On the seminal 1980s British television discussion programme ‘After Dark’, Jonathan Miller, filmmaker, doctor and public intellectual was challenged, during a debate on the supernatural, for his skeptical views. Somewhat exasperated and fatigued by a lot of ramblings from the other contributors about poltergeist, spirits and ghosts he put forward the following thoughts framed as questions – Why are we so obsessed with having to look for some magical reason for perfectly natural phenomenon? Why do we jump to conclusions over things that are merely coincidental events? Why can the world not be seen as wonderful and mysterious in its own right?
It was a powerful moment and begged another question – why are we so often dissatisfied with our everyday experience that we feel it is lacking?
In truth we often want there to be something more exciting to our reality than meets the eye (ear, nose…) Whether there is any evidence or not to support this is often not an issue. The world, as we experience it, is often a source of dissatisfaction so we go in search of excitement, intrigue or a credulous belief; we look for signs of a more interesting world below or above the surface of this one. Once we are on this path we begin to tell ourselves stories about what we believe is behind the veil of the ‘mundane’ world and before long we are acting on those beliefs.
This of course is the realm of the imagination and is a hugely valuable part of our inner world. The stories we tell ourselves and the pictures we create in our heads are invaluable ways of making sense of our lives. The problem lies not in the brilliance of these creations but when we start to believe these stories, accept them as certainties and lose sight of their usefulness. Then we stop seeing the world as it is and only through a lens of our own invention.
Of course, we can never be fully free of this but we can be simply aware of it. If on occasion we can put aside our fantasies and theories and truly engage with things as they are we can actually get closer to the deeper mystery of our very existence.
These sorts of moments, without the need to conjure up gods or goddesses, energies or ley-lines often bring with it a deeper and more visceral contact with the great mystery of the universe. There is a great humility in this position that accepts our need for consolation but at the same time doesn’t give in to it. The beauty of this is that it opens us up to more than just a narrow narrative.
The writer and buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor, in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, put it beautifully in the following passage –
‘One evening at dusk, as I was returning to my room along a narrow path through the pine forest, carrying a blue plastic bucket slopping with water that I had just collected from a nearby source, I was abruptly brought to a halt by the upsurge of an overpowering sense of the sheer strangeness of everything. It was as though I had been lifted onto the crest of a great wave that rose from the ocean of life itself, allowing me for the first time to be struck by how mysterious it was that anything existed at all rather than nothing. “How,” I asked myself, “can a person be unaware of this? How can anyone pass their life without responding to this? Why have I not noticed this until now?” I remember standing still, trembling and dumb, with tears in my eyes. Then I continued on my way before night fell.’