Journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich was trained as a scientist and is a long-time atheist. But in recent years she’s been grappling to understand a mystical experience she had as a teenager. The author of the bestseller “Nickel and Dimed” joins us to talk about her new book, “Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of "Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything"

  • Guest

    My fellow atheists, I have found, sometimes make the mistake of assuming that they are entirely rational. In reality all people are irrational and many atheists are just as prone as anyone to misinterpret odd neurological experiences as having some grand life meaning when really they’re just a misfiring of neurons or death of neurons. If you eat the wrong kind of mushroom or you eat some food that has gone bad, or you breathe in fumes from fresh paint or glue, you can experience strange effects that are interesting and probably dangerous but not at all mystical.

    • Mrs. Eccentric

      Interesting how you had this pegged before even listening to the show, as it had yet to occur……have you read Ms. Ehrenreich’s book? Thanks! steph

    • Yes, there are strange experiences that are NOT mystical experiences. But there are mystical experiences that are not just “odd neurological experiences.” People can go on a vision quest and not see any vision, or take drugs and not experience anything but fearful dreams, or nearly die in a car accident and not experience an out of body experience. But others can appear to have the same outward circumstances and do have a mystical experience. This is why the show failed in its discussion because there was not definition of the field of mystical experience as the ground and context for the discussion.

  • geraldfnord

    It’s not surprising that such natural-until-proved-otherwise should be reminiscent of religious notions, since such would seem a foundation-stone on which our religious structures were constructed (or, rather, a big part of the environments which conditioned religions’ evolution), along the usual primate hierarchy stuff.

    That sounds like the best explanation I’ve seen, but still I must include a scientist’s firm ‘I don’t know yet.’, as opposed to religions’ explanations that satisfy because they comfort or terrify or impose meaning when ‘no explanation’ would serve better….

  • thucy

    I love that Barbara Ehrenreich seems to extend her Socratic and “open inquiry” approach to everything she experiences, and that she has always demonstrated such compassion in her investigations.
    She’s kind of my ultimate wish fulfillment of a feminist and an American. So glad she’s on Forum. Thanks.

  • Mrs. Eccentric

    Thank yuou Ms. Ehrenreich for writing this book and sharing your mystical experiences. At the age of 21, over 30 yers ago, a medical procedure went awry and i had a non-typical Near Death Experience. This was just at the time NDE’s were entering public awareness, and as mine involved no tunnels, bright lights, or dead family members i was even more stumped as to what i’d undergone (mine was more along the lines of the bardo as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead). Just as you, i was highly trained in the scientific method and logical argument, i cannot convey how shocking it was to know things in my bones which had got there via transference of consciousness.

    Fortunately the intelligences with whom i interacted in the NDE gave me tools for investigating these concepts on my own (namely awareness meditation). I’ve since found that while much of these experiences don’t lend themselves to going ‘under the microscope’, there are still many disciplines which apply to studying them.

    I have a few references for anyone interested in this part of life:
    Jacques Vallee’s contact trilogy, especially “Dimensions”
    Bucke’s classic “Cosmic Consciousness”
    Dion Fortune’s “Psychic Self Defense” (great for ideas on how to look at these occurrences)
    Robert Monroe’s books on his out of body experiences: “Journeys Out of the Body”, “Far Journeys”, and “Ultimate Journey”

    Again, i cannot thank you enough for addressing this part of life in an open, honest, thoughtful and respectful manner. Thirty years after my own breakthrough experience, i still cannot listen to another person recount their own while sitting still – the reflection of my own creates a resonance, energizing my own being.
    Happy Day!!! steph

  • Mrs. Eccentric

    Mr. Krasny, i’ve yet to read this book but apparently the author has had more than one mystical experience. Just FYI. steph

  • Douglas

    The question I have been asking myself is “what is the authority of your values?”

  • Natural childbirth is a peak shamanic experience for a woman if she is awake and conscious; she brings through a soul from one place into another. One can encounter the full range of terror and bliss as the mother meets the realms of life and death as she surrenders to the unknown. I feel all women are shamans as we traverse the entire circle of creation within our own bodies. One can have a profound and deep mystical experience being in tune with the moon through menstruation. Life, in fact, is a mystical experience, if one is present. Nature is in constant creation every moment, revealing her mystical nature, of which we are a part, if we pay attention.

  • pdjmoo

    Surely the problem is “labeling” of the words, in this case “spiritual” and “aetheist”. Once you label something you limit and separate it from the whole. Open “Spirituality” to me is the core energy of all life. I perceive it as experiencing the wonder and awe of the natural world…Who/What designed this incredible, complex biosphere that supports all life? This inner reconnection with the beauty around us is breathtaking and “wholeing” — but first one has to drop the left-brain labeling process and see everything in a new light, as we did as a child before we were told what something was.

  • Elizabeth

    I would never discount anyone’s account of a mystical experience, but I’m wondering if these experiences are the result of a natural neurological alteration in brain function, such as happens artificially with psychoactive drugs.

    • Your framework of “artificially” and “neurological alteration in brain function” are indications of a materialistic framework. Mysticism eschews the materialistic perspective. Mysticism stands on the psychological perspective, not the materialistic perspective. When we attempt to reduce our mind’s awareness to “neurological brain function” we have already left the living experience and replaced the actual experience with an intellectual analysis. This is like replacing the actual experience of the trail with a map of the mountain. This kind of materialistic reductionism is so insidious that most people can’t even recognize it as they do it.

  • kalecarrot

    These comments help to make sense for my own experiences. Many years ago I was in a plane crash and the weather was -30. We were rescued just in time as advanced hypothermia was taking its toll. In the hospital after getting out if icu, a “nun” showed up for a chat and commented that my “mission” wasn’t over yet. Later I found out that the hospital did not have visiting nuns or anyone else that fit the description. Maybe some religious individual walked in for a chat- I don’t know- but I wasn’t interested in any more missions after that experience! Perhaps my mind was just trying to sort the horrific event out and it was a coping skill.

  • Alex Sack

    Why don’t you just say it; Buddhism.

  • chrisnfolsom

    Interesting conversation and thought provoking. I still don’t see why someone has to be almost apologetic when confronting one persons “spiritual” experience with skepticism as it seems the vast majority are “proven” to be personal in nature and the entire experience can be shown to be mostly based on biology. I have “spiritual” feelings, and even seek them out, but do not believe any of them are inspired by any outside organized energy, intelligence or deity – and am very skeptical of those who claim them.
    – Thanks again for the discussion.

  • mcmingus

    Did I just hear what I thought I heard? Barbara Ehrenreich just said “Hitler had no interest in religion. Not at all.” Uh…What about all those Jews? Really?

    • Guest

      If I recall, Hitler said the Germans were supernaturally chosen to lead. Similar to what Zionists says about themselves today.

      • Bob Fry

        Similar to “American Exceptionalism”?

    • Yes, she simplistically views Hitler as not interested in religion when in fact Hitler was selling a very specific brand of religion with himself as its prophet or avatar of the current age (“Reich”).

      • mcmingus

        Makes sense to me,GW. Blew my mind that Krasny skipped right by that elephant in the studio without batting an eyelash. I’ll have to listen to the whole interview.

  • Very interesting show, but Barbara’s experience in Lone Pine doesn’t sound that convincing to me even though I am one to always hope for evidence of things beyond our current materialistic understandings. As she was in circumstances that could lead to tiredness and things like temporary blood sugar imbalance these “mystical experiences” could easily be explained away as neurological. Could be the result of what some folks refer to as the “God Center” in the brain. Just the unusual functioning of the brain in unusual circumstances. Still interesting that it would cause this atheist to treat the experience as significant enough to be writing about it now and sharing it with us. Myself, I lean toward agnosticism not necessarily belief in a deity, but more belief in the possibility of a realm beyond the materialism we understand so far. Barbara’s description of the discovery of bacteria is more convincing, to me, than her mystical experience in Lone Pine. The fact that there can be something we didn’t see; microscopic organisms rather than bad mists in the air causing disease opens the mind to things we still have yet to discover. Mystical at least to our present understanding.

  • Emmanuel Bidi

    Her altered consciousness isn’t particularly unique, but to a 14 year old
    girl, raised by parents who are likely dismisive of other forms of
    reality or mystical experience, and who is struggling to find meaning in
    life in a strictly rational way, it is understandable the degree to
    which she was impacted by her experience. My thinking is that the fact
    that her experience is instigated by food and sleep deprivations take
    away the mystical element and places it in the domain of neuroscience.
    Same way that fasting and meditation/near-death have been observed to
    produce altered state of consciousness. However, I wish her parents
    raised her with open-mindedness to experience–the universe and life is
    mysterious. Between our subjective and objective grasp of reality on one
    hand and independent reality on the other hand, I believe anything is
    possible. The problem has always been the use of some of these
    experiences on their face-value to draw INCONSTESTABLE conclusions in
    support of particular enshrined religious worldviews. Absolute certainty
    and absolute gullibility are both enemies of possibilities.

  • Natasha Christelyn Ernst

    If one is looking for god in physics, god is gravity. Gravity controls everything in the universe–its shape, form, function, etc. It is with us now and has been since the beginning. Interestingly, the creation myth in the Bible tracks what we know from astrophysics and the fossil record. Gravity separated the light from the darkness when hydrogen atoms became stars. Gravity is all present and all powerful–so couldn’t it be all knowing, too? And if one thinks about heaven, it is also the description of a blackhole–an unbelievable light that we can never see, but if we did, it would blind us (it would also tear us physically apart as we crossed the event horizon, but alas, only our souls would need to cross it). The more we learn about dark matter and dark energy, the more we look into the 94% of our universe that we cannot see or yet understand. Religion has always been a way to explain things we could not know, but those things that were perviously unknown are now known (e.g., stars, elements, the creation of the earth & other rocky planets, life evolution). So we must dig deeper into the known unknowns (e.g., dark matter & dark energy) to find our answers.

  • She was very sweet but very ignorantly naive about mystical experiences in general. The interview sounded like elementary students discussing the wonders of arithmetic without knowing anything about trigonometry or calculus. Buddhism has studied mystical experiences for 2500 years and yet Ms. Ehrenreich seemed to have studied none of it. In Buddhism, mystical experiences are called “Samadhi” and there are many lists of the many kinds of Samadhi. There is one list in a Buddhist scripture of 108 samadhis. Among the list ofl known mystical Samadhi experiences are the Radient Absorption Samadhi, the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, the Oceanic Reflection Samadhi, the Diamond (Vajra) Mandala Samadhi, the Samadhi of Pure Light, the Samadhi of Complete Emptiness, etc. In Zen the list of samadis to actually manifest as practice are brought down to two: the Samadhi of One Act and the Samadhi of One Form. These two samadhis are the profound mystical experiences described in Zen.
    The mystical experience described by Ms. Ehrenreich was a very shallow experience relatively speaking. I don’t use the term shallow as a pejorative, but as a technical description of the depth of the mystic waters. Ms. Ehrenreich describes a true mystical experience, but her description is one of wading in the shallow water, not diving into the deep profundity. This is clear by her description of “the world flamed into life” a “combination of ecstasy and terror” and “an encounter.” As long as there is an “encounter” the one has not yet reached the deep waters. Ms. Ehrenreich calls it a dialectical experience but doesn’t perceive that the duality of dialecticism is another indication of the shallowness of her mystical experience. If she had gotten beyond the shallowness of “encounter,” she would have gotten deeper than the experience of “ecstasy and terror.”
    One of the callers spoke of the mystical experience of “oneness” and Ms. Ehrenreich mistakes the experience as equated with the “feelings of oneness inspired by seeing a sunset” which the mystical experience of oneness is decidedly and definitely not the superficial oneness of “seeing a sunset.” The caller’s mystical experience of oneness was completely misunderstood by Ms. Ehrenreich’s simplistic reference to “feelings.” The mystical experience of oneness evaporates the ecstasy and terror.
    In four degrees of deepening, the experience that includes “encounter” as described by Ms. Ehrenreich is the shallowest, the experience of oneness described by the caller is deeper, the experience of “none-ness” of emptiness in which all identity and sense of encounter or oneness is stripped away is deeper still, and most profound is the mystical experience of the manifestation of the true suchness after passing through the experience of complete and absolute emptiness.

    • Alex Sack

      Yeah, I was pretty disappointed by the “oneness”/”sunset” flippant misunderstanding, too. (Click) And on to the next caller… that wants to two-dimensionally pigeonhole a four-dimensional, um, “subject”:)

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