When I was a child my mother told me I had a “spiritual” experience. I think I was in the 8th grade or so when it occurred. I remember it happened during the winter, as I recall shoveling snow outside later that evening. At this point in our family’s history my brother was spending a considerable amount of time over at my grandmother’s house, as she had experienced a stroke and he looked after her. My brother and I each had our own bedrooms, and my mother would often watch television in my brother’s bedroom. I would freely come in and out of his room. His room had a walk in closet with a full length mirror on the outside.
I recall aimlessly walking into my brother’s bedroom, stepping in front of his mirror, and experiencing a profound shock. An instantaneous transition from ordinary waking consciousness to utter existential fear and panic. As with many “spiritual” experiences, describing it in words is difficult. A sort of profound question of “why do I exist?” Or perhaps “why does anything exist at all?” The experience was not at all “eerie” as it occurred too rapidly. It was as if I’d shocked myself on a doorknob, except the shock was psychological.
What caused this strange experience? I don’t know. I suspect that “cabin fever” had something to do with it. Staying inside for long periods of time can be mentally unhealthy. But this is speculation, I must concede. I was nominally a Lutheran at this time, but I don’t recall imputing any religious interpretation on the experience then or now. It caused no fear of mirrors in me, though it strangely caused a “fear-of-fear-itself” reaction. I would fear recalling this fearful experience, and that would “trigger” the experience itself! Thankfully, this self fulfilling prophesy was never as frightening as the initial experience.
I smoked cannabis several times in high school. I experienced genuine euphoria a number of times, usually in conjunction with listening to music, but unfortunately cannabis seemed to also occasionally trigger this fear-of-fear-itself reaction. Perhaps this is one reason why I never became a huge pothead; there is simply enough about the cannabis experience which still triggers anxiety in me.
By the time I was about a senior in high school, my mother and I would argue constantly. I had become an atheist by this time, and I loved rock music. At one point during an argument my mother brought up this experience, claiming she envied me, as I had received a “spiritual” experience. I tried to correct her, saying honestly that I did not interpret it in any sort of religious way, yet she persisted. Again, this sort of triggered the same sort of self-conscious panic in the first place! I was so upset I left the house and slept at a friend’s house that evening.
Thankfully, I have not had this sort of reaction in years. Ultimately I don’t know exactly what it was. I’ve struggled significantly with anxiety over the years, and I suspect, but do not know, that it’s somehow related. My mother’s take on the event is telling. If an experience is psychologically weird, anomalous, uncanny, or simply inexplicable, it becomes “spiritual.” I disagree with this assessment, but I include it because I think it factors in to how many people, particularly theists, might classify experiences as “spiritual.”
I had a second experience recently, arguably a more genuine spiritual experience. It happened in late autumn or early winter here in Seattle. Weirdly, it happened when I was shopping at Costco! I had just parked my truck in the parking lot and stepped onto the pavement. As I walked along I saw the sun was shining and the pavement was dry. Always a cause for joy in a wet place like Seattle! Yet I’ve been here since 1987, and have experienced many such moments of sunshine. I suspect that sunshine alone was not a sufficient condition for what happened.
As I entered Costco, I began to feel spontaneously, effusively, joyful. This was more than simply a selfish and somatic sort of buzz. I began to strongly empathize with and love every human around me. I don’t know how others usually feel in large crowds, but in general I see other humans in supermarkets as simply obstacles. I certainly look at good looking women in a sexual way, and try to be “polite” by not staring at people who look markedly unusual, but in general I don’t make eye contact with people and simply try to navigate ~around~ them. Almost always I simply view other humans in such situations as strongly neutral. Get in and get out. Take care of business.
But on this day, for about 10 minutes, I loved everyone. I looked at people, regardless of gender, class, race, age, or any other characteristic simply as HUMANS, exactly like me. We are all in the same boat! This was “unconditional” love, as I had not personally interacted with anyone else. I suppose it was analogous to the moment during a movie when everyone in the theater laughs at the same time. For a fleeting moment you feel a psychological “oneness” with everyone else. I am human, you are human, and we are fundamentally similar.
As with any such experience, I begin to ponder its meaning and how it occurred. I began to wonder if these sorts of experiences occurred regularly when I was a child, but maybe I’d forgotten about them. Suppose it’s 2:50 on a Friday afternoon in grade school on a sunny Spring day. You are itching to go outside, and you correctly infer that every other child is thinking and feeling the same thing. The joy you will feel when the bell rings and you get to run outside. It’s easy, and rational, to infer that that other humans are experiencing the same joy, and thus feel you are very much like other humans. It’s much easier to love someone that you can relate to.
It’s possible for me to interpret this very positive experience in a negative way! I can imagine that perhaps I’m simply a much more naturally misanthropic person than I’d like to believe. Perhaps other people have mental lives that more closely approximate my Costco epiphany. We certainly meet people from time to time that seem to exude ebullience and positivity. Perhaps for them unconditional love for humanity is a baseline emotional functioning, whereas it’s an emotional outlier for me. I don’t know. When I go for walks I often pass people walking their dogs. I often perceive the dogs as more beautiful and joyful than the humans walking them. I sometimes look at wild animals or even plants and impute more beauty and value upon them than many humans. On the upside, perhaps it’s possible to simply transfer those positive emotional perceptions onto humans as a matter of practice and habit.
I would dearly love to REALLY AND HONESTLY know what caused this experience. I certainly didn’t interpret in theistic ways; sadly no visions of Grace or Divinity, no metaphysical ideation or imagination. I was completely clear-headed during the experience. If there was a way to reproduce this experience, hopefully in a non-drug way, I think it would be a huge benefit to humanity. I could see myself becoming an evangelist for its methodology.
I’ve been practicing vipassana meditation for about 2 years now. Even as a beginner I can feel significant anxiolytic euphoria during meditation. I experience about 10 or 15 minutes of equanimity afterwards. I would love to connect my Costco experience to meditation, but I honestly can’t. I sometimes “fall” into mildly meditative states while walking, but usually not in more demanding situations like shopping in supermarkets. My father died last June, and in a selfish way I’m no longer burdened by having to take care of him, as I did for more than 2 years at the end of his life. Perhaps my Costco experience was a moment of finally feeling free of the burden of responsibility.
These days I’m quite taken by the messages of Peter Boghossian and Sam Harris. Both of these men place a high value on honesty. As I say, I’d love to impart a message that I’ve figured out how to reproduce this spiritual experience, but I can’t. I suspect, but do not know, that throughout history humans have had these sorts of spontaneous experiences, but simply interpret them in the religious contexts of the societies in which they live. I don’t have a really strong conclusion to this essay. Prosaically, it’s a record of an anomalous event.
I believe the most productive conclusion is that such states of unconditional love are genuinely possible to experience, though I can’t honestly give you the recipe for attaining it!