New circumstances make it easier to see ourselves clearly. I often think of a tale told by an acquaintance of Afro-Caribbean heritage, living in the West Midlands of Britain. In the British Isles, she’d become accustomed to being regarded as other, as category “West Indian,” in it but not of it. Visiting family in Jamaica, she found herself on a hot, crowded bus, bumping along a rocky road. “The woman standing next to me,” she said, “a complete stranger, suddenly turned and handed me her crying baby.” Long pause. “It was then I understood I was British.”
Finding myself in new circumstances, back in California and unsure about what comes next, I recognize that I have lost a sense of spiritual connection that was with me for many years: a sense of belonging, of being held, what people tend to call “faith” or “trust.” My sense of who I am seems strong and clear; but lately I’ve been fresh out of reasons to believe that who I am will matter to the forces that are shaping my future.
These days, I have unlimited opportunities to answer the question “What will you do now?” There are projects in development, good possibilities all. But all of them are affected by the economy, so for the people raising funds, the outcomes are uncertain. The more I talk about future prospects, the more details I pour into my answer, the more I start to scare myself. I know what I have to offer; I know I have always landed on my feet; I know it takes courage to set out on a new path; I know I have friends and resources and gifts. And then some ultimate existential question opens up, and I don’t know.
A wise friend asked me what I now believe about spirit. I said I had come to a place of utter agnosticism, utter ambivalence. At one time, the world had a numinous quality for me: not just that I could see “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” (in Dylan Thomas’s beautiful phrase), but that I could feel that same force moving through me, driving me, too, toward growth and fulfillment of the potential I carried into this life. I can perceive the outward signs of energies that cannot be captured by numbers nor manufactured in laboratories, but just now, they feel apart from me, indifferent to me. The mystical experiences I’ve had, the supernatural explanations that formerly persuaded me, now seem mere possibilities. Perhaps I imagined them, perhaps I have mistaken the artifacts of my own mind for information about the world. Who is to say?
The flow is blocked, my friend said, by ambivalence. “You have to decide what you believe,” he told me, “or you will stay stuck here.”
So I have been revisiting my own beliefs to see what is intact and what has dropped away—and why. Most of it seems so obvious: the anger and resentment I feel when I consider the possibility that some intelligence or force is guiding all this—the summer leaves, the glittering waves, and my grief—my resistance to trusting that force. The brokenness I have experienced with spiritual teachers and leaders, leading me to question whether practices that don’t make you better are worthy of devotion (but then I wonder just how much more broken they might be without such practices). The credulity of the New Age in its many absurd manifestations, my own desire not to betray my mind or my integrity with foolishness.
Yet the avatars of atheism are just as stupid, just as unworthy of ultimate trust. What hubris to claim certainty that this infinitely complex and beautiful universe can be entirely explained by what appears in our science textbooks! I feel somehow embarrassed at how much those militant atheists’ certainty exposes their of own fears: they would rather pretend to know it all than face the overwhelming scale of mystery. Science is converging with spirituality, these days, of course, with theories grounded in quantum mechanics that tell us that “reality” is just a way we decide to freeze and perceive energies that are actually in unceasing flow, so that everything that seems solid has permeable boundaries and is always in interaction with everything else. So today’s rational certainty is likely to fall in the face of new insights, as has almost every prior certainty.
Locked in ambivalence, each of these thought-streams leads me to the next, round and round. All explanations seem equally plausible and inadequate. Yet I understand that for my own well-being now, I have to choose. I decided to ask for a sign. “The Divine Radio is always singing if we could only make ourselves ready to listen to it,” said Gandhi, “but it is impossible to listen without silence.” In silence, I took myself on my favorite walk by the water, scanning for signs.
I saw three, but my resistance to perceiving them is so great, it took me a whole day to recognize them. First, a Western Fence Lizard appeared. It strolled out into the middle of the path just as I approached, and no matter how close I came, it refused to budge. The path had been crowded with people, but they seemed suddenly to disappear. I have a special love for reptiles and amphibians, so seeing a lizard or frog is always a delight. But the encounter is usually much briefer. This time, as the lizard and I communed in the silence, a Western Tiger Butterfly made straight for us, flying in low circles over our heads until I rose and continued down the path. Toward the end of my walk, a garter snake slithered onto the path as I came around the bend, dancing its S-shaped way to the other side while I stood and watched.
When I arrived home, I talked to a friend about my ambivalence, my desire to resolve it, my difficulty in finding the way. “Why don’t you pick a side,” she asked, “and commit to it for a while? If you want, you can always switch sides later.” How smart is that? If you can’t go through it, just leap over!
Regardless of my present doubts about the provability of a force that guides us, a force to which we can align ourselves and in which we can trust, the other side of the debate seems to me so egregiously narrow, flat and blind, the side that says yes is the only one I can pick.
Readers of philosophy (who know there is nothing new under the sun) will recognize that my life has come to precisely the same crossroads as described in Pascal’s Wager, Blaise Pascal’s 17th century conjecture that since the existence of God cannot be proven by reason, there must be another basis for our decision to believe or not—and since our life is conditioned on our choice, we cannot escape the necessity to decide. Since we can never know the truth of our choice, the only relevant question is which decision offers the most to gain. Pascal points that out with utmost clarity in Pensee 233:
You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you—will quiet your proudly critical intellect…
Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
I have made the same walk hundreds of times. Usually my companions are birds and ground squirrels, although I’ve seen the odd lizard, the occasional skunk. But I have never before seen all three species on the same day. It wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I recognized the obvious truth, that the essence of all three is transformation, the snake shedding its skin, the butterfly emerging from its cocoon, that lizard joining its appearance to its environment. And me.
Beautiful post, as always. I love it when you ask these deep questions.
I think that we might take a good look at that word “ambivalence.” Ambivalence is our very nature. Yes, we are numinous beings. Yes, we are animals. We don’t have to decide which to believe; both are true. In meditation, I occasionally find a space of awareness, where I recognize that I am spirit. Or love. Or consciousness (or whatever word you want to use), and that I am connected to everything/everyone else in the universe, that there is no separation. No duality. And then, I get up from my cushion, and I go to the grocery store and check my bank balance online and put my shirts in the washer…all the things that “separate” creatures do. I mourn those gone from my life. I get lonely. It could be that some day these two separate ways of knowing/being will come together into a single understanding…but I doubt it.
Jeff’s comment reminds me of Jack Kornfield’s book “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry”, a wonderful book about such come-downs and much more. I haven’t arrived at the “single understanding” alluded to above, but I sense it is possible.