I think it was in a post by Brad Warner that I first heard about The Big Wow, or perhaps it was just on one of the Internet forums I frequent. The Big Wow is the overwhelming, transforming, hit-by-a-bolt-of-lightning mystical experience that changes you forever after. Everyone wants one of those, and once you get it, you spend a good part of the rest of your life wanting another, and another, and another. Yet it’s not the Big Wow that actually transforms you; it’s the plodding, day-to-day grind of sitting in meditation, doing walking meditation, practicing mindfulness during the day, questioning yourself, and getting your act together on a number of fronts (which is what the Noble Eightfold Path is all about). You may be able to draw on the memory of that experience to motivate yourself to keep plugging away, but in the long run it’s a mistake to make too much of it.
My Big Wow happened when I was 19. It was March of 1973, and I was returning to college from spring break. For some reason, my violin teacher had loaned me her car for the week, a reflection of how close we were during that period. I was traveling east on the Massachusetts turnpike, going a little over 70. There was a school bus in front of me, and we were approaching a slight hill. I got in the left lane to pass the bus, accelerated to about 80, and then without warning the school bus pulled in front of me (I can still see it in my mind’s eye). Being a young, inexperienced driver, I did the opposite of what I should have done: I slammed on the brakes, putting the car into a tailspin. I overcorrected with the steering, tried the brakes again, and then began to panic as I lost all control of the car.
What happened next is hard to describe. I remember skidding back and forth over the highway with a few other cars in view, and I remember a look of concern on someone’s face through a window of one of those cars. I recognized with a sickening horror that I might not be able to get out of it alive, when suddenly I surrendered and everything stopped. I felt myself gently pulled upward, out of my body, and I felt the various parts of my identity fall away as if I were dropping layers of clothing. I had a thought: so now this one is over, the one called Laurel, tall, blonde, a violinist—and so it ends, and now I’m returning. And then I was flooded by an indescribable love, and thought briefly with regret about my parents, how they would grieve. But consolation was immediate: soon they will know, in no time at all. And there was relaxation into that love which was my true home.
The next thing I recall was returning to myself in a daze, with the car on the left shoulder, facing in the opposite direction of the road. I had no idea how I got there. I eventually made my way to the right shoulder, where I was approached by a kind man who had stopped to help me. I slowly followed him and his family to the nearest rest stop, and had a cup of chicken soup and some tea. “See,” he told his young daughter, “Laurel went through all that and now she’s sitting right here.” We parted and I drove the rest of the way into Boston.
It would have been lovely if, in the aftermath of that experience, I could have integrated its insights and lived my life forever free from the fear of death. Instead, I was left with another phobia about driving on highways, which has stayed with me to this day. It would also have been lovely if I had gained the kind of perspective that would have led to better mental health, or at least more maturity. No such luck. I did spend time and energy puzzling over it, in an attempt to put it in some kind of framework that would make it intelligible. At the time I was under the influence of my Christian Scientist music teacher, who urged me to put it out of my mind and not speak of it. Traffic accidents fall in the same category as illness, something that involves the unreal material world, which according to that doctrine we must transcend.
Later, when I became serious about Christianity, I viewed my experience as an encounter with the pure love of God. I read mystic writers with a sense of having something of my own to bring to the table, feeling a little smug about it, to be honest. I had fallen into the trap of seeing myself as special, an inevitable pitfall of the spiritual life. Later still, as a Buddhist, I saw it as one of the stages on the Path of Insight. In some respects it fits the profile of both traditions. I have come to prefer calling it The Big Wow, however, because that term is just irreverent enough to keep it in perspective. Such things can happen, and then other stuff happens, and it’s best not to wallow in it. The most such an experience can do is inspire you to keep practicing when you might otherwise skip it. It is ancillary, not central. That is all.