In tune with the seven key elements of mystic experience
By John Darling
On the first day I was in Oregon, in fall 1967, driving north on the freeway between Medford and Grants Pass, I experienced a most singular phenomenon.
I was just out of college and on my way to a new reporting job in the capital. It was Saturday. I’d dropped my girlfriend at the airport, so she could get back to her job. Now I was alone and heading deeper into this lovely state I’d never set foot in before.
Gradually, something began to shift, to open. I began to feel elevated into some sort of unaccountable happiness. Everything began to look and feel different than it ever had in my life. All things seemed keenly alive with knowledge and possessed of a bliss and wisdom it readily shared with me.
I was in rapture. All trees, hills, clouds, every atom revealed its knowing love to me and took me into its secrets. This went on for 20 minutes, then faded, leaving a delicious afterglow.
I pulled over to the Merlin rest stop and wrote in my journal: “I have never known such peace, such sureness of myself, such a positive knowledge of the unity of all times, all places, all people. I have accepted it all at last. How difficult it is to tell of it without cliches. This is no surge of idealism. This sense of the truth of things shall never leave me … (I write of a girl I loved in high school and how) it has so often seemed another life, another world, but it is this time, this place. There must be no more repressions. Come forth, all experience and be claimed!”
I understood what people meant when people say God spoke to them. Yet there were no words — just content. The intelligence of the universe was palpable and spoke in everything. It’s like the gods pulled back the curtain on all the secrets and energies of the universe and smiled and welcomed me in. They let me sit on the throne for a few moments and wreathed me in bliss.
They seemed to say: when you make big choices about things in life, like love, work and children, if they feel at odds with this, don’t do them. I knew it all as absolute truth. I knew I would never forget this moment, although I would never be able to even partially describe it. The universe just said, “hey, this is it, this is what it’s all about, this is my naked body of love for you. Got it? Have a nice day, bye.”
Remember that famous woodcut of a shepherd flinging himself on the ground as he beholds the dazzling wheels of heaven? That’s it. That same thing happened to that artist.
People may work for years, meditate, study, do vigils and vision quests, yoga and fasts and perhaps not realize that moment of bliss that often just settles on people who haven’t sought it and have done nothing special to earn it. All of us have this coming to us. It’s part of life, a natural function. And it changes your life.
It’s something no parent or guru or university can give you. It can’t be made to happen. It’s a kiss from God, a blessing, a beatitude-epiphany-glory thing from nowhere. It becomes the “north” on our compass, the deeply felt yes-ness we orient to.
In his 1963 book “Mysticism,” F.C. Happold describes seven key elements of these glimpses of heaven.
• The universe stands shimmering, pervaded by a sense of oneness in which you experience what you can only call divine. You see and know it is present in all things, including you.
• Any sense of one’s ego, with all its fears and separateness, seems to vanish. You sense there is a bigger “you” of which you are part.
• There’s no sense of time. All is now.
• You don’t feel you’re doing this. It’s being given to you. You’re passive. You feel you’re being held by a power outside you.
• It’s ineffable. It’s not like anything else. It’s non-rational and can’t be put in words.
• It’s brief, coming on suddenly from nowhere and slipping away in a few minutes.
• Knowledge and insights are gained. Things have new significance. What you learn, you trust as real and as coming from an absolutely authoritative source. It often changes lives.
In “The Root of Matter,” Margaret Isherwood recounts a woman’s experience at age 9: “Suddenly, the Thing happened, and, as everybody knows, it cannot be described in words. I remember saying to myself, in awe and rapture, ‘So it’s like this; now I know what Heaven is like’…Soon it faded and I was alone in the meadow with the brook and the sweet-smelling lime trees. Though it passed, I was filled with great gladness. I had seen the ‘far distances.’”
Is it brain chemicals? Is it something you can get in the endorphins of high-risk adventuring or from long-term stilling of the mind? I think it’s quite different. As Leonard Orr, the creator of rebirthing observed, we’re always in a state of bliss, but our minds, crammed with suppressed emotions and conditioned for survival, see life as a constant problem to be solved, a threat to be defended against.
Mystic transcendence always lies near at hand. It has taught us much, prodded the growth of human intelligence and given us our grasp of the divine. We’re likely the only animals who experience it. As an artifact of nature, the gratuitous mystic opening must have some purpose, as nothing in nature is superfluous. Perhaps it’s a remnant of paleolithic days, when we experienced our world and the divine world as one — and such visions were common. Now they’re rare, a one-in-a-lifetime gift, which only hint at the paradise we came from and shall return to.
John Darling lived in Ashland from 1971 until he died at age 77 in January 2021. A US Marine Corps journalist, he went on to write for the Oregonian, Mail Tribune, Daily Tidings, and United Press International, among others, along with stints as a news anchor at KOBI, executive assistant to the Oregon Senate President and press secretary of campaigns for Oregon governor and U.S. Senate. Ashland.news is, with permission, publishing excerpts from his collection “The Divine Addiction: Essays Out of Oregon.”