Shrader, Dr Douglas - A mystical experience engulfed me
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Proceedings of the 6th Annual Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities. Honolulu, HI, 2008. - Seven Characteristics of Mystical Experiences - Douglas W. Shrader, Distinguished Teaching Professor & Chair of Philosophy SUNY Oneonta Oneonta, NY
It was the summer of ’71. I graduated from high school and worked throughout the summer as a lifeguard at a country club. It was an excellent summer – the stuff of adolescent dreams and cheap B movies – but now it was drawing to a close. I found myself walking slowly along a narrow dirt path in the densely wooded mountains of Eastern Kentucky, playing my well-worn 12-string guitar, and writing a song whose words and chords I have long since forgotten.
Suddenly, without warning, my life changed – the world changed – forever. In an unsolicited blinding flash – in a timeless, eternal moment that encompassed creation, annihilation, and everything that falls between the two – I was stripped bare of all my preconceptions: preconceptions about myself, about the world, and about God.
As I write these words, thirty-six years later, that experience is as real, as vivid, and as unyielding as it was when I looked far more like the image on this page [not shown] and far less like a middle-aged professor. It has shaped, informed, and provided both contours and color for every aspect of my life, every dimension of my being, every experience, every thought, every emotion, every moment of happiness, every hour of sorrow, every expectation, every hope, every doubt, and every disappointment: in short, every breath that I take.
Colleagues who have known me for a long time may be deeply and profoundly surprised by these opening remarks. That extraordinary experience on a late summer day in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky is always with me – closer, more reliable, and more important than the beating of my own heart – more essential to the person that I have become (and to the person that I am in the process of becoming) than my twenty-nine year career as a Professor of Philosophy, my relationships with students and friends, or even my marriage of thirty-two years to Barbara: the love of my life, my best friend, and soul mate. Yet it is not something of which I speak on a daily basis. In fact, it is something of which I almost never speak at all...................
To better understand the experience that I related in the opening section of this paper – including the manner in which it impacted my life and the sense I have tried to make of it over the years – it is important to know a few basics concerning my background. I was nurtured on the milk of Christianity. My parents took me to church and Sunday school on a weekly basis and I had genuinely tried, as best I could, to accept the teachings and doctrines I had learned in the process. I knew that religion was immensely important to my grandparents as well as my parents, but it never clicked on a personal level.
Searching for answers – as well as a deeper understanding of my family – I had read the Bible, cover to cover, not in isolated bits and pieces as is the case for most people.
Despite a willing spirit and open mind, those answers were not forthcoming. The more I reflected on the matter, the more difficult it became to reconcile faith in God with the widespread, unwarranted, and undeserved suffering I found in the world. Like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s novel, I was especially troubled by the suffering of innocent children. By the time I strolled along that narrow path in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, I had – in my adolescent rebellion – begun to identify more and more closely with Ivan Karamazov. Like Ivan, I was not entirely convinced that God did not exist, but I refused to accept the pain and suffering in the world that He had created. In short, not only was I not looking for a visit from God, I had taken in the welcome mat.
There are surely elements in my background that laid foundations for the experience.
They may even have prepared me in some important sense. Even so, the experience itself was unsolicited, unexpected, and – in terms of occurrence, phenomenology, and content – intensely surprising. As odd as it may sound, the experience was both unsettling and reassuring.
Although I had never taken a class in Philosophy or Religious Studies, I had thought deeply about philosophical as well as religious topics. Even as it occurred, I tried desperately to make sense of the experience. Like a small boy trying on his father’s clothes, nothing seemed to fit. I tried first one thing and then another. Many ideas and concepts that I expected to fit seemed totally inappropriate. Others fit in a loose, unmanageable manner (like a father’s hat that sits on the child’s head, but obscures his vision because it falls in front of his eyes). Eventually, having emptied my conceptual toolbox and exhausted my linguistic dictionary, I quit struggling. I surrendered to a warm, loving presence which so totally engulfed me that the “me” that it engulfed was no longer separate from the experience.
Any description that I could provide of the experience, once I surrendered, will be inadequate at best. Worse, my words are as likely to obscure and mislead as they are to inform and illuminate. Acutely aware of this problem of ineffability – long before I had learned the term or encountered James’ anatomy of a mystical experience – I made a silent promise to myself to keep the whole affair a closely guarded secret. The concern was not simply an intellectual one: I did not need a dictionary to tell me that my peers might regard the experience as “confused and groundless speculation” or “superstitious self-delusion.”
That self-made promise notwithstanding, within hours of the experience I found myself talking with friends, employing every means that I could in a desperate attempt to convey that which I could not myself understand. They did not, as I had feared, question either my sanity or my sincerity. Rather, much to my amazement, the telling and retelling of the experience kindled a small spiritual revolution that began with the youth, and then spread to the adults as well.
Whenever I spoke of the experience, I tried to be intellectually cautious and spiritually responsible. Whatever I offered with one hand, I took back with the other. I found myself incessantly repeating the following refrain: “It was like this, but not really. It was sort of like that, but not in the way that you might initially think.” Unfortunately, as I quickly learned, people heard what they wanted to hear and disregarded the rest. What I offered as fumbling, grossly inadequate descriptions became concretized in their minds as authoritative expressions of first-hand experience. Gradually I shied away from providing any description at all, drew nourishment from the experience that was – inexplicably and paradoxically – still with me, and began to explore the paths of contemplation and
In common parlance I might say “I had a mystical experience,” but phenomenologically speaking, it would be more accurate to say “A mystical experience had me” or – to extend the phrasing I have used earlier in this paper – “A mystical experience engulfed me.”