Life Coach

Dr Peter L Nelson

The Experience of Presence

Encounters that seem to hint at the presence of another reality or level of being.
In an article (‘Like Someone Is There’) that appeared in Aeon, the well-known sci-fi writer Kenneth MacLeod, wrote about his encounter with the ineffable presence that some call mystical experience. He questioned whether anyone of his readers knew anything about these encounters and invited a reply. What follows is my response to his request.

“I had a series of the two types of experience you describe starting in childhood and continuing for many years into later adulthood. At first, they most often happened when I was out in nature – a particular wood near my childhood home in upstate New York. These encounters came to seem a ‘normal’ part of my life and I assumed that others around me experienced the same, but never asked or raised the subject. Later I learned that wasn’t the case.

“I became fascinated by science by the time I was 12 and before I left for a place at Columbia University, I had won a number of science awards and had been invited to attend CU to study psychophysiology, or brain and behavior. It was two years later, while spending a semester at the University of Wisconsin that I had a more major encounter of your second type. It was so impactful, that it started a process of change that would become more evident some six years later.

“It was early morning, about 6am, and I was walking back to my digs along Madison’s University Avenue. It was winter and very cold (about zero degrees Fahrenheit) with the remains of a snow storm from several days prior still piled up along the road and footpath. In such cold air, sound tends to propagate better, but at first there was only silence around me – no traffic or other people were out and about that morning. Then, cutting through the silence, I could hear a hammer striking metal, as someone started their day’s work. The sound came with a particular clarity, being that there were no other sounds to compete with it and the cold air made it propagate with an unusual clarity.

“Immediately before hearing the first hammer blow my mind had been in a great deal of turmoil. My then girlfriend was breaking up with me and I was full of rage at the man she was now seeing. In fact, I was focused mostly on him and was ruminating constantly about harming him (I did own a pistol at that time). As the hammer sounded (perhaps 2 or 3 strokes) it was as if I suddenly woke up.

“I experienced myself cocooned in a totality of completely peaceful silence, all turbulent thoughts and feelings had ceased and I was both aware of myself from within while seeing myself from without. It was both a total presence in which I existed and an expanded awareness of myself there. In a flash I had a further awareness of where I was and where my rage was driving me, if I stayed on my present course.

“Although the personal turmoil and ruminating had been going on for weeks, it ended abruptly at that moment. After several minutes of standing in place, I returned to my apartment and over the next few days sold my gun, packed my things and went back to New York. It had been a moment of supreme clarity that I have been able to re-access many times over subsequent years. In fact, that encounter with expanded awareness eventually led to a change in career and a different PhD in phenomenological psychology. I can say, that encounter not only saved me from committing an horrendous act, it opened me to a whole new career path.

“However, being a pragmatic, skeptical empiricist did not go away. So, science remained my epistemic approach, but my subject matter became focused on subjects with which my neuroscience colleagues would have been horrified. The next experience of even greater existential import occurred about 7 years later and I eventually wrote about that one in a chapter in a book I co-edited for SUNY Press on Transpersonal Psychology. Here’s a link to get a PDF of the paper, if you’re interested in reading a somewhat academic discussion of the topic.

“The latter encounter is seen by some as a ‘mystical’ experience. But, if you read my chapter, you’ll see that I deconstruct that notion. What appears to us as an encounter with God, the Ultimate Ground of Being, etc., is what I call an ‘ontic shift’. The sense of having emerged from one ontological frame of reference into another reality is keenly felt as an actual encounter with an ultimate ‘other’ (Otto’s ‘Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans'). However, what we call the experience is an ascription drawn from the linguistic-cultural frame that provides the forms we use to make sense of the world of our knowing.

“This is not to say that the experience is not real, by whatever means we use to understand what reality is. It is real, but the labelled form we give it is dependent on culture and language—who we are and what we already can articulate. We demand to give form to anything that we believe is real and are intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. My point-of-view now is to pay attention to this opening of awareness, use the revised perspective (POV) that emerges and pragmatically implement what is useful, while always maintaining a healthy skepticism.

“So, after many encounters and years of research on the form and nature of these and related experiences, I have concluded that the key to how it works is how and on what we deploy our attention. A somewhat dense and academic ‘map’ of how this works can be found in another paper I wrote.”