Kevin, a reader of Awake, Alive & Aware, writes:
“Spirituality? Questions? Who am I? Yes. Yes. And yes. I would add the search for meaning and a willingness to risk change. Getting anywhere with these very personal matters requires a very personal approach. For me, real, concrete and life changing answers come by way of letting go of who I think I am and what I think I know. I’m a thinker. It’s a preference for sure. But I believe it’s in my genes. And it’s become a honed skill. So when I became conscious of my spirit and the spiritual path it was by way of thinking and rationality. To make a long story short my conscious journey on the spiritual path began as an effort to make sense of my life and find sanity. But it quickly became a quest to integrate thoughts, feelings and relationships. Twenty-seven years later I feel I’m beginning to make some progress. Today, one question I struggle with concerns individual and personal conscience and society’s structures and moral codes. It feels like religion is saying the seat of morality is personal conscience which is experienced as God’s still, small voice. But religion demonizes and lionizes people based on what religion judges to be moral and immoral not by what people say their conscience compels them to do and advocate.
Thanks Joe. What’s been your experience?”
As you say, Kevin, these are highly personal matters and no one size answer fits all. Spiritual autobiography is a key practice of World Spirituality. I’ve found the enlightenment teaching of Unique Self so valuable to me: it suggests to me not only that you and I may each be approaching our search for meaning in unique ways, but that uniqueness is essential to Who We Really Are … which is paradoxically distinct but not separate.
But to elaborate on this answer… “Who am I?” first became a pressing question in my spiritual life around the time of my 30th birthday (12 years ago). At the turn of the Millennium (it was September 1999), I experienced the most bizarre and unbelievable spiritual experience of my life. (I wrote a memoir in which I tell about what happened in the book’s twisty final chapter.) For the first time, I had no idea who or what or when or how I was. It was a total upheaval of everything that I took to be real.
My experience in 1999 was not my first mystical experience, but it was the first time that I really encountered the limits of the rational mind in terms of providing an explanation of or way of integrating the experience. As a young man in my 20s, I found that I could experience God directly or experience a powerful and abiding and non-cognitive realization of Bliss … at least on occasion. But I was torn between relating to these experiences through liberal Christian theology, the psychological study of religion (e.g., William James’s pragmatism), or atheistic scientific materialism, or any of a variety of other intellectual paradigms.
I could not integrate these mystical experiences in my 20s because I had found no way to honor the truth in such a diversity of conflicting, antagonistic perspectives about mysticism. It seemed for a long while that I was doomed to a perpetual agnosticism, and perpetually keeping the profound depths of the spiritual experiences away from my consciousness.
But it was also true that none of my wrestling, no matter how sincere, really penetrated to the depth of the question: “Who am I?” I felt alienated, not at home in the world. (The image above is of the Archangel Gabriel as portrayed by Andy Whitfield in the movie Gabriel, a depiction of a spiritual being lost in a strange, surreal purgatory.)
Eventually, my Millennium experience forced the question to the front of my consciousness. I knew from reading the writings of mystics and sages (and of the psychologists and religion scholars who studied them) that almost universally these people encountered themselves as indistinct from God or Spirit or Divinity or some Absolute Reality however they defined it. They basically answered the question, “Who am I?” with “I am GOD.”
Long story short, it wasn’t an easy ride, but eventually I began to find my own way of owning my mystical realization. The world today doesn’t exactly make it easy for people to go around saying, “I am God.” You can get locked up for that. You can lose friends and jobs. Even people in your religion will be frightened or angry by your discovery of inner divinity, if they have not also understood their own lack of separation from the Divine. Fortunately, there are more skillful and nuanced ways of talking about spirituality that don’t quite sound so crazy.
So yes, Kevin, like you, my path has been one of letting go of who I thought I was and being willing to embrace more of the mystery of life. And it has at times brought me into conflict with those parts of religion which have become fixated on condemning people who didn’t fit into the mainstream rather than embracing God’s presence directly, transforming lives, entering the Kingdom of Heaven, or realizing enlightenment.