“I want to live in harmony with you and still remain other. I want to draw nearer to you while protecting myself for you. It pleases me to protect for you the freshness of unknown flesh and the discovery which brings awakening.”
At CEC, we’ve been working towards developing and embodying a pluralistic and inclusive model of spiritual practice. Our grand vision is to offer a place where all spiritual practices are welcomed in a big tent of exploration, dialogue and cross-pollination. Yet, we’ve struggled to integrate one prominent feature of many spiritual traditions: namely God. For secular spiritual types, just saying the word God in a non-ironic way can trigger major defences. For many, “God” evokes everything bad about old-fashioned religion: blind faith, anti-scientific superstition, misogyny, sex negativity, homophobia, and intolerance. It’s a pretty bad rap sheet. If God represents all those things, then what clear-minded, compassionate person wouldn’t reject the concept?
On the other hand, if we are truly interested in a broad exploration of contemplative practice, drawing on the rich diversity of the world’s wisdom traditions, it’s pretty hard to avoid the G-word. There are deep contemplative traditions in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism, all of which are centred on the experience of a divine being. Of course, the details of how these traditions understand God differ a lot, but remarkably, the core meaning of the word is pretty much unchanged. In each of these traditions, God is understood roughly as a transcendent, universally present being with intelligence and agency, the source of all that is, as well as the ultimate good of all that is. More importantly, from a consciousness explorer’s perspective, God is not merely an idea we read about in old texts, God can be experienced directly through our spiritual practice, whether we are religious or non-religious.
Yet if the word “God” is so triggering for people, why not just replace it with something more friendly to a post-religious audience? At CEC, we’ve tended to shy away from the G-word, using other terms like Universe, Reality, devotion, love, archetypes, or even faith to tip-toe around this thorny issue. But I think it’s time we come out of the closet about the role that God plays in devotional practice and consciously reclaim the word God so as to prevent it from being the exclusive property of religious fundamentalists.
Since direct spiritual experience is the lingua franca of the CEC, I want to share with you a bit about how meditation brought God into my life as an experience. When I started meditating nearly a decade ago, I was an academic philosopher. I had a hyper-rationalist worldview, which had no room for magic or superstition of any kind. I am also queer and politically progressive, and I’d rejected traditional religion for its right-wing politics, homophobia, and anti-scientific outlook. I was pretty much as atheistic as they come.
After a few months of serious meditation practice, concentrating on my breath, I experienced a spiritual opening. It’s a difficult thing to describe. It was a distinct moment during a meditation sit when my whole body became flooded with waves of ecstatic energy pouring down from the top of my head. After these waves of energy passed through me, I became aware of a vast presence all around me. There was something person-like about this presence. It wasn’t that I saw a human form, but the feeling that was so strong in that moment was like being in the presence of someone, not something. And this presence was beautiful. I was filled with gratitude and awe.
For the first time in many years, I spoke an authentic prayer. I spoke it not to an abstract idea of God presented by a religion, but to this divine presence that was right here with me in my meditation. It was a simple prayer of thanks and acknowledgment, and it felt good to say. This was the start of my devotional path.
One thing I want to stress is this experience did not bring me back to religion. I was raised Jewish and I still enjoy Jewish ritual and liturgy. But my meditative experience of God didn’t make me believe in the exclusive truth of the Jewish narrative, or any religious narrative. Instead, my devotional path has led me on a very CEC-style journey of exploration. Over the years, I’ve learned about how God is worshipped and meditated upon in many different traditions. Whenever I come across a practice that appeals to me, I incorporate it into my own eclectic mix.
So that’s been my experience, but I know that many of you may still feel like all this is irrelevant to your own practice. Of course, it’s okay if it is irrelevant because not every path is for every person. But it’s also possible that you’re ripe for the devotional path just don’t realize it yet. Here are some of the signs: Are you a romantic? Do you love using your imagination? Do you like staring at candles? Okay, clearly this isn’t a complete diagnostic test. My point is that if you give devotional practice a try, without all the religious baggage, you just might discover you like it.
Devotion is the spiritual path of sacred otherness: what continental philosophers like Irigaray would call alterity. Whether you “believe” that God exists is not really the issue. As an experience, God is simply the ultimate spiritual reality filtered through the pronoun “You” (hats off to Martin Buber for this point). This means that devotion practice is not based on belief so much as on an existential choice to address the goal of spiritual practice as “You” rather than “It” or “I” or “no-thing.”
It’s not that one pronoun is right and the others are wrong, they’re just different approaches. We can merge into the great oneness, dissolving our individuality, or we can remain at a slight remove and sit with God in awe, wonder, and intense intimacy. One can move between these different ways of experiencing the ultimate mystery, each of them are valid and precious flavours of our spiritual unfolding.