Romancing the Numinous
When we read our ancient texts, we get the sense that there was a time when humans had easier access to the numinous. Uncluttered by the words that become concepts which take the place of the actual encounter—every day was once filled with wonder.
Language merely testifies to what we experience as we tend to view experience in terms of the known.
In its most basic form, a numinous experience is so transcendent, that it defies words. Silence, in this context, becomes an invitation into wonder. It is also a response to how limited we are in describing an unexpected encounter with the sacred.
Experiencing the numinous is different from religious interpretations of the sacred. A numinous sensation defies logic, where religion is based on rational thought. The numinous transports us away from the known, while religion can trap us in it.
We can cultivate an opportunity to invite the numinous into daily life. This is what the Tao te Ching asks us to consider in its sublime and elusive images. It doesn’t describe as much as it invites us to open to the faith that we have always been nurtured.
In western thought, it took time before the numinous was unleashed from the dogma that set out to teach us what it is. The numinous is ever-present – we need only learn to open to it. We can actually romance the numinous into our daily lives.
Rudolph Otto and the Numinous
Rudolph Otto, in his book, "The Idea of the Holy" (1917) was the first to describe the numinous as an aspect of sacred experience. Like Tao, Otto believed that there is a fundamental, transcendent reality that is beyond human comprehension and ordinary experiences. He referred to this as the "holy" or the "numinous."
He described the numinous as the mysterious, awe-inspiring, and fascinating quality of the sacred, often accompanied by a feeling of tremendous power. The numinous is an experience or encounter with a divine presence that elicits a deep sense of reverence, fear, and fascination.
It has an attractive and compelling aspect that draws individuals towards it, creating a fascination that transcends ordinary experiences. The numinous, being wholly other, has the power to transport our awareness beyond the known.
The numinous invites the peak experience that can alter our life path, or the epiphany that can give life incredible meaning.
Carl Jung and the Numinous
Carl Jung also explored the concept of the numinous in his work, particularly in the context of psychology and the study of religious and spiritual experiences. Jung's understanding of the numinous shares similarities with Rudolf Otto's, but he approached it from a psychological perspective.
Jung proposed the existence of a "collective unconscious," a layer of the unconscious mind shared by all human beings. Within the collective unconscious, he identified "archetypes," universal symbols and themes that are expressed in various cultures and religions.
The numinous, for Jung, often arises in connection with the archetypal images that appear in dreams or visions. This encounter can also occur as moments of synchronicity, or intense emotional and spiritual significance.
Jung emphasized the transformative and psychological impact of the numinous experience. Encounters with the numinous can lead to a profound shift in an individual's consciousness, fostering personal growth, and contributing to the process of individuation—the development of one's unique and authentic self.
Encouraging a numinous experience is a deeply personal and subjective journey, as it involves connecting with the transcendent or divine aspects of our relationship with life. Taoism, which traces back thousands of years, also presents similar steps to achieve the openness that can lead us back to wonder.
How to Romance the Numinous
Approach life with an open mind and a willingness to explore beyond the ordinary. Be open to the possibility of transcendent or sacred encounters in various aspects of your life. Stand at the threshold of perception and give yourself permission not to know.
Engage in mindfulness practices, such as meditation or contemplative prayer, to quiet the mind and create a receptive space for deeper experiences. Mindfulness can help you become more aware of the present moment and any subtle, transcendent elements.
Taoism is a philosophy inspired by the behavior of the natural world. Spend time in nature, as natural settings often evoke a sense of awe and wonder. Whether it's a forest, a mountain, or a serene beach, connecting with the natural world can be a powerful avenue for experiencing the numinous.
Art and Creativity:
Engage in artistic or creative activities that allow you to express your inner self. Art, music, dance, or writing can serve as vehicles for transcendent experiences and can be deeply meaningful. The process of creating is more important than the product. Let your inspiration guide you.
Compare Symbols from Dreams to Myths:
Explore the symbols that appear in dreams and their connection to myths, and stories from various traditions. Reflecting on these symbols may help you connect with archetypal elements that foster a sense of the numinous. My book, the Mythology of Sleep is a great reference for exploring the mythical similarities of the dreamscape.
Practice gratitude to develop a sense of appreciation for the beauty and mystery of life. Acknowledging and expressing gratitude can shift your focus towards the sacred aspects of everyday existence.
Literary Examples of the Numinous
In "The Stranger" by Albert Camus, the protagonist Meursault's reflects on the indifference of the universe and eventually finds harmony with it:
"I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again."
Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha," explores spiritual and philosophical themes, including the search for meaning and enlightenment:
"When someone seeks, then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal."
The numinous will be different for everyone, and yet, the similarity is how it can return us to joy. The journey of self-discovery and enlightenment suggests how a rigid focus on a specific goal may hinder one's ability to truly experience and understand the profound aspects of life.
The notion of being receptive and free from a fixed objective aligns with the exploration of the numinous as a transcendent and transformative experience.
In summary, be open, and forget what you have learned. Let every moment be your teacher.
“Identify with the infinite and wander in the unfathomable.” Chuang tzu, 3rd century BCE