I knew from the start that the mysticism chapter would be a pivotal section of the book, but all I knew about mysticism is what you can learn watching late-night reruns of "Kung Fu." If I was going to make this chapter work, I had to know precisely what the mystics were all about. But when I cracked the books on mysticism, I found myself hopelessly lost in a mind-bending hall of mirrors. Things got especially muddy when the mystics of old waxed ineffable on the subject of the Ultimate Absolute. I mean, criminy:
An Islamic mystic says, "We and our existences are nonexistences. Thou art Absolute Existence showing Thyself as perishable things."
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday July 20, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Magazine--The description of brain-scan images illustrating "The Biology of Belief" in the L.A. Times Magazine on July 15 incorrectly suggested that the scans showed changes in the brain's parietal lobe. They showed changes in the frontal lobes.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 5, 2001 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
The description of brain-scan images illustrating Vince Rause's story on "The Biology of Belief" (July 15) incorrectly suggested that the scans showed changes in the brain's parietal lobe. They showed changes in the frontal lobes.
A Buddhist offers, "It has never existed. It has never been nonexistent . . . ."
And a rabble-rousing medieval Christian mystic named Meister Eckhart declares, ". . . . if I say 'God exists,' this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being."
God is, God isn't. There is an Absolute, but it never was. Ultimate reality is Nothing, but so am I. I was so deeply confused I wanted to cry. But I had no choice but to keep working and hoping I'd find a toehold.
Then, by sheer luck, I stumbled on a passage written by a contemporary Benedictine monk named Bede Griffiths. In the passage, Griffiths describes something he experienced as a boy. He was walking in the evening, when he was suddenly dazzled by the beautiful song of a flock of birds. The beauty of their singing seemed to awaken senses he'd never used before. In an instant the world seemed magically transformed, and everything in it seemed to burst with what he calls a "kind of sacramental character."
"I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me," he wrote. "I felt inclined to kneel on the ground . . . and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God."
It was, he says, as if he'd stepped into "the presence of an almost unfathomable mystery . . . which seemed to be drawing me to itself."
That was it: no burning bushes, no flaming chariots, no butt-kicking bolts from the blue. Just a gentle, subtle awakening, a soft epiphany that many of us might simply shrug off. But it changed Griffiths' life forever, and now it was giving me the chills. I knew this mysterious presence. I'd known it when I was a boy. It was the secret holiness that haunted the shadowy rafters of my old church, that numinous impending something. I understood, as I read Griffiths' account, that he had glimpsed what I'd only suspected. I scoured his words for every scrap of meaning. Then I went looking for more.
In no time, I'd found several accounts of similarly mild revelations: people surprised by a thrill of wonder and recognition as they read poetry, or pondered the cosmos, or prayed. According to author and mystic Andrew Harvey, such experiences are not uncommon. They are, he believes, available to all who want them. "All human beings are given in the course of their lives glimpses into the heart of the real which they are free to pursue or forget."
The poetic practicality of the idea floored me and turned all my spiritual assumptions inside out. Mystical experience, I was beginning to understand, was not about a magical ascension into some distant literal paradise, it was about a quiet, personal epiphany that the miraculous and the mundane are one and the same, and that both are right before our eyes.
"Better a single moment of awakening in this world," says a Jewish rabbinical text, "than an eternity in the world to come."
Could this be the loophole I'd been hoping for? For the first time since I was a kid, I felt the hovering presence of something mysterious and fine. What that something was, I couldn't fathom, and somehow, I didn't need to know. The world was suddenly full of possibilities, and that was enough for me.
It was the most solid and satisfying spiritual feeling I'd ever had, and I felt the rightness of it resonate in my bones. The odd thing, though, was this: as I embraced and was uplifted by this mysterious insight, I fully assumed that Newberg's brain scans had explained all the mystery away.
"I wouldn't say we've explained it away," Newberg said when I brought up the subject.
"But the SPECT scans show that 'mystical union' is just a brain state, right?"
"It is," he replied. "But everything can be explained as a brain state. Like the experience of eating an apple. Like your experience of your self. Your self may feel as real as the apple, but you might be surprised to know that you didn't always have a self."
Newberg explained that the brain of a human infant lacks the circuitry needed to draw a line between the self and the rest of the world. It floats in a state that Freud described as "oceanic bliss," unaware there is room in the universe for anything other than its own endless being.