Ed Mitchell’s journey through space
In February 1971 Ed Mitchell, a pilot on the Apollo 14 craft, flew back to Earth after a successful moon landing. He was about to have an experience of expanded consciousness that would change his life forever. Until that point there had been nothing mystical about Ed, who had been trained as an engineer. As a boy in New Mexico planes fascinated him, and he learnt to fly at 13.
After graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology with a science degree in 1952 he entered the Navy and became first a pilot on active service, then a flight instructor. In 1966 he was seconded to NASA and joined the moon mission, serving on the support crew for various Apollo projects, before his appointment to the Apollo 14 mission. In 1971 he had been married for 19 years and had two children. He was 40 years old.
On the way back to Earth, the beauty of the heavens struck him in a 360 degree panorama from the cockpit, in which the Earth and the Moon performed their dance around the Sun in glittering light. Because there is no atmosphere in Space, everything looked many times brighter than it did on Earth. The home planet itself appeared as a stunning blue-white globe with vast oceans and continents teeming with life.
As he stared out of the window he experienced a state of ecstasy, in which he connected to the Earth, the Sun, the Moon and the distant stars.
“It occurred to me that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft itself were manufactured long ago in the furnace of one of the ancient stars that burned in the heavens about me.”
Each time he looked out of the window on that three-day trip back to Earth that same overwhelming feeling of wonder gripped him, as tears flowed down his cheeks.
Rebirth in consciousness
As a good scientist he investigated the cause of this experience when he returned home and consulted specialists in psychology and neurology, but found no satisfactory answers. He turned instead to spiritual works after he was told that his experience resembled that of Samadhi, a mystical experience widely reported in the ancient Hindu scriptures.
The word ‘Samadhi’ is a Sanskrit word which translates as ‘fusing together’. In the experience of Samadhi there is an expanded state of consciousness, a deep connection with reality, and a sense of oneness with the intelligence that runs through creation.
Moreover, the distinction between subject and object is dissolved. The subject (Ed Mitchell) fuses with the object of contemplation (the Universe) and becomes one with it. In that state he experiences an ecstatic union with the divine. Typically, the person undergoes a transformative experience in which there is a renunciation of the old way of life, and a turn to a life of the Spirit. This certainly happened to Ed Mitchell. A year after his change in consciousness he retired from the Navy and spent the rest of his life in the peace movement, also campaigning for the protection of the environment. Sadly, he also divorced from his wife.
He also spent years investigating levels of consciousness and extra-sensory perception. His experience never left him and he repeatedly pointed to what it had shown him:
“An invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole Universe. That is Reality. That is Truth. Tat Twam Asi (‘Thou Art That’).”
Ed’s Story points to one aspect of consciousness: its capacity for a deeper connection with ultimate reality. One way to think about Ed’s experience is that it displayed field consciousness, rather than personal consciousness. In personal consciousness we are aware of rooms, houses and streets; people, jobs and homes; thoughts, feelings and memories. But in field consciousness our awareness is enlarged in relationship to the whole. It is this experience that saints, mystics and poets have testified to over centuries. The same experience that many of us continue to seek through art, music and philosophy, and through such disciplines as meditation, prayer and sacred ritual.
Ed Mitchell’s experience was unusual in that very few people ever get to see the Earth from a quarter of a million miles away. Which was how he leap-frogged to an insight that others might take decades of meditation to acquire.
To be sure, consciousness itself does not change; it is merely the arena in which experience appears. In it you could have a depressing experience (personal consciousness), or an experience of ultimate connection to the whole (field consciousness). Both are necessary, but field consciousness is where the growth is, and it forms a necessary corrective to the limited consciousness of self.
In therapy, rapid change is achieved by improving access to trans-personal consciousness. This is one reason for the increasing use of psilocybin in therapy for alcoholism, trauma and depression: a psychedelic drug opens up consciousness by activating brain centres that are little used in everyday experience, and more often used in field consciousness. In that way, the cravings, habits and dysfunctional thoughts that go with impaired mental health are left behind.
However, there are plenty of non-drug options for raising consciousness, besides a moon voyage:
- A walk in the mountains
- Deep-sea diving
- Sex (the ecstatic kind)
- Art (especially the visual arts and poetry)
Which is your preferred avenue towards personal renewal?