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OLD WINE, NEW BOTTLES
Pete McCormack interview on Spirituality, Part I
with Kim Linekin (April, 2006)

It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.
—Mahatma Ghandi

 

Realizing that my answers in this interview would most likely not usher in a new mythology for the 21st century that brings peace to the species and restores the planet to health, I suddenly felt awkward about adding to the ever-thickening glut of spiritual ideas. For it literally has all been said before, and can be found somewhere, on some stone tablet, in some book, in somebody’s heart.

But then it occurred to me that the desire of this conversation is not just my seeking to show off some sort of smarty-pants persona (although I have rewritten many of my initial incoherent answers to give that my best shot) but rather that I might just say something—maybe one little thing, somewhere—that increases, in a moment of hearing it, your remembering of the divine inexplicable miracle we may just be.

That's where it gets big time nutty, because from there, in some unknowable way, maybe your frustration and suffering starts to decrease. And if you were to feel a bit more joy, grace-willing, you might just give the same buzz to someone else. Are you with me?

And they to another.

And another.

Then after, say, six weeks or so, maybe we could all try to phone each other and organize a great big happy party that includes healthy fruit drinks, organic vegetarian finger snacks and the raising of a barn for use by the whole community—with smiling cows and harvests for hungry people.

And hopefully it won’t only be family who shows up—or maybe we are all family. I don’t know. Anyway, see you there.

The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.
—Albert Einstein

***

Kim: How do you personally define God?

Pete: What’s interesting is that no matter what I say, no matter how eloquent my response, no matter how profound and witty I might sound, I can add absolutely nothing to what’s already been said and killed over for the last 10,000 years. And still, I can’t help myself in giving it a shot.

In one highly devoted sense I really try not to define God. Being put in a box makes me uncomfortable, so imagine how God must feel.

In the East, there is a sense of God being formless—without form or attributes. There is also the idea of God being with attributes and with form and being personal. I think those two ideas together are very compelling and exciting and important.

But if the definition is strictly defined, it is not only arrogant but it takes all the fun out of it. Definitions become concretized or fundamentalised in a way that we start proselytizing our truth. And history knows where that can, has and will lead.

We’re in and we are a massive mystery. At the same time, defining God as simply a formless, unknowable idea just doesn’t match the compelling nature of love and relationships here—and how could the Divine possibly be less than that miracle, in terms of both joy and scope?

K: So what do you believe in?

P: Another easy one. Thanks. Whenever somebody asks, “Do you believe in God?” or, “Are you a Socialist or a Democrat or a Republican?” I strongly recommend—I even told my thirteen year old niece this recently—getting their definition on whatever they’re asking you so you don’t get immediately boxed in to someone else’s agenda. Because everybody has their take on “God”, and God is a very loaded term, and before you know it you’re caught in a mini-Crusade, and theoretically you could end up on the side of the infidels. But with a little sweetness of speech, a conversation may just begin that serves both people.

To one who believes that faith in God is a crutch, or insane by its lack of evidence, I’ll often say, “Okay, do you believe in love?” Now, only a liar has never wanted to be loved, or felt love. Yet love, for all its total acceptance as being real, is utterly unquantifiable, invisible, illogical and immeasurable.

Even those who reduce love to a scientific process of getting people to reproduce still don’t really act that way – we weep when grandma dies and we love to see our kids even when they can take care of themselves and we cry in relationship collapse.

As for the procreation of the species as the reason, what about homosexual love or love between people no longer able to have children? So to defend love—or atheism, for that matter— by logic is as ridiculous as defending faith by logic.

But to put down faith and believe in love is also illogical. And even if those who say, “Ah, but I can see the object of my love,” thus it seems more tangible…? Well, the emotion and feeling behind longing for the Divine, seeing the Divine, is very similar—and I would even say longing for the Divine precedes all these emotions we call love, although of course I can’t prove that. I don’t even want to prove it. I’m just grateful for the feeling.

And I believe that person with whom I am in love is a fragment of Divine beauty, so that emotion of faith is tangible, and everywhere, not just in my lover, or family.

They say a good yogi can get the same buzz off the moon as a lover. I’m still sort of pro-lover—sort of a Yogi Barely—but I am trying to spread out.

But back to your original question, my bias is towards a belief in a certain eternal nature of the soul. I believe in the soul—my instinct or attraction is towards the idea that the soul that we are longs to connect and reconnect in intimacy with the Source of our existence, which is God, the Divine, with a wholly inconceivably personal aspect.

K: Which tradition does this come from?

P: I guess I'm in line with the more contemplative traditions and mystic traditions. A brilliant and passionate Vedic scholar, practitioner and teacher by the name of Jeffrey Armstrong has given me so much knowledge in the last few years, so that has been a massive influence. Also we’re friends, so I have had the privilege of a great deal of informal communication, which has been such a gift.

K: So what are the specifics of this path?

P: I can’t do it justice, but the idea of the soul as Jeffrey describes it comes directly from the Vedic or Indian tradition, and specifically the distinctivist or dvaita path—which I have been fortunate enough to learn about, because it’s embarrassingly ignored in the West.

The teaching of the distinctivists, which can also be called the Personalist path, is a union, or better yet, a reconciliation of oneness and distinctions, summed up in an eternal line from a yogi named Caitanya, from 15th century India: accinta beda bedda tatva, which translates to: we are, as souls and to the Divine, “inconceivably, simultaneously one and different.” (i) And it must be true because my girlfriend had it embroidered on a pillow for me.

K: Are you a Hindu?

P: Of course first of all I’d ask, “What is your definition of a Hindu?” The word Hindu—of Persian origin, I think—was imposed as a catchall term for the entire area colonized by the Christian British in India. My grandparents were there in the '20s until after partition, incidentally.

In a different way, Jesus had the word Christian imposed on his teachings years after his death and resurrection. So those labels don't mean much to me.

The truth is I am not particularly sectarian by nature. I am sort of a pluralist. (ii) I am open to a lot of ideas. To some people that might be annoying, like I have no spine and I can’t make a choice. But I find that we tend to put limitations on this incredible question and we want to proselytize our views.

I am attracted to all the mystic paths: the Vedic paths, the Kabbalists –the Jewish mystic path, the Sufis, which is the Islamic mystic path, contemplative Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism.

Most of all, I really think we are souls. But this is an emotion for me more than something realized. So I just try to remain as humble as I can be about it and as open as I can be—and when I stand in that, I feel undoubtedly that there is an intelligence behind the cosmos.  To me it is overwhelmingly self-evident.

And I definitely have, in my heart, a relationship with that which is called the transcendental. God is personal for me. I have conversation and I have prayer and I have what is called devotion or bhakti in India.

You can see this type of devotion in the West as well. Christ was definitely in devotion to his Father. It’s in the unstoppable nature of what he desires—of wanting to be in communication with his Father, and how it is expressed, and what he does.

What I really want is to remain evolving and open to whatever makes me more loving and more understanding. I’ll try to follow that road, all the while knowing I am unable to give a conclusive answer about the ultimate attributes or definitions of God. I could have said that off the top, and saved a lot of words. Anyway, thanks for asking.

K: Do you believe in reincarnation?

P: The ideas of reincarnation are interesting to me. I haven’t personally had any recollections of past lives although last weekend I had the strangest desire to dress up as Cleopatra, and promptly did so.

K: [laughs] What attributes of God do you not believe in?

P: I can’t really speak for God, but there is a process called neti-neti in the East, meaning “not this, not that, not this, not that.” You do it to try and uncover what is real, to discover Self with a capital S, partly by deciding what you’re not. It is almost like an existentialist idea. You keep stripping away layers until quite often you end up being nothing, which is also a spiritual or philosophical choice.

That process is very interesting and necessary but the Buddhist final conclusion of emptiness or annihilation of Self doesn’t resound for me.

Perhaps that is my delusion. But I really believe in Self, in the individual eternal Self. It is the glasses through which I try to see all human beings, as individual souls who are experiencing this material world which is an aspect of the Divine. That is what resonates for me.

K: It seems to me as though you’ve come across your present spiritual practice by a process of neti-neti. You’ve studied all world religions in some ways and you keep deciding what you’re not. Do you want to tell me how your spiritual journey has evolved?

P: Well, I think instinctually. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I thought about God a lot. I’d run and I’d talk to someone and nobody was there—fortunately, not loud enough to get locked away, but just little amounts to know that I believed in something. I always saw some sort of difference between what I am and this temporary body that’s Pete. I don’t know why. And that’s evolved over time.

I don’t know if it is true or not, I can’t prove there is a difference or if there is a permanent soul inside this temporary body, but that’s what I feel. So that’s become more focused as I’ve gotten older and I’ve been graced with more information on that and more teaching and more internal practice, meditation and so on.

But even to say I’m not a Christian, which is true on one level, that is I don’t fit the definitions of what a Christian is by most Christians—but do I believe in the Christian path? Yeah. I do. I just think that paths are very individual and I don’t believe in one way for everybody and I would never defend one way as the only right way.

I may have a right way for me but I don’t feel a right way for other people and it is not because I’m wishy-washy or pluralistic, it is because that is what I actually believe. The vast and inconceivable ache and joy of the universe tells me this to be true.

K: What is your current spiritual practice?

P: My nephew asked me, “Why do you meditate, Uncle Pete? Why do you chant?” The answer is that I meditate to practice remembering that I am not just this temporary body. I am not just the “Pete” experience. Clearly, anybody can see how temporary the human form is—how much we change, every day and over time.

My practice is also devotional, so I try to find more emotion between me and the Divine, actually. You can cultivate that by practicing it and by seeing more divinity in every person you see. You actually try to see it. I said to my nephew, it’s just like when you go to the arena and play hockey, you go there to get better at hockey. That is why you practice playing hockey. You go to the gym to get stronger.

I meditate to remember I’m a soul and to devote to God and to practice gratitude and to practice being more loving. There are not a lot of places you can go to practice opening your heart more but meditation and prayer and devotion and good association with the right people can help that. I’ve been very fortunate that way.

K: In concrete terms, say in one week, what is your practice?

P: I’d say I meditate, which includes mantra or chanting, probably 45 minutes a day. Between half an hour and an hour every morning. I'm not exactly hard core, but it’s a reminder for the rest of the day, to remember what my true nature may be, or what I believe it to be, and to keep in conversation with the Divine, with God.

What I practice is being more loving; I remind myself that hour to be more loving in that day. That means to try to reach out to people more and to see inside the human limitations and have more humility and be more grateful.

What is interesting is that in India, the nature of the soul is sat which means eternal, chit which means conscious and ananda which means joyful or “transcendental bliss”—and some Indian schools of thought—the distinctivists—include vigraha which is unique personhood, and different than Viagra.

So if that is the true nature of the soul, then I know that being joyful—which doesn’t exclude being sad or moved by something or concerned about something—is a reset point. I prefer it as a default position to cynicism or depression. It is not a fake joy. It is actually where the stance is—realizing that the gratitude of being here and the devotion and so on, is a place of joy. That is a marker for me.

So my day begins with meditation and prayer and that hopefully extends to a continued process throughout the day. That’s what God consciousness or supposedly Krishna consciousness or Christ consciousness is, to remember the connection all day. That is to be aware and be awakened.

K: Do you have any desire to go to India? Do you want formal training in this aspect of your life?

P: Well, I’ve been fortunate to have been given so much knowledge in the last few years, which has really taught me humility about other people’s paths, reminding me that I don’t know much about them even if I’ve read extensively about them.

There is a big difference between reading about a path and involving yourself—being taught—in the path, whatever it is, even if it is Hinduism or fundamental Christianity or or the mystical paths or whatever. We don’t know them until we dive into them. So that is humbling—and it reminds me to always be open to wise teachers, from all paths. There is also always a difference between the teacher and the teaching. Every teacher is human.

Going to India would be a wonderful thing to do but I’m happy to spend time with people that I love and try to love people that I don’t know. That is the path I’m on.

K: Have you had spiritual experiences and can you describe one?

P: I think I’m having one now! (laughs) That is an interesting question. Sometimes I meet people who say they meditated the other day for the first time, especially women—I find women to generally be more sensitive and subtle to these things and most things—and they say things like, “I saw these white lights and purple lights…” All these phenomena the first time out. I don’t get that at all. I must be very unsubtle in my body.

I do have experiences that seem to me to separate something—my soul, let’s say, or consciousness, the witness or some other understated term—from my body, which are quite…satisfying.

But what is curious about them is that I can’t reproduce them on demand. I don’t have flashbacks of past lives and I’ve never been abducted by extra-terrestrials, although I’ve worked with a few.

K: So that is not important to you, to have a mystical encounter with God?

P: Well, it’s not something I’d say no to but I don’t know when or how that happens, and the fact is I find life perpetually mystical.

Love is definitely a mystical experience—absolutely invisible and unmeasurable. Yet we see it unfolding in the eyes of our beloved, in creation, in every moment we have the good fortune to be open to it. God is the same way. The emotions pull me. I find just sitting in meditation or doing mantras mystical. I find relaxing my stomach mystical.

Plus, we draw a lot of conclusions from these visions and various satoris, moments of realization. We call ourselves awakened. Some people even claim to be avatars. But seeing the white light could be just as much be a neurotransmitter short-out in the brain from staring at the inside of your own head for too long as a visit from the Source of your existence. We don’t even know what dreams are.

What I would like, though, is to be more in service, more loving, more remembering. I love the line “service is more important than liberation.” That’s what I want. Christ’s new covenant was profound. He says, “No longer love your neighbour, but love your enemy as yourself.” Sit on that for awhile and things shift in you.

K: Why is it you say the mystical path is your path? What about it draws you?

P: The fluidity of it. The lack of definition and the great definition. The subtlety of it. Very few mystical paths are in their essence proselytizing, forcing other people to believe in a certain way. They are more open-ended and more creative.

Also, for me, they are much more linked to the creative path. And they are very beautiful so I am just attracted to them in that way.  I like to feel free, I want people to feel free, and I find them to be expansive.

I find them to be more of a dance, more of an ongoing evolution in my journey as opposed to, say, a mean God with a white beard saying we are sinful creatures. I understand what’s being said there, but I don’t think of life that way, it doesn’t resound, so to worship that idea would be to lie, at least for me.

K: You once told me you think your most important relationship in this lifetime is with God.

P: Was I drinking?

K: This was when you were single, mind you.

P: I think part of me deeply believes that all our desires are somehow misplaced and our real desire is to return to the Source of our existence. What that means, exactly, is the mystery. That could mean God; where we came from.

Again, God is a very limited term. It is full of lots of little bombs that go off for people. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure the whole of the Cosmos is held together by that desire—I just can’t prove it.

K: Is your most important relationship in this lifetime with the “Divine”?

P: Yes, but I’m not particularly certain what that means. That is the exploration. In the mystical paths, the Divine is always within you and outside of you, and still connected—immanent and transcendent. I love that tension.

So there is some sort of vital journey to try and understand what is Self, what is this part of me that is connected to the Source of my existence. Who am I, where am I from, where am I going. And many wonderful profound paths address these questions in different ways.

Buddha said don’t ask those questions. Those questions are a waste of time. Whether we are eternal or not, a waste of time. He actually forbade it to be asked, in a way. He taught that it created illusion and attachment to illusion. So that’s interesting.

But for me, those questions are fascinating and wonderful and awe-inspiring and exciting. So I in no way criticize them not being asked—because that serves a purpose—but for me, they are great questions.

So the most important relationship for me is with the Divine, which means also with gratitude and to try to create more humility and try to give more and try to realize that it is a very temporary journey here in the “Pete” story; even talking about it is humbling. What will one do that is of use to other people? It is not all about me; it is about service, in a certain way. (iii) But what that means is a whole other question.

***

Kim Linekin has contributed film reviews and interviews for NOW magazine and eye Weekly in Toronto, Fast Forward Weekly in Calgary, the Director's Guild of Canada magazine, and CBC national radio.

 

See Spirituality Interview Part II

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(i) In a lovely interview, Fr. Thomas Keating, a Christian Theologian of great repute, said: “[God is] infinitely transcendent and infinitely immanent. That is the extraordinary part: God couldn't be closer, closer even than consciousness. But the Christian articulation of that mystery is a little different from [that of] the East. The Christian would say you are not God, whereas the Vedic tradition says that you become God. I think we may be talking about the same experience of divine union, but our belief system requires us to say that you may be so united to God that you can't distinguish yourself from Him but that He nevertheless remains ontologically—that is, metaphysically—distinct. That theological disagreement could simply be the result of having an experience and trying to articulate the inexplicable according to your particular belief system.”

Actually, there is a distinction between two Indian paths, the impersonalist path and the personalist path, or distinctivist path. The oneness path is theologically different from Fr Keating’s view.

I would say the distinctivist path in the Vedas is very much in accord with Fr Keating’s description, but unfortunately barely known in the West.

The caveat is the Vedic view also indisputably includes the Female Divine, inseparable from the Male Divine (and still monotheistic). This also moves me—being a momma’s boy and all. Incidentally, a Muslim proverb says “God is as close as your jugular vein.” Which is both beautiful and somehow, in terms of conversion by the sword, a little off-putting.

(ii) The third definition of plurality in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, on-line, is: “3a) a theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality b) a theory that reality is composed of a plurality of entities.”

I can accept those two definitions in my pluralistic view, and I would add that in my plurality there are more than one or two paths to moksha or liberation, or even salvation, to use a Judeo-Christian or Islamic term—and even more than one place to go.

I believe in definition 4 as well: “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.”

The danger here is, I also believe in not causing harm, and certain lines of scripture in both the Old Testament and the Koran specifically say kill infidels (non-believers), or those who worship X, Y or Z, or specifically idols, which is not only a misnomer of the term, but a direct threat to Hindu tradition. Most progressive Muslims and Christians, of course, would probably not agree with this order, but some clearly do. It takes a lot of love to keep love in the lead.

(iii) Jeffrey Armstrong has a great line, “`I did it my way’ is the biggest illusion,”—which has just gotta piss off Frank Sinatra.

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copyright 2006 Pete McCormack