We Are Each Other
How spiritual experiences reveal the connections between us.
Posted Dec 04, 2019
A few months ago I had a powerful experience, which seemed to occur for no apparent reason. The only cause I can connect it to is that I was in a very positive frame of mind. That morning, I had been for a run, and had a good meditation, and so was feeling very cheerful and buoyant.
In the afternoon, I had to travel to a nearby town, where I was giving a talk on one of my books. I arrived at the train station and had time for a coffee. I sat down at one of tables outside the station cafe, and looked around, at the cafe’s other customers and the travellers rushing about.
I was suddenly filled with a tremendous feeling of love for everybody. I felt a strong urge to connect with people, to be friendly and express my affection. I’m normally a fairly quiet person, not particularly sociable, but now I initiated a conversation with the guy sitting at the table next to mine. On the train, the sunlight was pouring down on the hills, under a perfect blue sky, and I felt that somehow a light was shining inside me and everyone else. Continuing my unusually sociable mood, I chatted with the conductor and joked with the woman who walked up and down the carriage selling food and drinks.
After arriving in the town, I stopped off at a pub for some food, and watched groups of men drinking beer and shouting and swearing, businessmen talking loudly into their cell phones about customers and deals, and a group of elderly people complaining about the state of the country. Again, I felt intensely empathic. I felt as though I could see the world from all of their different perspectives. In a strange way, I felt that I was part of them. I sensed our common identity as human beings, struggling to be happy, striving for meaning and purpose, trying to attract attention and affirmation in order to bolster our self-esteem. We were all doing our best to overcome suffering and find wholeness and happiness. I felt exhilarated to be part of the human family.
A Third Type of Spiritual Experience
I have spent much of my academic life researching spiritual experiences and written several books about them, such as Waking from Sleep and The Leap. Spiritual experiences are usually seen as individual experiences of oneness with nature, or of being amazed by the beauty and vividness of our surroundings. They may also be seen as experiences that occur during meditation, when we feel a powerful sense of inner well-being or wholeness.
Along these lines, the English philosopher W.T. Stace distinguished two basic types of mystical experiences. (In the sense we’re using the term here, mystical experiences are intense forms of spiritual experience, or higher states of consciousness.) First, there are ’extravertive’ mystical experiences, which bring a different vision of – and a different relationship to – the world. The experiences of oneness with nature and exhilaration at sublime landscapes described by poets such as William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman are good examples.
Second, there are ‘introvertive’ experiences, when we turn our attention in the opposite direction and withdraw into our own consciousness. We might feel a sense of inner peace and radiance. We might feel that we have gained contact with a deeper and more authentic sense of self. We may even feel a sense of expansion, beyond our bodies, and feel that our own being is part of a mysterious deeper source of consciousness,
However, my experience a few months ago has made me wonder if it’s valid to speak of a third type of mystical experience, which could be called an ‘intersubjective’ mystical experience. Here ‘intersubjective’ means a connection between two or more different subjects, or people. In such experiences, we transcend our normal sense of separation, our sense that we are entitles who live in separation inside our own mental space, surrounded by other human beings who live in separation inside their own mental space. The mental boundary between ourselves and others breaks down, bringing intense feelings of love and compassion. We may even feel that we are one with others. We may feel that, in some strange way, we share the same being as them, that we are part of the same network of consciousness.
Here is a good example of an ‘intersubjective spiritual experience' described by a minister named Rev. Leslie Whitehead, who was travelling on a train. Suddenly, the whole compartment flooded with light and he was filled with a sense of joy. As he described it, ‘A most curious but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy…I loved everybody in that compartment. I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment.’ (Perhaps there is something about train stations and trains that brings on these experiences!)
Varieties of ISEs
Let’s use the acronym of ISEs, standing for Intersubjective Spiritual Experiences. The experiences may occur randomly, and may be directed towards any strangers we come across. They may be linked to animals or other living beings. Probably the most intense variant of the experience is when we feel love and oneness to all human beings (and perhaps living beings) in general, and feel compassion for people we have never met before, or know nothing about. I would call these unconditional (or unlimited) ISEs.
However, in a more limited sense, the experience may be linked to a specific person, such as a sexual or romantic partner, or to a child. In a similar way, they may occur in a large group or crowd of people, perhaps at a concert. I would call these conditional (or limited) ISEs.
For example, I vividly recall a powerful experience I had at age 17, when I went to see the band U2 in concert. The whole audience was in state of euphoria and exhilaration, and personal boundaries seemed to melt away, so that we all became part of one greater being. We all seemed to be floating together on a giant wave of bliss. I remember thinking, ‘This is like a spiritual experience!’ even though I didn’t know anything about spirituality or mysticism at the time.
Conditional ISEs may have a negative connotation, when they are associated with a tribal instinct. They may occur at a political rally or sports match when people are linked strongly together by a particular ideology or sense of identity. A strong sense of group identity may foster ISEs, which in turn may help to strengthen group identity. Unfortunately, though, the feelings of compassion and oneness may not spread to other groups, such as rival political parties or the fans of rival teams. Such groups are perhaps more like to receive hostility than compassion.
We Are each other
In unconditional ISEs, we feel an indiscriminate sense of compassion and oneness, beyond any group or individual. We transcend our superficial differences of biology or ideology or identity and become aware of a common core.
These experiences have something important to tell us. They suggest that we are not separate individuals. We are not really made up of selfish genes that care about nothing about survival and reproduction. Sometimes we might feel isolated, as if we’re all alone in the world. Sometimes we might feel that other people are self-centred and ruthless, and care nothing about us. But ISEs tell us that we are deeply interconnected. There is a sense in which we are each other. Our sense of separateness and aloneness is an illusion.
If you've had a similar experience, post a comment after this article.