For my entire life, I’ve struggled to bridge the gap between two worlds. I’ve had one foot in the scientific, material world and another foot in the mystical, spiritual world. They both felt real and true to me, but the two worlds seemed to be at constant war with one another.
I feel those two worlds come together when I experience beauty and when I create art. When I see the trees of a forest in front of me and feel their color and light and shadow hit me like a pounding symphony, I feel as though I’m been transported to another world while I photograph it and then create the finished piece.
This place (in the photo above) exists in the material world. I saw it with my own eyes when I photographed it Friday afternoon. But my rendition of what it looked like and what it felt like to me — that’s something which didn’t come from the camera. That came from something mystical which I can’t explain.
I experience the collision of the material and spiritual worlds when I create something. There have been a few other times I’ve experienced it, too, through transcendent spiritual experiences which thrill me and frighten me. For years, I’ve needed to find a way to unify these two worlds — and an elderly Czech psychiatrist might have just pointed me in the right direction.
When Dr. Stanislav Grof had his first holotropic experience as a young doctor in the early 1970s, he was an atheist who was committed to a completely material world view. He hadn’t received any religious training as a boy and he was educated in communist schools which taught him to value the science of materialism and to reject anything which might seem spiritual or religious.
Grof was introduced to what some people call “altered states of consciousness” because drugs and other techniques were being tested in labs and in clinical practices to see whether they could be used to heal psychiatric patients. After Grof’s first such experience, he no longer believed that reality was purely material. He knew a spiritual world existed — and he knew consciousness existed outside of the human body — because he experienced it for himself.
I had never heard of Grof until earlier in the week when I listened to Tim Ferriss interview him on his podcast. Here was a psychiatrist who was committed to scientific reality — but who has spent decades doing experiments and seminars based on taking other people to a different realm of consciousness. He seemed to be bridging the two worlds which have seemed so important to me.
Grof has experimented with various psychedelic drugs and also developed techniques to do similar things with simple breathing and music. He’s still not religious, but he is convinced that reality is a combination of the material world which seems obvious to us and the spiritual world which many work so hard to deny.
I don’t have the space here to do justice to his treatment of this massive subject. If you’re interested, start with the Ferriss interview and then move on to one of Grof’s books. I started with his nine-hour audiobook called “The Transpersonal Vision: The Healing Potential of Nonordinary States of Consciousness.” In the book, he shows how Freudian and Jungian psychology got a lot of things right, but he explores the ways we can go beyond their work to something much deeper.
I grew up in a rather rationalistic brand of Christianity and it was only rarely that I ever experienced brief glimpses of real encounters with something greater in the spiritual sense. We talked a lot about God, but we didn’t expect anything spiritual to happen in our world. As a young adult, I longed for more experience with God. I eventually explored the beliefs and practices of charismatic Christians — who believe that God speaks to them far more directly. I felt that they were onto something in some areas, but I couldn’t accept a lot of their theology.
During the period when I was exploring charismatic Christian ideas, I read an autobiography that made an impact on me. Demos Shakarian was a California dairy farmer who started an influential charismatic organization called the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International. He eventually told his life story in a book called “The Happiest People on Earth.”
In the book, Shakarian talks about growing up in a charismatic Armenian family and being taught to trust God completely. He tells some stories which would cause doubt (or even ridicule) for non-believers, but his stories felt true to me. One of his stories is about how God gave him the vision to start an organization for Christian businessmen. He describes a night when he had what I can only describe as a vision, but he felt he left his body and could fly all around the world as God showed him things. I had never heard of such a thing — and the story made a huge impression on me.
When I listened to Grof talk about his experiences — in a scientific setting, not a religious setting — he told stories that were chillingly similar to what Shakarian experienced. Shakarian had been working from a religious context and experienced this and Grof had been working from a scientific context and experienced the same things. If they were meeting in the middle between two seemingly contradictory worlds, could this be the bridge between the two? Could this be what I’d been looking for?
In the Grof audiobook I’ve been listening to today — while I was out taking photos of nature and the world around me — he talks about ways in which experiencing these states have been successful in bringing emotional healing to people who have suffered from issues for which there was no apparent medical problem.
As he talked about some of the ways in which people have found healing and peace through holotropic experiences, I was emotionally overwhelmed at times, because it seemed as though I was standing on the precipice of something important. I felt as though I was close to seeing through a fog which has kept me from seeing something for all these years, especially when he discussed the issues we can have which go back to the traumatic experience of being born.
I had another unexpected reaction — one which felt very emotional and powerful. I found myself wanting to continue down this path of discovery and healing — but desperately wanting and needing a partner to go down that path with me.
I can’t imagine finding such liberating knowledge — and figuring out how to work it into the framework of my existing beliefs — without having a woman on that journey with me. That made me sad at the same time, because I realize most people don’t have the intellectual or spiritual curiosity — or courage — to go down such a path of discovery. That realization made me feel even more alone.
There’s no way this can make sense to a “normal person” who’s completely focused on the material world — and I know that’s almost everybody today. I couldn’t have understood it a couple of decades ago. I would have resisted it, partly because it might have seemed like foolish mumbo-jumbo and partly because it might have scared me. But today, it’s a path I have to find a way to follow.
When I take a photograph or write certain things or plan a film, I am in a zone that is halfway in the normal, material world but halfway in a mystical, spiritual world. When I experience beauty and truth — why I pair those two, I can’t explain — I get a jolt of energy that feels like connection with God. Somehow, what Grof describes is a way to find more of that experience which has meant so much to me in those times of creation.
This is a path I need to explore. I need the understanding and I need the spiritual healing. I have a feeling our entire world needs this healing. I just don’t quite know how to go down that path alone.
Note: The photo at the top is from Friday afternoon in Trussville, Ala., and the photo of the glorious sunset below is from last Saturday evening in Moody, which is about four miles from my house. Both are examples of times when I’ve felt the material and spiritual worlds come together to help me create something beautiful and true.