“Seeing the world as a living presence”
(From the publisher)
“Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most important thinkers of our time. Educated as a scientist, she is an author, journalist, activist, and advocate for social justice. In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, she recounts her quest-beginning in childhood-to find “the Truth” about the universe and everything else: What’s really going on? Why are we here? In middle age, she rediscovered the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence, which records an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that she had never, in all the intervening years, written or spoken about it to anyone. It was the kind of event that people call a “mystical experience”-and, to a steadfast atheist and rationalist, nothing less than shattering.”
The following is an excerpt from her interview with Terry Gross on the radio show, Fresh Air –
EHRENREICH: I got on a very poorly planned skiing trip with my little brother, who was 13, and a high school friend, and for some reason spent the night in the car in Lone Pine, California, a very little town at that time, and I got up that morning, went out of the car, the others were asleep, and started wandering around the streets of Lone Pine, and something happened.
It was – the only words I can put to it after all these years are that the world flamed into life. Everything was alive. It was like there was a feeling of an encounter with something living, not something God-like, not something loving, not something benevolent, but something beyond any of those kinds of categories, beyond any human categories.
And this lasted – I don’t know how many minutes this lasted in its full intensity. We went on from Lone Pine – for inexplicable to me reasons we went into Death Valley and spent the afternoon wandering around in Death Valley, which was on the way to L.A. And the experience continued there in the desert, though not quite as intensely.
GROSS: Let me read something else that you write about in your book. You write that if you had described it, what would you have said, that I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angels, lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose and pretty much left for dead. I mean it sounds, you know, both beautiful and violent, like you were mauled. That’s a very physical word to use.
EHRENREICH: Uh-huh. You know, if you read accounts of other people’s mystical experiences, and I only did that in the last couple – decade or so, both religious people and nonbelievers, I find that that sense of a violent encounter is also there. Among one of the most religious would be St. Teresa of Avila, and she certainly describes a loving God, whom she very much adores. She was of course writing for her – the Inquisitors.
But she also describes it as a violent kind of encounter, and what she sometimes felt like, that she had been just ground down to her bones by what happened. Or to take a more secular example, Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer, the American science fiction writer, had a mystical experience that he wrote quite a bit about, and he said it was less like feeling enlightened by the Buddha or something than it was a little bit like being mugged.
…In the months that followed that experience in Lone Pine, I went back and forth. I had seen something, I had seen something amazing, it was an encounter, to finally deciding, no, this was a psychiatric episode. I’m a rational person. I have no rational way, other rational way of explaining this. It has to do with some kind of biochemical imbalances, some kind of messed up neuronal circuitry, and I decided that that’s how I was going to leave it.
I was never going to tell anybody about this because I didn’t want to, didn’t know how to, and on top of that I was just going to go on with my life and try to forget about it. So that was my solution for many years.
GROSS: When was the last time you had an experience like the ones you described that you could interpret as mystical or as a symptom of a psychiatric disorder or somewhere between the two?
EHRENREICH: Well, I no longer interpret them as symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. That’s what happened as I evolved from a, say, from my late teens into my 60s, is turning this over and over in my head, learning a whole lot of other things – for example, about the many, many people who have had what look like very similar experiences.
I decided I’m going to go with being sane, that I encountered something. It’s something that a lot of people encounter, all sorts of people. And I want to understand better what that is, what happens to us when we have these experiences and what, if anything, we are running into.
GROSS: What are some of your theories?
EHRENREICH: Well, I give speculations at the end of the book. You know, it helped that in the intervening years here I spent a great deal of time learning about religion and learning, for example, about the varieties of religion that preceded, and many survived, well into the age of monotheism.
And, you know, there’s almost no creature that hasn’t been a deity for some sort of people somewhere on Earth at some time: animals, animals/human figures – these deities generally are not good. That idea of a good deity tends to go with monotheism, or at least Zoroastrianism.
So there was apparently a lot of experiencing the world as alive in a way that we do not see it now. If you think of animism, it’s called a religion, I think that’s actually an odd name for it, but it’s considered the most, quote, primitive religion. But what it is is people seeing the world as a living presence, every part of it, and that rings true with my experience.