Some Reflections on Children’s Memories
One for Aficionados of Precognitive Dreams

An Incomplete Mystical Experience

I see that Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Smile or Die (Bright-Sided in the US), will soon have new book out. If you don’t know Smile or Die, it’s about the tyranny of positive thinking, not daring to have bad thoughts about having cancer in case they finish you off. I didn’t read the book, but it’s something that needed to be said.

Ehrenreich seems to be well-known in the US as a writer on health and feminist issues. Time magazine calls her a ‘noted and staunch atheist’. From her Wikipedia profile she sort of matches up with our Polly Toynbee, another leftwing intellectual with a social conscience (interestingly, both wrote harrowing books about their experiences of trying to survive on the minimum wage). Toynbee is a very noted atheist, her thundering denunciations up there with Dawkins.

In her new book, Living With a Wild God, Ehrenreich tackles religion from an experiential perspective. (These details are from an article she wrote for the New York Times.) Aged 17 she went on a skiing trip having made few serious preparations, arriving tired and hungry. When she stepped into the street something happened:

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.  It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.

Having no framework in which to place the experience she assumed it was some kind of breakdown and tried to put it behind her. It was a long time before she realised that it’s a not uncommon experience. All kinds of people have uncanny experiences that they can see as transcendental, and these people include atheists like herself. In her case there were no visions, hallucinations or voices, and it didn’t convert her to religious belief. But neither did she think it could be explained away along the usual lines – intoxicants, temporal lobe epilepsy, ‘primary or mood-disorder-associated psychotic disorders’, etc, etc.

Paradoxically it was her scientific education that convinced her to think about it in a different way.

One of the things I learned was that you do not discard anomalous results. If you have a result that doesn’t fit your theory, that falls way off the curve in your graph – I’m sorry, you don’t get to erase that. You have to figure out what’s going on. I’m just opening up the conversation. If in the process I completely ruin my reputation as a rational person and end up in a locked ward, that’s the chance I’m taking.

Perhaps the ‘insanity’ explanation is just a cop-out. This might really have been some sort of encounter. But an encounter with what? She thinks science should be willing to investigate.

We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Fortunately, she goes on, science itself has been changing.

It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

It’s always heartening to see someone with a scientific education talking sense about these things. Most scientists think they absolutely should discard anomalous results.

But then we remember that it requires an actual experience to make this shift. If it had been someone else’s experience Ehrenreich would doubtless be using exactly the same reductionist terms as other atheists and scientists. It wouldn’t be an experience at all – just something that a person says who hasn’t had a proper scientific education and doesn’t know any better.

In the end, though, Ehrenreich’s expanded thinking is not just a response to her own experience, it’s also limited by it. It permits her to make a tentative step outside the confines of reductionist science, which to her is daring enough. But it doesn't stop her being dismissive of the idea of a 'caring' God.

This is surprising in a way. I assume she’s read the literature of mystical experience, in which case she will have read of many, many cases of people who had a sudden revelation every bit as powerful as hers, but who, unlike her, felt swept up in the loving embrace of a God of love, that permeated every cell of their being, and convinced them for the rest of their days that love is the real stuff of the universe.

Why does she think that the meaning she derives from her experience is valid, when the meaning that others have derived from theirs – clearly in the same class as hers - is not? She seems to imply that in other people such an experience can still lead to wrong ideas, not to say religious delusions. That doesn’t add up to me.

It’s not a criticism, as I have no idea how I’d behave in such circumstances. And as I say, it’s good to see credible people talking this way.

But always I want to know what is really going on in the rationalist’s mind. Ehrenreich has joined the growing number of people who sit on the cusp of two worldviews, facing both ways. They have to make sense of an experience that jars mightily with what their tribe considers to be true. It’s the ultimate challenge for a responsible, thinking person – to reconcile their idea of what ought to be the case with the strong suspicion that it’s actually something quite different.


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Interesting the point about judging her own experience as more valid than others. I made the same observation of myself when reporting an evening at a ghost/paranormal vigil night in January. I reported the whole thing on another website being as honest and objective as I could. When it came to the one truly intriguing incident I could personally attest audible, single, exhalation of breath from an empty corridor...I reported with amusement how the other participants around me were claiming the sound had an ever more extravagant nature. This one said it was a chuckle, this one a growl, a third an evil cackle, another speculated if it was the ghost of a guard dog.

But then I had to step back and pull myself up as it raised a simple question: why should I consider my own perception and recollection to be any more accurate or valid than theirs?

I think in the end because we're each alone inside our heads we only have ourselves to use as a template for normality. When someone starts dating a person we rate unappealing we doubt their sincerity, when they vote for the "wrong" political party we doubt their intelligence. We ourselves are all we have to go on to judge what's real or normal. Even a sociopath must suspect the rest of us are making this whole emotion and empathy thing up...

"Ehrenreich has joined the growing number of people who sit on the cusp of two worldviews, facing both ways. They have to make sense of an experience that jars mightily with what their tribe considers to be true. It’s the ultimate challenge for a responsible, thinking person – to reconcile their idea of what ought to be the case with the strong suspicion that it’s actually something quite different."

But isn't that what any sane person does in the modern world, Rob? Don't we all have to hold in our minds to opposing views of reality and learn to function with the ambiguity?

Robert, I wanted you to know how much I enjoy reading your posts. They are always thoughtful and carefully considered. I also appreciate what a good writer you are.

The subjects you cover need someone like you; your reasoned analyses give them the weight and respect they deserve.

Thank you.

Thanks, Kestrel, and to others who have made similar kind comments - much appreciated!

'But isn't that what any sane person does in the modern world?'

Yes indeed, Julie. I'm just saying the dissonance must be more than usually difficult to deal with in cases like this.

Serves 'em right, soft buggers. ;)

The thing that struck me was her insistence that we had to use "our science" to figure it out. Science is a wonderful collection of disciplines. I see to drive using my glasses and of course I'm driving a car. I use a computer. I do social work and I go to a doctor to get help with blood pressure. Which of these is this guy I'm hearing about called "Science?" I mean to say isn't science just a word for what we as a people do? Not knocking science ;-) just saying that some people use the word "science" as if it's a single "being" and I think they misuse it. Similar to the way bible thumpers use the scripture. But, I digress.

What if instead of using her "science" to figure it out she tried to go "inside herself" and try to figure it out. We should use all of our tools and one of our tools is our own sense of being and life experience. The thing is right now we are stuck as a society. We look for the answers in the brain. That's fine, nothing wrong with that so far. But, once something transends or even points to the possiblity of non local why can't we study that? What would be wrong with testing remote viewers and testing mediums?

Oh, I forgot. That's just woo woo and charlatan territory. But, what if one simply meditates for oneself or prays or just thinks without asking Pat Robertson or Richard Dawkins for permission?

Trouble is, Stephen, that only the insane are certain of their own position, and only the sane experience profound doubt.

A fun coincidence....after reading this column this morning, I hopped in the car this afternoon and there was Ms. Ehrenreich being interviewed on a radio program here in the USA called Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I liked Barbara a lot, but did find her certainty about the behavior/motivation of other beings amusing. Here is a link to the program:

I was grateful to Robert for the background information.

To my transcendental experiences are uninteresting because we have no way to find out whether they correspond to an objective reality, since the experimenter can not know it and the neuroscientists can only discover the objective correlates of the experience. Instead, I would put emphasis on the psychic experiences, which can transmit verifiable information by other people.

Nothing new here. In the 19th century, there were plenty of real scientists and philosophers who took all this seriously, and tried to investigate ghost materialization and telepathy and telekinesis and all the rest of it as if it was all based on some unknown form of energy -- electromagnetic, radioactive, or what have you. These efforts largely faded away in serious scientific circles because nothing ever came of it, and spectacular results proved invariably to be fraudulent. I suppose this is far enough in the past now that there are people who think they're thinking of this for the first time, and that they have something new to bring to the table. I doubt it.

Dear Egypt Steve, before making such an over-confident and under-informed comment, you should read more of the posts on this site.

For a start, you may discover that there have been many 'real scientists' (yes, real ones, not imaginary ones!) who investigated psi phenomena in the 20th century, and indeed continue to do so in the 21st. Oh but maybe that's just in 'unserious scientific circles'.


@ Piers!

I wouldn't waste your time with people like Egypt Steve!

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