Margaret Kennedy tells of a discussion she once had with a tough, hard-bitten old sea captain regarding the stars and their strange effect upon man. She persuaded him to describe a "very queer fancy" which came to him one night in mid-ocean, and quotes him as follows:
I'm not a fanciful man by nature. But all of a sudden I said to myself: There's something going on! I had this idea, you know, that the stars were thinking. And the sea was thinking. And so was I thinking. Why, I said to myself, there's certainly something going on and we're all in it. Or, put it another way. Somebody was thinking. And we were all no more than somebody's thoughts. Very surprised I was. It quite took me out of myself, if you follow me. It was a very queer fancy. I never had such a fancy before and I never have since. — John O'London's Weekly, May 26, 1950.
There is considerable evidence to prove that these flashes are a very common experience, that they come to all types of people. That they bring for a moment "an intense conviction of some truth, some kind of reality, beyond that of which our senses assure us," to quote Miss Kennedy, and that "with it there is a sinking away of self, as though the ego had ceased to play a solo instrument and were taking part in some great orchestra."
A few people in every age and country have done their best to translate their mystical experiences into the imagery and manner of speech of their own historic period. They have had penetrating and sharply defined impressions which have left a profound assurance that all is well behind the scenes of ordinary life. In fact, that ordinary life is just a temporary ripple on the surface of being in which we have got ourselves confused. Behind the scenes, they assure us, spreads real life, real being, inexpressibly more real, more vivid, more satisfying than anything we in our human perception can conceive.
During these rare moments of insight the true mystic feels that even if his body were tortured or burned, he could laugh and be at ease, knowing so surely that these dreadful experiences do not touch the fringe of the real being. Material life is seen as a temporary and recurring phase of cosmic duty — a state of isolated and struggling consciousness, a state however which is essential to evolution, though not at all the whole story.
Traherne must have experienced at least brief flashes of contact with his real self to have given us that immortal line: "The world is a mirror of infinite beauty." Man is indeed a part of the essence of being, and our physical body is seen as a clumsy contraption hooked on the outside of ourselves if we like, with space between it and our consciousness, with limbs and brains, etc., loosely attached. We remember the Holy Spirit says: "I am nearer to thee than hands and feet, closer than breathing."
Many people feel that events of this nature turn one into an idle dreamer, unfit for the responsibilities of life. But this should not be the case. If we let our feet drift off the ground of individual responsibility to our daily duty, we wander far from the truth. Such glimpses of the unity of all should make us willing to work all the harder, because they give a vision of the deep importance of the commonplace. Although life as we see and feel it is different from its source, yet material life is the surface of reality whose every phase has direct relationship to its foundation. Only by faithful service on the battlefield of illusion can a passage be won into the freedom of truth. Suffering must be gone through, and man must learn to find rest in that inner center amidst the burning darkness of emotion and desire, amidst pain of body and deception of mind. The little universe which is man must be controlled in all its parts. It is as though cosmic being had said: "You must learn to know me by being separated from me. Bring forth that in yourself which can re-unite you with me."
If the natural world is unreal, you say, how then can it have such great beauty? It is not unreal, but its appearance does not reflect what it is at heart. Every piece of work bears the stamp of its artificer. The beauty of nature is a conductor, therefore, of the whisperings of reality, and can calm and inspire the mind so that the essential message can be received.
Too often these experiences of momentary exaltation, vanishing so abruptly, leave us feeling trapped in our ordinary mentality, and we become a prey once more to our weaknesses, blinded by our ego which seemed so kindly to have disappeared for a moment giving us a taste of true sanity. This is natural and to be expected, for no one can live on the heights all the time. That is the object of sharp suffering amidst our dull daily life. Those moments when the windows of the soul do blow suddenly open give great encouragement, in spite of constant failure to live up to their message.
Why do we get these flashes of insight? They are part of the process of evolution, because as human beings we are rooted in that greater part of ourselves which is kin to the stars and worlds, the invisible part of Nature, in which we live and move and exist — as a fish moves in the ocean. Our present world and our ordinary selves are like ripples on the surface of being, and it is at rare moments only that a release of tension in the tight knot of personal feeling occurs, and then we see a little through the ripples into the ocean beyond.
God is not a separate being who creates us. He is that ocean of being out of which all creatures and worlds arise, into which they also return in age-long rhythmic sweeps of growth and rest. The ripples on the surface of being, representing ourselves and the worlds, endure for a time, and then smooth out. In other words, we die! But mighty design and purpose lie 'thinking' in that root essence, and after an age of blissful peace for us the vibrations of their guiding movements cause more ripples to form on the surface of being, and lo! here we are launched on another earth life; there, a new universe is wheeling into space!
There is undoubtedly something going on, as the old captain put it. "I had this idea, you know, that the stars were thinking. And the sea was thinking. And so was I thinking. Why, I said to myself, there's certainly something going on and we're all in it."
Mysticism is not necessarily connected with religion. True mysticism is the dawning ability to sense some of the movements of the genuine spiritual life of Nature. When a person experiences those moments of genuine spiritual insight he knows beyond all doubt that the message is true, though he can never inject his sureness into another. It is a living event which has pierced the darkness of his mortal nature, which experience he cannot make happen to another individual.
Our scientists are penetrating so deeply into the nature of matter that the language they use nowadays to describe their findings has become almost mystical, and at times truly poetic. It will not be long before they will outwardly support the insight of the true mystic.
Gerald Bullett has contributed a valuable study titled, The English Mystics, covering the period from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century. There is Wordsworth who sung of the "Eternal deep, haunted forever by the eternal Mind"; Tennyson's sentinel who "Whispers to the worlds of space, In the deep night, that all is well." To Emily Bronte a messenger of Hope comes "In that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars," and a host of others, Blake, Thomas Vaughan, William Law to mention only a few. Somehow for a few brief moments they touched the empyrean, leaving testimony for future generations that behind the mundane a vibrant world of spirit lives and has its being.
"Thought is the substance of the worlds," and the type of thought and feeling which we foster draws us to the position in the universe where we receive the discipline necessary to our own particular case. Like as not there are universes more material and dense than ours, and worlds far more spiritual than our own. Part of our job in evolution is helping to build our own universe to take its place among the best, by allying ourselves with our own spiritual nature, and thus fulfilling our proper function on this living planet Earth.
"God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Following the thought to its ultimate, is it not reasonable to conjecture that the responsibility for spinning and developing the universes is shared in degree by every human and animal, every angel and insect, every planet and star? That eternity is their playground, matter and spirit equally their home? That, in sober fact, there is indeed something going on, and we're all in it?
(From Sunrise magazine, November 1951; copyright © 1951 Theosophical University Press)