A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.Sir Francis Bacon
I’ve been thinking back a lot on my formative years, working through a strange tangle of feelings and beliefs on the subject of God. Growing up, I had what could only be called a pseudo-religious mish-mash of an upbringing.
Hailing from the atheistic former Soviet Union, where religion was prohibited and Jews persecuted, my family members seemed deeply conflicted about their relationship with God, and what it meant to be Jewish. In my home environment, Judaism and Jewish tradition appeared to be much more their sense of identity, than anything resembling religion. At best, you could say that collectively my family saw Judaism as only a cultural, or ancestral mandate. They held on to a few very sporadic rituals, in a strange, arbitrary, sometimes dogmatic way, professing their undying pride about their Jewishness. But then, at the same time, they seemed to take pleasure in ridiculing Jewish doctrines, customs, and beliefs in the foundational concepts that make up the mystical heart of the religion. I can’t recall anyone talking about God in any serious way, ever. But then going to the synagogue on Yom Kippur was an absolute must. I’m not sure how to work those things out or understand them. I don’t have the sense that they ever gave it much conscious thought. Maybe this is just what happens historically when religion is disallowed and ethnic/religious identity persecuted – it results in a fragmented sort of clinging to whatever bits of ritual can be salvaged, but also manifests an internalized sense of shame? I don’t know and don’t want analyze it externally. It was a confusing dynamic to me, and asking questions about it lead nowhere.
As if that wasn’t enough, my family also believed and strictly enforced insane superstitions, purchased and wore amulets to ward off the evil-eye of course, and occasionally visited psychics and sorceresses, bringing home all kinds of protective paraphernalia to keep everyone safe. (From what, I also don’t know.).
Basically, we were your average normal Russian immigrant family. Preferring to remain within a closely knit immigrant community, my family didn’t assimilate much into mainstream American life. So home life was spent with other immigrant families, all just like mine.
On the other hand, everyday, I was sent to school at a fairly conservative yeshiva. Things there were markedly different than at home. The school day was split in half. The first half was dedicated to intense religious studies, conducted primarily in Hebrew. We had mandatory prayer, Torah study (in the original Aramaic), study of secondary ancient texts like the Talmud, and extensive review of various rabbinical commentaries… you get the idea. The second half of the school day was dedicated to the less-important subjects, things like math, english, history, science, etc. Non-essential subjects and critical thinking were pretty much off-limits. Contrary to other yeshivas, where intellectual debate and curiosity were encouraged and engaged properly, here the focus was primarily on rote memorization. All. The. Time. Frankly, I was so bored and disengaged most of my years there, that I remember almost nothing. (That’s not entirely true. I remember quite a lot emotionally. What I don’t seem to recall is the religious content they tried so hard to make us remember. I have a lot of repressed memories. If they ever surface, they might now come in handy, but that’s an irony I don’t wish to explore yet.)
As far as I can tell, in retrospect, the school community was bizarrely exclusionary. Their approach to education was to keep the “chosen” children completely sheltered from this big, bad, scary world of anti-semitic gentiles, lurking behind every corner, naturally. The constant theme of every school year was about historical persecution, slavery, oppression, and disenfranchisement, basically since the dawn of time – a rather difficult thing to handle for young children.
Thinking about it from here, their approach had to be informed by some kind of post-traumatic Holocaust-survivor response to the world. Which is understandable, I guess. But in their eyes, worse than the gentiles though, were Jews like me and my family, who weren’t observant enough, or conservative enough, or “something” enough to meet their rigorous inexplicable standards.
So, while I was allowed to go to the school, because someone knew someone who did someone a favor and got me in, I wasn’t allowed to actually belong. The unsupervised bullying and general disdain were a fairly constant thing. A fun-filled combination.
The idea of “fitting in” was a challenge for me pretty much everywhere. But the messages about God, or about religion generally, could not have been more conflicting.
When high school approached, I broke free of all of it, and joined the rest of secular society. The transition wasn’t easy, but I was thrilled to be unburdened and released into the real world. High school brought its own set of challenges, as it always does, but fitting into a very diverse community was a lot easier for me. The one thing that stayed with me for years afterwards, was that I wanted nothing to do with religion ever again. I didn’t pray. I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays (much to my family’s dismay). And I haven’t visited a synagogue in probably twenty five years. If I had to label me back then, I’d call me an agnostic, I suppose. I vaguely believed in some metaphysical things, but rejected everything to do with religion, viscerally so with Judaism, I’m sure you understand why.
In his treatise Atheism, Sir Francis Bacon writes “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” I just found this quote a few weeks ago. It was wonderfully exciting for me, because that’s precisely what happened next…
The majority of my work over the last few years has had very little to do with the metaphysical or esoteric. You can call most of it entirely secular self-awareness training. In the very beginning, and for the first few months of it, I was practically clueless about the true nature of what I was working on. I felt deeply called to it, compelled to do it, but I didn’t know why. I had no idea that my inner quest for self-discovery, awareness, and truth was even called “spirituality.” There was nothing in the content of my initial awakening that even registered as connected with religion. I thought I had merely found happiness, real joy, for the very first time.
And so for the next several years, living as something of an introverted hermit, I spent my time in deep personal contemplation and inquiry, without any sense of religion or God. As I worked with my teacher, listened to other teachers, and read an entire library of books, I would occasionally come across the mention of God. But the writings weren’t religious or connected with faith, and so I didn’t pay much attention to it.
I explored, tested, and implemented only the practical mechanisms that allowed me to go deeper and deeper, excavating whatever areas needed to be brought to awareness and cleared – it was all various forms of inquiry, essentially. I didn’t touch cosmology or the esoteric teachings. I didn’t care about spirituality or enlightenment. I wasn’t specifically interested in the biographies, myths, or anything theological. I wasn’t even on any kind of path or quest, to speak of. I was only interesting in the technical, grounded, practical tools for transformation, whatever source they happen to come from. I got a good internal sense of the process, how stuff feels and what to look for, and so my search lead me all around, looking for the practices that would help me go further. All I really wanted was just to be happy. I wanted to heal, and be free of the emotional suffering I had endured for so many years. And the tools and practices I was learning about and discovering were helping me do just that, very effectively. And so I just kept going without giving it much larger thought.
After a while, I started to notice that at every real mention of God, or Lord, or Creator, or anything like that, internally, I would kind of cringe a little. Ugh. No. Not God. Please no. I know all about God. I’ve had enough of God through many torturous childhood years; enough indoctrination to last me a lifetime… The last thing I wanted was to go back to that mess of rules, and dogma, and judgment, and us versus them. The God I knew was the God of the Old Testament, as taught to me by some very troubled people. I wanted no part of that God ever again. So I kept my agnostic skeptical hat firmly in place, as I dove deeper and deeper into myself.
That’s when things started to get really weird. I began having experiences, some physical, some energetic, that I could not explain nor contextualize in any rational way. I’ve written about some of the stronger more intense experiences here, but they actually started slowly, subtly long before the full awakening began. They are almost impossible to reduce coherently or meaningfully into words.
I began having psychic visions, intuitive downloads of wisdom and insight, brilliant moments of clarity and connectedness, experiences of pure bliss and love and humility and service, incredible synchronicities (sometimes many of them a day), physical sensations inside and outside (!) the confines of my body… I could write several books on all of what I’ve experienced in the last few years.
Then, one day I was standing by the window in my apartment just watching the clouds. A fierce powerful wind was coming in, and I could feel a kind of electrical charge coming from it. Like it was alive and interacting with me somehow. Something strange, and ominous, and powerful was happening, but I didn’t know what.
As I began backing away from the window, God appeared to me. With my mind’s eye, I suddenly saw a vast dark smokey shadow before me, seemingly all over my living room. I didn’t see anything with my physical eyes. It was appearing to me some other way, and the substance of it was alive, it was charged with something, almost like it was smoldering. I don’t know how I knew that it was God, I just knew. It took me over, and shifted my consciousness to another state, where it was letting me know of itself. I felt instantly dwarfed, like I was absolutely tiny, ant-size, in relation to it. It was so immense and powerful, that the only thing I could do was fall to my knees in reverence and cry. I felt an immense love and devotion to it, but couldn’t say anything. I didn’t need to say anything. I had almost no thoughts about it, and I just remained sobbing on the floor for a long time.
This force is infinite beyond words. An intelligence greater than anything our human minds can understand. My mind kept trying to grasp its magnitude, to find its edges, but I couldn’t. There were no edges to it. There were no forms or shapes. This shadow stayed for a short time, and then disappeared. It didn’t say anything to me, but the message was clear – God is everything and everywhere, have no doubt.
After a short time my consciousness returned to a normal grounded place, but that day changed the course of everything. Needless to say, it took a long long time to process what had happened. Given my background, my childhood experiences, my feelings about God, I didn’t even quite know where to begin to untangle the mess of feelings within me.
Now, I know how all of this sounds. I know exactly how it sounds. I see the looks on people’s faces when I tell them this story. It’s so outlandish, so outside the realm of possibility, that they scrunch up their faces, and shrug their shoulders not knowing what to make of any of it. Am I crazy? Do I need psychiatric treatment? Did I hallucinate this? No one can begin to fathom the possibility that what’s happened to me is real. (Side note: I’ve experienced hallucinations before, they happen with the physical eyes. Something appears to be there, seen with the eyes, which isn’t actually there. This was different. Hallucinations don’t shift your consciousness at all. While they can cause emotional reactions of course, they don’t transport you to another place like this experience did to me.)
But truth be told, I barely believed it all myself for a long long time too. Doubt, I did. A lot. And not just my own sanity, of course. Wrestling with the mental illness perspective took a couple of years. Diagnoses, and labels, and medications are fine, but they are a dead end. They are as far as Western science can go here. The medications can sometimes, not always but sometimes, dam up a mystical process for some period of time. But that’s all they do; they barricade it. They don’t heal, they don’t bring about resolution, and they certainly silence the call of the soul. Once a person comes off the medication, the process begins again, and all the saved up unprocessed emotional material comes flooding out with it. (This accounts for the withdrawal problems). Calling all of this merely mental illness, and trying to establish sanity is child’s play. (I’ll save that conversation for another time.). The greater and more profound problem of doubt is not a question of sanity. It has to do with healing all the trust wounds, and returning to faith in God, authentically, from the heart. That’s the real gargantuan problem to deal with. And that problem manifests as doubt, skepticism, and inability to believe. (There are further complexities here, which create fundamental doubt, but I will save them also for a future post.).
What’s interesting is that no one asks the seemingly obvious follow up questions: “What was it like? How did it feel? Has it happened since? What does it mean?” Not one single person asks me this. They all find polite ways to steer the conversation to something else. It is as if I told them that I went to Paris for a vacation, and instead of asking me “How was it?” they say something like “Well, if you believe you went to Paris… I suppose I’m happy for you.” Patronizing invalidation, at it’s finest.
It’s okay. I don’t blame them, nor do I look to them for validation. I understand why they respond to me that way. I wouldn’t believe me either, if I was in their shoes. I too would probably jump to the simplest skeptical reduction: she’s having a psychiatric episode. It’s completely understandable. It is the simplest way to avoid dealing with the bigger questions that arise. Nevertheless, it’s what actually happened to me. (And it’s happened again since that time).
But I’m not alone or unique in these experiences. Forget all the historical mystics and biblical figures. I know other people, living, psychologically stable humans, going through a similar spiritual development, who also have experiences of God. They aren’t prophets, and they aren’t schizophrenics. They aren’t religious people, and they didn’t come to these experiences through faith or devotion or religious ecstatic rituals.
The more accurate explanation is closer to what Sir Bacon wrote – it has to do with a depth in philosophy. Few people really understand this, but the quest for truth, the seeking of wisdom, the living of life in a heart-centered way, is what all the ancient schools of philosophy were actually about. The famous philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome (too numerous to list here) were not conveying abstract academic concepts, or meaningless rhetorical debate for the intellectual elite. They were conveying a system of practical application for living in the world from within. A way of being. A way of understanding and navigating life, people, relationships, work, art, purpose, and most importantly, love – all through the internal alchemical work of self-discovery. Naturally, the more you apply the philosophical tools, the deeper you go inward, the closer you get to the mystical; a connection and tradition we are all sorely sorely missing in our lives today.
With the right tools and the right contemplative practices, the deeper you go inward, the deeper levels of self-awareness you attain, the closer you get to the mystical, divine, essential truths and experiences. It doesn’t matter if you call it God, or cosmic consciousness, or Shiva, or any other name you wish. You are free to make up your own name for it. But there is no doubt something Divine, something vastly, unimaginably, unfathomably greater than our human existence.
Ironically, it doesn’t require faith as a pre-requisite. It doesn’t require adherence to anything in a religious sense. It is quite the opposite – it is about liberation. True liberation of the soul – releasing the authentic self from the confines of the ego. It’s an undoing. An unlearning. A de-conditioning of the mind. That’s what spirituality is really all about. It turns out that that is precisely what monasticism is all about too. I didn’t get that or understand it until I arrived there organically on my own. (I like to do things the hard way…).
These direct experiences of divinity, of love and of spiritual bliss, are available to any serious spiritual seeker, in a variety of traditions. I am not special; nor am I chosen; nor are any of the people who share my experiences. It is available within all of us. We all have this capacity. It is available to anyone committed to going inward and really seeking discovery of him/herself. (And sometimes these experiences can happen spontaneously to people with absolutely no spiritual education, interest, or background. A wake up call from the soul, in my view).
Take it from someone who had zero faith, and a vehement rejection of God and religion; the deeper you go within your own self, the closer you get to the Divine.