To begin, let’s clarify what is meant by a noetic event. Noetic was a word that received a boost in frequency of use and recognition from the astronaut Edgar Mitchell. He chose it after a search for a word to describe an experience he had on his return voyage from the moon. One definition of the word noetic is that it refers to “inner understanding,” a kind of intuitive consciousness—direct and immediate access to knowledge beyond what’s obtainable from our normal senses. This post will attempt to illustrate noetic experiences from personal examples.
While there is at least one possible noetic event other than the ones to be discussed below that I could describe. It could be easily dismissed as coincidence, so I’ll pass on it.
The first noetic event in my life took place when I was 17 years old. At the time, I was just beginning my senior year in high school. It might be useful to know that at that time I could be described as an angry, troubled youth who was frequently in difficulty at school, when I bothered to go. I barely scraped by academically. In my junior year, I dropped out of school, unofficially, to find a job and then make the exit official. I failed to find employment and my father insisted that I return to school, which I did. My father required that I pass my classes and that proved to be a low bar for me. I subsequently graduated with a 1.5 GPA (D+) on a 4 point scale.
With that background I’ll begin the description of the first noetic event. It began on a rainy Sunday in September. I spent the day “cruising” the metro area, where I lived, with a group of friends. This meant that we simply drove around with no particular destination listening to music and talking. One of the people in the car began saying that he wanted to go home because we were going to have a wreck. This was the first time that this individual had ever said anything like this and everyone dismissed his “warning” and his request as being silly.
Eventually, we arrived back in the suburban neighborhood from which we had departed. The first person to be dropped off was the prognosticator. We then proceeded to drop off a couple of other people at their cars. At this point only the driver and myself were left in the car. We began driving out a highway that led to my parents’ home. It was night by now and still raining. As we entered a long straight away, a car coming from the opposite direction was being passed by another car. When the passing car cut back into it’s proper lane, it began spinning and drifting from one side of the road to the other. As it approached us, it went off the road onto the shoulder. Just before it reached us it came back onto the road crossway in the road and hit us creating a T-bone collision.
As predicted the wreck did occur though this isn’t the end of the story. Suffice it to say that the car that hit us was estimated to be doing between 80 and 90 mph. This was in the days prior to seat belts and one result was that I punched a hole in the windshield with my face. The injuries I received resulted in several hospitalizations and surgeries.
The really interesting result of this accident only took place about a year later. I’ll describe this noetic event but I’ll lead off with a poem I wrote trying to capture it:
Before and after images,
Objects of consciousness.
A smiling face – blemish free,
Another marked by trauma.
The contrast contemplated,
An emotional shudder evoked.
A sense of engulfing sadness,
Tears well up – stain cheeks.
The smiling face – frozen in time,
Behind the smile – a death mask.
Its life story no longer told,
Erased in the blink of an eye.
A story built upon shifting sand,
Scattered by the winds of reality.
But, what of the other face,
Who looks out from those eyes?
A question answered – epiphany,
Anyone – just anyone at all.
A blank page for a new story,
A personal myth for a new face.
The power of a fictive narrative ,
To set life on a new journey.
Who is this novelist in the mind,
Who pens this fictive self?
Another, much deeper question,
Set aside for the moment.
The noetic event behind the poem took place while sitting in my parked car in the front passenger seat. I was just sitting and looking at two pictures. One was my senior picture taken a week or so before the accident and the other was a “before” picture taken by my plastic surgeon before he began his work. I was drawn to the contrast between the two pictures but otherwise was not thinking of anything in particular about the pictures. As I sat there, I was overcome with the sense that the person in the senior photo was no more. I felt very sad and tears streamed down my cheeks. When that subsided, I began to realize how the narrative for the person in the “before” picture had been disrupted. It had been disrupted by how other people now responded to me, which also disrupted my narrative. Then, I had a sudden realization about personal narratives. I simply knew that they were a self generated fiction. I have in my writing come to refer to this narrative as the fictive-self. I also realized that I needed this story but that I didn’t need to conflate myself with the story.
I began weaving a new story. To paraphrase the title of a book I once read, I turned left at Thursday and went off in a new direction. As my narrative about myself changed, others saw me as a different person. This transformation didn’t happen overnight but through a slow, steady evolution. I’ll spare you the details of that evolution. Briefly, however, I began as a youth whose own father said was aimless and predicted that I would be in prison before I was 25. The outcome of the insight I had that day sitting in my car led me eventually to become a developmental therapist working with troubled children and that to a career as a professor and eventually a department chair in a large urban research university. A sudden insight had broken the identification I had with my personal narrative and shown me that I was not my story. A noetic event had set me free.
The second noetic event in my life arrived when I was 28 years old and had just gotten out of the U.S. Navy. I’ll introduce this noetic event with a poem that tries to capture it:
Body resting in quiet repose,
Eyes embracing the natural world.
Awareness filled with oneness,
Attention seeking no-thing to grasp.
The image of nature fades,
Darkness slides into awareness.
Deep silence spreads throughout,
Perception sleeps in the darkness.
Only pure awareness manifesting,
Conscious only of the Void.
Thoughts seep into awareness – like,
Siren songs – drifting in the deep.
Thoughts like lyrics reveal stories,
Unguarded, open to awareness.
Attention takes hold of the thoughts,
Creating objects of consciousness.
A sense of privacy breached, or
Perhaps fear of exposure.
Contraction – then withdrawal,
Return to the resting body.
This noetic event occurred one afternoon while I was sitting in my apartment looking out the window in the direction of a cemetery. I don’t recall thinking about anything, though I can’t say some stray thoughts weren’t passing through my awareness. If so, they were not receiving any attention and therefore were not objects of consciousness. All was quiet and time seemed at a stand still. Gradually, I sensed my awareness sliding into a state of primordial emptiness, pure no-thing-ness, a void.
I was a disembodied awareness alert to the infinite nature of the pristine awareness from which my awareness arose. After a while, I became aware of (I am tempted to say thoughts but that isn’t quite it — more like an intuitive sense) another singular awareness being present. I intuitively came to know a great deal about this awareness that was much beyond what I already knew. What I am saying is that this awareness was of someone I was already acquainted with. I have previously described this experience as a bit like a mind meld though not of conceptualized particulars but rather of essences. I also had a feeling of intrusiveness and breaching the privacy of another uninvited. I felt that I was in a situation in which I didn’t understand the protocols. I contracted and withdrew. I found my body sitting very still looking out the window at a cemetery.
The third noetic event in my life took place when I was about 30 years of age. It was a cold winter day and I felt withdrawn from the world. I left the apartment and began a solitary walk in the cold. While I was walking, I stopped and looked distractedly at the dormant grass along my path. As I stood quietly looking at the grass, I suddenly experienced a sense of infusion. A flow of energy that carried with it a knowing about the nature of the reality I inhabited. The following is a poem that tries to capture what was experienced:
An outlaw is a man
A man made whole.
Born in quiet and solitude
The quiet of alone-ness.
Wind, cold and desolate,
Heralds his birth
Eyes like polished glass
Opening on everything
His flesh shivers, then accepts
The coldness passes.
It was only a fleeting thought
Set aside now
His life pulses in rhythm
Time is a schedule
Life a continuum.
To the man
All is simple, clear
The breath of God
Passes over him
Its essence absorbed
Flowing through his veins
Bursting into his brain
Lifting a thousand shades
Clearing binding webs.
Webs like steel girders
Weighing upon the mind
Suppressing the man.
And the man knew God
And he was made free.
All history and tradition
Culture and words
Rescinded — Grace.
Freedom from the past
And from the future
God moved through him
And he was God.
He was neither good nor evil
Nor right or wrong.
And the man moved
With the world and through it
But, was not of it.
For he knew not
The world, nor man
But was both.
And yet, something else.
I have often compared this noetic event with the first one. Not that they were anything alike in terms of what took place but in the core message. What I took that message to be follows. While the ego or fictive-self of an individual is a story about who and what that individual is, the third event conveyed that this was true for the world as well. That is, what we call the world is a narrative that creates a mental framework that we think of as the world. The world too is a fiction. It creates a stage on which life plays out. It seems few ever see beyond the fiction and wonder about what lies there.
Elsewhere, I have described this framework as the web of the world. For me, the web of the world is a complex of interacting concepts that, while variable to some degree, come together and form consistent themes that run like strands in a spider’s web. This web creates the reality that we experience and is a mental reality though it clearly has components experienced as physical. Take for example an airplane. This is a complex conceptual entity that is manifest as a physical artifact through varied processes all of which have conceptual origins. Or, take history as an example. This too is a complex conceptual entity that organizes how we understand the collective past. This understanding informs our present activities, which in turn unfolds our future. Remove human beings from the planet and wait a few millennia and little if any evidence of the web of the world will remain. The “reality” that humans lived in will have largely vanished. The planet will still be here and life will go on but the “world” will have vanished.
These examples of noetic events from my life clearly demonstrated to me that the materialist philosophy driving our culture is perhaps useful in some ways but is a very narrow perspective on the nature of reality. A perspective that, as a dominant point of view, is being challenged and it’s hold on the world is slipping. These events changed the way that I looked at myself and the “world.” I do not ask that anyone accept or believe that these events are valid or even that they actually took place. These were phenomenological events, which means that they were private experiences that provided me with a truth that cannot really be shared. Only those who have had similar experiences of their own can begin to grasp the importance and meaning of these experiences for me. For those who have had no such experiences, you may be willing to entertain their possibility but can only accept them as true and valid through your own noetic experiences. For those who reject them out of hand, consider the possibility that you are “flying blind.”