In my book The Confessions of a Psychedelic Christian I describe the problem of treating spiritual enlightenment as an aberration, an anomaly, a curiosity, a beautiful dream, an altered state of consciousness. It is almost inevitable that consensus reality is given ontological precedence over any other deviations from it, no matter how compelling. The peer pressure is enormous. Even the day after my mystical Satori experience of absolute certainty and penetrating insight into the unified, nondual nature of reality, I had to consciously fight this tendency of the mind to betray itself in favour of the status quo. The more I remembered it as an extraordinary experience, the easier it was for my mind to file it away under the “non-ordinary” category of experiences and simply revert back to the ordinary world, with the slightest sleight of hand eliding the “ordinary” with the “real” world.
But one of the most shocking and revolutionary aspects of my mystical experience was that it was more real than anything I had ever experienced in my life. It was definitely more real than the “ordinary world”. I could say with absolute confidence, “though the rest of the world be on that side, on this side am I”. Even if it was billions to one, I knew that I was right about the true nature of the world. Tant pis for the other billions.
Over the years and decades since that parting of the veil, it has been difficult to maintain the force of that original conviction, although I still know it to be true. I have had to seek corroberation in the writings of mystics throughout the ages, who have had similar experiences and shared the same conviction that the ordinary way we experience the world is not right. When it comes to nondual experiences, you can’t beat the Mahayana Buddhists and Advaita Vedantists. But the writer who, to my mind, writes most eloquently about this is the seventeenth century Anglican poet and mystic Thomas Thraherne:
“You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.”
Yesterday I re-read C.S. Lewis’ preface to The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth by Douglas Harding. He begins with these momentous words: “This book is, I believe, the first attempt to reverse a movement of thought which has been going on since the beginning of philosophy.” The philosophy that Harding is attempting to reverse is basically the philosophy of scientific materialism, which ultimately ends up in a nihilistic view of the world, the end point of a “process that has led us from the living universe where man meets the gods to the final void where almost-nobody discovers his mistakes about almost-nothing”.
Later that evening I had a conversation with my cousin in which I attempted to describe how the direct experience of our immediate surroundings radically change when we look at them through the lens of Parashiva, Shiva, Shakti. It is a shift in awareness analogous to Harding’s “headlessness”, where you stop inferring a “meatball head” with its “peep holes” on your shoulders mediating the world and instead experience the world directly, as thought the world was your head. It is a short-cut to a Berkeleian vision of phenomenological immaterialism. And it works. But it can easily be dismissed as little more than a fun thought experiment, as just another “altered state”.
But Berkeley was serious. Harding was serious. And – goddammit! – I’m serious. My cousin looked at me as if he thought I might be mad. In any case, we were meant to be talking about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, not weird mental tricks of perception. But I believe that precisely this, our most intimate, immediate and direct perception of reality, reveals the deep roots of the spiritual dis-ease and proliferating mental health crises of the modern world. Call it “the meaning crisis” or “the disenchantment of the world” or “cosmic pessimism” or what you will: the scientific worldview we have inherited from the Enlightenment philosophers is making people unhappy and unfulfilled because it is stopping them from enjoying the world aright.
When I read and write about the interminable debates between atheists and theists, it sometimes seems as though it were ultimately a case of temperament or personal preference. I am often tempted to throw up my hands in despair and say, “whatever!” Does it really matter? Some people believe in God and some people don’t. Get over it! But the issue goes far deeper than the abstract, theoretical argument you might find in a school debating club. It’s about the kind of world we live in. Either it is a divine world full of magic, purpose and meaning, or it is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I know it is the former, but it seems that our society is so punch drunk on the latter, that it’s people like me that are considered the mad ones.
Ultimately, all the questions about materialism and spirituality boil down to one: is the world full of spirit, full of “the glory of God” or is it an intricate, interlocking system of mechanical forces devoid of anything beyond its own ceaseless and ultimately meaningless activity? Materialists will never tire of telling me that my spiritual visions and experiences of divine being, consciousness and bliss are illusions. They suppose that I may be suffering from some kind of poetic condition, but who’s to say they aren’t suffering from an un-poetic one? They think I am labouring under the illusion of a God-filled universe and I think they are suffering from the illusion of a Godless one. Stalemate.
There is, in the final analysis, no way of adjudicating between our conflicting worldviews, which are, after all, subjective. However, the sober materialist criticism of a religious person “filled with the holy spirit” on the grounds that they are clearly deluded seems to me as absurd as a miserable person pitying a cheerful person because misery tells them that there is no such thing as happiness.