When astronaut Edgar Mitchell was returning from his flight to the moon, he had an epiphany that would change his life. Staring out the window of the Kittyhawk, he experienced a feeling of connectedness, as if all the planets and all the people of all time were attached by some invisible web. It was an overwhelmingly visceral feeling, as if he was physically extending out to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. In a single instant, he had discovered and felt The Field.
All of us at one point or another in our lives have experienced this moment: a sense of unity with all things and with the life force — during a dream or some altered state of consciousness, or at a moment in childhood, or even while intensely in love. It could be a moment of precognition, when we intuitively sense something or see into the future. It could be a dream about our purpose in life or perhaps during a profound moment of meditation or self-hypnosis.
Arguably the world’s authority on cosmic consciousness and the altered states of consciousness is American parapsychologist and author Dr Charles Tart, who has been investigating normal and altered states of consciousness for more than 40 years. Tart uses the term ‘cosmic consciousness’, coined by physician Robert Maurice Bucke in 1961, and also his definition: “The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is, as the name implies, a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe.”
According psychologist William James, all cosmic-consciousness experiences tend to have some similarities: the experience is usually spontaneous — you don’t turn in on like a tap; it tends to be transient — usually lasting about half an hour and rarely for more than two hours; the people involved invariably feel a sense of unity with all things as a ‘seamless whole’. They also have a sense of knowingness, says Tart, quoting James: “a direct insight into the nature of reality that is self validating”, resulting in a sense of authority and certainty about them in the future.
Finally, there is a sense of the ineffable nature of the experience, says Tart. It is utterly different from any other state of consciousness they’ve experienced, and can’t be described in words, or even by simile or metaphor.
Sense of interconnection
However individual the moment, there are several aspects that distinguish it as cosmic awareness. In that moment, you move away from the tight boundaries of the ‘self’ of your own ego and embrace a more oceanic feeling of unity with the entire universe, with a sense of interconnectedness with all things. There is also an inner knowing that things will never be the same again.
It is invariably a profoundly transforming experience, usually lasting the rest of your life, having opened a window into a reality you never knew existed.
It also may be the experience that forces you to make an abrupt change in your life, as it did with Edgar Mitchell, who left NASA after returning to earth to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
At the end of his life, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) turned his attention to these types of peak experiences.
Although all of us are capable of having a transcendent moment, it was Maslow’s view that certain people were more predisposed to experience them than others. Maslow came to believe this after studying the biographies and writings of historical figures who’d had such an experience ¬ - Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley, William James, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Schweitzer ¬¬- for similarities of character. Maslow characterized all these notables as ‘self-actualized’, and noted that, as a whole, they
• were problem-centered, viewing life’s difficulties clinically as a problem to be solved, not a personal issue inspiring anger or defeat
• believed that the means — the journey of life — was often more important than the end result
• enjoyed and were comfortable with solitude, but had deeper personal relations with a few close friends and family
• liked to be independent of physical and social needs
• were non-conformists without the need to be either well-adjusted or fit in a social situation
• had a gentle sense of humor, able to joke at their own expense, or at the world
• accepted both themselves and others as they were rather than changing them to what they should be; preferred to be themselves, too
• were motivated to improve their own worst qualities
• were often quite conformist on the surface
• felt a sense of humility and respect toward others
• had a social conscience and compassion
• had a strong sense of ethics and spirituality, but rarely a conventional religion
• retained a sense of wonder
What all of these notables shared, in short, was a tendency to remain free of small and self-interested concerns and to recognize in every way that they were part of a greater whole.
That ties in with the work of neuroscientists about such experiences. Eugene d’Aquili, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Andrew Newberg, a fellow of the university hospital’s nuclear medicine program, carried out a two-year study of Tibetan monks. They found that feelings of calm, unity and transcendence, such as during peak moments, show up as more activity in the brain’s frontal lobes (behind the forehead) with less activity in the parietal lobes (at the back of the top of the head).
This part of the brain is responsible for the sense of ‘I’ and ‘other’. During this mystical experience, the ‘I’ part of the brain gets dampened down. What this suggests is the fundamental purpose of a transcendent moment: to turn us into a bigger ‘self’ so that we move beyond the small sense of ‘I’ to the limitless sense of ‘us’.
Tart quotes Bucke’s own mystical experience as feeling “that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure, all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain”. There is often a sense of ‘God’, but more as the ‘Absolute’ than the anthropomorphic god of organized religion. This feeling is our birthright – our natural state of being.
Notice that his overwhelming sense of oneness included a ‘liberty and justice for all’ sensation. His own transcendence required a similar situation for everyone.
We can recover wholeness in our lives and recapture our sense of the transcendent on a daily basis, but it requires a very different set of rules than the ones we currently live by.
We have to ask ourselves some fundamental questions. We must look at our lives from an entirely different perspective, a larger vantage point, so that we finally see the interconnection. Once we change the very way we see, we may begin to experience the connections that tie us all together.