Thoreau said you could call him, among other things, a mystic. He also said you could call him a transcendentalist or a natural philosopher. I’d add, a poet, or prose-poet. (We could extend the list.) Recently two articles, one in the New York Times, another in the Chronicle of Higher Education, have juggled about with “mystical experiences.” I’ll only say that I’m aghast at the alacrity with which the authors jump to metaphysical structures to explain these experiences — as if our first response to something awesome or wondrous or uncanny ought to be to tame it by explanation. (You ask your host, mid-way through the meal, “Can you explain why red pepper tastes so good in the soup? I mean the chemistry of it?) Why not just relish the moment of awe or surprise or pleasure? The poetry of life deserves to be preserved by befitting poetic response.
When Thoreau eases us into an extraordinary, ecstatic moment — say his finding his reflection in the pond as he kneels by its edge, or as he finds a bird’s egg nestled in the crack of a rainbow-trimmed cloud (OK, you’ll have to read them yourself to be bowled over) — he doesn’t immediately run to explain them. Having them is far more important than establishing a causal chain. The chain du jour is cognitive wires hooked up to the wires of cosmic consciousnesses. It’s as if you have to jamb experience into a model of consciousness, preferably a model that exploits the latest brain research, and even hypothesize God as a consciousness tickling our consciousness; you draw divinity as a set of wires hooked (or crossed) with our wires. It’s fit for a New Yorker cartoon. But it shows how fragile the sort of sensibility we find in Thoreau really is, given contemporary fear of letting wondrous experience just be — period. Are we losing the knack for sensing and cherishing what’s around?
We’re addressed by the things of the world — a child’s smile, a tree’s uprightness, a storm cloud’s foreboding. The address can be terrifying or gentle and everything in between. Can we make ourselves available to such address? If I can avail myself of the best the world offers, that’s not a bad thing. And why not tarry with what comes my way? Sometimes the intensity of experience moves us to call it mystical — mystical/ethical-religious (the sublime goodness of a saint), mystical/aesthetic-religious (an overpowering Bach choral performance), mystical/natural-religious (we awake with Thoreau to a dawning new world). In some circles, on encounter with non-pedestrian experience triggers a knee jerk reaction to jump into an unnecessary metaphysical box — a cage of ‘consciousness-cognitive study’ from which it’s hard to escape. The crazy view is that nothing can be meaningful if it can’t be explained by science — nowadays, by brain science. So we flee the good things in a rush to the science of them. If your walk in the woods with your kids and the dog is at all memorable or special, you have to validate it right then as special and non-illusory; and it can only be validated if you can probe that brain-in-a-vat to show the why and the how of the specialness — show exactly which wires heat up and glow. The faces that light up are not enough.