My sister and I were subjected to brief bouts of Southern Baptist teachings each summer whenever we visited our grandparents. We were really not positively impacted by that experience for the most part, and frequently whispered things to each to try to make either crack up during the sermons. "I dare you to stand up and shout, 'I worship the devil!'," that kind of thing. It seemed desperately funny during the middle of a fire-and-brimstone sermon, when laughing for any reason would've triggered great familial shame and incurred the wrath of our grandmother.
I guess you could say we were raised spiritual more than religious. My folks were raised Methodist and Southern Baptist respectively, but not very effectively I guess, because I didn't get any of that from them growing up. My mom was/is a seeker, so we bounced around to a few "New Thought" churches (Unity, Unitarianism maybe; she taught yoga, so…) before my folks settled on what was then called the Church of Religious Science, based on the teachings of Ernest Holmes. It's also very much a new thought religion, focusing on the individual's connection to the universal divine and realizing one's perfect, essential nature. This is what my family practiced from when I was maybe nine or ten years old or so.
In my experience, most of these New Thought religions have a heavy Christian slant, at least in America. They seem to believe in the teachings of Jesus and most of the miracles in the Bible even without necessarily buying into the whole “only begotten son” and “wash away your sins” stuff. Just like all religions based on holy scriptures, they pick and choose the passages that suit their belief system and conveniently ignore the rest. The name, Religious Science, combined with the fact that it was not a well known religion at all, made the disclaimer that it was not in fact Christian Science necessary whenever telling anyone what religion my family practiced.
I'm sure I'm selling it short, but it always felt to me to be a little too material and goals based. Science of Mind (the Ernest Holmes text that informs the belief system) practitioners engage in Spiritual Mind Treatments rather than prayer, wherein the focus always seemed to me to be on realizing some transformation within oneself that may or may not manifest as an external transformation as well. Get a better job, have better relationships, be healthier, that kind of thing. I'm sure there are plenty of practitioners that focus exclusively on "spiritual" transformations or even get into it trying to realize more worldly gains and then experience internal growth through the practice, and anyway, my mom has since become and is still a minister of this variety (the organization is now called Centers for Spiritual Living), so I am familially bound to view them charitably.
I was also in fact brainwashed by a more traditional Christian church when I was around 12 years old. A family that we were friends with recommended a summer camp that my folks shipped me off to along with my best friend. He and I were both budding Darwinists and did our best to fight off the weird anti-science teachings we were being fed (I think they were the type to believe that dinosaur fossils were placed in the ground by God to test us), but after constant immersion in Bible teachings - including selecting specific passages to focus on each day - and otherwise being loved and accepted by all the good Christians around us, I was effectively fully converted. It must've been weird for my friend to see this happen right before his eyes (he was less suggestible or more resilient than I was apparently) and by the time I returned home I was quoting bible verses and praying multiple times a day quite piously. I think this Bible-based piety only lasted a few weeks, but I imagine it must've freaked my folks out a little bit.
When I was 12 or 13 I became interested in astral projection (out of body experiences). I used my allowance money to buy a cassette tape that was a guided meditation on one side and a subliminal version of the same thing on the other side. I listened to that tape many dozens of times over the course of the next several years (it seemed like hundreds, but I was young). I never fully had the experience of leaving my body while consciously attempting to do so, but I did learn how to meditate and generally how to use my breath to relax my body and mind. And I had one experience when just lying on my bed, sort of dozing in and out of sleep, where I felt like my consciousness rolled out of my body and onto the floor. It was a wonderfully liberating feeling, but also frightening and out of my conscious control, and I jerked back into my body and into fully waking consciousness after only a few seconds.
That was not my first transcendent experience. When I was five or six years old I had the experience of being called into the house for dinner and looking up into the sky and feeling time slow down, as in a dream, while a craft that looked like what I would later come to know as Skylab flew very low overhead. This was during the time when Skylab actually was orbiting the earth, but my proximity to this apparition and the experience of time dilation was decidedly outside of the range of explainable experiences. I can't say if I was aware of Skylab at that age, but it's certainly possible I had seen a picture of it on a magazine or on TV. Small children seem to frequently have magical experiences, however you choose to interpret that, so I sort of put this experience off to the side the same way we do children’s experiences of imaginary friends.
I also have crisp but isolated memories as a child and young adult of experiencing the world as if it were split into frames at times, like a stuttering movie projector. These always felt like special experiences, but the only activity I have a sense of them being associated with was the act of walking through a doorway. Like some kind of metaphor for perception? These have always felt like the experience of having a mask of illusion pulled away to expose some deeper reality; and this type of experience and the wide variety of additional other-worldly experiences I’d come to accept as part of meditation practice all seemed to solidify my faith in some kind of super-reality and, for reasons that were not at all clear, a supreme being or universal intelligence.
During my college years I saw a spiritual counselor/therapist who subtly indoctrinated me into the teachings of the Church Universal and Triumphant. She was essentially an escapee from the cult of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, but who clearly had fond feelings for their teachings still. She taught me to use decrees (more on those in a moment) and engaged in some crystal healing energy work with me around my chakras in amongst her talking me through my late-teen emotional turmoil, sometimes relying on the work of Louise Hay or Wayne Dyer. I continued to meditate quite regularly and had a number of very powerful experiences in meditation that seemed to reinforce the teachings I was receiving.
Decrees are short, rhythmic chants - usually to one or another Ascended Master (some of whom are also Catholic Saints) - generally focusing on a specific color with certain healing, transformative or protective attributes. I began to use some of the decrees during large chunks of my waking life. Chanting them to myself anytime my mind was not otherwise engaged, or especially when I was anxious, sad, frightened, etc.
It was around that time that I had a profound awakening experience that lasted for several days. A mantra came to me in mediation and as I began to repeat it over and over again, an incredible sense of well-being and peace came over me. I continued to chant it for what felt like every waking moment for the next few days. It's hard to describe, but I seemed to be chanting it even while engaged in conversation and otherwise going about my day. The mantra was, "I am letting go of this." On the third day, I drove from Boulder (where I was going to school) down to Denver to meet my mom and see Ram Dass speak. Seeing him felt like an incredible culmination of this experience and I waited after his talk to speak with him. He looked deeply into my eyes (the way gurus do) and said, "Isn't it wonderful that we can hear each other?" I said, "Yes, it is," and we hugged. I told my mom about the mantra I'd been using (while still very much on another plane) and she said, "The problem I see with that is that if you're always letting go, then you've never let go." That pretty well brought me back to earth. I don't blame her, but I did a little at the time.
For the next 20 years or so, my spiritual beliefs remained somewhat stable. I had a profound faith in some kind of higher power or guiding consciousness that I felt to be strongly supported by some of my experiences in meditation. Moreover, I never really deeply considered my beliefs or what it meant that I was continuing to repeat various mantra-like "decrees" during my waking life and sometimes in meditation as well. Eventually however, I started to question who or what I thought I was aligning myself with by repeating these calls to various Ascended Masters and how I thought I could know the truth of any of the claims that were implicit in the worldview I was semi-consciously subscribing too.
As this creeping doubt began to erode my confidence in a belief system I had not consciously chosen for myself, I tried to resist my now deeply ingrained habit of repeating these mantras to myself, and began the process of deconstructing everything in my worldview that seemed unsupported by my own life experiences. This was not an overnight process by any means, but over the course of a year and a half perhaps, I stripped away a great number of previously unquestioned beliefs, confident that if they were "true", there was no danger of losing them, they would simply come back. And they didn't.
I read Sam Harris' book "Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion" and it sent me further on my quest to understand the nature of my beliefs and what they were really based on. I kept seeing comments from and discussions with articulate atheists like Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins and continued to chip away at the unsupported claims in my belief systems, all the while still confident in some higher consciousness I felt I'd experienced countless times in meditation.
In the first weeks of 2015 I was selected to be on the jury for a Federal civil case wherein 10 American and Israeli-American families sued the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority for six terror attacks that occurred in Israel during the Second Intifada, specifically between 2002 and 2004. It was a life changing event to put it mildly, with the combination of compulsory service (jurors are captives in a very real way), the horrific details and tremendous suffering embedded within the case, and the massive weight of the decision making process resulting in a deeply traumatic experience. While the lived experience of coming home every night in a depressed and shell-shocked state for nearly 6 weeks might've driven many who were on-the-fence about their beliefs deeper into the faith of their childhood, I found the collision of mindless and hurtful acts of faith I was witness to during the trial to further galvanize my insistence on rational decision making.
On the one hand, all six of the attacks were facilitated to one extent or another by a deep belief in Jihadism and martyrdom. Several of the attackers (suicide shooters and bombers alike) were observed to have shouted, "Allahu Akbar!", at the time of their attacks and some of them made videos professing their confidence in the righteousness of their cause against the infidels and their firm belief in the afterlife that they felt was promised to them. To anyone that believes that terrorist attacks are primarily political in nature rather than religiously motivated, I challenge you to consider within yourself what level of belief it would require for you to strap an explosive device to your body and detonate it in a crowded city street full of defenseless civilians: men, women and children alike. But you really needn't burden yourself with the thought experiment even. You need only to listen to what the attackers themselves say about why they do it.
And at the same time, I was horrified by the stories of Orthodox Jews who were injured in the attacks and who sometimes further victimized themselves because of their strict adherence their faith. A teenage boy who was partially blinded during one of the attacks eventually sought the counsel of a Kabbalistic Rabbi when he continued to struggle to come to terms with the immense psychological trauma he had suffered. And do you know what sage advice he received? "God has damaged your vision because of your impure thoughts about women." At the time of the trial, some 10 years after he had received this insight, this young man was virtually a shut-in, all but completely unable to engage in public life because of his fear of seeing women and having impure thoughts. And his was not the only or even the most horrifying story of the effects of the initial act of terrorism being amplified and redoubled by the complicated repercussions related to the faith and practices of the victims.
In the months following the trial I became more resolutely opposed to religion, and it was during this time that I began to listen to debates with the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris mostly) and began to question even my belief in any kind of universal consciousness or divine presence. Reading The God Delusion helped tremendously in that regard as well. As I struggled to recover from the after effects of the trial, in addition to weekly therapy with a counsellor who specialized in trauma, I took a class in Transcendental Meditation (TM), which I enjoyed immensely. I found the technique to be amazingly effective and deeply impactful for me even while the undertones of Hinduism rankled against me. I decided to do some research into counter-arguments against Transcendental Meditation and found some rather vocal ex-TM teachers who had published a number of articles and created anti-TM websites to share horror stories of allegedly fraudulent behavior and other less than positive experiences of TM.
Although I took those stories with a healthy grain of salt, I was fascinated by the claim that meditation itself is nothing more than a type of cultivated dissociation, used pointedly in the process of promoting the teachings of TM to increase the suggestibility of the students prior to exposing them to the various indoctrinations and dogmas of the underlying belief system. It occurred to me, perhaps for the first time, that although I was hugely skeptical of the first person accounts of witnesses of all kinds of worldly events (including my own), I had somehow never applied that skepticism to my own experiences in meditation. Because the peak experiences that I had enjoyed seemed so much more profound and "real" than what I experienced in my normal waking states, I took them to be "true" in some fundamental way even though I couldn't remotely explain the experiences or put them in context for the most part.
The prospect of stripping away one's belief in God is quite frightening. I had come to a point where I was still clinging to some kind of a belief in an immortal soul at a minimum, but when I examined that belief carefully it was clear that the implications of an immortal soul - coupled with personal evolution or growth of any kind - amount to a tacit belief in a divinity of sorts. But when I began to consider that there was no sound reason to consider my own transcendent experiences to be any more truth-supporting than anyone else's, well, I had to consider that maybe even the soul was a phantasm that had to go as well.
To gradually let go of this last unsupported truth claim was a profoundly exciting and terrifying experience. I had to reconsider everything in my life in light of this new perspective and it was at once exhilarating and destabilizing. The irony being that of course it didn't really change anything. I didn't suddenly start acting immorally or change my stance on the general goodness (and badness) of my fellow human beings (in fact, I think I've become more altruistic), I just no longer felt burdened by any deep-seated beliefs that might otherwise turn some very provocative and exciting questions about life and the universe into convenient answers and dogma. The idea that you needn't make up a story to go on top of, "I don't know," is liberating in ways that are hard to explain.
And moreover, I continued to see with greater and greater clarity the ways in which people of faith allow a fundamental lie at the deepest core of their psyche to ultimately manifest as all manner of hypocrisy and self-delusion. Faith is by definition a belief or set of beliefs that is completely immune to reason, rational argument or the presence of new facts. Why on earth would anyone want such a thing, much less champion it as somehow the noblest of virtues? It is in fact corrosive to rationality and reasonableness and arguably one of our most sinister vices.
It took me quite a few months to get over the anger I held towards my parents and also to my college-era counsellor for indoctrinating me in their various belief systems without seeming to consider that consent might be a good thing. People don't present religion to their children as a shared belief system that their family practices, but only one of many alternative belief systems that one might explore. At least my family didn't. I may not have been emotionally abused with frightening stories of the hellfire that would await me if I strayed from the path of righteousness like many children are, but I was nonetheless submerged in a philosophy and worldview as if it were somehow "true", and I drank deeply from that well, much to the detriment of my cognitive and rational development.
And don't get me wrong, I can appreciate the need for a good story. The mind is quite allergic to unintegrated experiences, and when one experiences the transcendent or the ineffable - whether in meditation, prayer, while drunk or chemically altered, or just by the great fortune of being human - one tends to need desperately to make sense of that experience. So any good story that also happens be believed and cherished by our family, and maybe our larger community as well, makes for a pretty good fit. And a welcome way to keep one's wits from flying rapidly out of one's ears in the presence of the unfathomable.
I am not one of those atheists who firmly asserts that the shared physical reality that can be measured, tested and quantified in repeatable, reproducible ways is absolutely all that exists. I continue to practice meditation daily (I’ve switched to a completely secular form of nondirective meditation called Acem) and I won't pretend to understand everything that I've experienced, nor would I be so arrogant as to dismiss everything that someone else might've experienced that doesn't fit within the constraints of rational realism in so far as we might agree upon them. I won't however accept unsupported truth claims at face value nor will I go out of my way to treat someone else's religious views as unassailable or above reproach, especially when they lead to positions that encroach on the rights of others. Good ideas withstand scrutiny, and bad ideas are not good for anyone.
Breath is the canvas
Upon which is writ
The wind of my heartbeat
I try to be conscious of its beating,
Rapid-fire bursts of butterfly flappings lasso instances of its vicinity.
More often it is conscious of me
To the star of my predilection