Monday, August 19, 2013

Drinking light: induced mystical experiences

I signed the release, put my things in a drawer next to the sliding bed and lay back. The attendant put the emergency button in my hand, handed me a pair of headphones and with a final word of advice, "You might want to try it with and without your glasses." she slid me into a sphere of deep blue light.  Then I had an experience, of an texture some people might call mystical. [Spoiler alert:  I'm not going to discuss any previous mystical experiences of my own or lack thereof.]

It's hard to know where viewing Turrell's installation Light Reignfall begins and ends [to see a photo of the bare installation at LACMA go here, or a similar installation in action here].  Does it start when you first see the installation?  when you speak to the attendant (whose uniform is part of the installation)? when you are slid into the interior compartment?  What about watching someone else be slid in or out?  Or being interrogated by some one after you have emerged?

The last time I taught my class on the contemplative tradition in the West we had several spirited conversations about whether an experience that appeared to be mystical, but was induced (through the use of drugs) was a true mystical experience.  Can you induce a mystical experience?  Much of the tradition in the west would say an unequivocal "no" (see this paper on fMRI and mystical experiences in Carmelite nuns where a subject tells the neuroscientists "God cannot be summoned at will.")  We read a Johns Hopkins study on the experiences of hallucinogen-naive contemplative practitioners who took the hallucinogen psilocybin.  Is there a neurological difference between undertaking a contemplative practice that might make you more prone to mystical experiences and setting up the same state using a chemical?  Or light?

We certainly didn't resolve anything over the course of the week we spent on the material, but the discussions were among the best I've had in all my years of teaching.  I'm working on the syllabus for the course again this fall, and this time have added some reading about Turrell's work with light and perception, particularly in these cells, along with some readings from Zig Zag Zen [edited by Allan Hunt Badiner].

So back to that sphere of light.  I had a choice of the "hard" versus the "soft" experience and elected the latter (partly because I had read that of course, everyone chose "hard").  I agree with this reviewer that the light within the cell feels almost viscous at times (I suspect that a generous admixture of UV light with a color produces this effect).  The first time the lights blacked out entirely, I momentarily wondered if I had lost my sight.  The auditory portion of the experience, fed in through headphones, added to the sense of detachment.  You could neither see nor hear the outside world, it was as if it had simply melted away and I was suspended in a bath of pure light.

My experience of the cell was entirely fortuitous —tickets to the cell are sold out for the remainder of the exhibition, but there happened to be a cancellation on the afternoon I was visiting and I was able to secure a ticket (thanks to the helpful staff woman at the will call).  I'm grateful, too, to the art professor from San Francisco, who pounced me just after I emerged.  I sat there putting on my shoes while she tried to get me to articulate what I had experienced.  I doubt I would have retained as much detail if she had not.

Photo is of spiral galaxy NGC 406, NASA.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my gosh, I want to get on the next plane and go experience this. Which is at once a longing and a fear. Thank you Michelle!