Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Learning to live

When a friend asked me to go with her to a Spiritualist Church I’d no idea how eagerly I’d take up her request. But, like a fearless explorer in a new world, absorbing all that I could in my search to find greater meaning to my life, I had no idea where that path would lead.

“They believe in Jesus Christ, but they also believe that through spiritual healing and clairvoyance we can communicate with people in the spirit world,” Sandra told me.

We shared an interest in spiritualism and the paranormal and whilst Sandra was a lapsed Christian and I an agnostic, unable to align myself with the regiment of religion, we were both eager to find out more. I knew that orthodox Christianity believed spiritualism was just another aspect of occultism, but I’d paid to see a psychic medium in the past (who told me I’d have twin boys in five years time – that was almost ten years ago, and I’m still waiting – and that I was allergic to cola – a revelation that has changed my previously phlegmy life) and I liked to think I was fairly open minded. It helped that my parents let me come to my own conclusions about religion.

There would be a service of hymns and prayer and then the guest medium would work for an hour with the congregation. It sounded like a great opportunity to get a free reading, and I relished the thought of returning to my parents afterwards to deliver a message from my grandfather – he’d died the year before and spiritualists believe it takes roughly a year for the deceased to try to make contact – some woolly notion that the spirit needs time to recuperate. Fingers crossed!

It was mid-October, a Thursday evening, and the weather was typically autumnal; leaves the colour of ochre glued to everything, the north wind rattling bones and window panes alike. Sandra drove, allowing me time to worry. I’ve always hated the unsteady process of finding my feet with strangers and that was amplified by my concern about what this evening would involve. Will they indoctrinate me into a secret society? Will I be torn away from friends and family because they don’t share my new beliefs? Will it turn out to be nothing more than tea with a bunch of old folk discussing auras (like a group of sober hippies) or clichés about meeting tall dark strangers?

Of the two of us, I was the more sceptical. I’d never trusted the ritualistic nature, self-love and blinkered world view my Christian-practicing cousins exhibited, and of all the times I’d tried praying as a child I simply couldn’t make myself believe that there existed a great entity called God whose ego was so small he needed me to worship him. The flipside however, was that I’d always had an innate fear of death. During primary school, after Mum and Dad had put me to bed, black thoughts would cloud over me in the darkness and if I wasn’t worrying about death I was struggling with the concepts of what existed before the Big Bang, and what would exist when everything ended. My parents spent many a night attempting to consol me, though nothing can wrestle the weight of the universe from a child’s shoulders. How do you pacify a child that has realised he doesn’t want to die, and yet can understand that living for eternity isn’t much better? More often than not only my crying would exhaust me into sleep.

So there we were, sat amongst believers; a different kind to my cousins, but believers all the same. Both looking for deeper meaning and answers to life’s bigger questions. The hall was plain looking and it had an antiquated seventies feel that I found stale and stifling; as if somehow its furnishings being of a certain time period meant the mindsets of its inhabitants were stuck there also – I’ve felt this of most contemporary churches I’ve visited. It could have been a community hall were it not for the copious bouquets of flowers and the wood dais upon which the church leaders sat.

After the service the guest medium took to the stand. Millions of people watch the likes of Colin Fry on television or pay to attend “evenings with a psychic” in the hope of receiving a message from the other side, or hearing from deceased relatives. The guest medium at the church was no different. I couldn’t help but be in awe at the work he did, the messages he gave. It is a unique experience to watch comprehension float to the surface of someone’s face because they can accept the medium’s description of someone or something close to them, or see their tears as a long lost memory is recounted before the keen listeners. I thought it was wonderful.

I didn’t receive a message myself that night – I had secretly hoped – but when Sandra drove me home I was filled with a sense of well-being, as if I had a place in the universe after all.

We attended the church every Thursday thereafter, staying after the service to join a psychic circle held upstairs. A creepy room lined with dusky wallpaper. It housed nearly twenty old-wood chairs and an empty wardrobe – allegedly used for transmogrification and the suchlike. Six months in and during a conversation with one of the church leaders I was advised I would become a trance medium. I was elated that one day I would be able to wield such a skill and have concrete proof of the continuation of the human soul. Except that I don’t believe it to be true.

Sandra and I joined another psychic circle where we developed skills of psychometry, tarot reading, meditation and mediumship, and for a good year I found harmony with the fear of death that had plagued me so. I described people I didn’t know and had never seen, detailed imagery and gave messages to people that made them truly stop and listen to what I had to say, before thanking me with shocked faces and shining eyes.

After a year however, while Sandra’s abilities seemed to grow exponentially, I found that mine floundered. All the imagery I had seen in my head I’d plucked out of nothing, like the proverbial rabbit pulled from the empty magician’s hat. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d made it all up – if that’s all we were doing. In Victorian times many magicians started their careers giving séances and cold reading an audience. They used the Barnum effect to elicit emotional reactions that spoke more about the audience’s willingness for communion with spirits to be true than the reality. My psychic group reminded me that that’s what clairvoyance is – seeing – just as clairaudience is hearing spirits and clairsentience is sensing. It was suggested I’d merely hit a plateau in my learning. I wasn’t sure. I began to feel like a fake. When the group meditated I fell into a sleep, rousing only when the others came out of their reflections. One by one we’d tell the others what we’d seen, heard, felt; only I couldn’t. I had nothing to tell.

Eventually I left the group and the church. My search for meaningful meditation was over.

It dawned on me as I worried over my failing belief that I had spent too much time trying to communicate with the dead. I realised that in focusing so much on what comes after, I was giving no time to the here and now. To this day I believe that whilst there are charlatans, there are many more doing good work, who give others hope in the afterlife. But, I came to understand that whether or not any of it is true, whether or not I really communicated with the dead, is irrelevant. I believe that I have only one life to live and I believe that I owe it to myself to live my life rather than seek out a cheat or shortcut. Who wants to know what’s in store? Or that they’ll never win the lottery? I’d rather live in hope.

To my adult mind the notion of death and endings is still frightening, and there are still some nights when I wake suddenly with those dark clouds collecting above me. My heart thuds with a surge of adrenaline, my unconscious mind imposing my fear of the end of all things upon me. I get up and go to the loo, or I have a drink, but the storm refuses to shift. My pulse races and time seems to be streaming by, everything in flux, yet my body and mind move so very slow.

But I don’t turn my thoughts to spiritualism or the theory that spirits watch over us. I don’t concern myself with the belief shared by millions across the globe that death is just a curtain behind which the secrets of the universe shall be revealed. Because, still, at some point there will come an ending, and no amount of self delusion or faith is going to prevent that.

Now though, when I feel the depression take hold, I turn over in bed and watch my wife sleeping beside me. Now, when I think of the end of all things, I listen to her soft breaths; watch the flutter of her eyelids as she dreams. I kiss her forehead in the darkness and I consol myself that whatever or wherever that end is, we will all go to it, together.


MG said...

Great anecdote, Rich. I actually began to wonder if you'd made it up (there are a number of lovely Murakami-esque short story possibilities that I'm certain must have occurred to you from this material). You know even tedious old orthodox Christians like me have doubts about death. Atheists have it easy - they believe that death is the end and there'll be no need for us to account for how we lived our lives. Lovely! Religious people that I know tend to have a quite business-like attitude to death. It's not the end, but it's the end-as-we-know-it. Some things about living are pretty darn good. Sometimes I wonder and hope that if there is a Heaven, it can match up.
Either way, you have the right attitude; life is to be lived and as much as possible, enjoyed. The Roman Catholic Church is pretty hedonistic in most countries - not here because England's Catholics had to become quite puritanical after the Reformation. But we believe that God created us with a great potential for happiness and pleasure - and we're meant to use it. And every day, I try to do just that!

R1X said...

Thanks for sharing MG - Murakami, yes, though I've had to put him down and get on with some reading for uni at the mo' :( Boring - I think your sentiments about the true nature of being religious are what gets lost in translation to those of us who aren't so disposed.

Anyhoo, I wrote the article for The Guardian's First Person column - rejected again - though I recommend attempting to submit to anyone (another great way to try out different styles, and sticking to a word limit) - 1,500 word real life story regarding relationships in some form should be e-mailed to (apparently they pay quite handsomely for the privilege).

esruel said...

Way back, I used to work with a guy who was also making a name for himself as a medium at spiritualist meetings. He came to me one day and asked if I would chronicle the goings-on at an abbey or castle somewhere in the north east, all sponsored and published by a spiritualist magazine. After a few meetings and lots of phone calls, it was all set up and all that remained was for us to go and do it.
Then the magazine authenticator had a car accident, which stopped it all in its tracks. In the end, it fizzled out, as getting a new window of opportunity proved impossible, and my career in journalism was over. I'm sure it would have been great fun, and you never know what might have happened there.
A shame, really.
I really don't know about religion - I used to sing in church as a choirboy, and read in church regularly while at junior school. So much suffering in the world: surely the experiment has run its course, and this free will business has been proved impossible to reconcile with human nature. I always feel now that the Maker must be as flawed as the rest of us, if a Maker exists. It's probably a committee thing!!