Sunday, June 23, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 359: Biomythography - Note 97: Religious Experiences, Pt. 1

Religious Experiences, Part I

When I was nineteen, I experienced something rare for me - three nights of the same dream. In fact, it was the same dream overlapping and continuing. The intertwining threads of the connected themes and images  wove themselves into a single long, deeply religious story.

I've had most of my mystical, spiritual experiences while an atheist. On the younger end of those experiences, I would have called myself agnostic. My father had explained something about Betrand Russell and agnosticism as a designation. I'd read a few Bertrand Russell essays (probably of the simplest type since these were pre-teen years) and I felt in sympathy with the long-dead philosopher.

By the time I was twelve and calling myself agnostic, I had read a few Daoist, Buddhist, and Stoic pieces, including the Herman Hesse re-telling of the story of Siddhartha. I practiced sitting in meditation, albeit inconsistently. One time, as I sat on a couch in a teachers lounge in Northwood High School, I got a strange sensation of rising out of my body.

It was a little like a time in third grade when, during a kickball game, I rounded third to home and realized I was about to make a home run. From third to home, my view of the world rose out of its usual vantage point as I watched myself from the outside, speeding to home plate, even as I was also in my body, demanding that my limbs pump fast. It was a weird, doubled view of the world and my outside view, looking down on my body from a position thirty feet to my right and in the air, was by far the dominant one. As I remember it, I had to force myself back into my body after it was over.

Five years later, as I sat in Northwood, I felt my "self" rise out of my back and look down. I could see the back of my head. Already, my physical form had become partly transparent. My self rose and expanded. The world seemed to shrink a little. I could see through the structure of the entire building, which appeared to me in a see-through version, real but also comprehensible as a set of outlines. The forms revealed kept telescoping out and away or, more precisely, my view grew larger. I could see the surrounding town, then cities and rivers, only dimly glimpsed, and in a few seconds, the world. The world did not appear as in a photograph from space. It was a darkish shadow into which I could peer and see the outlines of human-made shapes, an ocean, and a bit more. Soon it diminished. I saw the solar system from a distance, mostly empty space.

Even the solar system grew distant quickly. For a long moment, all of reality seemed dark. I sensed that my view was still moving. Other star systems became part of my picture, then many of them. My sense of self, of connectedness, kept expanding.

Toward the end, the star clusters and galaxies and galaxy clusters became dim. They revealed shapes I couldn't really comprehend. I understood, in a vague way, that I was seeing things I couldn't understand - that I always had but now I had passed some sort of limit.

The not-really-understandable stars dimmed. The universal structures receded. All of existence faded.

I became aware of my thumb touching my forefinger. My skin and ribcage hummed a little. I listened to my body. It felt quiet. I opened my eyes. Around me, the warm shades of the furniture in the teacher's lounge seemed mundane but oddly, reassuring. I was back.

There was an unpleasant smell in my nose but it was the same, hard to define odor the high school teacher's lounge usually had. A bird trilled. It had been making its birdcalls earlier, I remembered. Behind me, light streamed in from a window. Branches and leaves of a tree cast flickering shadows as a breeze blew outside.


Although I had other sensations of heightened awareness and connectedness, I didn't have many experiences out of my body. I don't remember any after puberty. For a long time as a teen, I didn't have the ability to recall my dreams, either, except when I had nightmares or I woke abruptly. If someone dropped a heavy chair in the house or we heard a nearby lightning strike, I would rouse. For a moment, I would remember. Otherwise, there was nothing.

On the occasions I experienced a dream I could remember, it was always a surprise.

Religious Experiences, Part II

Night I:

As I transitioned from one dreamworld to the next, I was calm. My existence went grayish and quiet. Everything grew distant. My vision darkened for a moment, long enough to notice. Then the world brightened to reveal an expanse of blankness.

I moved around in the whitish expanse. After a while, I realized I was dead.

In my dream, I wasn't mad about it. I wasn't sad. In a matter-of-fact way, I decided I might as well explore my continued existence in this realm of bright light. I looked in every direction. There was no ground below me, only the vastness of milky space. There was no sky above, only a continued blank. Sometimes there were hints of shapes far in the distance, but those shapes appeared in different shades of alabaster and snow.

Eventually, as I concentrated more, I could see better. Far away, I could make out faint stars. They were slightly brighter than the foggy world. I approached. And as I grew more acclimated to this realm, I became aware of a presence. It was everywhere in the non-air around me and also beyond. Far, far beyond.

The presence was huge. And it was not quite comprehensible, which was annoying.

In a determined manner, I approached the nearest set of stars in the misty-milk air. Now that I had noticed them, I was clear about their barely-detectable existence. Even the holy, pressing-down-on-me potentiality that was everywhere was easier to feel than the stars. I started to grow angry with the afterlife. Things about it weren't right. I didn't know quite how to describe the sense of rightness and wrongness I had, but I knew things could be better. And I knew the potentiality I felt was God. Or it was what living people called God in their ignorant way. But although its presence was everywhere, I couldn't find it. That became my main source of my irritation.

When I was close, I extended my senses to the stars. They had refused to notice me or talk with me. Now I insisted. I understood they were angels. Or at least, they were souls.

I kept insisting they notice. I demanded a response. It was a struggle of wills. I exerted my desire to its utmost. Then I grew my will larger and exerted it again. And again. Finally, I succeeded in turning their attention.

For the longest time, they simply looked at me.

This is where there is a blank spot in my memory. Or perhaps it is just a normal hallucination spot, an accurate memory of an inaccurate thing. This was a dream, after all, and I remember we had a long conversation as the angel tried to figure me out. The creature was quite non-human, mentally, It felt almost emotionless, and its understanding of anything and everything seemed limited. It had a powerful but narrow mind. And there was so much wrongness happening around me that I grew impatient.

Near the end of our conversation, I said, Can't you tell that everything is out of place? What aren't you doing anything about it? Don't you know how to fix what's wrong?

There was a pause from all three diamond-shaped souls.  They spun in the milkiness.
Oh, you're one of those, the nearest angel thought at me. It seemed rather knowing but not in a smug way. It wasn't being polite or sympathetic, but it felt as if these creatures were incapable of the emotion of smugness. It managed to gesture at a cluster of stars in the distance. They were impossibly far away but, just as impossibly, when I focused on them, they seemed reachable. Do you want to know where to go to start changing things?

I want to talk with God.

The presence is everywhere. You can't get closer or farther away. But do you want to change how things are? Is that what you are saying?


Over there.

I knew what the soul meant. Even from a distance, I could tell these souls weren't doing the right things. They were meant to be arranged better and to communicate with one another like in a serial circuit. They acted, though, as if they didn't know how to start. And I right away knew I could make them work. 

Although there was travel time to the cluster of stars, I hardly noticed. Soon I was there, doubting myself, but also working. The job was a matter of exerting my will. Now that I had spoken to three big angels and gotten them to react, getting these lighter and smarter souls to do what they wanted to do anyway was easy, even for a beginner like me. Doubts crept in as I worked, though. I had to try things and fail. It made me think about how I was a soul like these. Wasn't I? But no, I was but I wasn't. These stars had a purpose, I could tell, and it was a different purpose from mine. I could feel it in the ever-present, urgent holiness around me. But for some reason, these souls hadn't been able to get organized. 

I spent a long time making things better. And then I moved back, experienced a flash of insight about how to make it perfect, and went back to arranging and coaxing the souls. Soon, I decided time didn't matter. I had known this before, somehow, that time was irrelevant to my work, but now it felt revealed to me again. I finished the job and the result was beautiful. That was what counted. 

After I admired my first success, I noticed more stars in the distance. This was a much larger conglomeration and better organized, too, but still something was wrong with it. The middle of the organization had fallen apart or had never arranged itself right.

My journey to this farther, larger cluster of souls felt irrelevant. The work was bigger and more tedious but after a while, I was happy because the progress was faster with less coaxing of the individuals. Instead, I basked in their sense of relief as I arranged them so they could function together. Each realization from them came as a flash of joy as the previously-confused souls connected with others and recognized the rightness of their new position. 

And so the dream continued. I worked. Sometimes I took breaks. Sometimes I tried to communicate with the presence. I exerted my will on it, although to no noticeable effect. I yelled at it. I impelled it to fix things but it was as if the presence was too big to see to this tiny level of detail, as if we were as big as real stars in the universe but the presence itself was just so big in comparison, even to us, that it couldn't do essential things at this level, jobs I felt needed to be done.

And so I worked until I woke up. 

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