I never managed to figure out what organized religion was actually about. It wasn’t for want of trying. I wanted to know. From almost as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a deep sense of there being something which was – how can I say? – beyond all this. And in order to explore this feeling, religion seemed the obvious thing to turn to. But the sight of men – usually men, though thankfully not so much now – dressed in gowns and odd head-pieces, addressing, in a purpose-built venue, a gathering of people, many of whom had dressed for the occasion, in incantatory tones and talking of a divine being separate from them, who had created the universe didn’t penetrate beyond my inner ear. Nor, as I grew a little older, could I align the words and deeds of their own prophet with what went on in those places. He had always seemed to me to be a true man of the people – and a maverick. He didn’t just quietly and politely tell the moneylenders they really ought not to be doing what they did – he marched in and overturned their tables! He consorted with the poor, the dispossessed and the disabled. That seemed a far cry from my experience of church with all its polite formality.
In my pre-teens, although I was shepherded at irregular but relatively frequent intervals to churches and chapels by my mother and step-father, I came away empty handed; in what I saw and heard, I found nothing of that mystery that I sensed within my own self. They sent me to Sunday School when I was about ten. I found it stultifying. I stuck the first session out to the end, but absconded a quarter of the way through the second and went off to the park – never to return. I felt horribly guilty. Whenever I saw the man who ran the Sunday School go past our house on his bike, I hid.
One day when I was about twelve, I was wandering along by the river which flowed through the centre of the small town in which we lived. I had just finished Saturday school (Yep – school on Saturday morning then!) and was waiting for my mother to finish work at the small baker’s shop she managed. Her working week too ended at Saturday lunchtime. We would meet, then cycle home together. I remember stopping on the river bank, looking at the river flowing gently past, when a thought – or rather a ‘feeling’ – came to me, seemingly out of nowhere. I quite suddenly found myself thinking that when I was dead, it wouldn’t worry me if they – whoever ‘they’ were – threw me in the river – because I was not my body.
I thought no more about that at the time. I carried on with my walk, met my mother when the time came, and we cycled home. It was only years later, when I mentioned the incident to a friend at work, that I realized, seeing the puzzlement on his face, it had been a pretty strange thought to have had, especially for someone not yet into their teens. My friend’s reaction set me thinking seriously about it for the first time. If I were not my body, then who was this ‘I’? It seemed a fairly crucial matter – for what is this thing walking about the world, bearing a name given to it by its parents yet not knowing who or what it is? There was something faintly ludicrous – even self-deprecating – about it. But if I were to try and find out, I had no reason to suppose the churches or chapels were going to help me. They did not talk the language of that sense I had within me of there existing somewhere a profound mystery in which we all shared, and for which I could not then, and cannot even now, find the words. If I were going to do this, it seemed I’d have to do it for myself.
One day, in a charity shop, I picked up a book called, ‘In Days of Great Peace’, about one rather extraordinary man’s lifelong search for the very thing I myself seemed to be seeking. In the Foreword to that, the writer spoke about ‘consciousness’ – or ‘awareness’ if you like – that thing by virtue of which we all communicate with and comprehend the world we see ‘out there’. Mainstream Western science, he said, had never taken it very seriously. ** But it is, nevertheless, an absolutely integral part of ourselves and of that physical world ‘out there’. And just a little thought indeed makes that clear – because without consciousness, without our awareness – our ability to see, hear, taste, feel and smell there would be no world ‘out there’ at all. And if there were, we’d have not the slightest means of knowing anything about it. This includes our own individual selves as well – for they are known to us only through that same consciousness. All of which indicated to me that as far as it’s possible to tell, there is nothing at all that is outside consciousness; in other words, the phenomenal world is a function of consciousness.
This sent a tremor through me. Because if that were the case, the mystery was not going to be revealed in a church, chapel or book. It was somewhere within me; within you; within all of us who have at our disposal – to coin an odd phrase – this thing called ‘consciousness’.
I’ve quoted the following a couple of times before in my blog and I make no excuses for doing so again – the words of a wonderful man I met in northern India. He lived as a hermit in a cave on the slopes of the hills just outside Rishikesh where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas. When asked if he thought Westerners should search around in their own countries for spiritual guides rather than flock to India as they did, he replied, “Why? Why would you look for that which you are holding in your hand?” In other words, if you’re serious in your search for whatever you conceive the mystery of this life to be – you need to look, not anywhere on the outside, but somewhere within your own self. That brought to my mind the extraordinary words of one of the world’s most revered Eastern mystics, Ramana Maharshi – “You are already That which you seek.” And then this from the Bible – “I am that I am.”
I have never been conscious, never been aware of a being called God; I know of nobody who has, although a great many have been conscious of the idea, the concept of God. I have however been conscious of, and am constantly conscious of, a mystery which is beyond all this. A mystery for which I can find no words, but which I see revealed all around me. I see it in the skies, the clouds, the sunsets, the squirrels and birds in the park under my window, in the cries of the children playing there; I see it in small things – a leaf on an autumn tree, the sun through a raindrop. I see it in the faces – happy and sad – of other people, in their smiles and their tears; I feel it in music, in poetry, in all my children, in the laughter of my woman. And that, to me, reflects the heart of the mystery – silent, unknowable, unquantifiable, indescribable – yet utterly real and thus indestructible. You can call it what you like – the name is immaterial. But whatever name you give it, it’s common to us all and we are all common to it. Call it God, call it That, call it Spirit, call it Us.
Maybe even call it ‘I’.
** I’ve read recently that ‘consciousness’ is more and more being thought of as something modern science must now take seriously and investigate in an effort to understand. What occurs to me about that is that if the investigation is to be conducted using the conventional scientific method, it could be rather like using the beam of the torch to find the torch.