Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I first encountered the fact of this in the 1960's, when I was flailing through a life already hijacked by God, reframed by mind-striping drugs, immobilized by conflicting ideas and ideals.
In search of a group I might really belong with, I stayed overnight with people who kept the air thick with pot smoke amid the bewildering sounds of a record I'd never heard of: 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter,' by the Incredible String Band. Among many intricate, confusing lyrics, one mad fragment struck me:
an obvious reference, accurate or not, to God. "Could I actually _do_ that?" I wondered? That thought was, I knew, a prayer. The answer — I had no idea how I knew it — was "Yes."
Why would anyone think they might actually hear from God? Why would they want to?
Because there is something that recognizes truth at the center of every human being. This isn't the intellectual mind, nor is it (strictly speaking) the heart. Its workings aren't confined to the marvelous neural net that embodies each human's interactions with the physical world. It isn't God; but it is our interface to What or Whom it is that people know as 'God'.
There's no place for such a star in the cosmos of contemporary normalism; but the telescope for seeing it is patient self-observation.
I didn't say it's a faculty to make anyone error-free or infallible. Everyone who's ever practiced any art form under inspiration's odd jurisdiction should have seen this at one time or another: A poem (or other inspiration) that wakes a person late at night, inexorably demanding to be written, won't necessarily be a masterpiece; and it may well benefit from subsequent editing. But something wiser than your waking self takes a hand.
People are usually willing to concede this much, but often they balk at claims that what's involved has any power beyond our physical skulls. That reservation is the most obvious obstacle to relying on it; but not the only one.
People have been so much mislead by hopes and fears that they're afraid to trust even valid hopes; they find it easier, somehow, to hope that trusting their fears will keep them safe. This is simply tragic.
The hope involved is that God is real and will give us what we want. The worst outcome, of course, would be if God had been real, but cruel as our imaginations.
Much depends on how we conceive of power. For the monarchists who collected our Bible, power meant being able to give orders and have them be obeyed. The stories they assembled came from even earlier times, when power was a warrior's prowess, including the foresight necessary to an effective war-leader.
The existence of evil was not a problem for either concept. Other gods could contest power; subordinates could abuse delegated authority. Their model of God could be, was supposed to be cruel against disloyalty and rebellion, which threatened the safety of all their law-abiding subjects.
But Newton's God was a system designer, more than merely the Psalmists' artificer of the 'fearfully and wonderfully made" human body — This model of Creation envisioned a builder who'd constructed and set in motion the whole clockwork machinery of the universe. Any flaw in its operation naturally reflected on God's character. As more and more people adopted scientific explanations of how the world works and why it works that way — More and more people found the idea of God as its Maker — morally repugnant. A magnificent Creation — but any God who would create it seemed inept or wicked. So in the academic world, the world of Great Thinkers and socially-acceptable opinion -- Atheism came to be as much taken for granted as it commonly is today.
Still, it left the world just a little too meaningless and hopeless. When drugs suddenly came along that offered a chance to see something else — God, even — It was the brightest students at my university that wanted to see what we might find.
Of all the varied descriptions of how a drug like LSD affects people, the one that seems beyond question is this: that it lowers the threshold for pattern-detector mechanisms in the nervous system. A pattern that isn't visible to normal vision, hearing, or conceptionalization — is generally called 'a hallucination.' But sensitivity to pattern is a basic feature of how a brain functions at all.
The issue is how much sensitivity is desireable. A computer scanning a satellite photo for hints of camoflaged airfields, tanks, soldiers... applies many similar processes; and there's a useful range of responsiveness that picks out features a human observer might miss; while beyond that it would see features that aren't there, or turned too low would miss too much.
Hunger — or fasting — typically lowers the perceptional thresholds. For an individual lost in the wilderness, or a tribe with a failing food supply, that kind of change is functional. It would be too much to have to live with in normal circumstances. People living with pain, suffering, or boredom — prefer beer, a substance with almost opposite effects.
Extremely unlikely meaningful coincidences — examples of what Jung called 'synchronicity — had become a regular feature of my life well before LSD appeared. My love for a young Unitarian woman, who insisted that the word 'God' referred to something real, even if explaining the meaning could be elusive — had forced me to recognize that there could be a powerful intelligence choreographing our lives and that people who thought so weren't always fools, but could in fact be simply more perceptive.
But the dance of my subsequent life included a long series of mis-steps and pratfalls. And hence, my brief stay with this household of holy fools and their haunting new record.
Soon afterwards, circumstances — a further series of synchronistic events — introduced me to a man who often used the I Ching for divination. I don't even remember how I decided to try it myself, nor what I asked [through] it nor what answer I received — except that I was surprized [and somewhat distrustful at first] to find the response meaningful, appropriate to what I'd wanted to know.
Before long I had my own copy of the I Ching to bother. Life in late-60's Berkeley became even more strange and wonderful as synchronicities and unexpected inspirations multiplied, snatches of that String Band record running through my mind:
At times I would stand at some unbusy spot on the sidewalk, feeling for a nudge towards one direction or another, before I'd go that way. Alas, at whatever encounter or destination I eventually arrived, still I was my same unenlightened self. And so, there were other times when this didn't seem such a good idea.
When the I Ching said an idea would work out wonderfully, provided I took proper care with other people's property... this had nothing to do with how things would go if I were careless. So I floundered through many interesting outcomes, until one day I found myself with a raging nicotine fit, sitting on the floor in a welfare hotel room in downtown Oakland, asking: "Why shouldn't I sell you and buy a pack of cigarettes?" Before I'd finished sorting the yarrow sticks, the phone rang — an unexpected invitation from one sweet and sexy young woman friend.
Returning from that, I ran into friends of a veteran I used to smoke dope with — who offered me floorspace in their shared apartment. When a State disability check finally came through and I could at last repay them, I'd become an honorary member of the group.
But eventually I tired of Berkeley, and returned to Southern California, to the small town there where I'd first started college. There I fell into sudden love, and when the I Ching told me, "You are very far from happiness," my reaction was: "Why am I asking this silly book who to love?"
Despite an intense empathic resonance with the woman, I was indeed very far from happiness -- She kept striving to attune herself to God by total withdrawal from the world. As a friend of hers told me: "In India her neighbors would call her a saint, and look after her. Here, they call her crazy, and lock her up." Decades later I found a poem by her in a newpaper in Washington, and wrote to get us back in touch. "Hardships and suffering," she wrote back, "have left me with an unshakable faith... in Something." Where I'd feared I might have treated her badly; she said the time with me had been one of her good periods. But clearly we hadn't been meant to stay together.
The next woman I met was even less appropriate.
Years later, she said she'd seen me first, walking across the lawn at a May Day celebration, and told herself: "I want that guy!" Then a mutual friend had introduced us, and my own senseless lonesomeness did the rest. A few days afterwards, she was caught up in a raid on her apartment building and extradited on a bullshit charge to Utah, well out of reach.
I stayed in town while the local collective mood turned apocalyptic. Nixon was escalating the war against Vietnam, protesters were being killed, too many people had turned to bad drugs or to worse religious notions, while a desperate few wanted to oppose the war with their own futile violence. The only thing that made sense to me was to return to school, maybe study nursing and learn enough to mitigate the widespread suffering that seemed likely. As my summer rental ran out I suddenly realized I'd turned old. The world might end in nuclear folly at any moment; and no-one I knew there cared if I stayed in town or left. I decided I should go home, make peace with my parents while we were all still alive.
I had no plans to stay with them... But I seemed to be coming down with a cold. My mother fussed, claimed I looked sick, insisted I see her doctor. The doctor had no doubts whatsoever: "Mono. Gamma globulim shot."
After that, there was nothing else to be done. I lay around the house exhausted, with a sandpaper throat, passing out at unpredictable intervals. One day I started walking the long two blocks to a nearby bookstore, stopping to rest each time at a bus stop halfway there.
And then I got a letter. After months in solitary (the only woman in a small-town Utah jail), my extradited friend had gone to trial and been released. She said she feared that some people were doomed to find their way through life all alone. I invited her to come visit. As my parents were opposed to her staying with us, I rented a room upstairs from a local health food store; and a year later we were married in the park across the street.
As everyone knows, astrology doesn't work, but when I looked up our data it showed Saturn from her chart in the same place as the Sun in mine, my own Saturn likewise overlapping her Sun. A long-lasting bond, said the best astrology book I had handy. Everyone who knew us thought we were a happy couple, as in fact we were. What the book didn't say, I learned later.
Saturn in Virgo could make a person harshly critical; Saturn in Cancer could squash a person's interest in household matters... and Saturn close to another person's Sun position could definitely cramp a person's style, because Saturn did symbolize a strongly constrictive force, while the Sun in anyone's chart was supposed to be a pointer to that person's basic identity.
Despite the fact that astrology doesn't work, we were tightly bonded — and we each tended to crush the other's sense of who they were and most needed to be. Toward the end, she called me into the living room, where she'd been watching tv — from the bedroom, where I'd been trying to write a novel, as far as I could get from the tv's attention-stealing presence — to say, "Forrest, you know we really don't have much in common." Ten years to the day from the May Day when she'd first seen me crossing the lawn, I moved out of her house and into freedom once again.
My first marriage, and my second wife's first marriage had both violated a major taboo of Chinese astrology: that couples born six years apart shouldn't marry. Our own marriage did it again — and while our first marriages were disasters, we seem remarkably suited to each other. (There is a pattern to the world; but not as simple a pattern as humans tend to expect.
Aside from all that — I'd long ago stopped promiscuously bothering the I Ching. Though there is good advice in it, though traditional divination techniques often serve up truly appropriate passages — Reverence for what I found in the book itself was clearly a distraction.
There's something paradoxical about divination in the first place; this is after all a prayer for guidance, and I should be respectful of the results; yet sometimes these conveyed very little, apparently hinting I needed to "Figure it out yourself, dummy!" I could just flip a coin (and many times did) but that method implied that half the time my answers would need to be 'noes' — unless, indeed, I wanted God to shift physical probabilities out of true, just to accomodate me.
If I'd once yearned for powers beyond the ordinary — Whatever made me expect to use them harmlessly without considerable wisdom? Since I'd shown little sign of that, it seemed better for now to grope through life like everybody else.
And so the matter stood for many years. I still felt myself to be under God's instruction, still read everything promising about religion that came my way, was continually trying to figure out what God was doing with the world, and why.
I hadn't forgotten that [for no apparent merit of my own] I had been touched by Grace, back in that mad, holy era called the 60's. God had given a brief, bewildering backstage tour to a peculiar assortment of idealists and rebels, then gone incognito, leaving the world sleepwalking on into all the evils we'd once hoped to see swept away. While I stopped bothering God for continual guidance, I continued to follow whatever trails of synchronistic breadcrumbs came my way, finding some of them idle hopes, finding some of them truly Gifts.
Whenever it was I found an unfamiliar yoga book at a local library — I had already joined the San Diego Friends Meeting, and the title seemed evocative of Quaker worship: _Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness_, by Erich Schiffmann. While Shiffmann was saying many things I'd heard and read from other yogis, he also pointed out the origin of asana practice as meditation poses, and emphasized yoga's ultimate purpose: enhancing our awareness of the human connection to God. Several chapters were explicitly about a practice of 'Listening for Guidance.'
Keeping in mind the synchronistic lives and intuitions reported in early Friends' journals, this struck me as the most truly Quakerish book I'd seen in a long time.
Schiffmann wasn't telling it the way George Fox would have; his language was more Newage than Christian. In the process of illustrating certain points, he'd thrown in some gratuitous historical howlers. But he was Quaker in his recommendation to examine ourselves for the essential truth, rather than relying on him or on anything we'd thought we knew or anything we thought we should believe.
In my own Quaker Meeting, worthy old Friends were rising to proclaim Messages like: "It's dangerous to think God's talking to you," while this Southern Californian yogi was telling us we should learn to tell when God is talking to us, because God can and does.
Indeed, Schiffmann observes, the gap we see between God and ourselves is largely an artifact of egotistic thinking. "We think it's egotistical to think we are fundamentally perfect expressions of a divine Life Principle." But it's truly egotistic, he says, "to think that you are responsible for who you are and that you created yourself... That's ego." We didn't, after all, make ourselves. It makes more sense "to recognize the Allness of God" — an allness which implies that there is no thing, neither our imperfect selves nor our many faults, that can possibly exist outside of God.
"Meditation means listening, and the meditative mind is the 'listening-to-Infinite-Mind' mind. The practice of yoga is a way of learning to be in this meditative listening state all the time. It's not only about how flexible your body is, or how many advanced and intricate postures you can do, though all of this is wonderful. It's about you and your specific mind listening to, being guided by, and communing with Infinite Mind, God."
Therefore Schiffmann devoted several chapters specifically to learning how to be guided by God. One does this by asking, 'listening' for, and following what guidance comes.
"There is a whole other language involved in listening inwardly for communications from the universe in this way. It is not always dependent on words... You will know what to do without having figured it out." If that process turns ambiguous we are once again in familiar Quaker territory: "The best thing to do in this confused state when you are faced with a difficult decision is mentally to stop, become quiet, centered, and still; and then silently ask again... And then be patient.... If you are calm and attentive and are truly desirous of an answer to your dilemma, and are therefore listening with open ears, the mental waters will become clear and calm and the most appropriate thing to do will be obvious."
Was Schiffmann suggesting people put themselves through dramatic tests of faith, deciding their most urgent dilemmas this way? That's what initially frightens people about the idea; but what he actually says is to practice resolving minor uncertainties with prayers for guidance. This should solidly confirm that it's our best way to navigate through any situation where we don't know the score. (Really, we don't know, more often than we like to realize.)
Schiffmann's book recommends hatha yogi asanas to 'purify' our intuition, to render it a more dependable medium for receiving guidance. Yet I am an utterly undisciplined, obsessively intellectual couch-potato. Asana practice is not the first activity that comes to mind when I wake in the morning, nor at any other time.
Is there hope for me, then? Actually, yogi offers diverse branches for people of different inclinations to reach awareness of our 'yoking' to God. And while contemplative traditions in many religions encourage quieting the compulsive mental chatter that's the most common, crippling obstacle to knowing God; interpretations that would stifle the mind — like those which have traditionally devalued the body and the emotions — are simply mistaken. (I'm an intellectual; I should know!) God permeates all modes of perception: physical, emotional, mental — and that elusive 'something else' people persistently fail to reduce to physical, emotional, or mental events. Truth. Beauty. Love. Everything we're ultimately brought to recognize as 'spiritual'.
Schiffmann says that "Practicing yoga during the day is a matter of keeping your eyes on the road and one ear turned toward the Infinite. It’s about listening inwardly as often as you can for your deepest impulses about what to say, think, do, or be... It is the meaning of `Thy Will be done.`" The distinction between our wills and God's fades with the recognition that our will attuned to God's steers us better than our heedless flailings ever did.
I do not find this easy to practice. What I have realized is that it's our only hope. Probably it fits a spiritualized interpretation of what 'The Reign of God' ought to look like. Probably it describes the way early Quakers navigated their preaching missions. Such conceptional considerations aren't convincing to anyone who denies that he has, that we have, methods that work well enough to effectively guide our lives. But the fact is that following the prevailing ideas of "what makes sense" has brought the Earth and its inhabitants into an inexorable series of escalating disasters. Our various "problem solving" techniques, as Michael Bohm pointed out, intrinsically produce solutions worse than the problems we started with, in a collective reenactment of "The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly." The best possible human plans to cope with multiple interlinking crises — would be clearly inadequate, would never be agreed to, and certainly would leave out crucial unforeseen obstacles.
In my own life, I have reached the end of my habitual "Figure It Out" mindset. I can't do it anymore. My lifelong struggle with having "a mind with a mind of its own" has ended in helplessness.
"I can of my own self do nothing" — or nothing much worthwhile. To write this very piece, I've needed to repeatedly turn away from it, distract myself briefly (a pleasant, but increasingly dysfunctional defense against anxiety) — and most effectively, to sit in meditation until the next piece of it finally came clear.
And you? Do you feel safe in this world as you are, as it is? Do you have a truly adequate way to cope?