On June 22nd, 2010, at about eight o'clock in the evening, I met the Cosmic Spirit of the Universe on a mud flat on Peirce Island in downtown Portsmouth, and for about twenty minutes, we talked. I want to do a whole bunch of posts on spirituality and music, and since I started talking about my life, I've wanted to keep a cohesive narrative. This is the beginning. My blog started as a blog about religion on Facebook, and this will bring it full circle. But it occurs to me that before I start talking about spirituality, I ought to lay my own spiritual cards on the table. So much of spirituality is perspective, and so before I can begin to comment and critique the perspective of others, I should talk about my own.
I was raised nominally Jewish, but I was more or less an atheist for most of my life. Now I prefer to think of myself as neither and atheist nor a theist. I converted to Buddhism when I was fifteen because I was seeking a way out of a seemingly endless cycle of violence in my life, but I didn't really start practicing until I met the Cosmic Spirit of the Universe last June, (or God, for you monotheists out there). God and Buddhism is something of a non-sequitur, but hopefully after I explain it, it'll start to make sense.
This began, like with so many things, with a walk to the waterfront. My walks had their own sort of evolution: first to the swing set at the bottom of the hill my building is located on, then to the end of the complex, then to the first major intersection ten minutes away, then Prescott Park, and finally Peirce Island. Really is was time alone with my thoughts I wanted, and thanks to a mild winter, I had more or less free reign of the city streets and parks by myself from when I started in early March to May. But Memorial Day marks the beginning of tourist season here in Portsmouth, and with it most modicums of privacy along the Piscataqua. By June, my runs had extended all the way to the very end of the paths on Peirce Island, a full four miles from my home round-trip. I was looking for a good place to wait out the sunset in solitude, but all of my usual spots were already occupied. Until now, I had mostly concerned myself with the Piscataqua side of Peirce Island, where I believed all the good views were. But there is another side to the island, that faces a back channel that overlooks the both South End of the city and the bridge to Newcastle Island. I passed it every day, but never really noticed it before. Walking on a path through thick woods, I came to an overlook that was clouded with gnarled locusts. Wanting a better look, I took a step forward, where I could see a small path that appeared to cut through the trees and lead downward. When I emerged on the other side, I beheld the face of God.
A sudden stillness immediately enveloped me. It was just about eight o'clock, and the sun was setting through a shapely tree on the west end of the island that made it look like it was aflame. It was low tide, exposing a vast mud flat where burrowing clams spat out water here and there in little squirts. About a hundred feet away, a heron picked for shellfish. The gentlest of all breezes blew onto my chest. In the direction of the sun, I beheld everything there was to the universe and everything that ever would be, a sensation I have only ever experienced again deep in meditation.
I've been psychotic before. Psychosis for me is the addition of something – the layering of a superimposed reality on top of my own. This was very different. This was a glimpse at reality itself. There was nothing otherworldly or exterior about it. I stood there, enraptured, staring at the sun, the water, the mud, the trees, and the bird, the houses made of wood, the church steeples, the clams just below the surface, the bridge, and the docked boats, and it was as if all of them were one single entity that spoke with a single voice that knew me better than I knew myself. We communicated not with words, just with strange primal gut feelings that had no verbal or even intellectual equivalent.
I remember, in this strange language I suddenly found I could speak, asking it what it was, and my answer came as an understanding that all these things I saw were in fact interdependent parts of the same whole, and that I was intrinsically linked to them as well. It was a profound realization. What followed next was a conversation of such subtlety and nuance I can hardly do it justice with the written word. What was my purpose, I asked. Should I have believed in You? No, God replied. My purpose was here on Earth. The Cosmic Spirit had nothing to offer me. My divine mission was simply to get better. God couldn't help me with that – that could only come from within me. I was on my own. I asked it for help, guidance – something, anything. I already knew the truth, God said. I already had all the answers, I just didn't know it yet. As if for emphasis, two dogs came running out of the bush and began frolicking in the water, like I had been transported to Suzie Salmon's heaven in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. The sun set a few minutes later.
I walked off the shore in the twilight in an absolute trance. I tripped over the curb. I almost got hit by a car twice. I wasn't just seeing things anymore. I looked at the lobster boats docked at the wharf and I saw them brand new, just put out to sea, and I also saw them rusted and wrecked, decommissioned. A few minutes later in the flower garden at Prescott Park I came upon a sculpted dogwood and saw it as a sapling, and later turned to dust as it was dead and dessicated. A hundred years ago, none of this had been here, and a hundred years after all of this would likely be gone. It was only when my fiancée called me to tell me she was coming home from work that the spell was finally broken and I walked home.
The core of Buddhist teachings is called the Four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth states very simply that all life suffers. The second explains that our suffering is caused by the impermanence of things, our attachment and desire and craving. The solution is the acceptance of things, the acceptance of impermanence, and the Noble Eightfold Path (the fourth truth) provides a guide to put it all into practice. It was only after I got home and picked up a Thich Nhat Hanh book I had lying around that I realized what it was I had perceived, and what I had been doing on my walks. From that moment on I considered myself a practicing Buddhist.
I'm not sure what it was I encountered there on the beach that night. It doesn't really matter. I could give it a name and call it God, but to try to assign any label or explanation to it would not only be futile, it would be to miss the point. We try to seek a higher meaning in everything that we do, like our suffering and the trials and pitfalls of being human is for some great purpose or design, but in our quest for understanding we blind ourselves to the meaning that's already there. What I felt was neither male nor female, human or otherworldly. It may have even just been something deep inside me. I don't know, and I don't really care. It just simply was. That's why I say that I neither believe nor don't believe in God. Whatever it was was supremely indifferent – it told me as much, and if I was looking for a purpose, I found it there without really looking for it. Nothing had changed except my perception. It truly does not matter to me what that actually was – it was the realization and the awakening that followed that was important.
Incidentally, I count that as a major turning point in a battle against my illness. It was the start of a long road of forgiveness and acceptance that continues to this day. The journey itself is far more important than the vessel you take to undergo it. I don't want to be sick anymore. That's my mission. The rest seems to have just written itself along the way, and it continues to do so, up to and including this post.
What more could I ask for?