This article [based on the author’s dissertation] is about the process of having a numinous experience. Complex issues as to the role of sensuousness; the role of gender; and why Eastern-oriented compared to Western-oriented experiences are so different are also discussed. While Eastern experiencers report a oneness experience, Westerners report a sense of twoness and the phenomena of inner dialogue.
Focusing on the under-reported Westerners’ experience, the study introduces us to Celtic consciousness by describing William Sharp’s experience and his relationship with his inner teacher, Fiona Macleod, which is a compelling example of the strong Western tradition of nondual consciousness in which Western men report female inner teachers. When compared to the more disciplined Eastern approach just the opposite occurs—no inner teacher, no dialogue and no self!
An experiencer of the numinous encounter herself, the author agrees with theorists Michael Washburn and Lionel Corbett that the numinous is best viewed as a healthy and evolutionary growth experience.
The article also invites further research on three major concerns: 1) Do all experiencers go to the same place? 2) Is our physic structure one of a dialectic triggering us to automatically seek what is missing and 3) What role do our senses and our gender play in this nondual/numinous encounter?
The term nondual experience as of this writing seems to be the cutting edge word to describe what we experience when we let go of our ego consciousness and engage the other more neglected aspects of us. The term I am more familiar with is numinous as coined by Rudolf Otto and used by C. G. Jung and other religious studies scholars. As a Celtic studies student I also use the term seduction to describe this initiatory experience into the immortal realm. I will define and connect these terms shortly.
In the winter of 1983 I had a nondual spontaneous experience that I described as a cosmic orgasm. It was a massive infusion of energy that would take three years to integrate with my existing self. While I had studied world religions and philosophies, I had no spiritual practice and was completely unprepared for my encounter with what I am now calling my soul consciousness or inner teacher. However, I did have what Sigmund Freud and the “French Freud,” Jacques Lacan tells us is important: a desire for the adventure into the unknown other.
The purpose of this article is to open up a dialogue or, I should say, to join an ongoing discussion within the psychological community about the nature and impact of this nondual experience. Although I worked alone in trying to understand what had happened to me, I did encounter pioneers like Stan Grof, Larry Dossey and Rachel Naomi Remen and in fact produced a series of national conferences on the topic of consciousness and addictions in the 1980’s. However, it was in the 1990’s my search for answers took an academic turn and I enrolled in a doctoral program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. My dissertation is dedicated to finding answers to what this numinous experience means for me and to identify others throughout history that had similar experiences. What I found, as others are claiming, is that there are different types of experiences, with some people experiencing a oneness experience and others reporting a sense of twoness. In addition, the people experiencing twoness report what I called divine dialogues or inner teachers whereas the oneness experiencers report a loss of self or no self. These types of experiences may or may not equate to experiences of the Eastern oriented compared to the Western oriented tradition. And yes, as I report, believe it or not, the West actually does have a tradition—a tradition of inner teachers going back to pre-Socrates philosophers like Parmenides and Empedocles.
I now give a brief overview of my dissertation identifying the trends I discovered, the issues I identified and resolved; but more importantly, issues I identified but was unable to resolve. In this article I look at the differences between Eastern and Western experiencers, the important role of the female inner teacher and the expansion of my answer to Freud’s question, “What’s in it for me?”
The title is: Celtic Siren: A Case Study of William Sharp’s Seduction Experience In Which The Numinous Other Is Understood And Interpreted. The focus is primarily on one man’s numinous experience, William Sharp, but it soon evolved into not just his story, but the story of the history of the numinous experience itself, at least from the Western world as well as the story of Celtic consciousness. It is a triple biography! This biographical approach is the view from a chronological perspective or the length of it or from across time. The cross-cultural view is the main focus of this article –the nondual dialogues, or as I call them, the divine dialogues.
Before discussing the dialogues, I need to go over definitions as the terms have different meanings to many of the contributors to this discussion. As used in this study, the definition of numinous experience is that it is an experience of an intense energy exchange in which the ego self is transformed into what Jung termed the Self with the capital “S“. I should point out my definition and Jung’s definition is different. Jung took Otto’s term, the numinous, and equated it with archetypal experiences. For Jung archetypes present the same luminosity as described by Otto and as with Otto’s formulation, the archetype can present both positive and negative sides. Consequently, Jung’s definition is much broader than mine and includes dreams, visions and déjà vu experiences. In this article to avoid confusion, I will use, as I did in the dissertation, my definition of numinous.
In his book The Religious Function of the Psyche Lionel Corbett gives the following definition of the numinous from a psychological perspective:
“The numinous experience arises from an autonomous level of the psyche and is either the source of, or the medium for, the transmission of religious experience, empirically, we cannot say which.”
He goes on to give examples by what he means by a numinous experience:
- A dream
- Walking vision
- Experience in the body
- Within a relationship
- In nature
- A synchronistic event
On the other hand, Michael Washburn comes from a philosophical point of view, and basing his definition on Jung’s ideas, he goes beyond them to include the immortal realm. This is Washburn’s definition as defined in his book, Ego and The Dynamic Ground. In order to understand Washburn’s definition of the numinous, we must first understand what he means by the term Dynamic Ground:
The power of the ground . . .is a fundamental reality of the soul. It is true that owing to original repression, the power of the ground is rarely evident within consciousness. Although usually repressed and unconscious, the power of the ground is something that can impinge upon consciousness in many ways. As psychic energy, it amplifies experience across all dimensions, and as spirit, it affects dramatic transformations of the ego and of the subjective life.
For Washburn luminosity is intermixed with sensuousness. His view of the relationship between spirit and soul is dialectic and Dynamic Ground is the fuel that makes the exchange between the two occur. For Washburn the numinous experience relates and is intermixed with all three stages of human growth, so is evolutionary in nature. His definition is:
Mystical illumination is an experience of inconceivable enormity . . .the ground releases a prodigous outpouring of spirit. The aperture of the soul is opened to its widest pore and spirit, in the fullness of its power and glory, graces the ego with the ultimate contemplations, is inherently of the nature of a gift.
I have more to say about the role of sensuousness and dialectics later in this paper. Echoing Washburn’s theory of spirit is personalized and the body is spiritualized, Corbett writes, the numinous experience results from the interaction of soul and spirit, and, if successful, allows more of the Self to embody as soul. Henry Corbin expresses the same dynamic “the body is spiritualized the spiritual is embodied.” I resonate to these theorists’ descriptions as they come closest to explaining what happened in my experience.
Nondual Experience Definition
Nondualism may be viewed as the understanding that dualism is illusory. Many traditions state that the true condition or nature of reality is nondualistic, and that dialectic dichotomies are misconceptions of reality. William James coined the term sciousness or consciousness without consciousness of self. However, it is a term the Eastern schools have used more than the West. For Buddhist the non-self or no self is the goal of their meditations – the practice of breaking through the separation and returning to the oneness.
The experience practitioners describe is not unlike the numinous experience as it includes a sense of energy where formlessness infuses into form and a direct experience of oneness is reported. A leading nondual teacher, Peter Fenner, describes a nondual experience as:
. . .it includes all phenomena and experiences, with nothing left out. If any experiences are excluded or resisted in any way, the state is, by definition, dualistic rather than nondual. This nondual quality inevitably embraces paradox—that is, the possibility that something can be both true and false, good and bad, present and absent. Contrary to the experience of conditioned mind, unconditioned awareness allows us to remain peaceful and undisturbed in the midst of paradox and ambiguity. Our usual preferences for order, structure, categories, and concepts don’t exist when we rest in this nondual awareness.
These are all working definitions. William James was the first to claim the numinous experience is ineffable. However, to communicate we need to use the language we have available.
In addition to the primary case study of this nineteenth century Scottish mystic/writer, I discuss others; namely, Merlin and Viviane, Dante and Beatrice, Boethius and Lady Philosophy, Socrates and Diotima, Lord Krishna, Arjuna, Job and Yahweh and my own nondual dialogue and awakening of the soul’s consciousness. These divine dialogues are used as the mythological approach to understanding the numinous experience. I devote a chapter to the psychological approach utilizing Freud and Jung’s theories, and a philosophical approach with G. W. F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur. Finally, I look at the research done by religious studies scholars like W. T. Stace, Ninian Smart and F. C. Happold. In essence, Sharp’s experience of the numinous is analyzed from every discipline available to me. From the psychologists, I asked the question “what”, from philosophers the question “why” is answered and from human development theorists Michael Washburn and Lionel Corbett “how” is the focus.
A major part of this article is spent on unresolved issues and my thoughts about them; however, I first feel it is important to give the reader a sense of my own experience and why I was directed by my inner teacher to search out my own Celtic heritage for answers. A heritage I was unaware of when this endeavor began.
My own experience came by way of an inner dialogue. I was in a hospital setting and was in the process of being required to swallow some very unpleasant liquid. I remember reading Alice Walker’s Color Purple where she describes turning herself into a piece of wood when she was being abused. Taking a cue from Alice, I decided to turn myself into a chalice and allow my whole body to absorb this unwelcome substance. It not only worked to avoid immediate pain, the process led to a long encounter with the otherness within myself.
However, having no meditative practice, or knowledge of anything other than the traditional forms of Western medical practice and organized religion, what I experienced was beyond my scope of comprehending. The state I experienced was one of unconditional love, acceptance and a challenge or opportunity for growth. Existing belief systems disappeared, all fear dissolved and a dialogue with the unknown other began. I had a sense I was being called to serve, an image of the French Foreign Legion came to my awareness and I understood the mission was to be somewhat secret and somewhat dangerous. I silently asked questions and “heard” answers. I understood very few people had an experience as the one I was undergoing and when I questioned, the answer came back less than 1% of 1%. I was to play a role as a communicator and take the lost, misinterpreted sacred knowledge and convert it to today’s language and sensibilities. I sensed if I accepted this new life, my old life, as I knew it, would disappear. My sense of disorientation was answered by an image of the old king dying and the new king being greeted with the first traditional words, “God Save the King”. I understood being English, with no spiritual discipline, this was the best my mind could deliver – but I understood a death of part of me had occurred and had been replaced by something new and different.
The only disturbing aspect was that I projected a male voice onto the dialogue. I am thinking this was because my only reference point for anything like what I was experiencing was from my Catholic high school education and thoughts of St. Bernadette and the children of Fatima and remembering they thought they heard instructions from the celestial realm of God.
Following the spiritual path was easy as I just followed the energy. What I mean by “following the energy” is: I became inner directed vs. outer directed. Prior to the numinous/nondual experience, I had set goals based on external conventional cues, whereas subsequently I have based any life choices on what my inner teacher, or as Walt Whitman says, my friendly co-worker, signals me to do. A couple of examples of signals are: books falling off shelves indicating I need to read this and it is important to my path, including in the case of R. J. Stewart‘s book the words The Immortal Hour jumping off the page. Another example of being led was a small advertisement in a local paper for a thirty-hour spiritual retreat at Mt. Shasta literally stopped me in my tracks and I knew I had to be there. This was my introduction to Findhorn’s Game of Transformation and the five participants and two skilled facilitators helped me integrate this numinous experience into my life. From there I followed the trail to my Celtic heritage starting with Sharp’s Celtic renaissance in the nineteenth-century and working my way back to Ireland’s first poet, Amergian. At the time there were many books on American Indian spirituality but none on the Celtic counterpart. Even Pacifica Graduate Institute had no courses on Celtic mythology so I found myself embracing the Hindu cousins in particular in the words of Lord Krishna’s “I am” poems. I was able to piece together a Celtic worldview and identify a path of destiny similar to the one discussed in the Bhagavad-Gita, referred to from now on simply as Gita.
In terms of the religious scholars my experience falls into the category of nature mystics and because it is a twoness experience and includes the body and the senses, it is considered a lower level experience than those reported by the Eastern oriented schools having a oneness encounter. As I said earlier, I follow the energy and the energy was insisting on Sharp and the Celts.
Who is William Sharp/Fiona Macleod?
What is unique about Sharp is that he not only identified with an inner female teacher, he presented his teacher to the public, literally, to the world. For thirteen years Sharp wrote under the pseudonym of Fiona Macleod and his many books on Celtic myth were translated into several languages, the most popular being The Immortal Hour, an adaption of an Irish myth about Etain and Mider.
For Sharp, having an experience before Freud’s and Jung’s time, he believed what happened to him was a mystery. In an effort to communicate the Fiona mystery Sharp gives us a beautiful allegory.
All the formative and expressional as well as nearly all the visionary power is my friend’s [meaning Fiona]. In a sense only hers is the passive part, but it is the allegory of the match, the wind and the torch. Everything is in the torch in readiness, and as you know, there is nothing in the match itself. But there is a mysterious latency of fire between them [. . .] the little torch of silent igneous potency at the end of the match—and in what these symbolize, one adds spiritual affinity as a factor—and all at once the flame is born. The torch says all is due to the match. The match knows the flame is not hers. But beyond both is the wind the spiritual air. Out of the unseen world it fans the flame. In that mysterious air both the match and the flame hear strange voices
What is Celtic Consciousness?
My introduction to Celtic consciousness came by way of Sharp. From my own inner teacher I understood what Sharp had done to reclaim Celtic consciousness in his era through his writings under the pseudonym of Fiona Macleod, I was to do for my time through the available media of the twenty-first century. In order to understand Sharp’s numinous experience, it was necessary for me to understand the Celtic worldview in which he lived. To me Marie-Louise Sjoestedt best captures the Celtic worldview. Celtic consciousness is different from both the consciousness of the Greek and Roman counterparts of their day and from our own dualistic consciousness of our times. To quote Sjoestedt:
A discussion of the mythological world of the Celts encounters at once a peculiar difficulty, namely, that when seeking to approach it, you find that you are already within. We are accustomed to distinguish the supernatural from the natural. The barrier between the two domains is not, indeed, always impenetrable: the Homeric gods sometimes fight in the ranks of the human armies, and a hero may force the gates of Hades and visit. . . But the chasm is there nonetheless, and we are made aware of it by the feeling of wonder or horror aroused by this violation of the established order. The Celts knew nothing of this.
I imagine during the Celtic era that a significant percentage of people were experiencers of nondual consciousness, compared with less than 1% today. This is supported in my study by the evidence of the inner source for all their creative expressions.
French anthropologist, Lucien Levy-Bruhl coined the term participation mystique to describe the relationship between the indigenous people and nature. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and others have referred to this same symbiotic bond as the first naiveté. I am not sure about all indigenous peoples but I did research the Celtic tribes of Britain around the time of Pythagoras and I found evidence based on their poetry, myths and art that tribes like the Iceni in East Anglia experienced nondual awareness.
Figure 1 Iceni Coin 1 A.D.
It is well documented and accepted that the Celts revered nature. What is less known is that according to Ammianus Marcellinus, they followed Pythagoras‘ teaching. More importantly, art critics Andre Malraux and Ruth and Vincent Megaw claim their intricate abstract designs on the sacred stones, on the backs of mirrors and on coins are inner directed.
In addition, the Celts embraced the feminine and held rituals to balance the opposite elemental forces. French philosopher George Dumézil’s research on the ancient balancing rituals supports this claim.
Figure 3 Castlestrange Sacred Stone
County Galway, Ireland
My point here is that although it is fragmentary, the West did have its own heritage of experiencers of nondual consciousness and as I proved in my dissertation,
Celtic consciousness equals nondual consciousness. If no other myth makes the case, the story of Etain and Mider clearly tells us Etain forgets who she is and thinks she is merely a mortal until Mider reminds her that she, like him, has an immortal element to her being.
For the title of my doctorate work I purposely chose the term seduction, as this reflects the Celtic teachings through the myths like the Scottish Thomas the Rhymer and the Elfin Queen, the Welsh Shepherd of Myddvai and the Faery Maiden and the Irish Ossian and Niamh. In each story the feminine “seduces” the male seeker and takes him to the immortal land of tir n’og. As Stephen James wisely points out “we do not go to faery, we become faery.” Here I am reminded of W. B. Yeat‘s poem of Ossian’s seduction experience. A few lines will help convey the sense of a mortal being swept off their feet.
And Niamh calling: Come away, come way.
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl around,
our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
our breast are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
our arms are waving, our lips are apart,
and if any gaze on our rushing band,
we come between him and his dead of his hand.
we come between him and his hope in his heart.