Dying to Understand

Fall, Autumn, Leaf, Brown, Green, Yellow“I hear Daisy has gone now,” I remarked to a friend.
Daisy was elderly and ill. She’d taken to her bed and had been refusing food for some time, so it wasn’t a surprise.
“Yes,” Ali replied, “and boy is she in for a shock!”
I looked up in surprise for a moment, then realised what she meant.
“You mean she didn’t believe there would be anything after life?”
“Exactly,” Ali smiled. “She was adamant that ‘she’ would die along with her body. End of. What must she be thinking now?”

Bison, Cave Of Altamira, Prehistoric ArtIt’s the third time recently that such an idea has been placed in my mind.  The first was when I read a highly praised and undeniably well-researched and well-argued book called The Mind in the Cave.  Its author, David Lewis-Williams, speaks eloquently and convincingly about the world view of our ancient ancestors – those who decorated caves and rocks with incredible images of animals, geometric shapes, figures who appear to be somewhere between animals and humans etc.  It’s a great book, but for me, there is one huge issue I’ll be bold enough to disagree on.  It’s what Professor Lewis-Williams terms ‘the brain/mind problem’.  Here’s the way he resolves it (and, I’d suggest, the reason a book that deals mainly with ‘altered states’ has been so well received in scientific circles):

Two things we do know are, one, that the brain/mind evolved, and two, that consciousness (as distinct from brain) is a notion, or sensation, created by electro-chemical activity in the ‘wiring’ of the brain.

Ngc 3603, Nebula, Space, StarsThe second was a recent BBC documentary following three ageing British astronomers on a journey to recapture some of the finest moments of their younger days, when they had held eminent positions in observatories in the US, in the post Sputnik race-for-space of the mid-twentieth century.  They were lovely guys and all had enjoyed happy and successful lives.  Now, though, one was terminally ill and the others were in, shall we say, the late autumn of their lives.  Unsurprisingly, as they trekked through the mountains, the discussion turned to death.  One, despite his scientific training, clung to the Christian faith.  He admitted he didn’t see much logic in it, but still felt comforted by the God he’d been brought up to believe in and the idea that there would be an afterlife.  He mused, rather sadly though, that there probably wasn’t any need for astronomers in Heaven.  His colleagues seemed to adhere more to Daisy’s view, and that, presumably, of Professor Lewis-Williams.  When their bodies and brains died, so would their consciousness.  That – obviously, in their minds – meant no further existence.  As an 11-year-old I once taught commented, “I don’t think there’s anything after we die; it’s a bit sad really.”

Angel, Cherub, Stone, Angel WingsIt is a bit sad.  Has humanity, throughout its entire existence, had to make an unpleasant choice between, a. trying hard to hold faith in a religion that often seems illogical and unlikely, or b. accepting that our brains are so great, they can almost have us believing, sometimes, that there is something beyond this existence, although they know that not to be true?

What a terribly bleak choice.  When faced with it – many years ago – I didn’t like either of the options.  That’s why I’ve been on this fascinating journey, the one I’ve attempted imperfectly to document in this blog.  I believe now that I have proof that our consciousness exists above and beyond our physical bodies, however complex and impressive the ‘wiring’ of the brain may be.  I believe that there is no need to die in order to understand what is often called ‘God’ and that an ‘afterlife’ is not a possibility, but a given.  More than that, I believe we are here, right now, to explore this very issue, so that we no longer need to be sad or scared, hopeful or doubtful about death.

As Koimul so eloquently puts it: THIS IS THE GREAT EXPERIMENT.  IT IS TO LIVE IN YOUR EARTHLY BODY YET SEE INTO THE ETERNAL.

 

 

Listening to Llull

IMG_20150417_161121This wasn’t the post I was intending to write this week, but the Friday 13th events in Paris, and the Western governments’ entirely predictable responses have prompted me to insert a few thoughts on someone who for me is a new-found hero: a man who lived many centuries ago, but perhaps has something to teach us all today.

Ramon Llull was born to courtiers of Jaume the Conqueror – a mediaeval Spanish king responsible for taking Mallorca, among other places, from the Arabs.  Ramon became a page at court and later tutor to Jaume’s son.

Bear in mind that this was the time of the crusades.  Bitter wars between Christians and Muslims had been raging for well over a century when Ramon was born.  The divisions between the two cultures could not have been greater.  Hatred and distrust of all things Arab would have been endemic in his world.

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gardens of Arab baths, Palma

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Arab baths, Palma

Perhaps, as a young man, he wandered amongst the beautiful Arab buildings in his home city of Palma.  He certainly thought deeply and studied hard.

Leaving his family, Llull went to live on a mountain in the centre of the island, taking with him an Arab servant, from whom he learned to speak Arabic.

Certainly, like every Christian of his day (and many in our own) he believed that his religion was the one true way and that Jews, Muslims and anyone who didn’t share these beliefs should convert.  Unlike his contemporaries, though, he did not believe this should happen at the point of a sword.  He proposed the use of logic – philosophical argument – to convince others.

IMG_20151104_143724He produced intricate diagrams and many books which he was sure would convince anyone of the veracity of his beliefs.

He travelled tirelessly to visit heads of state across Europe and the Middle East, offering them his works and begging them to engage in dialogue rather than warfare.

Miramar, the site of one of Llull's universities, on Mallorca's north coast

Miramar, the site of one of Llull’s universities, on Mallorca’s north coast

He set up a series of universities, where young monks could learn Arabic and other less-studied languages, the better to engage in discourse with those of other faiths.

Ramon Llull had discovered a great truth.  He had realised, centuries before Einstein would turn it into a sound-bite, that the definition of insanity is

doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

He was blazing a new trail and trying to move humanity on from endless, pointless bloodshed; he was proposing respectful, open dialogue and discussion at a time when the divisions were apparently intractable.

We have to start somewhere – why not with ourselves?  Might it be time to listen to his ideas?

 

 

 

Ali on Fire

It was a shopping street, pedestrianised, but only because the steep, cobbled hill was never built for vehicles.  Fairly crowded.  I have no back-story for why I was there, but I was.

The young man passed close by me – his clothes were poor quality.  A white top with a grey and black hoodie over it.  He pulled the hood up as he walked by and something drew my attention to him.  I saw that he had a lighter in his hand.  Suddenly I realised what he was about to do.

He looked, rather shyly, around him and muttered, “Sorry,” as he put the flame to his clothing.

An instinct for self preservation made me leap back, but the street was narrow, with shops on either side.

“It won’t take long,” he was saying, in the same, sad apologetic tone.  “The pain will be over quick.”  He rolled himself into a ball and began rolling down the hill.

The flames licked half-heartedly at his clothes.  As he rolled, they went out.  Suddenly he was back at the top, close to me again.

“Not enough petrol,” he said miserably and began looking around as if searching for a source of more.

In an instant I was in front of him.  It struck me as slightly odd that I couldn’t smell any petrol.  “Think of your mother!”  I was screaming at him.

He sneered nastily, but looked at me.

I held his gaze and repeated it.  This time it got through.  He hung his head and looked so wretched and miserable that I risked putting my hand on his shoulder.  He didn’t resist.

“Come on, let’s sort you out,” I said, and led him back to where I worked.  It was an educational establishment.

“Hungry?” I asked, as he slumped into a chair.

He looked up, hope burning in his eyes.  The boy was ravenous.  I hunted about for pieces of food.  My teaching assistant, a lovely motherly soul I’d worked with for many years, found some cake and handed it to him.

“She’s a good guy,” he remarked to me, as he shovelled food into his mouth.  A couple of the students had appeared by now – lads around his age..  No one asked any questions.  They sized up the situation and began hunting in lockers and cupboards, finding more snacks he could eat.

He started talking to me then.  Told me his name was Ali.  Told me about his siblings and his father – a man he loved and respected; a man who would be heartbroken to know his son died a martyr to his fundamentalist cause.

He told me he belonged to a group.  They had a leader.
“We got to do what he says,” Ali explained, with a slight helpless shrug. “It’s like this -.”
And now I was seeing him in a separate location, over to the right and slightly above where I and the others were still gathered around the table.

Hold on…

Ali was over there with a rather ramshackle group of young guys who looked similar to him, being drilled by a thin man with dark eyes who barked commands and instructions at them.  They had to repeat what he said as soon as the words were out of his mouth.  No time for them to think – to process his words.  His words became their words.  Simple and effective.  Ali and the others were being indoctrinated.  Ali was being chosen.  I could feel his pride and his despair and his regret all mingled together.

So how come I’m able to see all this?  Just now Ali was sitting eating at my table.  His location has changed, like in a film… or… a dream.

I was still in the school, or college, or whatever it was.  The students who’d been helping find food for Ali were watching his scene as well.  They’d realised what was going on and were swearing at him, calling him ugly names.  I was remonstrating with them – imploring them to listen and understand his dilemma.

At the same time it’s dawning on me that this is a dream.  

Ali is a character in my dream.  

Or maybe I’m a character in his?  This feels more likely.

Now I know it’s a dream, it unravels.  But not before – telepathically now – Ali tells me he chose me to help him decide.  I wake up, knowing I’ve helped him.

 

Ever done that?  Gone to bed with a massive problem, slept on it and woken, knowing what you must do?  Would it be too far-fetched to believe that Ali, whoever he is, did just that, somewhere?  Might he, at some level beyond waking consciousness, have invited me into his dream to help him work through the choices?  If so, I’m honoured to have been chosen and I wish him well.

Divinity Within

17th-century engraving of Glastonbury I felt the need for something uplifting, at the end of what had been a rather testing day.

Noticing that a speaker I hadn’t heard before was giving a talk in town about finding divinity within – a subject close to my own heart – I decided to go along.

It’s brave, talking about a topic like that in this town; it’s something of a spiritual hub.  Although small in area and population, Glastonbury plays host to adherents of a huge and sparkling variety of beliefs.  We have Sufis, various denominations of Hindu and Christian, Buddhists, Pagans, 50 shades of witches, wizards and magicians, goddesses and many more besides.  The local events guide is bursting with invitations to engage in ritual, breathwork, healings, drummings, gong baths and awakenings.  Ascension and Enlightenment loom large in the small ads.  And yet here was this lady, standing up to tell her audience that divinity could be found within.

Her credentials were impeccable.  Not only did she have a doctorate in social anthropology, she had travelled the world and become intimate with a range of spiritual paths that made our town’s selection seem paltry.   Part of the ceiling of the Divinity School. Calmly, gently, and with great respect and reverence, she pointed out that every spiritual and religious path she had encountered came down to one thing:  There is a desirable state, which lies some way ahead.  If we are prepared to follow the prescribed path resolutely, putting our own desires aside, we may be fortunate enough to reach the promised state of bliss/enlightenment/ascension/joy or whatever is being offered.  She paraphrased further: As things stand, we are not good enough, not complete, lacking a certain something.  Our perfection lies some way off.

She had not, she insisted, had a personal awakening or mystical experience – nothing so grand.  She had, gradually and painfully, seen that the paths she had been following were missing the perfection that is already there.  She spoke of a fragment of divinity which lies within each of us and invited her audience to find their own ways of searching within for the guidance which would not take them on some esoteric spiritual path, but would involve simply going on, day after day, week after week, making mistakes, making amends and getting on with life. She looked rather sad, as if the quests for perfection with their rituals, observances and promises of a wonderful future were, by comparison, a kind of primrose path – one she missed.

2014-10-12 11.19.45Yes, it takes a brave woman to stand up in Glastonbury and tell people they are doing just fine without chanting, processing, drumming and praying, but I feel that she is right.

This is The Shift – the one that so many books were written about, so many experts spoke about just a few short years ago.  2012 would dawn, they said, and everything would change.  We would enter a New Age.  Self-empowerment would be the key.  We’d no longer be giving our power away to politicians, bankers or – yes – spiritual leaders.  It was hyped up to a ridiculous degree.  We gazed longingly at Aztec inscriptions and prophecies ancient and modern.  We waited with baited breath…

No bells, no whistles, but slowly and almost imperceptibly the change began.

A stealthy, gentle sea change is taking place as we begin to recognise that we DO in fact have the perfection we sought inside ourselves.  We are perfect, divine beings who have chosen to spend a fragment of our eternal existence exploring imperfection.  We witness dark in order to be able to see light.  We encounter pain in order to recognise and value joy and pleasure.  We have been born into a time and a culture where many ancient and wonderful paths offer wisdom and experience.  Many of us have the freedom – hard-won by our ancestors – to choose which, if any, of these to follow.

So however we decide to experience this brief lifetime, each of us – every single being – is unable to shake off our innate divinity.  It is who we really are and as we grasp that stunning understanding, so we can gently, gratefully and reverently lay aside our allegiance to those who try to lead us to what we already have.