During the last six weeks I was present at a discussion when a question was asked of all there.
I felt I should be able to respond to the question or at least make a contribution towards an answer, ‘off the cuff’ so to speak, but I couldn’t. I felt that I wasn’t ready. I needed a little time to reflect upon it enough. The questioner pointed out that we are always being told that to increase our own spirituality is important. This person said that they love their partner, children and grandchildren and felt that this love was reciprocated. If this is true and if this level of mutual love, this loving living was not enough then what, in practical terms should be done next.
Over the last year or two I have read a number of books about spirituality. What comes over, very strongly, is that spirituality and religious belief are not synonymous with each other. Most people, whether religious or not are not spiritual. I have met one or two people who I would describe as spiritual but I am sure that none of them would agree that they were. Spirituality is a slippery concept recognisable perhaps only in others and never recognised in ourselves. That makes it very difficult pin down.
The underlying common theme in all books on spirituality is the word love. In Jesus asks us to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. This theme underpins much of what Jesus and his disciples say and it echoes across the New Testament in various forms. To make a stab at the original question I will therefore have to explore in some way what is meant by the word love.
So what is this love that is being demanded of us? Our western thinking is bound up in the largely classical tradition of Eros, and Agape and often seen as a continuum stretching from the sexual through family to a more generalised brotherly love. I am left uneasy in using these definitions of love though I believe that they are generally true. In our history and our culture they have been twisted too many times to justify all sorts of beliefs and practices. I will therefore use another culture and tradition to cast light on the concept love.
In the Tibetan tradition there are said to be seven types of love. Three of these belong to man and the remaining four to the Gods. The first love and the most primitive form is sheer magnetic attraction. It is a surface thing often mistaken as ‘true’ love but it is transient. When it is gone husband and wives can wake up one morning and realise that they are wedded to a stranger in whom they have no interest. This seems a common problem in our society. I do not think that this is the love that Jesus refers to.
The second form of love is when a lasting friendship and commitment arises between couples and which extends and reinforces and extends the narrow sexual attraction of the first love. This second love is the love that binds and supports couples across the years no matter what is thrown at them by life. But this love is often an exclusive love. It focuses usually on one other person or a small group and tends to exclude all others and the world outside the relationship. This love invariably looks through ‘rose tinted’ glasses, never quite seeing the world or partner as they really are. It is seen as a functional love, which on the death of the partner leaves the survivor totally bereft and unable to cope. This, it seems to me is the basis of most successful marriages within our culture but I do not think that this is the love that Jesus refers to.
The third level of love in the Tibetan tradition is said to approach the ways of Gods and is generally seen as difficult for man to attain. This love is said to be all embracing for everyone and everything. This love recognises reality and others as they really are and still loves. This is the love that is often seen as ‘spiritual’. This form of love has to be learned. This, to me, seems to be the love that Jesus was referring to. Certainly it is the love that Paul refers in 1 Corinthians as being patient, kind, unselfish, generous, full of humility, courteous, outgoing, simple, slow to think the worst, excludes wrong, hopes for the best, and endures regardless.
This also seems to be what the books on spirituality are referring to. Love in this context seems to be a much enlarged capacity for love. It is focused on everybody and everything, in a way that is not pushy, nor threatening nor manipulative. It does not retreat from life or even be in an acceptance of it but is totally involved with it. Love In these books always starts with self, not others. In fact it seems to work out from self to encompass others in an understanding derived from an understanding of self. Like in the second part of the first reading when the lover could only gain entrance to his beloved by becoming at one with the beloved. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ comes to mind or the corollary of this – ‘love your neighbours as themselves’. Self, self, self, again there is that commonality between Jesus and modern spiritual texts.
So where does this leave us with the original question and questioner. It leaves me looking at myself. What do I see. Well I see in myself a certain lack of control, persistence, direction, understanding, compassion, a mixture of pent up emotions responding to reality in a way that sometimes shocks me. Not much going for me there is there? Perhaps though I am just like everybody else? I am left with the feeling that if I have made any spiritual development at all then I am still more like the chicken-eagle in our first reading except that perhaps, like the original questioner I now know that I can be something else. We all can. I am left with the view that somehow we should extend our capacity to love ever outwards to encompass all, in a fully accepting and non-judgemental fashion. Not easy that. Not only do we have to do this but that this can only really be achieved by being a part of the world as it is and not retreating from it.
So what advice is given as to how to achieve this level of love. I have to say that I have found the bible although giving some clues about what needs to be done is a bit sparse about how to go about doing it in practical terms. The spiritual texts on the other hand seem full of helpful and sometimes very different and conflicting advice about how to go about making spiritual progress. However I have achieved something already. I have recognized the importance of the question. I have done some reading and some thinking. I have some experiences, no matter how limited they are which might be of help. I have at least one tool. I listen to the thoughts and prods that come from within and I tend to act on the basis of what I call my ‘feel right’ factor. I recognise that this process has already started and probably started some time ago. All I have to do is to continue down this path, difficult though it is. But what path? Do I see one leading out in front of me? No I don’t. But I do think that I should use what I have within me, my ‘God given abilities'(?) to take the next steps.
The next few steps that I see, however simple or difficult, seem to be placed in front of me. My ‘feel right’ factor tells me this. It keeps telling me this. Some of these steps I am taking now. Some steps I have taken already, more than once sometimes and no doubt I will revisit many of these steps again in the years to come for it seems that these steps are not linear. They sometimes don’t even seem to be heading the same direction. When I think of it, like in the healing I do in which time and distance don’t seem to matter, perhaps direction doesn’t either.
These steps when put together seem to be cyclic, even though I jump steps occasionally. Perhaps that is because I can’t see the spiral that is taking me towards my goal. Perhaps even the concept of goal is incorrect. Perhaps this is only a mirage to reach for, or a carrot to encourage, so that I will strive. Whatever is the reality, I will share my few steps with you in the hope that these will be of use to you on your own spiritual journey.
Most spiritual texts largely focus on encouraging us into viewing ourselves. They talk in terms of the ‘I’ watching the ‘me’. This seems to be a pedantic way of explaining that you are observing yourself. I am not sure that the ‘I’ can be separated from the ‘me’ in any real sense without being classified as schizophrenic. What does Jesus say … ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ That seems a good starting point. I will turn my thoughts and actions inward.
On reflection there seem to be three steps incorporating a number of actions to be taken. I am not sure that the order of these steps matters, nor even their separateness, except for the person taking them. In some ways the order is a convenient generalization. What I need to do is to strip myself down to the real me so that I can recognise it on the rare occasion that it pokes its head up and looks at me. A bit like peeling an onion and perhaps just as uncomfortable.
My first step is to trace how I have become the me that is now. I want to look at what seem to be key points in my life. Not so that I can beat myself with my perceived failings but so that I can gain some understanding of the who I was. I need to accept me. I need to accept what has happened in my life that has influenced and moulded me? More importantly I need to recognise the layers of me that have been imposed upon me by myself and others such as parents, family, friends church, school, state etc. I need to begin to question myself and search for answers so that I can get a glimpse of the real me hidden away behind this facade. I am there somewhere. We all are. For I am neither the role I play nor the label that categorizes me which I have either accepted or has been thrust unto me by others. Perhaps we are all hidden inside our ‘me onion’. If I can begin to know and accept the ‘me’ that I was, complete with mistakes and hang ups then I can begin to accept the ‘me’ that others are.
The next step is to pin down who the real me is now. Is the real me different from the ‘me’ of the past. I need to observe what I am doing now. I need to begin to recognise and understand how I react, question what I do. I need to strip away the irrelevancies, the unthinking – ness, the controlling factors that limit me and cause me to lose sight of who I really am. I need to accept that I make a ‘pig’s ear’ of things sometimes. If I don’t recognise my own frailties how can I accept them in others. In this process I need to caste off the irrelevant roles that I play and the labels I give myself and reject those that have been thrust unto me by others. I am neither the role I play nor the label I might aspire to.
Then there is ‘me’ and the ‘others’. It is no good sitting in my own safe place and thinking only about myself. That by itself is a dead end. I need to reach out to others. I need to interact. I need to share. I need to relate. I need to observe, especially myself for this is as much about me learning about ‘me’ and understanding and accepting the ‘me’ as it is about knowing ‘others’. I do need to understand and accept ‘others’ as I find them. I need to encompass others on their own ground to in order to extend my awareness of me. I feel this is very important for without this how will I recognise the ‘me’ in them or their ‘otherness’ in me.
All this is great it sounds like a frenetic search with eagle eyed observation. I don’t believe that it is like that nor should it be. No process should of itself take over and steamroller forward. This process of waking myself up or finding me should be slow and steady with places for rest and recuperation. Of necessity there needs to be time for working, for dreaming, for creating, for reflection and meditation, for meeting and being with people, for being with the world, for being alone, for enjoying myself. Breathing space is important. Time to recap. Time to reassess. Time to recognise the progress that has been made. Time to become aware. Time to just be still. Time to ask for guidance. Time to listen. Time to listen to that inner voice. Time to recognise the next step. But most of all, time to just be me.
6th June 2002 – Soul Thoughts
Every six months or so, over the past two and a half years, I have developed an urge to sort something out in my mind. This need grows in intensity until I have to act. Thank you very much for allowing me to share my thoughts with you today and by doing so getting me off the hook for a time.
For a long time I have viewed meditation as very useful to me. A life saver in fact. One which has made it possible to continue my day job, teaching that is, a lot longer than I ever would have expected,. When my meditation goes well I feel comfortable, warm and a feeling of being nurtured. Time does not seem to matter and my frustrations diminish or disappear and I am left with a sense of peace. I have used a meditation, not unlike that suggested by John Donohue, called the ‘light body’ meditation for a long time but recently I have found myself changing and extending its scope. In this meditation, starting at a point within, I visualise my body slowly being filled with light. Now when I meditate, this light grows until it extends beyond the body. It can extend a few feet, fill the room, the building, the district etc. I am left with the feeling that I have not made that which I see. I am just illuminating it, allowing myself to see what is already there. Is this purely a mind induced visualisation or is it, as John Donohue suggests, contact with the soul? When doing this meditation I have such a sense of ‘rightness’ that I feel that there is something here that I have to take notice of, to learn. The question is, what is soul?
Soul. An airy fairy term. A word that has a place in world religions and spiritual practices down the millennia. A word that we cannot agree amongst ourselves as to what it means leaving a dictionary with a range of suggestions. A clutching at straws. Immaterial, vital principle, animating, essential are the words that are used to describe soul. Something which is here and not here. Something which we cannot be without. The part of us that exists beyond death. The part of us which is eternal. Is that right? ‘The part of us’ Or is it that we are a part of it as Meister Eckhart, John Donaghue and others would suggest. For my part I feel that this last is right. My ‘feel right’ factor tells me so but I have no proof. Just little hints.
Over the past fifty or so years, the understanding of reality has changed. Physicists and mathematicians now view our world through different ideas. Yes this is the mind stretching part but please bare with me. I am not going to go back to Planck’s idea of quanta, even if at sub atomic level, matter and energy are as one, are each the other and are interchangeable. I’ll start with David Bohm. He postulated the hologram and the idea that the whole is implicit within each of the parts. That is what is special about any hologram. Take a small piece of it and you have an image of the whole. He also said that because of this ‘whole to part linkage, each of the parts would also be interconnected in some way. This was substantiated mathematically by J.S. Bell who went on to show that this connection of the parts transcended time and space.
Great! Now we know that we are connected at a sub atomic level. In fact everything in some way is connected or interconnected. But how does that affect me? I seem to be of a higher order of size. On the back of Bell’s work Rupert Sheldrake postulated the presence of Morphographic fields. To you and me that means ‘invisible organising fields’. These fields seem to have no energy in the normal sense because their effect reaches across time and space in a way that energy cannot. These fields have the same strength no matter what the distance. Does this matter, I say to myself. Well it seems that if right, it does, or at least it might. Sheldrake went on to suggest that these fields form the basic blueprint for organising both form and behaviour. This, as far as I understand has not been substantiated yet.
So before we get totally bogged down let us recap. The image of the whole is in a sense held within each part. All the parts are interconnected in a way that transcends time and space. This last means that it cannot be in our dimension. Now, in our world, reality or dimension any good idea is used, by nature, over and over again in lots of different ways and at different levels of complexity. Can this be true? Can we actually see some evidence for this at other than at sub atomic levels?
The answer would seem to be yes. We heard about some of them earlier. At the more molecular level is the glycerine event in which glycerine across the world seemed to learn how to crystallise itself even when it was sealed in airtight containers.
At the cellular level, an experiment in Russia with a tissue culture showed that when split in two and held within separate sealed containers, the poison induced death of one tissue sample somehow caused the other to die within twelve hours and with identical symptoms.
At the specie level, Lyall Watson described the ‘hundredth monkey’ principle in which a group of monkeys learned a new behaviour. Other monkeys, often separated by great distance and geographical barriers, learned the self same new behaviour. Other species have exhibited similar abilities, for example the Blue tits. Some of the more mature amongst us will remember the introduction of foil caps in 1952, for milk bottles, replacing the then traditional card inserts. The London Blue tits learned quickly, they’re a sharp lot down there, that they could acquire breakfast by pecking through the foil cap. This ability spread in a manner which was seen to be unusual. Birds separated by great distance and geographical barrier suddenly acquired this breakfast habit as the ability spread across the U.K. and Europe.
There are hundreds of specie experiments which suggest that individuals are interconnected and that this interconnectedness involves abilities seemingly to break the normal time and distance barriers. This is true of very large shoals of fish and flocks of birds. Here, direction changes of the group, are instigated by a single individual. Those on the edge the shoal or flock who are often out of sight of the change instigator also change direction appropriately. However the speed at which they respond is shorter than it would take a visual or mechanical signal to work outwards away from the instigator to the periphery. Normal time and distance has somehow been transcended.
For humans, it seems that there is an enormous amount of information transferred between people. This ranges from feelings formed, for or against, about someone only glimpsed across the room, sometimes at distance. ‘Mind messages’ between separated family members at times of stress or trauma, breaking the normal time and distance barriers are not unknown. This, to such an extent that it would seem that at times we all have the ability to somehow step out of our normal reality.
But what of our ability to perceive the whole from the part? It is not unknown for authors and composers to suddenly glimpse the complete, fully fleshed out story, poem tune or symphony before the basis for such was hardly conceived. The one sometimes triggers the other. The part triggers the whole or is somehow the whole encapsulated within the part. Major scientific leaps have often been seen to be this type of event. Here, from a few isolated ideas and a strong underpinning of knowledge, a whole unified idea or concept have generated in one leap, leaving the researcher only to fill in the holes. It is based on this type of evidence and more, that Karl Pibram postulated that our brain structures our senses in a holographical way. Our brains are always taking a piece and generating the whole even if the whole has to be adapted later in light of experience.
So where does this leave us? Well it seems that we can operate, at least sometimes, outside linear time or three dimensional space. Somehow we seem to tap into another dimension. How do we do this? What is this other dimension where linear time and three dimensional space do not exist. It seems that it would not be a place of no time and no space but rather where all time is now, and all places are here. This dimension could justifiably be referred to as eternity where everything is eternally accessible.
If our physical body has this connection built into it as a facet of the physical body surely that part would have in some measure an aspect of the eternal. That is, it could not die. To my knowledge, even though different parts of the body die at different times, no part of the physical body seems to be eternal. It all dies and much of the apparent weight loss at death has been put down to continued respiration of these parts of the physical body that don’t die straight away.
Is then the connection with the eternal to be found within our body’s energy systems? Increasingly modern science is showing that all living things are surrounded by energy fields. Spiritual tradition across the world have said this for millennia. Yes there is some research to suggest that our energy field around us is multi layered both filling our physical body and extending outwards in layers. Seven layers, each more tenuous than the last one nearer the physical body. A part of this energy system even seems capable of travel away from the physical body for periods. In general though, the body’s energy system seems focused on the physical body which in some way supports. There is a little research that suggests that at least one level, ‘healers’ increase the energy vibrational rate of a recipient’s energy field in order to start the body to promote healing. At death though, this energy system, aura or bioplasm, call it what you will, just fades away in proportion to the death of the body as a whole. Even the travelling part stays near to the ‘dead’ person, usually fading over a period of two to three days after death. There is not even a tradition that this energy, or any part of it outlasts the physical body for long. This gives no indication of any possible eternity.
The world’s spiritual tradition does, however, give one particular aspect of our selves some attributes of the eternal. It is described to us as the soul. This is the part deemed eternal. If this is true then the soul must indeed have the attributes of eternity. That is, it should not be bound by either linear time or three dimensional space. All time must be available to it and all places. In this sense therefore it would by definition extend beyond the confines of our physical body rather than being encompassed by it. Perhaps the soul is just attached to or focused on our physical body. If this is true then perhaps it is through contact with our soul that we access the effect of the eternal. It is here where we can be in touch with any time and any place.
How do we do this? Well, pray with words or particularly with silence. Spiritual tradition says that we quieten ourselves down and turn our attention inward and ask. Reiki uses just this technique for it’s distant healing. Didn’t Jesus say that the kingdom of God was within? When we pray for someone not with us or even when we pray for a number of people spread across the globe at the same time, and have a positive effect, haven’t we distorted our normal time and space in some way? The effect is detectable by those aware and prepared to receive the healing prayer. It is immediate. It can be anywhere. Neither past, present or future seems to be a barrier. Now does this not seem to have aspects of the eternal?
It is said that at death when the soul finally separates from the body, the essence of the person you have known, is suddenly gone leaving only a dieing physical shell and a fading energy system. Onlookers watching this process describe just this. That the person they knew is suddenly gone and what is left is somehow no longer the person they knew. Surely this means that the person they knew was perhaps more likely a product of the soul and not just of the body.
For me this makes the soul important and trying to be in conscious contact with it a worthwhile activity. I believe that it is through this contact that I will begin to understand perhaps even love myself through that sense of peace and nurture mentioned earlier. Perhaps, as my soul is larger than myself it must impinge in some way on other souls. Is this the way that I gain understanding of others? Soul connected to soul. If ‘part’ interconnectivity seems to work this way at our physical level is it not likely that the same system occurs at the soul level? This would mean that I can get an understanding of others by opening myself to my soul. I can learn through soul experience to love my enemy. Now where have I heard this before?
If the scientists are correct about the universe having holographic features the part that is me may yet get a glimpse of the whole, meet God and be surprised.
24th August 2003 – About Angels
Over the last few years angel mania has jumped the Atlantic from the U.S.A. and swept the U.K. There are now a whole plethora of books about angels ranging from which angels do what, in the angelic hierarchy, to what you have to do to receive angelic help. Angel talks and workshops abound, and are being led by people who are totally convinced as to the reality of what they teach and the effectiveness of what they do.
Angels are however, not new. Comments about them are to be found deeply entrenched in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions and teachings. Peake’s Commentary on the Bible has 224 angel references. The Analytical Concordance to the Bible has 280 angelic references. Even in this Unitarian church, of the 476 hymns in the hymn book, 26 have an angel reference in the text. In my Unitarian childhood and for many today, angels seemed to be relegated to textual or story props for significant biblical events and as such are viewed almost entirely as myths. Angels were considered to be of little or no consequence, not relevant or an historic religious anomaly which sooner or later would fade away entirely.
Is this right? Are angels only figments of imagination or are they real? Should our thinking and experience take note of them? What is it that, at this time, has brought angels to the fore in at least a significant section of the public consciousness? Are angels just a fad of the moment to revel in and to make money out of? Mmm. Lots of questions.
So what is said about what are angels? In the Christian Testament these celestial beings are divided up into seven orders called angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions and thrones. These are added to the two orders of cherubim and seraphim of the Jewish Testament. Later Christian theological thought regrouped these nine ‘choirs of angels’ into three orders. Whichever system you follow the word angel is used in both a generic sense as well as to identify a specific angelic group. This hierarchical and organisational structure, to my mind smacks of human rather than the divine, as it seems to reflect societal power structures. Does, therefore, the angelic hierarchy reflect a true reality or is it the desire of early church to bolster a rigid societal power structure? Was this done on the basis of… ‘well if the angels are organised like this then it must be all right for us to be organised this way’? This must have been very useful for popes, kings, princes and all the other levels below them, except perhaps for those at the bottom of course.
So, personally, I am not keen on the way that angels are structured. But what do angels actually do? What is seen as their function? Nearest to God, in the first division so to speak, are the seraphim whose role is to make music and to pass on God’s ‘love and light’ down to the lesser ranks. The cherubim are there to make sure that the universal law of divine love is kept. While the thrones are responsible for seeing that divine justice is done in all situations in order to keep cosmic harmony.
The second division includes the dominions whose job is to supervise the duties and actions of the lower angels. The virtues organise miracles and bestow grace and courage on those of us who need it. The powers bestow the strength to stand up for ourselves.
The lower division is made up of the principalities who are like guardian angels for our planet or parts of it while the seven archangels have specific tasks for which they are responsible. These include helping us to oppose evil, that’s Michael, bringing us good news (Gabriel) or helping people to be creative and to pass such knowledge on (Uriel). Haniel is the guardian of all the kinds of love while Metatron helps us to bridge the gap between us and the divine. Auriel is the general protector of Earth and night and lastly Raziel is the guardian of inner knowledge and mysteries. The lowest of the angelic ranks are called angels. These look after us on an individual basis, our own guardian angels.
I find that the more I read about the angelic host the more I become muddled and confused. The angelic system seems very complex with all sorts of overlapping inter-relationships, roles and sub roles of which I have referred to only in a limited way. In a sense the first division oversees the law, the second division make sure the law is carried out and the third division are the day to day workers. To a large extent I am left further from understanding than I thought I was at the beginning. This information, to me, reinforces the humanness rather than the divineness of the structure. It seems almost pantheistic like Hinduism with its myriads of god lets each with their own roles and uses. Is that what angels are all about? Are angels only the remnants of an earlier and more primitive religious belief structure which has been passed down to us? I rather think that this may be true but I also think that there may be actual, practical and down to earth reasons why the concept or the reality of angels has survived.
The concept of angels I believe would probably disappear unless there is something happening which keeps it alive. Initially, and for many centuries, the idea of angels was kept alive by the Christian church and during this period angels spread throughout our folklore. Over at least the last two hundred years, however, Christianity, under the influence of science, has slowly moved to marginalise angels within its teachings. After this period of time there should be little left of angels within the public consciousness. But there isn’t. It seems to be or it wouldn’t be possible for publishers to give it so much prominence in their drive to make money. Angels therefore must be very firmly bedded into our culture and beliefs. A surprising thing considering how the established church and science has been doing its best to ‘pooh-pooh’ them. It seems likely therefore, that angel belief must, at some level, be related to the real experience of our population as a whole as little else would account for its survival following sustained suppression. What I mean is that people are actually experiencing angels.
Interest in angels has been growing in this country for the last ten years or so. A useful product of this more public acceptance has been a raised profile of angels as being an acceptable area of academic research. Yes, some people have actually been doing research about angels. The one I am going to quote today is Emma Heathcote-James who has been working on angels for some time and at the time of publishing her book -Seeing Angels- last year was putting together her doctoral thesis on this subject. Her book gives lots of examples and useful statistics.
In over 800 accounts received from all parts of the U.K., from different religious backgrounds and across all ages, one thing was common to all. Those involved were absolutely certain that their experiences were of an angelic nature. No ifs, no buts, just certainty. Most had been the butt of or feared ridicule and yet still believed that their experience was true and not an hallucination.
These accounts showed a number of common patterns. Nearly a third involved seeing the traditional angel form i.e. a figure dressed in white with wings. Other experiences involved a human form or scent, light, sound, physical, internal or other sensations. The importance of the experiences was seen to be that there had been a positive after effect. In this context comfort and reassurance was the most common experience. This was followed by direct protective and often physical intervention including life saving act by the angel. The next most common was delivering of meaningful messages. Closely following this was the more general comfort and hope received in the midst of death or illness.
What seems clear is that a small part of the population in this country is actually having an angel encounter. If this is true now then there is no reason to believe that it wasn’t true in the past. Perhaps there have always been some who have had angelic encounters. It is likely that such ongoing experiences are actually responsible for the continued acceptance of the idea of angels. This is so in spite of the efforts of science and religion to marginalize this issue.
The question is however, are angels really real? Those who experience them are absolutely certain. Can those of us who have not had an angelic experience find a basis for the acceptance of such experiences. The first thing I have to say is that I have always been a bit of a ‘doubting Thomas’ which in my case makes it more difficult to accept someone else’s reality. But I will try.
My first thought is to ask myself if I have had any unusual experiences in my life, which I have not put down to angelic influence but which another person might. Like many people I have to admit that I have. For example, when out rock climbing many years ago, without thought and before I was aware of what I was doing, I lifted up my climbing partner and pulled him to one side and safety with only my left hand, when a section of the quarry face of some tons in weight broke free. It was done immediately. Such unexpected strength in an emergency is not unknown in this world and personally I look on this event as being more likely to be untapped bodily ability rather than divine or angelic intervention.
At another time and place I heard a voice. Now I often hear a voice in my head but it is my own voice and it goes on most of the time. There is always some general background noise. That I believe is fairly normal. On this day I had been driving down south from my home very early in the morning after having had little sleep the night before. I was tired but the journey was over and I was relaxing with a book. I was finding the book hard going and had to keep stopping and thinking about what I had just read. In one of these reading pauses my ongoing ‘brain noise’ stopped, tuned out like a pre digital radio coming onto station. I then heard three words in a calm quiet masculine voice, well predominately masculine. It said “Well done Joe”. After a slight pause my ‘brain noise’ started up again. I was flabbergasted. It took a moment or two to realise what had happened. What was interesting was that for the rest of that day I felt I was on a high, everything around me looked new and shiny … special. At the time I thought it might have been God but I didn’t ‘know’. Since then I realise it could equally be put down perhaps to a personal spiritual guide or helper. Not once did I think angel. I understand, however, that an angel believer would immediately brand that experience as being angelic.
In the third event or events I had allowed myself to get into potentially difficult, perhaps life threatening, situations. As each situation developed I found that I had an overwhelming desire to stop, to go, to get away, to get out. I was filled with the feeling that all was not right and I must do something…. now, which I did. This has happened three times on three different occasions. What was interesting was that what I felt seemed to come from outside rather than within myself. But I did not once think angel.
The fourth series of events arose from my Reiki. When in healing mode, during these years my perception, has changed slowly and subtly to incorporate a physical feeling of another’s energy field or aura, the hearing of words in my own voice indicating where hands should be placed, a system in which I can ask questions (and receive answers) and an element of ‘guided ness’. This last takes the form of either showing me where I need to be next or by direct intervention where my hands are taken over and do, sometimes, things about which I have no prior training or knowledge. When I ask for this last to happen I get the distinct impression that it is not me that is using my hands while always retaining the control of stopping the process at all times. Although I accept the reality of ‘guided ness’, never once have I thought that angels were involved.
Recently I had my ‘between lives’ events, sparked off by regression and later meditation on the death process. Even here, during these experiences, faced by a white human-like shape I did not think angel. Though I am sure that others would.
So where does that leave me in trying to make sense of this angel thing. A lot of things are said about angels and what they do but I have no real basis for accepting or rejecting any of them. They have a long history within a number of different cultures. Quite a few people believe angels exist. Some people have had meaningful angelic experiences from which they cannot be persuaded. I, like many others have had some unusual experiences that angel believers would call angelic episodes but I am not convinced because they could quite easily be classed as higher self, spirit guide, or spiritual helper involvement, if you are in to that sort of thing.
Does science have anything to add that could help? I suppose the medical profession, when commenting on the strength event, would say that I was tapping into my body’s reserve of strength in some way. This has been noted on a number of occasions where danger is to yourself or another. People have lifted cars to save children etc. They may even be right but as far as I know, no one has come up with where the extra energy is and how it is accessed. Perhaps in the third of my experiences someone is bound so say that my experience is somehow tied into a basic fight or flight response in response to high stress levels caused by perceived danger.
In the second, third and fourth events psychologists would say that I was giving advice to myself. They might even draw in such concepts as conscience, the subconscious, higher consciousness or higher self or psyche that are all ways of saying that the experience is what we call ‘mind’ based in some way. It would be said that one part of the mind was talking or influencing another part. There are lots of explanations but no basic proof and perhaps, it could be argued, such are just ways of excluding or ignoring the possibility of outside intervention by guides or angels.
Where does that leave us? With the idea that such experiences might by induced by my body and mind, in response to certain situations. So what else is there. Well Emma Heathcote-James’ research also pointed out that the majority of the angel experiences occurred when either the person was actually in danger, highly stressed or in what she called the ‘twilight’ state which occurs in meditation, prayer or just before sleep. But what is special about these states of mind?
Brain activity is measured by an EEG which measures the speed at which brain neurons fire in cycles per second. In the normal healthy relaxed person’s brain, governed by the thalamic pacemaker, neurons will be firing off at between 7 and 12HZ (cycles per second). This is called the alpha state. In the twilight or theta state the brain neurons are working at a much slower rate, that of 4 to 7HZ. This state is seen as that which we go through on the way to deep restorative sleep. In this state we seem to open the gateway to learning and memory, our visual imagery is more acute. It is in this state that our intuitive abilities open up. It is also the state we go to when we employ relaxation techniques, meditation, hypnosis and deep silent prayer where the presence of God is felt. This is the state that many receivers of Reiki describe as ‘not awake but not asleep’. This is the state that many angelic experiences are seen to probably occur, but not all of them. Not the angelic experiences during times of immediate danger when the brain is in the beta state (13-40Hz) associated with peak performance, concentration, heightened alertness and visual acuity.
So some angelic experiences are involved with a specific brain function. Some would therefore say that because of this link, it is likely that all such occurrences are brought about by our own brains. But this is not necessarily so. It would be a mistake to assume that because the physical brain is involved in angelic occurrences it therefore means that it is necessarily the brain that controls them. That is not at all certain. It is like a child looking at the arrival of mail through the letterbox of a solid door saying that the letterbox is somehow controlling the arrival of the mail. I suspect it may be much more complicated and we haven’t even begun to understand what is really going on.
But it certainly leaves me with a quandary. For some, angelic experiences really happen, as do experiences of being communicated to by a spirit guide or spiritual helper. What I do think is that there is something going on that we have not explained. To some extent it is a problem of language… angel… spirit guide… spiritual helper… personal guide. Are these just words for explaining the same experience. Are we more likely to see angels if we are from a Jewish, Christian or Islamic background and if we are from the East are we more likely to see our personal guide. I think that is likely. I think that when we undergo an experience of this kind our brains try to make sense of it. That is what brains do. That is their function. But there is a problem with this. Our brains can only do this on the basis of pre existing experience and knowledge. Pictorial illusions show that the brain works in this way. A black and white picture of a black ornate wine glass may switch to a picture of two white outline faces turned inwards. Our understanding of such a picture can switch backwards and forwards at random. Our brain trying to create an understanding of reality. So an angel experienced by one, could be the guide experienced by another. However, the understanding that their brain creates might still not be the truth. Perhaps the reality of such experiences is something different again.
Does this destroy the validity of angel or guides. No it doesn’t. That experience is reality for that person. Help is still received. Prayers are answered. Healing occurs. God is experienced. Yes this might still be an untapped function of the brain or mind. But at the moment I don’t think so…. And does it matter anyway?
What happens works. Danger is averted or survived. Information received is understood. Comfort is experienced. It is useful. Angelic experiences are seen as a touch of the divine. For that person it is reality, a part of their belief system and a part of their religion perhaps. Such people do not sway from that belief no matter what. They are secure. Guide experiences tend to be kept separate from religion in a separate compartment. I wonder which is the better way and what as a church should we do about it?
18th January 2004 – Reading to support ‘The Meaning of a November Experience’
This mornings second reading is taken from ‘God At the Traffic Lights’ which appears in this month’s Church Calendar.
It is now more than a month and the incident is still alive and crystal clear in my mind when many experiences have already merged into the background.
It was just dark and the evening was moist with the potential for mist or rain. It could go either way. The traffic was light and I put relaxing music on the radio. It was a normal evening and I was going home to some extent on ‘auto pilot’ after dropping our grand daughter off at her own home in time for bedtime. I approached the traffic lights still some two hundred metres away, having slowed down to go past the speed camera I noticed a difference. At first it was it was only faint but as I progressed towards the traffic light so the feeling became stronger. The feeling is difficult to describe. It was not ‘a brightness’. Time didn’t stand still. I was able handle the car as usual. What I felt was an increasing ‘special-ness’. A feeling that encompassed my surroundings and included the car and myself.
As I drew to a halt at the traffic lights, unable to turn to the right because of the stream of traffic coming towards the junction, the feeling was very strong. It was the feeling of being a part of the whole. I felt totally connected to everything around me. In fact it was as if everything was a part of me and I a part of everything. There was no feeling of separateness at all and yet I was still an individual in my own right able to operate the car and watchful of the chance to make the right turn. An individual bound to all the other individualities that made up my reality at this time, where living and non-living were bound together. At some level I felt I was everything. I felt at peace. I felt supported. I felt loved.
I was stationary for two to three minutes and then the chance to turn right came and I drove away from the junction. As I drove away from the junction, towards home, so the intensity of my experience began to wane until it disappeared some 200 metres away from the traffic lights. It was as if I had travelled through a static bubble of a different reality. I was a bit stunned yet had no desire to turn around. The experience seemed complete in itself. I drove on without any feeling of a sense of loss. I had experienced what I had known about for a long time and I had already come to, intellectually, know. The reality of one-ness. Experiencing this reality is so much better. It was so fulfilling, this experience of God at the traffic lights.
The Meaning of a November Experience
The second reading this morning described a personal experience which took place during last November in which I experienced a profound sense of one-ness with the world. This experience seemed to highlight the total interconnectedness of everything. I have come to recognise, that for me, this was a pivotal experience and that I must take notice of it, try to make sense of it, put it in context and act upon it.
Experiences like mine are far from being rare and have been a source of interest to a number of noted psychologists. For example, Maslow, refers to them as ‘peak experiences’ and Jung, calls them transcendent experiences. No matter what they are called all seem to agree that such events seem to trigger a broadening of personal perception and understanding in at least one way, as if the person has tapped into a ‘greater’ reality. In the population at large these are seen as spiritual experiences. Such experiences generally offer the recipient an insight into some aspect of their life and the basis of their reality.
Within the bible the level of importance of this type of experience is markedly raised and within the Christian testament seems to be of prime importance. It is now generally accepted that over the centuries the content and phrasing of the Christian testament has been altered. Despite this degree of tinkering with the biblical text we can get glimpses of what is generally referred to as the Kingdom of God or just the Kingdom.
The Kingdom, as written of by mainly the disciples Matthew and Luke, is seen as being of prime importance for Jesus. This is the main central and core idea. However most references to the Kingdom are buried in parables and they have to interpreted and the hidden secret teased out. Jesus prompts his listeners to think further by ending many parables with the words ‘those who have ears to hear let them hear’ or the other version when it is ‘eyes and seeing’.
Jesus says many things about the Kingdom. The place of the Kingdom is always ‘at hand’ or ‘near’. So this place perhaps is not just in a heaven above, or just a post death state or experience but rather it is available to us here and now. It is both within and around each of us. To gain access to the Kingdom we have to change, be ‘born again’, by being as little children. We can work towards being in the Kingdom if we ‘try’ or ‘are ready’ to do it. It is available to all regardless of social or other position though, some high positions in society and power structures are recognised as making it more difficult to achieve contact with the Kingdom. The way to make contact with the Kingdom is by turning inward and not outward in any open display.
The more recently found Gospel of Thomas reiterates the biblical hints about the Kingdom in shorter but often more cryptic form saying much the same things.
To my mind this suggests a relationship between what I have experienced and what the Gospels were talking about. My experience was directly to do with the outward and inward reality. I do not think that my reality change at the traffic lights would have been seen or felt by any other person there. Why, because it was generated from within me. However this directly raises the question, was I experiencing what in the bible is called the Kingdom or some facet of the Kingdom? For myself I think that there are too many indicators that suggest that this was the case.
Now all this is interesting and raises many questions for myself. Not the least being that if everything is ‘as one’ and is ‘as one with God’ then the acceptance of this will have far reaching consequences on how I run my life. It will affect how I will relate to others. It will affect how I will relate to my environment. In fact everything is thrown up into the air and I have now to cope with a new ball game. The effects of this could be far reaching and profound. It is obviously special for me but why do I think that it may be special for others.
For myself it is not as if I have not had other experiences. I have had other experiences in my life before November and some since so what made this experience special? My initial reaction to this question was to immediately recognise that this experience was different from other experiences that I have had. It was longer, it was much more intense and it took place while I was actually doing something, that is, driving. All my other experiences that I would call spiritual in nature have been when I was stationary and not doing something potentially dangerous. It directly reinforces, in me, the my idea that anyone who is spiritually changed can be so and be within the world as it is. You do not necessarily need to withdraw from it.
On closer examination of all my experiences I was able to identify a trend ranging from the almost mundane to a recognisably increased spiritual level. The progression, over the years prior to last November included an intensification of my normal senses. At all these times I had the feeling that somehow I had moved towards a different reality from that which I lived in. When looking at an object it became more beautiful, an event taking place became more humorous, a place became more peaceful, another seemed to shine with a special-ness that I could not define and when in yet another place I felt that I could stay forever and which I have been drawn back to over the years again and again because it makes me feel so good when I am there. With hindsight I have come to recognise that with each incident came a slow intensification of experience leading me to that November sense of one-ness.
But it has not stopped there I have had other experiences since which have given me that same sense of oneness and each was at a different physical time or place. They had the same intensity but shorter in duration. It is almost as if I am being shown something, being prompted, reminded to take notice and that my nose is being rubbed in it until I do do something about it.
But how and why can my experiences be of importance and useful to others? I looked again and I saw that although my spiritual experiences span about 25 years, the vast majority of them are within the last five or six years. So why? Have I needed special support over this period? No I don’t think so I didn’t get dumped on in a big way by life until quite recently. Were any of these other experiences life changing? No not at all. They were certainly interesting but individually not life changing. At the most they were just nudges. Am I, somebody special, to be held up as a specific example to others? I shouldn’t think so, I hope not. What a frightening thought. I feel quite ordinary and definitely not special, well no more than anyone else. So is it something that I have been doing during the last five or six years that I wasn’t doing before?
Well, this period is notable to me as being a time when I started doing a number of things. Not all at the same time I hasten to add. I started doing healing. I started going to church. I started meditating. I started reading and discussing spiritual texts wit others. For me these stand out. Each of these activities didn’t start through random choice. I was not interested in Reiki but woke up one morning and knew I had to do it. The same happened about going back to church after many years of non attendance, only this time I put off the doing it for six months during which the feeling that I should go to church became stronger and stronger until I eventually started attending. I started meditating because it felt the right activity to do and it made the healing time easier on me. The feeling was very strong. As for the books to do with spirituality, they almost jumped off shelves to get into my hands. They were thrust upon me as gifts from others, some new and some that were passed on to me and some which I had to save from some future skip. Some were so strongly recommended that I just had to find out why. So, in brief, I started healing, meditating and became increasingly focused upon my own spirituality.
Are these activities important? Yes I think that they are. Research carried out in the last twenty years suggests that involvement in these and other activities connected with spirituality, whether religious or secular, have a positive spin-off. Those who are involved in such activities on more than two days each week become healthier, withstand stress better and live longer than those who do not do this. On reflection I feel that these physical gains, though easier to measure, may be only half of the story. What if there is a spiritual bonus as well. On the face it, for myself, more spiritual activity seems to mean an increased quality and frequency of spiritual experience.
Now, despite feeling that I have been pushed or guided into doing these things that I do, I feel quite strongly that it is the act of doing the spiritual activity which is of most importance. Spiritual texts read and discussed help only to put the experiences and the thoughts and ideas they generate into context. Though that is useful what makes the actual difference is doing the spiritual activity. Socialising and enjoying yourself is not important in this context. Nor does the activity have to be done in a group. It is, however, easier in a group of like minded individuals and being in a group makes it easier to sustain any activity over time and therefore should not be dismissed. But spiritual growth is an individual journey. We don’t all move at the same pace or even in the same direction at times, because we are different. We have different skills and aptitudes, our lives and experiences are different. How can we expect to be exactly the same as another person. Yes, there will be times when you will feel frustrated and jealous of others and what you see as their progress in comparison with your own. Fine, these feelings can all be overcome. But continue doing the spiritual thing anyway
Are spiritual activities important? Yes I think that they are. What my experience has and is telling me is that I have, during the last five or six years, changed and that I am now not the person that I was five or six years ago. I see myself as still being me but changed. Perhaps what you see today is the real me but more likely it is that I am progressing towards the real, real me. Perhaps you are now seeing a birth or a re-birth of that real me. Perhaps this is what being ‘born again’ is all about. Perhaps it isn’t an instant thing but a process, and we can all do it.
Are you doing the spiritual thing or just thinking about it? Remember, it is the doing that makes the difference. Perhaps we need to raise the profile of spiritual activity within our lives. To re-label one or more of the golf balls (of the 1st reading), perhaps getting rid of some sand and then act upon this different reality. And yes I still like the ‘two beers’.