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 Barbara Ehrenreich - Living with a Wild God - new book

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Barbara Ehrenreich - Living with a Wild God - new book   Sat Apr 05, 2014 10:07 pm

Los Angeles Times: 

THE WRITER'S LIFE
Barbara Ehrenreich faces the mystical in 'Living With a Wild God'
Barbara Ehrenreich, an atheist and dogged reporter, talks about reckoning with a baffling encounter in 'Living With a Wild God.'

By David. L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic - 1:00 PM PDT, April 4, 2014


Barbara Ehrenreich never meant to write a memoir.

"It seems very self-involved," she says by phone from her home in Arlington, Va. "I have anxiety about it." That anxiety is heightened at the moment because her new book, "Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything" (Twelve: 240 pp., $26), is as personal a piece of writing as she has ever done, built around a journal from her teenage years that traces both a spiritual quest and a youthful mystical experience, each having to do with "an impression of intention" — the sense that there is some underlying shape or meaning to the universe.

"[W]hat do you do with something like this — an experience so anomalous, so disconnected from the normal life you share with other people," Ehrenreich asks in the foreword to the book, "that you can't even figure out how to talk about it?" Such a conundrum drives "Living With a Wild God," which is part personal history and part spiritual inquiry.

That's a surprising turn for Ehrenreich, who for more than 40 years has been one of our most accomplished and outspoken advocacy journalists and activists. She is perhaps best known for the 2001 bestseller "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," which traces her journey through the world of low-income workers, but she has written about everything from gender politics to healthcare to the mechanics of joy, and contributed to publications including Mother Jones, the Nation and the Los Angeles Times. Her 1989 book "Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class" was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

And yet, she says simply of the revelation or epiphany she underwent as a high school student, "I couldn't put it out of my life." In the book, she explains in more detail: "[T]he world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with 'the All,' as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it."

If such an account seems more than a little amorphous — how can it not? — that's one of the difficulties Ehrenreich faced in "Living With a Wild God." "How do you write about something you can't communicate?" she asks, voice rising as if to echo the impossibility of the task. "I felt both uplifted and shattered. A few months later, I concluded it had been a bout of mental illness. It was the only rational explanation. But I kept asking questions in the journal: 'How do I get back to that level of awareness?' Reality seemed so mundane and deadly afterward."

Part of the disconnect, Ehrenreich suggests, involved her atheism, which remains a proud piece of her heritage. "I was born to atheism," she writes, "and raised in it, by people who had derived their own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms, whether vested in bosses or priests, gods or demons. This is what defined my people: We did not believe, and what this meant, when I started on my path of metaphysical questioning, was that there were no ready answers at hand."

Such a distinction is important, for "Living With a Wild God" is not a book of faith. Educated as a scientist, trained as a reporter, Ehrenreich does not believe in what she cannot see. As such, she turns to philosophy, chemistry and physics; she traces the influence of her home life, which was dysfunctional (both parents were alcoholics) but encouraged asking questions and thinking for oneself.

"In some ways," she says, "the book is a critique of science, which offers very much a Cartesian view of a dead world." At the same time, she adds, "I'm still an atheist because I can't say that what I encountered had anything to do with a deity. This hung me up for a long time, the tendency to conflate the mystical with something good or holy. The attribution of moral qualities seems bizarre to me, since the only morality I know is human morality."

At 72, Ehrenreich can look back with an equanimity she didn't always possess. Certainly, that perspective is absent from the journal, which she kept from 14 to 24.

"I went through a phase," she recalls, "of thinking I could annotate the journal and make a book out of that. But I wasn't satisfied because there was too much that, at the time, I didn't feel I could say." Instead, she decided she had to go "all in, which involved a critical engagement with my younger self" — an engagement that cut both ways.

"What have you learned since you wrote this?" the 16-year-old Ehrenreich asks, as if addressing the woman she'd become. "Wow," she says now, "that's quite a challenge."

At the book's core is this sometimes contentious relationship between the younger and older Ehrenreich. "I felt a maternal impulse toward the girl who had written these pages," she acknowledges, although "sometimes I grew impatient. Why was she skittering around so much?" The answer, of course, is that the experience was so overwhelming that even as an adult, the author shied away from it for many years.

Ultimately, Ehrenreich approached "Living With a Wild God" through a reporter's filter, even though the subject was herself. "It pulled me out," she explains, "by becoming something to report, something I had the responsibility to report — not my life but this particular strand of experience, to see if I could make it comprehensible."

This, she insists, is what distinguishes the book from memoir, making her inquiry less about the personal than about the questions such a narrative provokes.

"How," she asks, "do we reconcile the mystical experience with daily life? Let us be open to the anomalous experience. If you see something that looks like the Other, do not fall on your knees. Find out what it is and report back."
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PostSubject: Re: Barbara Ehrenreich - Living with a Wild God - new book   Sun Apr 06, 2014 3:20 pm

"How," she asks, "do we reconcile the mystical experience with daily life? Let us be open to the anomalous experience. If you see something that looks like the Other, do not fall on your knees. Find out what it is and report back."

Love this.

Thanks, Josh.
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PostSubject: Re: Barbara Ehrenreich - Living with a Wild God - new book   Sun Apr 06, 2014 7:30 pm

A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment

By BARBARA EHRENREICH
APRIL 5, 2014


MY atheism is hard-core, rooted in family tradition rather than adolescent rebellion. According to family legend, one of my 19th-century ancestors, a dirt-poor Irish-American woman in Montana, expressed her disgust with the church by vehemently refusing last rites when she lay dying in childbirth. From then on, we were atheists and rationalists, a stance I perpetuated by opting, initially, for a career in science.

How else to understand the world except as the interaction of tiny bits of matter and mathematically predictable forces? There were no gods or spirits, just our own minds pressing up against the unknown.

But something happened when I was 17 that shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. Years later, I learned that this sort of event is usually called a mystical experience, and I can see in retrospect that the circumstances had been propitious: Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.  It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.

Of course I said nothing about this to anyone. Since I recognized no deities, and even the notion of an “altered state of consciousness” was unavailable at the time, I was left with only one explanation: I had had a mental breakdown, ultimately explainable as a matter of chemical imbalances, overloaded circuits or identifiable psychological forces. There had been some sort of brief equipment failure, that was all, and I determined to pull myself together and put it behind me, going on to finish my formal education as a cellular immunologist and become a responsible, productive citizen.

It took an inexcusably long time for me to figure out that what had happened to me was part of a widespread category of human experience. Some surveys find that nearly half of Americans report having had a mystical experience. Historically, the range of people reporting such experiences is wide — including saints, shamans and Old Testament prophets as well as acknowledged nonbelievers like Virginia Woolf and the contemporary atheist writer Sam Harris. It is of course impossible to ascertain how much these experiences have in common. We may be comparing apples and asteroids.

On the religious end of the spectrum, people have tended to describe their experiences as encounters with familiar deities or spirits, while nonbelievers — like some quoted by William James — are likely to speak of a more generic “living Presence.” Others write of something more akin to my own experience, which was wordless and profoundly unsettling. When the early 20th-century Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto surveyed the works of (mostly Christian) mystics for clues as to the nature of the “Other” they had encountered, he concluded that it was “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good.’ ” It was more like a “consuming fire,” he wrote, and “must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love and a sort of confidential intimacy.”

Of course all such experiences can be seen as symptoms of one sort or another, and that is the way psychiatry has traditionally disposed of the mystically adept: The shaman was simply the local schizophrenic, Saint Teresa of Avila a clear hysteric. The Delphic oracles may have been inhaling intoxicants; all of the great Christian mystics showed clear signs of temporal lobe epilepsy. A recent paper from Harvard Medical School proposes that the revelations experienced by Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Paul can all be attributed to “primary or mood-disorder-associated psychotic disorders.” I suspect we would have more reports of uncanny experiences from ordinary, rational people if it were not for the fear of being judged insane or at least unstable.

An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter. It was my scientific training, oddly enough, that eventually nudged me to consider this possibility. Sometime in middle age, when I had become a writer and amateur historian, I decided that the insanity explanation may have been a cop-out, that I could have seen something that morning in Lone Pine.

If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation. We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of “Living With a Wild God” and “Nickel and Dimed.”
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PostSubject: Re: Barbara Ehrenreich - Living with a Wild God - new book   Sun Apr 06, 2014 10:39 pm

I'm glad she wrote about this, being the person that she is, no interest in religion, and yet of an extraordinarily compassionate disposition,  a life devoted to social justice.
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PostSubject: Re: Barbara Ehrenreich - Living with a Wild God - new book   Tue Apr 08, 2014 12:49 pm

Thanks for this Josh.
A concise and yet glorious account.
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