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2012 Spring Issue 3 (April 20, 2012)

True inspiration & the religious experience

April 20, 2012
By Michael Goodgame

Last week, I was in my room.  The room is not a particularly awe-inspiring venue in itself, but that day it was host to an incredible moment. 

As I sat at my desk, I found myself entering a state of “flow” – or, as athletes often call it, “the zone.”  I am one to argue that it is possible to enter “the zone” at any point.  It does not require a pressurized situation, and it certainly does not require anyone else.  It is a place where the brain is functioning at its highest level without any semblance of effort.  It does not analyze, it simply acts – in the best way possible.

As soon as this feeling came upon me, I felt the fleeting whoosh of an idea as it rushed by me.  Great ideas seem to do this; they refuse to stay put, preferring instead to zoom by the mind like speeding trains so that we can only pick out bits and pieces to try and glue together into something cohesive.  The fantastic part about great ideas, though, is that even their smallest parts are monumental and can sweep you off of your feet. 

The details of my idea are complex and require more elaboration than a few sentences, so I’ll leave them to a later column.  I wish to write instead about the experience of obtaining the idea. 

Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a staircase to describe profound experiences: we climb the staircase to open a door at the top and go through an out-of-body involvement.  This state is inspiring in the best way, and it is different for each person.  It is the zone.  In loose terms, Haidt calls this phenomenon a religious experience.  Religious experiences, he argues, have little to do with actual religion for many people – they are, rather, spiritual events and can be sparked by anything that inspires us to think.  The profound beauty of nature, for example, is a source of powerful stimulation for many people.  In my view, a religious experience is a personal paradigm shift that can be caused by anything that you think of as more than yourself.  The concept of a god does this job perfectly, as do the forces on nature.

The only problem with profound experiences like this is their scarcity.  To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, I wonder how often people really stop and look at the world around them.  We all seem to be too busy with the fulfillment of basic pleasures, like obtaining of money, to consider life and livelihood as a concept.

This is absolutely tragic.  Religious experiences, after all, formulate how we see the world and shape our beliefs about ourselves and our surroundings.  The less people have them, the less people have a basis for comprehending their situation.  It is that simple.

As I mentioned in a previous column, we at Carleton tend to (ironically) spend too much time doing schoolwork and not enough time being creative.  In a sense, I am writing about the same thing -- “creativity,” in its broadest form, is the product of the profound experience of the mind that I describe above.

How can we come upon this more often?  We have all had and enjoyed inspired, energized moments, but how do we cling to them and learn to reproduce them?  Is there anyone reading this who has a knack for stepping into the zone and gaining insight from experiences like these?  I encourage responses as a form of open dialogue, and I would love to hear your answers.

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