The existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe.
—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
The mystical journey seems to offer a graduate education in the obvious.
—Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind
[My book] should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.
—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Riding behind my dad on a motorcycle in the dark was not the place I expected to have my first experience of an altered mental state while fully, normally awake.
To be honest, I didn’t think I’d survive the experience (the ride, that is, not the altered mental state. While the ride was happening, the altered mental state was the least of my worries). Ironically (or perhaps I should say “of course”), I knew even as it was happening that my “peak experience” could not have been achieved through anything but my terror. That knowledge didn’t make the experience any less astonishing then, and it hasn’t corrupted its power since. Even covered by three decades of mental dust, that astonishing moment of mental glory still holds considerable power for me. The danger that prompted it merely serves as its wingman.
I should explain.
Anyone familiar with Florida is also familiar with the ridiculous number of motorcycles that can be found on the roads at any given moment. I’ve been on several of those motorcycles. So has my dad, my sister, my uncle, my husband, and many of our friends. It’s a pretty standard part of life in Florida—because, let’s face it, it’s the only place in the entire continental United States that you can ride a motorcycle 365. And you’ll see exactly that, no matter what road you’re driving, no matter where, and in virtually any road conditions: motorcycles everywhere, any kind, anytime, because they can. No ice or snow.
And thus the road festivals. Any reason or cause can erupt into a bike festival. Bikers for Babies of Southwest Florida. Sergeant Kevin Knight Memorial Bike Parade. Phil Peterson’s Key West Poker Run. Shoot, even just the basic necessities of finding parts and accessories for particular motorcycles have coalesced into monthly, state-wide swap meets big enough to warrant their own web pages. And there are time-honored traditions of bike races that have spun off into their own festivals, some of which last more than a week and go up and down entire coasts of that really long state. Envision that: 500 miles of motorcycles. Festivals like Bike Week in Daytona, or Biketoberfest, can pull in as many as a half million people—many of them merely spectators, but almost as many riding their motorcycles, flowing like arteries and veins of liquid metal exposed and glittering in the sun as far as the eye can see.
And the ear can hear. And the nose smell. And the body feel.
There is nothing in this world that sounds quite like the obliterating roar of several thousand motorcycle engines, all with different engine styles and times and throats and pipes. At a good festival you can find everything from tiny vintage 50cc rice-burners barely strong enough to carry the tough-as-nails, skinny oldsters driving them, to v12 car engines teetering on two wheels, their monstrous gas tanks covered in gallons of custom paint, cruising like land barges barely held in check by men as big and hairy as walruses (and often nearly as naked). Every machine’s sound is as unique as its rider, but they tend to cluster in describable groups of noise: little buzzing whines, perfectly polite puttering, phlegmy coughs of 300-pound smokers, panting huffs like big scary cats at rest. Layer those sounds together, multiply it by the thousands, and you get something approaching the roar of an angry ocean.
And the smells? My God. Take coconut sun screen, mix it with sweat. Add in exhaust, burning motor oil, gasoline, man-funk, woman-funk, cigarettes, alcohol, beer, and vinyl. Now dump it all out onto the hottest, most sun-scorched asphalt and chrome smells you can possibly conjure, and fry it. That’s the smell of Biketoberfest in Florida.
And to actually ride in that mess? Wow. Riding itself is always a complicated thing, a state of adrenalin-soaked, continual astonishment equaled only by the misery it contains. It’s a shock to discover that every road has a unique smell—one you cannot discover from inside your car, even with the windows down. More shockers: line paint is slicker than snot even when it’s dry, and the road that looks so flat from inside your car is actually a complicated terrain spanned by ruts as deep as a motorcycle’s front tire and just as slick as line paint. Roadside weeds take on an ethereally soft beauty when they wave at you in a breeze, as you sit astride your bone-shaking beast and sweat while you wait at a light. And by the way, that beast can run fleetly and quietly enough to make you feel like you’re flying, but it’s also hot enough to literally burn your skin off in an explosive instant if you touch it in the wrong place. On a motorcycle, you discover all these things…and most of all, you find that you can be happy on adrenalin, and grateful for it, and terrified sick to your guts with it all at the same time. Now multiply that experience by tens of thousands of people as far as the eye can see—thousands of people walking along the beaches and the sidewalks of Daytona, admiring thousands of parked motorcycles all done up (or decidedly, determinedly not done up), and thousands more people riding by in groups of two or two hundred, lining up to join the crawling traffic past Boot Hill Saloon in a continuous, glittering parade of motorcycles that lasts for ten straight days and nights yet never repeats, everyone there to see and be seen and drink and ride amongst strangers who “get it” as much as they do—and fuel it with beer and weed and bellowing over the thunder of the engines, and let God sort it out.
Yeah. That’s Biketoberfest in the daytime.
Then there’s Biketoberfest at night. If you think it’s wild during the day, well, nighttime is decidedly NSFW. If you’re a family man, or have your family with you, Biketoberfest at night is not your scene. At least, that’s what my dad and his friend Greg decided as the Jell-O wrestling pits started warming up (and random onlookers’ bikini tops started coming off) as the sun went down.
We were exhausted anyway after the hours of riding required to parade past the saloon. Even my father’s bike was exhausted, the engine redlining repeatedly in the heat and the stop-and-go (riding his air-cooled bike in the parade made me vow never to own one. Like a shark, if they’re not moving, they’re dying). It was a relief to all of us, man, woman, and machine, to turn off the clogged east-west drag through Daytona and head north at speed along the beach highway, A1A.
The plan was to ride north until we found a restaurant that wasn’t overrun with people. Or, if we reached the beach house that we were borrowing from a friend for the night, we would make dinner there. Greg rode in the lead, with my sister Sarah seated behind him on his perennial-work-in-progress of a bike. Its matte gray and black body became difficult to visually track against the pavement in the lengthening light. I rode on the back of my dad’s Honda SilverWing, its burgundy and chrome soon graying equally into the sun-bleached asphalt. If I ignored the evidence of the heat and the shaking and focused solely on what my eyes were telling me, I could almost report that we weren’t tethered to the road by anything at all. It was unnerving, realizing that, without our headlights, the oncoming traffic could see even less of us than I could. But it was reassuring to hang onto my dad—a rider with decades of experience—and it was a distraction to be as good a passenger as I could be. I had to lean when he leaned, and keep the wind from smacking my helmet into his. I certainly had to tap his arm and point to catch his attention when I saw something particularly noteworthy. He’d asked me to. It was our first time at Biketoberfest, of course.
We rode for miles, but the sun dipped to the horizon and the crowds kept pouring past us into town. The oncoming headlights of cars and trucks and motorcycles stretched in an unbroken line as far north as I could see. It seemed that the night crowd had the reverse of our idea: they packed every restaurant on their way into town before they got their night going.
On we rode. The sun disappeared inland to our left. The darkness descended. But neither the moon nor the stars came out. Instead, clouds rolled in off the Atlantic to our right, blanketing the sky in a velvet blackness thick enough to touch. A mizzling rain began, the drops spangling my father’s windscreen and my helmet visor with white as the oncoming headlights caught them.
My dad began to look in earnest for a place to pull off. Rain becomes actively dangerous for motorcyclists as it lifts all the dripped oil off the road surface. And line paint, already dangerous when dry, becomes a horror. I could feel the mushiness beneath me as the tires squelched around on the pavement, like wet feet slipping inside soaked shoes. But the road ahead of us narrowed to two lanes and even the restaurants gave out. There was no place to pull off. I turned to check behind us. There, too, was a line of headlights as far as I could see, the closest of them following us at not even a car’s length. I stared at the tailgater in his beat-up red car until he backed off a little. When I turned forward again and put my arm back around my dad’s middle, he tapped my forearm in a “thank you.”
“What a jerk!” my dad shouted. “Always following too close!” He checked his side mirror, then shook his head. I knew without looking that the jackass behind us had gone back to tailgating. There’s nothing like having a two-thousand-pound car chasing you less than ten feet away at 45 mph to make you feel naked, no matter how much road armor you’re wearing. My back crawled.
The temperature dropped. It was a blessed relief from the heat—the mizzling rain had done nothing but loosen all the salt matting my clothes to my skin—but it was also a terrible sign. It meant more rain was coming. My dad risked slowing a little. I heard the car behind us get closer—so close I could feel its engine heat through my armor. My dad checked his mirror and immediately sped up again.
I forgot about the tailgater a moment later. Suddenly, real wind and rain hit. Roaring sideways at us, it came in off the Atlantic at a speed to stand flags straight out from their poles. It looked like thousands of knives were being thrown at us sideways. In a car, such a sudden buffet would’ve made me sway in my lane and put both hands on the wheel. But on a motorcycle…I watched helplessly as it shoved Greg and my sister fully into oncoming traffic. Horns blared, headlights swayed, and Greg wrestled his machine—loaded to its maximum weight with only two skinny people on it—back into the right lane as the pavement became as slick as a mirror. I’d have been more scared for them, but I was too busy being scared for ourselves, as the wind shoved me hard enough in the shoulder to make me think of a man trying to start a fistfight. Beneath us, I felt the back tire squirm and skip as we went over the double yellow. The bike slipped, righted, slipped again in a matter of seconds. It felt like we had no traction at all, as if at any moment the tires could simply slip out from under us and dump us both in front of that tailgating bastard at 45 miles per hour. My helmet visor went blank white with rain and glare. Beneath my arms, I felt the strain on my dad’s body as he pulled and leaned far, far out to force us back across the line. I risked bringing one hand up to tip my visor open a crack so I could see, then wished I hadn’t: the rear tire squirmed again and caught on pavement beneath us as an oncoming car swept past close enough to buffet us, its horn blaring.
If I were suicidal, I could’ve put out a foot and kicked the door.
Over and over again, the screaming wind pushed us into oncoming traffic. Our world narrowed to a corridor of pitch blackness, edged with the whitecaps of the Atlantic to our right, the thin double bump of reflected gray that was actually the double yellow line, the headlights, and the slashing rain. My dad sat tall over and over again, scrubbing at his fixed visor with one hand, trying to see past the whiteout that his windscreen had become. The rain soaked us through and the wind froze us. But far worse was the combination of blindness, wind, and howling horns as we fought northward, literally feet away from dying, either from the oncoming traffic or the tailgater behind us. We couldn’t pull off and we couldn’t stop, and we couldn’t keep the wind from trying to kill us no matter how close to the right side of the lane we drove.
My father’s fear was obvious. He kept glancing at the tiny black line that was my sister and Greg as they disappeared over and over again into the wash of oncoming headlights. A moment later, all his attention would be bent on getting ourselves out of the same trouble. Every time he cleared his visor, he glanced as far over his shoulder as he dared to check that I was holding on; he probably could no longer feel my arms around his middle. God knows I barely could, and I didn’t have to control our bike.
In real time, our terror probably only lasted about twenty minutes. But in subjective time, it felt like triple that. I went into something resembling a fugue state—unable to affect our predicament, all I could do was mentally check out far enough to make sure I didn’t do something dangerous because of my terror, but remain “in” enough to respond well to the changing conditions. I was shaking with the strain of riding well, and I could tell that fear, if I let it, would drain me further. I couldn’t imagine what the strain was like for my dad.
I consoled myself by thinking, in my strange writer-brain state, “If we survive this, I’ll be able to honestly say that not a lot of people have ever seen anything like it. And someday I’ll do my damnedest to describe it.” I’ve tried in poems, in short stories, in novels. But each time, someone has registered the complaint that the conditions simply couldn’t have been that bad—at least, not here in the United States. I laugh at their disbelief and describe it all over again, just to prove (if only to myself) that this wasn’t fiction, that I really was there: Black water whipped to whitecaps to my right, the rain slashing sideways at us. Ahead of me, the windscreen of my father’s motorcycle flooded white with the rain and the headlights of cars. The howling in my helmet of the wind and rain, my own face shield locked open at an angle to keep the glare down, allowing rain drops the size of nickels to pound my cheekbones and flick upward at my eyes. Beneath me, the hammering of the bike’s engine, the twitches of the tires as the wind shoved us over the line paint. Ahead of me, my sister, looking tiny and fragile as she rode behind Greg, even farther into oncoming traffic than we. And to my left…
The wind suddenly lulled, and a cloud broke open over the black slate of the inland side of A1A. A full white moon revealed herself in perfectly silent, serene, bone-white majesty. And beneath her, the stubble of an empty, harvested field was instantly transformed into a field of diamonds on the black velvet of earth.
The beauty of that moment struck me literally thoughtless. The sounds of the motorcycles and cars and rain and wind disappeared. The car on my back evaporated. There was nothing in that moment between that moon, those diamonds, and me. Not even me.
Thirty years later, the memory of my motorcycle moon makes my eyes fill with tears and seals my jaw shut and turns my heart to jelly. The internal silence of that moment still pierces me through. Even now, remembering it, I can almost manage to quit existing. This nutball thing I call “me” falls quiet. At the time, the physical assault of that beauty was unmatched in my experience. I was unable to react even as the wind bum-rushed us again and a car whipped past me close enough to kiss. All I could think, after several long breaths, was “Emaho!”, a spontaneous exhalation made by Tibetan Buddhists. It translates roughly to, “Marvelous!” It was the only thing I could say then, and, in all honesty, it’s still the closest thing I can possibly say now. It was as if, in that one moment, everything I’d experienced and intuited about life and its purpose were contained and exemplified and exalted in a mystery that could never be rendered even in thoughts, let alone words. And certainly not at all in a thing as flawed as my personality.
In being forced to accept, without reservation, the absolute peril of my position—the figurative baring of my existence to whatever the universe decided to throw at me in just that moment and none other—I was forced also to accept the universe’s beauty…a beauty so immense that it snatched the protective haze of thoughts right out of my head. I was left raw and open, able to think of nothing and no one other than the moment laid before me, just as bare and raw and open as me.
And the stunning part—the realization that has been thirty further years of meditation and experience in the making—was realizing that every moment of my life is potentially as raw and open to me, if only I could be as open to it.
It’s taken me a long time (and a lot of sorrow) to come to that conclusion. It’s a truth that’s there even in the midst of great personal disaster. That silence—that glistening, silent beauty so vastly larger than I am—is always there. I’ve glimpsed it again and again over the course of my life, and most of all when I’m in extremis, smacked upside the head by a moment of great danger or loss. Moments like these: The perfect lacework of frozen tree branches above my head, as their trunks literally explode around me in an ice storm. A perfect sky and birdsong and people laughing in joy, as I realize that I am miscarrying. A car accident, everything around me blown to slow motion as the breaking glass glitters by. My first sparring match in taekwondo, every eyelash around the dark eyes of my black belt opponent rendered in perfect, onyx detail. The distinctive sound of a three-round burst coming from the direction of my daughter’s elementary school, the positions of every tree around me drawn by the finest pen, the empty echo of the concrete sidewalk beneath me, the perfect thunder of my heart in my ears.
Psychologists know this phenomenon well, and it’s called flashbulb memory. When a human being hears terrible news (“where were you when?”), or witnesses a disaster firsthand, or personally endures trauma, our survival instinct pushes our brains into the highest, hottest burn of processing they can handle. But it is processing without conscious thinking. Adrenalin spikes basically cut the brain almost in half from side to side. The upper and forward parts of the brain, having to do with complex thinking, scale back on energy use. The lower and hindmost parts, having to do with physical control and perception and chemical panic, burn all that freed-up energy. Our instincts roar into control. When facing great danger, we literally become reduced to our most animal state. As therapists are fond of putting it, “You’re not there to reason with the tiger.”
We’re all familiar with how an adrenalin rush to the brain feels, but there are perfect evolutionary reasons for all the parts of a flashbulb memory to exist. Our perception of time slows to a crawl because we need to clock the speeds of everything moving around us in the complex mechanics required to decide if we can flee. Our recall becomes pinpoint accurate so we can process every detail that could be pertinent to our ability to fight. Our bodies feel like they’ve caught fire, as every nerve and cell report their exact positions so that our proprieceptive senses can prepare us to freeze (thus my shaking on the bike on A1A). We didn’t evolve to have flashbulb memories because they’re cool to look back at. We developed them as a byproduct of basic, adrenalin-fueled, in-the-moment survival. Being able to recount every moment of the scary thing that happened to you today is of benefit to the tribe, to be sure, but only because you survived it. As one internet meme has it, old age is a privilege denied to many. I would posit that, without the physical and mental processes that gave us the byproduct of flashbulb memory, we wouldn’t still be here as a species to enjoy our age.
Many neuroscientists are coming to the conclusion that we’ve developed many ways to cheapskate on higher thinking—especially those high, hot burns that produce moments like my motorcycle moon. One of those cheats is an entire system of mental shortcuts that allows us to access a bunch of our brains at once, cheaply in terms of energy, but leaving out entire whacks of perception and memory at the same time. A further energy savings (and further caveat) is achieved because those shortcuts only run in directions deepened with repeated experience. Anything novel (whether external stimulus or internal emotion) is simply omitted. Neuroscientists call this system the default mode network, or DMN. Think of it as staircases in a building that only connect some parts, and leave others out because we’ve never needed to combine those parts before. For spreadsheet users, it can be thought of as a macro. It’s quick and easy to reel off a macro, instead of writing a whole bunch of individual commands. It also uses much less energy when you save time on a computer. Considering that the human brain burns about 40% of all the energy we feed our bodies every day, that’s an important savings in fuel—not to have to seriously ponder what we think about our boss when we follow his orders, or the motions involved in how to open a door, or whether we’re the sort of person who even worries about that sort of thing.
Because the alternative—being in mental high gear all the time—would be too exhausting to bear. Lest you think I was the only one affected so strongly by our moonlight ride, I’ll say only that two grown men and two grown women, having ridden motorcycles for almost an entire day in brutal heat, having had nothing to eat since midmorning, crawled off those motorcycles in the dark at the beach house, said almost nothing to each other, and went to our respective beds without even mentioning food. Dinner never happened for us, and we didn’t care. Even our instincts had been exhausted at that point. All we could do was sleep to restore ourselves. Living every day like that would, frankly, kill us really quick.
The DMN saves us from experiencing the routine parts of our lives like that. It regulates everything in our perception by regulating the stories we tell ourselves about what our lives should, on a usual day, look and feel like, and what they should mean. Everything from how capable we feel to whether or not the construction on our road is a good thing to whether or not we should take our usual motorcycle ride that day gets regulated by the DMN.
A lot of people recognize the DMN best when they drive a car; some even have a handy nickname for it, “autopilot.” You don’t need to develop new value judgments about your morning commute, so you generally don’t. You just do the drive and that’s it. The problem is that autopilot can leave out important details that will impact how we feel about something. If you’re on your way to work and you turn the car the way you always have, and only then see the construction barrels blocking the road, well, that can be a bit of a shocker.
And if we think and feel consistently the same way about something often enough, the DMN will ensure that we continue to think and feel that way long after the actual situation has warranted a change of heart. That’s how women end up staying with abusive boyfriends long after the point that outside observers start shaking their heads. Or how people still say they hate someone long after that someone has changed their behavior for the better. Or how people will gravitate toward one political pole and stay there even if their party starts acting like a monster. Or how a person continues wearing the same clothes they wore as teens because they’re convinced they look good, even if their middle-aged paunch makes everyone else grimace. You keep acting that way because you keep thinking that way because you’ve always thought that way.
If you’re operating on autopilot, you aren’t catching the real-world changes that you need to accurately gauge your health and well-being. And for damn sure you’re not going to see the moon and a field full of diamonds in the dark.
As Michael Pollan put it in his book, How to Change Your Mind, “Huston Smith, the scholar of religion, once described a spiritually ‘realized being’ as simply a person with ‘an acute sense of the astonishing mystery of everything.’ Faith need not figure” (HTCYM, p. 136). And he’s absolutely right. God didn’t speak to me in the dark, or in the diamonds, or even in the blaring horns of oncoming cars. He didn’t need to. I was in a perfectly altered state all by myself, yet the universe met me there nonetheless. As Pollan continues on the same page, “There are other, stranger forms of consciousness available to us.” Imagine you could somehow sustain the energy depletion of living in that struck-dumb place, where even an empty field looks like a revelation. What would “normal” consciousness look like to someone like that?
I think it would look an awful lot like a prison made of blindness, with thoughts the bars on its windows.
The model of the DMN is beginning to suggest (as Pollan put it) a “grand unified theory” of mental illness: the theory that minds gravitate either toward entropy or order. Both exist on a continuum. Both are regulated to a greater (order) or lesser (entropy) extent by the DMN. And the moments that circumvent the DMN—moments of great joy or great sorrow, great beauty or great danger—send our thinking into freefall, with no bedrock of thought to stand on. We become dependent entirely on the raw input of our senses. This happens because, in that moment of extreme input, we literally don’t know what to think. The DMN fails because we’ve been faced with novelty so intense it reveals our entire previous experience as lacking for an explanation.
At its best, an entropic mind can be explained as cross-discipline, creative, out-of-the-box thinking that is contained and shaped but not really impeded by the DMN all that much. (Thinking can be mapped in an fMRI. Entropic thinking looks kind of like a skimpy plate of homemade spaghetti, just enough lines running in all directions to imply something substantive. Some of those lines are a bit thicker than others, like gloppy homemade noodles, which indicates greater intensity and value to the person having that thought. Minds on entropy-inducing drugs like LSD or psilocybin look like a heaping plate of machine-cut rainbow goddamned vermicelli, no one thought any more compelling than another, all valued equally, and going everywhere.) When we tend toward entropy, our views of everything in our lives (including ourselves) is expansive, inclusive, and often distinctly unafraid. We can draw connections to far-flung things really quickly and easily. We see novelty easily and are often drawn to it, in fact. But at its most extreme, entropy looks like disordered, randomly-fired thoughts with almost no interference from the DMN, in which our sense of who and what we are and our actual place in the world has no reins on it. Ever met a homeless person who thought he was Jesus? That’s life with absolutely no interference from the DMN. That is psychosis. (Please note, I’m not sure what psychosis looks like in an fMRI, because I don’t know if anybody’s ever managed to wrestle an unmedicated Jesus into the bore. But I have to assume it makes that plate of vermicelli look positively orderly.)
Order is best thought of as hard control, a rigidity in our thinking. We have very sharply defined roles in our lives, and deviation from said stories (about our gender, or faith, or culture) results in bad, bad things. However, remember how I mentioned that the mental shortcuts of the DMN can be made only with repeated use? Not only can such shortcuts only be made with repeated use, they’re deepened by it. And in the extreme end of ordered thinking, all other paths of thinking are omitted, just like any other novelty. That’s where depression, anxiety, and OCD happen—when our thoughts have gotten so stuck in the same, awful, circular rut for so long that literally no other thought is possible. An fMRI of extremely ordered thinking looks nothing like a plate of spaghetti. It’s more like what would happen if a preschool math teacher tried to teach children about shapes by having them glue a few paltry sticks of dried, broken spag along a few bold lines on a sheet of paper. The rest is simply empty nothing. It’s as if other patterns of thought simply can’t exist.
Pollan was talking about psychedelic experiences at the time, but I firmly believe that any ecstatic state (whether self-induced, life-induced, or medication-induced) represents a complete suspension of the DMN. We’re so blown open by whatever we’re experiencing—a dangerous motorcycle trip, a sudden trip to the hospital, or an acid trip—that we have literally no idea what to think about it. Our upper brains shut down, reroute all energy to the experiencing animal brain, and our animal brains go hogwild making connections until we reach a point where we can get quiet and can catch our breath. Then and only then will our upper brains ponder our experience, process it, and decide what stories we’re going to tell ourselves about it…what shortcuts we’re going to use to route through or around that experience in our brains, so we can get on with the more hum-drum everyday business of living.
But the problem with ecstatic states of any kind is that we simply can’t get through them completely. If we have any entropy left in us at all—any ability toward magical thinking—we will always come at least a little undone around those memories. They will continue to exist like boulders in the stream of our thinking for the rest of our lives. That’s why, thirty years on, my motorcycle moon can still make me cry. Perhaps, like boulders in a river, with sufficient time and strength of water, those boulders can be worn to pebbles and someday to nothing. But frankly, most human beings aren’t around long enough to get to that point.
And, in the case of the beautiful blown-open moments, who would want to?
So what about that beauty? Why is that there in the middle of my most intense experiences, even the bad ones? What possible evolutionary purpose would the recognition of beauty serve? Wouldn’t it waste precious mental and physical resources better applied to survival? And why, in God’s name, is it the most animal part of us that responds to that beauty? Why can we not see that same beauty when we’re safe, and the upper parts of our brains are functioning? Why can’t I see a perfect day except when I’m having a miscarriage? Or a perfect moon unless I’m about to get hit by a car?
Part of the answer is the DMN—the heart of my overly rigid, anxious thinking. I can’t be open to the beauty, the surprise of crossed-wire, out-of-the-box thinking, if I’m too busy feeling damaged about the bad things that happened in my past, or being scared about the bad things that might happen in my future. It’s not like the beauty is only there when I’m about to die. It’s that I’m most often shocked out of my head and into the beauty when bad stuff is happening.
I think Michael Pollan described it perfectly: “A platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been drained of all emotion” (HTCYM, p. 251). We have to have space and time to consider what’s happened to us in order to generate an emotion about it. When an event that big and new happens—when we have a moment that shocks us out of thinking and into simply experiencing—we really only experience it truthfully in that moment. Everything after is a rationalization, a platitude that we apply to it in order to drain it of enough emotion so that we can contain it. That’s why Buddhists practice so hard to live in the moment, every moment, exactly as it is; without judgment (for good or ill) is the only way to truly experience our lives. In vipassana meditation, I think the Buddha left us a roadmap for suspending an overactive DMN.
But how does the beauty always meet me there? If we’re using the hardcore science of the DMN as an explanation of how humans think, then why the beauty? What possible evolutionary use could that have?
Well, the cynic in me references the other Pollan quote in my epigraph: “The mystical journey seems to offer a graduate education in the obvious.” Most everyone who comes back from a major shakeup (whether on a motorcycle or LSD) reports experiencing great beauty, or all-encompassing love. Picture the usual trippy-hippy spiel: “God is love, man. Everything is love. We’re all one.” Compare that to my moment with the moon: “There was nothing between the moon and me, not even me.”
They sound pretty much the same, don’t they?
As it turns out, Pollan and his neuroscientist buddies have a pretty compelling argument for that, too:
“When all that sensory information threatens to overwhelm us, the mind furiously generates new concepts (crazy or brilliant, it hardly matters) to make sense of it all… [The brain] work[s] to reduce uncertainty by, in effect, telling itself stories.” (HTCYM, P. 310)
And who do you think has a better shot at surviving great trauma: the ape who tells himself that the world is grim and empty, or the one who recognizes a kind of harmony even in the midst of disaster? The one who tenses up, assuming he’s about to be blown out like a candle, or the one who relaxes, thinking he’s about to be met by a benevolent God?
Having seen enough accident statistics about DUI, I know the answer to that one. It’s the relaxed drunk who survives the accident. It’s not his hapless victims, screaming at the judgment coming straight at them. The victims die. The drunk survives, wondering what happened, knowing only that he was blissfully ignorant until he got sober.
I can, at times, be a rather cynical person. By the time I was ten, I’d learned to laugh in the face of an adult who promised me good things. But then there’s this thought, and it keeps coming back, whispering in my gut like a heartbeat that never quite started, yet has never gone away: I didn’t expect to meet beauty in that terrible place. And yet, there it was.
I’ve come to believe that every moment of a human life is like any form of power—physical power, mental power, emotional power, literal electrical power, the figurative power of money, any of it—it can all be used for good or ill. It can all be interpreted for good or ill. It’s not the fact of our power, it’s what we do with it. Yes, I’ve been handed some pretty frankly bad moments in life, but I’m grateful—so very, very grateful—to have been born able to see the beauty even in the midst of those disasters. Because, well, without the beauty in the beast, what’s the point? Who would want to keep on living if there were no beautiful moments to look toward?
Does that realization make me less of a cynic? Perhaps, now that I know my DMN may not be entirely trustworthy.
Does that realization make me more of a Jesus-freak? Decidedly not. I don’t need God to tell me what beauty is. I know an army arrayed with banners when I see it.
But does that realization make me want to find that moon again, and sit with it, and remain open to all that it has to teach me? God, yes. Because sometimes ecstasy isn’t screaming, or even joy, but silent serenity. Sometimes, an ecstatic state can be quietly, imperfectly, beautifully, human.