Sometimes it’s impossible not to witness the dawn

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.

Let The Sunshine In

There is something about the sun’s effects on my soul
that goes beyond its brightness and warmth.

I took a bit of time out on Saturday. It’s okay though, I did feel guilty about it. It’s not been long since I established a semblance of routine, one that’s not especially taxing. It didn’t seem right that I should be slacking and pretending I’d earned the weekend off. But hey, I saw a big fiery ball in the sky, recognised it as the sun, and talked myself into it.

I read for a while, sitting in the window and feeling the morning sun warm my face. Up until then I hadn’t been able to read for weeks. I couldn’t concentrate. Even in the bath, a favourite place to read, I couldn’t settle. But on Saturday morning I was calm, my thoughts quiet enough for me to enjoy it again. 

I did something else I rarely do lately, too. The cornflower coloured sky, the first real sighting of the sun for days, and the covering of frost lured me outside for longer than just the time it takes to fill the bird feeders. I live in a beautiful location. Our house is on a hill, characteristically windy and with big-sky views over farmland down to the valley. We have a nice garden with plenty of shrubs and trees for the birds and other wildlife. And we have woodland beside us. It is a fabulous place, and yet, when I’m outside, I usually cannot wait to get back to the psychological security of being indoors. I know, it sounds ridiculous.

We aren’t like a lot of other people; we don’t really care about the condition of our lawns. Aside from keeping the grass cut, we don’t do anything else. There is no weeding out of dandelions or daisies. We don’t worry if one patch of grass is a slightly different shade of perfect-lawn-green than another, or waste water and money on summertime sprinkler systems. And we certainly don’t go around murdering any poor moles that might happen to have left the odd little mountain here and there. And I like moss. Correction: I love moss.

Every since I first read Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series, I have genuinely liked moss. I don’t know the first thing about it. It hasn’t occurred to me to look it up. I just like the look of moss, the variations in colour and texture. Some mosses are dark emerald, bulging like velvet cushions, others have a rougher texture, extending tiny, shaggy, stem-like fronds. And the feel of it underfoot when left to its own devices for a time? Divine.

Life continues to thrive. We just need to remember to look for it.

Walking in the sunshine across the front lawn on Saturday morning was nothing less than blissful. A thick layer of hoar frost still covered everything, and though the sun was low, the sky was clear enough for the frost to sparkle. My feet first scrunched through the layer of frost, then seemed to sink, ever so gently, through the deep mossy rug beneath. I was an almost surreal feeling that made me smile and, for some reason, reminded me of the doors sliding open and closed on Star Trek – the original series.

But it was the sun that really got me. I sat on the (moss-covered) garden wall, closed my eyes, and looked up towards the sun. I must have looked like quite the mad-cat-woman, what with a black, faux fur, Paddington-shaped hat I’d never dare wear in public, pulled tightly over the top of a scarf that I’d wound around the top of my head to keep my ears warm. To complete the look, I’d fastened the scarf under my chin, the two, short ends sticking out at awkward angles. Fortunately, we live in sticks-ville, and not many cars pass along the lane. 

I don’t know how long I managed to sit still. Much longer than usual, in any case. I turned my face towards the sun, felt its warmth striking a contrast with my icy skin, and breathed. With my eyes closed, the light dancing flashes of red, yellow and gold behind my eye lids, I just sat and breathed. I breathed and was. I thought, now I’m present, now I’m being mindful. It seemed that all that there was, all that existed, existed only in that moment. There was only me and the sun and the incredible feeling of ‘now.’ There was no connection with the darkness of the past and no concerns about the unknowable future. It was uplifting. I felt alive and free.

I carried that feeling with me all weekend. When I went back inside on Saturday  my mind felt clean and clear. I was able to work out a new outline for the book I want to write, one that makes sense of various aspects of the plot that I’d had in mind for over a year. I spent more time outside on Sunday morning, enjoying the frost and that sunshine again. I started to write my book that afternoon, writing half of the first chapter. I can’t tell you what a stumbling-block that had previously been for me.

Most of us feel better, happier, on a sunny day. Especially after long periods of dark skies and rain as we have been experiencing in Britain lately. But there is no doubt in my mind that there is something about the sun’s effects upon us that goes beyond the facts of its brightness and warmth. Perhaps it is some ancient knowledge we hold of the life-giving properties of the sun, that without it we could not exist. There is something, for me at least, that reaches deep into that part of me which we might call the soul. It touches me and makes me feel, not human, but better than human. It reminds me that I am only a part of this wonderful and complicated ecosystem of ours. We are all creatures of the light.