My Spiritual Journey
This is the story of my exploration of the numinous, the spiritual, and/or the divine.
Early Days and Atheism
I was raised as a Presbyterian. I think that came from my mother's side. My father had been raised Catholic, but broke with the Catholic church over abortion, after having seen crack babies and deformed babies in his medical practice. However, when I was three, I was registered as a Quaker. My father was totally against war and especially his sons going to war. We weren't even allowed to have toy guns growing up. Registering me as a Quaker was meant to allow me to claim conscientious objector status in the even of a draft.
After the Diary Incident when I was nine, two things happened: my parents became estranged and eventually divorced, and my mother let me get away with things out of guilt. Because they were estranged, my father stopped going to church with my mother on Sundays. When I asked why I had to go to church when dad didn't, she let me stay home. So I stopped going to church and I stopped really thinking about or believing in God. I stayed that way through high school, vacillating from atheism to agnosticism, with a brief foray into the Church of the Sub-Genius parody religion (Praise "Bob").
I would note that while I was in high school, the Quaker meeting I was registered with did a periodic update of their registry. They called me up and asked me if I still wanted to be registered at their meeting. I told them to go ahead and take me off the registry, since I didn't believe in God, and had already sent in my Selective Service form with "I will not kill for you!" written all over it.
The summer after I graduated from high school I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It started much earlier, but I had ignored the symptoms. That allowed the cancer to spread throughout my body, eventually reaching my brain. It was the brain tumor (and the resulting seizure) that finally brought me into the hospital.
The oncology team at UVa, led by Dr. Marc Stewart, eventually got all of the cancer out. When I would meet people and explain why I was so gaunt and bald, I would often be told that is was a miracle, and I should thank God that I was still here. Normally I would have scoffed at this idea, but nearly dying from cancer puts you in a position to re-evaluate things in your life. So I sat down and thought about it. The conclusion I came to was that my cure was not a miracle, but rather medical science. However, I felt that God had given me cancer, as a sort of cosmic wake up call. I was just sitting around, smoking dope, wasting my life and my fortunate birth. God wanted me to get my shit together.
I was then faced with a problem. How could I tell which God had given me cancer? And even if I knew it was the God of the Old Testament, should I look to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam? I believed in some sort of divine force, but that belief gave me no information about that force that would tell me which tradition knew the truth about that force.
I did feel that the God that gave me cancer was a caring god. It didn't seem that a caring god would leave the world so confused. My conclusion was that God is beyond human understanding, but not human perception. So the different religions were perceiving the same divine force, but because none of them could really understand it, they all got in wrong in different ways. But the flip side of that was that they were all getting it right in different ways. So I was going to have to search through the world's religions to find the truth that was in each of them.
The College Years
After recovering from cancer and making it to college a year late, I took a minor in comparative religions, to begin my search. I focused on Eastern religions, such Confucianism, Taoism, Zen, and Shinto. All minors were required to do some study of Christianity (I took a New Testament class) and some general theory. As an extension of my major in Cognitive Science, I took some anthropology classes, which introduced me to some of the pre-Columbian religions of Central America, especially the Mayans. After I graduated I also took a more general survey course which covered other religions I'd missed, especially Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam.
While I searched a lot during this period, I didn't reach any conclusions. I did dabble around in creating a creation myth and symbology. Eventually I realized that this "myth" I had created was really bad, and totally a creation of my own personal issues and problems. Eventually I realized how horrible it was, and abandoned it. But that left me with a conviction that what God wants us to do has to do with this world, this life, not some other one we cannot perceive.
The Game Years
After I graduated, I spent several years working in the board and card game industry. To be honest, I didn't think much about God during this time, except for the one aforementioned survey of religions class.
Back to School
Eventually, the game company I was working for went bankrupt. I ended up working some unsatisfying jobs, and then going back to school to get a graduate degree. While preparing to go back to school, I took a part time job at my old high school, contacting other alumni. Since I had graduated, my high school had converted to a Quaker school. So one day I'm at school working, and someone comes in the development office and tells me it's time for meeting. I'm like "What meeting?" "Quaker meeting," they tell me.
Not having any clue, I went down to the main meeting hall for the school, and sat in my first Quaker meeting. I was blown away by the waiting in silence and the ability of anyone in the congregation to preach. It felt, for lack of a better word, right. I started attending the Quaker meeting in town that I had disavowed back in my high school days. I attended their Quaker 101 group for a while. I was drawn in by the emphasis on honesty and the idea of the Inner Light. Eventually I asked to be registered as a member of the Religious Society of Friends for a second time.
I still kept an open mind about other faiths, remembering my initial conclusion that everyone is right and everyone is wrong. It was during this time that I came across the book Hardcore Zen in a used book shop. Being an old punk rocker, it grabbed my eye. I flipped to the back of the book and it mentioned that the author (Brad Warner), was in the band 0DFX (Zero Defects). I thought to myself "I know that band!" They had a song on the Peace/War punk compilation that had always stood out to me for being incredibly hard, incredibly fast, and incredibly short. It was called "Drop the A-Bomb on Me!" I read the first page, with proclamations like "doubt is essential," "everything is sacred," and "everything is profane." I immediately went to another bookstore and bought a new copy (so he could get royalties). I read it and was astounded by it modern, raging perspective on the Zen I had leaned about as an undergraduate.
And, of course, after incorporating some of the ideas into my Quaker worship for a couple months, I left it on the shelf and forgot about it.
After I got my graduate degree and moved to Maryland, I started doing some intensive Bible study. I had dropped out of Quaker meeting, not because I didn't believe in it anymore, but rather because I didn't really feel a part of the meeting. I was trying to pull the meaning out of the Bible, while filtering out the more hateful parts. Then the hubris of my goals met Exodus. Two parts of Exodus really stood out to me. The first was when Moses went to God because he was afraid of Pharaoh, and he didn't feel up to the task of being God's representative to so powerful a person. God told Moses not to worry, that he was going to show that he was more powerful than the Egyptian gods. The second was after the sixth plague, when Phraaroh was ready to give in and let the Israelites go, and God "hardened his heart" so that he refused. It seemed to me that the rest of the plagues, including the death of every first born child, were just God trying to win a pissing contest with the Egyptian Gods.
My faith was questioned. How could I believe in such a God? My faith was broken. I could not.
And so I picked up Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen once again, and sat down and stared at the wall.
Zen, at least in the Soto tradition of Brad Warner, is primarily about meditation. Dogen, the 13th century Japanese monk who founded the Soto school, that meditation was enlightenment. That was his answer to the his own early question of "If we already have Buddha nature, why do we need to meditate?" I mostly meditated by myself, and I tried to meditate every day. I never really had a teacher. I did meditate with some meditation groups based on the Dharma Punx teachings of Noah Levine. I also meditated with One Heart Sangha, but the teacher there at the time did not consider herself a Buddhist, and insisted she only taught Zen meditation. And while I did say that Zen is primarily about meditation, there is a lot of ethics and metaphysics that go into it, along with the general Mahayana tradition of one teacher recognizing the insight of the next teacher.
I did go on a handful of retreats where groups would sit in meditation for several days at a time, only taking breaks to stretch, eat, and do other work. As much as possible was done in a meditative silence. I also attended several full day meditations. However, I began to feel that off the cushion meditation was even more important than going on retreats. That is, bringing the meditative mind set into your daily life. I would take a random hour every day, and try to bring the same meditative focus on the present moment to whatever I was doing at that time. Sometimes I would spend a whole day trying to do that.
I had three incredibly profound experiences while practicing Zen.
One of the ideas of Buddhist philosophy is that nothing really exists, not even you yourself. This is often called a lack of independent existence (we'll get to the dependent part later). One day I was walking to a Dharma Punx meditation, and I was rather depressed. But then I helped the guy who led the meditation set up the space to meditate in, and notice that all of a sudden I was feeling really happy, and that I hadn't even noticed the change. I was very confused by this, and I wondered who I was. Was I the sad guy or the happy guy?
So I thought about it, and decided I must be the intersection of the sad guy and the happy guy, whatever it was that they had in common. So I meditated on that, trying to find what it was that they had in common. And I couldn't find it. They walked differently. They talked differently. Not just in the tone of their voice, but also in how often they would talk and when. They held their hands differently, down to the smallest muscles. They thought about different things. They had different memories! You could say the same thing to them, and they would associate it with two completely different events. After some time trying and failing to track down this difference, it felt like my mind unzipped, and nothing was there.
A lot of the off cushion meditation that I did was on my commute to and from work. I found it a great way to prepare for a stressful day, and a great way to recover from a stressful day. Early on this was a lot of walking with a subway trip and a bus ride. Later on it was motorcycle rides. One day, when I was still using public transportation, I walked out of my building and everything was new. It was like I had never seen a sidewalk before, which made the sidewalk I was seeing an amazing, incredible thing. And it really is. We take sidewalks for granted, but imagine what one of our hunter/gatherer ancestors would think if they were to be presented with a sidewalk. Now imagine them being presented with the brick sidewalk on the second block of my walk to the subway station. We haven't even gotten to the ten to fifteen story buildings and the cars yet. Or the subway. That's what it was like for me. This is the sort of day you never forget about for the rest of your life, and I had it taking the exact same commute that I had been taking for six or seven years.
The thing that makes no sense to me looking back on it is that while everything seemed like I had never seen anything like it before, I still knew how to take the train to the bus stop and get home.
I think the thing I found the most fascinating about the whole experience was the chrome pole on the subway car. And given the rapt way I was staring at it, I think the guy standing next to me on the subway must have thought I was on drugs.
There is an idea in Buddhism of codependent origination (pratityasamutpada). Nothing has independent existence, but things have dependent existence. The existence depends on the existence of other things. For any this and that, if this exists, then that exists. Likewise, if this does not exist, then that does not exist. Everything depends on everything else.
One day I decided to try and wrap my head around this idea. I went around that morning trying to imagine all fo the lines of interdependence between all of the things I could see. I was walking around with this web of lines in my head overlaying everything I was seeing. Around the time that this started giving me a headache, I realized it was a stupid idea. Because things lack independent existence, Buddhism sees them as delusions. I am not sitting at my desk in front of a computer, I have just deluded my self into thinking these things exist. So by imagining all of these lines of interdependence, I was just layering another delusion on top of the delusions I had been having all of my life.
So I gave up on the web of interdependence, and decided to try being an idiot. I decided to try to stop thinking that I knew what was going on around me. I would be like a submarine captain, and all of the information I was getting from my senses would be sonar pings. But rather than think that I knew what objects these sonar pings were coming from, I would just try and observe the sonar pings.
I did this for several hours, through the work day and into my commute home. I was standing at a bus stop on the East side of the Shady Grove Metro Station. There were buses driving by, and homeless guy rooting through the trash can for food, and a pretty lady in tight jeans loading some luggage into a car. While I was standing there trying to observe the sonar pings, everything just disappeared. It was like everything just fell through the ground. Even the ground fell through the ground.
But all the sonar pings were still there. I could still see the same colors I saw before, even though there were no colors and no me to see them. I could still hear the same engines and voices, even though there were no rumblings or words or ears to hear them. It was all one. I was one with everything, because there was nothing to be one with. I was one with the homeless guy rooting through the trash. I was one with the heat washing over me from the bus driving by. I was one with the pretty girl in the tight jeans.
And right then my sex drive kicked in. "Oooh! I'm one with the pretty girl in the tight jeans!" My desire grasped for the pretty girl who wasn't there any more, and she came back. And like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond, everything else came back around her. Then I let go of my desire, and everything dropped away again.
It was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. It stayed with me through the evening, as I went home and then to meditation practice. On the way home from meditation practice I remember seeing the sight to the beltway: "I am one with the traffic sign." I took the on ramp onto the beltway: "I am one with the on ramp." I merged onto the highway next to an 18-wheeler: "I am one with the 18-wheeler." I got a little too close to the 18-wheeler: "NO! NO! I AM NOT ONE WITH THE 18-WHEELER!" That snapped me out of it.
Back to God
At a certain point in reading the section above on codependent origination, you were probably thinking to yourself "He's not making any sense anymore." And I fully admit that I was not making sense. The thing is, it is not possible to make sense when talking about this sort of thing. When all of your conceptions of objects as individual things drop away, logic ceases to work, and nothing makes sense anymore. It's not something that we can really comprehend rationally, it is something we have to experience.
I was thinking about that a few days after the experience, and I realized that something so awesome and also impossible to comprehend was exactly how I had thought of God when I first started my spiritual journey. I hadn't just been one with everything that day, I had seen God. So I went back to Quaker meeting.
I wrestled with this a lot in Quaker meeting. The Bible still had lots of problems to me. A lot of what it said just didn't jibe with my experience, and what I knew to be right and good in my heart. I thought it might be the Old Testament that was bothering me, so I reread the New Testament. And while the message of Jesus is a lot better than the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament, there were things he said that still really bother me. For example, he says that if any woman gets divorced for any reason other than adultery, she cannot get remarried without committing adultery herself. My mom divorced my dad because he beat the shit out of her and her children. But that is not good enough for Jesus. It seems to me that Jesus is endorsing domestic violence. How can that be right?
I was on the subway one day, thinking that there were things that the Buddha said that I didn't quite like either, but that I really believed and followed the Eightfold Path. It seemed that it would be much simpler if the Bible provided a simple framework like the Eightfold Path that I could get behind. Then I was like, "Duh! The Ten Commandments." So I started following the Ten Commandments. I also felt that the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount was to not just follow the letter of the law, but to go beyond that to follow the spirit of the law as well. So I tried to do that as well, looking into the Ten Commandments with the Inner Light of Quakerism, to try and find the spirit of the law.
After living by the Ten Commandments, I had another duh moment. I had forgotten about the Quaker testimonies. The Quakers don't have a creed you are required to follow to be a member. That wouldn't work with each Quaker looking to their own Inner Light to find divine truth and guidance. They do have testimonies, which are things that Quakers commonly believe, although it is still up to each Quaker as to which testimonies to follow and how to follow them. The testimonies common among liberal American Quakers are given by the acronym SPICES:
- Simplicity: Simplicity in speech, dress, and manner so as not to distract from God.
- Peace: To live our lives so as not to give rise to war.
- Integrity: Honest, openness, and making your outer life match your inner life.
- Community: As the necessary foundation for peace and justice.
- Equality: Respect that of God within each person.
- Stewardship: Care of this world that was a gift from God.
Turning my Back on the Bible
I kept to this for quite some time. But I kept running into people who believe the Bible is the true, final word of God without error, and who use this to be mean and nasty. And there are plenty of mean and nasty things in the Bible for them to use. I ran into a man at a motorcycle rally, who told me that I was an evil man I found women arousing and that justice is punishing the evil forever. Then I asked a woman out not realizing how much she believed in the Bible, but she said she couldn't have a relationship with me because I didn't, although we could hang out as friends. That seemed reasonable, until the next day when she said that after further consideration, she felt the Bible meant we couldn't even be friends. Looking up some nasty seeming Bible passages she quoted, I found out that I am a wicked darkness because I don't believe in the divinity of Jesus and the Bible.
So I gave up on the Bible and the Ten Commandments. I still feel there is wisdom in the Bible. As I said before, we are all right and we are all wrong. But there is just so much hate that is in it and that comes from it, that I have a hard time making it part of my spiritual practice.
Finding a Teacher
In 2018 I found a Zen teacher in my school of Zen (Soto). I haven't had a real Zen teacher before. The one teacher I had before was a Catholic nun who taught Zen meditation. If you went beyond meditation into Buddhist philosophy she would tell you that she wasn't a Buddhist. So now I am studying with this Zen teacher. I recently went to a retreat she ran. She also does precepts training on the sixteen precepts that are "taken" in the Jukai ceremony. This is part of becoming a lay monk in Soto Zen, along with sewing your own ritual garb called a rakusu. So I am also learning how to sew.
Giving up on Prayer
My Quaker practice for this time would be to go to meeting and sit with an open heart, listening for the wisdom of God. Of course, in my case, God was the Absolute of Buddhism, where we are one with everything. I learned to try to visualize things, and had some very powerful visions that set me on the path of fighting mass incarceration.
Being a Zen practitioner and a biker, I would often get asked if I had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. So I finally went ahead and read it. Pirsig correctly (IMHO) sees the separation of our conscious mind and experience. Experience is the impossible to comprehend that I encountered, while the conscious mind is what comprehends. But Pirsig (or at least his main character) is concerned with Quality. The main character is a college professor of English. Why he puts the question of "What is Quality?" to his class, they find that they all have a similar view of what has and does not have Quality, even if they can't explain what it is. He sees in this a similarity with the Buddhist Absolute, and proposes that quality is a universal thing, external to human consciousness.
My problem with this is that it denies the subconscious. If you are looking for the source of quality, I say look to your experience. Throughout or lives we have had experiences that we either associate with positive emotions or negative ones. Art that evokes those positive associations makes us feel good and comforts us. That informs our sense of what has and does not have quality. Why do the student's in Pirsig's class have the same view of quality? Well, they're all American, they're probably all white given when the book was written, they're all English majors, and they are all probably from a similar economic class. They've had so many of the same experiences that they have all formed a similar sense of quality. Throw in some poor black people, and some people from South America and Asia, and I think your consensus on quality would start to fall apart.
But I realized that I have the same problem with Quaker prayer. I have no way to distinguish what I am getting from the Absolute from what is coming from my subconscious mind. Am I getting wisdom from God, or just wisdom from my gut? Listening to my subconscious might be a good thing, but that doesn't make it divinely inspired.
So I went to Quaker meeting and I prayed about it. And I came to the conclusion that I can't make that distinction, and that there is no real reason to continue with Quaker prayer. I still believe in the Absolute, although my Buddhist view of that has evolved over time. I see the Absolute and the Relative as two different ways to see the reality that is beyond either one. And I am no longer sure that looking at reality as if it was an anthropomorphic God makes any sense. I guess you could say I'm an agnostic now. However, I do have some books on my reading list that might shed some light on that, so I'm holding off on any final decision about God.
Where I Am
So here I am: doing Zen meditation every day, training on the Zen precepts, and wondering where this path will take me next.