I grew up in a world without God. In 1953, when I was born, Science was our salvation. At the 1964 New York World’s Fair I saw visions of a perfect world of the future, with undersea cities, safe nuclear power, flying cars — all miracles of human ingenuity. Even at my Hebrew school no one seemed to believe in God. I knew that deep in Brooklyn lived Orthodox Jews, and deep in the mountains of West Virginia lived snake-handling Christians, but they were relics of a long-lost era, like aging hepcats in zoot suits.
Entering adolescence, I began to yearn for a higher truth. As a boy of twelve I climbed a sycamore tree in Highbridge Park, across the street from my house, and carved the word God into its trunk with my house key. But it wasn’t a statement; it was a plea.
In tenth grade, in a fit of existential anguish, I typed out, “Religion is the politics of desperation,” fourteen times, cut the paper into strips, and surreptitiously taped the sentence around my homeroom. At 3 PM my German-born homeroom teacher, Mr. Gerhard, approached me with a crumpled ball of my writings and a woeful look. “Are you trying to tell me something?” he asked.
I first discovered God through Bob Dylan. When I was a senior in high school, his album New Morning was released, its simple, bouncy songs often played on piano: “Father of day, Father of night / Father of black, Father of white / Father, who builds the mountain so high / Who shapeth the cloud up in the sky . . .”
More dangerous than marijuana, or even psilocybin mushrooms, was the concept that God is real! The Divinity felt brand-new, as if He (or She) had been born two months before. And, in fact, this was a 1960s vision of God. No longer was the Deity a pillar of church and state. Millions of young Americans realized all at once: God was a hippie.
But how to contact the Divine One, besides listening to New Morning over and over? One day, while walking home from high school, I discovered a Buddhist temple in the Bronx. By the entrance was a small rack of pamphlets titled “How to Meditate.” I took one.
The first instruction was “Find a quiet place.” I went to Inwood Park and seated myself on a large rock, legs crossed, eyes closed. Immediately an airplane flew overhead. I stood up, walked a hundred yards deeper into the park, sat beside a tree, and again closed my eyes. This time I heard traffic from the Henry Hudson Parkway. Over and over I sat down, each time encountering a new distraction. Defeated, I walked home.
I entered Cornell University in 1971 and began volunteering at the Somadhara Bakery in downtown Ithaca, New York. Once a week I worked behind the counter selling whole-grain pastries and bread. At the bakery I met members of the Ananda Marga Society. They were unlike anyone I’d ever known: radiant, intelligent, generous, modestly witty. The Margiis — as they called themselves — were like a team of superheroes. They followed a guru in India and practiced meditation. I wanted to join them but wasn’t ready for the solemnity of spiritual life. I was only eighteen, still a virgin, reading Death in Venice for the first time.
At the end of my sophomore year I flunked out. The one-two combination of physics and chemistry did me in. My girlfriend, Kara, flunked out, too. The next winter we hitchhiked down to Florida and found an apartment in Gainesville with a banana tree in the backyard. I began working at a factory that made house trusses (wooden frames to support roofs). One day I awoke to find a note from Kara: “I have gone on a trip to Key West with Arthur.”
Arthur was my best friend.
At that moment I decided to join Ananda Marga. The society had a house in Gainesville; maybe they would rent me a spare room. Like so many before me, I had been driven by anguish to the mystical path.
That Sunday evening I attended my first group meditation. I arrived late, walking into a room full of silent meditators. Taking a seat in the darkness, I immediately felt as if my brain were being bathed in a warm, primordial broth. All my interior chaos dissolved into that etheric stew.
After the meditation I learned that the jagriti (as the house was called) had no empty rooms, but I was invited to return the next Sunday for collective meditation. A week later I arrived on time and learned kiirtan, a simple two-step dance performed to a driving guitar rhythm. Ananda Marga’s innovation was to combine ancient chanting with contemporary pop music. This kiirtan was sung to the tune of “Everyday,” by Buddy Holly and the Crickets — “Everyday it’s a-getting closer, / Going faster than a roller coaster, / Love like yours will surely come my way” — only instead of those lyrics, we substituted the Sanskrit phrase Baba nam kevalam, which means “My most beloved is the only one.” Dancing from side to side to a rock-and-roll song, I felt as if I’d joined the Four Tops.
Ananda Marga (“Path of Bliss” in Sanskrit) has its own creation myth: In the beginning was only consciousness, serene and endless, like a sea without waves. Then, for some unknowable reason, a ripple appeared. One ripple became two, which became four, which became sixteen. Out of this emerged the multiplicity we know as the world. Born and reborn throughout the ages, each of us unconsciously seeks that original oneness with the Supreme Consciousness. Meditation is the fast road back.
In September 1974 I was initiated into Ananda Marga. A young Filipino monk performed the ceremony, in which I promised to meditate twice a day — and I have, almost without fail, for forty years.
As time went by, I gravitated toward bhakti yoga, in which one develops a near-amorous relationship with the Supreme Being. A bhakti contemplates the beauties of God the way teenage girls obsess about Justin Bieber. Throughout the day I would remember the Divine Being and affirm that I was a small soul offering every deed to the Great Soul. Often I felt a shiver of pleasure at these moments.
My only problem was the Cosmic Fear. Once every six months or so, usually while lying in bed, I’d wonder: Where was I before I was born? Where will I be after my death? Will I really merge with the Supreme Consciousness? And after that, what? And after that? A terror would seize me, and blood would pound in my head. I’d have to smack myself on the chest, to “sober up.” Then the terror would subside like a retreating migraine. I’d return to my devotional life.
This always worked until last October, when my wife registered for an energy audit through President Obama’s stimulus package. Two rural electricians appeared at our double-wide trailer to test its heat retention and to liberally screw in energy-saving light bulbs. Part of this blessing (incidentally, thank you, Obama!) was a state-of-the-art hybrid hot-water heater.
Taking my first bath in much-hotter water, I was ecstatic. Then the water began to cool, and I grew philosophical. All water cools, I thought. Heat eventually dissipates. Ultimately everything will grow cooler and cooler until it comes to a standstill — a phenomenon known as the “heat death of the universe.” Suddenly I realized with absolute certainty that no God exists. All my daily devotions to this benign Deity had not willed Her into existence. I was a fool who would go on fooling himself until his own heat death.
The next day I began to doubt my bathtub epiphany, but I made a conscious choice not to return to belief. I felt like a battered woman fleeing an abusive boyfriend. I would attempt to live on my own, without the All-Father.
As a youth I’d had great hopes of realizing God in this lifetime. Instead I’ve reached a point of uncertainty — the same point at which I started. To console myself, I began keeping a diary of my fluctuating relations with God.
According to the Bible, God practices two art forms: visual art and conversation. God creates the world — the ultimate sculpture — and God speaks to Abraham, Moses, Jonah, Cain, Nathan, Samuel, etc. The Divinity never dances, sings, makes collages, writes plays.
You might say, however, that God is a chef. While the Jews wandered in the wilderness, the Infinite One prepared a food for them known as “manna.”
I receive a magazine called Living with Moshiach, published by Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. In the July 26, 2013, issue manna is described as delicious, “like wafers made with honey.” According to the Jewish sages, “the G-dly manna was unique in that the person eating it experienced whatever flavor he wished. Furthermore, the manna was completely digested, having no waste.”
In other words, when you eat manna, you don’t have to shit.
Nonetheless, says Living with Moshiach, manna was unpopular with the Jews: “It was hard to get used to this ‘bread from the heavens’ that had no waste and could taste like anything in the world. The Jews . . . longed for food that looked like what it was.” The anonymous author explains that this resentment came from the “Evil Inclination.”
God made humans in His own image, and Adam and Eve were naked. Only when the first couple had been deceived by the snake did they become contaminated with evil and begin wearing clothes. Clearly God is a nudist. He wears nothing (except possibly the universe).
Perhaps my problem with faith is that I’m a Libra, the most indecisive astrological sign. (At least, I believe it’s the most indecisive sign.)
The Bible, I hate to say, is slightly overwritten.
This past Sunday morning I decided to visit the local Zen monastery, which is only two miles from my home. I walked down to the Old Plank Road and stuck out my thumb, but no one stopped. Then I noticed that most cars were turning in at the Catholic church, Saint Francis de Sales. I thought, Why not attend Mass?
I entered the stone building and sat behind a lonely-looking man in his forties. I couldn’t find the service in the missal, so I just closed my eyes, focused on my breathing, and treated the church as if it were a Zen monastery. I didn’t recite any of the prayers, unless I felt the spontaneous urge to say, “Amen.”
During his homily the priest told the following story: A young girl was being taught by her mother to say the Our Father. Every night her mother would help her memorize a few more lines. Finally the girl felt that she could say the prayer alone. She was almost to the end when she said, “Forgive us our trespasses, and deliver us from e-mail.”
The priest concluded, “May we all be delivered from e-mail, voice mail, texts, and everything that distracts us from our life of prayer!” I was touched by the line of Catskills citizens preparing to take Communion. Tears filled my eyes.
After the service I walked home through the clear autumn morning. Crossing the Esopus River, I felt suddenly free. This may be the secret of religious life: to visit a Catholic church and pretend it’s a Zen temple.
Our concept of God is feudalist. As a feudal baron living on a hill overlooks his peasants, so God looks down on all of us. As a serf pays tithes to his lord, so a devotee tithes to the Lord. It’s no coincidence that we use the feudal word lord for the Creator. A capitalist God would be called “The Boss,” a title we reserve for Bruce Springsteen.
For most of our history humans were polytheists; monotheism is unnatural to us. That’s why our single-god culture creates pantheons of subdeities like Lady Gaga, Albert Einstein, and Batman: to fill the void around the lone Creator. I’d prefer ten gods and one commandment.
Most of the people doing the Lord’s work are atheists.
In a Catholic church you kneel often. In a Jewish synagogue you hunch over your prayer book, rocking back and forth. Catholic prayer ruins your knees; Jewish prayer wrecks your back.
The being we call “God” is descended from the masculine sky gods: Zeus, Odin, Jupiter, Indra. To this day we associate God with the weather: When it thunders, God is angry. When lightning strikes a farmer, we feel the man’s been cursed. A sunny day seems like a gift from the Divinity.
Life without God is about the same, I’m surprised to find. Leaves still turn brown and fall from the trees. The November sky is still a cool gray. I never think about the Deity until I turn on the radio — which, because I live deep in the mountains, broadcasts only football and Christianity.
From a Time magazine interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love:
Interviewer: Do you get asked most about eating, praying, or loving?
Gilbert: Loving. The praying is the last thing anybody wants to talk about.
What annoys me most about the biblical God is His humorlessness. He makes a total of one joke: When Moses asks to see his face, God replies, “Thou canst not see my face; for man shall not see me and live.” Instead Moses stands in the cleft of a rock, and God covers Moses with His hand as His glory passes. When God removes His hand, Moses sees only God’s “back parts.” God shows the prophet His ass!
My new practice is to dance every day, almost never to music, as I walk through the house. This is sixty-year-old dancing: gently spinning, swaying, tai-chi-style gestures. At times I appear to be riding an imaginary surfboard. It looks foolish, but it loosens my spine and gives me a smile. At the moment I’m interested in “praying” with my whole body, not just my lips.
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that all philosophical problems are ultimately questions of definition. Take the existence of God. Believers say, “God is the life force that animates the world.” Skeptics say, “There is no Old White Man in the sky, though there is a life force that animates the world.”
Can there be an ecstasy of doubt, parallel to the ecstasies of faith? I woke this morning and realized: “I live in this world uncertainly; I have no idea if my ‘soul’ will live forever. Death, the terrifying conclusion, hangs over me constantly. Yet I move forward, with a tenuous courage.” I felt suddenly like an epic hero.
Looking back on my adolescent self, I must say I was right: religion is the politics of desperation. We fear the chaos of existence, so we embrace consoling stories about heaven and salvation — but no one knows for sure if they’re true. Those with absolute faith are just geniuses at self-delusion.
I was secretly hoping that by the end of this diary, God would appear to me in all Her immeasurable radiance, giving my essay a Hollywood ending. But She has not.
From a mystical point of view, everything is an aspect of God — even doubt. The agony of spiritual uncertainty is one of the beauties of creation, along with the Cascade Range and the Crab Nebula.
At times I feel waves of love pouring down on me from above. I used to be certain that this was the presence of God. Now I think: Maybe I’m just happy.