Have started reading “Life of Pi,” finally assenting to the insistence of several friends of mine, I’m quite sure a great many entries here will be inspired out of this book of child-like inquiry into religion. Thankfully my imagination is such that while I had a topic in mind already, I began to see how a different tactic could accomplish the same point and perhaps make it better. So rather than pontificating with great emotional angst about the problem of obsessing over past hurts and current passions, the more general and helpful idea of focusing on life’s transcendence came over me and with it a story.
I worked for a couple years at a supplement store, peddling for nearly any would-be self-healer various pills, powders, and liquids that, based on scanty or mismanaged scientific research, were lauded as potential cures for everything from the common cold to cancer, though the labels were with the technical acumen of a host of lawyers careful to never say “cure,” hence why “supplement” is all the rage. Reminds me of commercials seen in childhood of a sugary cereals being promoted as part of a balanced breakfast but the picture has juice, fruit, toast and milk added. In either case, such pandering often left me in a state of moral crisis, one that I sought with some difficulty to assail by delivering (much to the consternation of upper management who caught me on occasion) recent research on products and being quick to point out that the intent given to the product is often just as if not more powerful than the product itself. Incidentally it was during this time that my love-hate relationship with Oprah (who makes the antics of sales peddlers mere trinkets to a vast menagerie of finely cut jewels) began. However, I digress and need to return.
The story takes place on one particularly dull day when a man entered my story with a look of concern and hesitancy on his face. In a voice full of meekness he inquired as to whether I knew which way east was and if he could do his prayers in my store as he didn’t want to be a bother to people out in the mall. I’d like to say that it was from a state of benign and loving enlightenment that I said yes, but honesty compels me to admit I was so shocked by the request I simply said yes without thinking much about it. Within a couple minutes the man had done his meditative calisthenics and with a now beautiful smile on his face thanked me and left my store.
In the wake of 9/11, albeit having also spent the previous couple years engaging in a constant struggle with philosophy and religious theology, I had moved from the fundamentalism of my teens and family and turned into the embrace of an empty landscape called atheism. In no way do I wish to say atheism, which I still identify with, is empty in the sense of meaningless, but empty as in a vacuum of space. There are as many forms of atheist as there are Christian, except for the atheist she or he has merely taken a next logical step to total atheism as the monotheist has with all the rest of the gods. In this spirit of mind, distant from my personal bout of anxiety-assuaging fundamentalism and beginning to look at the religious impulse itself in all its forms, I still felt an instant concern at this Muslim having asked to pray in my store, but following up this irrational and utterly human response was yet another reaction, that of curious wonder.
I had seen my fair share of cosmic-inspired emotions, the face taking on the slack beauty of a person forgetting for a moment that their ego is truly not the center of the universe. Indeed, I had experienced a few moments like that myself, but all of these experiences were rarely connected with people of a separate faith. Why this is, is for another entry. Suffice to say, seeing the look on the man’s face was a profound moment for me, one that years later still gets recreated in my head accompanied by an internal orchestra delivering a musical crescendo. The feeling of transcendence, that connection with an ineffable oneness, which I had seen in so many others, felt in myself and now saw in someone of opposite ideological leanings, helped me identify within myself a deep need, existent for quite some time but not wholly realized, to understand and identify with the human impulse to constantly seek out this feeling and once found, wallow in it like a bee in honey.
Let’s face it, when we enter into a new relationship, particularly the romantic kind, the feeling of egoless-ness which often comes about is a glorious thing. Polyamorists, in our constant need to label everything, have coined the phrase “new-relationship-energy (NRE)” and it is both the bane and abject joy of everyone practicing this lifestyle. Before I go on, let me clarify where I’m going, since the whiplash that may have occurred as I went from religion to relationships could be painful. We, as human beings, are in constant search for relationship, of any and all variety, and religion, with its powerful synchronicity of social and emotional energies, is at core about relating, whether it be to an imagined deity, a social group, a family, or truly all of the above and more. The transcendence which often gets far too simply associated with religious feelings is manifested in relationships as well; a comparison of ecstatic language used in religious rituals and the accompanying feelings, with that of sexual experience could fill a large volume of literary research.
So, back to the meandering trails of my consciousness, the precipices and valleys of religious experience is not so difficult to map onto that of relational reality. There is the moment of initial connection, the brain deciding to take what was intended as a field-trip and turn it into a safari of epic proportions, with NRE washing everything away (sometimes even our cherished ethical standards) and we feel we must, simply must pursue this connection. On the flip-side of this is when a relationship ends terribly and there persists a need to pursue the now negative emotions to the exclusion of all else. We humans are, if anything, righteously consistent in our quest for self-abnegation. Call it religion, psychopathy, irrational obsession, NRE, or any host of other terms/phrases, the end result is a recognition of a sometimes frantic dedication to making the drips of cosmic joy into a flood.
And here is the beauty of humanity. Wait, what?! Yes, the beauty. There are any number of examples in which one can point to the horrors perpetrated by religious or other seemingly transcendent ideologies, but none of these are identical to the pursuit itself. Keeping those examples in mind as a caution, I can instead choose to pull my awareness towards a consideration of the positive examples of this innate human need. As the reverend of my spiritual center noted a while back in the midst of a faith crisis, the current absence or negation of the faith points to its existence before. Sometimes we need to break down a current mental obsession to note a previous, more life-giving iteration. In the midst of that moment of transcendence, whether it be religious, social or relational, whether it be one of joy or anger, the point of connection to existence is not that particular moment but how it directs with a ghostly-hand to the recognition of our shared need to find a similar experience. In that we can identify with integration and peace surrounding a storm.
© David Teachout