Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Simple Truth

Here's something for a Sunday, also known as First Day ...


In a rare moment of perfect clarity the other day I suddenly realized that the fundamental truth I believe in is absolutely simple. But before I set down what it is, some background is in order.

The path of my spiritual quest has been a long and winding one. I was born Catholic, but my parents left the church (excuse me, "The Church") when I was about five years old, leaving me only the dimmest memories of candles, incense, and priests intoning Latin prayers. We spent some time as Unitarians until my dad left us and decided he was agnostic if not atheistic. Later still my mom joined a Congregational church until she moved and became Presbyterian. (If we can believe a recent poll, such church-hopping is widespread in contemporary America.)

So you could say I come from a family of seekers. First my parents and then the Unitarians had encouraged me to figure things out for myself, to discover what I believed rather than being told. Accordingly, while still a child I experimented with both prayer and self-hypnosis. Of the two, hypnosis seemed the most promising to me. While saying the words of a prayer I was acutely conscious of talking to myself with no one listening. On the other hand, my attempts to hypnotize myself (inspired by an article in a magazine) were really the first steps toward meditation, the inward focus which I later came to believe was the best path to true spiritual awareness.
While I was in junior high school and still attending the Unitarian "Liberal Religious Youth" meetings, Alan Watts began to broadcast his weekly Public TV program from San Francisco called "The Way of Zen." These wonderful 30-minute lectures, delivered in Watts' calm and measured tones, were like an oasis of sanity in the chaos of the rest of my life. Covering the philosophy and practices of not only Zen but traditional Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, the real subject was Watts' own philosophy, culled from all these sources in the Orient. This led me to try a form of meditation, a simple focusing of the mind by staring into a candle flame. 

Watts had become my first guru, or spiritual teacher. Through the course of the 1960's and 70's I seem to have consumed most of the books he published as fast as they came out. Besides The Way of Zen they included This is It, Psychotherapy East and West, The Joyous Cosmology, and one of my favorites, THE BOOK: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. 

This last volume includes a wonderful creation myth that he invented to tell children. It goes something like this:
In the beginning God was all alone. He had no one to play with. So what he did was to split himself up into millions and millions of pieces, putting a little bit of himself into each piece. And he arranged that each piece should forget who it was, so that they could go out and play with each other and have the great adventure of discovering their true identity.
What a story! His point, of course, is that to declare that we are God is the greatest blasphemy in our society, as well as definitive proof that we are stark raving nuts. Yet it is the ultimate truth taught by many of the world's religions and philosophies. It is certainly the belief of Quakers, who hold that "there is that of God in everyone," and who practice sitting in silence to attune themselves to the "still, small voice within" that comes from the deepest part of ourselves, the part that is connected to, and at one with, the supreme consciousness. In Hinduism one of the aspects of God is atman, the part that dwells within the human. It is not a separate entity but rather the unifying connection between us and the divine. And wasn't Jesus trying to tell us that we are all children of God, not just him?

Suffice to say that in my better moments I have been on this path ever since, looking for that connection to my own true identity. Sometimes I have become lost in the world and forgotten what the point of it all is, and other times something has called me back to the quest. I read many other books, including the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Taoist text that is a model of simplicity, William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy, and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a wonderful collection of stories about the Zen masters of China and Japan. I read Carl Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, some of Carlos Casteneda's dubious volumes about his Yaqui Indian teacher, Don Juan, as well as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I read the essays of naturalist Loren Eisley, and about the search for the ultimate size and shape and nature of the universe as it is being explored through science.

Through it all I had countless hours of discussion with my friend, artist Richard Sevigny, comparing the Christian mystical tradition with that of the East. And always I looked for direct religious experience of my own in many places, including yoga, psychoactive drugs, and Transcendental Meditation. 

The Question 

Years passed. I grew up and grew older, became comfortable with what I knew and what I thought I believed and did not believe. I had got to a point where I didn't really think about it anymore. Then one day, not long after I began attending the Miami Friends Meeting, my sister-in-law asked me point blank, "Do you believe in God?"

I was disconcerted to find that the question brought me up short. I flipped through the catalog of things I knew and thought, trying to figure out if the complex mess of readings, meditations, conversations, and life experiences in my head amounted to a belief in God. I can't even remember exactly how I replied except that it amounted to a kind of, sort of, qualified, yes.

How could that be? Wasn't I sure after all those years? Was it just a question of terminology? Of course I didn't think there was a bearded old man in the sky demanding my worship and obedience, but that wasn't the question. The real question was, could I apply the name of God to whatever it was that I did believe in? But what I believed had come from so many sources, and had as much to do with science and philosophy as it did with religion and spiritual things. It was just too complicated.

I suppose I have continued to look for the answer for the past several years. But in Quaker fashion I have done so mostly by sitting quietly and waiting to see what comes to me. And finally, with a calm certainty, like the proverbial pool of water settling until it becomes clear, I came to this:

I believe that only one thing exists.

It is huge, multifaceted, complex beyond imagining, at once infinitely large and incomprehensibly small. We are all in it, yet it lives in us as well. The simple fact that it exists is so obvious it is almost impossible to frame a way to question it. It is the forest we can't see for the trees. It is sometimes called "reality." We may as well name it God. And not to believe in it is to deny all the evidence of our minds and senses.

There is a Zen story that points in the right direction: One day the student comes to his master and says, "I've reached enlightenment. Nothing exists." Whereupon the master smacks him in the head with his fan. "Ouch!" says the startled student. "If nothing exists," the master says, "then what are you complaining about?"

It's that simple. If we don't believe in God, then what is this all around us, smacking us in the face every moment? What is this divine spark within us that can contain the concept of an entire universe in each of our heads?

I don't believe in God also, I believe in God only.

That's it. That's all it is. Everything else I can say about it is mere embroidery. The divine being that the world's religions have been urging us toward is no different from that Holy Grail of modern science, the Grand Unified Theory that will describe all the laws of nature as the operation of a single law that includes them all. The equations will be written in the language of mathematics, but the subject will be the same as the holiest of sacred books, because there is nothing else to write about but all there is.

Time to be quiet now. Listen--you can hear it happening.

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