When Things Happen That You Can’t Explain

March 5, 2015
T.M. LUHRMANN for The New York Times
When Things Happen That You Can't ExplainI was sitting in a commuter train to London the first time I felt supernatural power rip through me. I was 23, and one year into my graduate training in anthropology. I had decided to do my fieldwork among educated white Britons who practiced what they called magic. I thought of the topic as a clever twist on more traditional anthropological study of strange “native” customs.

I was on my way to meet some of the magicians, and I had ridden my bike to the station with trepidation and excitement. On the train, as the sheep-dotted countryside rolled by, I was reading a book by a man they called an “adept” — someone they regarded as deeply knowledgeable and powerful.

The book’s language was dense and abstract, and my mind kept slipping as I struggled to grasp what he was talking about. The text spoke of the Holy Spirit and Tibetan masters and an ancient system of Judaic mysticism called kabbalah. The author wrote that all these were just names for forces that flowed from a higher spiritual reality into this one, through the vehicle of the trained mind. And as I strained to imagine what the author thought it would be like to be that vehicle, I began to feel power in my veins — to really feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot. I became completely alert, more awake than I usually am, and I felt so alive. It seemed that power coursed through me like water through a chute. I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. One of them was melting.

People believe what they believe for a range of reasons, but one of the most puzzling — at least for those who have not had events like these — is an explanation from personal experience. Such moments have cherished roles in conversion narratives, of course.

A young man gave me this account of his first encounter with the Holy Spirit at a retreat to which his girlfriend had dragged him. “So they started praying for me. ... It doesn’t feel necessarily like electricity, but it feels like your body would be, like, touched by some kind of extreme power and you’re just shaking, like you just can’t handle all this stuff that’s being poured into you, and all they’re saying is, ‘Come on, Holy Spirit, and fill him up to overflowing.’ ... I felt like there was somebody else in me, like, dwelling, trying to get out to this extreme degree, and I was just overwhelmed in it.” As one says in Christian circles, it convicted him and made him realize that God was real.

But just having a strange and powerful experience doesn’t determine what you believe. I walked off that train with a new respect for why people believed in magic, not a new understanding of reality. Sometimes people have remarkable experiences, and then tuck them away as events they can’t explain.

“The thing happened one summer afternoon, on the school cricket field, while I was sitting on the grass, waiting my turn to bat,” an anonymous Englishman recalled in a passage in an old anthology on mysticism. “Something invisible seemed to be drawn across the sky, transforming the world about me into a kind of tent of concentrated and enhanced significance.” But because the William James-like experience that followed didn’t fit into any of the philosophical or theological orientations he held as a 15-year-old boy, “it came to seem more and more anomalous, more and more irrelevant to ‘real life,’ and was finally forgotten.”

In Scientific American, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, recently recounted such a story. On his wedding day, his bride wished intensely that her deceased grandfather could be there to give her away. Suddenly, the grandfather’s long-broken radio, which they had never managed to fix, came on, for that one day, and then never worked again. The experience rocked him back on his heels, he wrote, but it did not seem to have shifted what he takes to be real.

What makes the difference between conviction and startled curiosity? In a conference last autumn at Esalen, a once-countercultural organization that’s famous for its spiritual retreats, Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religion at Rice University, argued that how you think about remarkable experiences depends on your theory of the imagination. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he went to Kolkata, India, to study Bengali texts.

As he tells it in his book “Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom,” something happened one evening: “Although my body was asleep, resting almost anesthetized on its back, not unlike a corpse, consciousness was lucid and clear, fully awake. Suddenly, without warning, a powerful electric-like energy flooded the body with wave after wave.”

Mr. Kripal does not take the imagination to be an electrical byproduct of some naturalist process. He takes it to be capable of more, to be real in a more complicated way.

I’ve talked to hundreds of people who have had remarkable, unexpected experiences that startled them profoundly. Some see them as clear evidence of the supernatural and others do not. And there are those who come to a conclusive view of what these events mean, and those who hold them as evidence of the mystery of the human imagination itself.

As for me, I never did figure out what was going on with those bicycle lights.


T. M. Luhrmann is a contributing opinion writer and a professor of anthropology at Stanford.