Heard the expression, ‘Woo woo?’
It’s how skeptics describe those of us who can’t credibly be called nut jobs but who nevertheless hold unconventional beliefs that lack common sense or have little or no scientific validation. Those beliefs may include certain spiritual manifestations, having mystical experiences or employing ancient forms of medicine. I’m woo woo.
I am not offended by its flippant implications. There is a difference between being woo woo and being a nut job. Being woo woo, if you ride gently with this condition and don’t get strident or dogmatic, is like surfing; it can lift you up enough to offer you new glimpses of what’s beneath the surface of life’s happenings but still land you on a shore. It can be a wonderful ride. A nut job typically rides the same old again and again and gets furious because he gets nowhere.
Woo woo’s blessings offer the possibility for discovery. The old and familiar can become new and amazing. I have had such experiences in my life. I was a boy then and at first, and dared not tell anyone as they might think I was a nut job. Actually, I thought I was a nut job which is why it took me so many years to claim the experiences as my own; to welcome them as gifts, mystical ones, and to be grateful that I’d been given them.
I’ll briefly describe two.
I’m a native of Staten Island. My family roots go back to the late 1600’s with the arrival of Richard Merrill and Sarah Wells from England. They owned a farm. My family and I used to take late fall walks on the rural parts of the Island. A favorite was on a hill above historic Richmondtown, near St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
One day we went to walk the field. It was fall, cool and clear. The air was brisk with a briny tang as the wind blew in from the Atlantic over Raritan Bay. The golden hay covering the field undulated like a lion’s mane heaving in the wind. In the distance, I could see the spire of St. Andrews.
I was standing near a small stand of trees. I began to sense that the entire scene was getting brighter, the way people often claim they feel before fainting. I felt steady on my feet, clear headed, but I began to see the landscape before me vibrating, as if every blade of hay, tree leaves, their trunks even the sky were all pulsing with auras of energy. It was mesmerizing.
I remained transfixed. It lasted but a minute or two. When the landscape seemed normal again, I did feel (but not understand) as though I may have momentarily seen deeper into what vivifies life itself.
I had neither life experience nor even a vocabulary to give the moment expression. Over the years I recollected it from time to time, wondered its meaning, but could make no sense of it. I had another experience similar – another hilltop moment- when on a high point on the Island overlooking Manhattan and New York Harbor where, for a minute or so, the scene before me seemed to vibrate and pulse with energy, as if the whole world had a heartbeat. The inanimate Manhattan skyline, also shivered with energy.
I was a few years older then, maybe eighteen when that happened. Over the years I began taking such moments seriously as one way of knowing. I had been introduced to Impressionist artists where I noticed how the colors in their paintings had a vibrancy that, too, trembled with inner energy.
Mystical experiences, as I’ve come to understand them, are more likely to occur when we’re younger. I believe this is because as we grow older we construct psychological firewalls to protect us from greater awareness. Awareness can be unsettling. It may leave us out of control.
I never spoke of the experiences to anyone. Maybe they were like the Bible records Mary’s reaction when the angel visits her; she is left wondering what manner of salutation this could be. It was so out of the ordinary. It took me half a lifetime of experience and enough of a vocabulary to even describe for myself what happened. It wasn’t migraines. I knew I had been visited with a fleeting moment of intimacy with whatever it is that constitutes the heart of the universe.
I’ve learned in the meantime that since 1960 science has been investigating the prime building blocks of the universe once assumed to be atoms. Some researchers believe the more fundamental units of all matter are vibrations. A theory has emerged popularly known as the ‘string theory.’ It posits that everything, our bodies included, the planets and the entire natural world is composed of strings that vibrate, and that there is, not only metaphorically, but literally a music of the spheres. These vibrations perform their cosmic symphony, and their combined orchestrations determine how we comprehend what transpires within us, as well as heightening our consciousness of the world around us.
The mystical experiences reported in the great religions can seem bizarre. I imagine them as blips of basic truths, a peek through the keyhole of the universe In reading about scientific discoveries I’ve found liberation from much of the post-modern world’s spiritual vacuity. The wonders of discovery create spiritual adventures; I am seized by what’s amazing and reverberate with the awe of it.
I’ve wondered whether mathematicians and physicists approach God (at least those who are inclined to) more humbly than theologians. Theology gets preoccupied with establishing moral high ground than standing in awe of a stupendous creation. Math equations demonstrate how stunningly intricate we’re fashioned – “wonderfully and fearfully made” a psalmist once wrote – and how breathtaking a universe we live in. As a boy, long before Einstein formulated the equation E=mc2 he dreamed of riding on a light beam. Call it woo woo if you must but look where it led.
I write this with the belief there are many of us who have had experiences of heightened awareness that don’t seem to fit anywhere. The inclination, because they seem goofy, is to dismiss them. I offer the thought that they may be invitations to discover in the commonplace of our everyday world, what’s extraordinary.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.