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A library story

Half-finished thoughts have been circling around in my mind, forming initial drafts for a blog post. And then I feel uninspired to write anything, I turn inwards and dwell in my tiny personal world. It has been more or less like this since mid-october. And I'd guess that it is mostly just a natural reaction to autumn days getting shorter and shorter. Well, but on the other hand I feel that it would be nice to get something published, so I decide to just start this story and see where it takes me, without too much evaluating if this is worth writing or reading =)

It was late October, and I recognized an inner urge to read some classics. I remembered that back at the University, over 15 years ago, I once read an interesting chapter in a book and thought that I'd like to read the entire book later on. Well, that was for a study paper I was writing, and I needed some references to studies of spiritual and mystical experiences. At the University Library I found a big old book which examined various kind of religious phenomena. But since I haven't saved any of my University papers, I can't go back and check the references there, I can't any more remember the exact title of the book, nor the author. Yet, I went to our local public library to see what they have there. I stood next to the shelves of philosophy, psychology and religion. Since our library isn't that huge, I could just run my index finger from book to book, browsing through all the titles in those shelves. Aha! And there it was - William James : The Varieties of Religious Experience. Or, to be precise, a Finnish translation. For a while I continued my browsing, picking "The Doors of Perception" by Aldous Huxley. I borrowed the books, and as I turned to go the librarian said with a warm merry voice: "Good bye!". Somehow I felt rather autistic, as if there was a wide unbridged chasm between me and the outer world. I simply couldn't produce a single word in response, so I just quietly walked away, into the dark autumn night. And went to see The Martian in the cinema.

Well, as usual, the rational part of my mind keeps on observing my behaviour, and is often rather well informed on what is going on. But in some cases that rational part is merely an observer, with very limited control over my behaviour. And that was the case at the library. Already when I was browsing the books I got carried back to some earlier memories; I have always liked libraries and started to regularly borrow books as soon as I learned to read, at the age of six or seven. By the time I turned twelve, our local library had became some sort of safe haven for me - at home I hid all of my true thoughts and emotions, in our family there really wasn't any kind of conversations. But at the library I could find books with interesting thoughts. No-one told me what I am allowed to think, or how I should feel. I was free to browse all the books the library had, to meet all the foreign, ancient and strange people who had poured their creations on the pages of a book. I read everything from simple adventure stories to zen-buddhism. Maybe I was something around 14 or 15, and at school we had a period of "get to know the real work". It was for three days, each pupil spent it at a workplace, doing simple tasks and gaining experience of ordinary work life outside the school. I spent that period at the library. At that time the library collection was still maintained manually, with a database made of papers and notes. I learned how to maintain the database, keeping track that who has borrowed which book and when we can expect the book to be returned. On 4pm of the third day I found myself still sitting behind the desk and doing the work. Two times the ladies working at the library came to tell me that my "shift" ended already two hours ago and that I am free to go home. I couldn't produce a single word in a reply, I just smiled back at them and kept on working. They kindly allowed me to stay there. And finally, when it was time to close the library for that day, I had to leave back home. Only later on I understood that it was all about the safety: I preferred the library over the home - at the library no-one is yelling at me, I have a meaningful work I can do to contribute towards the working of the library I love, and I am allowed to be the person I feel that I am. Sigh. During those 15 years spent with my family I had already learned to constantly hide my inner thoughts, that I simply didn't know how to speak when there was an opportunity to say what I really think. So I just smiled at the librarians and gestured that I'd rather stay at work.

It was that autistic mood which got me now, at the age of 41, in our local library. I felt that my mind is inside an invisible bubble with no communication channels out. I can receive the messages sent by other people, I can process those messages, but I don't have means to reply. As I might have said so many times before, this has been one of the central themes of my life. And that's why I have been so fascinated with those rare and special moments when I suddenly feel a true and direct contact with other people =) Oh well. But with these thoughts I walked into the cinema. In case you haven't seen The Martian, I'm not going to spoil the plot. Maybe it is enough to say that it is all about an astronaut who finds himself trapped alone in Mars. And one of the challenges is to figure out means of communicating with The Earth. And, ultimately, trying to think if there is any way to survive until a rescue team can come to pick him up. I'd guess I don't have to explain how I found this resonating with my deep autistic mood of the day =)

Allright then, back to books. Books! Thoughts, feelings, impressions, words, pictures, fictions, fears and hopes of other people. Reading a good book feels almost like having a conversation; my own thoughts are influenced by thoughts of another person, learning new things, being surprised to find how similar feelings someone has had two thousand years ago in another culture, and just being carried into mythological realms of phantasy. Honest intellectual exchange - we never had any of that at my home, and the first 12 years of school weren't that much better. Now, one could think that the book is just the same - one directional non-responsive preachings of the author? But I don't find it that way. Reading a book is not a question of just accepting and believing what ever it says. It is about processing your own thoughts, trying to figure out what it says in the book, and then evaluating if there is something new to learn, if you can assimilate new insights into your own understanding. I have always been a slow reader - I might read for a fifteen minutes and pause to think over what I've just read. I might re-read sentences and passages for three times to make sure that I didn't miss the point. And when I disagree with what it says in the book, I still try to understand the author's point of view - for me it is not enough to think "I disagree", I have to find out the exact arguments where and why I disagree, thinking how would I defend my own position in a discussion. And it is all this processing which makes reading almost like a conversation.

I've been slowly reading The Varieties of Religious Experience. The book was originally published in 1902, and it is a written version of a series of lectures James gave at The University of Edinburgh, Scotland. And I quite like the way William James approaches religion. He uses a lot of examples, quoting letters, diaries and travel journals of people describing their spiritual and religious experiences. The main question is not if those experiences are "real" or "delusional", James is not interested in rational attempts to justify a set of theological views. Instead, James examines what is the practical value of those experiences, how did they affect the feelings, thoughts and lives of those people. James deliberately focuses on this personal and practical sphere, leaving out most of the phenomenons of institutionalized and organized religion. James is a scientist enough to quote also the negative examples, although he is mostly interested in the positive effects of religious experience. And sometimes it is almost shocking to see how, with his early 1900's understanding of psychology and physiology, he was able to make very educated guesses about possible brain chemistry behind some of those phenomena.

Did I mention brain chemistry? Well, that Aldous Huxley's essay was all about psychoactive chemicals affecting the human consciousness. His basic idea seems to be that human body can naturally produce some strong psychoactive chemicals, in extreme situations. And that a lot of spiritual practices can be seen as a ways to induce those extreme states, triggering heavenly visions and a sense of a direct presence of the eternal bliss. And that psychoactive chemicals could be used as a short-cut to induce spiritual and religious states of mind. I'd guess we can count Huxley's essay as a classic, considering that Jim Morrison named his band after this essay...

I have also been reading the book about Chinese mountain hermits. That book also contains a lot of first hand eye-witness descriptions and direct interviews of monks, hermits and practitioners still living on the misty mountains. One of the things which inspires me is the lack of proselytism. In certain Taoist traditions if you want to become a devotee, you first have to spend three years just helping at a monastery, until the abbot is convinced that you are serious with your willingness to learn, and only then you are assigned to a teacher. But even after the years of anti-religious destruction of Cultural Revolution, the Taoist tradition is still alive, there still are some young people willing to spend those three years to prove that they want to pursue the path of the Tao. Now, I'm not sure but it sound reasonable to me to think with Huxley that some of those practices might eventually lead to moments of altered brain chemistry, triggering heavenly religious experiences. That being said, I must also stress the point of William James; if there is some sort of chemistry behind a religious experience, that is scientifically speaking interesting, but that doesn't affect the true value of such experience. The value of the experience should be primarily judged against the life of the person. If such an experience has good effects for that person, then the experience most likely is a good one - no matter what kind on unseen powers, spirits or molecules there are working in the background to enable a human mind to experience such a state.

This also got me thinking. Sometimes, to me it seems that in some traditions and for some people an extremely powerful religious experience appears as a goal in itself. Something which is pursued for the sake of escaping the mundane daily life. And I'm not in a position to judge that - if someone feels like that, then just go ahead. But personally, for me, it has always been so that I'm mostly interested in the daily life. And if a religious experience somehow alters my daily life, then that's the value. Which was the case when I was 18-19 years old. Those sudden, deep and strong mystical experiences kind of a washed away a lot of pain and fear and angst, and left me feeling more peaceful and happy and creative, kind and benevolent in my ordinary daily life. Without those experiences my psyche would have most likely just collapsed under the internal pressure of all the pain that there was. So, since I haven't collapsed yet, I've kind of kept on going through successive rounds of a spiritual journey - sometimes it has been long dark years, sometimes I've been passive, most of the time it has been slow progress and sometimes there have been those rare moments of sudden spiritual movement. And for me, all this is just to leave behind the traumas of my childhood, to adopt new and more joyous ways of being in this world. I really don't care if there is any kind of afterlife, if there is any kind of supreme being evaluating our lives - I only care about getting rid of the pain, to become more energetic and able to express beauty, joy and kindness in what ever I do.

William James cleverly describes why there can't be "a single path for all" in spiritual life. Different people come from different backgrounds and have different needs. And in their inner journey they need to go to different directions, to cross different obstacles. That view is also echoed in the interviews of contemporary Chinese mountain hermits. There are a lot of different traditions, and they see no problem with it - each person then just has to pick the right path for her or him to follow. When I was 18, I was still heavily influenced by the thought patterns of mainstream Christianity. So I thought that if these powerful experiences have saved me, then they could save anybody, and that I need to find ways to tell about this to other people. But later on I have learned to better see the foolishness of such an idea. For example, it might be that a person who has always felt firmly and solidly loved and accepted just doesn't need that kind of experiences which saved me - it might be that they are just born and raised with a self-evident and doubtless feeling of a love - something which I found at the age of 18, and for me it was a sensational life-changing revelation. That life is OK, I'm accepted and everything is fine. Oh, sure, maybe that is just normal for many people out there, and they don't need any kind of cosmic experiences to find this insight.

Now, in my mind this relates to the way I described an autistic state of mind. As, over and over again, in the examples quoted by James, people celebrate total feelings of "being directly connected to a supreme being" and "being filled with unconditional love, joy and energy". And in cases those people refer to their cultural background, they often mention growing up in a strict and judgemental atmosphere, where children are raised to be constantly afraid of doing a mistake. If fear has been a dominant element in ones childhood, then it indeed might be a deeply religious and cosmic experience to find such a state of mind where the fear vanishes away and is replaced by unconditional acceptance. In the core of this there is this sense of "being in direct contact with the absolute divinity". That's the opposite of separation. And if you ask me, I think fear sows alienation and disconnects people from each other. If a child has to constantly be slightly afraid of his or her parents, there hardly is a deep and a honest feeling of being directly connected - instead you always have to present a controlled and polished facade to your judgemental parents, leaving your inner self hidden behind a protective mask. Hidden, untouched, unseen and disconnected. Yes, here I'm speaking of myself, but I'd guess that I'm not the only one who felt like this. And this is the stuff I'm slowly recovering from. So that I could eventually learn to speak, to reply to my local librarian =)

The Varieties of Religious Experience
The Varieties of Religious Experience
tags: 
diary
depression
spirituality
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As much as I enjoy reading about your adventures in the woods, I enjoy your posts about philosophy and values just as much.

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