If you want to imagine the future, imagine a boy and his dog and his friends. And a summer that never ends.
And if you want to imagine the future, imagine a boot… no, imagine a sneaker, laces trailing, kicking a pebble; imagine a stick, to poke at interesting things, and throw for a dog that may or may not decide to retrieve it; imagine a tuneless whistle, pounding some luckless popular song into insensibility; imagine a figure, half angel, half devil, all human…
Slouching hopefully towards Tadfield…
…forever.Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
I’m walking back home from school — south along Rexford Drive and turning east onto 3rd Street after a visit to the library by the City Hall.
A couple of years pass… and I’m walking back home — east along Santa Monica Boulevard and onto Burton Street — knowing that this is the last time I’ll do so on this continent.
I play my favourite album on my new CD walkman — Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick — and the final note echoes out in the moment my hand touches the handle of my front door.
A couple of years pass… and I’m walking back home from school, past Chambourcy and through the fields to Aigremont.
The air shimmers with the heat, the grass billows gently with the breeze, and above, the sky is so deep a shade of blue it feels you’re falling into it.
On all of these occasions and many more between them, I daydream.
And as the walk goes on, these reveries grow longer and longer, more vivid, and more intense… until I end up imagining whole lifetimes — some of them fantastical, some of them rigorously down-to-earth.
Then I arrive back home, and “normal life” resumes.
…but when I set down my backpack, say hello to my parents, and begin some activity in my room upstairs, I am seized by a sudden doubt.
…am I really in my room now?
Or am I, in truth, still walking back home?
Is what I am experiencing now simply part of that reverie?
Even now — twenty years later – is what I think of as my waking life taking place in the imagination of a young boy on an eternal daydream?
If you’re having trouble visualizing what I mean by these daydreams, try this: close your eyes and run through what happened yesterday.
So, in my case:
- Wake up
- Lie in bed listening to the builders outside
- Apply for job
- Run to the gym
- Do this exercise and that exercise and that other one
- Run back
- (blank space; feeling of several hours passing)
- speak to friend on phone
- Leave house to go for a walk with another; get cancelled on; get fish and chips instead
- (blank space; feeling of several hours passing)
So, you see several scenes flash by in your mind. You only visually see a snippet of a second or two for each one, but that second or two is highly representative; it feels like it extends backwards and forwards to contain the minutes on either side.
So, these daydreams show your life the same way — moving house; starting job; marriage; kid; grief; retirement; sitting in a garden in a wheelchair every day, dissolving your mind into the sun… that kinda thing.
As usual, the point here is not metaphysical; it’s phenomenological.
It’s not about establishing, in the abstract, whether it’s true or false that the world is taking place somewhere else specifically.
What I’m talking about is the actual experience of:
- going into an extended, vivid daydream about the course of your own life
- then going back to normal life
- then subsequently looking back at the daydream in memory
- and, finally, blurring the boundaries of part-and-whole: is 1 contained in 2… or the other way round?
This is a very particular thing the mind does. A representational loop — a psychic synecdoche — an existential self-subsuming.
Basically, you take a snippet of your timeline of consciousness and use it to represent the whole — after which the whole can always be read as taking place within the part.
And once this faculty of mind is unlocked, it can evolve in two directions.
When given a practical frame and imbued with negative affect, this can become a powerful tool for depressive rumination — constantly planning out avenues for your life instead of taking any.
And the point I wish to make here is that the phenomenon of mystical visions is just another application of this kind of mental manoeuvre.
It is given a cosmic frame and imbued with the affect of awe or wonder — but the form of the experience, the shape of it, is fundamentally just an elaboration on what you experience in these childhood daydreams.
So, I’ll walk you through a few examples.
You can extend the reverie backwards or forwards in your own life:
Everything you experience is actually taking place at the beginning of time; you are trialling lives before settling on the right one.
Or, on the contrary, everything you experience is actually taking place at the end; you’re on your deathbed, on the cusp of extinction… and your whole life is flashing slowly before your eyes. Maybe you’ll keep going over and over it, wishing for it to be different, until you finally accept the fact that you are dying and allow yourself to let go and move on…
…so you visualize this, and then return to the moment… and from that point on, you’re never quite sure anymore.
Or you have the same basic phenomenon, and you still have the sense of subjectivity, but the scenes you picture are significantly different from your everyday life… so you interpret this as a vision of past lives.
You read about God, or come across an article discussing the idea of panpsychism — that all matter is conscious, thus every object is in some way conscious… and also, the universe itself, as a whole, is conscious.
And you start to imagine what it would be like for the universe to be conscious.
And your mind goes “phwoom”.
And then you’re back here, in the moment, walking around and interacting with things.
And you go “wait… what just happened? Did I actually access the All-Mind and then zoom back in to little-ol-me? Is that how the mind really works: is it split into two layers of self and Self, which you can be trained to switch between at will?”
And so on and so forth.
The main point is that these all share the same psychic template.
And, in my experience, the representative moment in which I tapped into this template early on was in those long walks back home.
And while not everyone may seek out mysticism later in life… almost everyone has experienced something similar in their childhood, and without much effort, can just extend the logic to get a decent idea of the farthest reaches of the imagination.
So, a few points.
As you pass into early adulthood and lose a little bit of the rawness-towards-the-world you had in childhood, such visions seem unimaginable.
And if you read reports of them, you might feel as if you’re missing out.
And so you set off on something that feels like a quest, treading a spiritual path to try and find it — whether Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, or whatever.
But once you’ve gotten there and seen these things a few dozen times…….well, there are two options, really.
You can either establish these visions as revelation, spin a specific narrative around them, and then assert the truth of that narrative.
And if you stick to this with a lot of self-confidence, some people will probably coalesce around that narrative.
But if you have a critical frame of mind… then you kinda go the opposite way. Instead of constructing a story, you deconstruct the psychology of it, and become able to see how different traditions expressed a similar phenomenon in different languages… neither believing nor disbelieving any them… just understanding them.
And at that point, what I wish to emphasize is that not only do mystical visions become not-special… they’re actually fairly inadvisable.
It’s not just fears of schizophrenia or social exclusion… it’s more that they’re rather tiring, and probably a sign that you’ve been letting yourself go recently.
There’s nothing there you couldn’t get from reading any of a thousand sacred texts.
The only thing they really mean is that you should get more sleep.
The last point is that there’s this funny levelling-out of lived experience.
Let me explain this one via an analogy. Let’s take:
- Playing in a football match.
- Watching a football match.
- Reading the report of a football match.
At the start, these seem worlds apart. The difference between actually participating in the thing, witnessing it, or hearing about it second-hand seems unbridgeable.
……..but after you’ve played a lot of matches, and watched a lot of matches, and read about a lot of matches… there isn’t really much difference. You can just get the basic outline of the match from a match report and extremely easily imagine what happened. And by the time the next day rolls around, it wouldn’t have made a difference which one of the three it was.
- Playing a match = actually experiencing the full-on, lose-touch-with-your-surroundings, live-a-lifetime-in-the-space-between-heartbeats mystic vision
- Watching a match = having a daydream while keeping track of your surroundings
- Reading a report = thinking about it verbally, or hearing about it, or reading about it
Once you’ve done all three a number of times, they level out radically.
When looked at melancholically, it’s that the visions have been demoted to mundanity.
When looked at cheerfully, it’s that everything else has been promoted to cosmic significance. Reading a book or hearing an anecdote are just as potent experiences as getting swallowed and pooped back out by the womb of Chaos.
So that’s the foundation of the flashier forms of the mystical experience.
Next time, it’s The Great Paralysis.
Then the meeting with my spiritual mentor.
Then a break… and we’ll fast-forward to the “spiritual awakening” of my late twenties.