My Quaker belief

In his last book, Stephen Hawking addresses the question, “Is there a God?” I would say no- or rather, that’s not a useful question.

My belief and my understanding come from my history: what I have read or been told, what people important to me have believed, what experiences I have had- and that I call some of them “spiritual experiences” is a product of my understanding. After some particularly wonderful spiritual experiences I reformulate what I believe, for myself as well as for you.

I was baptised a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and taken to worship weekly throughout childhood. I left home and continued worshipping weekly. When at University I went to St Andrews Cathedral, Aberdeen, and served at the altar, and was also in the Christian Union so exposed to Evangelicalism. I read the whole Bible with commentaries, repeatedly, over a period of about ten years. I said the creed weekly without any sense of being untruthful, though I doubted the virgin birth.

In 2001 I told my Anglican vicar I could no longer bear to worship God disguised as a man, and he was so negative about that I decided to leave his church. I had been introduced to Quakers by two friends, so knew I would be welcomed as a woman in a Quaker meeting; and had found value in the silence of Quaker worship. I continued worshipping just about weekly, with Quakers rather than with Anglicans.

I was aware that there were “non-theist” Quakers, and I rather disapproved. With my then partner, who took the point very seriously, I would have asked “Why should anyone who does not believe in God join a Religious society?” Then a Friend said, “It’s not why we join: it’s why we remain” and I understood, with my heart. From verbally challenging her membership (not directly about her but saying things which implicitly included her) I went to passionately desiring her to remain.

In 2009, I realised that I did not believe in God. It was a long, painful process. It was a change to my identity as Christian, a challenge to my relationship, possibly a breach with my Meeting, (though it included non-theists) which was the place I experienced acceptance as a trans woman rather than toleration. In February 2010 I accepted that I do not believe in God, finally. A day or so later I was touristing along the south coast, and went into a church: and was brought to my knees by a sense of holiness.

Being good at producing clever phrases, I said “I am rationally atheist and emotionally theist. I have a strong personal relationship with the God I do not believe in”. More than thirteen billion years ago there was a big bang, and the universe will not end but in trillions of years particles at absolute zero will drift apart, too far apart to influence each other, in cold blackness forever. We have evolved, over billions of years, over about 55m years as primates. So now my beliefs about God relate to my beliefs about myself as a human. I am an organism that, just as it takes in food, takes in sense-perceptions and ideas and moulds them into an understanding of the world; and I am a social being, incapable of survival without my social group, moulded by them. So I thought, God is Reality: when I worship, I relate to something greater than myself, which is human society, the biosphere, the entire world. And, being a social animal, I conceive of that as a matter of relationship. I am a tricksy soul. I love paradox.

After some rather wonderful spiritual experiences this month, I adjust what I think, returning to Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Shall be to return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Because I am a primate, I have a primate understanding of all-that-is, all that I could know or perceive. It is pre-lingual. I access it in the spiritual state called “mindfulness” or “awareness” where my words fall away and I know immediately rather than mediated through words.

And, so that I can communicate with other people, but also so that I can get the kind of grasp of an idea that makes me feel more comfortable, I put these things into words. I am a writer. Words are important to me.

My verbal and non-verbal (which, by a series of accidents, I call “spiritual”) understandings dance around one another, leading each other on. Eliot’s “Where we started” is the non-verbal understanding, always influencing our conscious belief. And, merely because by accident I have read Carl Rogers- “On Becoming a Person” and other books, and books about him and his ideas- I call that verbal understanding of myself my “self-concept” and underlying it my “organismic self” responds to its surroundings like an organism does.

That dancing may be as in “The darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”.

Occasionally I am inspired to write poetry, by YHWH, Erato, or my unconscious mind, and around 2005 I wrote,

It hurt so much and it’s stopped.
Who I am is who I ought to be.

I kept rejecting who I am. It is my way. And last week that changed from poetry to prose for me. I would say it as a thing I believe, around thirteen years after it was given to me.

With that immediate, direct perception, not mediated by words, an understanding which feels ghostly when I am with my words and True when I am present as a perceiving animal everything seems more real and more alive. When I see clearly without trying to impose words and explanation, everything is more real. It is imbued with- magic? Or, perhaps, God. It’s not “There is a God” but “There is God”. God may be the One that is greater than all things or merely a metaphor.

I shall not cease from exploration, and my words will change; and I shall know fully as I am fully known.

Nervousness

The worst thing to say to a chronic worrier is “Stop worrying”. It only makes me worry more quietly. I must permit myself to be nervous. In social situations, I withdraw and protect.

Round and round the circle. “I must be authentic,” I wrote yesterday. Well, much of what prevents authenticity is nervousness. I noted this in 2012: The image of life as an apple tree came to me. I have been so afraid, of the other people around the tree, and of the tree itself, that I have rushed at it, collided with it and bruised myself on it, snatched at it so that I carry away nothing, or a dry twig, or some dead leaves. Whereas I may walk to it…and find the apple which feels to me most beautiful… if I touch it in the right way it will come off in my hand. That only says, it is good not to be nervous, and often there is no reason to be nervous. It is no more than the inner critic would say-

“There’s nothing to worry about. You’re useless, worrying.” So worry and nervousness become another indicator of my uselessness, and I suppress them out of consciousness. I probably am more nervous than I need be, but fearing and denying nervousness makes things worse.

My self-image is more important to me than events in the real world.

Oh wow! I suppose I knew that, but I have not put it into words before. Putting it into words makes me see it more clearly. That is why sitting wrapped up and still pretty cold, not going out or seeing anyone most days, is life just about as good as I could wish for. My self-image is a lie- clearly I am afraid, angry or nervous however much I deny it, probably I suppress other things as well. These feelings continue affecting me and my behaviour, more so because I must deny them. OK, I am nervous. If I am among other people I will get nervous, and if I beat myself up for being inauthentic when nervous, it will only get worse.

So: permit, acknowledge and welcome the nervousness. It is uncomfortable, but better than suppression. Suppression only works for a limited time, like holding your breath: you need to hold your breath under water, but after two minutes you become unconscious.

If I hear the nervousness, and recognise it, I might behave authentically.

That evening, I managed to make myself the focus of the group, and they were all irritated with me. They expressed that, and I answered without attacking but holding my ground. And after, chatting in a friendly manner with one of them,

It felt as if I was the REAL ME!

It felt completely wonderful. It has been one of my myths. I identified that real me as female, and hated the poem I wrote about it because I had to deny that. What if, it was just that at that moment I was no longer nervous and self-suppressing, because the confrontation had happened and I had come through unscathed? It might have made me seek out confrontation, for that feeling, but I am glad it did not.

I do not know much about CBT, but all the techniques I know are for thinking about present and future. And I spend a great deal of time analysing the past. Mmm. There was a better response which would have achieved more in that moment.  I am useless! I am not going to stop this, but might ameliorate it by appreciating all the good in my responses, and forgiving anything I might regret.

And finally, Donald Trump. He tweeted, Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love! And news organisations, and clickbait sites, round the world, breathlessly reported it. It is unpresidential- well, of course, we knew that. It pleases his supporters, and enrages his opponents. The answer is, not to be enraged, it’s only Donald being his ghastly self, but note it down: the evidence against him mounts.

Seeing what is

-At least in theory, I understand other people have an existence separately from mine, with their own feelings and motivations: but mostly they are a mystery to me.

-I have a strong idea of what is right and wrong, and how individuals and groups should be. I expect these standards of myself, and also of others, and [attempt to] use disapproval to enforce them. I have little patience with failures.

-I have great patience with people in need, with disabled people or frightened people, and when I see I can do something to help will devote great energy to that.

-I have an instinctive understanding of people, and form useful first impressions quickly.

It seems I could make each of these statements, believing it at the time. They could be different parts of myself, fulfilling different needs. They could be different circumstances, some of which I see well, some unclearly. They could be me at different times, in one feeling confident and secure, in another doubtful and apprehensive. That is, I cannot know how I will respond in a particular situation and imagining it can get in the way: the only answer is to be in the moment and seek to see what is now. The monkey mind is in imagined past or future, and at best irrelevant now. Fortunately, I can often respond now, well enough.

And, each of those statements is an observation of how I have been, at one time or another.

Here, Rheam melds his mythic and realistic modes:

Henry Meynell Rheam, Violets, 1904

Confabulation

In confabulation, a person with particular brain damage makes up memories. S/he does not realise s/he is lying. For example, one might forget what one had for breakfast, and so subconsciously create a memory of eating. An interviewer would not necessarily be able to tell that a memory might be imagined, though sometimes the memory is highly unlikely, such as of alien abduction.

Memory is a “reconstructive process” that pieces together rough drafts of an event based on a lifetime of experiences and perceptions. And being imperfect, human memory needs something to check up on it: call it the executive within. Don’t take that article as the last word, it is fifteen years old and there is further research since then. This is newer.

I have a clear understanding of myself and my history. I am feminine. I have undergone a series of spiritual growth moments, learning about myself, having been forced into self-denial by my childhood, when my controlling mother did not want me and could not accept my unconventionality.

Unfortunately, I had a clear understanding of myself when I was twenty, a Christian gentleman heading for a professional career. That broke down as I saw the lies underpinning it- I lie to myself because I want to see myself as a good person- and I became aware of its contradictions.

Much of my journey since has been maturing. I saw that I was at once arrogant, imagining myself the centre of the universe, and self-effacing, seeing myself as “a worm, and no man”. I worked to come to a sane golden mean: I am a human being. Yet still I desire a sense of self as something more or less a comprehensible, comprehensive unity. So I make one.

This does not mean that I am merely self-deceiving. For example, as much as I know someone might be tempted to deny that transsexuality was merely perversion, even if it was, I know I am not autogynephiliac.

The self-understanding I have created, partly unconsciously, may get in the way of greater self-understanding: or that “self-understanding” is not necessary, when a better question is, what do I want, or what should I do, now?

The spiritual way of life continually invites us to let go – let go of clinging to the past, let go of trying to become someone, let go of the illusion that we are separate from the Source. What are you willing to let go of today? – The need to be comprehensible.

Delacroix Barque of Dante

Getting to know myself

I saw two swans flying. This is rare, because they can normally get where they want to go, by swimming. They aid each other, one flying in the other’s slip stream. As I watched, they changed places.

As the laws of attack govern those of riposte, to avoid being harmed by the asperities of my character, all my servants adopted in their own the same withdrawal tactics, and always at the same point; in compensation for this, they took advantage of the gaps in my defences to gain ground there. Of these gaps I knew nothing, any more than of the ground gained in the spaces they left, precisely because they were gaps. But my servants, as their faults became gradually more apparent, taught me of their existence. It was in the defects which they invariably acquired that I learned of my own natural, invariable defects, and their character presented me with a sort of negative proof of my own.

-Proust, The Guermantes Way

How can I get to know the bits of myself which I deny? The first step was realising that such bits exist in the first place. When I first saw Johari’s Window in the 1990s, it did not really speak to me. It was a great revelation to realise, in about 2000, that I lie to myself because I want to see myself as a Good person. One thing I sought to do then was find other motivations I might have to lie to myself.

A strange thing about this lie is that it still applies, though my principles have moved from a Daily Mailish morality to ideals around personal growth and spiritual maturity, it is still easier to tell myself I have done some healing or growth than actually to do it.

Another task was to find out what I really wanted, and to compare my belief of my wants to my acts. If I really want something, I should be motivated to achieve it. In come the lies again: I want to protect myself, and wear a mask when I interact with other people, so I do, but do not realise it. I tell myself I want the things I have learned I ought to want, but don’t. So I seek them out, and wonder at my lack of motivation and energy.

Also, at some deep unconscious level I wanted my own survival and healing, towards a self-actualisation that, consciously, I could not have understood, or might fear and hate. These factors have brought me Here, to a place where I might do that healing.