On the school bus. Autumn. Upstate New York. I was nervous about the swim meet I was going to. It was only the second time I competed as a diver. I gazed out the window. The images of red-gold, orange leaves imprinted on my mind. At 60 mph, the maples, oaks, and spruce slid slowly by my vision as if I were on one of the drugs I hadn’t yet tried. I felt as if I’d transcended time. I wondered if this was what was meant by the stories I’d read of bodhisattvas attaining enlightenment. No attachments. Just the moment. Pure beauty.
The Himalayas. The coordinator of our semester in India had decided that riding on a bus on these narrow one-lane roads was too terrifyingly dangerous, and so had hired a convoy of six white taxis to transport our group of 20 students plus 2 teachers. We were heading up into the mountains, to visit Yamunotri, the source of the holy river Yamuna. The day before, I had received a letter from my boyfriend at the time. The first person I had ever had penetrative sex with. I thought I was in love with him. In his letter, he had told me that he had fallen for another woman, a fellow student at Oberlin College. I was, of course, heartbroken, but I also felt strangely relieved and liberated. The taxis wound their way up and down steep mountain slopes. My friend Michael pulled himself entirely out of his taxi window and hoisted himself up onto the roof, sitting crosslegged in the luggage rack. He spread his arms wide, smiling a beatifically and singing a song I could not make out from where I watched him, two cars ahead. I was surrounded by verdant jungle. Wisps of cloud spilled over the tips of the mountain above, and impossibly green rivers rushed through the valleys below. I felt embraced by the world, as if all of this was there for me. Not just that it all was there for me–the greenery, the cold streams and rivers, the haunting mist, the clean white taxis, the gravel roads, my playful fellow students–but also that it was me. There was no separation. Love was not something that could depart from my life or be taken away. The universe loved me. I was the universe. I was life, moving through life: I was myself. How could I not be loved, boundlessly, endlessly? I felt joyous and free. There was no need to worry because I was one with life and it would provide me with everything I would ever need.
I sat cross-legged in the small building whose walls were straw bales covered with earthen plaster. The window before me overlooked the Breitenbush river, ice-cold, fed by the melting glaciers of the Cascadian mountains. I was high on something, weed definitely and probably mushrooms too, or maybe datura. I’d been alternating between meditating and playing my clarinet. I’d spent the entire day doing yoga. As I sat, lotus-style, the constant stream of music in my head (it’s always playing, even now as I write this) took visible form in my mind’s eye and reared up in front of me, a fiery snake curling out of the ground beneath me. Kundalini energy embodied took shape in my mind and manifested in my awareness. The snake touched its mouth to mine and I wrapped my hands around it as I would my clarinet. I played the snake like a musical instrument. The mystic serpent and I united and we became the music I am always hearing in my head. Then the snake reared back, curled round and under, and entered me like a phallus. My body rocked with successive orgasms. I was ecstatic. The release I felt was blissful, pure, and utterly transcendent. I had become the lover of all of creation, and creation was loving me back with an intensely sexual sense of joy and pleasure.
What does all of this mean? Ultimately, nothing. My synapses firing in unusual and interesting patterns. My individual experience, to which I can assign a meaning or not. Back in the day, I might have taken these experiences to be indicative of “something larger than myself,” as the language goes. I was raised with a vague agnostic mix of Christianity, paganism, and Zen Buddhism. Occasional flashes of strict, judgmental Christianity during my teenage years served only to drive me away from organized religion. I am glad I had a pagan/goddess-worshiping phase, mostly for the psychological benefits of being a woman and devoting a lot of time to thinking about the feminine divine in this patriarchal society. But ultimately, after attending university and learning about statistics, the scientific method, and common logical fallacies, I decided that such experiences were indicative of nothing more than the pretty awesome and amazing things my brain can apparently do when given the right stimuli. At one point in time, I took these experiences to mean that the universe is conscious and intelligent and watching out for me. At another time, I took experiences like these to mean that the Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as the pagan ones, both old and new, were symbolic embodiments of real life energy which, again, was conscious, and flowing through me and all living things. At another point in time, I considered that perhaps the Buddhists were correct and I was experiencing momentary glimpses of moksha, liberation, and that perhaps all this reality I saw before me really was merely illusion.
Eventually, though, I decided that these ideas were all too vague and fluid to have much usefulness, and I stopped using them. Going back to school as a student of the sciences gave me the tools to realize why I had let them go: no evidence. No meaningful hypothesis. No useful predictions.
I’m writing this to hopefully give one more data point in the constellation of information about atheists’ lives that is developing now. I still have these moments even though I’m not just atheist but also anti-theist. Little moments of pure in-the-moment joy and relaxation; experiences of transcendent love for all humanity, all living beings, even all inanimate objects; these are the legacy of our evolutionary heritage and as such belong to all living beings, regardless of what supernatural or social framework they press into service to provide some philosophical structure for the experience.