Jim Mulac was a member of the congregation I served before coming here. Jim developed a life-threatening illness, and so asked me to come over to discuss what he wanted in a Celebration of his Life service and to reflect on how he had lived his life. Jim was a jazz pianist, a poet, a bookstore owner, a husband, father, and friend to many. As we talked about the service and his life, he told me of a near death experience that he had many years ago. He said that he had an out of body experience, a heading toward a light, and seeing deceased family and friends waiting for him. This experience was transformative for Jim; after this experience he chose to live life as fully as he could every single day. He had been an atheist before this near death experience; afterwards, he came to believe that there is something after death—though he pondered till the day he died what that was.
Though perhaps none of you have had a near death experience, many, most, perhaps all of you have had a uniquely significant experience that struck you, that was so profound and moving that you were unable to adequately describe it in words. And perhaps that experience did something to you, changed you in some way. Many of these types of experiences are transitory, passing quickly in and out of our consciousness. Sometimes these experiences offer some new insight, wisdom, awareness, perspective. Some people say that they feel more connected to something larger after such an experience.
How do we as Unitarian Universalists make sense of these kind of “beyond the normal” of experiences? And how do we share these experiences with one another? Or do we share them with one another? Doe our DuPage Unitarian Universalist family feel like enough of a safe and accepting space to share such things? How would you respond if someone here shared with you a near death experience? What if they shared a mystical experience or a transformative life-changing experience with you? In our normal day to day life, people tend to be more interested in how to be effective and efficient, and not so much about the extraordinary. The question becomes: is a Unitarian Universalist church an “appropriate” place to share mystical experiences? If not, why not?
There is truth and wisdom that can be garnered from these extraordinary experiences. What is wisdom? Is it knowledge? We each have access to much of the world’s knowledge, something no generation before us has had. Does knowledge alone help us discern one truth from another? Is it wisdom that helps us make sense of our knowledge? Our life experiences, both the easily explained and the seemingly inexplicable, our individual and our shared experiences, can assist us in discerning how we understand, make meaning of, and utilize knowledge. Wisdom, then, is that which directs knowledge so that we may live our values in a way that is congruent with our deepest selves. How can a “beyond the normal” experience lead to wisdom; wisdom can lead a person to have a positive impact on the world.
Think about Francis of Assisi, a late 12 and early 13th century Catholic preacher and friar. What do you know about him? Some of us might think about the blessing of animals; this ritual is conducted in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi because of his love for all creatures. What else do you know about him? He had a mystical experience and changed from being a rich boy who spent money on indulgences for himself and his friends to being a person who renounced all his worldly goods. He believed that he had received messages from god to do specific work in the world: rebuilding a church, caring for people and animals, starting religious orders. Whatever you may think of Francis’s story—Catholic myth or historical truth or whatever—what most of us can agree on is he had a profound experience, and made meaning from it in such a way as to have a profound effect on the world. I believe that some of you here today have had a profound, perhaps transcendent, experience. And you made meaning from it in such a way as to benefit humanity, animals, the planet.
American writer, activist and pagan Starhawk talks about a transcendent experience as a conversion and says, “Conversion is primarily an unselfing. The first birth of the individual is into his own little world. He is controlled by the deep-seated instincts of self-preservation and self-enlargement—instincts which are, doubtless, a direct inheritance from his brute ancestry. The universe is organized around his own personality as a center. [Conversion, then, is] the larger world-consciousness now pressing in on the individual consciousness. Often it breaks in suddenly and becomes a great new revelation. This is the first aspect of conversion: the person emerges from a smaller limited world of existence into a larger world of being. His life becomes swallowed up in a larger whole.” Starhawk reminds us that these experiences can push against our relatively narrow life focus, giving us the opportunity to have a larger worldview and to become increasingly un-self focused. The extent to which we explore this larger worldview depends on our own choices—how far we are willing to let go of the self, how comfortable we are in a universe that is not centered around our own personality.
So, how do we reconcile all this mysticism, transcendence with science? Neuroscientist David Eagleman writes, “People wouldn't even go into science unless there was something much bigger to be discovered, something that is transcendent.” His work is on the edge of science. He is constantly looking for something more, reaching out to change the world, looking for wonder and awe in life. In a recent blog he writes: “While medicine will advance in the next half century, we are not on a crash-course for achieving immortality by curing all disease. Bodies simply wear down with use. We are on a crash-course, however, with technologies that let us store unthinkable amounts of data and run gargantuan simulations. Therefore, well before we understand how brains work, we will find ourselves able to digitally copy the brain's structure and able to download the conscious mind into a computer.” He feels called, if you will, to combine psychology, neuroscience, and computer science; he also explores culture, fiction, and synesthesia--a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway—he wonders if we could learn to smell though our fingers. What was the “conversion” experience that birth this neuroscientist? He fell off a roof when he was a child, and developed an interest in understanding the neural basis of time perception. This was how he made meaning from that profound experience, and now he is having a profound effect on the world.
I believe we’re primed for transcendent, profound, transformational experiences; I don’t think it matters whether you are a humanist, a mystic, an atheist, a Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Jew—or whatever. We have the opportunity to re-evaluate our lives, our priorities, to look at the world with wonder and awe, to break down the barriers that culture has placed before us, to explore new ways of living, being, and doing in the world. These are properties of the human mind and as far as I am aware, no other living creature has the capacity for transcendent experiences. A case could be made that other plant and animal species adapt to their environments, so as to be more successful or dominant, but adaptation is not the same as transformation, just as knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Humans can choose to explore their personal beliefs, can become more intentionally self-reflective, and can change the world. “People wouldn't even go into science [or social justice work or ministry or journey into their selves, their beliefs, their lives] unless there was something much bigger to be discovered, something that is transcendent.”
What meaning will you make of a transcendent or profound experience? Will you ignore it? Dismiss it? Ponder it? Be transformed by it? What wisdom, enlightenment, insight, wonder will you take from it? How un-self-focused will you become as a result? When the larger world consciousness presses on your own consciousness, how will you live in a universe that is not centered on your own personality? These are the questions I leave you with as you back go out into a world that will offer you experiences that are beyond the normal.