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Tuesday, September 9, 2008, 5:48 PM
When I set out to find a spiritual perspective, I set an important criterion on any new belief: it had to fit within the framework of my other existing beliefs. I had found a concept of God that seemed to work, but implicit to such concepts is a reason for being, a purpose to life. My experience and rational consideration had led me to doubt such a thing as objective meaning. If my concept of God was to hold up then, it had to be capable of either incorporating my theory that life doesn't have an objective purpose, or else provide a rational way to reconcile whatever implicit meaning life might have with the meaninglessness it appears to have.
371d36d75e05eda735858f8e467be99cDoes life have meaning? The Existentialists would say no; but for most of them, meaninglessness comes from the belief that there is no God. Surely, people who believe in God are able to see meaning in the Universe, and a purpose to life -- religions certainly try to address the issue, but to me they never really did so successfully.
The evangelical set might say the point of living is to serve God and praise his name. Yet there is no uniformity of belief and praise here on earth, which means by extension that the majority of people are not fulfilling the purpose of their lives. Surely, many people have gone to their deaths without ever once considering the idea of praising God. Were their lives devoid of meaning? If so, why did they exist? Hiding these issues with "God works in mysterious ways" was supremely unsatisfying.
Some people go for the "life as test" idea – where you undergo a series of trials that test your faith, and you receive a reward if your faith holds. Others go for the idea that life is about achieving enlightenment, or learning soul lessons. But these too leave what would seem to be an obvious question: When do you succeed, and finally get to shuffle off this mortal coil? How many times does your faith have to tested? How many lessons do you have to learn? What level of enlightenment is sufficient?
Clearly, if the point is to achieve a goal of any kind, then that goal must -- by definition -- have to be achievable at some point. Otherwise, it can't be the real purpose for life. Yet, people certainly die without having achieved any obvious spiritual breakthroughs; and even for those who do achieve something, there's certainly no uniformity to their achievements. And still, many people die in childhood or infancy -- before they can get a chance to learn anything or pass any kind of "test" -- so they couldn't possibly have achieved whatever it is we're here to do. Thus, logically speaking, life cannot be about any specific set of achievements.
Does this mean life is meaningless? Existentialists conclude that the meaning in life is simply a matter of will -- you decide what is meaningful. My own observations of the world (see my previous journal entry, "The Power of Perception") have shown me that the meaning of our experience really is determined by the individual, so I'm inclined to agree with this conclusion. The objective meaning of life cannot be a question of simply finding the correct thing to assign meaning to, because from within any individual perspective, there can be no way of knowing whether you have found the correct thing or not. Thus there can be no meaning in life beyond what you as an individual give it.
And yet, I believe that God is made manifest by the existence of everything that is-- all time, all space, and all consciousness is the incarnation of God. So to some extent, I and everyone else exists because God exists, in roughly the same way that my liver exists because I exist. My life's purpose then, must be to contribute my unique perspective to the universal consciousness -- my existence must contribute something to the totality that is God.
Can both of these concepts be reconciled? I believe they can. If my "purpose" is to contribute my own part of the collective consciousness, then whatever comprises that part must necessarily be my contribution. If I go through life believing in faeries, demons and the hollow earth, then that is the perspective I will have contributed. Thus, I can still believe whatever I want; I still must decide for myself what is meaningful, and I still have the power to choose based on any criteria I want.
From a practical standpoint, life is still just as meaningless; only now that meaningless has a purpose. That purpose is to allow us to assign meaning. That's what it is to be part of the mind of God. Just as our own minds make sense of our perceptions by assigning meaning to some signals (and ignoring others) and fitting it all together into the experience of our lives, so we do the same thing for God. We perceive the universe and our experiences in it, make sense of it in whatever way we choose, and feed the whole thing back to the collective consciousness. This gives God the means of comprehending what "He" is. (see my previous journal entry, "The Peace of God" for more on this idea).
Next:The Final Word
Wednesday, September 3, 2008, 3:14 PM
After spending a lot of time searching for a concept of divinity that could incorporate as wide a range of views as possible, I finally came up with the following:
God is the totality of all space and everything in it.
God is the totality of all time.
God is the totality of all conscious thought or experience.
If there is anything else (like the Qaballistic idea of Negative Existence) then God is that, too.
In some ways, this was not so different from most monotheistic views. But what were the implications of such a God?
371d36d75e05eda735858f8e467be99cWhen I was younger, I set out looking for a concept of God that was deliberately broad and -- as much as possible -- all-encompassing. I didn't want any kind of divinity that was judgmental, or who demanded certain sacrifices, or a certain set of practices; and above all, I didn't want to let someone else have the power to interpret God for me. I wanted to figure it out for myself. After all, if there was a God, then "He" should be knowable, and findable. If it required the happy accident of having been exposed to a certain set of dogmas in order to know the divine, then that didn't seem like a divinity I wanted to know, anyway. I certainly wasn't willing to worship a being who demanded certain beliefs and who condemned the rest of his creations that didn't hold those beliefs.
I think I came up with an idea that fit my broad criteria by conceiving of the divine as the unity of all things. But what were the implications of such a God?
For one thing, it meant that there could be nobody who was "rejected" by God, nothing that could be in defiance of God, and no such thing as an "abomination in the eyes of God," because everything that exists is a manifestation of God. We all are God. This certainly led to moral relativism, but I was already comfortable with that reality. I recognized that right and wrong were subjective, not objective distinctions. The same set of circumstances and actions could be interpreted both ways, depending on your perspective.
This wasn't a bad thing, it simply required that morality be a man-made (as opposed to God-given) set of rules. I had already found a set of moral principles that worked in the absence of a judging/punishing/rewarding God (see my journal entry, "Personal Morality"), so this wasn't an issue.
Another important implication was that there could be nothing "wrong" with the world as it was. Again, this made sense to me because of the of whole perspective issue (see my previous journal entry, "The Power of Perception"). Did this mean there wasn't suffering going on? Not exactly; it simply meant that suffering was a matter of one's perception of reality. Like the Buddha had realized, suffering exists in the physical world as a result of attachment, which can be transcended by changing the way one perceives the world. It is because we get caught up in the abstractions we call reality, that we lose touch with the direct experience of the divine, manifesting in the present moment.
[I saw an interesting cross-over here to the story of the Garden of Eden, wherein Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This caused the "fall of mankind" not because we had done what God had said not to do, but because the fruit gave us the ability to abstract away from the present moment, and think about the way things "could be" or "should be." That abstract could have allowed us to envision a world other than what is. It's a powerful aspect of what it is to be human, but it is also the foundation of attachment. It's what makes it possible to think that things could be better if only we did this, or that it could get worse if we don't do that. That way of thinking gave rise to all the advancements that humans have made over the last several millennia, but it also gave rise to the sense of need, the feeling of disconnectedness, that led to the search for religion in the first place.]
Perhaps the most compelling implication of my God concept was that time and space have a purpose: they serve as the vehicle for experience and awareness. Conscious awareness is the tool whereby God comes to know himself, and space-time is both the means by which awareness is made possible, and the subject of study. Thus, like it says in the Desiderata, "the universe is unfolding as it should." If space and time really are a totality, then that's the only way the universe can be unfolding; and what it will unfold into is what I call God. With each passing moment then, the universe is moving closer to the ultimate realization of the nature of divinity, which fundamentally, is unity of all that is.
Thus, if I could focus on three key ideas:
that everything which exists is a manifestation of the divine,
that everything that happens is a chance to realize the nature of that divinity,
and that ultimately this nature is unity,
...it should be possible to transcend all suffering.
At any point -- and irrespective of what I was perceiving -- I could know that my experience was part of the unfolding of divine reality, and that my consciousness was part of the divine consciousness. That meant my experience – any experience – was really the experience of God. It was all just a matter of seeing it in those terms, instead of seeing it from the perspective of an alienated, isolated being. From the isolated perspective, things might seem bad; but in reality, I'm not isolated. I can't be isolated because I exist, and all that exists is one.
That was an incredibly reassuring and comforting notion.
A book I read around that time, called A Course in Miracles seemed to sum up the idea in words that still resonate powerfully in my mind:
Nothing real can hurt you;
Nothing unreal exists.
Therein lies the peace of God.
Once this piece fell into place, my spiritual evolution took a big step forward. I had something that could meet my need for support and comfort in the hardest of times (and it has), and which can give me a format for understanding my experiences that allows me to transcend my individual self.
The next question was, what am I supposed to do with that knowledge?
Next: The Meaning of Life
Friday, August 29, 2008, 5:39 PM
My back-story continues with the development of my understanding of what the universe is, and how I'm connected to it. Though it begins in the past, this story pretty much brings me up to the present. These ideas are pretty much the way I see things today.
One of the best "spirituality" books I've ever read is The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment, by Thaddeus Golas (the title hooked me, right from the start). In the beginning of the work, he lays out what I considered to be a pretty good description of the nature of reality.
The idea was this:
The universe is composed of one kind of "thing," and Golas didn't waste time naming or describing that thing, exactly. The point was that this substance was vibrating at a range of frequencies. At the lowest frequency, the substance contracted into what we perceive as physical matter – impermeable and difficult to mold. The experience of material existence was that of constriction, limitation, inhibition and fear. At the highest frequencies, the substance expanded into what he called space – totally permeable and open. The experience of space was awareness, joy, and love. At the frequencies in between, it existed as energy, only partially material.
This idea was easy for me to grasp. I knew about the electromagnetic spectrum, which combined heat (infra-red), all the different colors, UV rays, radio waves, microwaves, etc. in pretty much exactly the same way: it was all vibrations at different speeds. Qaballah had a similar concept of the divine emanations moving into more and more dense patterns until they became the "kingdom" of physical incarnation. Even the New Age idea of the Astral Plane was based on a similar concept.
From there, the book was about the "rules" by which this reality works. Your experience in life would vary depending on what level of vibration you chose to focus on. Essentially, the function of all beings was to expand and contract. If you were closed-minded, resistant, and self-focused, you would contract, and your experience would be that of a world in which people were trying to control you, overpower you, and take away your freedom. If you were open, loving, and non-resistant, then you would expand into a greater sense of awareness and unity. Everyone was totally free to move around freely within the spectrum of expansion and contraction.
At the heart of this is the idea that we're all really one. We develop individual identities by contracting into individual beings, but from the most expanded level, all experiences and beings are one. If you're completely open and permeable (a "pure space being"), then there can be no distinction between "you" and "the other."
Of course, as physical beings, we do have different perspectives; my experiences are different from yours. I realized that the collective totality of all those different perspectives might be conceived of as one consciousness, just as the totality of the universe might be conceived of as one thing. The similar concept of the totality of time had been put forward centuries ago, as a means of countering the Free-Will versus Omniscience paradox in Boetheus'Consolation of Philosophy. And these totalities were moving me back toward a concept of God. Not the simple theistic "old man in the clouds," but something more transcendent – a being who was the totality of space and time and consciousness.
All that was needed to turn this concept of totality into a concept of God was to postulate that it had awareness. Certainly it couldn't be self-aware in the normal sense -- in which "I" am a unique being in a world of other beings – because for the Totality, there could be on "other." But maybe that collective totality of all the experiences of all the beings throughout all of time, might be considered a kind of self-awareness, or self-knowledge -- the Universe's "perfect knowledge" of what it was, drawn from the perspective of everything that it comprised. I liked that idea because inherent in it was that my own mind was a manifestation of the Divine mind; my own experiences were a contribution toward God's knowledge of Himself. This concept of God nicely fit my four "belief criteria:"
It was non-dogmatic in that it was so open-ended as to not require faith. I could accept that it might be wrong, because the ramifications of it being right were really not all that significant. It was simply thinking of things on the broadest possible scale, and unifying those things. Just as the concept of infinity has no bearing on how whole numbers interact with each other in arithmetic, so this concept of God really had very little impact on the life I experienced. I would be able to add new interpretations without having to sacrifice the overall idea.
It was empowering in that it gave me the sense that my life as I chose to live it was a contribution toward the divine totality, and that I was safe within that totality no matter what I chose to do.
It fit the framework of my existing beliefs because it didn't fold under the weight of my realization that "objective reality" was based on a person's beliefs more than on anything objective. Indeed, it sort of gave that lack of certainty a purpose. Maybe different perspectives on reality were just different ways by which God comprehended what He was. Like when a scientist tries to identify a substance by running tests to learn about different aspects of the material, each person's belief system was providing feedback about certain aspects of reality, about a certain set of experiences within that reality, and about one means of making sense of it all. It also incorporated my Taoist "all is one" thinking.
And it was livable because it didn't place any restrictions. I had liked the Tao because it provided a godlike totality without postulating that this totality possessed an outside will. This new concept of God didn't necessarily need will either (except perhaps the will to exist). God didn't "want" anything from me. He simply was, and everything that existed within Him could be whatever it wanted; there was no definite right and definite wrong. No one could claim to be following the "Will of God," or that someone else was opposing it.
Once I had a concept of God, the next step was to think about the implications of this idea...
Next: The Peace of God
Thursday, August 28, 2008, 1:52 PM
In college, I learned how the mind has the power to determine what you see as reality. I had come to the conclusion that if the nature of reality could vary depending on my mental state or perspective, then there could be no such thing as an objective moral code. This made me a lot more open-minded, but a question kept gnawing at the back of my head:If right & wrong is subjective, how do I decide how to act?
After college, I was on my own, and free to really develop my own identity. I could make my own choices, and as long as I could support myself, no one else could tell me how to live. This was very empowering; it was the high point of my "magickal days" (as mentioned in my last post). My newly acquired open-mindedness made it easy to consider a broad range of perspectives, but none of them particularly appealed to me. No matter what the belief system, the adherents of that view were always in some way threatened by some "outside agency":
I wanted a belief system that didn't make me feel threatened by anyone -- I knew that sense of fear and opposition was just a mental construct, anyway. That's when Taoism started to really appeal. That philosophy is still probably the perspective I associate most closely with (though I don't really go in for the religious practice). I liked the Taoist principle of just being in the world, and not getting caught up in abstractions. The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching seemed like the best encapsulated description of God that I had ever seen. Indeed, I think Tao Te Ching is the most insightful and powerful religious text I have ever read.
Environmentalists were threatened by greedy corporations,
Right-wing conservatives were threatened by the liberal media,
Left-wing radicals were threatened by the "corporate-owned police state,"
Wiccans were threatened by tight-laced Christians,
Christians were threatened by the "homosexual agenda,"
etc, etc, etc.
Chapter 16 certainly resonated with my situation at the time:
Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.
Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.
If you don't realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.
So how did this affect my ambiguous morality? Well, it showed me that at the heart of everything – all the divergent voices and opposing factions – there is Everything; and it's all one thing. It's not separate from us, watching and judging our actions. We don't have to do anything for it, it doesn't desire anything from us. It's not simply our creator, or our sustainer, or even our destroyer, it is us (and everything else as well).
We are the manifestation of the divine.
I found similar ideas in A Course in Miracles and many, many other books -- the idea was certainly not unique to Taoism. But what I found compelling about the Taoist version was that it was completely non-theistic. There was no "Will of God," or "Divine Plan," or anything really bigger than me. Yes, there was the Way of Tao, but that was more like the laws of physics than religious doctrine. The Tao is just there. You don't need to try to live in harmony with it, you can do what you want. There's no sin, and no punishment – beyond the quality of the life you experience. The way you live is unique to each person. Each must be what they are... and in the end, it's all the Tao. Ultimately, you can't live out of harmony with it, because it's not about a set of practices. Like Karma, it's just a principle of balance.
So the basic morality I chose was really no different from that expressed by most religions – call it the Golden Rule. The difference was one of justification: rather than doing it in anticipation of reward, or from fear of punishment, or to evolve my soul, or escape the world of Maya, I was doing it simply because it was the logical way to act, given the nature of reality as I understood it. It was my personal morality.
The only question now was, what exactly was the nature of the world as I understood it?
Wednesday, August 27, 2008, 4:48 PM
I don't know that it's particularly insightful to start from my earliest religious/spiritual perspectives, but I suppose chronological order is as good an organizing principle as any to get started.
So to begin with, I was raised Catholic. To my knowledge, everyone in my family was Catholic as well. I remember that my father used to serve as an usher at the local church when I was a child, though my parents divorced when I was about 8. I can remember occasionally going to church on Saturday night when my father was "working," but I can also recall that my family didn't attend church regularly when I was little. I remember my mother re-starting the tradition when I was a little older. I can also remember my mother having a less-than-fundamentalist perspective on the bible...
As I got old enough to question the logic of the creation story, my mother was able to reinterpret the tale into a more flexible adaptation -- maybe "7 days" didn't really refer to the 24-hour periods with which I was familiar. Maybe the creation of mankind could be made to correspond with the long period of the evolutionary scale. This kind of approach was helpful to me, as it allowed me to believe the bible was conceivably relevant in some way, but it did raise a question in my mind:
If some of the Bible stories could be interpreted as symbolic and not factual then how could one tell what parts should really be believed and which parts should be considered open to interpretation?
I have since seen more fundameltalist christians dodge this issue altogether by adopting the even less rational approach of taking the entire bible as literal truth. I suppose if my mother had urged me to take that perspective, I would have left the church much earlier than I did.
Anyway, I think this openness to personal interpretation of the bible led me to try and gain some personal insight into Catholicism as a whole, outside the narrow confines of doctrinal dogma. As I got older and prepared for confirmation, my priest found that I asked questions that could not easily be answred inside the context of a 1-hour CCD class. I began to meet with the priest on a fairly regular basis, and actually thought about joining the priesthood myself. Ultimately, I put that idea aside as I began to realize that the faith really didn't offer any rational way to answer my questions. Every time I made sense of some dogma, it opened up a new logical paradox. There simply wasn't a perspective that could make rational sense of the nature of God, mankind, and the relationship between the two, which didn't also essentially eliminate the need for the Catholic faith.
I think this whole issue was intended to point out "the mystery of faith." Perhaps I was supposed to believe, in spite of having no rational reason to do so; but I took pretty much the opposite approach. To me, it was like saying, "I've been raised to do this, and I'm going to keep doing it because my family does it, even though there is no other objective reason to do so." I guess family tradition didn't have as strong a hold over me as it did others.
By the time I was in college (my late teens), one of my professors was explicitly raising that same issue. He asked the class what religion we were, and what religion our parents were. Then he asked whether we had chosen to believe as we did, or if we just took it in from our parents? Then what about their parents? Were our belief systems based on the world we actually experienced, or just on tradition? This opened up a huge new world of perspectives.
Next: The Power of Perception
Wednesday, August 27, 2008, 4:44 PM
The continuation of my spiritual "back story" covers roughly my college years; during which I conducted a lot of experimentation and investigation, and learned how powerful the individual mind actually is.
I was an English Lit major in college, and it was in that context that I first became aware of the power of the mind to influence – indeed even determine – the nature of the world you perceive. One of my professors had the theory that when we read a work of literature, we act it out in our minds, and whatever preconceptions we bring to the work will be transferred onto the characters, thereby influencing the way we interpret the story. Our example was Hamlet. We'd act out various scenes multiple times, but each time we'd do it as if the characters had different, pre-determined motivations. Although the text was identical in every case, it was qutie possible to find evidence in the lines that supported all the different interpretations. The same set of words could be read in many different ways, generating often contradictory meanings.
This blew me away. It made me realize that "objective reality" was dubious at best. If an identical set of inputs can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, then what we believe is true, or real, or a given, is in fact little more than common consensus.
A class in Doublespeak – which is used routinely in advertising, politics, and the news – made me aware of just how malleable that common consensus actually was. A stress management class showed me how I could consciously and deliberately change my perception of a given situation.
At the same time, I was being exposed to philosophers such as Spinoza, Kant, and (my favorite) David Hume, and philosophies like Existentialism and Taoism. A final project in my comparative religion class had me invent a religion that fulfilled all the basic requirements (metaphysics, morality, ritual, etc.). These were all laying the groundwork for the exploration and development of my personal spirituality. To put it in terms I was not aware of at the time, I had found the gates of Chapel Perilous.
It was obvious to me that the rule of perception could be applied to religion. There were "true believers" to be found everywhere, and yet almost none of them had identical beliefs. Clearly, it wasn't a matter of believing the right things, it was a matter of simply believing. My beliefs had the power to determine how I experienced the world, and I had the power to decide what I believed. I was ready to find out what I wanted to believe in.
I established 4 major criteria for any new idea in my belief system:
It would be non-dogmatic. I was aware enough to know that if "reality" could change as my perspective changed, then my belief system would have to capable of adapting to my changing perspectives. I wouldn't accept a belief that required me to blindly hold faith, in spite of contradictory evidence.
It would be empowering. If I was going to embrace a belief, it would be something I wanted to believe in. I wouldn't accept a belief that required me to feel guilty, sinful, or otherwise in need of outside "salvation." I could accept that I may not be perfect, but not that I couldn't become perfect.
It would fit into the framework of my other beliefs. I wouldn't embrace a belief that led to internal inconsistency or paradox. If it couldn't be interpreted within the context of my other beliefs, then one or the other would have to change.
It would be livable. My religious beliefs had to be in tune with my perspective of the world and the people in it, and they had to be something I felt comfortable following and espousing.(most of these rules put orthodox Christianity well beyond the pale…)
Given my youth, and the level of authority I gave myself for determining the content of my spiritual beliefs, it may come as no surprise that my investigations were wild and wide-ranging. One thing I was particularly interested in was the concept of magick. I could easily conceive of an interconnected universe, and it seemed plausible that this interconnectedness might be manipulated in such a way as to bring about physical changes through non-physical means.
I investigated ceremonial magick, Wicca, psychism, tarot, runes, astrology, and Qaballah; I cast circles and performed ceremonies; I attended rites and Sabbats; I read Donald Kraig, Scott Cunningham, Dion Fortune, Aleister Crowley, and others. Through all of it, I held to the idea that beliefs colored perceptions.
In the end, my determination about magick was that no firm conclusion could be reached. I was convinced that I had (occasionally) brought about specific (and unlikely) events in conformity with my will. Certain activities definitely brought about changes in the way I felt. It may have been coincidence, but that's a matter of interpretation -- what one person calls coincidence, another may call providence, and a third could call it magick.
At the time, I decided to believe that magick was possible because – in the absence of absolute proof to the contrary – the possibility made the world seem like a more fun place to live. At any rate, it was no less successful than prayer -- an obviously magical practice, despite the rationalizations established religions might offer to say it's different – and millions of people believe in that.
[I have since given up magickal practices for the most part. Since their power seemed to be drawn primarily from my own mind, why did I need specific techniques and formulas – ie: rituals and spells – to make it work? I do still believe in magickal power (the power of my mind to influence events I perceive in the world around me), I just don't think you need to use any particular system to tap into it.]
So what did I get out of all this investigation and experimentation? I got a lot of insights, some metaphysical frameworks by which to organize my beliefs, and a few useful tools. Qaballah gave me a the conception of a transcendent, much less theistic God.
Existentialism gave me a way to consider personal morality in the absence of religious dogma (Sartre's "The Flies" should be considered required reading on this subject), Eastern philosophy/religions showed me how "salvation" could be a personal goal even in the absence of a divine redeemer. Occult studies showed me a means of interacting with the universe in a manner that was beyond the normal day-to-day. And the runes – believe it or not – gave me a framework for understanding how natural, unconscious, 'chaotic' forces interact to bring about the unfolding of time in a way that can have meaning to me.
What I came away with above all was more evidence of the power of the mind to interpret the things we perceive, and to give it all meaning and significance. What I needed to do next was to figure out what it all meant in my life.
Next: Personal Responsibility and the Unfolding of Time