Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God presents the reader with a puzzle.
While on a road trip to Death Valley at the age of seventeen, the author has what anyone with the faintest interest in the spiritual will immediately recognise as a mystical experience – a feeling of ecstasy, terrifying awe and a vision of the connectedness of things. It left her with a clear sense of a Before and an After, and that ‘the quest’ she had been pursuing as a philosophically precocious teenager since the age of thirteen was at an end.
The puzzle is then why, as Ehrenreich’s adult self subsequently asks her younger self, she doesn’t follow up this experience of altered consciousness, investigate it, or seek to integrate it into her life as others have done. Instead, she dismisses it as an aberration, a kind of tear in the walls of normal perception to be attributed to the fragile mental health brought about by a difficult childhood. She invests her prodigious intellectual energies in a career as a writer and campaigner in which she champions the underdogs, all the while publicly professing atheism.
Much of the book is a chronicle of her dismissal of this early experience until finally, after repeated bouts of depression and a brush with cancer, Ehrenreich re-engages with the diaries that chronicle her youthful epiphany. Well into middle age, she sets off on her quest again to discover, through reading and immersion in nature, that in the modern west ‘we have … made ourselves far lonelier than we need to be’.
Her acceptance of her vision as something of value and meaning has, she reflects, only been made possible by her emergence from the solipsism of her early life via motherhood and activism. As she puts it: ‘Once you have accepted the reality of other human minds, you open yourself up, for better or for worse, to still other locations for consciousness, whether in animals or in things normally thought of as “things”.
Ehrenreich’s journey says a lot about the human condition in the modern west. The scientific rationalism into which she was born ruled out any spiritual exploration; her scientist father and materialist mother were in a family tradition of atheism that was a microcosm of the wider secular culture. Apart from an episode in a lab where an experiment refused to yield the expected results, her early career in science confirmed the dominant narrative: what-you-see-is-what-you-get; only humans have consciousness, a trait which, in a world driven by mechanistic processes and instinctual impulses, makes us the superior beings.
In Ehrenreich’s case, this collective solipsism was exacerbated by a childhood which left her without the psychological capacity to make meaningful use of her experience. The thinking of Ken Wilber is illuminating here; anyone can have a ‘peak experience’, he argues, but how you interpret it depends on your level of understanding: ‘states are free, but structures are earned’. Put simply, a literalist may have the same kind of mystical insight as the Buddha, but without psychological maturity, he will remain spiritually undeveloped.
It’s not until the final chapters of Living with a Wild God that the author begins to work things out, coming up with what can best be described as contemporary animism, rooted in experience and consonant with the insights of modern science. But the memoir is testament to her courage in exposing the folly of her youth and busting her own myth of scientific materialism.