By Barbara Ehrenreich
Grand Central Publishing
Barbara Ehrenreich—feminist, antiwar activist, and one of a small handful deserving the title American public intellectual—is the last person you would expect to write a spiritual autobiography, and that is exactly why you should read hers. Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything is an open-eyed account, alternately beautiful and biting, of the profound mystical experiences Ehrenreich underwent as a young teenager. Indeed, the book is a coming out of sorts for Ehrenreich, a sometimes grudging admission that the reality she has learned to inhabit is but a thin and inadequate bulwark against a metaphysical force she can only name “the Other.”
Ehrenreich grew up in a working-class family of resolute nonbelievers, proud of its freedom from authority figures—whether priests, managers, or elected officials. Both of her parents were alcoholics and the family moved from town to town, so young Barbara learned to go her own way, book in hand. Influenced by her scientist father, she resolved to address what she calls “the Situation,” the problem of “being recruited into the death march of biology—be born, reproduce, die.” Rather than scuttle into nihilism, fundamentalism, or some other brand of denial, Ehrenreich turned away from everyday teenage concerns to doggedly pursue the question of life’s meaning. Her inquiry, however, yielded more questions than answers. “I was smart enough . . . to destroy any hypothesis I came up with,” she recalls. Caught in this precocious, albeit adolescent dialectic, Ehrenreich sought solace in Hinduism:
Somehow I acquired a paperback edition of the Upanishads, and within a few months . . . announced my “conversion” to Hinduism, at least in its abstract philosophical form, minus all the lurid gods. If all this had happened twenty or thirty years later, in the sixties or seventies, it probably would have been Buddhism that I found first. But Hinduism seemed to be my ticket out of Descartes’s nightmare of dualism, and fortunately it demanded not the slightest pretense of belief.
Eventually craving a nonreligious explanation for existence—and, admittedly, “the prospect of a good hamburger”—Ehrenreich renounced Hinduism a few months later. Unquenched by Western dualism or Eastern monism, she began to pay closer attention to some strange experiences that predated her experiment with Hinduism, yet continued to elude explanation. In retrospect, she thinks of these as mystical or epiphanic experiences, the first of which took place at the age of 13 on a weekend family outing.
Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words. I was looking at a tree . . . but the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language.
The utterly mute experience prompts a realization that “when you take away all human attributions . . . there is still something left.”
Devoid of a framework that could help her make sense of the experience, young Barbara remained silent about it. She looked instead to science for answers, but found it had rendered the universe into dead, inert matter. The urgent question of why there was “anything at all” remained.
In May of 1959, when Ehrenreich was 17 years old, this “anything at all” took on a stunning vivacity. Exhausted and dehydrated while completing a long car trip, Ehrenreich got out to stretch her legs in the predawn streets of a small town when a vision of fire and light suddenly consumed her. “Something poured into me and I poured out into it . . . It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once,” she describes.
Ehrenreich returned from her road trip deeply shaken. Once again lacking a way to assimilate the experience, she isolated herself more than ever, retreating into solipsism and spending the early 60s sequestered in a lab at graduate school. Her enclosure ruptured when the potential drafting of a fellow student goaded her into the streets to organize against the war in Vietnam. Ever since, her career has twinned activism and writing, pairing progressive politics with exhaustive reportage. She produced groundbreaking works on women’s history (Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers ) and a widely read, scathing exposé of the hardships endured by America’s working poor (Nickel and Dimed ).
Ehrenreich’s corpus also includes the occasional diversion into expansive cultural history (Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy ) and social critique (Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America ), but nothing that approaches the numinous content of Living with a Wild God. Those who unite spiritual practice with social activism will delight in this political writer’s mystical revelations. Ehrenreich describes the book as a “metaphysical thriller,” yet she harbors a sociopolitical aim: to eliminate the stigma associated with mystical experiences, and thereby free like-minded people from the self-imposed silence that she endured for most of her adult life. With an eye toward reform, Ehrenreich recently went as far as to call the disorientation associated with mystical experiences a “public health problem” that it’s “time to investigate.”
In her latest work, Ehrenreich explodes both religious and scientific dogma, which, in her view, render one’s surroundings inert and subject to control. In fact, it is Ehrenreich’s skepticism that makes her a reliable narrator of the spiritual quest. While she continues to identify as a “scientific rationalist,” Ehrenreich urges empiricists to revisit their most fundamental assumptions. “I want science to look at these odder phenomena, and not rule out the possibility of mystical experiences with another kind of mind,” she said in a recent interview about the book. Ehrenreich prefers the kind of mind, perhaps, that balances rigor with release, and a demand for proof alongside an acknowledgment of the ineffable.
Ultimately, mystical experiences and sympathies did not lead Ehrenreich to a rigorous spiritual practice. Devoid of a mentor or access to relevant literature, she could not progress in the formal sense one might expect. A momentary realization is often—for Buddhists and all practitioners of ripened paths—the beginning of practice rather than its culmination. Regardless, Ehrenreich has written a brave book, bucking the reason-oriented biases of her own family and of current intellectual discourse in America, where any talk of spirituality is too often summarily dismissed.
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