Periodically, I’ll think about a word or situation so deeply that it loses all meaning. That may sound counterintuitive. The more you consider something, the more richness you can draw from it… right? That’s probably true up to a point, but I sometimes take it beyond that point. And beyond that point, confusion, dizziness, and disorientation lurk. At the most extreme end, I’ve experienced a kind of emptiness.
Say I’m at a party, watching people from my perch at the food table (a common experience for me when the food is exciting, since I don’t want to miss the moment when the new mini quiches or smoked trout canapés are brought out). At first, it’s all fascinating: the gestures, the outfits, the laughter, the flirting, even the sour looks of annoyance when people don’t mesh. But, when I think too hard about what I’m watching, wild things happen in my head.
Something snaps, and I see my fellow partiers as animals, members of the human species of beast. That well-dressed pair whispering to each other in the corner reminds me of a couple of gerbils mating in a little cage. My fellow food lovers put me in mind of lions hunting for prey, especially the lanky man by the window, stuffing down shish kebab and large hunks of cheese as if he may never score another pile of food again… as if he is an animal in the wild facing a scarcity of prey.
A woman in dress slacks and a pretty pinkish vest over a black silky shirt approaches me to say hello, but her outfit reminds me of my eccentric friends who put sweaters on their dogs. Don’t ask why, but the pink vest seems as funny on her as those sweaters seem on my friends’ poodles and schnauzers. It all makes me think about the silliness of fashion, the humor of dressing up a body with complex decoration, when we all know what lies underneath.
She comes over and asks what’s going on with me, but I am miserable because I’m trying not to laugh. That pink vest. Those dress pants with the plaid pattern. How hilarious, knowing that what’s underneath isn’t dressed up at all: it’s just the usual parts of the adult human female.
“How’s things, Stephanie?” she asks. How’s things, how’s things, how’s things… the combination of sounds keeps replaying in my head until it feels absurd and devoid of meaning. I feel like this woman, a friendly acquaintance who I often see around town at various events, has just barked at me, or made a noise like you might expect to hear from a hyena. Then my name plays in my head over and over. That name thing is so crazy. Stephanie, Stephanie, Stephanie, Stephanie… the sound of it plays in my head again and again, and I find it outrageous that it somehow represents me.
Ste-pha-nie. True bizarreness. How could noise shaped into that sound have anything to do with me? Who thought of this whole name thing, anyhow? And now humans name their pets too, which is just SO FUNNY. A friend of mine named his hamster Lukas. Lukas the hamster. That sound, Lu-kas, is supposed to designate this particular hamster. When I click my mind in a certain way (and I can’t help doing that) this feels beyond ludicrous. Animals don’t even use language; why do they need names?
I can’t even look at this acquaintance who covered her human body in a pinkish vest, silky shirt, and dress pants… and who just uttered the sound “Stephanie” to get my attention. This is too absurd, too funny, and I just can’t play the game anymore. I want to laugh but I know I can’t, so I feel squelched and tight. Even the quiches start to feel ridiculous, fancy little things to make humans forget that, at bottom, they’re just animals who need food to stay alive.
Everything at this party starts to feel abstract and emptied of all warmth. My thoughts have sapped all meaning that would help me relate to the event, and now I feel like I’ve spun beyond its orbit. Dizziness overtakes me, and I have to sit down. Somehow, that feeling grounds me a bit: the need to sit and get a hold of myself is very real, even elemental. I can’t analyze it away. This focuses my mind on basic needs, which curtails the analysis… and the party starts to feel meaningful again. And on some absolute level, I think it is meaningful; it’s celebrating an important milestone in a friend’s life. So, ironically enough, curtailing the analysis brings me closer to the absolute truth.
A similar phenomenon may just be happening with mystical experiences. I crave a mystical experience with life-driving depth and passion. It’s possible I’ve had one. It’s even possible I’ve had many. And I mean major stuff: communication with deceased relatives and other deceased souls, a tap on the shoulder and a voice from some kind of spiritual dimension, wild coincidences that seem far beyond what should have happened based on random nature.
In the moment, often, I’m sure I’m connecting to some kind of spiritual realm. But then too many thoughts arrive. I wonder: What if I imagined it all? What if it was the result of some weird neurological glitch? What if unlikely but not impossible odds occurred in the course of regular old natural law?
I take a sharp, intense moment when I felt a glorious truth and batter it into submission. Contrary to the popular notion that thinking brings us deeper into the truth, I often suspect that the powerful moment when I wasn’t thinking — the time when I sensed the amazing, supernatural force or sensation — brought the deepest wisdom. Maybe all that analyzing somehow brings me away from the purest form of reality.
Some suspect that young children have a special line into realms beyond most older people, precisely because they don’t overanalyze. If they think they see a being materialize from the air, or feel a tap from their grandfather who died years ago… that’s it, as far as they’re concerned. They saw what they saw, and they’re not about to question it.
As we grow older, we become aware of possibilities like wish fulfillment and glitches in thought and perception that give impressions that conflict with the objective truth. So, we may think we feel a tap from our long-deceased grandmother, but, after the fact, we’re likely to wonder whether it was just a glitch of our imperfect minds. We think we’re so much more sophisticated than the child or the simpleminded adult who glides into these sensations and easily accepts them as truth. Or at least I do; I don’t want to drag you into my snobbery. But, ultimately, the simpleminded, non-analytical approach may be the best way to tap into some truths — to feel and appreciate their pure power.
Ironically, the complex, nuanced mind may distance us from the easy but real revelations that are all around us, waiting to be seen, enjoyed, and appreciated. This is not a rant against analysis: I love analyzing, and often feel it brings me all kinds of wonderful wisdom. It’s just a caution that all human minds have their limits. In pushing to understand and unpack every possible issue, we may neglect to notice truths that are perceived in other ways: through moods and quick responses, not ponderous examination that can stomp over and hide the clearest answers.
As always, I am well aware that I have no answers to the biggest, deepest questions. Could accepting that and floating easily into my impressions and experiences be key to finding answers through a mode I haven’t been respecting or even acknowledging? Maybe. And maybe I should be willing to leave it there and see where it might take me.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.