Shocked and Hollowed Spaces Left by Eleven Vanished Beliefs
continuing, in a way that’s not entirely clear, an exploration of second-order religiosity
A Facebook friend recently reminisced on a thread about the arc of his relationship, from childhood to adulthood, with the divine form of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita:
“As a Hindu, I have been brought up with images of many-armed deities, their attire (which is completely culture-specific), their bloody or benevolent appearances, their vehicles, etc. As a child, I took the description of the divine form [of Krishna] literally at face value, and it evoked strong feelings within me. With time (and hopefully, some wisdom), I see it as purely allegorical, something that signifies the infinite nature of the universe and its incomprehensibility. To be honest, I’d have preferred to have maintained the childhood vision of all this, but unfortunately, ‘modern’ education will never allow me to experience such deep feelings again.”
I resonate with this melancholy. But just as often I have felt shifts into disbelief and irony to be ecstatic. I wondered more generally: What happens to the psychic space once occupied by belief? Does it remain vacant? Does it echo with its previous song? Do we reach for something similar, or different, to fill it up? Do we want to fill it up? When we feel that something is missing, is this merely the unfamiliarity with a positive new space? Is losing a belief similar to losing a relationship, or a person?
I asked the Facebook world, and friends replied with gorgeous stories that resonated with the first, each unique, each generally following a narrative of gradual shifts and replacements – especially literature. The conspicuousness of literature may be a function of the self-selections that move people to both friend me, take an interest in the post, and comment on it, but I do wonder if generally the private fantastical world of literature is the most fulfilling substitute for the vanished belief icon – a way of reclaiming internal space and marking it with the irreducible privacy of reading.
But one friend – Bob – spoke of his disenchantment with the Catholic pantheon as a rupture:
“When I was 14, I woke up one morning in a cold sweat and realized that the Roman Catholic God I had been praying to since I was a toddler simply didn’t exist. It was all a complete fabrication…. I cried over the loss and sudden overwhelming gaping emptiness.”
I know this moment. It can last for weeks. His account made me realize that I hadn’t been specific enough in my crowdsource question. I think we all understand gradual shifts and changes. What I’m really looking for is context and comparisons for these ruptures of conversion. The moments have their psychic poetics, but their severity seems neurological in scope – a kind of positive trauma.
The materialist question would be: What happens to brain structures that are suddenly liberated from a belief? There are some studies that attempt to locate the immediate mechanisms of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty, but we seem to know nothing about the spaces in which beliefs are stored, and how much energy is expended in keeping them latent. I realize that the spatial metaphor itself might be inaccurate: beliefs may not be stored at all, but rather the ephemeral results of periodic floods of neuronal activity coursing through unused but well-worn pathways. Perhaps beliefs which seem to be hardwired are literally not there until the frontal vagal nerve (Porges) or the slow thinking system (Kahneman) is overwhelmed, and the juice of repressed feeling swells into the floodplain.
But it does feel like space to me. A belief isn’t “shattered”. It evaporates, leaving emptiness. Every significant belief that has left me dissolves like a person walking out of a room. Perhaps the person is myself, and the room is a room I simply no longer want to be in. Whenever a belief dissolves, a mansion opens in my heart. The building is old but unused, waiting for my furnishings, my books. Like a mansion I constructed in childhood that I was never given the time to live in.
(That childhood. That house of many mansions.)
For me, the vacancies have been sudden, shocking. Here’s a brief list.
I’m six. I’m kneeling before a statue of Jesus in the school chapel. I don’t think statue of Jesus. I think Jesus. I feel a little bold somehow, even rebellious, and decide to return the gaze of Jesus. His eyes look down, and I look up. My ears burn and my heart pounds. I shift to the right and left to see if the eyes follow me. They don’t. Slowly the gaze becomes soft, then unfocused, then altogether vacant. I wave at him. Nothing. And then I notice the paint flaking on his gown. There’s no one around, so I get up from the kneeler and touch the gown. It’s not fabric: I knew that. A secret is falling apart. It’s cold ceramic with flaking paint. Some of the paint comes off on my finger. I rap on it with my knuckles and it makes a hollow sound. There’s nothing inside it. But I have insides. I know I have insides because of eating and pooing. He didn’t even have a hole where his mouth was. I was kneeling before a shell. It couldn’t see me. I could do anything. The silhouette of Jesus who became a statue that was empty became the frame for an absence into which I could direct my repressions, which came out in the joy of blasphemy.
I’m seven. I’m third in line for confession on Ash Wednesday. I’m looking at the confessional, the middle curtain, where the priest is sitting. I can hear the boy inside whispering haltingly, and the priest mm-hmming, and then the boy racing through Act of Contrition and the priest racing through Act of Forgiveness, and penance. While I listen I watch the priest’s curtain. Down at the hem I can see his left shoe. It’s a black loafer. It needs a shine. While the boy confesses, the priest taps his toe. I can see that the priest is a man wearing scruffy shoes. After the boy slips out, the priest turns off his light and slips out to the sacristy. As he walks he reaches into the pocket of his black collar shirt for his pack of smokes. I stand there and realize I’m going to enter a tiny kneeling space behind a red velvet curtain. The door will slide open beside my cheek and I will smell smoke on the man’s breath, and I will try to think of all of the bad things I had done and then tell them while he listens and taps his black loafer. When it’s my turn I slip behind the curtain and feel that I am entering the opposite of intimacy. I am kneeling on a tiny stage, and perform my guilt for a man who is bored. I know what I am supposed to do, and it isn’t real. For the next week I walk around knowing that everyone is lying about what they do. Nobody is confessing. Everyone is pretending. The revelation makes me invisible. The hairs on my skin become exquisitely sensitive.
I’m twelve, and I have the keys to the local church so that I can practice the organ at night when no one is there. I play loud. I improvise. The sacristy is open. I go in and find the cupboards where the wafers and wine are stored. The wafers are in plastic bags with twist-ties. They look like corn chips. I grab a handful and munch them. They taste like they tasted during communion, when everyone chewed somberly: like cardboard. No wonder everyone chewed and chewed. I put another handful in my coat pocket to feed the pigeons on the walk home. No one is watching. No one cares. Nothing changes. My heart is pounding and my ears burn. I take a gulp of wine from the open bottle. It’s sweet and sour, I exhale its scent. I go back to practice. I feel a fart coming on. I save it up for a while, squeezing it back in against the hard bench with one cheek and then the other. When I know it’s gonna be a loud one I trot up the darkened aisle and lay it right on the presider’s chair and listen for the echo. The church is absolutely empty. Nobody here but me and my toots. Like a building site, or something abandoned. I thought: every single night, every building is full of nothing. It wasn’t just churches, but schools, banks, city halls. Libraries were something different. They might be empty of people, but never of voices.
I’m seventeen. The fighting with my parents has gotten so bad that I decide to move out. I pack my things into a dozen boxes. With money I’ve made playing organ at church I hire a guy with a van to move the boxes and my desk and bed to my rented room downtown. As we pull away I cry harder than I ever have in my life. The van guy looks straight ahead, uncomfortable. After ten minutes I calm down. He keeps looking straight ahead and says Well you’re your own person now. It dawns on me that the fighting inside is stopping. I left the rooms of fighting, and then room of fighting inside me is suddenly quiet.
I’m twenty. I’m drinking coffee just before midnight with Lynn Crosbie at Dooney’s before having her read poems and interviewing her on my radio show. She’s asking me how I write, and I tell her about all my disciplines and routines. She ashes her cigarette and says After a while you realize that the best work happens when you’re doing nothing. You think you’re bored, but something is happening that you can’t see.
I’m twenty-one. I’m sitting in in a café with Richard Vaughan, bawling because my girlfriend of three years has left me. (We really left each other, but I couldn’t share the blame or credit of course.) I’m saying to Richard that I can’t understand why she would go. Things were so good between us. So good! He rolls his eyes and says O boo hoo. Maybe you’ve been telling yourself a story about the relationship that she’s never even heard of. I stopped blubbering. The story had gone silent.
I’m twenty-six. I go to my first Buddhist lecture. The Tibetan guy talks for a while, and I’m bored. Then he says Okay now we meditate. I wilted a little further in my seat, but I decided to be a good sport. When you breathe in, ask: Who am I? When you breathe out, answer: Don’t know. I did what I was told, and couldn’t stop trembling and crying for a week. I felt hollow, buoyant. The tears seemed to flow upwards.
I’m twenty-eight. I’m sitting in Sera Me Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka, in the middle of a thirty-day seminar on Tibetan Middle-Way philosophy. We’re learning about the “object of negation” (dgag bya) – the thing a yogi most wants to recognize as non-existent. It’s a study of the hollow icons at the heart of consciousness. Geshe Thubten Rinchen says that it’s easy to deconstruct the essentialism of an object like a chariot. He takes a seven full days to describe through a translator how Chandrakirti proves that a chariot is
- not inherently different from its parts,
- not the same as its parts,
- not the possessor of its parts,
- does not inherently depend on its parts; and how
- the parts of the chariot do not inherently depend on it,
- the chariot is not the mere collection of its parts, and
- it is not the shape of the parts.
On the eighth day Geshe says that in order to really feel the selflessness of the person you have to look deeper than the relationship between a “chariot” and the axle and wheels that make it up. He tells us to imagine being falsely accused of something morally disgusting. He tells us to close our eyes and really feel it. How unjust it is. How dirty it makes you seem. I’m actually feeling pretty sick. How alienated you would be, not only socially but from yourself, if it were true. If it were true! The process stimulates shame in a controlled thought experiment. Geshe says: You know the shame is baseless, but you cannot help feeling it. You have been lied about, and yet you believe it. Something deep inside seems attacked. This is the self: the object to be denied. You feel it every moment, subtle, subtle. Then very large when it’s threatened. It is a mirage, a bubble in water, lightning at dawn, a dream.
The next morning I get dysentery. An impossible amount of stool blasts out of my colon. I feel ringing, hollow, and groundless. I’m delirious with fever for several days. I dream of the hollow Jesus statue. On the morning I come to, bright green discharge flows from my right ear.
I’m thirty-one. My asana teacher Kim is telling me to let my femur ground more deeply into my hip joint. I grit my teeth and furrow my brow and breathe hard. He puts a hand on my shoulder and says quietly Relax. The mind can’t do it for you. For the rest of the week I let my flesh be the source of my movement.
I’m thirty-eight. I’ve just published an article on the performative aspects of yoga semiotics in which I poke fun at a bizarre picture of Sri Yukteswar and Sri Chinmoy faking his weightlifting exploits. My Jyotish teacher phones me and asks for a meeting before class that day. He sounds grim. I meet him at a restaurant where he is finishing lunch. He looks grim. As we walk towards class he unleashes on me: I’m irreverent, disrespectful, I’m stealing food out of people’s mouths and hope from their hearts. He’s red in the face. I’m weirdly elated. When he pauses his yelling I hear myself say to him, really loud but also strangely calm: My thoughts are my own and you can’t control them. He expels me from class, after three years of close study together. He walks away. I stand there, stunned in the spring sunlight. It feels like a tuning fork is ringing in my chest. I ride my bike home with a profound sense of openness, blankness. I sit in my study until sunset, feeling everything vibrate. I have the most sublime feelings: This is all there is, and maybe I’m an atheist, and I am not who anyone thinks I am, including me.
I’m thirty-nine. Things are coming to an end with my ex-partner. We haven’t slept for a week. We are talking about our marriage as it is disintegrating but as if it wasn’t the actual thing that was disintegrating, but rather something floating above us, something constructed in another realm, promised to by people other than we then felt ourselves to be. I hear these thoughts inside: There is no marriage other than what’s happening now. We are two people listening to the echo of an ideal. Suddenly her face comes into focus in a new way, after seventeen years. And her voice, suddenly hers. Finally, it’s really her face and voice, beautiful and unknown and plain in a way I’ve never seen, in a way that must mean some kind of codependency is crumbling, and I can feel my own face relax out of a mask of wishes and projections. A very clear question comes: Who am I apart from you, after all these years? I breathe out thinking: don’t know.
In each of these moments, the physiological response was the same: my breath halted, then expanded. My circulation was immediately flushed. I felt surges of warmth course through me. All of my hair tingled to contact the world. Any stiffness and pain dissolved, not in the fatigue that comes before sleep, but vibrant and awake.
The hollow feeling, I think, is actually a feeling of complete peristaltic relaxation and relief, similar to after after a large bowel movement. You got what you needed, and you aren’t supposed to be hanging on to the rest. It makes sense in Ayurveda: the colon is the site of vata, and when evacuated, air and space feel the sharp expansion of possibility within the hollow organ. The release of a belief seems to ripple through the musculature. A belief is like and maybe simply is a chronic gripping pattern. An icon cannot move. Internal iconography hardens internal movement against itself.
And yet the hollowness of the Jesus statue is still ringing for me. I’m thinking the empty shock of disbelief is the shadow heart of religion.