Ordinary Numinous

One of the symptoms of severe depression is a “loss of meaning.” Activities and goals that once seemed urgent, suddenly appear trivial, transparent as ghosts. The world starts to feel immaterial. Nothing matters. Although the body feels heavy, as if made of led, the purpose and function of ordinary material things feel vaporous. Interacting with the material world – doing dishes, taking a shower, walking the dog or cleaning one’s office – becomes confusing and overwhelming.

This is the weight of The Black Sun, which hangs dark and leaden, warping the horizon and poisoning the sky.

However, unlike neurochemical depression, for which we take drugs, or depression of cognition and behavior, for which we have short-term talk-therapy, what I am experiencing now is melancholy.

Melancholy is an uncanny state of mind, in which the meaning falls away from things, and a different kind of meaning – metaphorical and numinous – fills the empty space. It’s as if the usual daytime sunlight has darkened, but under the weird illumination of The Black Sun, familiar household objects shimmer with mysterious symbolism.

For example, yesterday, as I walked outside to my office in the backyard, I was struck by the sense of being out of synch, not “at home,” even spooked.

Then looked across my backyard…

In a sea of green grass and leaves all lit up by late afternoon sunlight there were, hidden in shadow, three purple flowers that gave off an otherworldly glow.

All at once, I had a sense of vertigo and awe, as if I were glimpsing some secret that runs deep beneath the ground of commonplace objects. I can’t say what that secret is, or what these flowers “meant.” The flowers were just numinous.

nu·mi·nous/ˈn(y)o͞omənəs adjective: having a strong religious, spiritual, or mysterious quality; suggesting the presence of a divinity.

Numinous comes from the Latin word numen, meaning “divine will” or “nod.” It suggests a figurative nodding, of assent or of command, of the divine head. English speakers have been using numen for centuries with the meaning “a spiritual force or influence.” 

I myself an atheist, and I do not believe in the supernatural, as such. Yet, when I looked at those flowers, something nodded. So at times like those, I feel like a closet mystic. My experience melancholy becomes an altered state of consciousness in which hidden forces and occult meanings radiate from within the utterly mundane.

To be clear, when other people use the word “numinous,” they usually mean something like this…

Whereas, when I use numinous I am usually freaking out at something seemingly humdrum, like this…

As another example, early this morning I sat on the couch, my head hanging like a sack filled with wet sand.

However, I looked up at my front door, and through the little window, I could see the sunlit trees whipped by gusts of wind. The little patch of green pulsed and swelled like a green-tentacled anemone in an aquarium.

As I stared, that same sense of vertigo, dread, and wonder welled up in my chest. The front door, the window, and the tree beyond it, all of which I’ve seen daily for twenty years, suddenly were alien, unfamiliar, and WEIRD.

For me, the window was no longer just a literal window; it was a metaphor glowing with thousands of meanings and connections. Its semi-circular shape was a half-sun, the bars were like rays, and the shape doubled in my mind…

…momentarily becoming a SUN, fiery and unrelenting.

As I will write in my next blog, the “sun” is an oppressive symbol for me. It evokes tyranny, oppression, and death.

However, the window was not an ordinary sun, it was The Black Sun, the symbol I have been exploring in recent blogs.

As a Black Sun, the window felt not like an oppressive fire, but as a kind of portal – a window to another way of seeing.

As I stared at The Black Sun, I felt I could see beyond the dark bars into a rich landscape of pattern and meaning that was always there but hidden behind the stultifying familiarity and habit: the ordinary door, the ordinary window, and the ordinary tree branches bobbing in the ordinary wind. Now it had transformed; it was the ordinary numinous – a window lit up by the eerie rays of melancholy.

So, the Black Sun is not religious or supernatural. It is mystical in the way that a Platonic understanding of mathematics can be mystical. By that I mean… if mathematics is “the formal study of pattern” and if those abstract patterns (like pi, imaginary numbers, and transfinite sets) exist as real-yet-immaterial facts that we discover about the world, then The Black Sun is the poetic counterpoint. Just as there are circles and derivatives that describe the patterns of material objects with spooky accuracy (see The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences), there is an eerie network of non-material metaphors, patterns, and signs that run like roots beneath our familiar names: “Door.” “Tree.” “Window.” A network revealed and electrified by melancholy.

Have I lost you yet?

Anyway. This is all a way of saying that when you start looking into The Black Sun, ordinary shit gets WEIRD.

10 thoughts on “Ordinary Numinous”

  1. I see is as the entryway into something deeper and as yet unspoken in our contemporary society. As a medical doctor who is board certified in both psychiatry and neurology, I’m constantly being lulled into the sleepy cult of viewing all alterations in mood beyond some agreed-up norm as being pathological—like a cancerous tumor that of course must be excised to cure the patient. And it’s virtually always the case that, by being chronically and sometimes paralytic in my own experience of daily melancholy, I experience the papers and presentations of colleagues regarding “The Treatment of Depression” as a hot spring of cognitive dissonance. Is experiencing waking life in a state of chronic and sometimes excruciating melancholy something that obviously must be “treated” in the illness paradigm? Whether it is the more oddly legitimized immersion of my brain in antidepressant medications or the (just as equally effective based on double blind studies in obliterating the melancholy…temporarily) participation in cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy of any sort, the fact is that social norms make it “obvious” that pummeling the melancholy with the full available arsenal of “treatments” is obviously compassionate. But, as you intimate in this post: is it indeed so obvious? Would the Sean who dutifully attended CBT sessions and swallow increasingly potent antidepressants daily even notice the numinous. Are we as a society killing the potentiality of melancholy based on the untested assumption that the baseline normal human mood state is one of euthymia? I can only speak from subjectivity. To put it bluntly (but accurately) a consistent state of happiness and even practically useful activity seems to me to be the actual pathological state if is honored as the norm. We humans can reflect on the environment and attribute meaning to events. It’s grossly irrational to presume that our reflections and meanings should naturally lead to a mood state of upbeat optimism. Contentment, productivity, creativity, and melancholy can co-exist. Indeed, one might argue that the endpoint of antidepressant treatment and CBT is not as naturally grouped with at least contentment and creativity. Would Sean have noticed and have had his provably illusory sense of solidity and permanence enriched if he had not noticed the three remarkable flowers or the pulsating field of energy that he appreciated simply by looking out through the decorative windows of his front door? I think not. Of course, the reflexive (and somewhat self-righteous and defensive) reaction even to considering this alternative view of melancholy is quickly to point to the morbidly depressed folks who are prone to suicide and can’t get out of bed to care for their children. This is a straw man counterpoint because, of course, if someone is so functionally impaired by something akin to melancholy that she can’t rise out of bed to feed breakfast to her child, well, fuck it then and let’s focus on getting her on her feet. However, what about the melancholy that is more analogous to chronic and severe physical pain? Is it really so obvious that we should run from or stamp out this “barely functional but functional” melancholy with psychoactive substances and brain reprogramming? Is it possible to change our relationship to emotional pain such that it isn’t anathema to life but essential to depth? I bet that an alarming majority of our contemporaries would view The Black Sun as a kind of oxymoron: nothingness adjacent to infinite light and warmth. One can then ask: is nothingness equivalent to meaninglessness or uselessness? If I understand your first few entries, it seems you’re challenging us at least to consider The Black Sun as a field of enormous potentiality for meaning and depth and as a symbolic reminder that, from the seemingly void darkness of a Black Sun springs forth mysterious but real potentials, infinite potentials–including insights into carving out a pacific coexistence with emotional pain and tapping into the darkness as a field of infinite co-creation. Staring at or diving into the Black Sun may seem dangerous. Yet, isn’t it there solace and comfort in jumping into the conceptually opaque but obviously enormous potentiality of the unknown? Aren’t your experiences of the three flowers in an ocean of green or your moments of co-existing with the vibrating potentiality of the bursts of motility coming through your front door windows possibly more sound and existentially valid than doubling your antidepressant dose? More later as you develop your insights on this fascinating topic.

    1. This is a beautiful comment, and I am so glad that you, as a medical professional, are having these thoughts. One of my most elementary thoughts is frequently “we live in a depressing, dysfunctional world, is it not rational/natural to feel depressed/overwhelmed?” To unilaterally and continuously “treat” natural human reactions to circumstances may be one of the sickest things we do as a society. This is not to say that depression should be left untreated, or that it can sometimes get carried away…but there is also something human and authentic about reacting with despair. And something obviously human about perceiving the numinous, the mystical, the magical, the awe-inspiring even in the midst of the ugly. Being human is a paradox, and treating deviations from an artificial norm as pathologies deprives us of the opportunity to live in, and grow from, the presence of mystery.

  2. You have not lost ME in the least. Rather, I feel found.
    On the one hand, we can share about this as closet/non-closet mystics, but also…
    I have long wondered if there is something in my brain, which may be in your brain too, that literally SEES differently. Of course, to see differently automatically makes one a visionary, right? There is something in our “field of vision” which is unique.
    One day, many years ago, I was in a state of melancholy that sounds not unlike yours. I went into a clothing store and was overwhelmed by the quantity of fabric — much like you say you’ve been overwhelmed by color. At the time I was reading Grapes of Wrath in which surplus oranges were left to rot, despite migrant workers starving nearby, and learned that surplus fast-clothing is also left to rot. A vision of mountains of rotting clothing appeared in my mental “field of vision” and I could not shake it. I left the store, nausated and close to losing consciousness.
    Was this a psychological breakdown? A spiritual breakdown? A neurological breakdown? I couldn’t tell at the time, but I have never forgotten it.
    Fortunately, I recovered. But I was never the same for the experience. I’m sending comfort and safety during all such episodes, and a wish that you can integrate them as wisdom and channel them further into your creativity. I am understanding the “black sun” through you. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Thank you so much for this comment! There are a lot of things to respond to. I will both here and in email.

  3. I just looked at the photographs of the windows on you front door. When I linger on them, they are eerie: like a ghost is in the house. Or perhaps it’s numinous: like a spirit permeates the environment.

    1. It is like a spirit/ghost. The reason I’m going on a day trip to Mount Baldy tomorrow is I want to, metaphorically speaking, look for these spirits/ghosts, particularly in trees.

  4. Sean, thank you for this reflection on melancholy’s power to reveal/make an opening for the numinous, as well as our culture’s relentless pursuit of happiness. Of course, swimming in this culture, it’s easy to drink the happiness Koolaid, and to push down the feelings of dread that come in the wee hours of the night. For me, melancholy descends on me more often now with my last child about to depart for college – after 23 years of a house full of children. Where did the time go? Where did I go? What now? So I’ll let that melancholy have its way for a while and stay open to the numinous.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response! I write this response from a quiet, empty house, so I know what you mean!

Comments are closed.