My year 12 class at Warrandyte - and thousands of other VCE students around the state who have been studying English - have been required to think about the question: Whose reality? It's an interesting group. Earlier in the year I brought in the results of an international study of beliefs. Before I shared the findings of the study, I asked the class to respond to the questions.
Do you believe in God? 0/17 believe in a divine power, a god of any kind.
Do you believe in life after death? 0/17
92% of Americans believe in God. 72% of English people. 68% of Australians believe in God.
And 0% of my Year 12 class. Like Julia Gillard, they are athiests. It was not what I had expected. I had not realised just how strong the secular tide has become. It is reaching tsunami proportions, it seems.
My disenchantment with organised religion - or disorganised religion for that matter - emerged in my early 20s. Up until then I had viewed the world through the lens of Christian belief. I went to Sunday school as a child, became a Methodist. When Billy Graham came to Melbourne, I answered his call and went forward to 'my give life to Christ'. From 15 or so I attended Church twice every Sunday, taught Sunday school, became heavlily involveed in Methodist Boys camps and Summer sc hools, studied Theology, became a lay preacher at the age of 17. Christian belief was the prism through which I viewed the world.
I interpreted the world through a Christian framework.
Up intil the age of around 9 I had believed in Father Christmas, but about that time the evidence began to mount that I had been (albeit benignly) duped. Other people around me - my friends at school - spread seeds of doubt. Could what they were saying be true? Christmas was fast approaching. I tested out the evidence. One day, when my parents left me at home alone, I went trough my father's wardrobe, my mother's glory box, my mother's wardrobe. Nothing. I climbed up on the bed and hit pay-dirt; I discovered the toys that 'Father Christmas' was going to be leaving for me on Christmas morning. I don't think that I was in any way traumatised by the discovery of my parents suberfuge. And I certainly didn't let on that I knew. On Christmas morning I acted surprised as I undid the parcels.
A similar process occured with my belief in God.
But more of that later. Back to my Year 12 class ...
What conclusions have we drawn about "reality"? Here are some of our tentative conclusions:
* Reality is all a matter of perception.
* Reality is a sort of map we carry in our heads. It is built out of our past experiences of the world, and it provides us with a map for finding our way around.
* Our 'reality map' is constantly changing. On this score, Piaget, the Swiss psychologists, suggests there are two key processes at work here. He called them assimilation and accommodation. We have a 'MAP in our heads'; we are constantly EXPERIENCING 'the world'. An anecdote :
While Simon Boomer [the son of an old friend, Garth Boomer - one of the most inflouential thinkers and writers in the field of English teaching] was 22 months old he used the word FLY to refer to virtually any small insect. the word stood for a 'proto-concept' that was part of Simon's mental map of the world. Whenever he saw a small insect he would call it a 'fly'. The 'new experience' of the small insect was readily assimilated - it fitted his map of the world.
Then came the day he was bitten by a bee. The bite was very painful. From that day on, he had two words for insects: 'fly' and 'bee'. In other words, he changed his map - he accomodated the new experience. He built on to his house of understanding - added a room - to accomodate the new information.
* Everyone's reality is different, and constantly changing. Some parts of our map seem very solid; other parts are subject to constant change.
Throughout my childhood, and particularly during my adolescence, I was a 'practicing Christian'. The Christian story - of a creative and loving God, of human frailty and weakness, of Christ's redemptive death on the cross - was part of my 'core beliefs'. It became something like a habit ...
But new experiences - in particular working in a mental hospital [See Blog 2: Unrelenting Sorrow], working at Glenroy Tech School, and meeting people who lived their lives with a different perception of reality - created much turbulence in my mind; there was much that needed accommodating. My 'house of understanding' was redesigned and rebuilt.
* Life could be a dream, Shaboom
So the old song goes. It reminds me of the old saying: 'Am I am man, dreaming that I am a butterfly, or am I a butterfly, dreaming that I am a man?' Central to Buddhist philosophy is the notion that we live in a dream much of the time; Charles Tart (in a book called 'Altered States') argues that much of the time we operate in a kind of consensus trance. Our mantra is 'assimilate, assimilate, assimilate - and ... sleep'. We don't attend much to the 'present moment' - what 'the world presents us; we attend to whatever is going on in our hears. We drive from home to work, and arrive there with no recollection of the journey; our mind was elsewhere; we were living in a dream of our own making - the constant flow of our consciousness, taking us here, there and everywhere. And more 'there and everywhere else' than 'here'.
Politicians are fond of saying 'the reality is'. At its heart, this is an assertion that "my perception of reality is superior to yours". I've given up trying to discuss any matters with Fundamentalist Christians - or fundamentalists of any kind, really. The map they carry in their heads is made of concrete and steel; not only that, the lenses through which they perceive and interpret the world enable them to totally dismiss the notion of evidence.
Fundamentalists base their lives on rocks of certain knowledge:
'You ask me how I know He lives - he lives within my heart.'
'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'
Politicans are also tricky. Their reality is :"what I am telling you now". Reality is ALL spin. It is composed of whatever slogans, half truths, lies, misinterpretations the spin doctors can come up with. The word 'debate' used to mean 'a clash of minds', a rational argument in which speakers presnet the evidence that supports their position; these days it means 'a parading of untestable assertions'. [I notice that Tony Abbott has started to use one of John Howard's old lines: 'Interests rates will always be lower under a Liberal government.' When someone tackled him on this, pointing out hat over the past two years under Labor interest rates have been at 'historically low levels', Abbott without a blink of an eyelid responded: 'Oh you can't count the last few years.' ]
This rant emerged as a result of my reading of a wonderful blog from Misha Sim. I've known Misha since 2001, when she enrolled to study Professional Writing and Editing at NMIT. She was - and is - a gifted writer who has had more than her fair share of kicks in the guts from "Life" - the bastard who seems to have no discrimination in apportioning suffering and pain. Three years ago, it looked as though things were settling down for Misha. She had met an American guy, was in love, and was engaged to be married. And then, he died.
How are we to react when life stings us like that - in so devestating a manner?
Some people turn to religion, of one sort or another. I have a friend who has turned to the certainty of numbers; numerology seems to have replaced the fundamentalist religion that enabled her to get through her 30s. Prior to that, drugs had been her rock , her refuge. [What's that old joke: 'Reality is what people turn to when they can't cope with drugs.']
Jean Gebser studied the emerging consciousness of human beings. He identified five 'states' or - more accurately - 'forms' of consciousness. Bernie Neville refers to humans as five-minded creatures:
1. Archaic mind:
This form is rather like the consciousness of other mammals - dogs, cats, monkeys. There is no distinguished self and other; we are at one with what happens. Gebser called it apersectival; in our archaic state, we have no perspective.
2. Magical mind
As the title suggests, this form of consciousness relies upon a magical view of the world. If we sing this song, the rains will come; if we dance this dance, our hunt will be successful; if we leave a gift at this place, we will become fertile. Ritual and dance and song enable the tribe to survive.
Even in a society that sees itself as rational, magical practices are still there. People choose special numbers as a way of influencing fate - and winning the lottery. The Christian church, though based on myth - on grand story - still has numerous magical elements. The Catholic doctine of transubstantiation holds that, during the Mass, when the priest holds up the host - the bread and the wine - before the altar, God work magic, and they actually become the body and blood of Christ. That is very powerful magic.
3. Mythical mind
This form of consciousness is dominated by story, by coherent narratives that explain the origins of all things, the nature of the human condition. The myths of Greece, the myths of Christians and of Jewish people, the Dreamtime stories of indigenous peoples - these provided coherence and meaning; they provided a map of the temporal and of the spiritual world, and established the links between the two. Mythical consciousness has a single perspective.
4. Rational mind
The test of truth for those whose consciousness is 'mythical' is: what do the myths tell us? What does God say? To Fundamentalist Christians, the Bible is 'the word of God' - the literal world of god. With that there can be no argument. Rationality, on the other hand, is essentially a matter of argument: it's a matter of making assertions and supporting them with evidence. In its 'stronger' forms, rational consciousness relies on experimental research.
5. Integral mind
Gebser, writing in the middle years of the 20th century, thought that human kind was on the brink of the dawning of a new form of consciousness. If the 20th century demonstrated anything, it was the shortcomings of rationality. The gas chambers of the Holocaust were an outcome of 'rationality'. The developments in science had enabled humans to produce methods of mass extermination: the gas chamber, the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the fire bombing of Dresden...
Not only that: the extermination of the Jews was firmly based in logic. Once you accepted that the Jews were a menace, a lesser race responsible for most of the problems in the world, it made perfect sense. Just as the taking of children from their aboriginal parents made perfect sense. Just as the invasion of Iraq made perfect sense.
The process in all of these cases is entirely rational. And the lesson is clear: start with a false premise, and use rationality to establish conclusively what should be done:
Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction - the logic leads us to the obvious conclusion: we must invade Iraq.
We can't rely on our rational mind, because it is competing with other, deeper minds: our archaic mind, our magical mind, our mythical mind. From the turn of the 20th century, with the findings of quantum theory, and throughout that era, the assumed dominance of rational consciousness came under increasing criticism. At its most essential - at the quantum level - lay Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. At that level of existence, nothing is predictable - all is chance. Chaos rules, okay.
For post modernists, 'reality' is relative. There is no one truth; there are many truths, each equally justifiable.A couple of years back I wrote a song exploring this notion of post modernism.
The Essence of Post Modern Thought
Every tree grows somewhere
And every photographer,
takes the shot from somewhere
he’s decided to stand
Yes, every tree grows somewhere
And every assassin,
takes the shot from somewhere
Where he’s making a stand
Now every photographer
comes from a certain address
and that is the ess-
ence of post modern thought
Uses a camera
A pin hole, box brownie
or maybe SLR
Or these days maybe a digital
With zoom lens and macro
And wherever they go
Is where they record what they see
Painters are dancers
Composing their own symphony
To be deconstructed
To be decomposed – or maybe not to be
Trees grow from tiny seeds
Just like photographers,
The ground’s ever-shifting
wherever they stand
and every photographer
waits for every development
and that is the essence
that is the essence
that is the essence of post modern thought
For Gebser, post modernism is a disfunctional form of rationality; but it is an essential step along the road to the next phase.
The name he gives the emerging consciousness is integral. The rational mind dismisses the great stories and the quaint rituals of the magical mind as childish. Once I was a child I thought as a child, and acted as a child, but now I am grown up, I put away childish things.
The integral mind integrates the other four; none has precedence over the others.
And that brings me to Misha's blog.
Everything happens for a reason that I make up
Not long after my partner died, an old friend arrived at my home unannounced, to offer her condolences. At the time, Lou had been travelling around Australia with her new lover, a younger doe-eyed, hippie-chick with sun-kissed dreadlocks and too much turquoise jewellery. When they arrived, I was out of my mind with grief and exhaustion (not to mention being medicated up to my eyeballs on valium), and I was not in the headspace for entertaining, particularly someone that I had never met. As we all sat outside on the verandah, smoking and sipping tea, Lou's girlfriend took hold of my left hand and proceeded to read my palm. After reeling off some nonsense about the long and abundant life up ahead of me, she began caressing my fingers, softly, as though we were about to make out. 'Lou tells me that you recently lost someone very close to you', she whispered, as though it were a secret. I nodded my head. 'You know Misha, even though you might not feel it right now, everything happens for a reason'. I immediately pulled my hand away and lit a cigarette. I was deeply offended and I wanted to be sick. For the next 30 seconds I tried hard to contain the feeling of disgust that was bubbling up inside my stomach. In the end I couldn't keep it down. 'I don't know you, I said, and you certainly don't know me, so please don't come to my home where I am grieving, feel free to read my f######g palm and then tell me that everything happens for a reason'. 'Everything is not happening for a f#####g reason.
The 'hippie-chick' seems to be operating on the magical belief. Hers is a magical view of the world. There are spirits at work, that determine what will happen to us; they are the ones who control our fate, and they will ensure that 'all will be well'. The creases and lines in our hands are, in some magical way, related to not only what has happened, but will happen. And these spirits have their reasons. It is the opposite of Chaos theory, which suggests that all is chance, all is unpredictable.
A person who basic beliefs are drawn from Christian mythology might have sought to give comfort to Mish by suggesting, 'God works in a mysterious way', and that, in time, his purpose would become clear.
Placing the reason for an event - such as the death of a loved - on some supernatural power who knows best is of no comfort to someone who is suffering.
After reading my first draft of this blog, she wrote to me to say:
Nothing happens for a reason (hehehe) but it would sure be nice to turn your recent turn of events (my discovery that I had been adopted) into something wonderful and positive wouldn't it? That is what I have tried to do. In the words of the late great writer & womaniser Mr. Charles Bukowski - what matters most is how well you walk through the fire and I think the two of us have enough courage and fortitude to walk head on into the flames.
Misha's longish final paragraph is a profoundly moving statement of her current state of beliefs, and of the peace she has found. Like me, Misha has no faith in a sky god, or an earth god, or a mythical spirit, or any other universal force. There is no cosmic plan. Things happen. Pleasure and pain are random. Our lives can turn on a turn on a breath.
Job's suffering was a result of God's plan. Job's god wanted him to suffer. I'm just grateful that I don't have such a god inflicting pain on me, to teach me a lesson.
Almost three years later and I am no closer to finding a reason for the way things have turned out. And despite the sentiment of other well- intentioned, turquoise wearing folk, I am actually grateful that I have been able to move through the process of grief without relying on that comfort. It may surprise you to learn that as an atheist, I am a deeply spiritual person. While I may not have followed the conventional route, I have carved out my own spiritual path with deep connections to nature, morality and humanity - it just doesn't include the omnipresent mythical spirit, God or otherwise, who has orchestrated a cosmic plan. The way I see it, things happen to each of us that can bring great pleasure or great pain and inevitably change your life forever. I do believe that in order to find our way through the chaos, people choose to believe that these events happen for a reason. It was meant to be - you tell yourself this, as a way to understand things. Attaching meaning becomes in itself, a coping mechanism, a source of comfort when the pleasure or pain are too much to absorb. In order to make sense of pain and suffering, I have seen people try to weave each twist and turn of life into some coherent whole - to fashion the specific meaning they need, because without meaning - from God or an alternate creator - then we are ultimately alone. But to live truthfully, I have had to forgo this comfort and accept that there is no cosmic plan for each of us, just a story that you tell yourself after the fact. The absence of reason does not scare me, on the contrary, there is freedom in the thought that all pleasure and pain is random; that nothing is personal. It feels wonderful to me, like finally being unhinged. Mysteries are not necessarily miracles and people do not die or suffer so that other people can work out how to live better lives. Actually I find that concept a little creepy. It is true that in my experience of losing Chance, I have decided to make my life count for more than I had done before. I have quit drinking and smoking, gone back to study and even started this blog. We all learn and grow from both good and bad experiences but that is not the same thing as attaching some cliched, new-age, bumper sticker onto those experiences in order to explain them away. When I think about the third world, about the countless number of men, women and children who's entire lives (and deaths) are determined by the place in which they are born; where life means malnutrition, aids, starvation, torture, rape, disease and horror... I wonder if in the midst of all that suffering and survival, they ever stop to ponder the way in which everything is unfolding for a reason. Or does the 'theory' (or 'law' as I have also heard it referred to) in all of its mystical wonderment, only apply to a smaller section of the world's population born into more affluent circumstances; to the blessed white, middle-class demographic with a penchant for hypocrisy and self-importance.... What is the reason for that massive disparity I wonder.