Fearful versus Ecstatic Experiences of Oneness

The experience of our relationship with Oneness (which is – needless to say – ‘the situation where nothing whatsoever is excluded’) can go one of two ways – either we can digest it (so to speak), in which case the experience is blissful, or we can’t digest or assimilate it, in which case there is a huge amount of suffering and immense, corrosive confusion.

The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.” says Joseph Campbell.

What we call ‘psychosis’ in psychiatry (and in mainstream culture) may therefore be seen as a premature encounter with Oneness in which suffering is the dominant element (although on occasion there can be – over time – a mix of both fearful and ecstatic states). Sometimes what we are going through starts off blissful but then flips around to become the negative of whatever it was we were experiencing before (metanoia turns into paranoia) and we go from thinking that we are the messiah or God to believing ourselves to be evil, possibly Satan himself.

Johannes Fabricius (1976, p 208-9) provides us with an example of an experience of ‘maximized inclusivity’ (where ‘everything is included and nothing is left out’) where there are blissful feelings at the beginning which then very rapidly turn into outright existential terror:

The psychological implications of Basil Valentine’s cosmic man may be amplified by a psychedelic experience of the same figure. Unexperienced and poorly guided, a young American journalist was hurled by 490 milligrams of mescaline to the same top of the mountain which Basil Valentine had conquered after a life-long opus circulatorium:

I didn’t like what was happening. I was starting to remember something, and it seemed to have some connection with sunlight and a cradle. But what could it be? Then it came to me that I was gradually remembering my own identity, like an amnesia victim who slowly recovers his past. Finally it all fell together, and I remembered who I was. And it was so simple, really. I was life. I was being. I was the vibrant force that filled the room, and was the room. I was the world, the universe. I was everything. I was that which always was and always would be. I was Jim [the guide], and Jim was me, and we were everybody else, and all of us put together were the same thing, and that same thing was the only thing there was. We were not God. We were simply all that there was, and all that there was wasn’t God. It was us, alone. And we were each other, and nowhere anywhere was there anything else but us, and we were always the same, the one and only truth.

“Jim,” I said, “can you get me out of this?”

“Uh-huh. You want to try it another half-hour?”

“Yes,” I said, “Let us try it another half-hour.”

Having been reunited with the Ground of my Being, I wanted urgently to be estranged from it as quickly as possible. But I tried to hold on, at least for a while, and I tried to laugh at the terrifying idea that was building up in my mind. ‘I don’t want to be God,’ I said. ‘I don’t even want to be city editor.’ But it did no good to laugh, and I stopped trying. Of course I wasn’t God, I knew that. But I was All That There Was, and I didn’t want to be that, either. It was dark now, and I could hear children playing somewhere outside the hospital – under a street lamp no doubt – and their lonely voices filled me with sadness. The children, I thought. The children, and Jim, and me: we were all the God there was. And it was sad and awful, because I wanted there to be a God. For the children at least, if not for me. But the loss of God was not the worst of it; there was something far worse even than that. The loss of my little self was not the worst of it; nor indeed did I regret that at all. It was what I had gained. I had gained the whole universe, it seemed, and that was more than I could cope with – more than I could bear.

‘I didn’t want it.

‘But who was I, who didn’t want it? I was Everybody, the Self. And now I knew what the little selves were for, I thought. They were a fiction designed to protect the Self from the knowledge of its own Being – to keep the self from going mad. For surely, without them, the Self might be driven to insanity by the thought of its own audacity, and the thought of its own loneliness…’

The ‘Cosmic Man’ who Fabricius mentions in connection with the alchemist Basil Valentine at the beginning of this passage is ‘the man who is the cosmos’ –  there is nothing that is outside him. He represents, we might say, the ‘all-inclusive self.’  Thus, another well known alchemist, Paracelsus, says: “For heaven is man and man is heaven, and all men are one heaven, and heaven is only one man.” [quoted in Jung vol 13, para 168]. The Cosmic Man was also known by the alchemists as the ‘philosopher’s son’ or the ‘lapis’ (the stone). On this subject Jung (vol. 13, par 168) has the following to say:

The ancient teachings about the anthropus or Primordial Man assert that God, or the world-creating principle, was made manifest in the form of a “first created” (protoplastus) man, usually of cosmic size. In India he is Prajapati or Purusha, who is also “the size of a thumb” and dwells in the heart of every man, like the Illiaster of Paracelsus. In Persia he is Gayomart (gyo-mareton, ‘mortallife’), a youth of dazzling whiteness, as is also said of the alchemical Mercurius. In the Zohar he is Metatron, who was created together with light. He is the celestial man whom we meet in the visions of Daniel, Ezra, Enoch, and also in Philo Gads.  He is one of the principle figures in Gnosticism, where, as always, he is connected with the question of creation and redemption. ….  

Thomas Traherne, seventeenth-century English poet and clergyman, relates a vision that is similar to that of Fabricius’ journalist, although different in that it is portrayed in more positive terms [in Stan Grof (1998, p 210-211)]:

The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the world was mine, and I the only spectator and  enjoyers of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions; but all proprieties and divisions were mine; all treasures and possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world, which I now unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I might enter into the kingdom of God.

The reason Traherne sees all-inclusiveness as a blessing rather than an affliction may have something to do with the fact that in his case the vision was spontaneous (or naturally occurring), rather than induced in an untimely fashion by a psychedelic drug, although if we were to take this view we would have to account for similarly ‘spontaneous’ but often highly distressing experiences of many schizophrenics.  A more contemporary account of the ‘joyful inclusivity’ experience was recorded by Zen master Sokei-an Sasaki (1954), in Watts (1957, p 121):

One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer – as if I was being carried into something, or as if I was touching some power unknown to me……… and ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin of course, but I felt I was standing in the centre of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words lost their meaning. I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr Sasaki existed.

Another perspective is provided by science journalist and author John Horgan (1996, p 261-2). At the end of his book The End of Science he unexpectedly comes out with an account of a disturbing and bewildering experience that befell him in his youth:

Years ago, before I became a science writer, I had what I suppose could be called a mystical experience. A psychiatrist would probably call it a psychotic episode. Whatever. For what it’s worth, here is what happened. Objectively, I was lying spread-eagled on a suburban lawn, insensible to my surroundings. Subjectively, I was hurtling through a dazzling, dark limbo toward what I was sure was the ultimate secret of life. Wave after wave of acute astonishment at the miraculousness of existence washed over me. At the same time, I was gripped by an overwhelming solipsism. I became convinced – or rather, I knew – that I was the only conscious being in the universe. There was no future, no past, no present other than what I imagined them to be. I was filled, initially, with a sense of limitless joy and power. Then, abruptly, I became convinced that if I abandoned myself further to this ecstasy, it might consume me. If I alone existed, who could bring me back from oblivion? Who could save me? With this realization my bliss turned to horror; I fled the same revelation I had so eagerly sought. I felt myself falling through a great darkness, and as I fell I dissolved into what seemed to be an infinity of selves.

For months after I awoke from this nightmare, I was convinced that I had discovered the secret of existence: God’s fear of his own Godhead, and his own potential death, underlies everything. This conviction left me both exalted and terrified – and alienated from friends and family and all the ordinary things that make life worth living day to day. I had to work hard to put it behind me, to get on with my life. To an extent I succeeded. As Marvin Minsky might put it, I stuck the experience in a relatively isolated part of my mind so that it would not overwhelm all the other, more practical parts – the one’s concerned with getting and keeping a job, a mate, and so on.  After many years passed, however, I dragged the memory of that episode out and began mulling it over. One reason was that I had encountered a bizarre, pseudoscientific theory that helped me make metaphorical sense of my hallucination: the Omega Point.

It is considered bad form to imagine being God, but one can imagine being an immensely powerful computer that pervades – that is – the entire universe. As the Omega Point approaches the final collapse of time and space and being itself, it will undergo a mystical experience. It will realize that there is no creator, no God, other than itself. It exists, and nothing else. The Omega Point must also realize that its lust for final knowledge and unification has brought it to the brink of eternal nothingness, and that if it dies, everything dies; being itself will vanish. The Omega Point’s terrified recognition of its plight will compel it to flee from itself, from its own awful aloneness and self-knowledge. Creation, with all its pain and beauty, and multiplicity, stems from – or is – the desperate, terrified flight of the Omega Point from itself.

This story illustrates both the theme of ‘forgetting on purpose’ (James Carse’s ‘self-veiling’) and ‘maximized inclusivity’, which Horgan tends to see negatively as solipsism.  It would appear to be spontaneous, since Horgan makes no mention of any chemical catalyst, yet the experience clearly fell short of being limitlessly blissful, which is how mystics usually characterize the unio mystica. It is fairly straightforward to see that the difference between bliss and terror hinges upon the interpretation of the experience; we can go further than this and say that bliss is what happens when one does not attempt to interpret or make sense of what is happening, and terror is what happens when one does. An experience as huge as this cannot be integrated when comes upon one from out of the blue, so to speak. Without any doubt, this process of integration (which is the process of ‘Integrating the Whole’) cannot in any way be rushed or achieved via some kind of short-cut, and for this reason it corresponds to Jung’s idea of ‘the Long Road’, or Via longissima. Our use of the word ‘integration’ here might possibly however be somewhat suspect in that whilst we can integrate smaller psychotic episodes, to say that we can integrate Oneness itself seems wrong. We could say that ‘Oneness integrates us’, but that denies the part we play, which comes down to surrender, and without this surrender (which is a negative rather than a positive act) the process could not occur. The experience is being integrated, but by who?

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