“The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”— Meister Eckhart
I have this very distinct memory from childhood of a quasi-religio-mystical experience with an Electrolux vacuumcleaner, an ecstasis of some kind or another. Mom had left the vacuumcleaner running and humming in the hallway, and littleboy Brandon was crouching nearby, nuzzling close to its warm, unbroken amniotic monotone:
Entranced, I hummed alongside in key— mmmmmmmmmmm— and occasionally climbed the chromatic scale until I floated a full octave above in a slow, sliding counterpoint. What was it about that hum, exactly? To me, it was pure electromagnetism— maybe only the radiation of a clunky pre-war Electrolux. Caught in its field, I became the conduit for strange and invisible forces. I was staring into outer space. I had returned to the womb. Time itself became gelatinous. Littleboy Brandon, as infested as his brain may have been with twizzlers, death stars, and snuffalumpagi, realized, then and there, the awesome power of The Uncanny.
From then on out, all household appliances of the large humming variety— electric monsters like the window-unit air conditioners, refrigerators, and greenbox transformers— induced, to some degree, this quasi-mystical state. And though I eventually wrote it off as mere idiosyncrasy, as weird and incommunicable as any of the other spectres of childhood, I was proven delightfully wrong, many years later, on a manic, midnight promenade, when my roommate David Cruz Palmer lapsed into harmonics upon crossing the UVA Architecture School transformer. Huh, I thought. Maybe there was something to this after all.
The public at large had mixed opinions about the phenomenon. Some thought it was just noise and nonsense, a load of crap from a load of crap-artists. But others immediately felt the fuzz and effect of our newfangled “Machine for Enlightenment.” Eastern mysticism contained in an accidental Western contraption. Quick-instant satori for the microwave savvy. (By the way, I’m only half-joking here, always having had the feeling that a good purpose of the West was to spell out what Eastern wisdom has known all along.)
But when they understood, man, did they understand. And adding more to the mystery, no human eye had actually seen the transformer itself. We had only lounged on the steel grating above, like insects circling around an oven light, as the drone wafted up from the leagues of darkness below. I figured it was all the same. I mean, the transformer could not possibly in a zillion years satisfy the science-fictional demands of our overactive imaginations, could it? Turns out, curiosity eventually got the upperhand, and one night Rich Davis and I pulled the nails from the hinges, descended some twenty feet into subterranean darkness, and came face-to-face with a Monster God that could shame the tales of Theseus and Gilgamesh put together. A large, metal monolith with glowing red and green eyes and dozens of thick, bundled chords snaking from its scalp to the ceiling. A drone ten times the intensity, that made the lips tingle and heartstrings saw.
Something occurred to me. Something that is jarringly obvious: this drone rests for nobody. The lights were flashing and the drone was humming the very day, the very second, that I came into this world via Virginia Beach General Hospital. And the same holds true for other events: the assassinations of John Lennon and Indira Gandhi, the day that Jimmy Carter bludgeoned a swimming rabbit to death, the days America saw the debuts of New Coke and Pepsi Clear, and the time I crapped my britches in kindergarten gymclass and tried to blame it on my neighboring classmate. The drone— totally indifferent to the woes and forgivable follies of the outside world— instantly become my eternal flame, my drive-thru for cosmic attunement. Right then and there.
What was the meaning of all this? Suddenly, it was more than just this weird box and its funny noises; it had to be. It was the stuff bubbling underneath, the forces it tapped, the odd and oceanic feelings themselves, and their meanings— and their meaning’s meanings. This is what drew me in closer, and got me started on certain mystical ideas.
From previous dabblings, I recognized certain hypnotic and meditative principles at work. The disembodiment brought on by the loss of the differentiated senses. The ganzfeld. The tedium. The controlled breathing. But this answered nothing; it was, so to speak, just tablesetting for the Infinite. The answer, I realized, was as deep and troubling and intractable as the workings of the human psyche and the meanings of the religious impulse, which I was beginning to suspect, were inextricably intertwined. Despite all our crap and abracadabra, the drone really did remove all empirical distractions, cutting you adrift as a “cosmonaut of inner space.” And it was in this inner reach that I stumbled upon a crucial question, that see-sawed between the psychological and, what I will refer to very loosely as, “the spiritual.” A question that forms the core of many religious traditions, and that I was now compelled to explore: “Is there,” I asked “a connection between the Inward and the Beyond?”
Let me stop here for a second. Some people, who know me very well, might be inclined to request a time-out here, detecting a minor clash and paradox in a radical humanist, who rambles on and on about the “mastery rather than the transcendence of finitude,” expending so much time and energy diving into the religious dimension. The paradox is false, but it may take some explanation to understand precisely why. In an earlier, hairsplitting rant on atheism, I had said:
“In the garden of religious identity, I classify myself under pragmatic or humanist or Promethean atheism, the oddball unbelief springing from hubris rather than cosmic description, conscience rather than science. There are few conversations as pointless as the historical tug-a-war between professed Faith and smug Victorian atheism, endlessly duking it out over ‘The Existence of God.’ To me, this question, though considered by some to be the fundamental question of religious matters, is relatively immaterial. It dulls the real implications of atheism and humanism. Instead, I like to quickly segue into something like:
‘Even if there is such a thing as Divine Will, or cosmic justice, my decisions remain unaffected. I am prepared to burn in eternal hellfire for human autonomy. Despite absolute power, God would have to justify Himself like everyone else.’ This moves the issue away from ontological battles over What There Is and toward the problem of How We Should Proceed. Besides, I truly believe that God, in the most popular sense, is an insult to the wonder and complexity of Creation.
My radical humanism, the turn from Heaven and toward Earth, believes that secularization, along with the wholesale abandonment of metaphysics, is a crucial step toward the immediacies of the Lebenswelt (lifeworld), away from vicariousness and into the life-narrative. The worldly reach for sublimity rather than numinosity, a shudder of giggles rather than a pious awe. We extol human efficacy and the apotheosis of Man, over Nature and the vanity of human wishes. We happily believe that the Universe has no vested interest in human affairs, leaving no guidelines for being and behavior in an unfinished world. Above all, we do this mock-heroically, since in our heart of hearts, we still harbor the belief in a godless world, a closed system of human belief and action. This is the faith that keeps me going: that if ever I do happen to meet Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, at least I’ll be able to tell him something he hasn’t heard before.”
When I began my pursuit of the religious impulse, it was not just to toe-test the waters of another realm; another hidden, Gothic reality alongside the concrete and present-at-hand. It was to bring the religious impulse— and its funny pulls, shapes, and vocabularies— back into the world of consequences. I wanted to secularize the Divine, in other words. The idea just sounded so good.
Through my strong misreading of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, I came to think: you know, we can dismiss and deny the causes and meanings behind a religious experience, as superstitious spook-delusions, as throwbacks to the pre-Enlightenment childhood of Man, as subconscious geysers and Freudian yearnings for the Lost Father, or whatever. But not even the most vitriolic and embittered atheists would deny that there is such a thing as a “religious experience;” that it indeed is an experience, whatever its nature. An experience that, in my mind, could be reconstructed with or without the transcendental or the stageprops of religious ritual. It could happen right here, on my living room floor, on a pile of dingy-orange couch cushions, with my roommates watching The Never-Ending Story upstairs. Religious ecstasis, on tap, without mysticism, without transcendence. Not “naturalization,” though. Not explanations such as “merely a large avalanche of dopamine dumping into the braincells.” Not an explanation at all, really, but “How Now, What Next?” What can the religious impulse mean or do for us once it’s robbed of its metaphysical underpinnings? Only the drone could answer…
So I sat, and I thunk and I thunk, with and without my Drone going. Trying to drink deep from a bottomless well. Thought experiments that straddled the line between the Inward and the Beyond, trying to close in on the boundary lines. Playing the double-agent and unconscious Kantian. I kept crawling around in the dark, lost in the funhouse, peeling back percepts and precepts, to find the fountainheads at their source. When all of a sudden… I came to an aporia, an impasse, a moment of definitive undecidability.
In that moment of religious surrender, that Scheiermacher was to describe as the feeling of “absolute dependency,” how could I possibly distinguish divine embraces from the deep-seated psychological yearning to return to the womb of the mother, the prenatal timeperiod of absolute dependency? Where were the handles and demarcations? Wouldn’t this deep inward flight away the empiricisms of time, chance, and frustration bear an astounding resemblance to the domain of an omniscient, omnipotent god? How would I know when I had wandered outside of the Self? There were no signposts, no welcoming committees. How would I know the Inward from the Beyond? How could I could I ever say, one way or another? My original question, concerning the connection between the Inward and the Beyond, started to lose its coherence in a very coherent way. That is, I started to look upon it as little more than a dumpy cousin of the same Cartesianism that philosophy had spent the last two centuries trying to overcome, the Cartesianism that asks the awful question: “How does our mind hook onto the world, and how do we know when we’ve gotten it right?” Philosophical pragmatists, myself included, along with any allies in the anti-Cartesian camp, quickly deflate the issue by saying something like: look, it is impossible to tell where mind ends and the world begins. They are completely inextricable, everything you know about one comes from the other. The connections are infinite and everywhere. The “isolated mind,” the “view from Nowhere”— these are the myths causing all our troubles here. Let them go. The mind independent of the world is empty. The world independent of mind is, in the word of Hilary Putnam, “unqualifiable.”
And wouldn’t you know it: this same drama was back again in new dress, washing through my awkward tangle between the Inward and the Beyond, translated into the religious dimension, and playing out in makeshift drones and sensory-deprivation chambers all over Virginia. There I was, all alone in the droning darkness, wringing out my subconscious like a dishrag, determined to find some kind of closure, even when my dessicated brain was bleeding for Excedrin. Little did I know to dissolve rather than solve the puzzle.
As I pressed on, though, I saw all my badguy Cartesianisms finally falling apart as they played out in the world of consequences, inwardly and otherwise. I saw, very clearly, that wherever we look, in the Beyond, we are sure to find ourselves, our own reflections— stupid grins and all. We can pick the world apart and find our habits in the fibers. And likewise, as we dive inward, we see the patterns pressed in from the outside world, the Self and the Subject dissolving into the flux like a tablet of Alka-Seltzers. The Inward and the Beyond— you’ll never get the two apart long enough to ask how they came together in the first place, as I tried to do. That was that.
And you’d think that would’ve sufficed, that tasty little nugget of wisdom. But no. I continued, still in search of a true ecstasis, a true experience, just like the ones between the covers of The Varieties of Religious Experience. I’m talking thoughts-like-thunderclaps and speaking-in-tongues and sun-drenched Carlos-Casteneda-burnouts and the fume-huffing Oracles of Delphi. Possession. For once something out of my control. This was the whole point. To put down the pride of human agency, for one fucking second in my whole life. And the evening came. Bolstering my spirit with a supplement of Dr. Pepper and Mini-Thins (the ephedrine-tingle helps bring on the sense of disembodiment, I’ve found), I sprawled out with Willie Hoffman on my living room floor. A homemade, heartbeat-driven drone blaring through the computer— MMMMMMM.
We assumed the usual routine— maybe I was even a little too antsy and preoccupied, too hopped up on caffeine and truckstop bronchiodialators for the deep reach inward. Fidgeting, fidgeting, and more fidgeting— and almost ready to quit, when I suddenly found that spot. It was like diving in the deep end of the neighborhood pool and coming across the pull of the filter at the bottom of the blue, chlorine murk. An invisible force that you could only feel.
Meanwhile, my brain was poised just so, entertaining a picture of an empty room, or a little diorama or something. Maybe. Not sure. Things started to happen, things reminiscent of my earlier run-ins with the Electrolux, only with a stronger current this time. Marvelous in the beginning, feeling that little glow inside that the mystics often call gnosis. A seed-of-the-self kind of a thing, or maybe a “trunk” is a better image. The sense grew stronger and enveloped me. The universe became womblike and hugged me tight and maternally. I perceived a window (bear with me, folks) in the upper half of my inner mind, or rather a waterpipe bursting and filling up that empty room I mentioned earlier. Uncanniness aside, the imaginary plumbing problems soon unsettled me.
Control was gone. Blood rushed to my brain and my eyes rolled back in the sockets so far that I think I could see my brain. I had apparently overshot my mark in the long, drawn search for the blissful center, landing somewhere in the nightmare themepark of Sublime Terror. I was choking on sublime terror, in fact; paralysed, struggling to breathe, pretty sure that I was having a brain aneurysm or an epileptic fit. Floodwaters. Was I going to die? Was this the endpoint of mystical reflection? I swam against the current to signal Willie, but— guess what— no luck. I was paralysed. And just as doom seemed certain and braindeath inevitable, I came to and broke free of the spell. Gasping, shaking, scrambling to the computer to stop the drone with a double-click. “Willie. Willie! Something really strange and fucked-up just happened to me. I need to stop, I need to stop… I’ll talk about it later.”
I called it my “brain aneurysm,” the next day, once I was a relatively safe distance away from the undertow. I did not know what to make of it; still don’t. Explained it to Willie, explained it to Wes. They advised me not to dismiss it. I had no plans to. But I feel it was one of those experiences that runs over the cup of theory. It was just too much. A moment of hypermeaning that I will spend the rest of my life reflecting on and returning to. My questions were not answered, my questions could not be answered, and I was just plain sick of it all. Satisfied for the time being. Sooner or later, even Jacques Cousteau comes up for air. Went about my business, telephoned some friends to find out what was on the agenda for the evening. Sunshine and solid objects: dammit, it felt good to be back in the Land of the Living.