In my experience, which may turn out to be important, there are two types of people: 1) people who don't believe (GROUP 1) in the interconnectedness of all thoughts and things, and 2) people who...
...well, there's where it gets interesting. You'd expect the second possibility to be, simply, "people who do believe in the interconnectedness of all thoughts and things." But I think that's not precisely true. Instead, the second group should be described as the group of "people who have experienced (GROUP 2) the interconnectedness of all thoughts and things." [NOTE: most self-described religious people actually belong in GROUP 1.2, a variation on GROUP 1, because although they say they believe in interconnectedness, they have no experience of interconnectedness.]
Now this subtle distinction -- the distinction between belief and experience -- leads to some difficult problems of communication. Definitions and terms that GROUP 2 use are very problematic to GROUP 1. So... two groups, both faced with the following testimony (Benjamin Blood, qtd. in William James' Varieties):
"Into this pervading genius," writes one of them, "we pass, forgetting and forgotten, and thenceforth each is all, in God. There is no higher, no deeper, no other, than the life in which we are founded. 'The One remains, the many change and pass;' and each and every one of us is the One that remains.... This is the ultimatum.... As sure as being--whence is all our care--so sure is content, beyond duplexity, antithesis, or trouble, where I have triumphed in a solitude that God is not above."As William James says of the excerpt, "This has the genuine religious mystic ring!" Faced with such a description, we turn to the reactions of the two groups I described above: GROUP 2 responds, "Yes!--it is true. I have experienced that!" And although GROUP 2 might go on to contest some of the language, they will recognize the experience as essentially identical to their own. On the other hand, GROUP 1 rejects the testimony altogether: "Well you may have imagined that, but I was here the whole time, and separation has always been." They may rationalize the description of the experience away, saying things like, "Wouldn't I have felt it if all was One?" -- or more likely, they will focus on the language: "I don't believe in God," or "What do you mean by God (or above, or duplexity, or trouble, etc.)?"
Furthermore, because, as Emily Dickinson suggests in "Much Madness is Divinest Sense,"
'Tis the Majority...because even GROUP 1 will admit that what Dickinson says is so obviously true (that definitions of madness are slippery), the language of the experience, rather than the experience itself, becomes the point of contest.
In this, as all, prevail
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you're straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -
In his 2008 essay "Mysticism and madness: Different aspects of the same human experience?," Charles P. Heriot Maitland suggests that "mystical and psychotic experiences involve not one, but two moments: the core experience, and then the inference" (315). In other words, the experience itself precedes language and culture, but it must be framed, or interpreted, in language and culture. The consequence is that GROUP 2, upon experiencing the "altered state of consciousness" must either keep the experience a secret (which seems unlikely, given the overwhelming inversion of all previously held metaphysical assumptions) or frame it in terms of acceptable (to GROUP 1!) language and culture. One key example of the problem: atheists and Christians don't agree on much, but they certainly agree that anyone who says "I am G-d!" needs either "to be see a therapist" or to be institutionalized entirely.
Heriot Maitland goes on to argue that organized interpretive structures (like religion) may actually give the person experiencing the anamolous event something to fall back on -- indeed, it may prevent them from becoming psychotic. "To put it simply," Maitland says, "in mysticism, Oneness is good; in psychosis, Oneness is bad." Or as Joseph Campbell put it, "The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight." As Campbell would know as well as anyone, the experience of Oneness transcends culture and language, and is not (even) bound to religious practice.
My own metaphor would sound like this: the language describing the mystical experience is like the brand name of a down-jacket owned by the hermit living alone in the Canadian wilderness. It is the down that's important to him, not the status associated with the brand. And if one after another came to interview him asking him to discuss the comfort he derives from the high status associated with the brand-name of his jacket, he would be... either amused or frustrated.
The mystical experience is not a concept, and therefore it cannot be understood. It is precisely like a sneeze or an orgasm. If an ascetic and truly abstinent monk who had never experienced orgasm came to you asking what you mean by "orgasm," what could you say? How do you explain harmony to someone born deaf? How do explain the color red to a person who has never seen it?
Because they are "minorities," blind people do not suppose that all testimonies of "redness" indicate "madness." Deaf people do not ignore the testimony of "musical-ness," and non-orgasmic people do not go around ignoring all testimonies of "orgasm-ness." In fact, if you remember that awesome scene in the movie Mask, some blind people are even quite curious about the color red, however unable those around them have been to explain it.
But GROUP 1 generally remain uncurious about mystical experiences -- preferring instead to either assume psychosis in GROUP 2 or to ignore the testimony of the mystics altogether. I imagine it is because they are in a majority.
In Heriot-Maitland's article, he suggests: "The point is that schizotypal personality is actually useful, and to enjoy its benefts, we unfortunately must suffer its most extreme consequences from time to time." And he points to a chart borrowed from P.A. Garety that places "Bio-psycho-social vulnerability" at the starting point for the positive symptoms of psychosis. Vulnerability precedes the psychotic/mystical experience. Vulnerability*.
I won't say I'm a card-carrying member of GROUP 2 -- indeed, what purpose could that serve? I will say that my best guess is that everyone starts in GROUP 1, and only by the process of conversion (or transformation, or psychological reconstitution, etc.) does one enter GROUP 2. And of course: entering GROUP 2 may not necessarily be a good thing... one risks psychosis entering GROUP 2, especially if they are without the safety-net of pre-structured interpretive systems like religion in the aftermath of the conversion.
The point, for me, is this: conversion is the thing. In 1823, Sir Francis Palgrave wrote an article declaring,
In considering the actions of the mind, it should never be forgotten, that its affections pass into each other like the tints of the rainbow: though we can easily distinguish them when they have assumed a decided colour, yet we can never determine where each hue begins…. Madness is almost undefinable. Right reason and insanity are merely the extreme terms of a series of mental action, which need not be very long.Herman Melville, scribbling in the margin of his volume of Shakespeare, dropped the "almost" and wrote: "Madness is undefinable." I think that's true, and in my experience, it's been worth the risk.
In this Ted Talk, Wade Davis talks about an indigenous people who live somewhere near (in?) Columbia... he says,
Their training for the priesthood is rather extraordinary. Young acolytes are taken away from their families at the ages of 3 and 4, sequestered in a shadowy world of darkness in stone huts at the base of glaciers for 18 years... for this entire time they are "enculturated" into the values of their society... and at the end of this amazing initiation, one day they're suddenly taken out, and for the first time in their lives at the age of 18, they see a sunrise. And in that crystal moment of awareness of the first light, as the sun begins to bathe the slopes of this stunningly beautiful landscape, suddenly everything they have learned in the abstract is affirmed in stunning glory. And the priest steps back and says, "You see -- it's really as I've told you. It is that beautiful."That must really be something.
* Look for my follow up post, "How to become vulnerable."