Dragging the Atheist Out of Bed
A word of warning: what I had planned to be a brief rundown of changes in my life, has turned into something of a ramble. I wrote this a month ago, but procrastination over editing and kicking it into some kind of coherent shape held me back from posting. There’s that pesky self—doubt again. So prepare yourselves. I’ve given up trying to make it perfect. What you’ll find here is pretty much the raw first draft. As my partner reminded me: perfection is the enemy of the perfectly adequate.
At the end of 2019, the time of my last post, I thought I was beginning a new era of creative productivity. I thought I’d be writing and posting every week, perhaps more often. I was full of enthusiasm and full of words. Then it all fell away: I shifted back into the comfort of self-doubt and laziness.
Last year was very difficult (‘No shit!’, I hear you say), one in which physical and psychological problems made it difficult for me to focus. This was nothing new – I’ve ‘suffered’ from mental health issues for as long as I remember, and life truly has been one long battle against self-doubt. But last year, partly related to physical and mental withdrawal symptoms from a nasty little antidepressant which I don’t think I should ever have been prescribed, and partly because the time was perhaps right for some kind of major change to occur in my psyche, my perception of the world and my way of being, was a bitch of a struggle. I suffered from a total lack of clarity. I couldn’t get from the beginning of a thought to its end without time-wasting, frustrating, and confusing detours. It prevented me from doing pretty much anything, rendering me even more useless than I was accustomed to being. It forced me to give up, to give in.
And noise! Oh my god, I couldn’t bare it. I still prefer silence, but it’s not as bad as last year. The sound of a door closing, a footstep in the hallway, a radio playing in a distant room all drove me into a state of extreme agitation. And anger. On more than one occasion I found myself screaming and running, literally running, to find peace and quiet. As for the TV – most days I couldn’t handle it at all, especially programmes that involved any kind of violence or even moderately high-octane excitement. Both had my heart racing, my breathing difficult – panic attacks of sorts.
But during that time, and despite my efforts to prevent it, I was undergoing a series of profound psychological and, what I perceive to be, spiritual changes. My entire view of myself and the world was transformed. At the beginning of 2020 I was an atheist: now I am a believer. No wonder I was confused!
Going into the entire process of my transformation, my ‘spiritual awakening,’ if you will, would take a much longer post than I currently have time, or will, to write. Dedicating the time to writing it all down would, I feel, halt my progress and prevent me sharing insights as they reveal themselves to me. My plan is to include such details as may be relevant in future posts. Relevance and suitable metaphor are, for me, the key.
The changes began in earnest somewhere around the end of March 2020, although had, I now see, been ongoing for many years; possibly all of my life. It may not escape your notice the coincidental timing with the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK. Incidentally, I’d just been thinking I needed to shake myself out of six years of self-imprisonment, during which I rarely left the house or engaged with the frightening and judgemental world, when we entered the first national lockdown in the UK. I remember pondering at the time how interesting it was that people were worrying so much about the loneliness they would endure being isolated from family, friends, work colleagues. It made me stop and think that my cosy little cocoon of self-isolation had perhaps done me more harm than good.
The real seed of change was planted in the summer of 2018. Actually, I now see that this yearning for there to be something more than the purely physical and mundane, goes back to childhood when, for reasons now unknown, I would spend what seemed like hours alone, staring into a hedge or the branches of a tree, staring myself almost into a trance. I had a traumatic home life, was bullied a little at school, always on the outside, never feeling accepted, and so must have found some peace in these little interactions with nature. Perhaps I knew that there was something more than what I could see before me. However, back to 2018.
I was in the middle of yet another of my mental health crises. In June of that year, I’d visited my mother, who lived a six-hour train journey away. My sister, who also lived a distance from her, met me on the train. We had decided a nice surprise visit to our mother was in order; big mistake. When our mum opened her front door, painfully thin, small, and still in her nightdress and dressing gown at four in the afternoon, she did not recognise us. I had only seen her a few months before. It’s another long story, but it became apparent to me she was suffering from some of dementia. I don’t if it had been diagnosed by a doctor. If it was, then she hid it from us during our phone calls, phone calls she became less and less inclined to receive or to make.
I was already struggling mentally, and realising how ill my mother was, and how my illness and fears prevented me from travelling more often to help her, led me to deeper despair. I won’t deny that thoughts of suicide, a frequent visitor to my fractured psyche, were closer to becoming reality than for some time before.
But then things began to change. By the end of July, little things happened, simple and trivial things, that helped to yank me out of my malaise. On the train home from seeing my mum, I’d chatted with a man waiting to get off at my stop. We talked about the heat and dryness of the weather, and he told me his wife had made a paddling pool for the crows from an old washing-up basin. When I got home, my partner and I did the same for our family of young magpies. They quickly made good use of it, with much splashing and squabbling and flapping of wings.
It was a turning point, that chance conversation on the train. Like the pivoting of a see-saw, the change was disorientating and sudden. Every day I sat and looked at the garden, watching the birds, noting behaviour I’d never seen before, species I’d never spotted. I’ve since counted we have upward of 25 different species of birds, residents and migratory part-timers, visiting the garden through the course of the year. I saw hares and foxes and badgers at dusk. It calmed me, my heart beating more slowing as I watched all the life around me.
One morning I was watching a chaffinch in the holly tree outside the window, noticing for the first time green feathers on his back. The bird looked different, the branches and leaves of the tree looked different, more real, perhaps, closer to me, than they had ever appeared before. With the intensity of an unexpected storm, I was filled with emotion; a kind of happiness that gave me the unfamiliar feeling of being part of something. It was almost enough to make me wonder about a god.
A few days later, as I passed through the twilight of the house, the hallway lit only by a small table lamp, something seemed to shift. Instead of the untidiness, the proof of my failures, I saw, without seeing, warmth and comfort; I saw or, rather, I felt, my home. And just for a second I was part of it, suddenly transported from a dream-world to ‘now’. It was so different, that feeling of being present and inside my own life, that I realised how disconnected I must previously have been. I felt the full, solid weight of myself, through my feet and into the floor, into the earth. Like the business with the tree, it was a strange new awareness of myself and my surroundings.
At the time I thought both these events represented the beginning of my psychological healing progress, and undoubtedly that is so. Until that point I had always felt dissociated from the world, as though floating above or beside everyone and everything else in it. I never felt a part of the world. It didn’t understand me, and I had given up trying to understand and fit into it.
However, a long time afterwards, I began to understand the relevance of those events in a totally different way; glimpses of true reality, precious, indescribable interactions with a world beyond that which we can understand with the physical senses alone. Over the last nine months, time spent reading works on philosophy, religion, metaphysics, and the mystical has helped me see that others had been where I then found myself.
All kinds of other strange events happened to me, particularly in the last nine months. Weird and seemingly magical things that defied explanation by my science-trained mind; strange ‘visions’ (I am not one of those blessed with the ability to visualise and so these beautiful images, springing clearly into my mind’s eye, were most unexpected and important to me), apparent premonitions, lucid flying dreams, an out-of-body experience. Some of these may play a part in future posts. Many of them sprung from meditation. Who knew that meditation could lead to spooky shit?
So, what do I believe? I cannot say with certainty. It is not a belief in an anthropomorphised God-human as presented by Christianity. That much I know. It is something less defined than that, something more pantheistic, essential to nature and the formation of the universe. Something that has something to do with the First Law of Thermodynamics… I know, it sounds crazy,
Coming out of the other side of this long process of change, when I finally feel I can begin to interact with the world, step out of my closeted little comfort zone and actually ‘get something done,’ I can now reflect on what happened over the last year or so, on the things that I have learned and those I’ve managed to unlearn. I can see the things that served me, those that didn’t, and those that I might yet still discard.
It has not been an easy journey, and I suspect there will be more difficulties to come: seeing the light makes one more aware of the darkness. It is akin to giving up drugs or alcohol and having to face one’s demons in the sober light of day. Addiction to one’s misplaced and deeply ingrained sense of self and the world is hard to beat. It is still a daily struggle against self-destructive circular thoughts, but it’s one that’s faced more easily in the presence of hope.
I think I know what I believe – kind of. But, life being the process of continual change that it is, and us humans being as malleable by our own thoughts, ideas and outside influences as we are, I’m happy to admit that I’m open to new ideas. Going with the flow is part of the key to self-acceptance, growth and a more contented life. My outer existence may have changed little – I still rarely leave the house, COVID restrictions notwithstanding. But there is now peace inside; peace, contentment, and hope. I’m even being kinder to insects. It’s all come as quite a shock.
Whether one calls this a ‘spiritual awakening,’ or merely a shift in my own psychology, really matters not. Not to me, not at the moment. The truth is the truth, and it reveals itself to each of us, if we are open to it, in accordance with our needs, our own personal experience, our symbology. It may be that I change my ideas of the nature of my transformation. It may be that in the future I apply a different label, or none at all. Who knows, perhaps, one day, like C.S. Lewis, I may even find my way back to Jesus.