While growing up I attended a small fundamentalist church. I found I could never follow the sermons and in fact I generally fell asleep before they were over. Memorizing and quoting Bible verses never had much appeal for me as it made me feel more like a parrot or trained seal than an intelligent human being. Even as a child I wanted to ask the more probing questions, but I knew they would get no satisfactory answer outside of more Bible verses.
Back in the late 1950s two things happened as I sat in my fold-down seat and struggled through the sermon. I was maybe 11 or 12. The first thing was that I tried to imagine who I was before I was born. What characteristics did I have, and where did I come from?
Who am I, who am I?
As I pursued the questions in my mind I fell into such a void that I recoiled in fear and struggled to come back home, come back to my small home and alcoholic family, come back to the drone of the preacher and the monotony of the Bible verses. Sunday after Sunday I would fall into that void and then fight to come back home. I never talked about it because there was no one to talk to. I realized that no one was large enough to know the answer, let alone entertain the questions. My only solace was to try and hang on to the reality I had as best I could. As bad as it was, that reality seemed better than falling into a place where beliefs had no anchor and where there seemed no ground beneath my feet.
In addition to my trips to the void, I also began to imagine a child like myself, an Arab child sitting in his mosque somewhere. He was being instructed that he was being told the true belief. I was being told that what I was being taught was the true belief. How were we to know what was true? We were both being guided by hearsay, asked to trust and believe in the hearsay, then asked to build our realities around it. I wanted some way of direct knowing, of being able to determine for myself the nature of true reality without being told to just memorize verses.
Though I write about spiritual matters, I’m at heart a scientist, a person who attempts to probe beneath his own conditioned beliefs about life and beneath those beliefs held by the cultures around him to find out what may or may not be true. It probably all started with those trips to the void, as I needed to know what had happened to me.
So, after many years of experiences both mysterious and mundane, I have managed to put some things together. I ask you to consider them, to think about them, and reflect. I don’t ask you to believe them. Belief diminishes the deep spiritual, relegates it to the realm of rote learning and clever semantics.
If you follow these questions long enough you may bump into something so vast, so penetrating, so beyond description, attributes, and qualities, that it stops the world for a moment. Should we call it God, Yahweh, or Allah? But names are just attributes. Is it fearsome, jealous, just or unjust, loving? But these are all attributes. If I perceive fearsomeness, it is because I am fearful. If I perceive love, it is because I am loving or in need of love. Qualities are of the beholder.
How do we approach that which has no attributes? How do we embrace that which is too vast to embrace, communicate with that which has no ears or voice? Sometimes when I meditate I hold an image of my grandfather in my mind and speak to him. Sometimes I hold an image of my teachers. I deliberately use my imagination to give the Great Vastness a face and ears and mouth. These are my symbols. Symbols are like tiny doorways that open to the Great Vastness, a portal for the flow of energy and the chance to hear and be heard.
I choose my symbols carefully, though some just appear. Everything that can be named is only a symbol. Even God, Yahweh, and Allah are only symbols, doorways, to that which lies beyond. Every symbol carries it’s own impurity. Our task is to purify every symbol, make each symbol larger and larger, assign each symbol less and less attributes as our own minds expand. If God is jealous, we need to move on. If God is love, we need to move on. If God demands vengeance, we need to move on. To do this our minds cannot be rigid with belief, our symbol clutched tightly in our cold, dead hands. Symbols are tools, tools like sharp chisels and planes, tools that we use to craft the spiritual life. But then, eventually, even the word spiritual falls away till there is just life.
Every god is a limited doorway. Every holy book is a rigid document, more about social, cultural control, and hegemony than it is about the truly religious mind. I can only tell you about symbols, their use and pitfalls. I cannot tell you which symbol to choose, but I can talk to you about the wisdom of choice. My words are not for belief, but are fuel for your own direct experience. I can point in a direction, but the path is not fixed. This is not rote learning. This is life. Be alert, be nimble.
How do you react to all this? Are you angry? Are you indifferent? Why? We are dying from our beliefs, and our beliefs won’t save us. We act like silly, lazy children waiting to be saved, rather than growing up and saving ourselves. What will you do about it? Can you sacrifice your beliefs for the sake of life, for the sake of what lies beneath it all, in the name of that which cannot be named? Please consider this deeply and pass it on.