Into the Mystic
William Shatner & The Cosmic Coming
Last month, the actor William Shatner was launched beyond the Texas skies via Blue Origin, the nascent rocket company helping pave the way for a new era of civilian space travel. At 90 years old, Shatner—aptly famous for playing Captain Kirk on Star Trek—became the oldest person to ever exit Earth's atmosphere. After piercing through the stratosphere, floating above it weightlessly, and looking down at our planet, the TV icon emotionally recounted what was a transformative experience:
"To see the blue color go whoop! by—and now you're staring into blackness!" he exclaimed. "That's the thing!" He goes on:
This covering of blue ... this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around us ... Suddenly you shoot through it—as if you whip off a sheet while you are asleep—and you're looking into blackness. You look down and there's the blue down there, and the black up there ... [Down] there is Mother Earth and comfort, and [up] there is ...
He pauses, puzzled. "Is there death?" he wonders, pondering what the black beyond our sky holds.
"Is that the way death is? Whoop and it's gone? Jesus! It was so moving to me."
Captain Kirk's whole monologue is worthy viewing, for it's a message which beams upwards towards a most inspired future: the ever nearer possibility that we and the universe become one.
In 1902 William James released the immensely influential book Varieties of Religious Experience.1 It was and remains a landmark synthesis of psychology and spirituality. The book investigates the various interior phenomena which accompany what is known as "the mystical experience."
The "mystical experience" is, by James' account, almost impossible to define. It is in the truest sense ineffable.
... But words are all we got right now! So, James said that the first marker of a mystical state of consciousness is that we can't articulate it. It evades language. Poetry can gesture at it, but basically ya-had-to-be-there.
As we will find, this was a mystical experience being had by Mr. Shatner. "I can't even begin to express ... " he says, struggling to lay words on the indescribable. "This experience is something unbelievable."
In fact, astronauts have their own term for this: The Overview Effect is a well-documented shift in awareness often realized by travelers who exit the reality tunnel of Earth. To witness our world from a wider perspective stirs man into "an explosion of awareness," as put by Apollo 14 pilot Edgar Mitchell. He describes:
There was suddenly a very deep gut feeling that something was different. It occurred when looking at Earth and seeing this blue-and-white planet floating there, and knowing it was orbiting the Sun, seeing that Sun ... set in the background of the very deep black and velvety cosmos, seeing—rather, knowing for sure—that there was a purposefulness of flow, of energy, of time ... in the cosmos … I suddenly [saw] the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.
This Overview Effect bears the indelible markers of the mystical, a tilting of the mind which reveals some magnificent meaning beyond the veil.
In fact, Edgar Mitchell was so changed by his experience that he ended up devoting the rest of his life to studying the science of human transcendence. 2 He explains:
When I got back to Earth I started digging into various literatures to try to understand what had happened. I ... eventually discovered it in the Sanskrit of ancient India. The descriptions of samadhi ... were exactly what I had felt ... An overwhelming sense of oneness and connectedness … accompanied by an ecstasy … an epiphany.
Such experiences of unity consciousness—whether we call them samadhi (via Eastern philosophy) or mystical (from Western)—are the common seed out of which all religion bursts. They entail a noetic insight, as William James called it, which brings about an intense realization of meaning which reaches, it would seem, well beyond the boundaries of the brain. The function of life death and all its intermittent mania suddenly makes complete sense, as if after a lifelong sleepwalk you finally awoke into a world more real than the one you always knew.
And then like an iris closing to the light, it's gone.
These experiences are big, beautiful and usually brief. This fleetingness of feeling—or transiency, as James called it—is another marker of the mystical. Such heightened states of consciousness are rarely maintained for any long period of time, most being just a momentary glance into a wider webwork of meaning.
James examines hundreds of such occurrences. In one a doctor describes how, after a joyous night out with friends, and with his mind at pleasurable ease, he spontaneously felt an "immense fire" within himself:
There came upon me a sense of exaltation, of immense joyousness accompanied ... by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have an eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love; and that happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed.
Now Consider Mr. Shatner, who himself could have had an entry in James' catalog of rapture:
I'm so filled with emotion at what just happened. It's extraordinary! I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don't want to lose it. It's so much larger than me ... It has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of life and death and the—Oh my God! It's so moving.
You can sense him trying to hold on to this revelation as its radiance sinks beneath the mud of our Earthbound reality.
But unlike a mundane morning dream which fizzles into obscurity, the enduring meaning of the mystical experience evolves with the memory of it. In another account from James, a gentleman describes his "sudden ... indescribably intense ... sense of being bathed in a warm glow of light."
These highest experiences I have had have been rare and brief—flashes of consciousness which have compelled me to exclaim with surprise—God is here! ... I have severely questioned these moments ... lest I should be building my life and work on mere phantasies of the brain. But I find that, after every questioning and test, they stand out today as the most real experiences of my life, and experiences which have explained and justified and unified all past experiences and all past growth. Indeed, their reality and their far-reaching significance are ever becoming more clear and evident.
To the uninitiated the dissonance between the mystical and the ordinary seems so insurmountable that these descriptions read as vague wish-wash. But to those whose curiosity brings them to the buckling boundaries of logic—the mystical seduces us like a siren. And if we listen to its song, we soon learn that this mysterious mode of mind underlies our every waking moment, hidden behind our normal humdrum consciousness like a radio station yet to be turned to.
Such is one aim of the endless treadmill of spiritual practices which tune the mind and body to this frequency. Yoga, meditation, plant medicine, prayer … They're all strings towards the same space, strands from which this mystical netting is sewn.
Revealed of its radiant wonder, the mystical experience is the magical experience, a dazzling reality tunnel which enfolds the smaller one you currently read from. It is out of this transcendent dimension that every wisdom tradition draws its rendering of reality. It is the sparkling denizen of the sages and saints who've spoken to us through millennia, all offering the same message: It is within you too.
This special dimension is awakened through many means, but few are more propulsive than Awe, that soaring sense of wonder which tips the mind towards the sublime. Awe cracks open our consciousness and lets new light in, arousing in us what spaceman Edgar Mitchell felt to be "the primordial energy of the universe."
As progress places this mystical experience just a rocket-ride away, technology will lay a fresh sake into the path of human enlightenment.
Honestly, I've never been one of those dudes blissed out by the idea of going to space. I had glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling as a kid, but elsewise my walls were plastered by posters of the Chicago Bulls and Batman. But now I see what all those geeks and dreamers with the Milky Way murals on their walls were getting at. It's not just about going to space ... It's about the feeling of space.
A vision of the future invited by this recent year is one in which folks will be able to pop up into space the same way we fly to New York. Captain Kirk's ten minute jaunt will eventually be a norm. These trips may right now be bound to a small band of the rich-'n-famous, but that will expand just as the automobile grew from privileged to pervasive. And as this horizon widens to eventually include the everyman, we may find ourselves at the foothills of a new religious pilgrimage.
Imagine: You pop up to space for a psycho-spiritual cleansing, your own communion with the universe ... literally. To every color and creed under the Sun, a shared history re-emerges. The Universe itself becomes God—as it was from the beginning.
And for those dreamers of yesteryear with posters on their wall, they no longer must just look to the stars in yearning, but may now manifest their visions into otherworldly adventure.
And, fittingly, the present prophet of this good news is none other than Captain Kirk. Ageless and vibrant, our space-faring leader has returned to our screens. After guiding our ship through tube televisions half a century ago, the Captain is now zapped into our pockets. He ushers us into a real-life portal to the world he portrayed in our living rooms so long ago. "Everybody in the world needs to do this," he says. "Everybody in the world needs to see."
William Shatner is one of the last household names of an old American Empire—the collective hearth-fire from which our older generations were warmed. This old America, with its many faults and its massive heart, held this nation together under one common flag.
Now that center has given way—in fact recently a poll indicated that almost half the nation believes we should break in two. Perhaps this shrill is just media manufacturement, or perhaps we truly do approach a karmic crest of national reckoning.
Or perhaps it’s both: We are creating the future in the image of our attention. "What goes around comes around."
So many moments fly by us with the power to unite, but they rarely puncture the way our fears do. Our media is splayed out like a million queenless bees warring over a hive. Hissing headlines hover around our heads: Are You Scared? Are You Stung? If not, you should be!
Most Meaning is lost in this buzz, while most hope is swarmed and swallowed by the hive-mind. And when it's not, it's ground into meme and mockery by the Snark Sharks and the Fear-mongers. Whatever good faith remains is left blowing in the wind.
And yet through the twilight of this fading national spirit we hear ol' Captain Kirk. He's come to proclaim new hope! "It's extraordinary!" he declares his trip into the mystic. "What you have given me in the most profound experience I can imagine," he cries to (trigger warning) Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (😉).
The lambasted gajillionaires at the helm of these operations have ignited both moralism ("Feed the poor before you feed your egos!") and rancor ("Super rich white dudes are building a playground in space"). Everyone's got their sanctimonious soap-boxes, but beyond this blind bashing of ambition there are genuine concerns as to the direction of our technologies. "With so much strife plaguing our world," a friend rightfully asked me, "is flipping the focus away from Earth the right use of resources? Or are we simply jumping ship?"
In 2008 video game developer Richard Garriott snagged a ride to the International Space Station through a Russian program offering galactic tourism to non-astronauts. His pricey 12 day stay aboard the I.S.S. "changed [his] entire life."
Prior to my flight I would already have described myself as an environmentalist but looking out the window back at the Earth from space ... really changes you at a very deep level ... I think it's impossible not to come back, as I did, feeling reinvigorated and refocused on living a lifestyle that is more of an environmental example than just talking the talk, like I was prone to do.
You see, paradoxically, these distant experiences may offer us the impetus and inspiration needed to disentangle the insoluble crises we face on the ground. Just as the Earthbound traveler journeys abroad only to return in greater appreciation of home, so too may man now see his entire Kingdom from a new perspective.
Edgar Mitchell's samadhi experience of "instant global consciousness" left him with, as he put it, "an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it." If there is one commonality across all the rocketeers who've seen Earth from abroad, it is this newfound reverence towards this house in which we breathe. So said Sigmund Jähn, German Cosmonaut:
Only when I saw Earth from space in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind's most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.
"It would be so important for everybody to have that experience," agrees Mr. Shatner. "The jeopardy ... the vulnerability of everything."
Of course the planet itself isn't vulnerable. This magma-filled rock is a robust 4.5 billion years old, but our split-second cameo on it is a mere guest role, subject to the boot at any moment.
We are the ones in jeopardy.
Dim to the wisdom needed to marry technology and nature, the ecological fabric of our well being is beginning to tear. This deafening period of accelerating change summons us to rise above our little reality tunnels and inhabit a wider one. Politics, activism, fundraising—these may be laudable efforts towards change, but to truly tilt the paradigm towards a most flourishing future we must think bigger.
We must elevate consciousness, not cloud it.
On the other side of cynicism there is an opening wherein our mind ascends into possibility—where we meet the mystical Truth waiting behind our furrowed brow.
Certainly a mass transformation of consciousness is a lofty ask! But maybe it's already here. Maybe the swirling unknowns of our shifting grounds are casting new foundation.
Maybe the question marks of today tomorrow turn to play, where we'll move again with nature in a grand celestial way.
"It was unbelievable," reported Captain Kirk through tears. "Unbelievable."
Maybe it will be awe—that timeless testimony of infinity—which pulls us all back to the center.
Of course for most of us, it is this Earthly ground from which we'll live out the rest of our lives. Tickets to the transcendent are, admittedly, somewhat pricey right now.
But we don't need to travel outside ourselves to catch a hint of this wonder.
Our bodies are 99.999...% empty space, a vacuous universe of electrons circling distant neutrons, the atomized mirror of the planets and moons above us. We are galaxies within galaxies, warmed by the sun as our hearts warm our bodies. In the end, the whole cosmic play is one grand flow from top —to bottom, a divine movement of energy into beauty.
Looking up, we find this great revelation canopying our world in light. Tonight the sky will give way to black—and then that darkness back to blue, as the past spins into present—reminding us that we are but marveled passengers launched into some unknowable future.
"Look at the beauty of that color," says Captain Kirk. "It's so thin, and you're through it in an instant."
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"Religion" here is not considered an institutional idea—but simply any framework of spiritual meaning. These days "spiritual but not religious" is a common phrase to denote contemplative engagement outside the confines of a church. But in actuality, the word "religious" is far closer to a synonym of "spiritual" than a counter to it.
Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which for almost five decades has been a leader in the science of human consciousness. Through empirical inquiry, IONS explores the realms of Wisdom and Human Interconnectedness. By utilizing evidence from an array of domains—such as medicine, technology, parapsychology and more—their rigorous work pushes beyond the stuffy Materialism which has dried out the Scientism of modern day. IONS has accrued vast evidence which assists us in understanding both individual awareness and the Collective Mind behind it. It is at the frontier of the “science” behind spirituality.