal dance between the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If I asked a Taoist Master, they would tell me about the cycle of Yin and Yang within the unity of the Tao. If I asked a Kashmir Shaivism guru, they would tell me about the love affair between Shiva and Shakti in the bosom of Parashiva. If I asked a Hindu Self-Realised rishi, they would tell me all about Sat-Chit-Ananda.

And they would all be right. But here’s the thing: would they only be right about Heaven?