I am sitting on the beach with my wife. It is warm but there is no humidity. A breeze blows steadily. The sand is coarse. The beach runs over a lip and down to the surf. The waves are rough as the tide slowly turns. I put the book I am reading down in my lap. I look out across the ocean to the shimmering horizon. The limpid blue water meets the clear blue sky. For less than a second all the boundaries disappear and everything feels like one; and I feel like I am part of this whole. And then it is gone. I go back to reading my book.
At the moment that this occurred, I didn’t even recognize what had happened. A few moments later, though, I stopped to reconsider this tiny episode. In the days prior to being on the beach, I had been listening to an interview with Lawrence Kushner on a podcast of On Being. Kushner is an expert in Kabbalah, a branch of Judaism I know little about. He was talking about mysticism.
He says that most traditional western religions think of God as a large circle. And we are small circles outside this large circle. Most of what we try to do from our small circles of existence is communicate with this larger circle. Are you there? Can you help us? Can you give us a sign? Where were you when all the suffering occurred? What is the meaning of our lives? How do we find you?
Kushner suggests that Kabballah (and other more eastern traditions, as well) also thinks of God as a large circle and people as smaller circles. But the difference is that the smaller circles are inside the large circle. We are part of God and God is part of us.
And while there are boundaries between the large and the small, every once in a while those boundaries disappear and we cannot tell the difference between ourselves and God (however defined). We flow together as one. We experience briefly a sense of unity and connection that typically eludes us. “Difference” no longer applies. This, Kushner explains, is mystical experience.
He goes on to say that most people have mystical experiences all the time, but seldom recognize them as such. Mysticism, he suggests, is not just the blinding light or the burning bush. Most often it occurs as part of the routine experiences of everyday life. This makes sense if we accept the premise that the little circles exist inside the large circle, that the boundaries between them are always permeable. Then at any moment, anywhere, in the check-out line or on the commute to work or while you’re mowing the lawn or when you’re staring absently at the ocean, you may feel a fleeting something, sometimes so brief, so small, that you shake your head and move on, not noticing, not paying attention to the mystical that is at the heart of the mundane.
David B. Seaburn is a novelist. His most recent novel is Chimney Bluff. To learn about Seaburn's other writing, click on "more..." under his picture above.