When I was twenty-two years old, I went for a hike one rainy day in late winter. In the course of meandering through the wooded hills beyond the trails, I came to a hilltop of bent, bare oak trees and craggy, mossy stones. The place had an ominous but alluring atmosphere, and I sat down and began to meditate. After what couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, I was astonishingly deep in meditation. The sounds of the birds, airplanes, wind, and rain around me seemed to come from an impossible distance, and I was acutely aware of the empty space and silence between them and me. It was like a looming, living abyss. I found myself praying. After mouthing the name of a particular god (who will remain nameless here), I whispered, “If you’re here, come to me.”
Then everything changed.
My eyes went out of focus, and I couldn’t re-focus them. Everything around me was swirling, and I felt as if I were descending into a churning vortex that was rapidly swallowing all that lay within my field of vision. When I hit the bottom, as it were, the swirling sensation was replaced by one of perfect stability and groundedness. My eyes moved back into focus. I was not grounded in my usual self, but rather in a way that felt as if I were “at the base of” everything around me, in the very depths of an utterly otherworldly essence that permeated them. My sense of self had been radically transformed. The sounds I had been listening to earlier seemed to emanate from me. The trees around me grew up out of me. The leaves being blown by the wind in front of me were parts of me being scattered, and the wind that blew them was my own breath. As the rain fell onto me and the ground around me, it was me falling on myself. The details and colors of everything in my surroundings stood out with an astonishing vividness and clarity. Everything felt absolutely perfect; it could not have possibly been more enchanted, meaningful, awe-inspiring, unconditionally valuable, rapturous, or peaceful. And I was a seamless part of that transfigured reality.
Well, almost seamless. My everyday mode of consciousness was still there, albeit as a small thing that felt as if it were off to the side. But what it was experiencing was nothing short of mortal terror. “I” was dying as surely as if I were physically dying, because what “I” was had been decisively changed to the point that the old “I” no longer existed as a coherent entity. My everyday mind was terrified that I had fallen over the edge of sanity, and it wanted nothing more than to recover this “sanity,” which nevertheless felt supremely petty when pitted against the unearthly grandeur I was otherwise experiencing. It wanted to stand up, scream, sprint, do cartwheels – anything to shake off this state of what might as well be called “being possessed” by a god. Or, as my everyday mind seemed to think, a demon.
But my ordinary consciousness couldn’t do so. I couldn’t move. “I” no longer had control over my body. “I” tried to tell my mouth to open, and my legs to stand up, but they didn’t respond. All I could do was watch them, in the same way that I was watching everything else around me. It was as if I had become paralyzed, which compounded the terror incalculably. I had no way out. But the expanded “me” was completely fine with this. It found no reason to do anything at all, because it was immersed in, and consubstantial with, a bliss that was beyond anything that it had ever wanted. Nothing could have possibly been added to it or taken away from it.
I didn’t have a phone or a watch with me that day, so I don’t know how long the experience lasted. Going by what it “felt like” is useless, because I felt like I was outside of time altogether for that interval, and instead enveloped in eternity. But if I had to hazard a guess based on what time it was when I set out on the hike and what time it was after I got back, factoring in the amount of ground I had covered, I’d say I probably sat on that hilltop in “meditation” for somewhere around an hour.
The experience slowly faded of its own accord, in contrast to the abrupt kidnapping that had characterized its arrival, and at some point my normal consciousness was able to reassert control. At first, all I could do was slump over onto the ground. Then, finally, I regained the ability to stand up, find the trail again, and walk back to my car. However, the experience didn’t completely fade until much later in the evening – and a very large dinner, which my body demanded as if it were trying to weigh me down to prevent me from being swept away into another bout of transcendence. During that time, even though I could direct my bodily movements and go about my routine activities, I felt like I was watching myself from the outside. I couldn’t seriously think about anything other than what I had just gone through (and was still going through to a much more limited degree).
To discuss everything that this experience showed me would take far too long for our purposes here, and would include far too much irrelevant personal detail. But the most important thing that I learned from it was that that is what religion is all about at its heart, and any merely earthly, human concerns crumble into utter insignificance when placed beside it. Seeking meaning in things that don’t transcend the horizon of this world – morality, politics, relationships, and so on – will never be good enough. The best that any temporal concern can do is to serve as a means to the end of that quintessential religious experience, or at least some small measure of it. I had previously seen my religiosity as one aspect of life amongst several, but after that experience, I came to see it as what my life is at bottom, with any other aspects of life being “only” emanations of religiosity in some way or another. Everything I’ve done with my life since that time has been based on that experience, and refers back to it in some way. It decisively reoriented my philosophical and theological thinking, and this site and my book would have been impossible to conceive without it.