Barbara Ehrenreich, you could say, is a reality-based writer. Her 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed,” is a heartbreaking and sometimes harrowing account of her first-hand experiences of how the other half lives, and in 2009 she took on the cancer-survivor industry (as a cancer survivor), in the lively “Bright-Sided.” She is also a hard-core atheist.
Her unbelief is an inherited trait, she says. So it was “profoundly unsettling” to her when, at age 17 (this was in 1959), she had a mystical experience. She walked out into the street in Lone Pine, California, “sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic,” and “saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.”
Says Ehrenreich: “It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze."
She said nothing to anyone, and chalked up the incident to a mental breakdown. It took her a long time to acknowledge that her experience was not all that uncommon, and need not bring her non-belief into question.
“Some surveys find that nearly half of Americans report having had a mystical experience,” she says. “Historically, the range of people reporting such experiences is wide — including saints, shamans and Old Testament prophets as well as acknowledged nonbelievers like Virginia Woolf and the contemporary atheist writer Sam Harris.”
All visions are not created equal: It is the descriptions of, and justifications for, these episodes that differentiate them. Ehrenreich characterizes her own as something akin to what the 20th-century Protestant theologian Rudolph Otto concluded after studying the accounts of mostly Christian mystics, in that it was “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good’.”
“It was more like a ‘consuming fire,’ he wrote, and ‘must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love and a sort of confidential intimacy’.”
As Ehrenreich says, the divine needn’t enter into it at all. She urges scientists not to dismiss mystical experiences out of hand, and to think about adding the search for the source of these experiences to their search for those other elusive substances that make up the universe.
“Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe, “she says. “There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.”