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Whose Mountain #9
Trusting our own mystical experiences
Thank you for continuing to read what was definitely an unexpected turn to this newsletter last week. If you missed the change in direction, I’d encourage you to read Whose Mountain #8.
How do we learn to trust the mystical?
We’re exploring human transformation. Not incremental change, but those large leaps which fundamentally change humanity. Those leaps are a function of the accumulated wisdom of ourselves and those around us. In equation form, you might say:
I believe wisdom is developed through a process of bringing bring questions and personal knowledge in touch with a mystical experience. I shared examples in this thread earlier this year.
But how do you learn to trust those mystical experiences?
In my life, I’ve had three experiences that I’d consider mystical
The first was during a high-dose psilocybin-assisted therapy session. As the medicine silenced my default mode network, I experienced my body running through a cave, my quickening footsteps trying to catch up to my heartbeat as I tried desperately to escape the jaguar chasing me. Looking back, I could see the ruby eyes of the jaguar toying with me as the spiderwebs in the cave stretched to grasp at my arms and legs. Believing that I was hallucinating, I tried desperately to rip off the eyemask and return to the “real world” again. But there was no return. The jaguar with rubies for eyes and the cave were the only reality I had in those moments. Even the therapist/guide could only enter the cave of my new reality. This was real, and the running only ended when I plunged into the abyss and passed out in panic. I have no memories of what happened after until I was later reborn.
The second experience was during the same session, once I was reborn from that cave. I was back in the house where I had started my journey, surrounded by what I recognized as the “real world.” I could see the room just as I had left it. The only difference was the forest outside my window in the mountains of Santa Cruz. The trees, which I had noticed as separate individuals, were showing themselves to me as one. Hundreds of trees were holding hands in a web of leaves, branches, animal tenants, and other plants. They had all become one organism. That organism invited me to sit in those webs and allow myself to become connected to them. No words were spoken, but the invitation was more genuine than any I had received before. I could feel the pure love of that invitation to return to what I had once been.
The third experience is far older and much harder to explain. As a child, I often would be overcome by a fear of spaces. This fear, which I can only describe as a knowledge that there was something inside which couldn’t be contained by the spaces of my home and something outside which couldn’t be kept out by any walls. Inside or outside of what I still don’t know. I only know that in the dark stillness after everyone had gone to bed, I would become so overwhelmed that I would run and touch every wall to see what was permeating through. I believe now it was a belief that the limits of my world weren’t real and a fear of what was on the other side.
I never knew how to trust those experiences. Were the first two less believable because they were assisted with a high dose of psilocybin? What if I told you that I let go of my anger shortly after that session? Does that make it more believable? If I drew a connection between the jaguar that chased me and ancient archetypes of danger and power, does that make it more believable? What about my inability to reproduce those experiences? How does that add to the ledger?
A few weeks after that therapy session, I realized I wasn’t angry for the first time in years. I was able to sit with my son and not feel threatened by his difficult behaviors. At first, it was simply an absence of noise in my body. But then, I began to settle into moments that weeks before would have set me off. I felt that same loving connection from my second experience. I was able to bring that to my own family. I even found that same feeling of oneness in our new home when we moved to Montana.
Years after the therapy session, I was meeting with a shaman about doing another guided session. I recounted to him the jaguar with the ruby eyes, and what he said shocked me. As he explained to me, the jaguar is a symbol for power and danger. By running from the jaguar and ultimately falling into an abyss where it captured me, I had worked with the danger which I believe flying relief missions over Fukushima had brought to my family. Part of me believes this coincidence is simply the power of suggestion in a vulnerable state. But I can’t escape the fact that after this session, my confidence as a father returned. There’s something very humbling about living through your own death at the hands of an ancient spirit.
Looking to philosophy to understand those experiences
In Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead builds upon other philosophers when they ask how we actually know something. He combines “the sensationalist principle” and “the subjectivist principle” into a theory he calls “symbolic reference.” The sensationalist principle says that the only thing we can know is our mere sensations. We cannot trust anything which we don’t directly experience, and the only thing that should matter to us is that thing we are directly experiencing right now. Even our memories of the past are unreliable for knowledge. In this principle, the moment those trees stopped being my reality, I should no longer believe them. The fact that my body experienced the world after is irrelevant.
In the subjectivist principle, there is a universal truth to all things. We can be shown this truth through our experience, but ultimately it’s only that universal truth that can be believed. To use the same example, the truth is an abundant world of connection. Those trees offered me a glimpse of wisdom. My own participation in experiencing them doesn’t matter. The feelings of love, joy, peace, and longing are unimportant to the universal truth that the world is connection.
Neither of those theories ever helped me believe those experiences.
I think Whitehead’s theory of symbolic reference offers an answer I can believe. A symbol is created when we join something we experienced (a sensation of that moment) with something we knew or glimpsed (a higher truth we believe was shown to us). We can only join things that share a ground, whether that be an emotion, a narrative, or a sensation. Returning to the tree example, the sensation of being invited into a web of connection and the experience of being less angry share a common theme of connection. That connection creates a symbol, with my own participation at the center, which I can use to explore reality. That symbol can be right or wrong, but I will only know as I use that symbolic experience in daily living.
As I interpret this, we should believe an event when we can correlate our internal experience with the sensation of that distinct moment. Maybe the mystical event is not that moment of lived reality, but the process of integrating that moment into our every day life. In that idea, we’re freed from the need for reproducibility or “truth”; we can simply believe that those experiences are important. What does that say about my childhood fear? That memory sat dormant until this week, brought back by a question from Chad Smith.
Those experiences never really end as long as you keep working on them. Isn’t that process of working with ideas, questions, knowledge, and personal experience the path to wisdom?
Only as I start to believe those experiences do I feel comfortable sharing them. I hope that by sharing them, I can illuminate for others the wisdom developed. The next human transformation will come from a paradigm shift in wisdom and the narratives to bring that wisdom to others. So until we develop the confidence to believe that wisdom, we can never create the human transformation.
What am I missing? What did I get wrong? Where should I look next on this journey into human transformation through the mystical?
If you want to keep exploring this journey with me, why not sign in, fellow traveler?
Until next week, have an intentionally curious week.