Spirituality

Beyond Belief And Thinking — Is God Love, And How Can We Experience It?

Is God love?
Is Love the collective force of the universe?

This post isn’t planned or researched. No notes jotted, no research saturated in neon highlighter ink, no books reread. I have no idea how I’ll do such an elaborate topic justice, but could I ever do this topic justice, really? It’s humanity’s greatest question, a question that divides, incites, reassures, and ignites, and will never be succinctly answered in this world: does God exist? And if so, what is its nature? The only way to address the topic is through my experience.

Let me begin by immediately addressing the thorn-crown-wearing-elephant-in-the-room. I appreciate the word alone, God, sparks an immediate, visceral response. When I talk of God, I don’t mean an entity, a bearded being in the sky. I don’t mean the societal construct of God, derived from the often dogmatic, power-controlling structures of organised religion. No, God is the term I use to describe the universal, conscious energy behind all matter.

God In The Paradigm Of Thought

Trying to understand God in the paradigm of thought is like measuring temperature with one of those flexible rulers everyone had at secondary school; it’s not an appropriate tool. Conceptualising God on the level of thinking leads to the requirement of belief. Rationally weighing up the arguments for and against God’s existence takes belief to come to the conclusion “God exists” or “God doesn’t exist.” I see belief as required when attempting intellectual, thought-based understanding of the metaphysical — where there is a lack of evidence. Belief by this definition is the mental process of rationalising a concept.

This isn’t exclusive to God or the meaning of life. Most of us, myself included, spend a huge amount of time not perceiving reality as is, but filtering external stimuli to best fit the mind-made constructs about how the world should be. We conceptualise on a daily basis thanks to the power and frequency of thought. Our experience is subjective, playing second fiddle to the 70,000 thoughts rattling around the brain and the kaleidoscopic variety of emotions running through the body. The likes, dislikes, judgements, preconceived ideas, limiting beliefs, so on. Combined, this is what Buddhists call Māyā — the illusion.

Contemporary religions* filter spirituality and the metaphysical through the same process, creating a construct of what, or how, God should be. My aversion to this construct made me a staunch, unashamed atheist. I had absolutely no belief in what I was told the nature of God was. It didn’t work for me, or make any sense, especially when compared to the rationality of science. My attempt at thinking my way into the realm of God left me with one definitive answer — it’s all bullshit.

* As a side note, at their essence, all religions tend to agree on the central ideas of what God is, the same message portrayed in differing metaphor.

Moving From Intellect To Experience

Unfortunately, the “it’s all bullshit” mindset didn’t work out for me. All of us have an innate craving to connect to something bigger than ourselves. A lack of this connection leads to many afflictions, for me a pervasive and inescapable depression. The “it’s all bullshit” motto led me to attempt to satiate the craving of connection in the material world, in external pleasures, fleeting fulfilment and chemical highs. But I was coming up short. The intellectual conclusion, “it’s all bullshit,” clearly wasn’t serving me.

But what happens when we move from the intellect to a place of direct experience? This occurred, unwittingly, when I started meditating. At its most basic level, meditation is a way of stepping back from our thoughts and feelings by focusing elsewhere, typically on the breath. In doing so, we access the place behind thoughts and feelings. When the thinking mind’s vice-like grip relaxes, an inner peace and tranquility can be experienced. In essence, meditation moves us from the realm of concept to the realm of experience.

It’s a liberating place to be. It’s a place where all of the concepts we have about ourselves, the world, and the universe we exist in, dissolve, like snow melting in the blazing sunshine of pure awareness. Peculiarly, my atheistic, “it’s all bullshit” construct melted with it. I moved beyond the place where I rationalised there was no such thing, to a place of direct experience in union with a higher power (I promise you I try my best to avoid phrases like “union with a higher power” but, sometimes, they can’t be avoided).

Beautifully, that higher power was an enhanced and unblemished version of an energy I’d experienced before — love.

The Direct Experience of God

Before I continue, I want to be crystal clear that in describing God, I’m attempting to define the realm of experience within the realm of concept, using language, an inadequate tool. It’s like trying to ctrl + c the binary code of a video game into notepad, hoping to play the game but faced with an abundance of 0s and 1s. The fabric of direct experience is too grandiose for language. But here goes…

To experience God is to experience a presence, a pureness, an awareness. It is to experience a divine link to a dimension beyond the ego and the material, a dimension so assured and righteous, it cannot be explained by knowledge. In moments of clarity, submerged in lukewarm lucidity, a peaceful, palpable sensation is experienced, like jacking into a direct IV drip of love in its undiluted form, “the good shit.”

I want to add an important caveat: throughout the process of my, uhum, “spiritual journey,” my experience has always preceded any attempt to rationalise or understand. But the beauty is, when looking for explanation, I realised how universal and common such experiences are. These shared qualities are at the core of all religions, not just those originating in the East. During a time before long-distance travel or communication, many separate communities shared the same experience, and drew the same conclusions.

Challenging The Concept of Love

I touch on unconditional love in deconstructing the myth of romantic love. Spiritual practice has given me access to the unlimited source of love that doesn’t require an intellectual deconstruction to be validated. It just is. But how does this atheist go from experiencing love during meditation, to the conclusion love is the universal force behind everything?

Well love is universal. Every so often, outside of our control, we see through the veil of Māyā. Removed from the mind’s filter, the celestial sacredness of the world around us is experienced. It rises to the surface in the moments we can’t quite describe, an inextricable beauty, a place beyond the mind, beyond language: staring into our beloved’s eyes, mesmerised by a sunset, a last-minute Wembley winner, a moment of unexpected compassion or shared humanity, or a moment of spontaneous appreciation. These are glimpses of the world’s sacred nature and our place in it.

“God is love” sounds like a fridge magnet you’d find in any respectable retail outlet in Glastonbury during the summer solstice, but that’s the downside of tackling this topic with language. Language is an immensely valuable tool but it can never describe the spiritual experience adequately. The great spiritual teachers are able to write in a way that instead pokes and prods the smouldering ember within you, the place where you just know these things to be true, as if a pool of knowledge lurks deep within the self, and all you have to do is abseil down to bathe in it. But they can never describe the experience. That’s for us to discover by ourselves.

There’s also the risk that, rather than poking and prodding the smouldering ember, words, sentences and beliefs will form a semantic shield, blocking the openness required for direct experience.

Approaching The Universe With Humility

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” — Carl Sagan.

I find great solace in the sweet spot between the direct experience of spirituality, and our understanding of how the material universe operates. In this respect, science, and in particular quantum physics, can be a highly spiritual pursuit — but it requires humility. What we don’t know is just as important as what we know. We know the evolution of the cosmos, from atom to expansive universe, came from the same source. We know through thermodynamics that energy cannot be created or destroyed, and all the energy within the universe is all that ever has been, a message religions have echoed in metaphor for millenia.

Further still, it’s exciting to see slightly outlandish theories beginning to gain credibility. This includes panpsychism, the theory that everything in the material world, down to an individual atom, has some form of consciousness,  mirroring the spiritual notion of a universal consciousness behind all matter. In his theory of biocentrism, highly respected scientist Robert Lanza’s proposes life itself creates the universe, not the other way around; congruent with ideas such as manifestation. Shit like this gives me chills, and the beauty is, it completely fits with spirituality.

As well as the poetic quote above, Carl Sagan also once said we are “atoms contemplating atoms.” Indeed we are, and that in itself is a miracle. But what’s the mystery behind those atoms? If God is love, love is the unseen energy behind contemplating atoms, the universal, conscious, nurturing force behind all matter, responsible for the creation, expansion, evolution. And it’s here, ready for you to experience, to distill into your life, to give you the connection so often sought in the material world, to provide you with new meaning.

It did for me, and it sure beats “it’s all bullshit.”

Spirituality

How ‘mother!’ Tells A Story Of Divine Femininity

Like a perfect storm, mother! is chaos. It drags you from your seat, punches you in the face, grabs you by the shoulders and shakes, leaving you with an emotional palette that mixes feelings of disgust, awe, and astonishment. It is, essentially, a masterpiece. But it’s a masterpiece only Darren Aronofsky can make, technically accomplished on the surface but elevated to greatness by its context.

Huge spoilers for mother! from now on.

It’s not a surprise that analysis has delved into metaphor. Outwardly, mother! is a dark psychological horror that tells the story of a couple, known as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) whose quiet, isolated home life is disrupted by mysterious visitors, known simply as Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Behind the veil, the film is a metaphorical representation of mankind’s most deep-rooted religious parables. Following the spiritual dive into the metaphysical with The Fountain (2006) and an exploration into the Book of Genesis with Noah (2014), mother! is Aronofsky’s attempt to produce an allegory of Christianity, and in particular, the biblical tale of creation.

Bustle has eloquently analysed the biblical correlations in mother!, highlighting the film as a condensed history of Earth told through the doctrine of Christianity, ending tragically with the forewarned apocalypse. The links aren’t all ambiguous, either. Mother is a representation of mother nature. Him is the masculine, Judeo-Christian god. Man and Woman are Adam and Eve, their feuding sons Cain and Abel.

As frantically manic as it is, the plot also follows a biblical trajectory. At its core, it becomes a story of man destroying Earth against mother nature’s wishes. People pay the house no respect, they do as they please, they take renovation under their own control. The ignorance of those unwanted visitors leads a broken sink, which floods the house in a clear reference to the Genesis flood, where God reverses creation by turning the Earth into a flooded wasteland.

In an oddly niche mother! based Inception, I’m going to dive even deeper down the parabolic rabbit hole and look at the meaning behind the parable behind the allegory. Having digested Aronofsky’s work, I don’t think mother! is a straight up, like-for-like metaphor for Christianity. I believe it contains commentary on the belief system that underpins religious doctrine. Now, let’s metaphorically peel back the blood-soaked floorboards.

The Distinction Between Religion And Spirituality

Before we go on, it’s important to make a distinction between religion and spirituality. The former can be see as dogma, a set of held beliefs that are taught in a structured way. The definition itself is: “a particular system of faith and worship” — emphasis on particular system. Spirituality, on the other hand, is more open, encompassing a belief or experience with the metaphysical, or the soul. It isn’t assigned a set God, it doesn’t follow rules. It’s religion in its distilled state.

All religions, at their core state, generally agree on the same principles. They just package them in different ways. In his book, Essential Spirituality, Dr. Roger Walsh identifies seven central spiritual practices across all religions: finding the soul’s desire; cultivating wisdom; living ethically; calming the mind; recognizing the sacred in all things; awakening wisdom and understanding; expressing generosity and service.

Another facet of spirituality is the conflict between the ego and the soul. The ego is a manifestation of the thinking mind, the barrier blocking our soul’s true desire and the discovery of God. For many Eastern religions, our true selves lie in the quiet clarity that sits beyond the mind’s “chatterbox” nature — the part of ourselves that resides beyond the thinking mind (i.e., the part of you that is aware of your thoughts) is awareness. While the ego sees itself as separate entity cut off from the world, our true selves tap into a universal, interconnected consciousness.

What on Earth does this have to do with mother!? By viewing the film through the lens of essential spirituality, it leads us to a new set of comparisons, that provides further understanding of the message behind it — Him is a manifestation of the ego, Her is awareness.

“I Am I” — Is Him A Manifestation Of The Ego?

While watching mother!, there was one particular comment that caught my attention. After she has destroyed the home to rid the unwanted guests, Mother is dying in His arms. She asks him, “who are you?” to which he responds, “I am I.” This statement is crucial. The ego is often referred to as a false sense of a separate self, a set of belief systems separate from the soul that sees itself as an “I.” By referring to himself as “I,” Bardem’s character reveals he isn’t God, but masculine, man-made representation of God.

There’s more evidence of this. The seven deadly sins on the surface appear to be rigid religious doctrine on “how not to have fun.” Instead, they highlight the different desires of the ego, “sins” in the respect that they remove oneself from the soul, or true being. Him is clearly captivated by a number of these sins, most of all pride. His attraction to fame and adulation takes him away from his soul, Her. It becomes an obsession that leads to him neglecting the most important thing he has.

This is also reflected with the visitors, who can be seen as challenges that entice the ego, to lure it into false fulfilment, away from the enlightenment that lies within the soul. In many ways, the visitors are manifestations of such ego-desires, or sins; they act freely without inhibitions, they fornicate, they steal, they crave salvation. Interestingly, in mother!, celebrity worship replaces religious deity, a nod toward fame being an ego-driven, modern substitute for God.

Mother divine feminity
Mother and Him [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

When Mother gives birth she introduces the purist element of the film. The newborn has no ego, no doctrine, no religion. It’s essence is spiritually free, explaining why many eastern religions advocate the need to “be more like children.” However, the ego-driven hoards can’t handle purity, they literally devour it, their own craving causing the death of the untainted.

Bardem’s character shows signs of gluttony (often referred to as a sign of selfishness), greed (in the manner he seeks adulation), despondency (his struggle with writer’s block) and wrath (his outburst of anger). As an interesting side note, Mother takes on the role of temptress for Him to commit the two final sins — she provokes him into seducing her (lust) and doesn’t let him hold their newborn child (envy) — thus completing the set and potentially unveiling the film’s true message.

Is Mother The Divine Feminine?

On top of testing Him’s ability to show restraint and avoid sin, there are more signs that Mother is ushering Him toward enlightenment. After supporting him through writer’s block, she cries as she reads his finished poem. In that moment, she believes, having attained his goal, Him may be close to enlightenment and overcoming his ego-driven desire (“will I lose you?”). However, he immediately informs his publisher and the press, seeking fame. Mother realises, to her disappointment, his work has become another extension of his ego.

This leads me onto the crux of this article. I don’t believe Him is God. In fact, there’s enough to suggest Mother is God, or at least the true divinity of the film. At the end, we’re shown that the Him is masculine God, the creator. He takes pride in his creation. He takes pride in the fact that he remains, while Mother does not. But out of the two, it’s Mother who acts Godlike. She surrenders, wholly. Despite everything, she gives her heart, her essence, to allow Him to continue. This leads me to a biblical quote, Galatians 2:20, which states:

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it’s no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Herself up for me.”

This text, it’s the Son of God who surrenders, and gives “Himself” (I’ve switch the gender pronoun for clarity), so it is no longer “I” who lives. In a biblical bait-and-switch, I believe that Aronofsky is making a claim that the divine feminine is God, and man’s masculine creation only “thinks” he is God — but as explained, thinking is a manifestation of the ego. If this is the case, the ending takes an interesting twist.

Him makes out Mother didn’t live up to his high expectations, but instead he’s the one being tested, and failing. Like Sisyphus, he’s forced into repetition until he learns his lesson. What’s the lesson? To avoid the cycle of destruction, “I” (Him) must transcend his ego to become connected with being, or pure awareness (symbolised by the poem which shows them connected, holding hands). In short: Him is responsible for attaining enlightenment to prevent the cycle of egoistic living and thus become one with God — “You never loved me, you loved how much I loved you,” says Mother.

The question is: Is there a basis in reality to motivate Aronofsky to pursue this as a story?

The Suppressed Sacred Femininity

Unequivocally yes. Divine femininity has been seriously suppressed, throughout centuries. As highlighted by spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle, the Holy Inquisition — an institution founded by the Catholic Church — tortured and killed between three million and five million women across a 300 year period. Conversely, pre-Christian civilizations such as Sumerian, Egyptian and Celtic societies, revered and worshipped the divine female. The Holy Inquisition rebranded sacred femininity, making it demonic.

Why? As highlighted by Tolle in A New Earth, sacred femininity was rebranded due to collective ego desires taking control. Tolle argues females are more in touch with the soul, thus the ego takes a stronger hold in men. Historically, as the collective ego grew, dogma and fear-based religion was introduced. In order to flourish, the enlightened form of spirituality, in its feminine form, was censored and silenced.

Tolle adds that as a result, women were pushed to the sidelines, reduced to child bearers and objects owned by men. We see this in mother! — throughout the film, Lawrence is seen as an object of Him, her hospitality and life-giving qualities are overlooked. When Mother fulfils her child bearing purpose, she knows immediately. In that scene, the camera focuses on the sun, shining brightly. This could be an illustration of good weather…

Or, in a parable of a parable, a film abundant in metaphor and deeper meaning, it’s more likely the sun represents something else — the Son of God.


Originally posted on Movie Pilot.

Spirituality

Einstein’s Million-Dollar Note On Happiness Explains Spiritual Attachment

In 1922 Albert Einstein wrote a note on how to live a happy life. It said: “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” That note recently sold at auction for $1.56 million. Einstein’s note subtly hints that attachment prevents us from being happy, and non-attachment brings joy. Here’s why.

All of us have varying levels of attachment to desired outcomes or to life situations. Attachment is a buzzword that pinpoints the cause of suffering. To define attachment, Buddhist philosophy is a good place to start. In particular, the Four Noble Truths, which are:

  • Dukkha (life is full of suffering)
  • Samudāya (the origin of suffering is attachment)
  • Nirodha (we can be liberated from such suffering)
  • Magga (there is a path that can be followed to be liberated from suffering)

I won’t go in-depth on the intricacies of the Noble Truths here, as they’ve been covered elsewhere. However, it’s important to acknowledge how Buddhist philosophy highlights the conflict in seeking and craving pleasure in the outside world. The Buddha taught that the root of all suffering is tanhā, which translates to desire, craving or (that word again) attachment. Unfortunately, craving pleasure from physical senses (food, sex, alcohol) is destined to fail as it only brings short-lived happiness. It lacks true meaning, true purpose. Or in Einstein’s words, the pursuit of what we crave is bound with unrest.

attachment
We often crave “things” to make us feel happy

Interestingly, attachment also applies to things we see as positive. Maybe it’s our health, our iPhone, our partner. We catch colds, break bones, drop our phones down the toilet and argue (or worse still, break up with) our partners. For sake of simplicity, let’s call these attachment to current positives. It’s the deep-rooted sense of “I like x now, I don’t want it to change.” The trouble is, everything changes (more on impermanence later) and the more attached you become to good things, the more you suffer when they change. Which they will. Always.

The Influence Of Buddhism On Psychotherapy

Before moving on to non-attachment (or nirvana in Buddhism) it’s important to note that the principles above also provide the building blocks for the scientific approach to psychology. For example, meditation master Chögyam Trungpa identified in his 1975 book Glimpses of Abhidharma just how influential Buddhism has been to psychotherapy:

“Many modern psychologists have found that the discoveries and explanations of the abhidharma [ancient Buddhist texts] coincide with their own recent discoveries and new ideas; as though the abhidharma, which was taught 2,500 years ago, had been redeveloped in the modern idiom.”

Many well-respected thinkers of Western psychology agree. Analytical psychologist Carl Jung wrote a 30-page foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a popular form of talking therapy in the West, aims to restructure the mind. Further still, a branch of CBT, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, takes huge inspiration from Buddhist philosophy, in particular, the Eightfold Path. The Indian Journal of Psychiatry even identifies the Buddha as a “unique psychotherapist.”

How To Practice Non-Attachment

A statement I’ll end up repeating a lot on Mind That Ego: the moment you become aware of a specific behaviour or habit is the moment that sparks change. As soon as you realise your own personal relationship to attachment, you can apply clarity to it to help it reduce its hold. In his book Essential Spirituality, Roger Walsh identifies four exercises in non-attachment to reduce craving. These are:

  1. Recognise pain as feedback. This is the first point of awareness, as mentioned above. It’s the acknowledgement that the pain or suffering you are feeling isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of attachments and cravings.
  2. Examine the experience of craving. This exercise has deep roots in mindfulness. Walsh highlights that often when we think about our cravings, we pay attention to what we are trying to get (cake, a new car, that last Rolo) and not the sensation of craving itself.
  3. Reflect on the costs of craving. We all need motivation now and again, and what better motivation than giving some consideration to how such attachments are influencing our lives? Especially a process that uses energy and keeps us in an unhappy loop of seek, find, seek, find.
  4. Recognise underlying thoughts and beliefs. I mention CBT above, which is relevant to this exercise. CBT therapy focuses on changing our thought patterns and beliefs. This technique can also be applied to our particular attachments, our “I’ll be happy whens.” If we crave money our primary thought is more than likely: “I’ll be happy when I have made more money.” Dig deeper, and you might find thoughts linked to self-esteem (“I need to earn x per year to be a valuable person”) or even comparison and jealousy (“my friend earns x, I should earn the same”).

If Spirituality Means Giving Up Everything Fun, Why Bother?

Most of us like a cheeky beer, splashing out on new clothes or having sex (probably not at the same time).  Here’s the good news — you don’t have to give them up. I’m a huge believer in moderation, and in the right dose, all of the pleasures we physically seek can be indulged now and again. The key, though, is to make sure that process of seeking doesn’t become interlinked with a sense of craving. When you feel you need any of these things to be happy, that’s when it’s a problem.

When you practice non-attachment and finding self-fulfilment in “the now,” you won’t need to seek more money, more sex or more alcohol. That means you’re the one in control, choosing to divulge when necessary. Curiously, once this relationship has changed from attachment to non-attachment, behaviour soon follows, almost out of our conscious control. You might no longer feel the need to drink or binge-eat or whatever your attachments are.

In fact, you may start to live a quiet and modest life, full of joy.