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.”