Saturday, June 6, 2009

Chapter 16: Please Curb Your God

My writing up to this point has been a catharsis or a purge. I wrote about my past as a way to explain who I was as I approached my thirtieth birthday. Now, my past has been transcribed and I am writing in more-or-less the present tense. In the months since I began this blog I have shared few of my reflections on how I plan to improve my life going forward. That change for the better is the ultimate goal of this project, so I may as well get to it!

In looking at my life, I often feel like something is missing, but I am not sure what exactly. I am filled with an emptiness I cannot identify: Is it hunger? Thirst? Loneliness? Boredom? Or maybe it is that I lack a profound spirituality. In the past I ate, drank, cuddled and played without finding true happiness, so I figure it couldn’t hurt to think about “The Big Picture.” While making my life better will in part be about concrete actions like exercising or budgeting, what good will any of those tasks do if my overall Self feels out of balance with the world? I think I need to recalibrate my life in a way, and I need to take a holistic approach to do so.

The first things that fill my mind when trying to think about my spirituality are only questions. What should be my role in the universe and how do I succeed in fulfilling it? Or is that even the right way to approach these things? How exactly do I perceive the world and my role in it presently? If I don’t know my current orientation I will never be able to chart a better course. To establish my point of reference, I have to go back to the past as a way of explaining what I have come to believe today. I think only then will I be able to identify the pieces of the quilt that make up the fabric of my existence and decide which scraps to salvage and which to fashion, along with many new pieces, into a fresh, much cozier, quilt.

When thinking of spirituality, most people’s minds immediately jump to religion. When I told Ramon the topic of this entry was spirituality he groaned and said, “Oh no, are you a Christian now? I thought you were an Atheist!” My response was that I am, in fact, neither (and that I hoped he would read this to understand what I meant by that).

I was not raised with religion. My family is ostensibly Christian (Protestant/Lutheran I think), but I was never Baptized or Christened and I my parents never once brought us to a church service. Church was a place for weddings and, for our more religious kin, Christenings. On one occasion, when I spent the night with my Gram, she took me to the Sunday School at her church while she attended the service. All I remember from that experience is that I didn’t understand what was going on and that we made placemats. Religious holidays (limited to Christmas and Easter) were not a time of celebrating Jesus, but rather gift-giving, candy, secular cartoon characters and family get-togethers.

I didn’t even realize we had any religious texts in the house until one day my brother decided he wanted to practice Satanism and my dad chucked a massive King James Bible at his head. Up until that point, my dad had always proclaimed that my brother and I could choose any religion we wanted. While he would have been perfectly happy with us, say, following in our Druid ancestors’ footsteps, apparently Satanism was not on the list of acceptable world religions.

My hometown has a large Jewish population, so when junior high rolled around my mailbox was awash with B'nei Mitzvah invitations. Before long, I had spent more time in a Jewish temple than I ever had in a church. My best friends from grade school through high school were primarily Jewish, and I was often a guest at their traditional Friday Shabbat and Passover Seder dinners. I enjoyed the ritual of prayer, candle-lighting and the ceremonial hand-washing and breaking of bread (or, alternately, matzo). In time I began to recognize the Hebrew prayers: “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam…” While I did not know their meaning, I could recite those few words along with my Jewish hosts.

My knowledge of Christian prayer, at the time, was equally limited to the first line of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Over the years, I attended various church services, primarily to appease first Joey’s and then James’ devoutly Catholic mothers. I learned to stand, sit and kneel at the appropriate times. I bowed my head low when it came time to pray to hide the fact that I did not know the words to the prayers. And I never took Communion. As my friends began to get married, I enjoyed witnessing the ceremonies associated with their varied faiths. In the cases of three of my girlfriends and their fianc├ęs, one member of the couple converted to the other’s religion (Christian, Catholic and Muslim) before their weddings. I enjoyed learning about religion with an outsider’s perspective, but generally referred to myself as Agnostic.

When James and I began planning our own wedding ceremony, I simply could not see myself converting to Catholicism or having the ceremony under the roof of a Catholic Church. If I had my way, I would have been married by a justice of the peace, but was willing to compromise on a non-denominational pastor. I didn’t think James would be upset about not having a Catholic wedding, as he did not attend services himself, but he was in fact angered by my refusal to be married in the Church. I thought at great length about how to reconcile my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) with those of my future husband. It came down to two distinct aspects: my views on God and my views on religion.

I’ve never in my life said, or even thought, “I believe in God.” On the other hand, I have never said, “There is definitely no God.” Frankly, over the course of my lifetime I have probably spent more time considering the contents of my refrigerator than the existence of the Almighty. Calling myself an Agnostic was a bit of a cop-out in this respect because it meant I could say “If you haven’t proven it to me, it doesn’t exist,” but I never sought the proof either.

Because I did not definitively believe in God, I frankly did not want the name invoked in the wedding ceremony at all. If I proclaimed in front of all my friends and family some sort of faith in God, it seemed like my marriage would be founded on a lie. I found out later that I needn’t convert to Catholicism to be married in the church but express a commitment to raising Catholic children. Even that seemed like a lie on which to found a marriage as I didn’t see myself (or James for that matter) taking our offspring to Church.

My desire to get married in my parents' backyard began to take on significance beyond aesthetics. Man built the church (both the edifice and the institution), but God created the grass and the trees. I asked James, “When is one closer to God than in Nature?” He had no answers for me and shared nothing with me about the basis of his faith, so I took it to be blind. And while my parent’s backyard is a cultivated suburban version of Nature, it felt more appropriate to have the wedding there than at a church selected at random (or for me any church at all).

To me, matrimony is matrimony, whether it is holy or not. The thing that makes a couple into a husband and wife (or husband and husband or wife and wife) is the profession, in front of all those who they’ve invited to bear witness, that they are committed to sharing the remainder of their lives together. If God happens to be one of those caring witnesses you invite, great, but his presence should not be required to bless a union. In the case of my wedding, If God was in attendance, he was definitely sitting on the groom’s side.

My parents had given me the freedom to choose my religious path, but I had been provided with precious little information about what my choices actually were. If there is “A God” I don’t know if he (or she?) is benevolent or fearsome, Jewish or Muslim, distant or internalized. I enjoyed seeing how my friends of various faiths practiced their religions, but no one devotion seemed to call out to me, and I hadn’t put forth the effort to study the world’s less prominent faiths. Ultimately, any organized religions seemed outdated and corrupt to me, with Catholicism being the worst. It is to me an establishment filled with middlemen and diddlemen, neither of whom would help me find or reach God.

So rather than choose to take my husband’s religion, I chose to do nothing. I finally learned the Lord’s Prayer, and recited it to James’ surprise, during the ceremony. I wonder now: if we had been married in the church, would he have held our vows to be sacred? Would saying “I do” in God’s house prevented him from cheating on me? Somehow I doubt it. Nonetheless, James’ claim of faith to his religion followed by his unfaithfulness to me made me doubt even more that religion was for me.

In New York, religion is in your face all the time. From the garb of the more conservative sects to the beautiful religious buildings lining the city street, all the world’s religions are on display. You need only enter a subway car to find a Muslim, Hasidic Jew and Mormon all holding on to the same pole for balance to see just how peacefully they coexist in this metropolis. Yet on that same subway car you are likely to see a seated man so deeply absorbed in his religious texts that he does not offer his perch to the visibly pregnant woman standing uncomfortably in front of him. To her, the piety implied by the man’s religious fervor is no more than hypocrisy. And on the next car, where the air conditioning is not working, a woman is preaching about eternal damnation without the salvation of Jesus Christ. Her hollering only serves to agitate and alienate the tired businessman, trying to catch a quick nap before going home to his family. To him, that train car became the Hell the preacher warned him about.

I see these people who claim devotion to a system of beliefs but literally do not practice what they preach (or what is preached to them). I know deep down that while I may be able to find spirituality, or, who knows, maybe even a God, I don’t think I will ever find a home amongst the world’s major religions. I may find lessons from one or another, but I don’t think I will be able to fully accept the tenets of an entire faith.

I have talked so far at length about what I don’t believe, but my focus going forward is determining what exactly I do believe. I have always claimed to be a spiritual person, but have only scratched the surface in internally examining what I actually believe when I say that. In the last few weeks I have begun reading books that I hope will help me on my path to spiritual enlightenment, and ultimately a happy, productive, successful, and love-filled life.

The first book I read was of the “self-help” genre, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, M.D. It was recommended to me last fall by a recently divorced friend. As I take all recommendations seriously, I purchased it which went against my commitment to never buy a self-help type book. I could not connect with it at the time because I was barely coping with my day-to-day life, let alone in a place where I could find this type of book beneficial. Recently, with spring’s promise of renewal spurring me on, I picked it up again. I found the volume contained many valuable insights, and read it with the attention of a textbook.

One section of the book discusses religion, and I began reading that portion with some trepidation. My mind was pretty made up when it came to my view on the institution of religion, but the author threw me for a loop when he presented his take on the matter. All religions, he said, present their followers with a way of seeing themselves in the universe. Conversely, since everyone has a world view, everyone has a religion. The opening paragraphs of the section on religion even touched on my feelings of hypocrisy in organized religions and the notion that you don’t necessarily need to believe in God to be religious or spiritual. “Right on!” I thought.

So what is my world view right now and how, by exploring my spirituality, will that view change? I want to preface this by saying that I am in no way preaching. My outlook on things is mine alone, and I have a feeling that there are few people out there who have established the same set of beliefs that I possess. And, I am aware that I will come off as a bit of a kook in part because what I believe is not derived from the world’s main religions. However these religions ask you to put faith in something you have not experienced, and I am not comfortable with that. Instead I have formulated my world view on the experiences I’ve had, which I would like to share with you now.

I have already said that I do not believe or disbelieve in a God, which is the basis of Agnosticism. I certainly don’t believe that some mystical being created the world in seven days or has control over out fates and destinies. Rather, I feel that there is a certain life force that exists, but what exactly that is I have not yet been able to pinpoint. Aliens on Star Trek described humans as simply “ugly bags of mostly water,” but I think there is something (electricity, a spirit, a soul, I don’t know) that makes us more than that. Maybe it is simply chemical reactions and synapses firing, but I think there is something else going on that makes me different from you and both of us different from, say, a cat.

I think in part this realization that we are more than just flesh helped influence me to become a vegetarian. At sixteen I sat down to a dinner of medium rare filet mignon and had an epiphany that it was not just “meat” but tissue and blood from a formerly breathing creature, and I didn’t see how that was any different from the flesh that made up my body. I read a theory once that more women are vegetarians because they are more exposed to blood through their monthly cycles, so to consume something that is part of the process of creating life seems counter-intuitive and off-putting. This certainly didn’t cross my mind when I decided to stop eating meat cold-tofurkey, but it may a subconscious truism.

I am not a huge animal rights activist or vehemently proclaim that every creature has a soul (and I’ve heard every snarky comment about the undeveloped nervous systems of sea creatures and how plants breathe too). However, there are days when I look into my pet cat Duke’s eyes and think there must sentience in that feline brain of his. Somehow Duke knows when I am sad, and reaches out a paw to rest it reassuringly on my thigh. This happens with such regularity (I’ve been sad quite a bit in the past year) that I feel it is more than mere coincidence. Perhaps it is just anthropomorphism on my part, but I’ve noticed he does not make the same gesture when I am happy. In part because of this, I do feel a connectedness to the living things of the world and I feel better knowing that another creature did not have to die for me to live.

During the time of slavery, it was believed that blacks were not sentient beings so it was acceptable to subjugate them. We would scoff at such a notion today because we are a more enlightened civilization. Just as people back then would have argued “Oh, I like having slaves because they make my life better,” today I hear “Oh, I could never give up meat because it is so delicious.” Mankind (especially in America) today does not need animal protein to survive, but savors it as part of an archaic cultural heritage. Our lifestyles are much more sedentary than generations past, meaning our dietary needs have changed and can be adequately met with our ample supply of plant-based foods. One day more people will come to see that their gratification comes at the unnecessary cost of another being’s suffering. I understand that most people consider animals to be lesser creatures than humans, so I want to clarify my intent when making this comparison. I am in no way saying that black people are no different than animals, but quite the reverse: I believe fully that animals are no different than humans.

While I am confident in defending my belief of the equality of man and beast as valuable on this earth, other convictions of mine are either a bit more undefined or unsubstantiated. For example, I wonder if the same life force that I see in my self and my cat may exist also in what we call inanimate objects.

That which grows from the earth eventually becomes the man, who then returns to the earth when he dies. It is a cycle of ashes to ashes and dust to dust, even according to the Bible. We are physically made up of no more than the earth upon which we walk, and it in turn is made up of no more than our ancestors. So if we have a life force it would follow that those entities that do not perambulate, because they are made up of the same stuff as us, would also have a life force. The spirit, soul or energy that occupies my body is here only for my lifetime, and had a previous home and will find another (be it plant, animal or mineral) after I am gone. This notion of reincarnation (or metempsychosis or transmigration) is one held by my Druid ancestors and Buddhists, thought I do not know much more about it than what I’ve just written.

What then of the spirits that do not find a home in another entity after the one they’ve been occupying has perished – that which we call ghosts? I believe that these, too, exist. Even as a child I had the sense that there was something else amongst us. If that which makes us “alive” is no more than an electrical charge, I felt that there were these wanton charges of those no longer alive existing on a parallel plane. I never had any concrete reason to believe this, I just did.

That is until something strange started happening to me around 2006. When I moved into my Harlem apartment in 2003, I sensed that the previous tenant had passed away in the apartment. When I cleaned my new home for the first time, I noticed that there was soot around the top of the windows, as if the person who had lived there previously had been a smoker. I wondered if the apartment was haunted by this person, who I felt was a man who had died as a result of his nicotine addiction. The New York spiritual guide and psychic Rock Kenyon said “I think there are more ghosts in the City than almost anywhere else… more people were attached to the City in life,” and I thought maybe that were true of the person who had formerly inhabited my dwelling. I waited to see if he would visit me.

One night after several years of living in that apartment, I finally had what I felt was a paranormal encounter; although it bore no resemblance to the old man I was expecting to haunt me. It was around the Fourth of July, and I was in my bed with the window open. I was lying on my back, and as I dozed off I began to feel my entire body start to vibrate and heard a buzzing in my ears. I could look around my room, but could not move my limbs. Suddenly, I saw flashes of light, like fireworks, out in the street.

Then these things, looking like black handkerchiefs (which I can now describe as looking like the Dementors from Harry Potter, thought I hadn’t heard of such a thing at the time), flew in the window. The shadowy forms swirled into the room and right into my gut. I felt like they were trying to pull me up from my bed by the stomach, as if trying to take my soul from its vessel. I shook myself awake and after the vibrations and paralysis subsided looked over at the clock on the nightstand. Only five minutes had passed since I had clicked off the light, which seemed far too short of a period to have entered the dream state.

The experience frightened me. I wondered, “If I hadn’t woken myself up, would I have had an out-of-body experience? Would I have died if they took my soul?” I was so shocked by the experience that I painted my vision from that night in part to always be able to remember it and in part to not have to always remember it.

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The phenomenon continued over the coming months, always as I was just nodding off to sleep. When it happened, my eyes always felt open (though I have no confirmation if they were or not) and I could see my room around me. Sometimes there was a visible entity associated with the experience, and sometimes it was just the sensation itself. If I were lying on my side, I might feel the force pulling me from the small of my back. I would feel like I was moving my arms or legs to reach out, but when I awoke they would be securely tucked by my side. In time I was able to rouse myself before I grew frightened, just as the vibrations would begin. This physical component led me to think these were not just dreams, but something else entirely.

As the occurrences became more commonplace, I began to analyze what might be causing them. I noticed if I had even one glass of wine with dinner, it would not happen. I also noticed that on nights when I would do logic puzzles in bed to put me to sleep, the sensation was more likely to occur. I began to wonder if the puzzles were tapping in to a certain unused part of my brain, and the alcohol only served to dull that area of the brain. I also noticed that the sensation only occurred when I was alone in my bed, and did not occur when another person or even my cats were sharing the bed with me.

Most people I told about my evening happenings probably thought I was nuts. I would have too, if it weren’t happening to me. Because I wasn’t seeing women in white nightgowns or whatever else may be considered typical ghost-like specters, I began to refer to my visions as “ghosties.” However this seemed to be a childish misnomer for whatever it was I was going through. I needed to know more so I typed my “symptoms” in a search engine.

I found information on lucid dreams, out-of-body experiences and something called astral projection. The latter phenomenon is a sort of out-of-body experience that people try to achieve through meditation. This desire to seek out the experiences I was having did not seem to jive with the terror with which I faced when having them. However the fact that other people could describe the exact same sensations as I was having was both reassuring and frightening. I was not alone; however the philosophies of the people who embraced their encounters were far beyond the reaches of my spiritual comfort zone.

After I moved out of Harlem, the phenomenon seemed to subside. Perhaps it was my husband’s nightly presence in bed with me, but over the next year I only had the experience once in Queens and once when I took a nap on the sofa at work. That experience was particularly alarming because for the first time I actually heard speech associated with the sensation. I heard a woman’s voice, coming from very close to my ear, telling me that my boss’ mother and sister were going to die. The fact that this premonition has not come true is again reassuring and confusing. Maybe it was just a dream, and not something to read too much into.

When I moved back to Manhattan, my nighttime visitors returned. Maybe there are more ghosts in New York after all! This time however I was seeing actual people, not just shadows. Perhaps just as notable was that these apparitions seemed benevolent whereas my prior experiences had been frightening.

The first time it happened in my new apartment, I was caught a bit by surprise as I’d not had one of these experiences in quite a while. I was lying on my back, with my right leg extended and my left leg tucked up (like a flamingo), with my left hand resting on my thigh. As I was falling asleep, I felt a caress on my left thigh, and then I felt a scratch on my right ankle. I felt fully cognizant and wondered if I was feeling the ghosties again, when all the sudden I began vibrating just as before, but for the first time I was seeing actual people.

I saw a series of semi-transparent faces in front of me, morphing from one to the next as if they were all trying to present or introduce themselves. It was like a flipbook of individuals: an old man, a black lady, someone with glasses. And finally it was just one man, whose face was very close to mine. He took both my hands in his and I could feel their warmth enveloping mine. After a moment, he let go and reached over his shoulder to scratch his back.

I heard myself say to him, “Ghosts get itches?”

He laughed and said “All the time!”

He then pointed to his left eye and said “I just have to be careful not to scratch this,” at which point I realized there was a big gaping hole where his eye should have been. The side of his face was in shadows, so I could not clearly make out the wound. It did not seem gory to me, but appeared like a gunshot wound might look.

He then whispered, “Shhhh…” and faded into the shadows.

I felt very at peace and went to sleep, knowing that benevolent ghosties would be my nighttime companions in this new apartment.

Since that night, I have had several other incidences of feeling the vibration and pulling sensations, but only one other with associated imagery. In that instance, as the vibrations began, I felt a sharp pain on the top of my head, as if I’d been hit with a blunt object. The visions I saw next were of a pretty blonde woman and two men who were on a boat. I felt as if I were viewing the scene through the eyes of one of the men. Everyone was smiling and laughing, when the next thing I knew I had the sensation of falling, followed by the sound of a splash. I felt like I was disoriented in space, and as I realized I was experiencing drowning, I forced myself to wake up.

When my breathing returned to normal from its accelerated panicked state, I began to ponder what that vision (or dream) meant. If there are in fact unsettled spirits roaming the earth, and this was one of them, what was he trying to tell me?

“So what then,” I thought, “am I to make of this incredibly vivid incident?” The feelings that were imparted to me were not of anger or bitterness, so I don’t think I am meant to set out on a crusade to find some vengeful baseball bat-wielding sea captain. I felt like the events I witnessed happened in the past, so I was not shown that to prevent some future incident. And everyone I saw seemed so happy, and until the horrible sensation of drowning took over, so did I. The thought sprung to my mind as I lied in bed that night that I was meant to find that blonde woman and let her know it was just an accident, and that she was meant to be happy again, like she was that day.

After these thoughts finished their quick romp through my tired brain, I laughed at myself for thinking I was some sort of psychic heroine. I enjoy watching television shows about the paranormal such as Medium and Ghost Whisperer. Medium, after all, is based on the experiences of a real person, Allison DuBois, who helps solves crimes using her dreams. But I am no Allison DuBois, right? The only thing that prevented me from scoffing at myself for my farfetched claims to myself came in the following days when the persistent, dull, throbbing pain on the top of my head would not subside.

So maybe I am psychic. According to the believers, we are all born with the ability to tap in to the paranormal but often lose the ability as we age and become more attached to “reality.” Maybe I have a secret desire to be blessed with this “gift” and so seek out coincidences or embrace experiences such as my dreams. Maybe I am simply observant, or absorb facts without realizing it only to recall them later and take them as psychic insights.

For example, in high school I was talking to a classmate and said something about his two much-older siblings who had the same father as him but a different mother. I had only just met this kid, and did not recall him ever telling me that information, but it was in fact true. He was amazed that I could read him like that. All those maybes, and yet these things like that keep happening to make me think there is something else going on.

One evening after James moved out, I was on the bus going home to my Queens apartment. A young thug napping on the seat next to where I stood suddenly opened his eyes, looked at me and blurted out “Excuse me, are you psychic?”

I must have had a puzzled look on my face because he explained further: “I can sense these things about people. Do you sometimes think you are psychic?”

I didn’t know how to respond, but replied with a whispered affirmation and a smile. I had to laugh a little because what the kid didn’t know was in my tote bag was a bottle of wine I’d consciously picked up as an antidote to my frightening dreams. My fragile psyche following James’ departure could not handle those experiences, so I self-medicated to prevent them. Just like everything else, I could write that exchange off as the ramblings of some crazy guy on the bus, but I simply can’t.

Ultimately my beliefs are founded on my experiences, and I have in fact created my own religion based on those experiences just as Dr. Peck pointed out in his book. Mine is a religion in which the existence of a defined God does not matter one way or the other, and the institutions known as Churches are inherently bad. The universe is made up of a physical component and a yet-undefined “other” (spirit / electrical / life force) component. This “other”ness cycles in the universe along with the physical matter, and if its progress in the cycle is stunted in some way, it manifests itself in what we would call ghosts.

This is the first time I have written any of this out, and the first time I have addressed all of these topics under one umbrella. I have not shared my feelings about much of this because I know my outlook includes many views that the world’s major religions would deem taboo, wacky, “New Age,” or any number of other negative words. Yet the religions to which I have been exposed seem just as made up to me as anything I’ve decided to believe may seem to you.

I feel uncomfortable also because I have no basis for my beliefs other than what I’ve personally experienced, and sharing those experiences has often led to raised eyebrows. For example, some of my friends mock me for subscribing in the least bit to Astrology. While I don’t live my life by what is in the stars, I have in my writing, attributed the same characteristics to Joey, James and myself because we all Aries. I do so because our three personalities were not only similar, they were similar in the way that astrology would dictate them to be (stubbornly butting heads like the ram that represents the sign).

Astrology might be silly, but as I began to delve into my spirituality as a pre-teen, I found comfort in discovering labels to apply to my beliefs and experiences. Going forward, I realize that to expand my understanding of my role in the universe I will have to reach outside the personal religion I have crafted for myself and absorb the experiences and wisdom of others. After all, if the universe is just an endless cycle of matter and energy, it means that whatever makes up another’s being also makes up mine, from our collective unconscious on up.

So I’ve started off on this journey by reading, with a critical mind, several different books which I hope to reflect upon in the future. Just as I have cherry picked my beliefs up to this point, I hope to read a wide range of philosophies, speak to many different people, and try many different techniques to see what strikes a chord with me and provides me with some fulfillment of the emptiness I’ve been feeling. I would love to learn to meditate, for example, or visit a sleep center to figure out what is going on in my dreams. Heck, maybe I’ll go to church all on my own one day (My aunt Crystal, a vocal atheist, went to church one day after her divorce and had an epiphany that has her returning every week now). I’m sure that some text I’ll read will say that to actively seek out spiritual enlightenment prevents it from finding you, but thirty years of not looking hasn’t resulted in any epiphanies, so what’s the harm in trying something new? And, if at the end of it if I have not found what I am looking for, I will at least know it was not for lack of trying.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Believe it or not, this process you're taking on for yourself was the topic of my Phase II paper.

I would recommend checking out the writings of James W Fowler, who has developed a Piaget-like analysis of how people view spirituality and religion throughout their lives. The book is called Stages of Faith.