from How to Know God by Deepak Chopra.
Excerpted from How to Know God by Deepak Chopra. Copyright © 1999 by Deepak Chopra.
God has managed the amazing feat of being worshiped and invisible at the same time. Millions of people would describe him as a white-bearded father figure sitting on a throne in the sky, but none could claim to be an eyewitness. Although it doesn't seem possible to offer a single fact about the Almighty that would hold up in a court of law, somehow the vast majority of people believe in God -- as many as 96 percent, according to some polls. This reveals a huge gap between belief and what we call everyday reality. We need to heal this gap.
What would the facts be like if we had them? They would be as follows. Everything that we experience as material reality is born in an invisible realm beyond space and time, a realm revealed by science to consist of energy and information. This invisible source of all that exists is not an empty void but the womb of creation itself. Something creates and organizes this energy. It turns the chaos of quantum soup into stars, galaxies, rain forests, human beings, and our own thoughts, emotions, memories, and desires. In the pages that lie ahead we will see that it is not only possible to know this source of existence on an abstract level but to become intimate and at one with it. When this happens, our horizons open to new realities. We will have the experience of God.
After centuries of knowing God through faith, we are now ready to understand divine intelligence directly. In many ways this new knowledge reinforces what spiritual traditions have already promised. God is invisible and yet performs all miracles. He is the source of every impulse of love. Beauty and truth are both children of this God. In the absence of knowing the infinite source of energy and creativity, life's miseries come into being. Getting close to God through a true knowing heals the fear of death, confirms the existence of the soul, and gives ultimate meaning to life.
Our whole notion of reality has actually been topsy-turvy. Instead of God being a vast, imaginary projection, he turns out to be the only thing that is real, and the whole universe, despite its immensity and solidity, is a projection of God's nature. Those astonishing events we call miracles give us clues to the workings of this ineffable intelligence. Consider the following story:
In 1924 an old French villager is walking home. With one eye lost in the Great War and the other severely damaged by mustard gas in the trenches, he can barely see. The setting sun is bright, so the old man is completely unaware of the two youths on bicycles who have wheeled around the corner and are barreling down on him.
At the moment of impact an angel appears. He takes the lead bicycle by its two wheels, lifts it a few feet in the air, and sets it down safely on the grass beside the road. The second bicycle stops short, and the youths become tremendously excited. "There are two! There are two!" one of them shouts, meaning that instead of just the old man alone, two figures are standing in the road. The entire village becomes very worked up, claiming afterward that the youths were drunk or else have made up this fantastic tale. As for the old man, when he is asked about it, he says he doesn't understand the question.
Could we ever come to an answer ourselves? As it happens, the old man was a priest, Père Jean Lamy, and the appearance of the angel has come down to us through his own testimony before his death. Lamy, who was saintly and beloved, seems to be credited with many instances where God sent angels or other forms of divine aid. Although reluctant to talk about them, his attitude was matter-of-fact and modest. Because of Lamy's religious vocation, it is easy to dismiss this incident as a story for the devout. Skeptics would not be moved.
Yet I am fascinated simply by whether it could have happened, whether we can open the door and allow helpful angels into our reality, along with miracles, visions, prophecy, and ultimately that great outsider, God himself.
We all know that a person can learn about life without religion. If I took a hundred newborn babies and filmed every moment of their lives from beginning to end, it wouldn't be possible to predict that the believers in God will turn out to be happier, wiser, or more successful than the nonbelievers. Yet the video camera cannot record what is happening below the surface. Someone who has experienced God may be looking on the entire world with wonder and joy. Is this experience real? Is it useful to our lives or just a subjective event, full of meaning to the person having it but otherwise no more practical than a dream?
One bald fact stands at the beginning of any search for God. He leaves no footprints in the material world. From the very beginning of religion in the West, it was obvious that God had some kind of presence, known in Hebrew as Shekhinah. Sometimes this word is simply translated as "light" or radiance. Shekhinah formed the halos around angels and the luminous joy in the face of a saint. It was feminine, even though God, as interpreted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is masculine. The significant fact about Shekhinah was not its gender, however. Since God is infinite, calling the deity He or She is just a human convention. Much more important was the notion that if God has a presence, that means he can be experienced. He can be known. This is a huge point, because in every other way God is understood to be invisible and untouchable. And unless some small part of God touches the material world, he will remain inaccessible forever.
We personify God as a convenient way of making him more like ourselves. He would be a very perverse and cruel human, however, to remain so hidden from us while demanding our love. What could possibly give us confidence in any kind of benevolent spiritual Being when thousands of years of religion have been so stained by bloodshed?
We need a model that is both part of religion yet not bounded by it. The following simple, three-part scheme fits our commonsense view of God. Shaped like a reality sandwich, this scheme can be pictured as follows:
---- TRANSITION ZONE ----
The picture is not new in its top and bottom layers, placing God above the material world and removed from it. God must be separate from us, or else we would be able to see him here, strolling about as he did in the Book of Genesis. There, after the seven days of creation, God walked in the garden of Eden, enjoying his handiwork in the cool of the evening.
Only the middle element of our diagram, called the transition zone, is new or unusual. A transition zone implies that God and humans meet on common ground. Somewhere miracles take place, along with holy visions, angels, enlightenment, and hearing the voice of God. All of these extraordinary phenomena bridge two worlds: They are real and yet they are not part of a predictable cause-and-effect. To put it another way, if we stubbornly cling to material reality as the only way to know anything, skepticism about God is totally justified. Miracles and angels defy reason, and even though holy visions may be catalogued time after time, the rational mind remains defiant, defending its sure grip on the material plane.
"You really think God exists? Well, let's break it down. You're a doctor, I'm a doctor. Either God is causing these diseases we see every day, or else he can't do anything to stop them. Which one is the God you want me to accept?"
This voice is from a skeptical colleague I used to make rounds with in the hospital, a confirmed atheist.
"I don't want you to accept either one," I would protest.
But he would press the point. "Reality is reality. We don't have to argue over whether an enzyme or hormone is real, do we? God can't survive any kind of objective test. But we all know that. Some of us just choose not to keep on fooling ourselves."
On one level he was right. Materialist arguments against God remain powerful because they are based on facts, but they fall apart once you dive deeper than the material world. Dame Julian of Norwich lived in England in the fourteenth century. Dame Julian asked God directly why he had created the world. The answer came back to her in ecstatic whispers:
You want to know your lord's meaning in what I have done? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.
For Dame Julian God was something to eat, drink, breathe, and see everywhere, as though she were an infatuated lover. Yet since the divine was her lover, she was elevated to cosmic heights, where the whole universe was "a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand."
When saints go almost mad with rapture, we find their expressions both baffling and yet very understandable. Although we have all gotten used to the absence of the sacred, we appreciate that journeys into the transition zone, the layer closer to God, continue to happen.
The experience of God feels like flying. It feels as if I'm walking above the ground with such equilibrium that nothing can sway me from my path. It's like being the eye of the storm. I see without judgment or opinion. I just watch as everything passes in and out of my awareness like clouds.(1)
This uplifting experience, which is common to saints and mystics, is the record of a quantum journey. There are no known physical mechanisms that trigger it, yet feeling close to God occurs in every age, among all peoples. We're all capable of going beyond our material bonds, yet we often fail to value this ability. Although we hear in church or temple or mosque that God is love, he doesn't seem to exert much passionate attraction anymore.
I don't believe saints and mystics are really so different from other human beings. If we look at our reality sandwich, the transition zone turns out to be subjective: This is where God's presence is felt or seen. Anything subjective must involve the brain, since it takes millions of neurons firing together before you can have any experience.
Now our search has narrowed down in a way that looks very promising: God's presence, his light, becomes real if we can translate it into a response of the brain, which I will call the "God response." We can get even more specific. Holy visions and revelations aren't random. They fall into seven definite events taking place inside the brain. These responses are much more basic than your beliefs, but they give rise to beliefs. They bridge from our world to an invisible domain where matter dissolves and spirit emerges:
1. Fight-or-flight response: the response that enables us to survive in the face of danger. This response is linked to a God who wants to protect us. He is like a parent who looks out for the safety of a small child. We turn to this God because we need to survive.
2. Reactive response: this is the brain's creation of a personal identity. Beyond mere survival, everyone pursues the needs of "I, me, mine." We do this instinctively, and from this response a new God emerges, one who has power and might, laws and rules. We turn to this God because we need to achieve, accomplish, and compete.
3. Restful awareness response: the brain can be active or at rest, and this is its response when it wants peace. Rest and activity alternate in every part of the brain. The divine equivalent is a God who brings peace, who enables us to find a calm center in the midst of outward chaos. We turn to this God because we need to feel that the outer world isn't going to swallow us up in its endless turmoil.
4. Intuitive response: the brain looks for information both inside and out. Outer knowledge is objective, but inner knowledge is intuitive. No one checks with an expert outside themselves before saying "I am happy" or "I am in love." We rely on our ability to know ourselves from the inside out. The God that matches this response is understanding and forgiving. We need him to validate that our inner world is good.
5. Creative response: the human brain can invent new things and discover new facts. This creative ability apparently comes from nowhere -- the unknown simply gives birth to a new thought. We call this inspiration, and its mirror is a Creator who made the whole world from nothing. We turn to him out of our wonder at the beauty and formal complexity of Nature.
6. Visionary response: the brain can directly contact "the light," a form of pure awareness that feels joyful and blessed. This contact can be bewildering, because it has no roots in the material world. It comes as a vision, and the God that matches it is exalted -- he delivers healing and miracles. We need such a God to explain why magic can exist side by side with ordinary mundane reality.
7. Sacred response: the brain was born from a single fertilized cell that had no brain functions in it, only a speck of life. Even though a hundred billion neurons developed from that speck, it remains intact in all its innocence and simplicity. The brain senses this as its source and origin. To match it, there is a God of pure being, one who doesn't think but just is. We need him because without a source, our existence has no foundation at all.
These seven responses, all very real and useful to us in our long journey as a species, form the unshakable basis of religion. If you compare any two minds -- Moses or Buddha, Jesus or Freud, Saint Francis or Chairman Mao -- each projects a different view of reality with a matching God. No one can shoehorn God into a single box. We must have a range of vision as vast as human experience itself. Atheists need their God, who is absent and nonexistent, while at the other extreme mystics need their God, one of pure love and light. Only the brain can deliver this vast range of deities.
You might immediately object that the human mind creates these versions of God, not just the brain. I absolutely agree -- in the long run the mind is much more primary than the brain in creating all perception. But for now the brain is our only concrete way of entering the mind. In cartoons a lightbulb shows up over somebody's head when he has a bright idea; this isn't so in real life. The mind without the brain is as invisible and unprovable as God.
Also, you might argue that just because God is seen in a certain way by us, that doesn't mean he is that way. I don't believe this is black or white. God's reality doesn't stand apart from our perceptions but is woven into them. A mother can see her newborn child as wonderful and worthy, and through her perception that baby grows up to become a wonderful, worthy person. This is one of the mysteries of love. A subtle give-and-take is going on at the deepest level between parent and child. In the same way God seems to grow directly out of our deepest inner values. There is a similar give-and-take below the level of mere belief. Peel away all the layers of an onion, and at the center you will find emptiness; peel away all the layers of a human being, and at the center you will find the seed of God.
I believe that God has to be known by looking in the mirror.
If you see yourself in fear, barely holding on with survival at stake, yours is a God of fight or flight.
If you see yourself as capable of power and accomplishment, yours is a God of the reactive response.
If you see yourself as centered and calm, yours is a God of the restful awareness response.
If you see yourself as growing and evolving, yours is a God of the intuitive response.
If you see yourself as someone who makes personal dreams come true, yours is a God of the creative response.
If you see yourself as capable of working miracles, yours is a God of the visionary response.
If you see yourself as one with God, yours is a God of the sacred response.
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