For Xmas last month son RadRob gave me a copy of The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by French philosopher André Comte-Sponville. It's by turns entertaining, flip, literary, mystical, witty, and frustrating. Overall, perhaps, it feels like a journey with a mindful yet highly analytic guide. A central moment occurs in the chapter "Can There Be an Atheist Spirituality?", as the author describes an experience of awakening:
The first time it happened, I was in a forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty-five or twenty-six. I had just been hired to teach high school philosophy in a town on the edge of a canal, up in the fields near the Belgian border. That particular evening, some friends and I had gone out for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air and of everything around us. . . . My mind empty of thought, I was simply registering the world around me—the darkness of the underbrush, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest (branches snapping, an occasional animal call, our own muffled steps) only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden. . . . What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only—a surprise. Only—this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object (no object other than everything, no subject other than itself). Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All. Peace. Infinite peace! Simplicity, serenity, delight.
The two latter words may sound incompatible, but at the time they weren't words, they were experience: silence, harmony. It was as if a perfect chord, once played, had been indefinitely prolonged, and that chord was the world. I felt fine. Incredibly fine! So fine that I didn't even need to notice it or hope that it would last. I can scarcely even say that I was walking—the walk was there, and the forest, and the trees and our group of friends. . . . The ego had vanished: no more separation or representation, only the silent presentation of everything. No more value judgments; only reality. No more time; only the present. No more nothingness; only being. No more frustration, hatred, fear, anger or anxiety; only joy and peace. No more make-believe, illusions, lies; only the truth, which I did not contain but which contained me. It may have lasted only a few seconds. I felt at once stunned and reconciled, stunned and calmer than I'd ever felt before. I had a sense of detachment, freedom and necessity, as if the universe had been restored to itself at long last. Was it finite or infinite? That was not the question. There were no more questions, so how could there be answers? There was only self-evidence. And silence. And the truth—but without words. And the world—but without signification or purpose. And immanence—but without its opposite. And reality—but without otherness. There was no faith, no hope, no sense of promise. There was only everything—the beauty, truth and presence of everything. This was enough. It was far more than enough! A sense of joyous acceptance. A sense of dynamic quietude—yes, like an unlimited courage. Rest without fatigue. What was death? Nothing. What was life? Only this palpitation of being within me. What as salvation? Only a word, or else this state itself. Perfection. Plenitude. Bliss. Such joy! Such happiness! Such intensity!
And then ... and then, he admits, he labels it with words—and it's gone. He's back in his life. Over the years, Comte-Sponville reports, he has experienced a few more such moments. Maybe they're what the Buddhists call kensho, glimpses of true self, as seen by a Western academic philosopher? Or are they just glimpses of a strange pantheistic mental state? In either case, they're fascinating!