Varieties of spiritual journey

What? You talk of “nonduality” as one or two peak experiences for a moment, in your entire lives, years ago? Ha! I am nondual all the time!

One of my judgments is that it is wrong to boast of spiritual growth, but as I spoke to Friends of God in me, and the judgment or thought that second-guesses God and stops God from speaking, the words “melts away” formed in my mind. I had intense judgment against that, the claim to wisdom or spirituality, and yet-

In me there is that of God, and what else? Judgments, ego, introjects, something I do not fully understand but attempt to, using whatever language I have and concepts from philosophy or psychology. In that moment, speaking to Friends, the “whatever else” seemed to melt away, and I felt extreme joy. I do not want to boast, and I want everyone to experience that joy.

I experience inner conflict between that of God and the something else, and experienced it in that moment- the insistent words “melts away” and the horror at claiming something I do not know to be true, and the self-doubt- and then it melted away, and I spoke the words. Anguish gave way to acceptance and wonder.

Heaven is human integrity, where that of God within shines out through that person’s thoughts, words and deeds, and there is no alloy or admixture of anything else: that person is nondual.

I felt shame this week, does not matter what for, and it was clear to me that it was my own rather than some introjected shame- a feeling to help me reach my goals and best self, rather than anyone else’s demands. Instead of being my enemy it was my friend. That felt new, and delightful.

Part of the way I might help others experience that joy, and understand humans or humanity, is to describe my own experiences. How much this has value depends. Is the inner God of other people like mine, or does it vary as human character and personality varies? What else is there, and is the something else in each person different? How does the spiritual journey differ- there is an unveiling of God Within, until it stands fully visible, in all its beauty, but does the way the unveiling proceeds differ between people?

I saw God, and so God Within, as “powerful,” and letting go of that concept has helped me see God in me so much more clearly. Yet it seems to me that God in others might be powerful, or that at least the concept would not get in the way of others seeing their inner God as it did for me. Words are at best a way to approach reality.

Are there people who grew up in ideal conditions, such that their inner God was nurtured and cherished and there was never much in the way of veil to begin with? Quakers aim for such nurture, “leaving [children] free to develop as the Spirit of God may lead them”.

If I call the something else “ego”, there is the word “egotistical”, meaning self-aggrandising, but my inner judgments called me worthless. Carl Rogers pictured the self-concept and organismic self overlapping, and in my moment of becoming conscious of the spiritual journey, when my understanding of the world seemed completely contrary to how the world is, mine seemed to be entirely separate. My conversion might be like a Road to Damascus moment, but not everyone’s need be. Possibly, some might be unable to bear such an experience.

And there is common humanity. Because our eyes have cones and rods in similar formation, our experience of colour is similar, and different from a dog’s. While I cannot know my experience is like anyone else’s, we have a number of words for emotions which have a similar understanding in each of us to be useful, and we can look at another person and guess or sense what they are feeling. We are programmed to recognise faces- the youngest infants will respond to them- and who knows what else is programmed? We are eukaryotes, mammals, apes.

Some people may simply be nondual. Others may approach that. It is my way to worry and question, and also to use my analytic mind soberly to assess what is true. It is my aim to see God in myself and others more clearly which will mean loving God more dearly, and to help others do the same, and I will grow in my ability to do that.

Bewilderment and Complaint

The problem with privilege is that it is invisible to the privileged. When others defer to them, that just appears normal and reasonable to them.

Black people are menaced and marked because they are Black, and being gay or trans hardly makes that worse. White trans women or gay men might pass as a man, and so exercise white male privilege, but they lose that when they are seen to be queer. We might still seek safety in the conventions of white male straight privilege, which might work or might not. When they don’t work, it surprises us. We are bewildered. We complain. I get the analysis from James Baldwin, quoted by Shon Faye in The Transgender Issue.

“There’s an element of bewilderment and complaint.” But it always had worked, and now it does not. People seek safety as best we can, hence all the lonely hearts ads in the 1990s for a “straight-acting” partner. You could just be two best buds, hanging out. You could never make a public display of affection. You might have a man-hug, but there would be the temptation to go further, and let the disguise slip. Imagine being with the person you are lusting for, and having to conceal it.

Some gay men and trans women will always have been seen as effeminate, and bullied for it. They never had male privilege with men or boys, even if white. I always felt inadequate as a man, but I had a shell, a male act, which I managed, much of the time. I told a friend I was trans and she said, “I would never have guessed”. And, I still have class privilege to an extent: my clothes might indicate otherwise, my accent and use of words indicate educated person.

When people treat me as privileged, I like it. It keeps me safe. I might speak against white privilege, but do so mostly in white spaces, where I am showing my right-on-ness. With black people I see the risk of being the white saviour, but want at least to be an equal, an ally.

And how is it with cis women? Cis privilege is real. Where groups divide by gender I am nervous of being seen not to fit. And, by contrast, some anti-trans campaigners say that women relax among women, speaking more freely than in mixed company, and that this is liberating; but that it is constrained by the presence of trans women, who are privileged.

That could be a way of fomenting or bolstering resentment against trans women. Look, look, they behave like men, they are treated as men, therefore they should not be in women’s spaces. Look at that man, throwing his weight around.

And it makes me nervous. A woman treats me with courtesy. Is it her response to my male privilege? Is it just kindness? Questioning whether there is equality here makes me self-conscious.

Having privilege in some matters, and not in others, makes it harder to find God within. Quakers talk of the inner light, or that of God in each of us. The concept is linked to God the Father Almighty, the imperial God that Constantine and the Empress Victoria used as their imperial ideology, a God of Power and Might.

If power for me means maleness, the shell, then it is not power at all. It is a pretence, acting in conformity with Kyriarchy because I have no better way of feeling safe, and a terrible feeling of unsafety and need to feel safe. It is the same safety as when in conversation with a man I realise that the purpose of this conversation is for him to speak, work out what he thinks, tell me the truth, or express his feelings and get affirmation support and sympathy, and relax into my supportive role. Safety which supports kyriarchy is no safety at all, but constraint.

I do not believe in God the Father Almighty, and am rethinking God within. Mary Oliver may have it right: “the soft animal of your body”. “You do not have to be good… You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” That gets rid of any concept that God in me is power and control. God in me is seeing the good I may achieve, and flowing like water to achieve it.

Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

It is a choice, between my true power, from being who I am, or a false power gained by conformity to rules which occasionally benefit me but really keep me in check. If I have any shard of male privilege I can only liberate the soft animal by letting it go.

I have been reading The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula le Guin. At first, Miss Lelache the lawyer sees George Orr as “A born victim… if she stepped on him he wouldn’t even crunch… revoltingly simple”. After talking to him, she sees him differently: “she now thought that he certainly would not squash if she stepped on him… he was peculiarly solid”.

Writing out of the Silence

The world has depth. The world is magical. There is infinite complexity and beauty beyond the surfaces we impose and the concepts we use to manipulate the world. We need the concepts to get what we want.

The world is huge. There is God in all of it: all the people and all the things. I want to bring treasure back, for the delight of Friends. I find it within. I shall find the beauty and truth in myself, and use it to bless others.

Imperfection is only in our minds. I don’t want to say “All I need is freely available” facilely, but I have usually had what I needed- except at the trauma. I don’t want to say “Flow like water” facilely, as conscious incompetence is good too: but that is also Flow, as its desire is not divided, like mine is- for appearances, what I ought to want, propitiating my inner Idol. Out of many desires, I will make one, by submitting to God within.

God, Love, is who I am. I am who I am. I am waiting for what I want to happen, or I am maturing, changing like a chrysalis, reordering within. I do not know what that would look like. False ideas of God get in the way of the reality of God. What must I let go?

I submit, to God, or to a great lie that is my enemy, an illusion that promises little and gives nothing. If I am struggling, the struggle is unconscious. I could not bear my fear and sadness if I were conscious of them, but sometimes I become conscious of them and the world comes alive.

I am never safe. The way I seek safety is barren. Only love is real.

Trauma and the Idol

There is something of God in every human. Therefore God suffers. We need to cherish God.

God is in my reaction to life and events. Something hurts me, and God feels that hurt. This God is crushed beneath the weight of ego. Ego is concerned about how I appear to others and myself, and has taken into itself false ideas about safety, which are an idol: much of my effort goes to propitiating its ideas of safety. This involves denying my own, God’s, reactions, which threaten my sense of safety.

I am still dwelling on that incident in 2003. I will continue to dwell on it until I have extracted all the wisdom I can from it. I faced an injustice. I tried to fight it, but it was too much for me. This made me miserable.

I could not face that misery, because it felt like a threat to me. The false idol of my delusions of safety was threatened by it. Why?

Because if I can overcome even such injustice as that, then I am powerful, and so can keep myself safe. If I am not, I feel unsafe.

Because if I make such a contribution, then I have value. If I cannot, then I feel worthless, which makes me feel unsafe.

These feelings of unsafety come from trauma, the imminent fear of death. With Winston Smith I scream “Do it to Julia”. The terror is so great I will do anything to avoid it. It completely distorts my perceptions and desires.

I carry the weight of an increasing burden of distress, all the accumulated evidence that God in me does not fit my terror’s need for its omnipotence. Only omnipotence could have saved me. The threat receded, by luck not my actions, and I made myths about how I could avoid it in the future: I created the idol.

The burden got so great that I collapsed under it.

God is loving, creative, powerful, beautiful. That Love is in us. Cherish it, and it grows in us and guides us. My feeling- that distress- is a guide for me, telling me of the World. If I deny it, I block out all the positives too.

Someone wrote that I am “calm, sometimes passionate, always mindfully considerate, equipped with a fine sense of humor”. Zoom chat is a rich seam that I mine for appreciation of me, and will, until I take it into myself. When I can process the misery I will be able to process the delight.

My Friend who does good works, and never thinks they are enough, sent me her article on Dorothy Day, who did great works. I felt crushing judgment, and projected it onto her: I imagined she was judging me, but it was my Idol. I should be doing worthwhile things too.

Then I realise, I don’t want to save the world. Not at the moment anyway. That would be an ego desire, to prove that I am powerful and worthwhile so could keep myself safe, but I can never prove that to the Idol’s satisfaction.

My task now is to cherish God, that God’s love may grow in me, and nurse the idol gently until its screaming demands for tribute are lulled away. The trauma was unbearable, but, look around through God’s eyes.

I am as safe as I can be, for the moment. I am safe enough.

I keep going back to this. Each time, the Idol says, “Oh Goodie! The spiritual work is done, now you can go back to feeding my fantasies of invulnerability invincibility inviolability.” Each time, I go deeper.

This post is suffused with Advices and Queries paragraph 2.

The theology of Advices and Queries

Can we find a Quaker understanding of God in Advices and Queries?

Advices and Queries are guidance for life, rather than a creed. They are practical guidance on how to relate to God and each other. And in their repeated references to God we find an understanding of how God is thought to act on us, and who God is.

As well as 43 references to God throughout, there are references to “the divine” (3), the “spirit of Christ” (2), the Holy Spirit (3), the Light (5) and the spirit of God (7). I am not clear that these phrases mean anything different, here, from the word “God”, but Advices and Queries are closer to poetry than to statute, and different phrases may evoke different understandings as we grow in our relationship with God.

God is in us (2), and in everyone (17). Does God have an existence beyond humanity? Several references seem to indicate that: the phrase “the splendour of God’s continuing creation” could be a claim that God is in all that is, or in some way eternal and beyond it (42). When we worship, it appears that we have one communal experience of God: we can be aware of “God’s presence among us” (12). We can be aware of God at any time (7), but when we come together in worship we find “God’s love drawing us together” (8). And a visitor to our homes, who might not have direct experience of God in them, might “find the peace and refreshment of God’s presence” there (26).

God is vulnerable, and needs to be cherished (2). We can be distracted and disturbed (12), or turn to God; we can open ourselves to God, but God is at work in us even when we are not aware of God (7). Our proper attitude is reverence for God (9) and for life (42). Jesus’ relationship with God (4) is our example, to challenge and inspire us.

God is intimately involved with us: there are references to God’s love, guidance, presence, gifts, word (in vocal ministry, 12), forgiveness, help, purposes, and God’s will (36) for individuals or divine guidance (14) for the community.

God is in everyone, and may be working in them though we cannot see it (17). I cannot judge what God wants for any other person, 19 says: I might think that I know more than a child, but must learn from them, “leaving them free”- God leads them as God wills. We have a responsibility to nurture children, not to constrain them. Our “wishes and prejudices” (36) should not get in the way, and we can still help them discern God’s will for them.

We have responsibilities to God, including our standard of integrity (38), which should be “strict” (37).

Some of this fits my experience of God, and some challenges my ideas. I am a materialist. I do not believe in a divine creator: I can see “that of God in each person” has a useful meaning, and relates to human psychology in a useful way, but find “God’s continuing creation” more difficult. This cuts to the heart of disputes around nontheism in the Society: will we be religious, if atheists can expunge all references to God that they do not like?

When I contemplate all that is, I know that I do not understand it all, and that wonder, awe and reverence are valuable attitudes to it. So seeing God in everything may have value as a metaphor, reminding me of that. And calling the part of me which seems to best fit this conception of Light or Spirit “God” helps me balance my value with the value of other Quakers, other people, and wider reality. Spiritual language can only approach reality, not convey it like a scientific text hopes to.

When I first started attending, contemplating Advices and Queries helped me commit to the Society. I use them in outreach. I recommended them to American Friends, and one wrote that he “was so profoundly touched and inspired by the freshness and the vitality of these advices and queries that I wanted to share them more widely”, including to non-Quaker friends. Expunging any suggestion in them that there is a God beyond the brains of humans should not be done lightly; what do love and integrity require of us?

As an atheist, I would not want a lowest common denominator, when the word “God” was used only when everyone could agree on it. 17:

When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you.

Instead, I notice the word, and see what meaning I find in it.

Hope, beauty, and God Within

I need a source of hope, and wondered if I might find it in beauty.

I have slept in the same bed every night since January 2020. I have not gone on a bus since about March 2020. I see people almost every day on Zoom, and often can be heard on it, saying what I believe, showing who I am, and being affirmed for that. Perhaps this is why I value the blog so much, as I am heard there. I want to be seen. I want to be heard.

If I know I am valued, it has to be by myself. I noticed when I transitioned that I got a lot of love and acceptance from colleagues and the Quaker meeting, and yet when someone was rude in the street it affected me for days. I realised that the rejection of some random stranger meant more to me because it was echoed in myself. I had to create my own self-acceptance before that of others meant anything to me. This may be ABdP Johnson’s superpower: an invincible sense of his own worth, which survives all the condemnation of others, and all the damage he does.

My hope was that I could come wholly into the present moment through perception, with feelings through my fingertips as I touched whatever I could, in the beauty of the park, its trees and birds. I would simply be me in my perception, relating directly to the world. Relating to beauty and feeling delight I would gain a sense of self. This is who I am, the being that loves this.

On Friday 4th I met J, who told me some of the bad management and bullying of the office she is leaving. Even Paul, the most equable and self-effacing of men, had made a complaint. This brought to mind my troubles in various offices over ten years, which though they ended ten years ago feel as alive, as I type, as they did then. Further psychotherapy is a possibility.

On Monday 30th, in worship, it seemed to me that I had to let go of any desire for an outcome from the Yearly Meeting on gender. What was required of me was Love, including for “gender-critical” Quakers; and faith, trust in the process of worshipful discernment. This seemed like spiritual preparation, and letting go seemed like being better attuned to reality. Perhaps they were.

On Tuesday evening in worship I felt rage and terror, my old emotions. The thought came to me,

I have a right to exist.

I felt that “the iron enters into my soul”. That is from the 1662 prayer book rendering of Psalm 105:18, and is not the usual translation. I find it evocative, as a double meaning- iron cutting the soul, or infusing and strengthening it.

While the anti-trans campaigners have a rigid refusal of sympathy to trans women- women’s needs, reality and bodies should not be subordinated to “men’s feelings”, they say- my feelings matter.

If it is a matter of my feelings, it is the difference between expressing who I am freely and being forced into a mask, a pretence, an act, a falsehood, and the desolation I would feel at that falsehood.

I have blogged a lot. My fascination with blog statistics comes from my hunger to be seen and heard. And I grow sick of it, indeed of all social media. Of twenty posts in May, Google lists only seven of them: if you search for a direct quote from the others, Google will draw a blank. It is not a way to be seen. And, the anti-trans campaigning is fierce. If I check a trans facebook group, I am likely to see rigid, hateful articles by transphobes shared, to show how commonplace and orthodox anti-trans arguments are in Britain, and defiant, angry, or miserable comments after. It makes me ill. If that transphobe wins her case at the Employment Appeal Tribunal, I would have critiqued the judgment, but feel no appetite to. Though, if she wins, it will advance the Equality Act, protecting beliefs even if they are disgusting and irrational. The question of how acting on belief might be protected would remain open.

So I may not blog so much. Advices and Queries tells me that if I “cherish that of God within” me, “the healing power of God’s love” will “grow in [me] and guide” me. This is my working theory on what “that of God in me” might mean, and what might get in the way of me hearing it.

What stops me hearing it is my judgment of what it ought to say, based on introjects and learned morality. That of God in me is that which I locked away and silenced, which began to emerge in February 1999, my feminine self that feels rage and terror at assertions that I should present male. It is that in me which is burned out by work, so that I could no more go into my old office and attempt a PIP or UC appeal than I could call myself John again.

The closest thing to ego in me is denial that I am burned out at all, and a belief that I could go back to work if I had to, sustained by as rigid a denial as that which I needed to present male. It is that which drives me on to work harder than I can at exercise, and creates misery at my judgment on my own inadequacy.

I could not see God in me, for how can I see what I think of as wholly inadequate and call it God? I am delighted today to come across the concept of Theopaschism, belief in a God who suffers, indeed a God who suffers for me. I must dive to the depths of the suffering in order to fully experience the delight.

So, this month. Less blogging, probably. Time spent consciously seeking out delight in beauty. Acknowledging the misery, weakness, anguish, rage and terror. I am still seeking out health, power, strength, effectiveness, as always, but seeking them through what I have seen as weakness, for in my weakness is my strength.

Quakers and God

Do British Quakers believe in God? What might that mean?

Ours is an experiential faith. We have spiritual experiences which we share. They start as peak experiences, a moment of wonder, and become integrated into our daily lives. We develop language to communicate them to each other, and it appears they are similar for each person. They include a sense of presence in the moment when all the senses are heightened; a sense of the unity of all that is, and of being my own part of it; and a sense of being suffused by love, which some might call the love of God.

Then there are the spiritual experiences we have together. We know of the gathered meeting, where we are together in our spiritual experience, and of unity, where we come together to know what is right, what some call God’s loving purposes. Our worship is not meditation, but a common endeavour. It’s not like sitting in a waiting room. We know we may sometimes feel “angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold”, but the effort of- whatever it is that we do, in worship- is worthwhile.

If you attend Quaker Quest meetings, you will have heard the phrase “for me”, for Quakers have all sorts of opinions, and a wide range of disagreement, and I have the temerity here to speak “for us”. We share practices with quite complex rules, and experiences. Then we ask what is behind them, and disagree wildly.

Some of us believe in God almost as in the creed, or in the Christian concept of the trinity, or different ideas of God. Some of us, like me, are materialists. I believe I am an evolved creature in a random universe. I don’t know how life could come to be through non-living chemical processes but I believe that is in principle knowable. I don’t think consciousness is in itself spiritual, but a manifestation of the mammalian brain.

Our understandings of God are not hypotheses in the scientific sense, capable of making predictions or being proved wrong by evidence, but stories. They are stories created by some of the finest human minds, addressing common spiritual experiences, progressing from a God who demanded Abraham’s son as a sacrifice to a God who offered God’s own son to die for us.

It is my perception that British Quakers squabble less than we did over these beliefs. Some of us argued it was ridiculous for someone who did not believe in God to belong to a Religious Society. My Friend answered that: “The question is not why we join a religious society, but why we stay”. Now we find language to share the spiritual experiences, and I feel the explanations behind them- God, psychology, or Don’t Know, seem less important.

I was baptised Anglican, grew up reciting the creed without a qualm, and around 2009 slowly realised I no longer believed in that way. It felt like a great loss, and I was in slowly reducing denial for months. Just after I admitted to myself I do not believe in God I was broken open by a residential personal growth course. I went into a church as a tourist, to see the art, and a sense of its holiness brought me to my knees.

This was a difficult experience to fit into my understanding. I say: “I am inconsistent. I could only be consistent if I were inerrant”. I say, “I am rationally atheist and emotionally theist. I have a strong emotional relationship with the God I do not believe in.” I read philosophical ideas of how well humans might see the world as it really is- not well, it seems.

I know that unconscious processes in me can form poetry, so that it seems to come to me by inspiration. My being, this process taking in food, water, oxygen and ideas, is capable of more than I consciously understand, and it is tempting to call all that is greater than my own consciousness God. Quakers have talked of “that of God” in each person since the 1650s. Or I should abandon the word, because it means such different things to different people. Or I could use the word “God” honestly to talk with someone who believes in the Trinity, because we both mean things we cannot know.

In Quaker worship you may see the Living God. Insofar as those words can have meaning, I know they are true.