Barbara Ehrenreich had a vision, suspects it may reflect realities beyond our ken

April 7, 2014 • 10:51 am

Barbara Ehrenreich (b. 1941) is a very good writer, an atheist, and someone who seems eminently sensible. I was surprised, then, to see her piece in Sunday’s New York Times, “A rationalist’s mystical moment,” describing a shattering spiritual experience she had.

That experience occurred to in Lone Pine, California, the most beautiful town in the Owens Valley, flanked to the west by the near-vertical rise of the Sierra Nevada, and to the east by the barren deserts leading to Death Valley. I’ve spent a lot of time there, and it’s a good place for a “spiritual” moment, if you construe that misused word as “deeply moving.”

But Ehrenreich’s experience was far more intense:

Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.  It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.

Well, I’d ascribe that to some physiological reaction, as Ehrenreich suggests, but she suggests that it indicated something numinous—something out there that was real:

An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter. It was my scientific training, oddly enough, that eventually nudged me to consider this possibility. Sometime in middle age, when I had become a writer and amateur historian, I decided that the insanity explanation may have been a cop-out, that I could have seen something that morning in Lone Pine.

If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation. We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Science, I think, has always been ready to “take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences,” and we already know the source for some of them: mental illness, drugs, the power of suggestion, a trance-like state induced by meditation, and so on. What we don’t need is simply more subjective accounts, but more neuroscience.  And, indeed, if there were something transcendent that produces these experiences, presumably science would be interested in it. Perhaps, as Jeffrey Kripal suggested, our brains are radios picking up spiritual signals coming from other brains. And perhaps those brains are in dead people. Well, we could test that, by looking for reliable information from the dead, or even for evidence of ESP or other forms of inter-mind connections.  Yes, those could be tested, and have been. And they’ve shown no evidence for a non-natural, non-material source of our “uncanny experiences.” Still, we can’t rule them out completely, but, after so many searches, one reaches a point of diminishing returns, and loses enthusiasm for that search.

Ehrenreich continues:

Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

Or it could have been sleeplessness and hypoglycemia.

I’ll be very interested to see how Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality without Religion (coming out on Sept 9.) deals with such experiences. I’m hoping he’ll discuss Ehrenreich’s piece on his website.

h/t: Merilee

165 thoughts on “Barbara Ehrenreich had a vision, suspects it may reflect realities beyond our ken

  1. There’s a Holy Trinity that always accompanies these sorts of post-experience musings: ignorance, fear and vanity.

    It’s very human to want to understand weird experiences, it is both frustrating and frightening to not know exactly why the experience unfolds the way it did; and it’s galling to have to face the possibility that it means nothing except a malfunctioning body and brain.

    Why exactly would a body in a seriously compromised state (sleep and food deprived) be more capable rather than less of achieving new levels of competence?

    1. “There’s a Holy Trinity that always accompanies these sorts of post-experience musings: ignorance, fear and vanity. ”

      Grania, I have to quote this again and again. Wish I could give you a few cents every time I did. It’s the best way I have read to describe the nonsense that theists and woo meisters talk.

    2. That is an interesting observation, and no doubt quite often the case, but I would not use any of those three terms to describe Barbara Ehrenreich.

      1. There are degrees of those of course. One doesn’t have to be a knuckle-dragging ignoramus to wish for some sort of special meaning for a strange personal experience. It’s a very basic human impulse to want to make sense of it; but it is also a basic human impulse to wish for an explanation that makes one special rather than just a victim of a malfunctioning body.

  2. “Or it could have been sleeplessness and hypoglycemia.”

    And a 55-year gap between having the experience and writing it down. What Ehrenreich describes is not the experience itself, but a retrospective confabulation of what she now thinks it must have been like all those years ago.

    1. One of the warning signs that a memory has been confabulated or internally manipulated is, ironically, clarity. If the memory is so intense that you remember all sorts of small details as if it were yesterday … uh oh. That is not a sign that it’s extra-reliable.

      1. Exactly. Memory is not a video recording, and vividness does not imply accuracy. Memory is a story we tell ourselves about the past, and the more times we tell it, the more polished and idealized it becomes.

      2. Speaking of confabulation, reading the stories in Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hatrack” convinced me that there is no story or experience too strange for the human brain to invent and convince us with certainty, that it actually happened.

        1. I have read that book and many others of Sacks, but the man mistakes his wife for a hat, not a hat rack.

            1. “Hat” was the title of the book, but I could have sworn that in the actual account it was a hat rack, not a hat. I could be confabulating of course, it was several years ago when I read it.

              1. Here’s the passage in question:

                He also appeared to have decided that the examination was over and started to look around for his hat. He reached out his hand and took hold of his wife’s head, tried to lift it off, to put it on. He had apparently mistaken his wife for a hat!

                Draw your own conclusions.

  3. An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter.

    An alternative to both would be that we should stop calling reasonably common mental occurrences “insanity”. That stigmatizes them and makes people far more likely to reject a mental explanation for their experiences as reasonable. Its the conversational equivalent of rubbing feces over something – of course people are going to dislike it.

    Barbara, the module in your brain that assigns “importance” to experiences assigned an inordinately high importance to an experience that didn’t deserve it. It happens to pretty much everyone once or twice in their lives. Its the reason for PTSD, which thousands if not millions of people experiecne. This mismatch is not an every day occurrence, but its not insanity either. Its probably best described as a very useful adaptation that works correctly 99% of the time…and you’re upset about the 1%. Get over it.

  4. To quote the font of all true wisdom, i.e. Penny from The Big Bang Theory, Ehrenreich’s ‘realities beyond our ken’ can kiss my Barbie.

  5. Sorry this may be a repeat — I got an error message on first try.

    I am quite a bit older then Ehrenreich. Please, someone, stop me from babbling in public when dementia sets in.

    1. Yes, it sounds like a pretty good acid trip. All LSD does is to break down the usual filters we have on all the sensory data we’re receiving, so suddenly everything looks amazing and new. But it’s the same old world, we’re just seeing it in a new light.

  6. An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter. It was my scientific training, oddly enough, that eventually nudged me to consider this possibility.

    Barbara needs to drop acid or take dimethyltryptamine, and then discuss her “encounters” in an alternate dimension with Terence McKenna, an acknowledged expert in this field.

    Or… she can talk to Sam Harris.


    1. Or talk to our host.

      “We need more data and more subjective accounts.”

      Like for example, The walls are fucking brown!

  7. I dunno… after a couple of decades of meditation and knowing hundreds of spiritual types, my impression is that some people could sneeze and think they were enlightened.

    It’s always the most shallow ones who go blabbing about their “experiences”. Well, the “experience” itself is one thing; the memory of it quite another, and the interpretation of the memory something different altogether.

    Why not just stick with “Wow”, or whatever? If spirituality means anything at all, it should be about dropping the egotistical need to get attention for such “special experiences”. I find all such talk even more dull than listening to acid freaks talk about their trips.

    1. Bingo!
      She’s easily impressed! If I learned anything from my own “trips”, it was that my brain was responsible for my experience, all of the time, especially when I was having extraordinary experiences. I wasn’t having encounters with anything but myself. I recall thinking at the time that perhaps in the train of thought I had lost my mind, and then it turned out years later – reading stuff like this above – that I had done just that! Or at the very least I misplaced it. 😉

  8. Any mystical or non-physiological explanation for these kinds of experiences are suspect in my mind given that so many of these experiences occur when the person is in a state of reduced physical and/or mental operation. Seems to me that such experiences should occur more frequently, or least as often when individuals are operating at or very near maximum physical and mental proficiency.

  9. I admit that these sort of mystical, transcendent, profound experiences are one of my most sought after experiences. But I do see them as internal (though obviously influenced and aided by outside stimuli, music and travel foremost, natural wonder and awe). I can seek the numinous experience without actually needing divinity.

    1. Exactly! We can seek rare and self-transformative mental experiences without believing that we’re in contact with beings from “beyond our ken”. Besides, after reading a few of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, I think having an “encounter” with extradimensional beings would be absolutely horrifying.

      “Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena.”

      I don’t understand how explaining mystical experiences as mental phenomena constitutes a dismissal. The brain is a pretty fascinating organ, and the minds that they in all likelihood produce are equally fascinating phenomena. It seems to me that the people who need an experience to be “out there” beyond the realm of consciousness are tacitly dismissing mental phenomena unless they correspond to some imagined “higher” reality.

      1. I don’t understand how explaining mystical experiences as mental phenomena constitutes a dismissal.

        You hear this kind of griping from religious/spiritual people alot. I think they want science to just throw it’s hands up and admit “we can’t figure this out, therefore: God/spirits etc.” They claim frustration that science ignores all of these deeper mysteries of the Universe (though to my knowledge, science has and continues to investigate them, reaching conclusions that the spiritualist doesn’t like.) I’m guessing it’s a cake-both-ways personality thing on behalf of the spiritualist. They want to be pro-science but also want to remain open to other possibilities and will refuse to accept when science says the best answer is “it’s all in our heads.” Something tells me that even if science DOES someday figure out the complex chemical/physical process in the brain that causes mystical experiences, the spiritualists will just add another layer to the mystery (why some people and not others, why would the brain evolve this way etc.) to continue to kick the can one more step out of the reach of an acceptable answer and thus retaining the mystery.

  10. “..the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place..”

    Oh dear. Do you suppose “vacuum energy” is going to be the new “quantum”?

  11. “I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic ”

    that suffices as an explanation.

    I remember my periods of sleep paralysis. Quite horrifying and real…until I managed to wake up.

    1. I similarly remember hallucinations caused by a bout of strep. Although I was aware at the time that I was hallucinating, I was none the less terrified.

      So, Barbara, was that “some kind of encounter”? A transcendent event?

      1. I have recently attempted to switch bp meds ( with my doc’s assistance). Getting off even very low doses of beta blockers can cause a so- called rebound effect. My normally 70ish resting pulse shot up to 125 and I felt as if my head was in a vice. As I tried to get to sleep I starting doing what I can only call hallucinating. I somehow ” knew” that I needed to use the random number generator on my graphing calculator to get either an even or odd # between 1: and 10, and this would determine “how” I would fall asleep. I got 5, and somehow managed to fall asleep in an “odd” manner. The next morning I took a tiny sliver of the med and was back to normal. My bf wondered what the hell I was doing with my TI-85 in the middle of the night. Even though I knew it was nuts, it felt right at the time…Never had anything like this happen before. Clearly chemical. Had a good laugh about it the next day:-)

        1. Welcome to the fast pulse party! I naturally have a fast pulse (normal BP though) & once I heard this really loud banging when I was trying to fall asleep. It turned out to be the sound of my heart thumping in my head!

          1. I’ve experienced that.

            Like kraut, I also have occasional episodes of sleep paralysis, and on a few of those occasions I remember thinking “who is banging on the front door?” or “who is playing the bass drum?” But I would soon realize “oh, that’s my heartbeat.” And then I’d wonder “why can’t I move?” And most of the time I’d realize “oh, I’m actually asleep.” But sometimes I would then think “no, this time I really am awake, so why can’t I move?”

            Some people describe sleep paralysis as scary, but I don’t know if I’d use that word. I am always very concerned about my inability to move.

            1. I’ve just read some if the other sleep paralysis stories in this thread.

              I guess I’m just lucky that my episodes haven’t involved frightening characters.

              1. Yeah, after hearing so much about sleep paralysis, I fear ever experiencing it!

              2. Don’t. If you experience it, try to recognize what’s happening. And then start daydreaming. Your daydream will be far more realistic and vivid than any normal daydream.


              3. I’m scared of the old hag I’ve heard so much about. I also hate it when you get dreams within dreams within dreams. It is like doing somersaults in water & not being able to find the way out then fearing you will suffocate.

              4. I must admit, I’ve never heard of this old hag.

                The only time I remember having a dream within a dream within a dream was during what I now suspect was likely a bought of Valley Fever — and it likely was triggered by some variation on the sleep paralysis theme. I kept waking up from the one dream, only to find myself in another. Again, I don’t think that would bother me any more; I’d just say, “Hey, cool — I’m dreaming. So what do I want to do?” I don’t have the discipline to maintain control of the dream much past that point, but that’s okay; once I’m there, it’s just dreaming as usual.

                One thing that might help ease your mind: you may well experience hallucinations of urgent or scary sounds (alarms, a burglar, whatever) that need your attention and for you to desperately wake up and deal with them, but you can know that they’re just hallucinations. If they were real, you’d really wake up. *Actual* sounds coming in through your auditory nerve trigger enough brain circuitry to fully wake you up and break you out of sleep paralysis. If you can’t wake up, it’s because the sounds aren’t real.


              5. I get elevator dreams when I’m stressed. Wither the elevator tumbles or the floors open up. I get them sometimes in the dream within a dream as I’ve often said in a dream that I get these exact elevator dreams, wake up in another dream, thinking I’m actually awake but nope. I’ve even had dreams where I dream I’m sleeping and really tired. I think most of this is stress related.

                Oh I hardly ever wake up. It is actually disturbing how soundly I sleep. My dog has barked right by my ear in response to hearing coyotes and barely woken me up. I often sleep through loud thunderstorms and wonder why everything outside is so wet.

              6. Definitely stress, likely (ironically enough) coupled with chronic sleep deprivation.

                But why should you wake up because of a thunderstorm? Unless your house itself has been struck, it’s just noise. And I’m guessing the d*g regularly barks for what’s ultimately no good reason — but the time it was coyotes, that was enough to wake you up.


              7. Yeah, it’s a good thing I have a dog to wake me up; nothing else will….except my alarm for some reason.

              8. I’m sure the fire alarm would, as well as the bedroom window actually shattering. If your dog and your alarm clock can wake you up, your brain will have no trouble rousing you in any real emergency.


              9. I hate alarm clocks so much that i always wake up 5 min bofore they are scheduled to go off.

              10. I look at the bright side and try to figure out how to enable my incredible “will flying” skills for use when I’m awake. So far the technique fails me, but there is hope. I may get a message from another universe that provides the key.

              11. I’m always confined to my bed and can only see my actual surroundings when I experience sleep paralysis. This is because my eyes are actually slightly open, which I think is one of the defining characteristics of sleep paralysis. Apparently, some people sometimes mistake objects in the room for menacing figures.

                Simply having a dream in which you realize you’re dreaming is not sleep paralysis, AIUI.

            2. The first few times I experienced sleep paralysis, it scared the shit out of me. But that was a couple decades ago…since then, I’ve learned to use it as an excuse to attempt lucid dreaming. I haven’t had much success with that, mostly because it happens so rarely. But, the instant I figure out what’s going on (and it rarely takes long any more), I’m trying to walk out the front door and fly around the neighborhood, and usually soon thereafter get lost in some typical dream fantasy.


        2. I still remember one night after spending waaaaaaaay too much time on the computer on some project that I’ve long since forgotten laying in bed and trying to go to sleep by selecting “Shut down” from the “Special” menu, and wondering why it wouldn’t work.


          1. 5 years ago when my daughter was an infant, and I was therefore very sleep-deprived, I spent a few seconds trying to figure out why I couldn’t turn the bathroom faucet off…with the light switch.

            1. When my kids were small I poured grapefruit juice onto my cereal and also tried to enter my school photocopier code into my alarm system keypad and couldn’t figure out why it kept beeping…Alzheimer’s of parenthood…

    2. Yup. And if she was just arriving in Lone Pine, at that point she would have just finished several hours of almost endlessly hypnotic driving. It’s one of those 3-4 hour stretches of road that feels infinitely longer and most people who stop in Lone Pine on the way to Mammoth from LA seem to feel a bit loopy.

      Oh wait…it must be a vortex!! 😉

  12. So painful neurological quirks are signs of a physical problem, and the non-painful ones are spiritual experiences? Are people who get visual migraines actually having transcendent visions? Hey, maybe we should revisit the idea that seizures are a sign of possession by an outside entity!

    A brief episode of dizziness with mild changes in perception of light and sound might be uncomfortable for some people and offer a “rush” for others. The cause might be hunger, fatigue, stress, oxygen deprivation, altitude sickness, low blood pressure, or other temporary physical problem. The hypochondriac fears that cancer or dementia might be setting in. The “seeker” credits a “spiritual experience”. A more rational person decides it’s time to rest, get something to eat, and pet a kitty.

    1. Yes, it’s a form of theistic attribution bias. Positive events are caused by God; negative events are caused by nature.

      Of course some conservative fundies are happy to lay the negative events at God’s feet, but for most mainstream Christians, as you say, the good hallucination is from God while the bad one is from brain chemistry.

    2. I get migraines, and once I also got a bizarre hallucination as well, it never occurred to me to suppose it was anything real.

      1. I read a great Scientific American article about the causes of migraines (I am a chronic migraine sufferer – I get about 14 per month so I’m in migraine mode about half of the month). I actually bought the electronic copy so I had it as reference. The beginning of the article is here but the rest requires purchase.

        1. You poor thing, the drugs etc don’t help? Really you have my sympathy. I’m lucky that I don’t get very many and they’re easily dispatched with Nurophen/Advil. I also learned never to go to bed with a headache expecting it to be gone in the morning, I will wake up at 4.00am with a migraine. Thx for the link. I have university library access so I will be able to read it all.

          1. It’s my understanding that “real” migraines aren’t responsive to NSAIDs such as Advil. Also, visual artifacts (“auras”) are common with migraines but never a part of a non-migraine headache. I think there may also be some other factors that set migraines aside from “regular” headaches, not the least of which is their incredible agony.

            (About three or four times in my life I’ve experienced the castellation-style aura associated with migraines but without the headache, and I’ve never had a migraine headache. I almost never get regular headaches and they’re not all that miserable when I get them…but they’re still bad enough that there’re damned few people on whom I’d wish the real deal.)



            1. You can get aura without migraines. I worked with a guy that would have that happen. Of course I just get the pain without the aura. There is also a correlation with people who get migraines (especially migraines with aura) and epilepsy. My mom has had seizures later in life after suffering with migraines all her life. I’ve read that migraines can cause lesions on the brain which seems odd so I don’t know if this is true because I can’t remember where I read it.

              Basically what separates migraines from other headaches is they are a neurobiological condition because of transmissions in the brain that gets interpreted as pain. For me, and most migraine sufferers, the sympathetic nervous system likes to join in & make me throw up. When I had them for every day for 2 years, I’d painfully get ready in the morning, put on makeup then puke & have to redo the makeup. I refuse to work under migraine conditions such as these anymore but because I’ve found medication that works, I rarely miss work because of a migraine though I warn those around me that my pain is gone but all the fun dumbness is still there so I can’t reason well or find words all the time. I’ve decided if I’m leading meetings, I have to get someone in there to help me or I need to cancel as I find it hard to follow what is going in.

              1. I didn’t know about the connection between migraines and epilepsy. My mother has had auras without headaches as well, but her mother had epilepsy.

                Come to think of it, the last time I had an aura, I had a bit of trouble mentally focussing as well. Nothing significant; just barely noticeable, and it went away as the aura itself faded. It’s been so long since the others that I can’t remember if that was the case for those or not. I’ll have to try to remember to pay more attention to that next time, if there is one….


              2. Yeah, some people call those “silent migraines”. A couple of family friends get auras that are severe enough that they need to lay down. Then they get the crummy migraine. Here is some info about those kind of migraines. From the sci american article I read, auras are thought to come from the “cortical spreading depression” across the cortex (at 2-3 mm per minute, which is a wave of excessive signal across a large area of the brain which causes those areas to become overactive. Then suddenly this over stimulation is followed by complete silence. The visual illusions you see when you have an aura are consistent with neuronal inactivity in the visual cortex areas that just experienced the hyper excitability.

              3. For me, it’s a lot like those depicted here:


                especially the black-and-white one of the industrial landscape by Delia Malchert. The Yin/Yang ones not at all. It starts as an almost-imperceptably small spot almost in the center of my vision, but offset a bit to the lower right. It then expands into a ring. The ring keeps expanding until it’s outside my field of vision, and that’s the end of it; takes maybe half an hour at most. Happens maybe once every few years at most. The first time it happened it was freaky…I remember calling my parents (I didn’t have insurance at the time and didn’t know if I needed to head to the ER), and Mom knew exactly what it was. Since then, it’s just been a bit annoying.

                That bit from the SciAm article rings perfectly true.

                The Daily Fail article you linked to describes an heightened risk of stroke associated with migraines with aura. Grandma likely had multiple minor strokes in her later years. Mom hasn’t had any sign of any, and I’m pretty sure she’s older than her mother was when her health started to deteriorate. Mom takes much better care of herself than Grandma did, which likely has something to do with it…regardless, I’ll have to make sure to not put myself at any higher risk for stroke than this already would make me….


              4. Yeah you definitely are getting the “silent migraine”. Hopefully it stays silent!

              5. …and rare. I could probably even put up with non-silent ones if I can count all of the ones I get between now and Medicare eligibility on one hand, which is about the pace I’m on right now….


            2. You are mistaken about “real” migraines not being responsive to NSAIDS, it depends on the person. Different people respond to different drugs and some poor unfortunates don’t respond to anything. The distinguishing characteristics of migraines are the nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. I am fortunate that mine respond well, though not quickly, it usually takes about an hour. I also know to take the drugs early and so forestall the onset.

              My migraines are mostly about excruciating pain and nausea. My mother gets visual migraines where she loses her central vision but has no pain and my father got migraines that caused pain in his eye. My son started getting them when he was 18 months old! It took me a while to realise what was happening because he would start screaming, cry for about 15 minutes, throw up, and then go to sleep for a couple of hours and be fine. It is unusual for them to start that early but not unheard of. The one time I had a hallucination with my migraine it was highly atypical. Mostly they consist of spiky geometric patterns but mine was a rotating circle of alternating wooden chairs and plastic drink bottles hanging in the air! It was fascinating and I would have like to watch if for longer, but I was in too much pain so I went and took the drugs. Thank gods for drugs.

              1. Wow! 18 months and getting migraines! That’s rough! I didn’t start getting them until my 20s on occasion though I didn’t know that’s what they were. Then in my 30s they started coming on strong. I still didn’t know that’s what they were. Then by the time I was 36, I had them every day & went to my doctor who diagnosed them as migraines & gave me meds. I then went to a neurologist who put me on the preventative that made me skinny (yay) but dumb (boo) so I went off that. Later, I went on Lyrica which made me fat (boo) and I eventually stopped that. Now I’m able to manage with just Relpax. I think the migraines would decrease if I had less stress. I am a so-called type A personality so I over do everything I do. 🙂 I’m trying to work on that. I’ve been off sick with the flu for 3 days now & I actually decided to take the time off work and stay confined to the house. I’m hoping to return to work tomorrow.

              2. Yeah I’m sure stress is an issue with migraines, mine tend to come at the end, more stress-relief migraines. I do yoga and meditation which helps.

          2. I actually consider myself luckier than many because I do have medication that works very well — it goes by the tradename, Relpax but it’s an eletriptan. I believe it was originally created for blood pressure or something like that as it constricts swelling of blood vessels in the brain (and I suspect elsewhere)….of course, this turned out to not be what actually allows it to work – it blocks transmission from jerk neurotransmitters that ultimately cause the pain. I take a 40 mg pill as soon as I feel a migraine coming on (tightening of neck muscles & nausea as well as sensitivity to smells are my early signs). It will stop the migraine from developing further. If I take it after the head pain of a migraine has started, it will kill the pain (but not the other symptoms) within 30 minutes….on occasion it has taken longer. The downside is it is expensive. I have a drug plan but they won’t pay if I take too many! They are around $250 for 6 pills.

            I used to have migraines every day for 2 years. I went on a preventative, which was cool because it makes you lose weight but intolerable because it made me have a hard time communicating – I couldn’t find words & since I’m such a smart ass, this was troubling…well that & my job requires me to analyze & communicate.

            The article is pretty good because the diagrams really show it all – there is disagreement about where the migraine starts: the brain stem or the cortex but regardless, the process is the same. I’m hoping for some targeted good medication in the future!

            1. Holy shit — $42 / pill / headache!? That alone would give me an headache!

              …but, just from an economics perspective, it’d be insanely cheaper to just give you the medication for free than for society to not only do without the taxes you pay (because of you losing your job from migraines) but also having to support you as an homeless bum (because of you not being able to afford to pay rent because of having no job because of migraines). It would also place an incentive for society to figure out a cheaper way to prevent you from getting migraines, rather than an incentive for the drug manufacturer to jack their prices because you can’t afford to live without the drugs.

              …but that would be socialized medicine, which is the evil love child of Satan Hussein Obama and Adolf Stalin….


              1. Oh yeah, migraines are a huge economic drain. This from the Migraine Research Foundation:

                Many people fail to realize that migraine is a neurological disease, like epilepsy. Every 10 seconds, someone in the United States goes to the emergency room with a headache or migraine. Migraine sufferers visit the emergency room because of the severity of the pain or the fear of unremitting pain, drug reactions or side effects from headache medications, severe nausea or vomiting, dehydration, and/or stroke-like neurological symptoms that might accompany the headache.

                Migraine ranks in the top 20 of the world’s most disabling medical illnesses. Amazingly, over 10% of the population, including children, suffers from migraine. Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. households includes someone with migraine. In addition to the attack-related disability, many sufferers live in fear knowing that at any time an attack could disrupt their ability to work or go to school, care for their families, or enjoy social activities. More than 90% of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during their migraine attacks.

                It is true that when you get in pain and you fear it won’t stop – that is terrifying. I always fear I’ll go back to a constant migraine like I had before. When I start getting them a lot, I get really worried (which probably just causes more migraines).

              2. There’d be an incredibly powerful argument to be made for healthcare as a macroeconomic enterprise. Take the afflictions that cause the greatest economic drain, both directly from costs of treatment and indirectly through loss of productivity and the societal costs of poverty. In that set, make a best guess as to which ones are most amenable to the least costly forms of amelioration, and fund those fully. Invest the profits in dealing with the next ones on the list; lather, rinse, repeat.

                Just your snipped there hints at how effective such an approach would be with migraines. Even if it costs $40 / person / headache, we’d make that back in lost taxes (and lost corporate productivity and therefore profits) alone so quickly it’s not even funny. And you know that it wouldn’t take long for the beancounters to start throwing money at the $40 / person / headache, with an actual permanent cure being the holy grail. Even if said cure cost tens of thousands of dollars per person, it’d still be wildly profitable.


              3. Yes, I agree with all that. Unfortunately, trying to convince politicians is the issue. They only see short term because they only serve short term and on top of that, if they tend toward conservative values, would view those getting “free” medication for non life threatening illnesses as cheaters to the system.

              4. The short-minded selfishness of so many people never ceases to amaze and depress me.

                I fear too many people measure their happiness not in terms of what they have and could have, but rather in terms of how much more they have than everybody else. Give some of these people the chance to double their material wealth, but those with half their wealth would also incidentally see a 150% percent increase instead of “only” a 100% increase, and far too many would turn down such a chance.

                I vaguely recall that Piaget or Maslow or somebody else researched such a developmental stage in children, one that some outgrow and others don’t. Depressingly large numbers don’t, actually….


              5. Wasn’t there some experiment with either chimps or gorillas in which they would get POed if their buddys got more of something than they did?

              6. I’m definitely remembering that experiment done not with apes but with monkeys, and with grapes. I’m sure that’s enough to prompt somebody else into scaring up the actual link — indeed, I’m sure Jerry posted about it at the time….


              7. I think you’re right, Ben: monkeys and grapes, and possibly Jerry did post it.

              8. Yes capuchins. If you google it, you’ll get the link pretty fast & Jerry has posted about it as well.

              9. You’ve hit an something that is sad but true and it has finally made me realize why people are this way — you said they measure their happiness (wealth to them) vis a vis others’ wealth. That is the sad fact. I’ve seen it over and over with certain personality types. Honestly, after a certain annual income, you don’t need much more other than to save it up for retirement. I guess this is the down side to human nature and the capitalism that suits us so well.

              10. I have an acquaintance like that. It’s always ” but of course I never get to do that , have that, etc…” It can be a real downer to be around her.

              11. What also strikes me is how many who have more than said income are so profligate with it, spending it on immediate irrelevancies rather than first ensuring sustained minimum levels of comfort. What’s more, done right and you have significantly more available for luxuries to boot. Pay off your mortgage, and, not only can you live rent free but it’s like putting all that saved interest (typically more than the purchase price!) in the bank — and, psychologically, it’s like having what used to be your mortgage payments as extra income. And, suddenly, job security isn’t so much of a concern, either; you don’t need to put in >50-hour weeks lest you be fired and instantly reduced to poverty.

                And all you have to do is buy the smallest house that doesn’t make you uncomfortable (as opposed to the biggest house your lender will approve you for) and pretend like you’re on your college budget for a few years. Small price to pay for financial independence and practically-mythical financial gains.


            2. That is expensive. Don’t you Canadians (you are Canadian right?) have a proper health service? In Australia Eletriptan is listed on the PBS and costs $20 for a box of 4x80mg tablets.

              1. Our prices for medication can be bad in Canada though it’s better than the US (Americans try to buy medication here). Because there is no generic for Relpax, Pfizer really soaks up the profit. I’m sure a generic will be available soon though as Relpax was created in 2003 or so.

  13. You can also order a limited one-time special edition fo Sam’s upcoming book. Check his website. I think this edition will preceed the regular one.

  14. I’ve seen this column in the Times for several days now and declined to click on it (ditto for anything Douthat writes). What I do not understand is why the Times has gone “spiritual.” The monthly blather from the west coast anthropologist is yet another example of dithering spirituality. And, of course, there are more. I have written the Times to no avail, but perhaps they get their cues from the “Best Seller” list.

    1. The popular assumption is that “spirituality” is the wise and sophisticated position, the one between the childish and angry extremes of religious fundamentalism on the one side and new atheism on the other. The Fallacy of the Golden Middle: it flatters the typical reader.

  15. Barbara really should have checked with others before declaring her mystic experience in Lone Pine. It is one of those places on earth where the clear air and natural beauty of the place takes your breath away. I first stopped there in 1972 where my wife and I even debated moving there. But there are so many other places in The West; Joshua Tree and the Anza Borrego Desert; the great rivers of Wash. State; Carmel, Cal; Taos, NM, and the endless canyons of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah with red bluffs and Nile-Green rivers. Back in Europe many Americans swoon at Florence and Venice. It ain’t no mystic experience; it’s a natural human reaction!

    1. Lone Pine is lovely. We are going to Onion Valley (near Mt. Whitney) in September to camp a couple days. I look forward to the kind of transcendent experiences (some with, some without chemical assistance) that we always enjoy in that area.

  16. What I found odd about her whole piece is she doesn’t actually conclude anything, just makes a bunch of assertions and suggestions. It seems she knows the real answer but doesn’t like it.

    1. I hope so; otherwise, this is very disappointing.

      On the other hand, her book “Nickled and Dimed” was excellent.

  17. I often like the word “spiritual” but it important that it not be construed as involving any mind-body dualism postulating anything beyond the body where spirit is some extra and special “substance”. Nor should it be construed as “ethereal”.

    Atheists Bertrand Russell (“Mysticism and Logic”) and Sam Harris (book JC cited) seem comfortable with using the term “spirituality” but it’s a term often employed in the service of narcissistic woo.

    I withhold judgment on Ehrenreich till I’ve had time to read more of her book and/or see her speak in Berkley on April 23rd.

  18. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

    Um … Barbara Ehrenreich IS invoking something supernatural, if that’s defined as a reality with some pure mental substrate. The belief that “mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness” which are not connected to our own brain and our own states of consciousness is classic supernaturalism. It doesn’t matter if you label it “Nature” or not.

    And I’ve got some more news for her: a universe which “is itself pulsing with a kind of life” would be called “God” by many people.

    Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

    Ready, willing, able, been there, and done that!

    Is Barbara Ehrenreich ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences if it doesn’t go the way she wants? Or will she cop out?

    There never was an “insanity explanation.” That’s on par with CS Lewis insisting that if Jesus was “insane” he would have been gibbering that he was a hard-boiled egg. Nuances, people, and degrees of anomalous experiences. The very fact that she uses that phrase makes it sound to me like she was setting up a straw man in order to say it was the “cop out.”

  19. I’ve had many a mystical moment, and as near as I can figure, they are all related to several double vodka martini’s in a row. I’ll say this, it’s a staggering experience. Usually ends in a headache.

    1. indeed. I can say that I have had a “mystical experience” when I was quiet at the National Zoo and had the leopard come up to me and no one else. I also can say that I have felt sure that I have died in a plane crash in a WWII plane.

      Interesting experiences but explainable to be other than being Sekhmet’s own priestess or a GI who was in a B25.

  20. Before I became an atheist, I had an experience that sent me through 4 or 5 years of what I call my “new age phase”. I was very upset about a possible bad medical outcome and went to a field to walk off my fear. Instead I ended up sitting on the ground sobbing hysterically. Suddenly I felt my whole body stretch out through time and space. I was everywhere at the same time and knew everything about the universe that could be known. Seriously, that’s what it felt like. I also felt a deep sense of serenity and “love”. It only lasted a split second, but it sure changed my world. I later found a book by Edgar Mitchell (astronaut) who described a similar experience just looking out the window of the space capsule. He went on to found that huge WOO institution, the Institute of Noetic Sciences. I was into that for awhile until I started to realize that what happened to me was most likely a surge of some kind of chemicals in my brain as a result of my deep fear. There is still so little that we know about the brain, but I can tell you that it was such a great experience that I truly wish I could make my brain do it again.

          1. Um, I think I like my experience better. Not anywhere near as violent. In fact all I had to do was a lot of sobbing and falling into the depths of fear to reach whatever state I was in. No thunderbolts or monsters or screaming. Just a quick and very quiet weird inner experience in the middle of a field. Can’t seem to replicate the experience, which renders it moot I guess in terms of scientific study.

            By the way, did the Highlander’s experience do anything for him?

            1. What is the same is he says “he knows everything”. Yeah, his experience is his gift for being “the one” after he cuts off the heads of all his competition immortals. He essentially becomes a god.

  21. If the brain is so amazingly powerful that we can perceive signals from other forms of consciousness in the universe, such a brain would also presumably be powerful enough to just make us feel like we are doing so. Occam’s Razor, and all that…

  22. When I was a mere lass, I was waiting to cross a very busy 2nd Avenue in the East Village (Manhattan). The traffic’s rumbling was vibrating the concrete which was vibrating my lunch-less body. It was about 90 degrees F, the air was foul, and hissing puffs of steam were (this was NYC after all) ‘kissing’ my bare legs.

    I began to see the asphalt curving into forested hills replete with pre-historic animals. I felt that the vibrations were the animals speaking to me, telling me that life was not what I thought it was if only I…

    My stomach interrupted my ruminations and said, get yourself a sandwich and my mind added move to a house with a garden which I eventually did. I am feeling so much better now. 🙂

  23. An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter.

    Did anyone else report the surroundings flame into life? No? Then it was a personal experience. Personal experiences, particularly of transcendence, can be thrilling or terrifying, but they are not a reliable guide to reality. If they reflected some increase in evolutionary fitness they would probably be more common…

  24. Whenever I hear about experiences like this it reminds me of how I used to think when I was a christian. I felt elevated or better somehow simply for believing that my “spiritual” experiences were real. It made me feel special without having to do any of the work to improve myself in a substantive way.

  25. Years ago, in a small grim room in a small field station in Spain, I woke in the darkness to find a huge creature, horrent and hunched, grunting over me – it had claws on its shaggy arms and its face was an amorphous blob of writhing fur and teeth. It stood up and stalked back and forth in the gloom and then withdrew through a hole, apparently burned through one of the walls. Because of this I am now convinced of the existence of werebears. Either that or it was a fleeting bout of sleep paralysis after a long night on cheap beer.

  26. That’s disappointing coming from Ehreneich. I don’t have any issue with anyone who wants to pursue a “transcendent experience” but at least have the sense to realize it’s happening within your own brain. There’s no evidence at all that “mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness” any more than it gives us evidence that there is a god or gods as she rightly says. It’s just a brain with too much adrenaline (or some other chemical) being released into it. I had plenty of “experiences” when I was a church goer and it’s clear now what generated all that- the energy of performance, the repetition of song, the emotion charged atmosphere- lots of stuff.

  27. Several years ago, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they had part of a Buddhist temple from Tibet. As I stepped into the temple, I immediately experienced deja vu; I had the distinct feeling that I had been in the temple, centuries ago, in Tibet. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I can see why people do–the feeling was very real.

    Another time, I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a baby sitting on a chair next to my bed. He and I looked at each other for a few seconds, then he faded away. If I believed in ghosts, I would have been sure I had seen a ghost; if I were religious, I might have interpreted it as a vision. I’m a skeptic, so I assume that I was still half-asleep and dreaming. But I can see how people could have these experiences and convince themselves that something “supernatural” was happening.

    1. I sometimes experience sleep paralysis but am fortunate to know that’s what’s going on.
      It doesn’t make the experience any less frightening though.
      Just recently I fully believed that a huge man with a big knife was running at me as I lay in bed.
      I recall reading a study where people who said they had been abducted by aliens were tested for sleeping disorders and sure enough, most if not all of them experienced sleep paralysis. The interesting thing was that when they were told of this they wouldn’t believe it and said ‘no, it really was aliens’.
      Wikipedia mentions that it is also probably the cause of the belief in succubus and incubus.
      I don’t get the feeling of pressure on my chest although my neighbour does.

      1. In 1991 I wrote this, without decades of confabulation intervening:
        “…dream last night of an invisible animate weight on my chest – I dreamt it was keeping me awake, but when I forced myself to wake fully because it was frightening-if-true a sleeping bag [in the dream] became a sheet, and the crushing weight became the window rattling in a southerly.”
        I’ve had various other fever-dreams and chemical visions, but that’s the first and last (as far as I recall or can trace records at this moment) that was close to ‘classic’ sleep paralysis. Note that ‘forced myself to wake fully’ clearly implies an experience of difficulty in rousing, after realising I was at least partly asleep.

  28. “Or it could have been sleeplessness and hypoglycemia”

    all of which can cause pure stupidity and pointless anger. To claim that one has a magical experience is about as impressive as saying one has missed a few days of food.

  29. I used to live in Lone Pine, and her description reminds me of a spectacle I saw regularly there — sunrise in the Eastern Sierra!

    “the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.” “… just this blazing everywhere.” etc.

    It is grand and can set off some pretty strong feelings.

  30. Try this:

    1. Camp in a cave (in a forested area when leaves are in their normal summer state) for more than a week, using only light from lamps, far from any entrances.

    2. Exit the cave during the morning of a sunny day.

    3. Experience the overwhelming greenness of the world.

    I have done that (more than once).

    That would be the closest I have ever come to any kind of amazing experience that I could evenly remotely characterize as “spiritual”.

    I had no tendency to consider it “spiritual”, however.

    Note: generally there is nothing green underground away from cave entrances.

    It would appear that one can experience “green deprivation”.

  31. East of Lone Pine are the Inyo Mountains, which, though no Sierras, nevertheless include several peaks above 10K feet, ancient bristecone pines, etc. Beyond those is the northern Mojave Desert, but if you’re paying attention it’s hardly “barren”.

  32. Barbara can take comfort that she’s not alone.

    I heard an estimate this afternoon that as many as one in 8 people experience “visions” (i.e. hallucinations interpreted as spiritually significant by those experiencing them) at some point in their lives.

    By the way, I learned this from Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies, UNC-Chapel Hill, who was the guest on Fresh Air today. Kudos to NPR and Terry Gross — it’s a great interview that I’m sure will result in a lot of hate mail to them from the fundies.

    “[Historians] don’t invoke miracle because it’s beyond what historians can prove. Miracles may have happened in the past, but they’re not part of history. So that applies to the resurrection of Jesus. Historians acting as historians — whether they’re believers or nonbelievers — acting as historians, they simply cannot say Jesus was probably raised by God from the dead. But historians can look at other aspects of the resurrection traditions and see whether they bear up, historically.”

    (Spoiler alert: they don’t.)

    1. I’m sorry, but I wasn’t even able to make fifteen minutes into it. He might or not be a Christian, but everything he’s saying is pure Christian apologetics, and he especially places absurd and unwarranted amounts of credence and trust in the Gospels. He assumes the conclusions as givens. He might as well be talking about Hercules’s labors.

      Ah, shit…he just mentioned Josephus and Philo, and failed to note that neither noticed any flavor of Jesus, including his own bizarre and un-evidenced “human preacher” modern synthetic Jesus. He’s just so painfully clueless — and, yes, I know, he’s supposed to be one of the best experts. But all he knows about it is what he learned in Sunday School, and hasn’t even pretended to ask any sort of critical questions about any of it.



  33. Groan – not Barbara Ehrenreich too! Why do people search for a mystical explanation for a simply rare experience!!! We are a bunch of chemicals and interpretations, and occasionally they interact to produce a gosh-wow experience. And our narcissism tells us that it is just so special, that it can’t be natural, and we intensely personalise it. Our mind conjures up super-narratives about being so special that the universe is speaking to us. All of us who have had the ‘in love’ experience will remember just how gosh-wow it was, and manage to understand that it was nature wanting us to bond and breed. Some fools spend their lives trying to recapture it.

    And I’m allergic to the word ‘spiritual’. I don’t mind ‘transcendent’ – hey I walk in the forest to have that feeling. Every week we walk up Mt Coo-tha in Brisbane and allow the trees to ‘talk’ to us, focus away from our nonsense onto the beauty of the forest.

    So disappointed that Barbara would tell such a personalised story, rather than saying that she had an experience and here are the hypotheses.

    The ancient Greeks talked about ‘the good, the true and the beautiful’ – and amongst the ordinary dross, it’s there. Just not when discussing politics.

    1. Brisbane and Mt Cootha are wonderful. I visted there in November 2008 as summer was coming in. Wonderful friendly people, I would love to return.

  34. I too look forward to Sams “Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality without Religion” if only at last get some idea of what he has been suggesting in his ongoing references to the benefits of meditation and the “rationality within Buddhism”. I am more than a bit skeptical that the disclosure will prove illuminating in anything but the fact that Sam Harris, notwithstanding some very clear thinking on the subjects of science and religion, also holds some pretty weird views on other matters.

    1. I actually think Sam is going to convince me & he’s going to make a very sound secular argument. We’ll see….I find him very persuasive. I ordered the special edition so I’ll wait until September to find out!

      1. Yes, Sam is always very persuasive. And he always always starts from a most secular sort of viewpoint. But his convictions sometimes drift into some very strange places. If you didn’t know who he was as he delivers a seminar on consciousness and the meditative connections to the world – say if you just walked into a lecture room with the lights dimmed and you didn’t see that it was our dear Sam talking, well -you just might think it was all a total load of new-age woo. I’m a hardened sceptic and now I hardly can accept Sam Harris as a complete rationalist anymore. Here’s a link to one of “those talks” that makes me think that.
        Start at about minute 29 and pretend it’s not Sam Harris doing the talking… then form your own opinion.
        Anyhow – the jury is still out, we await the book – and it should prove an interesting read.

        1. That’s all textbook-standard relaxation / self-hypnosis / meditation / awareness / mindfulness techniques. For example, a great way to relax all the muscles in a limb is by imagining it feeling very heavy, or by paying attention to the weight of gravity on the limb, or similar visualizations. That sort of thing is, from a practical perspective, very useful for stress management, insomnia, relieving pain from muscle cramps, and the like.

          What Sam mostly does is look at what the mystics are doing and objectively analyzing it. He doesn’t take their claims for what they’re doing at face value; rather, he acknowledges that they actually are doing something, and then he tries to figure out what that something actually is. As such, he generally does a good job at separating the wheat from the chaff.

          So, for example, we can be overwhelmingly confident that a nun in the ecstasy of prayer is not actually in holy communion with Jesus. But we can also be confident that she really is experiencing some form of ecstasy. It also seems that she gets something worthwhile from said ecstasy; at the least, she tells us she does. Is there any way to get the benefits the nun gets from prayer without weighing ourselves down with all the bullshit baggage the nun puts up with? And, if so, is it worth the effort, or are you better off getting your trips chemically or not at all?

          I think Sam would suggest that it’s worth learning at least the basic techniques of mindfulness meditation — not something that’s at all difficult or that requires any particularly significant investment on your part. You can then evaluate if you think that’s something you might have practical value for as a simple tool for stress management, insomnia, or the like. If it’s something you especially enjoy, you can go ahead and invest as much in it as you’d invest in anything else you enjoy doing. If nothing else, you’ll at least have personal understanding of the most common “spiritual” practice.

          On a personal note, I’ll observe that many people get into a similar mental state by means of activities other than active meditation. If you’re a musician and you’ve got a set daily warmup routine, that may well do the trick. Same thing with physical exercise, including yoga or jogging. Some people have it happen in their daily commute — though that rather scares me and is a big part of the reason why I’m glad I telecommute. Maybe you slip into that mental state in the shower. Regardless, it can still help to get there via meditation and, as such, be able to recognize it and know how to induce it. At that point, you have that much more conscious control over your own consciousness than you did before. Since your consciousness is as much “you” as anything else you are, that’s not a bad thing to be able to more directly manipulate….



          1. Yes Ben, there is a possible scientific explanation for most psychological phenomena, if we can find some way to measure them and form some testable theories. But many such areas defy these explorations…. Evolutionary psychology for example is riddled with them – any theory is plausible and none is testable. But there is a further question…. what do we choose to do with the theories that we form? Does any rationalist have the right to lecture another rationalist on how to live a “balanced life” and the practises useful to do it as Sam does? Listen to Sam’s talk on the link I posted. To me this sort of thing is nothing but self-help waffle – or at best, prescriptive cognitive therapy -which isn’t the province of any rationalist interchange. Why do we think it’s in keeping with our humanist/ rationalist /scientific frame of reference to advise other rationalists that they need to “live in the moment” and supply them with techniques of how to do so, as Sam seems to do? What if I, as a rational being, don’t care to “live in the moment” and want to structure my rational energies elsewhere – what’s wrong with that? –it’s my choice and it’s none of Sam’s business to preach to me in this vein.

            I went to a conference where Sam made such a speech. I looked at my fellow sceptics, atheists and admirers of science following Sam’s meditative spiel, eyes closed, “exploring their inner self” and to tell you the truth it made me feel felt very very creepy. And worried. I can’t help thinking Sam is out to take us collectively on a ride where we shouldn’t ever go.

            But as I said, the jury is out. Let’s wait for the book.


            1. Well, I don’t have personal experience of Sam doing as you describe.

              Relaxation techniques / meditation / mindfulness / whatever can be more effective than a placebo for at least mild cases of insomnia, anxiety (especially “stage fright”), difficulty concentrating or focussing, and similar types of mental ailments. It’s not guaranteed to work (but what treatment is?), but it is pretty much guaranteed to be safe (so long as you don’t do something stupid like close your eyes while you’re driving). And it costs nothing. As such, it’s an excellent initial treatment to try for those maladies.

              Indeed, most performance anxiety coaches do nothing but teach this sort of mental discipline, often through breathing exercises and ensuring proper posture and muscle relaxation and the like. It’s usually only the really nervous or stressed or traumatized musicians who have to resort to beta blockers or the like to continue their careers; the vast majority who have problems do just fine with a bit of coaching and some breathing and relaxation exercises just before showtime. And all the big name soloists or principal players in big orchestras or the like whom I personally know incorporate something like this into their routine, at least in an informal way. Some go full guru an hour before the gig; some pray (but only in a way others would notice at church gigs); others just take a few careful breaths before a big passage — but pretty much every one of them does something to keep the adrenaline under control.

              If you never find yourself in stressful situations, I imagine it’s superfluous. But, if you do, it’s something handy to have in the toolbox. If it doesn’t work, especially if it freaks you out, no worries; it’s not for you. If it does work, great — and that doesn’t mean you have to become a guru, either.

              Look at it this way: I’d recommend that everybody should learn a musical instrument and to read music. There’re a great many very positive reasons to do so, which I won’t get into here. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. If you do and you enjoy it, fantastic! Do it as much as you like. If that’s to pull it out once a year for Christmas carols, superb; if you become inspired to dedicate your life to it and attempt to become a virtuoso, wonderful. If you hate it, that’s okay, too; at least you now know for certain that it’s not for you. And if the very thought of it freaks the shit out of you, it’s probably not something you should be doing, unless you perceive it as a phobia you want to conquer.

              I could make similar recommendations about a great many things: piloting an aircraft, learning a foreign language, cooking, many more.

              Mindfulness (or whatever you want to call it) belongs on such a list. And, I think, Sam’s talking about it because it’s the only “there” that’s actually there in what generally falls under the umbrella of “spiritual practices.” If you can get the benefits of “spirituality” without putting up with any of the woo bullshit, why not? Unless, of course, it weirds you out — in which case, it’s perfectly fine to take a pass.

              Last analogy. There’re those here who indulge in mind-altering substances of various types, both licit and otherwise. Some of those same substances play a central role in certain religious ceremonies — wine, for example, one of Jerry’s own personal favorites, is, one might say, the very heart of the Eucharist. Why let that woo stop you from enjoying a glass of wine? But only if you like wine in the first place, of course.



              1. No doubt Ben, much of what you say is true – that these mental exercises produce lower stress levels or other feelings of well-being. I will resist the temptation to claim that it is all just some placebo effect. I will further resist the temptation to say that there is very little scientific understanding of the processes and effects of these methods – certainly not enough to allow us to claim we are doing anything “scientific” when we take them up. So yes – I’ll admit that such techniques can possibly be helpful. But my complaint is not about the techniques, it is about anyone proselytizing about them and claiming that they should be encompassed within the frame of thinking of atheists, secularists, humanists – “our sort of people” Ben. Now if you say that is not what Sam is trying to do, just look at the title of the book “Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality without Religion”. A Guide? Why a Guide? And what is this “Waking Up” when it’s at home?
                I always worry when someone says “ I’m not religious, but I’m Spiritual”. I always seem to discover some new-age hogwash lies behind that statement. If “free will” as a term has too much religious baggage to continue with its use, spirituality has passed that baggage limit enough to ground the whole flight.

                To my mind the whole rationalist/scientific endeavour proselytizes little more that to be critical, to seek evidence, to value knowledge, and to be rational. We thereby, by default, go on to follow Socrates dictum to live an examined life. And nobody has the right, or the authority to prescribe or redefine what else it should entail.

              2. Again, I haven’t been paying that much attention to Sam on this subject. He may well be selling it harder than is warranted. If so…then pay no attention to the man behind the podium.

                But, in the few limited instances I’ve encountered of him speaking on the subject, it’s been as I’ve been trying to describe it: religion and spirituality is bunk, but there is one entirely naturalistic phenomenon many of them share in common that also has long-standing use in the secular world. For those seeking the benefits of that phenomenon without wading into the woo, here’s what it’s all about, de-mystic-ified.

                As to mechanisms…off the top of my head, I can think of three.

                First, breathing is very directly connected to blood oxygenation levels. Mild hyperventilation, which is what many of the breathing exercises induce, increases blood oxygenation. At least some drugs use for anxiety chemically induce increased blood and oxygen flow in the brain.

                Next, see this TED talk by Amy Cuddy, in which she describes clinical trials establishing predictable and immediate changes in testosterone and cortisol expression associated with assuming different physical postures:


                Posture is generally given significant attention in meditative practices.

                Last, muscle tension and the relaxation of muscles are both known to be accompanied by specific metabolic byproducts also associated with mood and emotion.

                None of these are particularly large effects, but all are statistically significant. That’s consistent with my description of these techniques as useful for mild to moderate disorders, but not severe ones. I don’t see how that could be the basis for a valid criticism, though; aspirin isn’t exactly the most potent drug in the pharmacy, either, yet it’s still one of the preferred choices.



              3. always worry when someone says “ I’m not religious, but I’m Spiritual”. I always seem to discover some new-age hogwash lies behind that statement…..

                Too true, Howie, and i’m sorry to say that I tend to hear this most from my fellow Californians.

              4. Ben: “For those seeking the benefits of that phenomenon without wading into the woo, here’s what it’s all about, de-mystic-ified.”
                Fine Ben….. as I said I’m not criticising the techniques – I don’t know all that much about them. I’d even be happy even to give them a try – hell, at the moment I’m so pissed off over the treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali by Brandeis University I could use a little de-stressing. But again, I’ll say these therapies are not, and never should be anything to do with what goes on when we are defining, acting as or concerning ourselves on matters as humanists, sceptics or atheists. As you’ve said – some atheists like drugs, or even (if you can possibly believe it) golf.
                But some friendly tips on healthy living is not what I think Sam is driving at. The clues are there in his book title. He wants to “fix us up” and make us whole – see the world in the way that HE sees it, to make us “fully conscious” as he will define this state. He picks up on the charges that religionists throw at us – that we have no Spiritual Life – and he aims to fix it. This of course could be all done by simply pointing out that we NATURALLY have all the passions and wonderment that human life can afford (and maybe a bit more) and just stop there. But Sam wants to codify it in terms he defines, package it up, and yes- sell it to us. And that desire is TOTALLY out of place.

                Now I could be totally wrong about what I say Sam is up to – the book will show. But I’m willing to bet you a bottle of the best Scotch whisky that I’m right.

              5. Hmm…you’ve obviously been paying more attention to Sam on this subject than I have, so it likely wouldn’t be prudent for me to take your bet. The vibe I’ve gotten from the brief encounters I’ve had of him on the subject is, “For those interested in this sort of thing, here’s what it’s all about. And here are reasons why you might want to be interested, even if your first thought is that this is all worthless supernatural bullshit.” You’ve obviously instead gotten the, “Your life is worthless unless you become my acolyte and do exactly as I say” vibe from him. Even if my reading is correct, that you got such a reading is an indication that Sam needs to work on his delivery.

                If you do want to give it a try, that bit he does in the video you linked to is pretty much all you need. Find yourself a quiet, comfortable place. If you’re on a schedule, set an alarm so you don’t have to worry about keeping track of time. You could play Sam’s routine and use it as a guide. I’m sure YouTube is full of videos devoted to the same thing, but I’ll bet you that bottle that they’re mostly saccharine, filled with superstitious nonsense, and have annoying minimalistic soundtracks. Once you’ve figured out the basics of the mental discipline of relaxing your body and blanking your mind — which you should be able to get just from Sam’s lecture — you don’t need anything else. That’s really all there is to it — or, at least, as much as you need to be taught.



            2. I looked at my fellow sceptics, atheists and admirers of science following Sam’s meditative spiel, eyes closed, “exploring their inner self” and to tell you the truth it made me feel felt very very creepy. And worried.

              I’m with you, Howie. Very creepy indeed.

              As for all the relaxation/self-hypnosis/breathing exercises, etc., that Ben touts (I think he left out biofeedback, which I see as a part of the whole shebang as well)–that pretty much defines Lamaze classes. Been there, done that, it worked when needed (thrice), glad to know it; and can’t imagine what Sam can add that hasn’t been said before, without the guru-esque overtones. (Too bad Sam was too young for the 60’s.)

  35. Of course some persons among others will see “transformative” experiences as important revelations on behalf of their own person. It seems likely that any person could be capable to experience this, from what we know of its statistics and drug effects et cetera. So most of these experiences are not inflated to undue importance.

  36. On the other hand….

    she is talking about a consciousness *from another universe* interacting with her, not some energy transfer that we know can not be measured.

    As she said, we do ‘see’ virtual particles popping into and out of existence in a vacuum. Where are they from, and where do they go? Is it not possible they might interact with a parallel universe?

    Do we know enough about the existence and characteristics of other universes to speak knowledgeably on the topic?

    I am NOT arguing that what she experienced was anything but in her own head. Merely that because we have a handle on this universe, we should take care not to extrapolate that understanding onto the unknown.

    1. “Do we know enough about the existence and characteristics of other universes to speak knowledgeably on the topic?”

      We seem to know enough to support plenty of uninformed comments.

      We seem to be confronted with a choice. Is it more sensible to think that Ms. Ehrenreich was either contacted by another universe or that she experienced a hallucination? One of those options seems more reasonable than the other.

    2. Physicists have very specific concepts of “other universes.” Two in particular: the Everett Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, and the Multiverse Theory. Neither offer even theoretical possibilities of interaction between universes.

      When “other universes” are described popularly, they’re, from a physicist’s perspective, indistinguishable from the Astral Plane or Heaven or Valhalla or Never-Never Land or other such fantastic constructs. And we’ve already made the observations and done the experiments to rule out even an hypothetical possibility that any such worlds are real and can be interacted with. If so, at the very least there would have been evidence found at CERN of supportive physics. Spoiler alert: they didn’t find anything.



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