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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

getting religion

One of the books from which I'm currently keying notes over my morning coffee is The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Like anything written by William James, it's a treasure-chest of deep insights into human behavior and motivation, expressed with a confident pithiness, as though he were simply stating something obvious and known to all.

This morning I was typing from the lectures on "Conversion", in which he discusses the changes that come over one when one "gets religion", as they used to say. It's fantastic material--the more so since I have personal experience of the phenomenon.

The most famous instances of conversion are sudden--like Paul's experience on the road to Damascus, when he turned from Christian persecutor to Christian evangelist--but, as James observes, conversion happens with equal power and effect over time, as a slow phenomenon. The difference, he thinks, is a matter of how much of the processing occurs in the unconscious as opposed to in conscious awareness.

My own conversion was of the slow type. (I don't do anything fast! Well, except maybe type...) I've written before about how the door opened for me in Italy in February 1979, while I was reading The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. In Buddhist terms, I had an experience of the dharma or truth: reading the book woke me up and opened my mind to the present moment.

It was like eating that first potato chip: I had a hunger for more. When I returned home from all my travels that year I began my search for a spiritual path. This search would have many vicissitudes and, so I thought, blind alleys. The turning-point was in December 1986.

By then I knew clearly that I wanted to take up Buddhist meditation. This had been my inspiration when I'd read The Way of Zen, but I had had some second thoughts and reversals along the way, mainly because I thought that in order to pursue the kind of Buddhism I was interested in--Zen Buddhism--I would have to go to Japan in order to do it in a wholehearted way, and, looking at myself honestly, I wasn't prepared to do that. This realization had made me feel like somewhat of a spiritual failure: too fainthearted to pursue the path of his own salvation. What a chump!

But by late 1986 I realized that I wanted to take up meditation, no matter how second-rate or inauthentic: it would be better than just doing nothing.

My search had finally turned up the Vancouver Dharmadhatu (as it was known then--now the Vancouver Shambhala Centre) at Heather and 17th, in the lovely tree-lined district around Douglas Park. I attended their Monday night open house to listen to a public talk, and, returning to the center the following week, I took up their offer to receive meditation instruction before that night's talk.

The meditation instructor on duty that night was Dr. Ron Greenberg, tall, blond, lean, softspoken. In the little carpeted office of the center he taught me the simple technique of shamatha meditation as practiced in that tradition, then asked me if I had any questions.

"Yes," I said. "This is a Tibetan meditation center--but there aren't any Tibetans here. It's all run by local, white-bread people. All the teaching, all the meditation instruction."

Ron nodded.

"Well," I said, "how can I be sure that this is authentic? That I'm getting the real thing?"

"That's for you to decide," said Ron.

His response, soft and matter-of-fact, hit me like an electric shock, it was so unexpected. For me to decide? And yet right away I knew he'd spoken the truth. The authenticity of anything cannot come from somewhere else, is not carried in certificates or assurances. If he'd tried to persuade me of his authenticity, I would have been left in doubt. By putting the responsibility on me, he gained my complete confidence. At that moment I knew that Dharmadhatu was the place for me. I was converted.

Since then there have been many twists and turns. But I did more or less enter the "state of assurance", as James chooses to name the experience:

The characteristics can be easily enumerated.

The central one is the loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer conditions should remain the same. A passion of willingness, of acquiescence, of admiration, is the glowing center of this state of mind.

The second feature is the sense of perceiving truths not known before. The mysteries of life become lucid; and often, nay usually, the solution is more or less unutterable in words.

A third peculiarity of the assurance state is the objective change which the world often appears to undergo. An appearance of newness beautifies every object.

James goes on to say that when conversion happens, one pretty much retains the outlook thus attained, even if one does eventually backslide.

I am a backslider. I have departed from the close practice and study of the dharma that I followed for 15 years. In a sense I'm a lost sheep, I suppose. But in another sense this is simply the next leg of my own individual path. I am far from repudiating the training and teachings that I have received; on the contrary, that remains my spiritual education--and we should all have a spiritual education. There are not words to express my appreciation for its excellence.

And I'm certainly paying a price for backsliding: conflicts, doubts, and worries encroach on my mind like ivy overtaking a shed. But at the same time, I feel a deep sense that these things are not fundamental concerns--I don't feel "alone" with them as I once did. This is the lingering effect of my "conversion"--one for which I will always be grateful.


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