Friday, July 16, 2010

Guardian Angels on the Mountains

Everyone's familiar with stories of mysterious "presences" that appear to people in extreme circumstances. You might remember, for example, The Waste Land's evocation of that shadowy "third who always walks beside you" sensed by Ernest Shackleton in his Antarctic expedition, and bent by T. S. Eliot into an analogue for the Holy Spirit. On the low-brow end of things, there's an entire magazine (subscrib'd to by Yours Truly) devoted to first-person tales of angelic intervention, published, of course, by Guideposts ("Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People, Inspiring You").

Now there's a book about the phenomenon, John Geiger's The Third Man Factor, reviewed admirably by James Allen Cheyne over at eSkeptic. Though Cheyne is provoked into a kind of agnostic Jesuitry by the "vivid and real" nature of "companion experiences" -- he invents an unnecessary and untenable distinction between "hallucination" and "delusion"-- his review lays out the experience in enough detail to satisfy both angelophiles and atheists.

A very common feature of companion experiences is a voice that guides or reassures the experiencer and that sometimes tells him how to extricate himself from the maelstrom at hand. I've experienced this voice and have written about it ad infinitum on WiHW. Who or what is this voice?

Geiger speculates about the bicameral mind, Cheyne speculates that the "voices" are merely the subconscious, telling people things they already know, I speculate about Angels. What's important is getting in touch with your deep self, maintaining a relationship with your own ass, as a character in Apocalypse Now said. You can call it whatever you want, and you don't need a spell of sugar-starved hypoxia in a snowstorm to get there. It is funny, however, how The Third Man Factor's list of physical and emotional triggers (experienced relatively often in the extremes of mountaineering) resembles a list of shamanic deprivations and kick-ass initiation techniques: fear, isolation, hunger (think Lakota vision quest--or Lent), sleep deprivation, long stretches of monotony punctuated by sudden panic, physical trauma (think bamboo staves in Zen, ritual scarification, the cilice in Opus Dei), etc.

Let's say for practical purposes that it doesn't matter whether we alone, no God needed, can jump-start ourselves (or be jump-started) into higher awareness, or whether She has guided evolution to turn certain experiences into doorways to Her starry realm. The important thing is, some states of consciousness are preferable to others, and there are reliable (if sometimes scary) ways of getting to and staying in higher consciousness. Do it! as Jerry Rubin said. Don't dream it, be it, as Dr. Frank N. Furter said; get out there and climb a mountain or do some pranayama or do something nice for someone you despise, or go on a carrots and spirulina diet for four or five days. I dare you, as Bauhaus sang... to go inside your head and turn it inside out.

Predictably, Kali twits me for my snide remark about C. S. Lewis a couple of posts ago... She directed me quite "randomly" to a book called Desiring God in which the author, John Piper, a "Christian hedonist," argues that the highest Christian calling is to enjoy God and delight in the deity, to intoxicate ourselves with praise--praise being for us as much as it is for God. Piper cites a passage from Lewis in which the Narnian disapprovingly notes that today's number-one virtue is "Unselfishness," whereas for "the great Christians of old" it was "Love."

"You see what has happened?" Lewis asks. "A negative term has been substituted for a positive," yet nowhere in the teachings of Christ do we find adverts for "self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order to follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire....infinite joy is offered us" (emphasis mine). The numerology surrounding the Lewis quote was unmistakable, so that even I would notice I was being chided. I stand chastened, but I'm staying on this side of the wardrobe. And I still think Lewis was a bit of a prat.

But his heart seems to have been in the right place. Dammit. Let's add "wildly and passionately praising God" to our list of consciousness alteration techniques above, for it surely is a powerful one and beats dodging avalanches any day. Here is your homework: make a playlist of the sappiest, most moving, most powerful, catchiest love songs you know, and listen to it daily and send love through your heart chakra to God; sing the songs to Her, or Him, or Them, or Whoever you think is up there minding the store. Belt the songs out, feel them, let them melt your heart like an 8th grade crush.

Do it.

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