In 1902, William James, one of the architects of modern psychology, described four characteristics of what he described as “religious” experiences.1 In today’s psychology, these are more likely to be termed transpersonal, self-transcendent or spiritual experiences. They are experiences of something “beyond the self”, of a self that is part of something infinitely greater. They are nearly always powerfully transformative, fundamentally changing the ways people think, feel and behave.
One of the characteristics James described is that these types of experiences are “ineffable”. They “defy expression” and are beyond easy language. If you have ever had one, you will know what this feels like - a frustrating search for words and phrases that remain just beyond reach. Nothing you say seems to do justice to the experience you’ve had. Often, the only chance of being understood is by someone who has had a similar experience. Because of this, people who share powerful experiences often form very close bonds based on profound empathy, and the special camaraderie that emerges through the shared social isolation that can come from no one else really “getting it”.
Whoever you are trying to describe these experiences to, the type of language that feels most adequate is metaphor. I have often thought - and written in the past - that the rich metaphoric terrain of poetry is the last outpost before words fail entirely.
My work is based on designing and facilitating transformative outdoor experiences of nature. The most transformative ones invariably include the type of self-transcendent and often spiritual experiences that William James wrote about all those years ago. In my programmes though, the “something infinitely greater” that is experienced is nature (perhaps all these types of experience are also of nature). But as James pointed out, these self-transcendent experiences are almost always impossible to describe. This makes engaging people with my work very challenging - unless they have already experienced it, which of course is a tricky paradox to resolve. However, now and then a metaphor emerges that elevates the whole conversation. One of these sang out from a participant on a recent programme.
Before they arrived on the programme, they thought of themselves as someone who loves nature and feels a deep connection to the natural world. Not only personally, but as a sustainability professional too - it is their work to try and help people to live within nature’s limits. You would think that this type of person already fully “got it”. That there was no more that could be done to deepen their connection - that, in fact, it would be presumptuous and patronising to even try.
After the programme, and after first struggling with the usual problem of ineffability, they came to describe their deep love of nature before the programme as being like looking into a snow globe. They loved everything inside the snow globe passionately - every swirling flake, every tree, every rock. From this perspective, they couldn’t love it more but were, until that moment, unaware that the transparent glass barrier of the globe even existed.
Then one day, amongst the Punga, Kauri, ferns, bristling Tuis and burbling streams of the Waitakere ranges, they unexpectedly found themselves inside the snow globe.
This was a surprising and breathtaking experience. They became momentarily aware of the glass barrier, only to witness it dissolve a moment later, right before their eyes.
An astonishing awareness was slowly revealed highlighting that their previous understanding of nature had always been somehow ever-so muted and out of reach, even if their connection and relationship were genuinely and passionately felt. Suddenly, they understood the snow globe from within. Next, they realised that there was no outside at all. That there never was. That the outside, as with the idea that we are separate from nature, is an illusion.
Once you have experienced a reality like this, you do not get a choice: you have to adjust your life to fit it. You are compelled. You have to accept it. Or else you find yourself committed to a spiral of avoidance, denial, dismissal and false rationalisation - that becomes ever more untenable until, basically, it breaks you. Either way, the newly unearthed reality wins.
I love this snow globe metaphor. In all my years of doing this work, I’ve never come across one that gets so close to the subtle, yet powerful sensation of what hundreds of the people I have worked with have tried so hard to describe. It collapses dualism. Inside the snow globe, outside it. Inside nature, outside it. There is no inside and outside. There is just everything, all utterly interconnected. The fluttering snowflakes fall from the actual sky.
This metaphor beautifully reveals the tension between cognitive, intellectual, abstract, and reductionist ways of knowing the world, and those that are somatic, tacit, direct, visceral and whole. It exposes our pernicious industrial growth culture, which peddles us the dangerous illusion that we are outside the snow globe. That the contents are real and beautiful but separate and disconnected. And always for sale.
From an ecological perspective, the metaphor is simple. There is no snow globe: we are nature. We don’t get to peer in from the outside. What appears to happen “in nature” actually happens to us all.
Access to the snow globe comes through the body and the senses - through unmediated experiences of nature. There is no other way in. You cannot think, read, research, force, listen, meditate, pray or negotiate your way into it. Entry is physical: you have to literally enter it: flesh - soil; blood - water; rock - bone.
If we want people to live inside the snow globe, inside nature - and to expose its false duality - then we must help them experience it for themselves. There is no other way in.
I would like to thank Ranmalie Jayasinha for their gentle and thoughtful help with this article, and for sharing their story.
1 James, W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience. Longmans, Green & Company. p380.