Warning: this is a long post, so in order to save some time, the main topic is regarding a very personal experience which may or may not relate to your own interests. I'm basically wrestling with the question of an experience one may describe as "rapturous, spiritual, transcendental" or some other lofty term, and whether one requires belief/worship of a supernatural being to achieve such a state. If you have no interest in this, or think that my personal (and perhaps esoteric) experiences are irrelevant to you, well then I've just saved you some time.
In my pre-teen and teen years, I was a very devout Roman Catholic. I participated in Church youth groups, attended church regularly, and eventually participated in church-based "teen weekends" where youth ministered to youth (with adult guidance) over the course of a weekend retreat. I was very touched by these retreats, and eventually participated in the "minestarial end" of a few of them, on what they called the "team."
Team meetings happened weekly, prepping for the weekend months in advance. Some of the team gave talks on various religious topics. (typically "first time" team members didn't give talks) The weekend in question--I totally don't remember the year--found me as a veteran team member, and giving a talk. (this is important later)
Now, the opening of the weekend has the team in a big ol' room, and the parents drop off their kids for their first weekend, stick around for a while to socialize with the team and with the adult advisors, make sure their little 'uns are OK, and head out. There are a number of small functions (mini-talks about the goals of the weekend) that first night. But before all this, the Team has a Mass with just them involved.
It was at this Mass, just as the months of preparation were over and we were beginning our weekend, that I had what I believed at the time to be a spiritual experience. During the mass, the priest (with whom I had a great relationship) handed out Communion to each of us. As he got to me, he looked me in the eye and said, in his quiet and assured voice, slowly, "the body of Christ." I felt such a huge surge of euphoria at that instant; I said "Amen!" with huge conviction (so much so that he answered me with his own "Amen!"); I felt I had literally been touched by God. I was on a high for the rest of the night, and most of the weekend. Later that night, in the meeting the Team had every night during the weekend, I described the feeling thusly: "All evening before the mass I'd been excited, sort of like I was running full tilt across a plain. But when I recieved Communion from Fr. Martin, I realized that I'd been running toward a cliff--with a hang-glider on." And I still recall that feeling of flying free on a wave of spirituality and peace.
Years passed, things changed. I studied history in college, and in the meantime had some negative things happen to me (some involving me and the Church directly, some involving family members in the Church, others independent of religion) and I drifted away from the faith. (I recall specifically the time I decided I was no longer a Roman Catholic, during a bible study a friend of mine brought me to--the passage in question was "I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me will never die . . ." There is no other biblical passage that could have been worse for me to hear at that time, from the perspective of keeping me in the faith; intolerance and exclusivity were huge concerns of mine, and this passage screams of both to me.) Fairly recently (after reading this website, The God Delusion by Dawkins, and my own personal reflections) I came to the understanding that I'm at least agnostic, if not athiest. But I never forgot that feeling I had at that mass.
It's the one thing I wasn't able to examine critically and pretty much dump in the trash can with the rest of the Catholic dogma I had readily rejected. It's also the thing that I believe is the most powerful "weapon" in the arsenal of the faithful to defend their faith: "I've FELT God's presence!! God SPOKE to me!!" (One of my sisters claims that second one)
Since joining this forum, I've been thinking about this lately, and decided to try to put it to a test. Could I achieve this state of euphoria, peace, rapture, spirituality, whatever you want to call it, absent the worship of God? How would one go about trying? Fortunately I have an advantage there: I study martial arts.
I'm pretty good at it too--been doing it for 27 years now (with an 8-year break in the middle there). My favorite aspect of martial arts is kata (for those of you lay people, kata is essentially a "floor exercise" like in gymnastics: a perscribed set of moves). I really get into kata, so I figured I could try to achieve this sense during a workout.
But as I contemplated trying this today, I realized what a disadvantage I was at now, compared to that mass on that weekend so many years ago. On that team, I had a talk to give; I'd spent many hours thinking about what to say and how to say it; every week the team prayed together, sang together, socialized, formed a real bond; the months of preparation, the weekend consuming most (if not every) spare thought; the adrenaline of the evening, knowing the prep was over and our weekend was beginning . . . that's quite a lot of help going for a spiritual experience, wouldn't you say? Today, I had my martial arts training, my love of kata--but I had not really done any significant mental build-up to, shall we call it, "warm up" for this moment. Add to that the fact that I'd had no expectation of my euphoria during that weekend, and I did so now.
So as I walked to the gym, I decided on a strategy. I figured I'd do an intense, but low-weight, workout first to get the blood flowing, get a little physical exhaustion, "dig deep" that kind of thing. After a half hour of such, mentally focusing on "transcending the physical," I went to the side room and started in on both kata and hitting the heavy bag (which I stopped after a while because it's just too exhausting, and I wanted full faculties for the kata).
Here is where I tweaked my strategy some. I began a mental litany of what the "ideal" or "perfect warrior" is (I listed poise, power, balance, focus, and emotion) between forms, and said over and over to myself "channel the warrior spirit; be the ideal warrior; I am Bushi (it's a nickname at the school, the Japanese word for "warrior")."
I did feel something. Not quite the rush of euphoria as I had achieved before and had hoped to achieve again, but I certainly did notice a marked difference in the quality and passion of my kata. My kata had always been pretty good, and pretty passionate, but simply trying to "channel the warrior spirit" gave me a large increase in power (at least it seemed so--and I have been doing this for almost 30 years, so I'm not a dummy); my focus was nearly perfect (a part of my brain still automatically "looked" at what I was doing, making sure punches/kicks are in teh right place, even though I wasn't concious of placement thus); and my balance was nothing short of outstanding (typically decent, but I nailed every one of my difficult balance moves, where I would typically make at least a slight bobble on at least one). Never had I experienced such a performance over as many katas in succession as I experienced today. And I wasn't conciously trying to do my forms the best I could do, as is my typical strategy; I was simply trying to BE "the perfect warrior."
What am I saying here? While I did not get the feel-good feeling I got so many years ago, I definitely got SOMEthing. And while it wasn't as dramatic as my teen experience was, todays, to me, is more valuable--it cracked open a door to improving my karate another level (or three) that I did not know was there.
Now, some might say that this experience proves something, and I'd agree. It does NOT prove that god did not "touch" me as a teenager. It does not even prove that god did not touch me today, as I was working out. What it proves to me is that I do not need to worship a supernatural being in order to achieve spiritual harmony and to approach perfection (I will never achieve it, but striving for it is a good enough goal for me) in even one small aspect of a very important part of my life--the martial arts.
The concept of The Perfect Warrior will be different for every person--but it's exactly that, a concept. A construct of the human imagination. Perhaps a belief in *some*thing that is beyond a human's ability to actually achieve--The Warrior Spirit, for example--ain't such a bad thing after all. I now feel like I can fully reject the need, or even the desire, to worship any supernatural being, because I found something special within myself this day. I believed I could channel the Warrior Ideal and my body responded to my mind's desires.
The subject line of this post is one of my favorite lines in the movie The Matrix. As Neo starts to run out of the subway, away from Agent Smith, Neo stops, and turns to face him. Trinity asks "what's he doing?" And Morpheus looks intently, with hope in his eyes, and says "He's beginning to believe!!"
What is it I'm beginning to believe? The power of the human spirit/mind, perhaps. Whatever it is, I like it.