My Spiritual Journey
(Based on a talk given at West Grove Unitarian Church, Cardiff, UK, on Sunday 19 March 2000)
[PART ONE – A PILGRIM’S PROGRESS]
Who Would True Valour See
(by John Bunyan)
Who Would True Valour See,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.
Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.
Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.
I’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim… Today I want to tell you something of this pilgrim’s progress, of my long spiritual journey. Not because I am in any way proud of what I have achieved. Indeed I am ashamed of how little I have accomplished, aware not of how far I have come, though I have come some way, but how far I might have travelled had I had a little more of the indomitable spirit of the author of that hymn, John Bunyan, if I really had laboured night and day to be a pilgrim, instead of just dabbling in the ways of the spirit.
I was born into a humanist family, a family of non-believers. I was raised an atheist and learnt, before I ever learnt to tie my shoelaces or recite my two times table, that I was fortunate to live in the Age of Reason. Three things I imbibed with my mother’s milk: Reason, Socialism, and Poetry and the greatest of these, it later seemed to me, was poetry. However, I have always tried to fuse the three together.
When I was about 13 I found a book on Anarchism at a Labour Party Jumble Sale and immediately became a fervent Anarchist. The bit I loved best was about the Diggers, the most extreme of the revolutionary movements of the English Civil War, and their leader Gerard Winstanley, who wrote of ‘the great Spirit Reason” in around 1650:
Every single man, Male and Female, is a perfect creature unto himself.....so that the flesh of man being subject to Reason, his Maker, hath him to be his Teacher and Ruler within himself, therefore needs not run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler without him, for he needs not that any man should teach him... (1650)
"The spirit Reason doth not preserve the creature and destroy another......but it hath a regard to the whole creation; and knits every creature together into a oneness; making every creature to be an upholder of his fellow; and so every one is an assistant to preserve the whole. (1652)
Now maybe it was the heady atmosphere of academia, maybe it was the romantic poetry I was studying, maybe it was the near-death experience I had when I got a knot in my intestines and nearly died (and of which the only thing I can remember was that it was like, well nearly snuffing it… no angels for me, I’m afraid, no bright tunnels, no white lights, no one pushing me back down saying “You have Unfinished Business Down There”), no matter... whatever it was or why, something inside of me stirred, and in the wicked words of W.B. Yeats, was ‘moving its slow thighs’… and began slouching ‘towards Bethlehem to be born’. Whatever it was, I began to be curious about religion – eastern religion at first – and I began doing yoga and meditating at the top of a hill … fool on the hill…
Then one night I was sitting at my desk working on an essay and wondering about the origin of poetry and the nature of the muse and asked “What is the muse?”… and was quite surprised to get an immediate answer. The spirit moved me and I wrote:
I AM THE UNIVERSE
I am the universe
The singer, the song and the sing-song
The ringer, the bell and the ding-dong
The immortal artist and the art and the mortal eye.
I am the meaning of words,
The definite article, the present participle
The past and future perfect.
I am the nature of truth
The one true nature
And the true nature of one:
The numeral and the innumerable
The single and the ten thousand things:
The soul and the whole
The rice and the bowl
The author and the play
The night and the day
The cradle and the hearse
The poet and the verse
In this one verse
I had found the beginning of an answer: poetry and prophecy were, or could be, both from the same divine source, whatever it is, be it Jehovah or the West Wind or the Inner Light or just the inner recesses of the human mind. And I found myself crying as Shelley did to the wind:
Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy!
(P.B. Shelley, Ode to the West Wind)
And not long after that, I tumbled out of university...
Burning burning burning burning
Oh Lord thou pluckest me out
(T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland)
I headed for London with the hounds of heaven on my trail, wandered all night round Hampstead Heath, looked down on the great city chained in its ‘mind-forged manacles’ and made a pledge with my old friend William Blake:
I shall not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword rest in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
(William Blake, And did those feet..).
I threw myself with evangelical ardour into the struggle for social justice, helping the poor and the homeless, finding empty homes for them to occupy, furniture, food, jobs and whatever else they needed. The months rushed by and the Big City slowly turned into a neon nightmare, something symbolised for me by the Bag Woman:
I have lived too long in Neon City
Chasing dreams about dreams
As if they were banknotes
Whipped away by the wind
And waiting patiently on street corners
For the weather to change
Or for the traffic to stop.
Once I too was young and knew grace
But then Time mugged me and left me lying in the gutter
Spat on me when I tried to stand up
And laughed in my face when I cried.
So now I beg pennies and hoard rubbish,
Huddle in a doorway at night,
Shuffle along the streets all day,
Muttering mystical abracadabras
Which no longer work.
Yes, I have wandered too long around Neon City
And can no longer remember the way out
Or anywhere else I could go
And if you ask me a simple question
I will answer another.
So leave me alone, young man,
Hurry on by, and remember:
Get out while you can.
One way or another,
The inmates have all lost their minds,
And the guards have no pity
In Neon City.
But it was in this maelstrom, just as I was beginning to wonder myself if there really was any way out, that I met the love of my life, my future wife, and, in the words of another of our great poets, Dylan … what’s his name? …Thomas? No, no… Bob! – Bob Dylan:
It was in another lifetime full of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
"Come in", she said, "I’ll give you shelter from the storm".
And she dragged me off to India, of all places. I was too busy saving the world to want to go at first, but together we read about an extraordinary guru called Sai Baba, who claimed to be an avatar, an incarnation of God. It sounded like a story worth investigating, so off we went, on a one-way ticket (folly of follies).
And here is what Sai Baba taught:
"I have come to light the lamp of love in your hearts, to see that it shines day by day with added lustre. I have come to tell you of this universal, unitary faith, this spiritual principle, this path of love, this duty of love, this obligation to love. Every religion teaches people to fill their being with the glory of God and to evict the pettiness of conceit. It trains them in the methods of unattachment and discernment, so that they may aim high and attain spiritual liberation. Believe that all hearts are motivated by the one and only God; that all faiths glorify the one and only God; that all names in all languages and all forms people can conceive denote the one and only God. His adoration is best done by means of love. Cultivate that attitude of oneness between people of all creeds and all countries. That is the message of love I bring. That is the message I wish you to take to heart… Let the different faiths exist, let them flourish, and let the glory of God be sung in all the languages and a variety of tunes. That should be the ideal. Respect the differences between the faiths and recognise them as valid as long as they do not extinguish the flame of unity".
Now isn’t that very similar to Unitarianism? Well, in Sai Baba’s terms it was Sanathana Dharma, the eternal way of Truth and Right Living, the essences of the Vedas, the holy books of what we, lumping together a universe of faiths and philosophies, call Hinduism. And in India I learnt of the philosophy of Shankara: Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualistic school of Vedanta, the ancient teachings of the Upanishads. The philosophy of Shankara, who lived from 788 to 822 of the Christian Era, can be summed up in the following statement:
Brahma satyam, pagan mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah: Brahman, the Ground of all Being, is real, the world is illusion, the self is not-different from Brahman.
Now that may sound like a load of inconsequential nonsense on first hearing, a denial of the world, a flight from reality. But if we translate it into modern scientific terms we can say:
Everything is energy, matter is – in the words of Bertrand Russell, the arch-rationalist – “only a convenient word to describe what happens where it isn’t”. It is concentrated energy and so are we:
We are angel dust, star seed
Eternity tied up in time.
We are mind-matter, spirit stuff
Emerging from primeval slime.
We are heart beat, warm blood
Anger and passionate heat.
We are brittle bone, soft skin
Where time and eternity meet.
We are in some mysterious way and to some degree, all avatars: incarnations of the eternal Sat Chit Ananda – Being, Consciousness and Bliss.
The story continues...
No thanks, take me back home