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. The Institute on Noetic Science (IONS) was founded by Mitchell to study experiences like Mitchell’s. IONS defines Noetic as follows:
Noetic comes from the Greek word noēsis/ noētikos that means inner wisdom, direct knowing, intuition, or implicit understanding. Noetic experiences can be hard to describe with words and feel like states of knowledge where we access profound truths that we intuitively know as truth without our intellect analyzing them. The noetic…refers to people’s experience of interconnectedness or a force or power greater than themselves (e.g., Higher Self, God, Spirit, Source, Universe, Interconnected Field, Higher Consciousness, Divine, and so on.
This post will try to illustrate noetic experiences through a few personal examples. Subjectively, the noetic is a noetic experience limited to the one having the experience and objectively is a noetic event to anyone hearing or reading about it. So, if I tell you about a noetic experience that I had, you are hearing about a noetic event.
My first noetic experience 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, conflicted 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 only 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 events that led up to my first noetic experience. 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, talking and often drinking. 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. A motorist stopped and rushed me to an emergency room at a university hospital several miles for the scene of the accident. His kindness and that of a student who donated blood probably saved my life. 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 experience 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 on shifting sand,
Scattered by the winds of fortune.
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 experience 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 was overcome by sadness, as if someone I knew and cared about had died. Then, I had a sudden, profound realization about personal narratives. I knew beyond doubt that they were a self generated fiction. I have in my writing come to refer to this narrative as a fictive-self. I also realized that I needed this story but that I didn’t need to conflate myself with the story. I, as an embodied consciousness, was an actor playing a character named David. Further, that the script for David was subject to improvisation.
I began building 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 reckless 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 experience released me from my story.
The second noetic experience in my life arrived when I 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,
Awareness slides into darkness.
Deep silence spreads throughout,
Perception sleeps in the darkness.
Only pure awareness manifesting,
Conscious only of the Void.
Impressions seep into awareness,
Siren songs – drifting in the deep.
Impressions that reveal stories,
Unguarded, open to awareness.
Attention takes hold of the stories,
Creating objects of consciousness.
A sense of privacy breached, or
Perhaps fear of exposure.
Contraction – then withdrawal,
Return to the resting body.
This noetic experience 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, perhaps what Buddhists call Void Consciousness.
I knew myself as a disembodied awareness experiencing the nature of the primordial awareness from which my personal awareness arose. After a while, I became aware of something impinging on my consciousness that might be described as intuitive impressions broadcast by other consciousnesses into the void. This experience felt a bit like a mind meld though not of conceptualized particulars but rather of essences. I also had a feeling that this access was a breach of privacy. I felt that I was, at least, in a situation in which I didn’t understand the protocols. I contracted and withdrew. I became aware of my body sitting very still looking out the window at a cemetery.
The third noetic event in my life took place a few years later. 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 much like a compressed download that unfolded as it entered consciousness. A flow of energy that carried with it a knowing about the nature of reality that had a profound sense of certainty about it. The following is a poem that tries to capture what was experienced:
An outlaw is a man,
Born in quiet and solitude,
The quiet of aloneness.
Wind, cold and desolate,
Heralds his birth,
Eyes like polished glass,
Opening on everything,
His flesh shivers,
then accepts the cold,
The coldness passes.
Only a fleeting thought,
Set aside now,
Life pulses in harmony,
A flowing continuum,
Time is a schedule.
To the man,
All is simple – clear,
The breath of God,
Passes through 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.
God moved through him,
And the man knew God,
And he was God.
He was not good or evil,
Nor right or wrong,
And he was made free.
Freedom from the past,
And from the future,
Moving with the world,
And through the world,
But, not of it.
He knew not the world,
Nor man but was both,
And yet, something else.
All history and tradition,
Culture and words,
Rescinded — Grace.
I have often compared this noetic experience 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 thinks s/he is, the third event conveyed that this was true of the human world as well. That is, what we call the world is a narrative that creates a mental framework that we think of as reality. To be clear I am not saying that this “human reality” doesn’t have demonstrable consequences. It does – just as your beliefs about yourself have consequences. 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 beneath or beyond.
Elsewhere, I have described this framework for human reality 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 sense of 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 another example. This too is a complex conceptual entity that organizes how a people understand their collective past. This understanding informs their present activities, which in turn unfolds their future. It is all at root mental. 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 web of the world will have vanished.
If the above discussion of the web-of-the-world (WotW), doesn’t resonate with you, consider this alternative analogy. Consider a tree as representing the planet and its ecosystem (the world). Consider an invasive vine, e.g., think Kudzu, as representing the WotW or civilization. Over time, the vine will overwhelm the tree and kill it. The vine will continue on for a while not recognizing what it has done. Eventually, the tree collapses and takes the vine down with it. The vine will have lost its support structure and most if not all of it will die from the loss of supporting structure. I have no idea whether this is true of a vine that has lost its supporting structure but lets assume that to be the case for the sake of the analogy. Assuming some of it survives, the remaining vine will have to find a new support structure and begin a phase of regeneration and growth. Perhaps the the cycle will repeat many times.
To be clear. What is being suggested here is that our civilization is overwhelming its underlying support structure. We may go on for a time with little notice of what we’re doing to the planet’s ecological systems and little motivation to do anything about it when we do notice. Like the vine we are probably on a road that will lead to a collapse of the ecosystem and likewise civilization, which is built upon it and depends upon it. The ecosystem is primary and civilization is secondary. Civilization needs to engage in an harmonious and cooperative relationship with the planet and its ecosystem before it destroys the support system that it rests upon. Our civilization is built upon worldviews, materialism (a.k.a. physicalism) and theistic dualism, that is poorly suited to creating the kind of relationship needed for survival. We could learn much from the attitudes of some indigenous peoples toward the support system. Within western philosophy, the worldview most likely, in my opinion, to be helpful with this task is the objective idealism of Bernardo Kastrup.
These examples of noetic experiences from my life clearly demonstrated to me that the materialist philosophy or physicalism driving many in 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 its hold on the world is hopefully slipping.
These events changed the way that I look at myself and the “world.” I do not ask that anyone accept or believe that these experiences are true or even that they actually took place. These were phenomenological events, which means that they were private experiences that provided me with an experience that cannot really be shared only described. 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 of you who reject them out of hand, consider the possibility that you are “flying blind.”