"Myth is related to dream as the deeper zones of the sea to the shallows. In myth, as in dream, it is the secret of the inner world that comes to us, but the deepest secret, and from profundities too dreadful to be lightly known. Out of our own depths arise the forms; but out of regions where man is still terrible in wisdom, beauty, and bliss. This Atlantis of the interior realities is as strange to us as a foreign continent. Its secrets must be learned. And the way of learning is not that of the laboratory and lecture hall, but of controlled introspection."
Indeed we could say much the same for vision and visionary experience. To extend Campbell's metaphor of the ocean, we might say that vision constitutes a diving into the sea and roaming around on a self-directed mythical or otherworldly adventure. This is an important point, for the realm of myth is a multi-coloured, polyvalent world, in which dynamics of true/false or fact/non-fact are not particularly relevant. Just as the power and essence of a myth is killed when it is treated as actual history or literal truth, so is a vision wasted when it is believed in terms of the daylight, rational world – this is perhaps a controversial statement at this incipient stage of our journey, but its justification will hopefully become clear.
The mythical world that Campbell speaks of so eloquently is as different from the two daylight worlds of rational scientific thought and of religious faith as are sun and moon, although strictly speaking we must move beyond bivalent expressions in order to more properly examine this dynamic of experience where the voyage is valued for its own sake. It is often the case that this world is taken for the 'real' world of which daylight experience is but a shadow, and while this ubiquitous human perception is yet another bivalency, opposing 'this' world with 'that', it is traditionally held that art, vision and myth are united in illuminating our experience with ideals, forms and images from a wider, hidden reality whose agency is often attributed to one or more deities or primordial events. Marcuse neatly expresses how art accesses this hidden reality:
“Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle...The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life.”
We have hints here of Rudolf Otto’s ganz Andere – wholly other(ness) – when speaking of the sacred, yet at the same time and paradoxically, for the visionary, that sacred 'other world' is utterly intimate, so close as to be experienced as an essential part of one's own body. Otto coined the term numinous to describe this Sacred Otherness, a phenomenon that is a "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self" and of a mystical nature with terrifying and fascinating aspects. Such a numinous experience thus presents itself “as ganz Andere, wholly other, a condition absolutely sui generis and incomparable whereby the human being finds himself utterly abashed."
This beautiful description begs a question, one that for me goes to the heart of what it means to be alive as a human: why should we view the sacred and visionary, and indeed the mythical, in this manner and what lies behind our experience of these realms in terms not of identity, but as Otherness and an estrangement of the customary senses?
The image of the World-Beyond-Worlds or hidden reality, perhaps a reified form of the Sacred Other, is so ubiquitous among humans as to almost suggest a biological or neurological, rather than cultural foundation for this belief, and while Campbell assigns mythical and sacred impulses to the order of mythos in opposition to bios, he nonetheless considers both realms to represent innate drives within the human being. Eliade too emphasises notions of ubiquity in his expressions of the nature of the sacred, while concurring with Otto's principle of otherness:
“Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane... It could be said that the history of religions, from the most primitive to the most highly developed, is constituted by a great number of ...manifestations of sacred realities [hierophanies]. From the most elementary hierophany, e.g. manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree, to the supreme hierophany... there is no solution of continuity. In each case we are confronted by the same mysterious act – the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural 'profane' world.”
These words are illuminating: the sacred erupts into the profane world through objects, acts and images which, though they are of this world, extend past themselves by transcendent metaphor to indicate a hidden, greater order of reality. The profane world is thus discontinuous, and indeed these ideas of discontinuity and otherness pervade Eliade's writings and find their clearest rendition in his image of the Eternal Return. Here, the eternal and sacred impinge regularly upon profane space, time and objects through the use of ritual, art, vision and mythical narratives which acquire their meaning through the deliberate repetition of sacred acts that occurred ab origine, in the primordial but ever-present beginning.
We arrive through these thoughts, and not for the last time, at a kind of ambiguous paradox: the Sacred Other manifests itself through objects in this world but is not in itself of this world. Or perhaps, the worldly object enters a field of experience in which it extends past its own mere existence to indicate that Sacred Other, a phenomenon we customarily called transcendence. Campbell illustrates this neatly with an example of Hindu pilgrims anointing rocks on their journey and bowing down to pray: here the rock loses its profane identity through a ritual of anointing and becomes, perhaps only temporarily, a deity.
This liberates an image of layered meanings conferred upon an object, both sacred and profane, and while the eruption of the sacred was termed by Eliade as hierophany, he gave no name to this perceptual effect where something is seen as both present and other, where both sacred and profane are co-incident in the same event or object. It is nonetheless an important idea to which I will be returning in the fullness of time, and borrowing a term from Einstein, I should like to term it simultaneity, a word especially appropriate since Einstein did not intend the concept to represent any notion of the absolute, and nor do I, although the nature (perceptual or 'real', absolute or relative) of simultaneity here, as with the nature of vision, goes to the very heart of what I seek to address in the present essay.
These images of the Sacred Other and of simultaneity are not confined to religious experience: in a manner of speaking they rest at the heart of the philosophical disciplines too. Plato posited a World of Forms as being separated from the material world, and accessible only through reasoned thought, which in his distaste for mythology he elevated to the highest sphere of the sacred. He held that everything in this world was mere shadow, an imperfect copy of the concepts and ideas that constituted the ideal Forms that lay beyond sensual experience. The similarity here with Eliade's description of the sacred is striking, but here Forms erupt into each and every object and event, albeit imperfectly, and we have here perhaps a philosophical idealisation of the primeval human condition of animism.
Plato's view was influential: it found its way into both Catholic and Gnostic Christian thought as well as Islamic teachings through Neoplatonism, while in the East, teachings of philosophers such as Lao Zi engendered similar movements across China and India, influencing Buddhism and esoteric Hindu thought with the central notion that the Dao, the source of all existence and the root of all things seen and unseen, only achieved its truth when not named and not seen, that is to say, it was considered ineffable and beyond all understanding. Thus, the natural human predilection for the concepts at hand neatly combined with philosophical enquiry to create the major religions of the high civilisations and the modern world.
“I was captivated immediately and gazed into her blank eyes. Maybe it was the heat and the humidity of the day, perhaps it was my exhaustion from lack of sleep, or maybe it was just the right time to be gently opened, but for me, the eyes of the statue began to come alive... I watched intently, feeling a connection between myself and the Persephonic World opening up delicately before me. The spirit in the stone seemed to shine, a presence becoming more real than real, as the background faded from attention, her face the centre of all focus. At one point it seemed as if her lips were moving soundlessly - Παντα Ρει, panta rhei ‘all flows’ - or perhaps Περσεφόνη, Persephone, speaking her name. Gently as it had begun, the sense of presence faded, the environment returned and I was left gazing with a smile at this marble figure.”
It is easy to dismiss this as a kind of pareidolia, or perhaps a faintness from the heat, but it illustrates neatly, if gently, the eruption of the sacred into the profane, and the simultaneity of the 'more real than real' layered upon the mundane object, in this case the statue. Ancient people would surely have interpreted this as a visitation, albeit subtle, from the goddess herself, or the manifestation of what has sometimes been called the spirit in the stone, and taken literally the arrival of an aspect of the World-Beyond-Worlds into this mundane reality.
The second example is more dramatic. As a young man I experienced in broad daylight during an experiment with LSD in a park in my home town an apparition of clouds of angels opening into the world and filling the sky with song.
“Sitting in a small wooded area, I heard the song at first, coming from above me. I stood up to try to understand where it was coming from, this mournful song, and began to walk but as I moved through the trees and onto the lawn illuminated in bright sunlight, the music changed neither in tone or direction. The day seemed brighter than previously, and as my gaze moved upwards I beheld a beautiful bank of clouds which at once began to contort into winged beings. I immediately realised these were the source of the song I was hearing. I tried to sit down, but dared not tear my gaze away from this apparition.
“The angels multiplied until they arrayed across the sky, their song coming from every corner of the heavens until it wrapped me in tremendous, sorrowful beauty. Rooted to the spot and staring into the clouds, tears fell from my eyes and I felt connected to a greater reality that had come from a God I no longer believed in. Pain burst across my shoulder-blades as I felt beautiful feathered wings emerging from my back, and the wordless song seemed to narrate the terrible tragedy of the world. At length, unable to bear it any further, I sat down and looked down through my tears at the grass and earth while in my mind's eyes, the angels above darted away across the sky, the song fading with their departure...”
The presence here of a psychoactive drug makes the dismissal of this vision as delusion an obvious and perhaps trite conclusion, but the experience nonetheless begs an array of questions, not least in the fact that this vision stands as the only apparition which caused me to doubt my lack of religious conviction and tempted me to place faith in a deity. Beyond this, we must wonder what was taking place in my neurology to engender such an experience apart from the potentiating action of the LSD which, contrary to popular opinion does not commonly liberate such intense experiences of this nature without any other apparent cause. Where, then, did this vision of angels come from: can we suggest simply an extreme response to the beauty of the clouds and the imagination of a song or are there deeper mechanisms at work here? Can we suggest this eruption of the sacred represents a glimpse of some kind of ultimate reality?
The language used in the reporting of the vision certainly presupposes the existence of a World-Beyond-Worlds, and we might if so disposed attempt to re-narrate the story by injecting a sense of subjectivity or perceptual awareness: thus, the beautiful bank of clouds might rather have appeared to contort into winged beings, or the angels were seen to multiply. But the problem exists also in the fundamental structure of language: the otherness of vision and the sacred is not well-differentiated linguistically from the world of the everyday, and there exists the possibility that the resonance of this feature of language with the aforementioned paradoxical simultaneity is a fundamental aspect of the human.
Language thus has the potential to cloud our understanding of the nature of these visions, and of the Sacred Other, by reifying too readily the experiences beheld, and referring to them by transposing daylight experience – as it were, the 'datum universe' that is manifest, perceivable and measurable – into a grammatical framework. Thus for example, 'realm' or 'world' may feel, perhaps inadvertently, and take on characteristics of the datum world when more fundamentally these words may rather represent labels for modes of perception or cognitive categories. This mistaken transposition can itself be reified, and at least some aspects of the Platonic World of Forms image reflect this recursive reification.
We can compound the ambiguity here by considering the nature of human perception itself. As a first approximation, to be variously challenged and deepened at a later point, we can consider human perception as a series of filters, ranging from the attenuation of information that takes place within the sense organs to the various modular filters which organise raw data into a perceived three-dimensional reality of colour and texture to be presented to the consciousness for cognition. The last and most recently evolved of these filters is the module for symbolic cognition. Consciously or unconsciously, the symbolic cognitive filter modifies all human perception and every experience is thus re-perceived symbolically. This we will term our Initial Model of Perception for later reference.
This quick and ready model requires us to consider what we mean by symbol and symbolic cognition. Campbell considers a symbol to be anything that is “transparent to transcendence”, that is to say, any phenomenon which extends past itself to indicate something else and in particular the sacred, while archaeologists McBrearty and Brooks formulate a more precise and functional definition of symbolic behaviour as “the ability to represent objects, people and abstract concepts with arbitrary referents” which are reified through cultural practice. Anthropologists Chris Knight, Camilla Power and Ian Watts (of whom we shall hear more later) go further and posit a definition of the symbol as “an indefinitely maintained collectively-held deceit”, and we might fuse this idea with Campbell's above to liberate a definition of the symbol as the collective art of seeing something as it is not towards a perceived deeper truth, one that uses arbitrary referents to suggest an unseen world.
Now if everything we perceive is being reinterpreted symbolically (and in vision and other sacred experiences we might say, again as a first approximation, that perception and experience is hypersymbolic) then the direct implication is that a differentiation between a given visionary experience and its literal equivalent (experienced as it were in datum reality outside vision, or in the daylight world) cannot be made, and in this way the aforementioned compounding of ambiguity occurs.
Let us return to the two visionary narratives above. Given the ambiguous nature of our perception and a seemingly hard-wired predisposition to believe in a World-Beyond-Worlds or Sacred Other, how might one tell the difference between a vision of the goddess Persephone emerging from the stone and a literal, datum-universe visitation of the goddess from her seat in a literally-conceived underworld? Could we distinguish, even if more than one person experienced it, a vision of a cloudful of singing angels and the literal occurrence of hypothetically 'real' angels arriving in the sky to sing? In each case, the latter would surely be amazing and unprecedented but their similarity to a vast array of human visionary experiences along with the notion that they would be symbolically perceived and re-cognised would render these apparently real-world events as ambiguously as the visions they resembled.
Prehistoric peoples do not appear to have made such distinctions, and indeed many modern peoples do not either: contemporary religious literature is replete with apparitions of blessed figures come to sanctify the visionary or the landscape in which they appear. The Catholic Church's regular ratification of the visitations of the Virgin Mary as literal events is of relevance here.
One might argue that if a vision was shared by more than one person, then it could be seen as more on the literally real side of the spectrum, but in the case of the Miracle of the Sun, a vision of a solar disc of radiant colours with rotating or dancing beams of light which was shared by at least 30,000 people at Fátima in Portgual in October 1917, the ambiguities remain: was it merely pareidolia or partial blindness from staring at the Sun's rays, a mass delusional hallucination, an unusual weather phenomenon reinterpreted by heightened religious fervour into visionary experience or, as the Catholic faithful are conditioned to believe, the action of God to create a miracle in this world?
Strassman eventually concluded, albeit tentatively, that DMT experiences may reflect a voyaging into another world, or, in his words, another dimension, a notion he entertained when working with his experimental subjects who insisted that what they had seen was real in a literal, datum-universe sense rather than a visionary or mythical one. We will soon have cause to make reference to the apparent reality of such intense visionary experiences, but here again we have the same image of the World-Beyond-Worlds, this time couched in a pseudo-scientific language which makes casual reference to the Many Worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics.
It is easy to be strictly rational here, and easy to dismiss these visionary experiences as delusional, or perhaps, taking a view from one particular school of Darwinism (one with which I happen to disagree), a simple evolutionary trade-off for a cognitively-modern mind that those endowed with reason can safely ignore, but I have long been filled with the sense that there is deep and profound value in these experiences. This value is of an import which is not necessarily reasonable or rational and does not confine itself simply to realms of subjective meaning and colour but takes a central role in what is means to be alive as a human being. If this belief can claim any veracity then it would follow that we must accept a certain modicum of our humanity as being irrational and unreasonable, a conclusion that for a variety of reasons often strikes fear into the heart of the modern urban-dweller, secure in his religious faith or her scientific scepticism.
But it is the latter which illuminates our subject most clearly: contemporary theories of the world and of ourselves such as Darwinian Evolution and Quantum Mechanics (which many modern visionaries either ideologically oppose or do not clearly understand) do not, in my view, consign visionary experience, dreams or religious ecstasies forever to easily-dismissed delusion, but rather move them into an entirely novel sphere, one of play and of creativity, and which in its elevation of simultaneity and symbolic cognition as the deepest human trait, eliminates the need for a Sacred Other and for a literally-believed World-Beyond-Worlds.
Thus we have here so far summarised not so much the attributes of vision but its problems for a 21st century mind and the significant challenges it raises. Whilst a literal inherence of visionary experience in a religious context has functioned rather well for millennia, liberating a sense of the sacred as fundamentally not of this world, ganz Andere, and causing profane spacetime to be discontinuous with an eternal World-Beyond-Worlds existing in parallel to this one, as we emerge into a cosmology which is relativistic rather than eternal, and isomorphic and homogeneous rather than admitting to regular eruptions from the sacred, and as we come to understand ourselves as not having been created but having evolved through incremental changes, vision becomes ever more ambiguous.
It has thus followed that this most difficult to integrate component of the human experience has often been dismissed, minimised as mere trade-off or invoked as a magical attribute of humanity which nostalgically recalls pre-scientific religious and archaic Renaissance or Victorian worldviews. Our modern society revolves around dynamics of fact/non-fact and faith/non-faith and whether a given phenomenon can be understood in terms of faith or reason. However the 'realm of vision', that ocean of mythforms so beautifully described by Campbell at the outset, properly rests in neither of these spheres: rather it is an entirely separate dynamic of experience, of colour and of quality, and as such does not necessarily bridge the gap between faith and reason, sitting instead as a trivalent third possibility in human understanding.
So long as we gaze upon it only with the first two dynamics as our filters, it remains perceived as other, as ambiguity and as unsettling and problematic for the modern mind. I believe a better resolution of this problem is possible.