I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
In the previous post I described the experience of being dynamited into an awareness of subliminal forces operating below the lower threshold of my consciousness. Now I need to turn, in this attempt to explain why this whole issue of filters and thresholds fascinates me so much, to my experiences of higher consciousness.
I need to clarify right from the start that I am a slightly disappointed mystic manqué, so anyone hoping for stories about the higher flights of mysticism probably needs to go somewhere else to find them. However, there are aspects of my journey from the basement of my brain to something somewhat closer to the heaven of true understanding that might reward attention.
There is a 13 year gap between the closest I have ever got to a mystical experience and the breakthrough I described earlier into the cellar of my mind. Those 13 years covered a journey through further breathwork in a therapeutic community in the Lake District close to Wordsworth’s birthplace. In the end I remained stuck at the same level as I have described in the previous post – floating endlessly in the tank of tears just beneath the surface of my consciousness.
So there was then a disillusioned return to the mainstream. This was not simply the result of a frustration at my own lack of progress. I also saw that a few others who came to the commune for help, some of them seriously in need, went away in a worse state than they came after a fruitless few days in a tent at the bottom of the garden. I ended up packing my few belongings, leaving the commune and driving back to London, taking with me one of the people I felt we had failed to where he would hopefully find more effective help and friendship. I know that my having a car is evidence of an even worse attachment to the world I was affecting to despise than that of the dervish who dashed back from the mountains to the palace he had been staying at to get the begging bowl he’d left behind while the prince he had persuaded to leave his palace and come with him looked on in complete amazement, but it was at least the means by which I got someone else as well as myself out of an unpleasant and unhelpful predicament.
I was also strongly motivated by a desire to have more chance to work therapeutically with more people more effectively. I realised that this could not be done from the outside of society looking in as I had previously thought. It was better to be on the inside where most other people and many more resources were to be found.
I spent several years working in social services at a day centre. I rapidly realised that social work was not for me – too many forms to fill in and court appearances to make. Even now, I always fill in forms first of all in pencil before I commit to ink, as I always make at least one major mistake on every form, no matter how simple. As for the combination in court of drama and detail, that was always too big a stretch for me. I prefer working behind the scenes and am purblind to details.
In any case, I was far more interested in what goes on between people’s ears. So, in spite of some misgivings about the experimental side of the course, I enrolled to do a psychology degree in the evenings at Birkbeck College. I also participated in a Transactional Analysis/Gestalt Group for a year, and then began learning meditation at the same time as qualifying as a Clinical Psychologist at the University of Surrey.
While I think the meditation helped me stay grounded as I juggled a wide range of different commitments throughout that process, and while I certainly found the psychologically penetrating insights of Buddhism a humbling and effective vaccine against the hubris of scientism that infected my profession, I cannot boast of any transcendental states – just of a relative ease in maintaining a simple calm unflustered state of mind under stress and occasional access to a tingling energy which pervaded by whole being for brief periods. I still committed major blunders from time to time but I got through to the end of the qualification experience relatively unscathed, thanks in part to the ballast meditation provided to keep my mind’s boat stable in rough seas.
At the end of that long journey, triggered by a visit to Hendon library, a story I will share another time, I started to tread the Baha’i path. My first three hour visit to the Baha’i Centre in London induced a buzzing energetic state of mind which lasted for a fortnight and which hours of meditation would have failed to achieve for me. I read my way through a bagful of books with only about four hours sleep a night – those close to me who know my aptitude for sleep will testify to how remarkable that was.
Two years after that I married and soon after the birth of our son we all went as a family to Israel on pilgrimage in 1987. We stayed in Haifa and visited Akka. The Baha’i Holy places are located there and this is where the experiences I want to describe took place.
I was unable to enter the Shrine of the Bab the first time I saw it. It was evening and the Shrine was closed so I had to stand some distance away, as the sun was beginning to set, and lean against an iron gate. I found myself uncontrollably sobbing. This was not the pool of tears I was so used to from my encounter group experiences. These were tears of profound relief. The best way I can describe how I felt is to say that it was like an exile coming home after many long years of believing he would never see his longed-for native land again.
This of course does not constitute conclusive evidence of any kind of mystical reality. It was an intense experience but can be explained, if you wish, without evoking other realms of reality than the material. Nonetheless, for me personally this was the beginning of a completely unexpected sequence of reactions to the whole experience of pilgrimage. I was as unprepared for the power of this sense of return as I had been for the breakthrough to my mind’s basement all those years earlier. That I had not been anticipating any such response suggests there was a break through of some kind from across a threshold. I cannot prove it was a breakthrough from above but it felt as though it was.
The following day I stood at the door of the Shrine of the Bab totally unable to cross that particular threshold. It was not until several others had entered before me, while I stood there dithering, that I could bring myself to go inside. Then, somehow, I managed to force myself to enter. Completely contrary to my expectation at the time, I felt waves of immense power pass over me and the whole air vibrate with an irresistible intensity.
I had expected a completely different experience altogether. I had expected something like a warm glow of love to envelope me. It would have fitted more with the sense I had of the Bab’s personality. Indiscussing the possible objective validity of near death experiences, Mark Fox attaches considerable importance to the fact that, in many reports, what the person experienced was very different from what his culture had led him to expect. That this was also true, though in a less specific way, of this experience prompts me to feel that there was something outside my own projections at work here, something to do with an objective out-there quality of the Bab’s spiritual reality. It was this combination of intensity and unexpectedness that leads to me feel this quite strongly. It was also a very different feeling from the one I had been engulfed by when I stood by the gate the previous evening. This would have primed me for some kind of repetition of the same thing: what actually occurred was very different.
Each Shrine that I stepped into on that pilgrimage had its own particular impact. The Shrine of the Master glowed gently with a warm acceptance, much as I had thought it would. So expectations were not contradicted here. However, the Shrine of Baha’u’llah at Bahji, on the other hand, also totally defied my expectations. Here was where I had expected the raw power, but felt instead enveloped in a loving embrace of such unconditional completeness that I sobbed uncontrollably once more.
I won’t test your patience by repeating the same line of reasoning again but for me it applies here also, and for two out of three experiences in the Shrines to go against expectation so intensely confirms for me my sense that there was something outside my own projections that was shaping that impact. I was not aware then and cannot recall now any influences from other pilgrims that might have had the effects upon my reactions that would have been necessary to go so strongly against the grain of my expectations.
I am sure you are all already aware that I have no expectation that these accounts of my experiences will necessarily persuade you to come to the same conclusions as I have on the basis of them. I have shared them as a way of beginning to explain why I am so fascinated by the borderlands of consciousness and what might lie beyond, and why I keep reading in search of evidence that might point ever more clearly towards their true significance. I tend to shy away from such personal sharing because I am all too aware that its power to shape a sense of reality does not extend beyond my skull. Still, maybe the risk was worth taking.