I read an article recently in the New York Times about a retired clinical psychologist who underwent an experimental treatment for depression at the Johns Hopkins medical school using a hallucinogenic drug called psilocybin. The patient described his treatment this way: “All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating. Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.”
This experience of falling overboard, so to speak, would have been entirely familiar to the novelist and mystic Romain Rolland. He even used the term “oceanic feeling” to describe it to his friend Sigmund Freud. As Freud later characterized their exchange, Rolland was trying to make a distinction between dogmatic religious belief and a “sensation of 'eternity,' a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded” that he believed was “the true source of religious sentiments.”
It may be a bit of a misnomer to categorize the oceanic feeling as an experience, since this presupposes that there is someone to experience it. Normally, when we are in the middle of the ocean, we still have a sense of ourselves splashing about in the water. Even if our surroundings appear limitless and unbounded, we do not. There is still an inside and an outside to our experience, with our bodies forming the boundary. The striking thing about the oceanic feeling is that all such boundaries disappear. There is no longer an inside and an outside -- which is to say, no distinction between the ocean and one’s awareness of it.
The most common reaction among those who are suddenly tossed overboard is a realization that they have found God. Hence, the statement by Mechthild of Magdeburg, a 13th-century German mystic, that she had seen “all things in God and God in all things.” Sources as diverse as the Bhagavad Gita and Meister Eckhart use nearly identical language to express this same sense of a world wholly immersed in the divine.
Since there is no longer an inside and an outside to one’s perception of the world, it hardly matters whether God is in all things or all things are in God. However, such things matter a great deal to those whose understanding of God is guided primarily by dogmatic religious belief. Recently, I came across a Christian fundamentalist Web site that accused Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola of being a pantheist for having exhorted his followers to seek God in all things. One might just as well label St. Paul a pantheist for referring to God as the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Or Jesus, who told his disciples that “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
The prospect of being immersed in the divine exerts a fatal attraction for seekers in every religious tradition. We may imagine we will be blissfully hobnobbing with God without fully appreciating the consequences. Seeking God in all things leads eventually to the discovery that all things are in God. There is an overwhelming sense at this moment that God is all there is. And when God is all there is, there is no more you.
John Tierney, “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again,” New York Times, April 11, 2010