Some of the most personally compelling spiritual experiences of my life took place long before I could even identify them as being spiritual. My earliest memories of childhood were punctuated periodically with moments of a kind of “unconscious awareness” of energies or forces beyond my direct experience of the world; occasionally precipitating unplanned and unexpected eruptions from within me, which would often feel like being immersed in water for a brief time. Several early episodes of actually being immersed in water over my head in the lake during family vacations brought this feeling on as well, but the feelings were just as vivid and occasionally overwhelming when they occurred during equally compelling moments on dry land. I vividly remember the visceral experience of immersion in lake water bringing to mind these “spiritual immersions”– moments of profound mystery and perplexing confusion as a child, which felt like a completely normal part of my experience of the world at that time, but which now, upon reflection, seem almost “other-worldly.”
There were a number of episodes where I felt certain that I was seeing the world through the eyes of someone else; as though another personality had taken up temporary residence within me, and I felt as though my presence in those moments was simply as a witness, as this other person perceived the goings on around me. Although it was a bit confusing at times, and not especially pleasant to have these experiences, I never felt anxious or afraid while having them. Fear of what took place inside me was something that only became real during my indoctrination into the world of religious fervor in the years of primary education in the Catholic school system. As my training in catechism and church doctrines progressed, I eventually became fearful that there was something wrong inside of me, and after hearing about what happened to the “fallen angels,” who went against God during the beginning stages of the creation of heaven and earth, I concluded that it would be best not to tell anyone about these experiences.
Dreams that I had as a child often contained extraordinary content, well beyond my limited ability to decipher them or to understand the imagery in any comprehensible way. Again, just as it seemed in my waking experience of the world, although I could not identify specifically the nature or source of the dream imagery at all times, the vivid experiences within the dreams themselves felt absolutely real to me and I did not question their validity or reality in any way. It was simply part of the fabric of my experience, which I innocently accepted as completely natural and normal in a child’s eye-view. Reporting the content of my dreams or expressing confusion about what I felt inside was always met with either dismissal as being “silly,” or discouraged as a topic for conversation. For years after starting school, I felt increasingly uneasy about not being “allowed” to talk about my experiences, and eventually abandoned hope that I would ever understand any of it well.
The death of my beloved brother when I was only eight years old was pivotal in this regard. The absolute silence which accompanied this tragedy caused me great concern that I might somehow have contributed to his demise, even though it was never inferred or spoken of out loud. My inner world was thrown into a degree of chaos and grief that was unprecedented in my brief life, but in some ways, it solidified my belief that there were forces and energies beyond my comprehension at work in the world, and somehow, I was aware of their existence without any expectation of gaining an understanding from my small circle of family, school, and church. I was utterly alone within myself, and eventually began to suppress all such inclinations, except when forced by some extraordinary event to consider them again.
Death became something to be feared, and thoughts about death were to be avoided at all costs. A young girl who was hit by a car and killed when I was in third or fourth grade became a traumatic experience for me when I was forced to attend the viewing along with everyone else in my class at the time. It was explained that our attendance would be of great comfort to the grieving parents, and our display of sadness would let them know they were not alone in their grief. I was not sad. I was terrified.
As I grew up, the death of other loved ones, particularly my grandparents, and a beloved uncle, forced me to consider what it meant to be a living person, and what losing life truly meant. The church seemed to categorize life as a temporary housing of the soul within a body, with conception before birth constituting the moment when a soul was introduced into a body, and the loss of life as the moment when the soul left the body. This imagery made a strange kind of sense to me, although it was also still incomplete and unsatisfying as an explanation of my own experience of being alive. I hungered to understand more completely, and for a time, seriously tried to allow the Catholic worldview to fill in the gaps. The devotion to the church and its teachings displayed by my parents and extended family of adults gave me the idea that I was somehow missing the necessary components of faith, belief, and devotion, and I did my best to participate in the rituals and adhere to the rules, hoping that an understanding might eventually just dawn on me.
When I entered high school, I secretly began to question the years of indoctrination into the Catholic worldview, and as I did, my spiritual life began to unravel. I complied unquestioningly with the expectations of my parents and teachers, joining several of the extracurricular religious activities sponsored by the Franciscan priests who taught at the school, but for every actual “spiritual” experience that I encountered there and elsewhere, there were many others that made me question what I was being taught in theology class. I enjoyed the opportunity to read the more advanced writings of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Francis of Assisi, and found books about saints like St. Theresa of Avila inspiring and interesting, but they did not seem to satisfactorily address the questions that kept arising within me about my own soul, and my own experience of the world.
Although it was only in later life that I was fully able to appreciate it, I know now that I was extremely fortunate, as it turned out, to have a Catholic priest in my immediate family; Rev. Thomas Flanigan, affectionately known as “Father Tom,” a cousin who grew up with my mother. As a young boy, we would visit the Flanigans in upstate New York, and inevitably, at the conclusion of our visits, we would all kneel down, and my father would ask Father Tom to give us his blessing. Several times, I was lucky enough to be the one kneeling in front of him when this moment came, and he would place his hand on my head, giving me the momentary sensation of floating, infusing me with a fullness of spirit in that brief moment that I never experienced at any other time in exactly that way, or to that degree. There was something extraordinary about Father Tom, and as an adult, I sought him out several times when I was in some sort of crisis spiritually.
Just being in his presence was spiritually uplifting. I could feel myself opening to the radiance of his spirit as soon as I saw him. His unconditional acceptance of me as a person, and his non-judgmental approach to counseling was unprecedented in all my other interactions with religious people of every sort. One experience in particular produced in me one of the most profoundly spiritual moments of my life.
I had been invited by Father Tom to stay with him in the priest’s rectory during a weekend visit to attend a wedding of one of my own first cousins. When the invitation was offered, it was enthusiastically accepted by me, even though it seemed a bit strange that it was only offered to me. I was struggling at the time with my faith, and even though I hadn’t spoken to him directly about it, he seemed to recognize the need in me, and when I arrived at the rectory, he greeted me warmly and embraced me in the hallway entrance.
We talked briefly about the schedule for the wedding, and he extended the invitation to include serving as the altar boy at mass on the Sunday following the wedding. I agreed immediately and looked forward to the privilege of serving mass with him. I had been an altar boy in my own church for years, but it had been a while since my last opportunity to serve and I was a little nervous that morning as I prepared to join him at the church. It was an early mass, and there were only a handful of people in the pews, but from witnessing the actions and demeanor of Father Tom, you might have thought there were hundreds of parishioners in attendance. I assisted him in preparing for the service, just as I always had with other priests, but at that moment it felt much more like a sacred duty, and although it was conducted in silence, I felt completely confident in responding to his unspoken instructions.
Right before the service was about to begin, I stood off to the side of the altar, in the doorway leading out into the church, and watched as Father Tom prepared the altar and set up the items he would use to celebrate the mass. I was immediately struck by the degree of reverence he gave to the task, and marveled at the painstaking attention he gave to the details of his preparation. For several minutes, I felt an overwhelming sense of my own personal spirit rising up within me. Father Tom seemed to be glowing–radiant–amazingly calm and reverent. It was an unforgettable moment. At the conclusion of the service, during which I had to be periodically reminded of what to do, I was once again in silence in the sacristy, assisting Father Tom with changing out of his ritual attire, and when the moment came, I knelt down in front of him, and he laid his hand on my head, and gave me his blessing. I was near tears, but with a joyful heart.
When the time came to leave, I found it difficult to gather up my clothes and put them into my overnight bag, and even more difficult to say goodbye at the door to the rectory. Prior to departing, the day before, I had found a greeting card in the local drugstore with the Ziggy cartoon character on the front, with the words, “Thank Heaven…” On the inside of the card it said, “…for people like you.” I left it on the dresser of his room on the way out. For a long time afterwards, I felt as though I had reconnected to my personal spirit in a way that I had fervently wished to do, but had not been able to do for a long time.
There were a few other opportunities over the years to enjoy time with Father Tom, including one in which he invited me to spend the weekend with him at his lakefront retirement home in upstate New York. During what would be my last visit with him before he died, I was given the privilege to join him in his daily “vespers,” the prayers that he was obligated to say every day upon rising and before beginning his day as a priest. I was stunned to be permitted to share in what was normally a private ritual, and was able to recite most of the appropriate prayer responses during our walk around the lake, as the sun peeked out above the horizon. In spite of being mostly estranged from the church at the time, I never recall feeling more like a participant in the ritual of prayer than I did on that morning.
These recollections span nearly my whole conscious experience of being alive, and connect me to the core of my familial history in ways that would have been impossible to imagine in their absence. I am profoundly grateful to have known these particular spiritual experiences during my lifetime, but these moments, as significant as they were, took place amidst an even greater variety of spiritual events, and it seems likely to me that my introduction to the diverse paths of the “specific avenues to spirituality,” which began in my early twenties as a young soldier in Europe during the “Cold War,” and which continue to this day as I enter my sixth decade of life, contributed in numerous significant ways to the broad scope of my current appreciation of the spiritual nature of humanity in general, and of consciousness in particular.
For most of my early adult life, I struggled with my place in the world, searching for ways to express the deeper truth I felt certain resided within me, and several important and occasionally traumatic events in my youth and early adulthood inspired me to pursue a greater understanding of the nature of humanity itself, which I came to believe had a clearly spiritual foundation, which was unambiguously expressed in the human subjective experience of consciousness. The journey has been, at times, arduous and painful in the extreme, but also, at other times, astonishing and illuminating in equal measure. Based on several decades of investigation into a wide range of spiritual, scientific, philosophical, and psychological subjects, I recently began to describe and elucidate the results of my investigations into these experiences in my personal blog called, “John’s Consciousness,” on WordPress.com. While I have worked diligently to include both the empirical and the ineffable in my ruminations, the avenues of spirituality seem to resonate as those which point most prominently in the direction of my personal understanding. I do not now adhere to any particular religious practice, and while I recognize that many other people are able to find their spiritual center in a specific formal religion, all of my encounters with them have continuously pointed toward a more universal character to spirituality that does not require a specific framework in order to achieve a profound and rich spiritual life.
The subjects related to investigating the very beginnings of and foundation for consciousness, and the evidence for its first inklings in our ancient ancestors, is so compelling for me that I can barely contain myself when the subject comes up, and although there is a fairly wide range of opinion about the implications which can be drawn from earliest indications of the awareness of subjective experience by the early humans, for me, the evidence available in this regard, and the ubiquity of spiritual avenues and pursuits in nearly every human culture since the dawn of humanity, are an unambiguous expression of a deeply spiritual character to life itself, and by implication, to our inner lives as cognitive human beings.
After surviving a profound psychological, spiritual, and emotional event in my early twenties, which erupted within me as a young soldier in the service of my country, I began to search for some way to reconcile my experience by investigating the science of the brain, various principles in psychology and philosophy, as well as a number of avenues to spirituality. Without holding one above the other, or limiting myself to what was familiar, my reading and research often suggested avenues of investigation which I followed willingly, hoping to gain some further appreciation of my own inner turmoil.
One of the first and most influential sources of spiritual illumination came with my introduction to the writings of the famous Lebanese philosopher, poet, and spiritual author, Kahlil Gibran. As a young man, I served in the military overseas in Europe for two years. During that time, I came across Gibran’s writings as a result of a gift from a friend of his book, “The Prophet.” Within its pages, Gibran speaks to many of the central issues of human and spiritual life. Few have been able to express so eloquently, a view of the universal truths of our nature as both human and spiritual beings. His grasp of the inner workings of the human spirit, and his ability to inspire a sense of lightness and joy regarding human life, makes him one of the truly timeless spiritual writers for the wisdom of any age. I often sought him out throughout my many investigations, in moments of repose, as well as those of despair and need.
One of the most important passages for me, taken from his book, “Secrets of the Heart,” speaks of the beauty of life and in all of nature:
“Beauty is that which attracts the soul…when you meet Beauty, you feel that the hands deep within your inner self are stretched forth to bring it into the domain of your heart…
It is the Unseen, which you see…And the Vague, which you understand…
And the Mute, which you hear…
It is the Holy of Holies, that begins in yourself and ends vastly beyond any earthly imagining.
Truly, I say to you that thoughts have a higher dwelling place than the visible world.”
With these words, I began to understand the relationship between the mind of thoughts and the spirit of the inner self that transcends “the visible world.” He intimates that our perception of beauty is the natural result of our longing for something which exists “vastly beyond any earthly imagining.” While reading Gibran’s, “The Tempest,” I was amazed at the depth of his spirituality and his ability to express so clearly the thoughts and feelings related to the questions we all seek to answer. Many of Gibran’s writings have informed my spiritual views over the years, and he was one of the first individuals who was able to speak to the very heart of my spiritual self, and he remains relevant to me today as I navigate through my research into the non-physical aspects of our very human nature.
Another profoundly influential source of spiritual guidance and illumination came when I began to investigate the principles of transcendental meditation. While living in what was then called the “Federal Republic of Germany,” (West Germany was divided from East Germany at the time.) I began to take a serious interest in writing poetry, which I had done periodically in high school and in my early college years, and during my review of books of poetry and about poets, starting with Gibran, I came across a reference to the Upanishads, the mystical writings of Hinduism, which have many passages that include poetry, and some that are completely in verse. At the time, I had not looked into Hinduism before, and wasn’t familiar with the ideas it contained, but was intrigued by the verses which seemed to speak to the idea of a “universal soul,” or Brahman, as well as the “innermost individual soul,” or atman. These were unfamiliar terms to me then, and as I reviewed the material further, it spoke of “the nature and purpose of existence,” as well as the methods of meditation and the “Transmigration of the Soul.”
While at the library, I saw a flier posted on a bulletin board about a school in town which had classes on “The Science of Creative Intelligence,” based on the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had been visited by the Beatles and other luminaries of the day, and who founded the community of schools which offered his teachings. It seemed like an interesting opportunity and I spoke with a representative at the school and arranged to take the class. It was particularly challenging since the class was normally attended by Germans, and was being presented in the German language. I managed to become familiar with a fellow associate at the school who knew English well, and was able to get a more nuanced explanation of some of the more complex ideas when I needed it. For each practitioner of transcendental meditation, there is a unique word or “mantra,” which facilitates the silencing of the mind and the opening of the soul of the individual to the transcendent aspect of “self,” and acts as a means of reaching within to our deepest sense of our individual nature or “atman.” The Science of Creative Intelligence expresses a belief in a higher reality than that of sense experience; a higher kind of knowledge than that achieved by human reason, dividing reality into the realm of the spirit and the realm of matter. The practice of meditation as a means to access the inner realm exposes us to the philosophical concept of transcendence, i.e., existing outside of nature. According to this view, there is a direct connection between the universe and the individual soul. Intuition, rather than reason, is regarded as the highest human faculty. I enthusiastically embraced the practice of meditation, and it sparked a long association with the supporting Vedic literature.
The final exam in the course required giving an oral presentation of one of the main ideas from the class, and I chose to illustrate the idea of how each of us contributes to the whole of humanity, like a small piece of a very large puzzle, and each of our creative acts and efforts spring from an intelligence of which we are all a part. From that moment on whenever the Vedas came up in my reading, I immediately looked it up and related it directly to what I was reading.
When I returned to the United States in the late seventies, I had become fairly well acquainted with a variety of selections from the Hindu “Vedas,” or “Vedanta,” and eventually encountered the Bhagavad Gita, and was immediately enthralled by the story of Arjuna, with whom I quickly identified as someone struggling with both his temporal role in life, and with his inner life as well. The story addresses Arjuna’s struggles as a soldier and his doubts about his duties–a struggle I knew well. His mentor, Krishna, actually was a historical figure, but his significance in the Gita is as a “symbol of the divine dealings with humanity”, while Arjuna typifies a “struggling human soul.” The story is viewed as “an allegory of the inner life, and has nothing to do with our outward human life and actions”–(Wikipedia)
Shortly after returning to the USA, I once again attended to my university studies at Rowan College in Glassboro, where I took a class on mythology, based on Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” and it altered my consciousness in ways that are still being felt these many years later. Campbell opened me up to a diverse selection of paths to understanding, including a much richer and expanded appreciation of the Hindu Vedas and the Upanishads, as “profound metaphysical and speculative works closely linked to the “Brahmanas,” (commentaries on the Vedic literature). According to Campbell, these works “emphasize knowledge and meditation, and are the first Hindu attempts at a systematic treatment of speculative thought.”
Perhaps the most important ideas that I encountered in these writings concern differentiating between the phenomenal aspects of existence, and the universal soul or “Brahman,” and the individual soul or “atman.” The texts were originally written in Sanskrit, but have been translated notably by “Shankara,” a man who lived between 788 and 820 A.D. His translation expresses the belief that “Brahman and Atman are identical,” and that “the individual self is prevented by ‘avidya,’ or ‘ignorance,’ from understanding the non-dual universal nature of pure being (Brahman.).” He writes:
“As long as the self remains without real knowledge, it will blindly look for its true self in the phenomenal world. It remains enmeshed in that world, again and again experiencing samsara, a series of existences, deaths, and rebirths each unenlightened soul undergoes as a consequence of its karma…Through the proper knowledge of the Vedanta, the individual soul recognizes the limitless reality forever existing behind the cosmic veil of maya (illusion)…realizes that its own true nature is identical with the Brahman, and through self-realization achieves moksha (release from samsara and karma) and Nirvana.”
In an anthology of Vedic writings entitled, “The Vedic Experience,” by Raimundo Panikkar, I found a good summary of what I derived from my reading of this literature:
“There is a constitutive dissatisfaction in human life. Even if one has done one’s best, other possible actions have remained undone. Disillusionment is, according to the Indian tradition, the beginning of philosophy. It may also be said to initiate the process of transcending the human condition.”
But perhaps more than any other benefit that I gleaned from the course, was being exposed to the writings of C.G. Jung, who introduced me to the idea of archetypal images, and inspired me to investigate further, many of his collective works, which frequently site passages from the Vedas. Jung’s insightful and scholarly treatment of psychological states, as well as his writings on the collective unconscious, and the personal unconscious, shook my foundation right down to my roots. I spent every available moment I could acquiring and devoting my energies to Jung’s writings, and after searching determinedly through those I could locate, I found this passage from Psychology and Religion:
“The unconscious process…when brought to the surface…reveals contents that offer a striking contrast to the general run of conscious thinking and feeling… The first effect is usually conflict, because the conscious attitude resists the intrusion of apparently incompatible and extraneous tendencies, thoughts, and feelings, etc. Under normal conditions, every conflict stimulates the mind to activity for the purpose of creating a satisfactory solution…Dreams, fantasies, and psychoses produce images to appearances identical with mythological motifs of which the individuals concerned had absolutely no knowledge…
The moment of irruption can be very sudden…so that consciousness is instantaneously flooded with extremely strange and apparently quite unsuspected contents…In so far as the forms or patterns of the unconscious belong to no time in particular, being seemingly eternal, they convey a peculiar feeling of timelessness when consciously revealed.”
Finally, I had a perspective from Jung that helped me to understand the traumatic event which led me to investigate the many “specific avenues to spirituality” these many years.