Like someone is there

by 1000 1,000 words
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Like someone is there

Jack Butler Yeats The Two Travellers © Estate of Jack B Yeats. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Ineffable encounters and moments of ego-transcendence can be quite matter-of-fact. What’s really going on?

Ken MacLeod is a science fiction writer. His latest novel, Intrusion, was shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C Clarke Award.

1000 1,000 words
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There are two kinds of experience, both of which have happened to me several times, and I can’t explain either of them. In fact, I could make up any number of explanations for them on the spot: they may be mysterious but they’re not mystical, and they don’t make me suspect for a moment that anything inexplicable is going on. But I’ve never actually come across an explanation of them, or even an account by someone else of having had them. I’ve described them as best I could as minor incidents in novels, and I’ve hardly ever heard anyone say they knew just what I was talking about.

The first kind dates from my late childhood and early teens. It hasn’t happened since. Until the age of 10 I lived on the Isle of Lewis and that’s where it first took place. I may have been eight or nine at the time. On hot, sunny afternoons — which were rare — I would go exploring up a narrow glen near our house. Its sides were rocky and steep: two cliffs, face to face. On its floor a single-track road ran alongside a small river. I’d do daft, dangerous things like walking along a water pipe that crossed the burn beside an ancient stone bridge, or clambering from boulder to boulder. And now and again, I climbed up the side of the glen to sit on the lip of a rock step near the top, commanding the roads with an imaginary machine-gun.

On at least one, maybe more, of these adventures I became intensely aware of something that rang from the silence, sunlight, solitude, and rock. I can only describe it as a sense of some enormous presence. It was everywhere, like the shimmer of the heat in the air. Maybe I was frightened at first but that passed, and it became something that was just there, like the light.

My mind had stepped back from my personality and wondered how it could possibly be that

Not surprisingly for a son of the manse, I had not even the most childish spirituality. I believed what I was told, but as far I was concerned it was all facts about some reality of which I had no personal experience, like Australia. It just didn’t occur to me to attribute this feeling of presence to God, or to any other supernatural agency.

Nor, as far as I can recall, did it occur to me when the experience recurred a few years later. One sunny afternoon in Lochcarron I was on my own, exploring the banks of a river that ran along a broad, deep gully. I wasn’t far from human habitation but I don’t remember any sound except the river on the stones, dripping moss and humming insects. The sun was high in the west, brightly lighting one side of the gully. I was on the other side, in shade but nothing like darkness. There was nothing spooky or scary about my surroundings, nothing dangerous about my situation. Out of nowhere, the feeling of presence came back, ringing from the rocks.

The second kind of experience was quite different. Again, I remember exactly where I was when it first happened. Around about the age of 16 my adolescent introspective tendencies were made worse by the books of Colin Wilson (or rather, that small fraction of his work which had been written by the early 1970s). The one I’d read most recently was Poetry and Mysticism (1969). Like all his books whatever their ostensible subject, it contains a complete exposition of his views. Unlike most of them, it is short. The effect it had on me was to make me strive to be intensely aware of objects in my surroundings. So far, so good — I’ll never forget that teapot in the sunlight from the kitchen window. And the Buddhist injunction repeated by the trained crows in Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel Island, also recently read, was seldom far from my mind: ‘Attention! Attention!’

One fine morning, I was walking along a long wide street with a high wall on my left. As usual I was preoccupied with my thoughts. The featurelessness of the wall and street, and the long perspective-lines, may have helped to induce what happened. Out of nowhere, from one step to the next, I was overcome by an astonishment at being me. It was like a second iteration of self-awareness, combined with an odd detachment, as if my mind had stepped back from my personality and wondered how it could possibly be that.

Atomic Discourse Gale, the narrator of my science fiction novel Learning the World, describes the experience much better than I can:
I became very much aware of being me, and it felt strange. It was as if a wider, cooler mind had found itself in my head, and was surprised to be there behind my eyes. And yet that larger mind was mine. Very odd. It passed in a few moments, leaving me a little shaken, curious, and quite unable to recapture it. I have never found a name for this experience, and though I’ve had it several times since, I can neither induce it at will nor prevent its recurrence.

That’s all true of me. What I’d like to find, by writing this, is whether anyone else knows what I’m talking about. Gale continues:
When I tell people about it they either look blank or say: ‘Oh! You mean you have that too?’ But it isn’t a bond between us, not a secret, just a peculiarity, an anomaly, perhaps as random a feature of our minds as the ability to roll one’s tongue is of our bodies. It solves no problem, conveys no insight, and yet leaves me with an impression of significance. It has an aftertaste, but no taste. That impression, that aftertaste, may be its empty secret: it may be a tiny glitch in the process by which our brains find meaning in sense.

But is she right? I’d like to know.

Read more essays on consciousness & altered states, memoir and personality


  • emning

    Sounds familiar, and wonderfully written. I'll have to check out your books now.

    Mysticism can be fun, but seems empty to me, like a kind of entertainment for the religious brain. Much time to waste there.

    I like Zen better, which to me seems quite practical: "Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine." --Shunryu Suzuki

    Plus, there's that funny-looking smile that Zen teachers wear...

    (Even so, your spontaneous experiences of whatever-that-is that recognizes the strangeness of selfhood sounds more like those described by, say, your countryman Sydney Banks, or even Eckhart Tolle. Watch out, or you'll find yourself a spiritual teacher before you know it!)

  • Berit Ellingsen

    I'd say these experiences don't feel supernatural because they are actually quite ordinary, and still "you", even though it may not feel like it at the time.

    Like it very much that many people do recognize the experience when you talk about it. I view it as deeply and essentially human.

    • rattypilgrim

      I think you're on to something i.e. these experiences are natural and precede mysticism or some spiritual sense. One reason is that these changes in one's consciousness gait occur to children who have little understanding or no knowledge of societal or religious norms or memes.
      An earlier poster cited children's "invisible friends" as an example. I had one, or so my mother says. I still insist he was real, as real as all the children I grew up with. I remember what he looked like, that he had a physical impairment,his mother, what a good friend he was.
      I've also experienced a real sense of our minute size (despite our large egos) in relation to the planet a couple of times and out of nowhere an intense feeling of love for everything. The physical sense of the insight is fleeting but leaves a memory that informs how I look at the world around me. And since it happens to me once and a while that underlines how ordinary it really is.

      • pissekatt

        I believe that if you look for unicorns you'll get worked up by seeing a horse's arse... :-) Your addition of the important of the subjects age when first experiencing this, to me, adds credibility to the theory.

        I myself have ingested psilocybin (as some other commenters) but never felt any profound meaning or sense of being one with... whatever you call it. I did have several moments of inexplicable happiness and disconnect from myself but never attributed it to anything other than the drug running rampant through my brain. It might be worth noting is that I am a raging atheist. :)

        Confirmation bias plays a HUGE role in "spiritual" experiences and, I'm afraid, they're often too convincing to people with "an open mind". But I digress, great read OP & commenters!

  • jijmdempsey

    Thanks for the writing. You should read Elizabeth Bishop's poem "In the Waiting Room."

  • Hans

    Wow, thanks so much for this!

    "Out of nowhere, from one step to the next, I was overcome by an
    astonishment at being me. It was like a second iteration of
    self-awareness, combined with an odd detachment, as if my mind had
    stepped back from my personality and wondered how it could possibly be that."

    I have felt this EXACT feeling numerous times in my life. As if I'm looking at myself from outside of myself, wondering how I am me and what this me even is. It just hits me out of the blue; it's not a result of contemplation on Ego or Existence or something. I've tried to describe it to a few people but they didn't understand and/or said they had never experienced something similar.

    • gigglepuss

      i think that the second experience he describes is 'jamais vu'. it's an odd sensation where you feel like you're experiencing some routine activity -- such walking down a hallway at work, using a coffeemaker -- for the first time. it'f simultaneously exciting (because everything seems so fresh and exotic) and terrifying (because you can no longer rely on your past experience to help you do this routine thing).

      • I_of_Horus

        Sorry, but this is something _quite_ different. It's as if you suddenly become aware of being _you_, wondering about your odd habits (such as smoking) and deciding right then to never do that again. In my case it lasted for a couple of hours, though that was after weeks of various exercises designed to break my 'cultural indoctrination', a sort of reverse brainwashing.

  • CattyGS

    I have felt exactly that sense of awareness and detachment, with a sense of total disbelief at being me.

  • Matthias Plunkett

    Having had many adventures with my own consciousness, I kind of relate to point two. I once woke up to distinctly hear my former dream mind exclaim 'Oh, I'm human shape again!' It was bizarre to think it and feel a certain detachment in witnessing the thought as if another me was occupying a neutral space between dream mind and waking mind. I still find the experience a profound memory.

  • Sarah

    I've felt something similar. I don't describe it in exactly the same way, but it sounds like it could be the same phenomenon. It usually happens when I'm sitting still (though not always), and I feel a sudden sense of being "outside" myself and simultaneously enormously huge and infinitely small. And it's not exactly *me* that's huge -- it's like I'm aware of a hugeness and a tiny-ness all at once that are sort of me and also all around me. It's a pleasant feeling, though totally weird, and usually if I move then it goes away.

    When it happens, I try to sit still and enjoy it for a few seconds until it's gone. I've also found people who have experienced this from time to time, but mostly people say "Gee, I've never felt anything like that" and give me an odd look. It happened a lot more when I was a kid, but now in my thirties I get it about once per year.

    Every once in a while I spend half an hour on the internet to see if anyone knows what this is yet, but nobody ever does. Lots of people seem to have experienced the same thing, though. ( ) I'm not religious or spiritual, and I bet there's some interesting neurological occurrence going on. Paging Dr. Oliver Sacks...

    • finn

      I've had that, occasionally. I would definitely call it an 'out of body' experience. I've never run into anyone else who had felt this. Cheers!

    • August

      I've read a lot of the comments and your experience is most like mine. I simultaniously feel like I am huge and small at the same time. It happens very rarely, maybe once a year at most, but I remember having this feeling since I was a child. I've tried to figure out what it means or what chemically is going on in my brain. It feels like a drug experience although there is no high or low... Just different.

      Each time it happens, I try to place a visual on the feeling, but it's very difficult. I've tried imagining a large hay bale next to a small hay bale when I was a child, in the past few years, I've imaged an infinitely large sphere surrounding a single point of space.

      I also correlate the feeling I have in my body (as opposed to my mind) as the feeling I have when my father is disappointed in me. But it's hard to say if that's actually what I feel or what I'm projecting or comparing the feeling to.

      It's interesting that other people on the planet have the same experience, although not surprising. I guess it's not something that would come up in conversation very often.

      • Martin Leone

        Huge and small. I had a similar experience when I was pre 5 years old. I can only explain the sensation as being similar to what it feels like when you hold your finger on an inflated balloon and then let the air out. That feeling on the fingertip is what my consciousness felt like at the time. My perception was the same, but reality, all of reality, was shrinking around me and through me.

        • Guest

          It's interesting, your comment about a feeling in your body similar to when someone is disappointed in you resonated with me. I think I know what you're talking about. I'd label it a feeling of ego collapse or deflation. An emptiness, or maybe a falling feeling. Like the foundations of your sense of self have been kicked out from under you. At least that's how it seems to me. In one context it's a very negative feeling, but in the other, it's neutral or just strange.

      • WW

        Fascinating, your comment about a feeling in your body similar to when someone is disappointed in you resonated with me. I think I know what you're talking about. I'd label it a feeling of ego collapse or deflation. An emptiness, or maybe a falling feeling. Like the foundations of your sense of self have been kicked out from under you. At least that's how it seems to me. In one context it's a very negative feeling, but in the other, it's neutral or just strange

    • Maesto

      Right there with you. I used to get the feeling of "bigs and littles" I called it when I was a kid just on the edge of sleep. It was just like you wrote, a simultaneous feeling of absolute micro minutia and galactic enormity. The feeling of big kind of had a shape for me, sort of like the squareish living rock plants. Almost trapisoidal cubes.
      Also until, 10 minutes ago I had nearly forgotten that sensation and have never talked about it.

      • Sylvia

        I've had that too! Lots of times, and yes, mostly when I was younger and on the verge of sleep. I thought later on that it was something like feeling like an atom: you know that your nucleus is tiny, and most of you is empty space, but you are, in fact, much larger than that...

        • huey

          I think I have also had this - except it was characterised like this - I thought i was remembering some small object and the sensation of it - but i couldnt remember any details of it except the concept of "smallness" - reading that back it sounds completley mental :-/

  • lorq

    That second experience is familiar to me. It's an experience I'd almost call the opposite of disorienting: it's like a moment of massive orientation and hyper-clarity. I believe Douglas Adams mentions it in one of his "Hitchhiker" books -- there's a scene somewhere in which Arthur Dent suddenly experiences what Adams calls "one of those 'self' moments."

    The first one -- of some sort of "presence" -- I've never experienced. Although I'm skeptical of certain kinds of psychological explanations, the similarity of environments between the two occasions of the experience put me in mind of some sort of birth-memory, or a primordial memory of a parent.

    What strikes me about both of these is how strongly they resemble deja vu in their structure, even though the experience is different. Like it, they both "come over you," linger briefly, and depart. And like it, they seem to relate in some way to how the self orients or recognizes itself and its external environment. (I have a fair number of deja vu experiences, and lately I've become as fascinated by the moment deja vu departs as when it arrives. Nothing in the environment changes, but that sense of reliving an earlier moment simply slips away. Fascinating.)

  • Jeff Thomas

    I've never had the second experience you mention, but I've had something very much like the first on a number of occasions - though I've always described it as the world around me suddenly seeming exceptionally real, rather than as sensing a presence, but now that you've articulated it that way, I certainly know what you mean.

    When I was in college, there was a particular spot on our campus (not anywhere particularly special or isolated, though it was near a nice pocket of trees) where, if I was alone and the campus was quiet and it was raining or snowing, I had such experiences fairly regularly. I suspect that once my mind had associated that particular state with the location and conditions, it became more able to experience it there.

  • Vaughn Marlowe

    Sadly, no. But it sounds cool.

  • Eileen Gunn

    Ken, these experiences sound very much akin to the autoscopic effects of stimulation of a part of the brain
    called the angular gyrus. I quote from an essay I wrote a few years ago:

    "Stimulation can activate two very different autoscopic
    effects, depending which side of the brain is stimulated. On the left
    side, stimulation gave the patient the impression that a shadowy person
    was lurking behind her; on the right side, it yielded an out-of-body
    experience, in which the patient was floating below the ceiling and
    looking down at herself. These effects, which can be demonstrated to
    take place in the physical brain, could explain how religious or
    mystical feelings are created, and perhaps why children often have an
    unshakable belief in having an invisible friend."

    The essay, which references books by the German philosopher/neurologist Thomas Metzinger, is online at "Ambling Along the Aqueduct:

    I'm fascinated by this sort of thing. Thanks for posing these questions.

    Eileen Gunn

    • WW

      I can only speak for my own experiences, but those don't sound very much like what I understand Ken to be talking about. Granted, we're talking about things that aren't easily described in words. Especially for the second one--to me it's nothing like an out-of-body experience. I don't feel I'm on the ceiling, if anything I'm hyper-aware that I'm in THIS body... but that fact seems incredibly strange to me. It's more about my sense of self, more philosophical you might say (while also being very experiential and "real").

    • We

      Wow, Eileen, I'm so happy to have stumbled upon your comment and your blog on Metzinger's book! Really wonderful. (well, also the article and all of the other wonderful comments here!)

      I just wrote a blog entitled "Consciousness, Cognition and a Tethered Soul" (, and there's a lot of good food for thought for me in your review of The Ego Tunnel. I will certainly pick this up, hadn't heard about it, although Being No One was previously on the list!

      (PS, researching Metzinger's book lead me to "The Embodied Mind" by Varela, Thompson and Rosch. This is now also on my list, looks like a winner. Any readers?)

  • DJE

    Yes to the first experience, I've also had it a dozen times over the years. I'm always outside when it happens and always alone. Visual but not somehow. Nothing in particular brings it on, it's always suddenly just there, lingers a few minutes and then slowly fades away. I also remember being frightened the first time it happened to me as a child, inspiring a feeling of danger that froze me to the spot. That feel of danger has never come back. I like to imagine it's a brief awareness of the life energy of the nature around me. I really like your description because it is almost a presence.

  • Monica

    I have this sensation frequently; it's frequently a precursor to the pre 'aura' state of my temporal lobe epilepsy. Experienced infrequently since I was 10*

    Your brain goes through some odd and occasionally aggravating fluctuations as part of its normal functioning. One thing I've learned from all the neurologists I've spoken to is that we don't understand a huge part of what makes up our basic cognitive faculties.

    *my condition only became problematic far into my adulthood, and this sensation is only a precursor to an actual partial seizure- I'm not implying that everyone else has an undiagnosed case of epilepsy

    • rattypilgrim

      When you have those sensations does it come with deja vu? Does it seem as if the area you're in becomes squeezed into a somehow smaller space and does it "feel" as if there is an invisible ceiling or canopy over head?

      • Monica

        Mine's more jemais vu - and it feels like the world's been simultaneously expanded within my own head, and shrunk outside of it. The overarching sensation is of 'waking up' into my own head, changed somehow - often, it does indeed feel like an alternate presence.

        • rattypilgrim

          Do you experience intense migraine headaches afterwards?

          • Monica

            In the past I've just return to normal consciousness with no side effects, but over the last 3 years it's always been a precursor to an epileptic seizure. Mostly convulsive but sometimes not. It's been interesting to note that the 'aura' sensation prior to the episodes has gotten stronger and more pronounced over the years, with a more violent (I think is good term for it?) sense of alienation from my usual consciousness, and a more heightened sense of jamais vu.

            Through several years of EEGs, I've been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, centred in the amygdala.

  • turtle

    i've had the second experience many times throughout my life. Never experienced the first, though.

  • mjpyle

    Not a personal experience, but I'd recommend the book, Exploring Conciousness, by Rita Carter. In Chapter 9, she relates three strange experiences (transcendence in meditation, an out-of-body experience, and a feeling of a 'presence') of her own and offers some insight based on her research into brain functions. Thank you for relating these-- while I've not experienced these exact feelings, I'm always trying to gain greater insight into similarities and differences of how people experience conciousness, both usually and unusually. (Hence my well-worn copy of the above book.)

  • CyborgAbeLincoln

    Big yes to the second one. I remember reading that bit in "Learning the World" and thinking that it was the first time I'd come across someone talking about that experience. It happened more when I was a kid and afterword it would really bug me for a while why I was myself and not someone else and how utterly bizarre it was to have a unique first-person perspective.

    If you'll allow a brief fanboy moment:Thanks for your books. I've enjoyed all of them that I've read, but "The Night Sessions" really struck a chord with me and helped a bit in the continuing process of figuring out how I actually relate to my background and upbringing (fundamentalist).

  • Daniel

    As a child I could induce sensation number two by starring intently at my own eyes closely in the mirror and emptying my mind. I find, much to my despair, that I can no longer bring this about as a thirty something

  • peter

    I'm quite amazed to hear other descriptions of that feeling of being suddenly surprised at perceiving oneself. I've had the same experience about three times. I try to extend it for a few minutes, perhaps in an attempt to view something more about my consciousness.
    Another reader suggested that jamais-vu is the term used to describe this phenomenon, but a cursory reading of Wikipedia suggests it's different. I could be wrong.
    If this is in fact an unnamed phenomenon, this is our chance to coin a new term.

  • R.A. Hobbs

    “I call it Joy. 'Animal-Land' was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were... The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?...Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse... withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased... In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else... The quality common to the three experiences... is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

    ― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

  • R.A. Hobbs

    This reminds me of what C.S. Lewis wrote about in Surprised by Joy:

    “I call it Joy. 'Animal-Land' was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were... The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?...Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse... withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased... In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else... The quality common to the three experiences... is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

  • Esoth

    I've never had either of the experiences you describe. Further, I don't recall ever hearing or reading of them before this article. What strikes me personally odd, is that, when alone, I have "listened" for something unnamed and undefined and with no particular spiritual intent. It's as if an expectation steals over me, unbidden and unannounced that there is something outside of myself. It isn't something I decide to do, I instead become aware I am "listening". But it is not discoverable through my senses and my mind has no capacity to perceive it or intuit it. I'm left with this sense of deficiency rather than that there's nothing actually there. I have had the thought that I live too much in my own mind long before I had an inkling of what that might mean.

  • Johnny Farnen

    I too have experienced something similar to this, though I lack the vocabulary to properly describe it. Most often I experienced thais sensation at certain site in Death Valley, California, and in the Allegheney National Forest, Pennsylvania. Much like Mr. MacLeod, there is a sence of presenance with substance, yet nothing more than that. Once experienced, it is easier to understand why some folks jumpt to unsubstantiated supernatural conclusions with such an experience. For me, it is just an excuse to sit quietly and emjoy being alive.

  • JP

    I have toyed with a concept that led to not being too surprised when this first happened to me. I found that by choosing to accept this as a normal part of my life, the sense would remain longer or return with more frequency. Now, it comes and goes most every day. I do not know if this is an echo, or a felt breath of something spiritual in origin, or a malfunction of a human brain.......but it brings me a sense of gentle peace and a greater ability to suffer idiots. Its' residue is a more stable feeling of self confidence and generosity of spirit, in a world now so veered towards an inhumane and inhuman approach to each other. Your other "feeling" I have also had....... perhaps it is a door we are lucky enough to have left ajar, or just Ourselves, looking over Our shoulders, for a time. For me, I have never felt a moment of fear or threat in either state...... though others have viewed me off kilter, for which I will always be grateful, as i find it an indication I am heading in the right direction. Enjoy it and best wishes to you!

  • joeyess

    I've had similar experiences. Usually during the most mundane tasks. Out of nowhere I get a sensation of separation of myself from myself. It seems such an inexplicable self reflection that it is almost as if a mirror is being held up in front of me and I see myself for the first time. And yet, it doesn't really reveal anything of new or of value. Other than the realization that I'm sentient. Which is good, I think. ?

    • Scott Daris

      Yes, this is closest to what I get, too. I'll be in the supermarket parking lot and an overwhelming feeling of "Huh? I'm me? What is this thing 'Me'?" floods over me. Total detachment, as if I've never lived the 40 years previous. It's jarring at first and I feel a few seconds of panic, as if I'm not even standing on Earth itself. Then the attachment to myself and my ego seeps back in to comfort me again, filling in the necessary illusion of being a human to live out the remaining mysterious days ahead. You can't explain this to people who don't experience it.

  • Bill Beaty

    I've experienced both, and I encountered a name for the first one. It's "panic" in the original sense. While alone in wilderness, suddenly something huge is watching you. You've been noticed by the vast nature-god called 'Pan.' I recall it being described by Kary Mullis in his "Dancing Naked...", but in that case he fled in terror, and ascribed malevolence to the huge invisible watcher.

    Ah, the second one. I used to trigger it voluntarily as a kid. One version was, "Hey ...I'M ME! But somehow that doesn't communicate the rich experience of suddenly being tiny, being completely non-unique and identical to all the others, and of the endless time stretching back in the nothingness before your birth. Here's another attempt:

    As a child, while all alone, pretend
    that you are not who you think you are, but that you've suddenly woken
    up in this human body, and false memories of your whole entire life have
    just been placed in your head. Your real memories of your previous life are
    gone. Your mom and dad are not your real parents, they are the parents of
    the child you've just been forced to occupy. You know you were just
    somewhere else a moment ago. You were somebody else, someone vast and endless ...but now suddenly you're very small and trapped on this "Earth" thing,
    and you don't know how to escape and go back where you'd just been!

    When done right, the shivers and black sparklies encroach. It's like pushing against a barrier, and you feel
    like you're nearing a precipice in the darkness.

  • Peter Weijnitz

    I have not experienced this personally, but I have some information.
    youtube have som clips about a researcher Pershing, don't remember first name (Richard or Michael maybe).
    He have used something he calls Trans Cranial Magnetic Stimulation, and claims that some persons experience something like what the article mentions. In one clip Richard Dawkins was put in the machine, with no effect apparently.
    The machine have small coils put on the scalp and weak magnetic pulses stimulates different parts of the head.

  • Alys Sterling

    The second one happened fairly frequently to me as a child, and still sometimes now as an adult. I called the sensation "I am me" - I don't think I ever succeeded in describing it properly to anyone; I suppose you have to have had it for the description to make sense. I suppose now I think of it as a sort of meta-consciousness. The first time it happened was astonishing, but since then I've found it reassuring.

    • Justin

      I'm amazed at the variety of experiences that posters here have cited as feeling aligned with Mr. MacLeod's account. Alys's account above is the closest to my own "2nd experience" equivalent. I first experienced it at about age 12, and occasionally thereafter. A sense of wonder that I can be me, can perceive, and a sense of curiosity about whether or not it's all just a solipsistic fantasy, and if others feel the same way. It's reassuring to hear all of these accounts.

  • Jürgen Botz

    Don't confuse mystical with magical. These experiences aren't magical, but they are literally "mystical", i.e. states of consciousness beyond the ordinary. By themselves such mystical experiences may not seem to leave you any wiser, but the memory of their presence does open the doors of perception. However, it takes a consistent spiritual practice to be able to walk through those doors.

    Although you will find the particular experiences you have had described in many mystical or spiritual teachings, a particularly good, modern, and non-magical phenomenology of mystical experience can be found in the writings of A. H. Almaas, the founder of a school of spiritual work called "the diamond approach." Almaas also emphasizes that spiritual work is not about such experiences, but that such experiences serve as signposts during ones spiritual development.

  • hydrus

    I have never felt the first, but I believe I have felt the second many times, throughout my life. It arrives only when I am thinking of nothing else -- I can't induce it now -- but when it stirs, I can encourage it by concentrating on my name. I will suddenly realise that there is no reason I should exist, and it feels as if my mind has taken a 'step back'. I am looking at myself, but with thought. It lasts perhaps ten or twenty seconds. It is odd, but very enjoyable; it makes me grin every time.

    I have never thought the sensation exposed any great truth, just that it is a bug in my software. I have figured it is like the 'reaching beyond your grasp' sensation when trying to wrap one's mind around a paradox; there is _no_ reason why we exist, and yet we do.

    • WW

      It's interesting how people have different takes on it. It never made me grin, for example... it wasn't terribly distressing either, but it was deeply strange, and made me slightly concerned that I'd never come back to "normal." I always WANTED it to mean more, although I could never put a finger on what it meant. I felt that something that shook up my psychological foundations shouldn't be just a quirk of neural circuitry, but rationally, there's no reason why it shouldn't be. I think I have the type of mind that doesn't rest easily with paradoxes, it's uncomfortable without a solid answer.

  • Trivigo

    I am extremely familiar with the second type of experience. I have a like/hate relationship with it because at times it has been an extremely negative experience for me. For me, the experience involves, with greater or lesser intensity, a sense of being trapped in existence. Having to exist. Of being the type of thing which, tragically, can not NOT exist. And at these moments "it" remembers these facts. Other times "it" manages to forget and just coasts along in the diurnal play of thoughts and sensations.

    The worst case of it occurred on a summer night in 1996. I seemed to get stuck in the state. I could not seem to make myself start "dreaming" again and reconnect with my personality and sense of reality. I felt like I was going to forget how to function normally. It was a terrifying couple of hours.

    Years later I don't go into these states as often, but I want to. I feel like they are important to me. They remind me that, from another perspective, little things that I fret about in daily life are a kind of illusion.

    On a more physiological note, I have anecdotal suspicions that B-vtiamin-related substances (e.g. lecithin, choline) and ones that release a lot of dopamine in the brain can promote these kinds of experiences.

    • Meng Weng Wong
    • WW

      In addition to what MWW said, it also sounds like the psychological experience known as depersonalisation. I've experienced it myself, although I wouldn't necessarily describe it in the same terms you do. But I've certainly experienced that feeling that regular life was a "dream" that I'd suddenly woken up from (and not in a blissful enlightenment way, but a strange and somewhat disturbing feeling).
      I've also had the "second experience" Ken talked about several times, but they've always been milder and quicker than my depersonalisation episode.

  • Gordon Stark

    Your mind may not be what, nor where, you may think it is.
    How you think, and perceive, is a given thing.
    There are many states of awareness. Some are surprised when they
    enter into a new one, even briefly, having not known they are not limited to one.

    Some take LSD to artificially induce such experiences, though the body can
    produce toxins which in turn induce different states of conscious awareness.

    The author describes common experiences which serve to lead a young person
    to greater self awareness, and/or a "spiritual awareness" that things may not always
    be as they appear on the surface.

    The more one seeks to learn about it, the more one would learn.

    All enlightened people start out with such experiences as initial inspirations to make
    them aware that there are "other places" in consciousness that one can go to and
    be in, whether accidentally as in a walk by a river, or by disciplined practices, or
    other means.

    Some people can change states of consciousness at will, while others spend their
    entire lives in the same mindset, unaware they can have different views of
    themselves and the world they live in.

  • Bill Robinson

    When I was about 7, I had an experience that's not the same as your second one, but seems somewhat similar. I'd be looking at something small (the one I recall was a small weed in a meadow) and I'd have this feeling of amazement that *I* was *here* looking at *this*. I didn't have a word that meant anything like "improbability" but the amazement was wordlessly directed on the stunning fact that something so improbable was nontheless actually happening right now.
    In my thirties, I also had -- only once, alas -- a few seconds of blissful sense of being at one with absolutely everything. (It came on just after an orgasm.)

  • drokhole

    You might be interested in this account from a scientist and self-described (former) "atheistic-materialist" named Allan Smith:

    "Perhaps the most significant element of Cosmic Consciousness was the absolute knowingness that it involves. This knowingness is a deep understanding that occurs without words. I was certain that the universe was one whole and that it was benign and loving at its ground. Bucke's experience was similar. He knew, '. . . that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain'
    The benign nature and ground of being, with which I was united, was God. However, there is little relation between my experience of God as ground of being and the anthropomorphic God of the Bible. That God is separate from the world and has many human characteristics. 'He' demonstrates love, anger and vengeance, makes demands, gives rewards, punishes, forgives, etc. God as experienced in Cosmic Consciousness is the very ground or 'beingness' of the universe and has no human characteristics in the usual sense of the word. The universe could no more be separate from God than my body could be separate from its cells. Moreover, the only emotion that I would associate with God is love, but it would be more accurate to say that God is love than God is loving. Again, even characterizing God as love and the ground of being is only a metaphor, but it is the best that I can do to describe an indescribable experience."
    (full account...with more set-up...can be found here: )

    There was also this account from Douglas Harding, who went on to author the book "On Having No Head":

    "What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.

    It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world."
    (more at the link: )

    Alan Watts described it - among various ways - as becoming and being fully aware of your "floodlight consciousness," as opposed to our normal-everyday "spotlight consciousness." Here, Watts describes how the "insight" can be lost in the "ecstasy":

    "The central core of the experience seems to be the conviction, or insight, that the immediate *now,* whatever its nature, is the goal and fulfillment of all living. Surrounding and flowing from this insight is an emotional ecstasy, a sense of intense relief, freedom, and lightness, and often of almost unbearable love for the world, which is, however, secondary. Often, the pleasure of the experience is confused withthe experience and the insight lost in the ecstasy, so that in trying to retain the secondary effects of the experience the individual misses its point -- that the immediate *now* is complete even when it is not ecstatic. For ecstasy is...necessarily impermanent....But insight, when clear enough, persists."

    If you're unfamiliar with Watts' work, I highly suggest exploring some of his talks on YouTube. He spoke quite frequently on the subject, in a variety of ways and in shatteringly clear terms. I wish I could remember which talk covers it best, but there are so many that some of them blend together in my mind. Here are some lectures that might be a good place to start:

    Whole Thing (full lecture)

    Not What Should Be But What Is (full lecture)

    Natural Awareness (full lecture)

    Differentiation of consciousness (full lecture)

    Thunderous Silence (clip)

    To Know That You Are God (clip)

    Sorry for the extensive list, but I tried to recall/find lectures (each roughly an hour) and clips where he spoke to your experience directly. I'm not saying that you'll find any case-closed - or even satisfactory to you - answers, just that Watts goes into that very experience in great depth with a variety of clarifying metaphors.

    You might also be interested in something written by Jack Kerouac, where he details what seems to be a similar experience:

    Scripture of the Golden Eternity

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • Narmitaj

    I don't remember having the first, but I did have something like the second, when I was 14. I suddenly got hit by this notion that I was me, and suddenly was aware that these muscles and bones in my legs that were walking me up a slope in the school playground were uniquely mine in a way I had never felt before - both a part of me but also a kind of appendage to the real me. It was like becoming aware of myself as an entity. I remember using my hands to feel my legs.

    This would have been 1972 and I can pinpoint the place it happened within just a few feet on a GoogleEarth image of the school (hall on the left of me, playing field behind me, I was walking up towards the main entrance on a specific piece of paved area). It was a dullish day, I think. It's interesting that KMacL-OP also has very specific memories of the location of his experiences.

    • WW

      You describe it well... I experienced similar things although they usually seemed to happen at home.

  • Narmitaj

    Oddly, the current top post of Making Light has a quote from GK Chesterton that sort of relates to the second experience: "There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding
    and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of
    actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we
    are ourselves incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real."—G. K. Chesterton

  • Travis Nobles

    I don't remember having had the first experience quite so palpably as you describe it, but I know what you mean. and I can often get there by going into a meditative state, especially out in nature.
    I have definitely had the second experience, and connecting to or even just remembering that experience has really helped me in dealing with depression and other difficult emotional problems. I try to "step outside myself" and remind myself that *I* am not depressed, but rather I am a much larger, expansive consciousness which is experiencing a temporary depression at this moment. I like how some Buddhists say it's not "I am suffering" but rather "there is suffering." In other words, in the dissolving of the ego, the suffering does not cease, but the one who is suffering does!

  • Dr. Sideshow

    I, too, have had similar experiences, and over the course of time they have become quite usual. In fact I believe I managed to limit them in order to live a normal life, and to behave according to social rules. But every cigarette and every drop of liquor ease this kind of mental state on me; that is why I find it so hard to explain why I love smoking and drinking. Both these activities are essentially metaphysical to me. Once you have embraced the absurd, it doesn't let go so easily. I do not believe in God, but I strongly believe in the sacred nature of things.

  • Chris

    You should, naturally, speak to Ken McLeod about it - ...

  • Jason

    This may be the first article I've read online where the comments below the article were well written by intelligent sounding people. How refreshing :) My mom emailed me this link, so I'm going to inquire with her about whether or not she's experienced this. It sounds though, as if when this experience is taking place, that a lot of people have described it in one way or another as being very connected to the entirety of the universe, yet also being aware of how small we as single beings are in conjunction to everything else. I have felt something like this, but it involved the ingestion of psilocybin. I know that what a lot of people are talking about is not related to doing drugs. But the closest I have felt to this was while tripping on mushrooms. I become very connected to the entirety of humanity, and all the animals and plants and stars and planets. Everything that exists, everywhere. In turn, it makes me feel like a tiny individual entity. This feeling of smallness inside of myself has never scared me or put me into a bad trip. Rather, it makes me smile when I think of myself and all of my quirks and happenings in my brain. It makes me feel as if I'm seeing myself the way I see my friends. I can appreciate myself for all of my good qualities and even love myself for my shortcomings. Under these circumstances is the only time I've ever felt a sense of self love in this way where I feel as if I'm seeing myself outside of my body. Like I'm someone else looking at me. I also know that psilocybin has lasting effects on our brains for up to a year. The chemical brings about a sense of contentment, much like the feeling of laying in a warm bed with a loved one when it's cold outside. There have been studies of the effects of this chemical on people's brains, and generally every one who eats mushrooms has a lasting effect of feeling more connected to the Earth and the Universe, as well as a sense of just feeling more secure and happy with their lives, and what is given to them by life. It makes me wonder if mushrooms just access this effect that a lot of people have talked about. Maybe the chemical opens up to that part of our brains, and some people can access it without the substance. Maybe not. Either way, this was a fascinating article and even better commentary by everyone who partook in the discussion. I applaud all of you for your knowledge and writing. I seriously don't often see this kind of thing on the internet. Most times people's comments are tainted with bad spelling, grammar and a sense of general ignorance, which fuels hate-filled commentary, and anonymous internet bullying. I prefer this kind of commentary :) Love to you all.

    • I_of_Horus

      Peace to you too. Psychotropic drugs, especially in conjunction with compatible rhythms are a great way to get in touch of the deeper ground of being. Call it the un-manifested god or the collective unconscious or whatever.

  • atimoshenko

    Considering the complexity of our nervous system (and how easily it can be disrupted both physically and chemically), the surprise is in how consistent our conscious experience of ourselves and the world is, not in the occasional inconsistencies. Of course, the consequences of this consistency mean that on the occasions that the inconsistencies do arise, we can only make sense of them through the frame of or by likening them to some of our everyday experiences. Unfortunately, such interpretation leaves these experiences interesting (not in the least due to their rarity), but insight-free.

  • neworion

    One goal of some forms of meditation is to achieve such a state. However, the state is not an end goal, it is merely one foundation stone in the building of a whole person. Beyond these states there are others. We use our consciousness to inform our subconscious and animal instincts with the goal of growing toward our conscious ideal. I am an atheist, yet have had experiences of God (appearing as the burning bush, identifying Himself with, "I am that I am"). I take these as encounters with my deepest subconscious rather than encounters with an external deity. Researchers have shown that God is defined by each individual and is a clear reflection of the believer. If you want an easy and interesting read that explains what psychological researchers have found in this area you may enjoy Matthew Hutson's book, The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking, How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.

  • George

    Dear Ken,

    Following Eileen Gunn's comment I would like to also commend the BBC documentary God on the Brain. You can find it on

    The kind of experiences that you describe can in some cases be attributed to temporal lobe epilepsy and as you will see in the documentary can also be induced by TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) of that area. The angular gyrus mentioned by Eileen is situated in the parietal lobe at the back and upper border of the temporal lobe to the parietal lobe.

    Although, regrettably, neurophysiological work on what one would call "mystical" or "supernatural" experiences is almost non existent none the less there is some work and with a bit of googling and wikipediaing I am sure you can arrive at some interesting conclusions of your own.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us

  • Ken MacLeod

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments - far too many to reply to, but I must say it's reassuring to find that so many other people have had the second experience described - and that some of you thought you were the only one who had.

  • Apuleius

    My life and childhood especially were full of these kinds of experiences. With regard to being astonished at being me, I found that as I child I would get this feeling from staring into my eyes in the mirror. It was not always a pleasant experience and continued well into my early teens.

    • WW

      Yes, this would happen to me when I looked in the mirror, too! It still sometimes does. I knew the face was mine, but it didn't feel like it "belonged" to me... it was just a person's face, and it seemed strange that it should be MINE. And for me, too, it's not always pleasant. It's vaguely disturbing and there's a fear that I might not ever "come back."

  • Alex

    A song by Van Morrison brings to mind the first experience , and ,for awhile would leave me weepy. Piper at the gates of dawn.

  • WW

    I read this article and every comment with fascination--I'm amazed that I stumbled over such a clear description of this experience that I've had occasionally since childhood (the second one you wrote about) and that so many others have too!

    Actually, I have to admit a touch of disappointment, since I'd always held a secret half-hope that this was some sort of special and unique power of my mind that would lead me to profound insights or spiritual truths the world needed. That lesson in humility aside, it's always nice when you find out there are others like you out there.

  • anonymous


  • anonymous

    The two
    experiences are inextricably linked, in perhaps more than simply a manner of
    speaking are two lost lovers in search of one another, and that they happened
    in your life and you put them here where so many of us would also be touched by
    them, reminded of a whole gamut of similar things that press meaning in life,
    is an indication of where you’d start in your own seeking for true purpose and
    higher meaning and perhaps the direction our lost world alone in the vast of
    space would begin to look. No I’m not a
    teacher or am putting an anonymous comment because of some imagined
    self-importance (my stupid self-importance is very real unfortunately) or
    because I am someone important. I’m just
    going to tell you what I know because you ask and am doing it without giving my
    name for reasons of prudence. I’m on
    such a razor’s edge, having been on the spiritual path a long time, living in Israel (as a goy),
    the Andes, and now in India
    where I’ve been for several years. It
    was such experiences as you describe that brought me looking far from home for
    answers, and before my travels I spent several years in the university and
    several reading, reading, reading. After
    coming all this way I’ve discovered I’ve been carrying the answers all along
    inside myself, but it does help both the mind and heart to see other people’s

    I’m just going to
    speak if you don’t mind, and try and connect the two experiences. Although there is no ultimate experience of
    the witness or observer consciousness –you might imagine it goes all the way to
    the unimaginable Illimitable–, if you go all the way with it in this present
    place we’re at now, or where next we’re going to be would be a better way of
    putting it, where the two lovers meet again you might say, your seat of consciousness
    would be a ways over your head your body a small appendage below you doing its
    task. You see from up there, seeing into
    and through anything you look at, able to see in any direction. We can go on about the other senses, but I
    wasn’t up there long enough to really be able to adequately describe the whole
    thing. Nor can I, since your awareness
    is upon many fields, not only one as it is down here in the body. You are basically omniscient because you also
    can see through the eyes of all other individuals so situated over everyone
    else’s heads, and there are more worlds than earth in this universe. You’re one being with them, the same person
    actually seeing through innumerable eyes, but at this station of the
    Illimitable you are located still in a you and can look through the other’s
    eyes as you need. There are also two
    other fields you’re aware of, but that should get the imagination going well
    enough. You don’t miss the body feelings
    at all because you are fully in what they just hint at: the perfect touch. I might say that up there you’re presiding
    over things with just your looking, like an eye of God, but you’re really not
    in this universe but in that bigger place than a universe looking from there into
    this one, so you’re so aloof you don’t get involved except to give a very
    hidden aid to that little struggling creature you’re presiding over, to that
    little world you’re looking at. This is
    where the soul and God meet actually, but let me explain.

    That puissance up
    there has put a small part of itself down inside the body, what we normally
    think of when we say the soul, and it has forgotten who it is and suffers right
    along with us, even thinking itself the limited creature we are. It’s seat is behind the heart, behind even
    the chakra there, but experiencing it from there is rare (actually making the
    inner journey there is possible and necessary at some point on the path, and
    this is not only what I’ve heard but what I myself have found), and if you’d
    like to read a good description of such an experience read Yogananda’s in
    Autobiography of a Yogi where he’s a teenager and is struck on the chest by a
    teacher friend of his so to induce the experience. Notice in his experience the peace and joy
    and compassion. That’s because he’s at
    the seat of the soul itself. Most
    experiences of the observer or witness are from its seat in the mind, where
    there is only the witness looking and not feeling the feelings of the soul, and
    hence many of these experiences involve panic and terror, such as Suzanne
    Segal’s account in Collision With the Infinite.
    Her experience is accompanied by what’s called today depersonalization,
    which in its full manifestation is actually what’s know as enlightenment or
    liberation, something I doubt most seeking would welcome if they haven’t been
    prepared for it, and again I’m speaking from experience not only from what I’ve
    read and heard. Her witness experience
    disappears and she’s left with only the experience of no-self, and you have to
    wonder if what happened was the soul thing just didn’t complete its
    manifestation down into the heart center, and you also have to wonder why
    not. The spiritual path is not the
    safest route in life, as my muse puts it: the candle all hurt the wax. Jesus probably saw and felt from his heart
    center, the seat of his soul, but he probably wasn’t subsequently liberated
    –with most it’s the other way around–, but the two states are remarkably
    similar in how you behave and appear to others, especially if you have the
    bliss in the “depersonalization” experience, if you’re in that seat of
    spiritual realization, enlightenment, and when you have the two together, the
    soul and the Spirit so to speak, you go up to that station above the head where
    the lovers meet.

    I hope this
    lengthy comment helps answer your question.

  • Meng Weng Wong
  • simon bowler

    Thank you for writing this - I too have experienced both these phenomena though now in my late 50's not as frequently as when I was younger. I love your description of the first, the "feeling of presence..ringing back from the rocks" Like you I have never felt this except in natural surroundings devoid of human presence except mine. Mine have exclusively occurred near running water in remote places, though often with companions just a bend or two away.

    It is interesting that no-one in these posts has ever described the feeling happening in the presence of others - it is always a solitary experience. As social beings perhaps our sensory input and cognition is flooded in the presence of people.
    ...or maybe its just when there is a "glitch in the matrix...."

  • az

    Adyashanti teaches about our "unborn-nature" and our "born-nature". Your ‘unborn-nature’can break-free from our ego (born) nature spontaneously from time to time. When you Awaken spiritually you become this Unborn nature. Adya (as his students call him) had a video excerpt on this which has been removed from his listings. I will send you a copy if you want to the email address below (put in subject title unborn nature). Also, go to the link below for Adya's free video, audio excerpts. He has a number of titles referring to this Presence and it is also always here but awakening is needed to see it. Adyashanti teaches about awakening if you’re interested which is a current planet-wide spiritual movement. By the descriptions of experiences I've read below, which I would say is Grace, you have all been called to Awaken.
    I'm not selling anything or collecting emails, I'm just an Adya student on the path.
    click on:
    email for (our unborn nature

  • Bjorn Merker

    I will limit myself to things that have not already been said in the many comments triggered by MacLeod's reflections on his two experiences. For the first, regarding the frequency of its occurring in solitude and often in grandiose settings of nature, there is food for thought in Arthur Schopenhauer's discussion of the experience of the sublime, in paragraph 39 of his The World as Will and Representation. Ultimately MacLoed's experience number one concerns an experiential (not conceptual, as in Hume and Berkeley) penetration of the veil of naive realism in an experienced intimation that this "thing" we call "the world" that surrounds us in fact is a content of our consciousness, and not the mind-independent physical universe we take it to be (that too exists, and of it the contents of our waking consciousness supply a veridical, but highly select and indirect, reflection, as Kant already knew). There are times when the experienced world "comes alive" as it were, and alerts us to the fact that it is not as independent of us as we normally take it to be... There is much more on this in, again, Schopenhauer, and - as some others have already pointed out - in the writings of mystics East and West (see also Alan Watts' "The Joyous Cosmology"). It is beginning to be dealt with as well in neuroscience. See, for example, Chris Frith's book "Making up the mind", or figure 5 in my Behavioral and Brain Sciences article "Consciousness without a cerebral cortex". A thousand years before Kant, the Indian philosopher Shankaracharya declared that "this world is an appearance". An appearance "of what, in what, and for what" is the grand challenge of the inchoate science of consciousness that is in the process of being born, a birth which like many others is not without its complications. Wish it well, and we may eventually have some answers to MacLeod's earnest questions.

  • Hugh Weldon

    The first experience reminds me very much of Eckhart Tolle and 'The Power of Now'.

    My own experience is closer to the second one though. Not pleasant, quite scary in fact. Out on a school cross country run, aged about 12, I was somehow, for the first time in fact, leading the field.I was quite a good runner, but never came first. It began by enjoying how strong and energetic I felt, a bit of pride too perhaps, then suddenly changed into something a lot more uncomfortable. While still being entirely conscious of my surroundings, I began to be haunted of a sense of 'this is not me'.'this is not real' 'who is this I that I am?'. I stopped to grip some long grass at the side of the path, to hold on to something solid, to anchor myself as it were. I felt I was on the verge of fainting, just stood there for a while until I felt ok again, then carried on. Meanwhile others passed me and I didn't win after all, but the experience came back, in differing degrees for a long while after that.

    The strangeness of it is the abiding memory. I've read accounts of similar experiences since but neither those, nor this particular one, really capture the same essence. In retrospect I can see it as a reaction to an insecure and difficult family situation but on the other hand, and more positively, as a calling by or to a 'something else' beyond the everyday and familiar sense of reality. It certainly seems to connect with my later interest in mysticism and a couple of experiences with general anaesthetic, LSD and magic mushrooms had echoes of it too.

    A final reflection - had I been a less timid, more extroverted sort of person I think I may have enjoyed it or gone with it more, rather than resist. But it is interesting to see it acknowledged as something more common than is usually supposed.

  • Jake Mxrxelx

    I experience something like this. I've always called it a disassociation or something similar. I haven't had one in years but when i was a child it used to occur sometimes every other day. It does feel to be a glitch in processing. To me it is incredibly uncomfortable, my mind, as you said, just can't work out the 'how'. I know who I am, my name, any aspect of my identity, but the peculiarity of self-reflexivity is just so unfamiliar that it feels as if everything I thought to be reality could be anything else and just nothing, the framework of mind has disappeared and you are exposed to a different shade of reality, perhaps even the division between this reality and consciousness is more apparent. If I were to describe the actual feeling - It would be as if some part of my brain, perhaps the bit responsible for the trundling bit that isn't always self aware (the Oh, I need to do the washing bla bla) has suddenly slipped into sleep, into non existence or blended with the external, and then something snaps, a twinge of confusing pain and you are suddenly very aware that you are alone with yourself and the universe. For me, I would then follow my train of thought again until the dread surfaced, this would reoccur again and again and would turn into something like a panic attack in which everything was glossed with irreality. Interestingly, I get the same attack whenever I smoke a lot of marijuana. For a long time I was convinced I was either mad or that I was an alone entity in a very strange reality that kept breaking down.

  • Renzo Bruni

    Yeah, me too. But not as frequently as many of the rest of the community writing here. Many of these experiences sound like kensho or satori, breakthroughs described in zen meditation. They also sound like petit mal (absence) seizures. Mine are a few minutes long, when events around me are very quiet, and I feel like I am at the bottom of the immense bowl of the gelatinous universe, connected to everything and unwilling to move. In Buddhist terms, it feels like the definition of nirvana (which is not a state of permanent heaven, contrary to popular belief) - the absence of greed, hatred and confusion. There is another phenomenon of 'blanking the mind', without much, if any, of an emotive aftertaste, that is experienced by many people who have survived sexual or physical abuse in childhood. It is classified in psychiatry as a dissociative defense mechanism and it also has not been captured, or even so far, hunting down, by researchers.

    We cannot know until EEG tracings or (better yet) functional scans of brains are measured while the subject is experiencing these phenomena. The "default network" of the brain, responsible for the constant daydreaming-thinking-inner dialogue-worry-stream_of_consciouness, is turned off during some forms of mindfulness meditation (vipassana) or by concentration on physical activity (including sexual activity). This suspension of the default-network activity is always experienced as peacefulness and it can be trained into/practiced until it becomes a tool one can use anytime to stop the default network.

    It is known that long practiced meditators (like Buddhist monks/nuns) can align the EEG patterns of areas of the frontal cortex (where conscious thought, intentional activity arise) and that these changes correlate with stilling of the default network.

    I propose that in certain situations some of us, or perhaps potentially all of us, can achieve changes in our frontal cortex that stills the default network and imbues us with the peacefulness/quietude that is known to result from that event. I think it is supportive of this hypothesis that (I think) all the writers here describe an experience in which thought stops while subjective feeling persists. The descriptions offered by writers here all seem to be afterthoughts (in the truest sense of the word). More likely there is one type of this experience (excluding drugs, seizure disorder, brain injury, etc as the cause) the flavor of which is determined by how emotive, associational connections are lined up in our physical brains, and that is of course different from individual to individual.

    But then..... maybe not.

  • p0ssiblesideeffects

    Not much to say aside from the fact that I found it find that I am not the only person with the overwhelming sense of self paired with detachment from myself at the same time...

  • Gillian

    I've been experiencing this since the age of around 4, and I'm so thrilled to have another account of it! I first induced it when, at that age of and idea of self forming and playing with our notion of identity, I repeated 'me is me, me is me'. I can still loop myself into this ego-shift. Nobody I've mentioned this to has ever shared this.

  • Toni SL

    "Out of nowhere, from one step to the next, I was overcome by an astonishment at being me."

    I can remember having these types of thoughts as young as 6 or 7 years old. I always had this weird sensation as if I was stepping out of my own mind just a bit. It's trippy--I wish I had a better word for it. I'm glad to see I wasn't the only one.

  • Linda Smith

    The sense of "me" happened to me when I was eight. I'll always remember walking up the street in front of my house and suddenly being astonished to see my own shadow on the ground in front of me.

  • AP

    I've experienced both. The first one, twice: within an old and empty Abbey in France countryside (I'm not religious) the second with an unknow person (just a person at a cafe with whom I had a strange very short interaction). Nothing spooky or scaring and without feelings of body dissociation. Just sensing a presence, but not a presence of a person, more like a universal presence, a change of the air surrounding me and a feeling of being connected to the whole universe and at peace. Above all a feeling of inner peace, like everything being like it has to be. Those were experienced as an adult and were very powerful experiences.
    The other experience of 'being me' i have had many times. I think they are philosophical experiences of seeing reality without the 'clothes' of the education that forms our normal representation of things.

  • Caspin

    I was in Turkey, spending copious amounts of time reading Ralph Waldo
    Emerson, and becoming more and more curious about my “actuality.” “What
    am I?” was the question that kept spiraling deeper and deeper and
    deeper, until finally it dawned on me that there was something way
    larger than “me” living this life, and in fact living all lives.

    became absolutely clear than awareness/consciousness is not
    differentiated between varying life forms. It is the same, like the
    empty space on one side of the planet Earth and the empty space on the
    other side of the planet Earth. The awareness that is the essence of my
    life is the exact same awareness that is living all lives.

    to say, this was a complete 180 degree turnaround of the way I had
    previously seen reality and my “self” for just over 2 decades of my
    life. I was now a 25 years old, and I was still from America, and I
    still had a male body. But none of those things described me at all, not
    the real me. It made sense to me that all of this, all of this life
    going on in the Universe, is really just the Universe experiencing
    itself from multiple/infinite perspectives.

    I guess another way
    to say all of this is that we’re all one. But that, like the term “God,”
    is suspect simply for the countless connotations each of these phrases
    and terms carry. Better to simply not label any of this anything and
    just realize that we are all the same being, and therefore be nice.

  • Winefride

    I was about eleven: I was sitting in our loungeroom and some music was playing. The big window looked out on a little tree. A sparrow was in it. For such a short time something stood still but I don't know what it was. I watched the bird and the tree and it was as though I was almost blinded by the joy of it. I never had anything like that again.