May 17 2016

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On this American life.

It has been months since I posted any thoughts on this site—months since I’ve written anything. Much has happened in the past couple of years that kept me away, and I will tell you in a few minutes, but let me start with something else.

Last Saturday, on NPR’s “This American Life,” David Rakoff described (in a re-run, I’m sure, for Rakoff died in 2012) his experiment in attempting to gain unusual mental clarity by engaging in a guided 14-day fast. We’re talking nothing but vegetable broth, fruit juice, and daily enemas. His goal was to dFasting 1uplicate—or to come close to—the astonishing results of famous fasts that brought Jesus, the Buddha, and other sages throughout history their profound enlightenment. Less famous but more accessible witnesses of such results were also available to David and Ira Glass (the show’s host) from fast participants who described moments of surpassing clarity, empowerment, and insight.

David dutifully, and as open-mindedly as he could, went through the full fast, and reported in the end that he felt physically good but had not experienced any heightened acuity. He was disappointed. He wondered if he’d done it wrong. Dr. Lisa Sanders, a diet expert present during an interview at the outset, said this to David and to us, the listeners:

I read about these holy people who fast for weeks at a time and have these visions. And you really don’t know what to do with it because you know that something happened to them, but they interpreted what happened to them through their spiritual interests. I’d be interested in seeing how a rationalist would interpret these same feelings.

In the end, she seemed to have her answer: When a “rationalist” did it, nothing “spiritual” happened. I have a different answer.

* * *

First of all, I do think David did it wrong a little bit. Part of his regimen was a daily reading of “spiritual literature” (while holding in his enema, but that’s a whole other discussion). David opted for The New York Times, and I believe that was a bad choice. Not because there is anything bad about The New York Times, but because that reading was designed to distance him precisely from the worry, stress, and scurrying of our daily political and cultural traffic that The New York Times delivers. You might notice that Jesus and the Buddha did not fast in the middle of a bustling city square. They withdrew, one to a desert, the other to a forest, where no criers would distract them, no relatives would impose upon them, no news would upset them, where the quiet of their resting bodies would match the quiet of their minds. David did not withdraw, and lack of food is not enough. A moment of enlightenment is a eureka moment, it is a flash of perspective upon the larger picture of the world, for which one must soar above the world to be seen—and we cannot soar above the world in the minutiae of which we are immersed. Forest. Trees. You understand.

* * *

Now, second. Dr. Lisa Sanders appears to think that “spiritual interests” are the purview exclusively of non-rationalists. “Believers,” perhaps? People already predisposed to have visions and interpret them irrationally. Where does this leave her poor “rationalists” I am not sure, but I say, spirituality is a universally human attribute as much as rationality is. We express our knowledge and our beliefs in different terms, which certainly don’t have to include words like “God,” but very few of us truly consider human beings biological machines with nothing ineffable or more complex to us than that. And that “more” is spirituality. One doesn’t have to give up rationality to be a spiritual being.

* * *

And finally, third. This is my real answer to Dr. Sanders. This is a pattern and a problem that I’ve seen occur again and again: Yes, this happens to rationalists. But when it happens to a rationalist, the rationalist begins to describe the experience in terms that sound “spiritual,” so other “rationalists” no longer consider him “rationalist,” and the experience is now supposed to have happened to a “believer” and no longer counts. And the other “rationalists” keep pondering the question of what a rationalist would say when the answer is right in front of them.


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We have this problem because we have too sharp a line of demarcation between belief systems, terminologies, worldviews. Because we believe in paradox. Because when we think we are beginning an experiment with an open mind, we’re really not. For a mind to be open, it must be willing to be changed completely and forever, expanded into any realm—never seen before, or seen as unworthy.

I am not an expert on diets, nor on fasts. I am an expert, relevantly here, on one thing: what happens when this happens to a rationalist. Because it happened to me.

When it happened to me a little over six years ago, I was not physically fasting, but I was going through something quite analogous. I had hit bottom, as they say, in the course of my PTSD, my depression, my struggle to survive and to understand why I kept struggling to do it. I walked out of therapy, slammed the door, and stopped. Everything. I did not know what to do or what I needed, just that I needed to stop. For about two months I lived a life of near-complete inner silence. It was entirely intuitive: I ate, though little, I went to work, I saw my family, and that was it. I did and spoke the required minimum, did not read or watch TV, did not see friends, go to therapy, write, or go out. I did not argue with anyone about anything—and if you know me, you realize the significance of this statement. I just… floated. Weightless in some mental, emotional suspension. I waited, didn’t know for what.

I didn’t know it then, but I went on a spiritual fast—a resting state that quieted down the desperate chaos in my head, my heart, and my body, and for the first time in my life it allowed me to stop shouting at… pick your word: God? Universe? Reality? Myself? And for the first time, I listened. This is what a fast, a real fast—a fast that’s a retreat—allows you to do.

After two months of that quiet waiting, what happened to me can only be described in terms that are found in poetry and religious scriptures. And still it cannot be described. We call it mystical: the knowledge of being one with all that is. Encounter with God. Revelation. Universal Love. We have science that tells us something of what happens in the brain in moments like these: the shut-off of the center that defines the boundary of self, and so on. I call it all these things, and the meaning of life. Answers to my questions. It was the first of many moments that allowed me to understand enough of how the world works to want to live in it, moments that allowed me to experience directly the fabric of existence and its absolute wonder, moments that changed me forever.

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We are human, with limited capacity for processing, and so within the mind-boggling and the inexpressible, there were images and frameworks attached to my experience. Those allowed me to comprehend something of it and to hold on to it, and they made me a Christian. The problem, of course, is that I am now a convert, and most “rationalists” don’t regard me as a reliable source of information. That’s really too bad. Because I am still very much a rationalist, just a rationalist that got a glimpse of a bigger picture from a very high vantage point.

I don’t often try to convince people. For one, some of us are perfectly happy with the worldview we hold. For two, even when we are in search of meaning, I don’t think we can be convinced of concepts this fundamental. I know I couldn’t be told the universe was made of love before I felt it with my own raw nerves. It even sounds hokey until you really dig into it. I think we have to be ready to know things like that. Sometimes I ask myself why I was ready then, six years ago, and not before. And not later.

I’ve thought a lot about it this year, especially during Lent. It has been a hard year for me and for my family. Three years, really. Very hard. Loss of friends, loss of dreams, vocations, independence, lots of illness and injury. Near-constant state of crisis. I have barely had a day off in over a year, and “vacation” is not even in my vocabulary. I remember a few friends, one after another, saying to me over the course of the winter, as I powered through yet another family crisis with yet another pneumonia, that it surprised them I hadn’t yet collapsed. And I remember thinking how, in a way, nice it would be to have a break-down. It was long overdue. But I had no room for it on my schedule.

This Lent, in one of my rare minutes of solitary prayer, I sat as I love to do, in an empty church, and I wanted to pray but I began to cry because I was just so tired… And I complained to Jesus about this terrible year, and about the years to come that will be harder still. And then it occurred to me that, after all these months of never-ending pressure-cooker stress, sick and hurting and sleep-deprived and painfully aware that little if any relief was coming, I was still standing. My whole family was still standing. And we were still walking and running around and eating together and planning and laughing and living.

And it occurred to me then, on a Lenten day in an empty church, that I couldn’t have done this seven years ago.

prayer embraceIf you see fit to put this into different languages for the “rationalists” and “spiritualists,” you’re welcome to. I don’t see the need because I am both, and it all swirls together in my life. Ultimately, what happened was this: Before February 2010 I was weak, depressed, traumatized, and burdened by chronic pain and doubt and a death wish. Then something happened, and I was that no more but rather drenched by the awareness of the ubiquitous flow of Love, the temporal form of the eternal Good, the fabric of reality. Overwhelmed with realizations on the nature of the universe. Assured completely and astonishingly of intimate and personal meaning of existence and the absence of loss. Three years of euphoria. Ecstatic. Calmer and calmer, slowly, month by month, with my feet planted more sturdily on the ground, but no less joyful. Three years, like charging a battery.

It occurred to me this Lent, in an empty church, that had it not been for those three euphoric years, I couldn’t have done this for the past three years. I can do this now, though. I can do it because what happened to me, happened. Because I am no longer depressed, weak, or burdened. Because as hard as life can get, I will forever know its meaning, and I will never be alone. I can do it because I have faith, and I have faith because I’ve experienced Reality directly, in a flash of perspective. At the moment when I was ready—and I was ready, it seems, because I needed to be. Because hard times were coming.

We formulate our concepts in different ways. The believers in the emergent, personal property of Reality call it God. We do so because the currents of the Loving Existence That IS are mind-boggling and certainly non-linear in their temporal aspect, and it is simpler to say “God’s will.” We are all connected through those currents, and we have not begun to comprehend the mutual influence of people, things, and events on each other across time and space, dimensions and universes. Why did Jesus come and drench me, a despairing atheist, in a warm light on the floor of my apartment six years ago? You might say, because I was in bad shape and my brain needed a hit of endorphins. You might say, because I was ready to let go and see more deeply into the true state of things. You might say, because God was taking care of me. Or all of that together. And something else, of which we have no idea. In the end, it’s all the same. In the end, one thing, to me, is for sure: Nothing in this world is random. The rest is semantics.

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