I first met God when I entered grade one at Holy Rosary, a Catholic elementary school, where the classes were so packed we had to crawl over one another to get to our seats. Towering black-robed nuns patrolled the aisles with rulers ready to smack naughty hands, and priests, who were known to be next to God, bestowed their blessings upon our little bowed heads. Obsequiousness was paid off in holy cards.
It was in that environment, edged with fear and awe, that I learned I was marked with original sin from birth, and my vocabulary expanded to include words like sin, devil, penance, judgment, hell, virgin birth, and fallen from grace. These ideas, plus a whole raft of dichotomies like “good and evil’ and “blessed and condemned,” were presented as a guide for my future development, which was understandably erratic as a result.
While training to receive our First Holy Communion, we were all given our own copy of a small, moss-green handbook called a catechism to memorize. We were told it was filled with all the questions and answers we would ever need to know about God, starting with:
Q. Who is God?
A. God is the Supreme Being.
You have to realize that at this point I am just a tiny little girl fascinated by the color yellow.
God, on the other hand, is an enormous concept that has confounded the best of the world’s thinkers. Socrates, Hume, Nietzsche, Foucault… all would have rolled over at such an easy assumption! But at Holy Rosary, it was not open to discussion. Some of my friends seemed to latch onto the God-thing right away, but I didn’t. And I spent the next 30 years of my life asking the same question over and over again: Who is God?
I want to make clear to those whose belief in God is incontrovertible, and this includes many dear friends: I tried. I went to Mass, I took Communion, I mastered the art of folding my hands and looking holy, but the rapture just never came.
The real fault line appeared with the budding of my female consciousness. Why did my brothers get to be altar boys and I didn’t? Why did the nuns teach us girls how to clean furniture while the boys did secret sacrament stuff in the sacristy? Was this really God’s plan? These glaring omissions in His apparent “guardianship of all beings” created even more bewilderment in me. But I finally drew the line at confession. One day I was on my way to church to admit to my paltry list of 13-year-old sins when suddenly it dawned on me: Why do I need to confess through a priest?
I needed a personal relationship with my budding spirituality, and from that moment on I decided to talk to God directly. But it never became a two-way street. After a while, my end of it started to sound distinctly whiny. I always seemed to be asking God for things. Could God get me a boyfriend? Give me a sign that I was doing ok? Or at least make my hair better? Apparently not…
So, as I got older I gradually stopped trying. But my habit of God continued. After all, I had been trained from a very impressionable age to believe that the answer to all my spiritual and existential questions was somewhere “out there.” I spent the next years of my life trying to attach myself to some savior-substitute: therapy, gurus, success, money, politics, sex, drugs…whatever. The list goes on. I wasn’t even sure what the questions were. I just had a perpetual and profound sense that I was living in the dark and it made me anxious. But no matter how hard I tried, I never found “it.” Nothing ever came down, landed on my head, and saved me from my confusion.
And then something happened.
After several adventurous moves I found myself as far away from home as I could possibly get and still be on the same planet; at the junction between two great deserts deep inside the Western Australian Outback. I was working for the government teaching art workshops to the Aboriginal people of the area who, I discovered, had their own spiritual and artistic traditions honed over approximately 30,000 years. I was a bit out of my depth.
One day I walked out into the bush and sat on the edge of a cliff. My mind was jumping from one thing to the next like a grasshopper on speed. However, as I raised my eyes and looked out, the sharp contrast between what was happening internally and what I saw before me hit me like a blow. I had never in my life seen such an empty landscape. In front of me was a seemingly endless expanse of pure flat desert. I could see for miles and miles and miles. There was not a tree, a road, a rise, or speck to catch the eye. Below was a haze of milky beige and above a cloudless opalescent sky, the two melding together ad infinitum.
I thought, “What would it be like to have all that space in my head?”
And suddenly my mind stopped. Boom.
Everything went still.
The air moved. The dry grass rustled.
The sun beat on my skin.
And I was quiet.
My mind was quiet… and wide open.
This lasted for an incalculable moment. When it passed, thoughts began to arise again, but this time they were crystal clear:
1. I wanted to learn how to extend this experience.
2. This must be what meditation is about.
3. And I needed a teacher. Not just any teacher. An authentic teacher.
This realization moved me deeply and became a tsunami that swept me along until I found that teacher. But the first thing I had to do when I set foot on the Buddhist path was check my old habits at the door, and that included any notion of being saved. Instead of getting raised up toward some happy union with perfection, I got set down on my bottom and instructed to experience my own psychological mess. I found so much anger, jealousy, pride, unsolved hurts, and revengeful black goop that it’s no wonder I was loath to give up on being saved. God help me!
This early stage of meditation was tough and lonely. It involved unraveling all the sticky threads of my thought processes strand by strand, including the big knot that had hope written on it. The hope I had carried with me from first grade that some all-powerful being or thing was magically going to relieve me of my existential angst. I discovered a finely honed, philosophically rich spiritual path that relies solely on direct personal experience. Through progressive stages of meditation practice and study, I began to realize that underneath all the confusion is a natural, inherent, and intuitive wisdom. No one is bestowing anything on anyone. It is already there.
As Chögyam Trungpa explains in Crazy Wisdom, “There is a certain kind of intelligence that is connected with totality, and is very precise. It is not verbal; it is not conceptualized at all; it is not thinking in the ordinary sense. It is thinking without scheming. And it is something more than that. It is a self-existing intelligence of its own.” This is what the Buddha, who was definitely not a god, taught: that the fundamental nature of our mind is peace. But even he could only point the way. Uncovering the full depth of this truth is a completely personal process.
No one is bestowing anything on anyone. It is already there.
Discovering Buddhism brought my spiritual journey into focus. It is nontheistic, which means that a belief in God is not part of the teachings. However, God can be a habit, as it was in my case. It took me many years of meditation to actually stop sitting with my face tilted ever so slightly toward heaven, subconsciously waiting for an external, superior, and all-knowing being to land. I even tried to deify my teacher, but he refused to fit any mold. Eventually, I began to understand that reliance on a deity of any kind is an impediment to experiencing my own life directly. And then one day I realized that my habit of God was gone. Poof! And a new lighthearted confidence has taken its place.
God had been in my life for a long time, but I never knew him, or her, or them. Not even close. But I can know my mind, and the more deeply I look, the more remarkable the journey is. The confusion that dogged me throughout my life has gradually lessened under the gentle touch of meditative awareness. It’s been a path full of pitfalls and ego trips, but I now know the absolute honesty of the practice. No tricks. No shortcuts. No escape. No savior. Just the experience of innate, intelligent awareness and an overwhelming compassion for all of us who suffer. It is the kind of hands-on spirituality that I yearned for, and will continue to practice for the rest of my life.
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