Monday 4 September 2023

The Oceanic Feeling

A comment from J.M. Smith on my last post referred to the so-called oceanic feeling. It went as follows:

For all their talk of individualism, Leftists seem to find selfhood a burden they would like to discard. I think this may explain their attraction to some Buddhist doctrines. I've forgotten who it was, but someone once described this as the "oceanic feeling"--the feeling that one is dissolved in something larger, be it humanity, the cosmos, or a pantheistic god. As you say, Christianity is neither left nor right, but it offers a relationship to God that does not dissolve the self. The self is radically transfigured but it is not destroyed. I might say that Leftists think spirituality is a matter of losing oneself, whereas Christians think spirituality is a matter of finding one's self (largely through destruction of illusions.)"

I replied.

"The oceanic feeling is a real thing but I'm not sure how spiritual in the true sense it is as drugs and even mental illness can bring it about. I see it as consciousness slipping outside the boundaries of the solid core of the rational self and becoming immersed in the universal substance from which individualised consciousness is drawn but that is like the self returning to the spiritual womb rather than growing up and becoming, as you rightly put it, transfigured, thereby retaining its full individuality but expanding that into divine being."

All this prompted me to do a little research into the phrase which I first came across many moons ago in a novel by Arthur Koestler. I thought it came from Freud as a psychological (i.e. non-religious) description of religious experience but when I looked it up it turned out that it was the French writer Romain Rolland who came up with the term (which he introduced to Freud), and he coined it to describe the feelings of being one with the universe and of time being taken up into eternity that he read about in his studies of Indian mysticism, particularly from the life of 19th century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna who frequently experienced spiritual raptures. 

Ramakrishna is a very appealing figure because of his childlike innocence and transparent goodness, and he might be said to be one of the main sources for the Western discovery of Indian mysticism through his disciple Swami Vivekananda. He was certainly a genuine saint in the Indian tradition. However, his experiences have been diagnosed as possibly caused by temporal lobe epilepsy which puts them in a slightly different light to that in which they are normally perceived which is as the ecstacies of an enlightened mystic. It also raises the possibility that the search for higher consciousness in this earthly life, which is what lies behind many Westerners' attraction to Eastern mysticism, may be something of a red herring. Ramakrishna was the first Indian mystic of recent times to be seen as living in a state of heightened spiritual reality. If this state was actually or partially a result of mental illness we have to ask ourselves if the approach to the spiritual path that sees it as a search for higher consciousness might not, in fact, be a mistaken one. This is not to deny the reality of higher states of consciousness but maybe that is not what the spiritual search should be aiming at. Indeed, traditionally higher states of consciousness are regarded as completely incidental to proper spiritual practice and sometimes even positively misleading. We are meant to learn the lessons of this world whilst in this world not try to escape to a higher one, tempting as that might be.

I am not an enthusiast for the theories of Sigmund Freud who seems to me a typical 19th century materialist. Perhaps not typical but operating from the standpoint of 19th century materialism, all the same. When I first heard of the Oedipus complex I thought it complete nonsense which it is. However, some of his work on dreams and the unconscious and the various drives that determine human motivation was valuable at the time even if it is outdated now. And what he apparently thought about the oceanic feeling is also worth considering. He envisaged it as the reversion to a pre-ego state, something experienced by the infant before it becomes aware of self and other. That idea is similar to the one I mention in my reply above which postulates that the mystical sense of oneness in which the ego is blotted out is a reflection of the pre-incarnation state when the soul is bathed in the bliss of non-separation. Thus, it is not where we should be headed but where we are coming from and that means that attempts to recapture it are misguided. No doubt, it will be recapitulated on a higher turn of the spiral once the lessons of incarnation have been learnt but that will mean, as I put it above, retaining full individuality but expanding that into divine being. The oceanic feeling is entirely passive but we are called by God to be co-creators with him and that means able to wield divine powers for the benefit of all creation. The soul submerged in the oceanic feeling remains inert. We are meant to be eagles not fish.


Lady Mermaid said...

This might give another insight to the end of Revelation that stating that there was no sea. Of course, as an ocean lover this gave me pause. However, I now understand that the sea represents chaos and formlessness in a certain sense. Genesis begins with the earth in a state of "waters" or the primordial ocean. Creation separates the ocean into distinct entities.

True egalitarianism is a desire to return to the pre-created state through eliminating distinctions, not simply upholding justice. Perhaps fear is the root behind the desire for the oceanic state. Creation is based on love and real love has risks. It is easy to desire the oceanic state rather than examine and transform the self.

William Wildblood said...

I hadn't thought of that, Lady Mermaid, but you're absolutely right. The sea is the waters of chaos and formlessness, as you say, when everything is undifferentiated oneness. Creation is differentiation and that gets more not less as it unfolds and develops. We are currently in an alienated state because of the growth and hardening of the ego but the intention is that we should go through that and return to God with the fruits of creation which is the fully developed individual self not lose our freedom by returning to formlessness.

William Wildblood said...

Another way of putting this is to say that the sea, the ocean, represents return to the Mother but we are meant to go forward to the Father and become a spiritual adult rather than remain an infant. This may be why Ramakrishna was obsessed with the female divinity (or demon, to be frank) Kali. As usual, Jesus shows us the right way.

JMSmith said...

Lady Mermaid's comment suggests an interpretation of Revelation 4:6, where we are told that, in Heaven, "before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal." This would seem to relate to the first verse of the Bible, where we are told that, in the beginning, "darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters." Darkness and the deep are symbols of origin, the sea of glass is a symbol of the darkness and the deep transfigured by the spirit of God.

This may be over-interpreting the symbol, but it occurs to me that one cannot plunge into a sea of glass. Like the angel with the flaming sword at the gate of Eden, the sea of glass is a symbol of no return. We can all remember the "oceanic feeling," but we cannot return to "the deep" because the deep has been made "glass." And yet the transfigures "glassy sea" (as the old hymn styles it) awaits us in Heaven. So the desire that would have us turn around and go backward can only be satisfied by going forward.

William Wildblood said...

Those interpretations make a lot of sense. It seems the phrase oceanic feeling is more revealing than its originator perhaps intended for it points to a false mysticism which would reject creation and its spiritual purpose and return us to the beginning. Yes, we will find at the end of the journey that we have returned to God but it will be totally transformed, individual and free rather than purely passive. Pre-lapsarian Adam becomes Christ, and this means that love is more like fire than water which it is with the universalised feeling of indiscriminate all-purpose benevolence of the immature mystic.