Writing as catharsis

Seeing the world as Van Gogh did

Posted in Philosophy, Prose, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on July 24, 2012
Road with Cypress and Star by Van Gogh

Road with Cypress and Star by Van Gogh (1890)

I feel like this is a subject I should write about immediately, as it may be of the utmost importance. There may be clues hidden far in my past that could help me have a better understanding of myself, and of the trajectory of my spiritual thought.

In my life I have had some unique experiences which, upon reflection, I once find quite hard to categorise. I’ll start by describing one experience in detail.

It was a Friday afternoon some five years ago. I had returned home from work to find an empty house – which, in those times was definitely a blessing. Time alone and in-silence was rare and to be treasured. This had put me into a good mood, and I was feeling particularly content with life.

I resolved to walk down to our local purveoyer of fine wines and celebrate my good mood with a nice bottle of Shiraz. The sky threatened rain, but I felt like walking regardless. I slipped on my headphones and began strolling through the scenic route to the sound of Bohren & Der Club of Gore’s Sunset Mission.

I walked slowly, looking around at the clouds and their different shades of gray; the different styles of houses in each street; and the types of plants growing in each yard. I could smell that sort of fresh, cool change in the air that marks the moments before a storm. Then, as the rain begun to lightly fall, something happened to me.

My sense of contentment grew so as to become almost overwhelming. It was a sensation that was all-consuming. I felt that everything was good; that there was an innate harmony and correctness to the universe. Colours seemed more intense, more vibrant; taking on an almost hyper-real quality.

I became rapturous; enamoured. The stroll, the trees, the streets were just too beautiful. In the distance lightning began to flash – an electrical storm was coming – and I slipped further into a state of mind of which I still do not completely understand.

I’ve recently been able to identify when I’m being put into a trance-like state – usually by slow, droning music. It has also become a semi-regular occurrence (I can recall particularly the experience when listening to Space Bong and Scott Kelly of Neurosis live in the last year).

When in a trance, my eyes feel glazed and cloudy; I become incredibly content – filled with some inner warmth – and I find it hard to keep my eyes open, or my head up. I don’t go to sleep, but rather remain awake in a trance-like state, rendered in complete bliss by the music.

There are some similarities between those music-induced trance-like states and my state during that walk. I felt the same sort of cloudy ‘glaze’ over my eyes, and I felt a more intense version of that bliss and contentment.

These experiences have not been overly rare in my life. I’ve been struck by similar instances many times, though not always with the same clarity or level of intensity. While I have failed to make a proper and complete record of these experiences (which I am vowing not to fail at ever again) I find that they are usually induced by walking, listening to music and observing natural elements around me (the way that sunlight illuminates particular plants; the jagged arms of a grey gum; the structure and pattern of leaves).

I will definitely have to pay close attention the next time such a feeling overtakes me.

But what does it mean?

Reflecting now, I have some vague sense of how I might frame or interpret these events.

In the past few years I’ve become more and more interested by mystical experiences. Colin Wilson’s The Outsider really helped me begin to frame mankind’s existential and spiritual crisis; nihilism. Nihilism is essentially the inability to reconcile reality and the universe with a personal philosophy or religion; and the failure to find objective value and meaning.

Wilson uses the experiences, art and biography of key literary, artistic and religious figures to demonstrate different qualities of awareness as to unity within the universe. The real acheivement of The Outsider was to work those different qualities and types of awareness into a sort of theoretical framework.

Wilson used this awareness framework as the foundation for the development of his own philosophy — one I have not read, though the small elements of which I heard do not particularly interest me.

I digress. The point is, Wilson goes into detail about mystical experiences; those of William Blake, George Fox and other various mystics. Some descriptions of their experiences are similar to my own.

Through reading of and about William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Colin Wilson I’ve come across many cases of people being ‘overwhelmed’ by the ‘natural beauty of the world’, or of a sense of connectedness – usually associated with entering some sort of trance-like state.

That considered, I guess what I’ve had are essentially ‘religious’ experiences.

I feel like on those walks I saw what Van Gogh might have seen as he painted the world ablaze with life and intensity.

I would guess that most people who have these experiences have little recourse but to explain or frame them within the religious lexicon they were raised as — a direct experience of a Christian God; the presence of an angel; a burning bush.

Having little stock in the forms of Christanity presented to me, I will not do similar. For now, I must think further on the circumstances of my own experiences, resolve to read more about mystics, and the analysis of their experiences.

Introducing the East

I’ve also found a sort of congruance of my experiences with the concept of Zen.

In the last 12 months I’ve been exposed to the writings and teachings of Alan Watts (specifically The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, What Is Zen? and the 12 CD lecture series Out Of Your Mind). While I certainly don’t hang off his every word, his presentation of the idea of Zen is of particular interest.

In a nutshell, to experience a state of Zen is to essentially become conscious of the unity of the entire universe.

It is the realisation that you – your thoughts, experience, life, body – are but one miniscule aspect of a greater whole.

We shouldn’t depart into more fanciful interpretations of Zen (IE: you are a magic creator-being who creates the universe using quantum science) — but stay rooted in the idea that Zen is but the abrogation of the delusion that you are “seperate” from the universe, and that you are a composite of a larger whole. That much at least shouldn’t be too controversial. Any elaboration or interpretation of Zen beyond the above statement should be treated with supreme skepticism and caution.

Many seem to conclude that Zen demosntrates there are significant and meaningful connections between you and the universe. That it’s an awareness that black and white, light and dark, good and evil, happiness and pain and all other polarities are all essential composites of existence that rely on one another — that is, without dark there is no light. In this way, existence can ultimately justify itself.

I’m certainly not taking that jump on faith. Still, Zen has provided another interesting tool for the possible interpretation of my experiences. Much more thought and research still needs to be done.

These are definitely interesting and possibly fruitful lines of thought which I will follow.

I know Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy is of particular use. I might have to give that book that time and dedication it deserves in the near future – as with William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. I placed an order for the latter this afternoon.

What about you?

I would be particularly interested to hear if anyone else has had a similar or comparable experience. It’s definitely not something I have discussed publicly – or with anyone, really. I’ve only read about them, and (apparently) experienced it for myself.


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