Last night, I inadvertendly induced in myself what might best be described as a mystical experience. I won't say how I did so, but I must say that it was very educational. I've had experiences somewhat similar, but nothing quite this intense.
This is a subject I actually wrote my undergraduate thesis on, looking at James' Varieties of Religious Experience and at later research in what is sometimes called "neurotheology". As can be expected, the firsthand account cannot be captured in words, but I can see that the terms often used make some limited sense of it.
There's a sort of feeling of oneness, a sense of unique insight into the world and a profound feeling of certainty, and a kind of sublime awareness so intense that it led me alternatively to cry, laugh, and then do both at the same time--at least, I was unable to tell at one point which it was.
I felt like I finally understood what the Greeks tried to capture in their tragedies; I experienced a confirmation of the Heraclitean hypothesis "panta rhei" (everything flows; all is in flux; there is no being only becoming); and I realized that the solitude I have recently been trying to celebrate comes at a heavy price, that is, I saw with clarity how necessary it is that I connect to others and end this partially self-imposed loneliness. This last insight has provided a much needed remedy to the cynicism which has been dominating my thoughts of late.
What is remarkable about these experiences is how open they are to interpretation. At no point did I ever get the sense of a divine presence--which is one thing that people often talk about but which still remains foreign to me. Indeed, the experience was intensely solipsistic in a certain respect. I even felt that reflecting upon my prior knowledge of the causes of such experiences actually enhanced it in a unique way.
I, of course, recognized that the scientific account is no more adequate than the self-reports of mystics. I even saw more clearly than before how both traditional religion and scientific dogmatism are on the same self-defeating page here, denying that which is directly in front of them for the sake of something not immediately experienced.
I think Sam Harris, who I wrote about relatively recently, is dead on about the importance of such kinds of experience and the practices that surround them. The atheist who denies this aspect of life is throwing the baby out with the bath water. In fact, I saw with such clarity how such experiences are nothing but a natural side effect of all the various modules that make up that "experience machine" that is constituted by various parts of our brain.
If you think about all of the aspects of experience that we take for granted--the feeling of our bodies in space (proprioception), the distinction between our self and the rest of the world, the differentiation of the world into individual objects that persist over time, the capacity for intense emotional responses, etc.--you can see how messing with this subtle chemistry by meditation (or other more direct means) can produce amazing results that, to the uninitiated, could suggest contact with some supernatural force.
As for me, I had a very "naturalistic" kind of mystical experience. I still believe the universe to be utterly indifferent (and almost entirely outside of our grasp), but I see how value, worth, meaning is real despite the fact that it can only be created by tiny parts of the world that, like cosmic mirrors, reflect the universe back on itself. We may just be ephemeral modes of being, but we do constitute something qualitatively different.
If there is such a thing as the "divine", it's a distinctly human divinity (or, to be open to the possibility of other kinds of beings capable of the same, a finite divinity). If there is anything like immortality, it is the immortality of the singular moment, the kind of eternity that I think Wittgenstein recognized which made him see it as irrational to fear death.
I am still grappling with the recognition that everyone who undergoes these experiences emerges from them with a feeling of profound certainty about whatever knowledge they gained from them (such so that I am skeptical about any such knowledge claims), on the one hand, and the possibility that the reason they are so sure is that they actually did see some truth, on the other. (As Spinoza suggests, truly adequate knowledge is incapable of being doubted.) I also don't know whether I wish to try to induce further such experiences in the future. But, at least I'm feeling pretty good today, in the wake of all of this.
There are other things, more personal things, that I won't say here. I'm still not exactly sure what to "do" with these memories now. I at least wanted to have some written record so that when the less intense aspects fade further, I might be able to recall them some other time. And, I must admit, I find some value in sharing this experience with others (pretending for a moment that people actually read my exhibitionistic logorrhea).