October 19, 2015 1 Comment
In a little more than two weeks I will be in Jerusalem. I will spend ten nights in Palestine and Israel―in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and religiously important places in the Galilee, as well as Jerusalem. I have been to all of these places before. The first time I was in Palestine, I also had the remarkable experience of spending two days and a night in Gaza.
In the late ‘80s-early ‘90s I was in therapy with a Jewish Jungian psychiatrist in Cambridge, MA. He is about my age (we were both very young at that time). My neurologist referred me to him because he had experience working with persons with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, the condition with which the neurologists at Harvard Medical School had recently diagnosed me after I had lived with it for 40 years.
One of the presentations of TLE is a propensity for heightened religious experiences. Out-of-body experiences, strange feelings of transcendence, seeing visions. All manner of mystical experience.
I have had quite a few of those experiences, but I have never exactly attributed them to being in touch with God or the gods or the meaning of the universe as some TLEptics do. From childhood I have had what might be called a “mystical” bent―having deep experiences of connectedness to reality of some kind. I have tried to explain those experiences many times.
In a folder on my computer desk top I have a miscellaneous assortment of documents with stuff I want to be able to find if I ever need it. Somewhat like my last year’s tax return―it’s here somewhere. One of those documents is a quotation from Fyodor Dostoyevsky describing his seizures (I have no record of the article that quotes Strakhov).
Nikolay Strakhov, a philosopher and literary critic, and a friend of Dostoyevsky relates Dostoevsky’s description of the aura: ‘…Often told me that before the onset of an attack there were minutes in which he was in rapture.’ “For several moments,” he said, “I would experience such joy as would be inconceivable in ordinary life―such joy that no one else could have any notion of. I would feel complete harmony in myself and in the whole world and this feeling was so strong and sweet that for few seconds of such bliss I would give ten or more years of my life, even my whole life perhaps.” Frank J. Goldstein. Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press (1987).
I don’t know if the experience on the Oregon coast I linked to above was a seizure, a mystical experience, or simply the way anyone who hadn’t a care in the world for the moment would experience the ocean and the cold air and the solitude. My guess is that many (most?) people have these experiences, but they don’t feel compelled to write about them. And they don’t think of them as “religious.”
I should note here that the times I know for sure I am having a seizure are not wonderful. A month ago, for example, I was walking at the fitness center and suddenly had no idea where I was or why I was there (which is a much more frequent experience than being at one with the ocean). It’s more difficult for me to explain that kind of experience than the mystical ones (or whatever they are). Fortunately at the fitness center I was able to get to a bench and sit before I checked out completely. I came to (after probably 2 or 3 seconds) and knew someone named Chris was nearby and that I should see him.
But I had no idea where or who he was or why I needed to find him. It took me a few minutes to remember he is my trainer, and I had an appointment with him in a few minutes.
So that’s the sum total of my mystical experience.
For the most part.
Since I find it almost impossible to say I believe in God these days, it’s just as well that I don’t have experiences where I think I’ve run into her.
When I was working with the Jewish Jungian psychiatrist in Massachusetts, he told me he hoped I would someday have the experience of standing at the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”) in Jerusalem. He thought anyone who had had so many “mystical” (I’ll call them that for want of a better description) experiences needed to be in that place where so much of the Western religious tradition had been centered, supposedly, for 2,500 years.
When I finally touched the Wall in 2003, I had nothing like a religious experience. Perhaps that was because on my way down into the courtyard I was greeted by a teenage girl and boy (Israeli soldiers carrying assault rifles) obviously looking everyone over with suspicion, and it was difficult to feel anything other than wariness. I was not wearing a yarmulke as the other men in our group were.
I am fairly certain that when I am in Jerusalem in a couple of weeks, I will have religious experiences. I don’t think William James would have classified them as religious, however. But it’s the only way I have of participating in or knowing or experiencing anything “transcendent” or of “God.”
The purpose of my trip is to join, as best I know how or can figure out, the cause of justice for all people. If God exists, I have only one way of knowing God. That is by doing my level best (which is pathetically inadequate and probably misinformed) to be of service to other human beings, especially in the cause of justice and mercy. It is only then―not by belief or prayer or meditation or good works―that I expect to have anything like the experience of hearing, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”―in this life or any other.