Which reality is really real?

I was listening to the latest Leonard Cohen album in my car the other day, when the genial Canadian was interrupted by a local radio station giving advice on traffic conditions.

As surreal experiences go, this one is right up there. One minute I was immersed in deep poetic insight accompanied by gentle harmonies; the next I was being shouted at by alien beings operating on a totally different level and at breakneck speed.

Surprisingly I did not hit anything, though if the radio announcer had been closer to me, I might have been tempted. The superficiality meter was going through the roof.

Some would say I was being brought back to reality, but I disagree: I felt I was being dragged away from it by a hysterical white rabbit that was late for something, and was concerned that it might be hampered by slow-moving traffic on the ring road.

Which of these two realities is really real? Many people would, I suspect, say that anything dealing with traffic and the urgency of getting from A to B is much more real than poetry about the mystery of the spiritual life – in the same way that science seems more real than religion.

But scientists do not necessarily agree that reality is ordinary. J B S Haldane, a biologist (and incidentally a Marxist) said: “Reality is not only stranger than we suppose, but also much stranger than we can suppose.”

Poetry and mysticism are one way (or perhaps two ways) of dealing with that. Many people have mystical experiences, but they are often discounted, or – worse – put on a par with mental illness. Unsurprisingly, the evidence contradicts this.

A survey made of people who had experiences of God (that is, mystical experiences) showed that the relationship between such experiences and psychological well-being was extremely high.

Richard Holloway reports in his book A New Heaven that this was dismissed by mental health experts.

The scientists who conducted the survey reported: “We confess to being somewhat dismayed when professional colleagues dismiss our findings with an abrupt certainty: ‘Those people can’t be having religious experiences.’ Maybe not, but they’re having something, and whatever the hell it is they are having, it correlates with mental health at a very high level.

“If we had found any other correlate, the mental-health establishment would be knocking down our doors demanding to know more.”

Of course, listening to traffic directions is much easier. It just drives you crazy.