Have you ever been caught in a rogue emotional wave that came out of nowhere? At times I feel inexplicably exhilarated, or just happy and content. At others I feel painfully sad or depressed and dull. Nothing in particular happened to make me either euphoric or despondent. A feeling came over me out of the blue. There was no obvious cause.
I remember one of the first times this happened. I was in the back seat of my Dad’s blue Plymouth on a hot summer day. We were waiting in line at a drive-thru beer warehouse. I stared out the window at stacks of beer cases on metal shelves and was overcome by an intense feeling of guilt. I searched my memory but could not come up with any evil deed that I had recently perpetrated. As far as I knew I was innocent of any sin of commission or omission. And I was about ten. What could I have done that was so horrible?
On the flip side I remember another moment when I was a bit older. I was walking from the car to the front door of our house and happened to look down at a patch of grass. As I studied crab grass, a dandelion, and dirt I was suddenly filled with intense joy. I had no idea why. The lawn was not an object of my personal passion, but the sight of that spot of turf moved me in a way I could not understand.
This morning I was busy with household chores, tidying up for an upcoming visit with some guests. I became anxious. I felt overloaded by many and sundry worries about my family and began to get annoyed as I dusted and swept. At midday I felt excited and happy when I described plans and showed sketches to my wife for two paintings I intended to start very soon. In the early afternoon I lapsed into an aching depression. The first two emotional states had identifiable causes, but the third had no explainable source. The mental pain was gnawing and felt significant, but I had no idea why it was tormenting me. Nothing new had happened since the morning to deliver me into such a mood.
I sometimes wonder if our emotional states are ghosts of past events come back to haunt us. There may be subliminal triggers that summon them, but for the most part their arrival seems arbitrary to me. It feels like a free floating energy loop descends and takes over without introduction or explanation, not unlike an uninvited guest who knocks on the door and demands entry. But most of these visitors seem familiar to me. Even when I feel the most distressed I also feel the odd comfort of experiencing an accustomed state of mind. Perhaps my brain substitutes old tapes, plays old records when it has nothing better to do. I might just be experiencing reruns from a mental TV station that’s run out of new shows to play. There’s nothing uncanny about that.
But what about those moments of instant recognition when we see the face of a stranger and feel an immediate sense of connection? Are we seeing a resemblance of a person forgotten but formerly loved? Yogananda, a guru who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, taught that these moments are reunions with friends from past lives. Sudden feelings of danger, disgust or revulsion when meeting someone new indicates an encounter with a former enemy.
Places too may come back to haunt. I had an odd experience a few years ago in Mead Garden while sitting on a bench by a pond. It was early afternoon on a sunny day. A copse of tangled trees and vines was off to my right, and as I stared at it I had a dreamlike memory of a scene from another place and time. I got the distinct impression that I had once visited a southern plantation and had driven up in a carriage to the big house at dusk. It was a Georgian building with white columns, and it glowed in the darkening gloom. Along the drive were trees and bushes planted in orderly rows, and their leaves were a dark, emerald green in the failing light.
There was nothing all that memorable about that stand of trees at Mead Garden, but that particular configuration of trunks and branches, leaves and vines triggered a phantom memory. The sense of deja vu, of the feeling that I had visited such a place was vivid and convincing.
My training in science does nothing to fully explain these sudden mental shifts, these sideways drifts through memory and time. I believe instead that while science can well explain physical phenomena, the practice lacks the tools to deal with the uncanny. The glancing views we get of the hereafter, of past lives, of a sudden knowledge that exceeds the bounds of our normal experience, refuse to be dismissed. They persist despite our best efforts to explain them away.
The danger lies, of course, in denying one for the other. Reason and science have their limits, but no one wants to return to the days of superstitious fear and ignorance. On the other hand, a culture based solely on hard headed, pragmatic, materialistic rationalism allows no room for intuition, dreams, imagination and glimpses of other worlds beyond the limits of our everyday existence. That way of living is sterile and lacks a healthy sense of wonder. The best practice, I believe, is to render unto reason that which belongs to reason, and to render unto wonder that which belongs to wonder. While I need to respect the laws of physics and chemistry if I wish to remain alive on this planet, I’m still free to greet an uncanny visitor with an open mind. The ghosts are going to come, unexpected and sometimes chilling, but determined to make their presence acknowledged. Pretending that they’re not there won’t make them go away.