After reading my biography on this site a friend wrote asking me to tell them about my revelatory no-God experience following a car accident.
I replied and in doing so realized that I’d never told the full story in depth before. As it involves mysticism, expansion of consciousness and a delinquent nonbinary eight-year-old, I thought it might appeal to my readers. So here it is, as a narrative constructed more than thirty years after the event.
My revelatory no-God experience happened when I was fifteen. I’ll tell you about it to the best of my memory. The story is subject to the vicissitudes of passing time, but I will do my best to reconstruct it without embellishment. It was significant then and, in retrospect, the start of my interest in consciousness and maybe in meditation.
First, some back story: I was already an atheist when this happened. I hadn’t told anybody because I knew it would upset my parents and wouldn’t be received well at my school, which was a Woodard Anglo-Catholic church school. As a young child, I believed fervently in God because that’s what I was taught. Nonetheless, I was bored and disruptive in Sunday School to the point that I was expelled. The school asked my parents to find somewhere else for me to go. They sent me to confirmation school instead and I was confirmed when I was eight years old.
Confirmation is the ritual initiation by which Catholics receive an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It’s their first communion, through which the Spirit puts a special mark on the confirmee’s soul which can never be erased.
My confirmation was, therefore, a special occasion. My Godparents and other friends we regarded as family visited. My mother made food for everyone and served it in the best china dishes. There were cakes. There were presents, all God-related, naturally.
It didn’t go well. I was made to wear a fancy girl blouse and skirt, but I insisted on wearing my chunky black Clarks boys’ shoes as a compromise. Somehow I managed to get my mouth in the wrong place for the communion wine and it spilt all over my uncomfortable frilly white blouse. My mother wasn’t sure whether I’d done it on purpose. Neither was I. I threw up. When we got home I went to bed to be ill and the party happened without me.
My relationship with the Holy Spirit hadn’t gotten off to a swinging start. Somehow between the two of us, He missed. My frilly blouse was stained with the sacrament and my soul was unmarked. I was sincerely a believer though, I prayed and ‘felt the presence’ of God. I thought God was real. Somehow He was all-pervasive and also had a white beard and all that.
As a child, I read all the time. It was a way to avoid social contact. If I could sit with a book in the corner people wouldn’t bother me and I didn’t have to go through painful social rituals. I was excruciatingly shy. (I didn’t know this was due to Asperger’s syndrome until I was in my thirties, when understanding that made more sense of my childhood.) By the time I was twelve years old I was reading non-fiction and had got to existentialism. Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot was like a bolt from the blue. It became suddenly, irrevocably obvious that God was a comforting fantasy. I was shocked and there was nobody I could talk to about it at the time. God disappeared from my internal life. I knew he wasn’t real and never had been.
Fast forward a few years to the car crash. My girlfriend and I were going on holiday with my parents. Dad had gone on with my brother in our car. My friend was driving as a learner, my Mum in the front passenger seat and me in the back. The car was an old Morris minor, there was a blowout or something went wrong and it rolled over its front left wheel three times off the carriageway, landing upside down in a hedge. As the car rocked and turned upside, it was as though time suspended. The world went into slow motion. The first roll can only have taken seconds but the moment seemed to hang indefinitely. I remember the detail vividly: the concrete of the hard shoulder where the sky should be, a red car behind us, the grass of the verge. Silence. I was there for what felt like minutes before chaos hit. It felt like being thrown down a hill inside a tin can with a bunch of rocks.
My mother was badly injured with a punctured lung and broken ribs. I had a photo-like flash image of her being thrown through the window before I lost consciousness. I thought she was dead. It was awful.
I remember waking up from concussion in hospital, but that may be wrong. In any case, I was taken to hospital and at some point hours after the accident I was on my own, lying on a gurney. For the first time since I was twelve, I felt the presence of God. It’s difficult to describe this experience to someone who hasn’t had it. It’s as though you become aware of a kind of force in the atmosphere around you. It’s like you feel the presence of a being, it’s the sensation of another consciousness separate to your own, pervading the environment around you.
So I was lying there and God arrived and I was like, woaahhhh, God, what are you doing here? I don’t believe in you any more, you don’t exist! The moment I voiced that thought internally, God vanished. That was interesting in itself, but I was genuinely puzzled by having felt His Presence because I had already seen the light that he wasn’t real. So right there on the hospital bed, I conducted an experiment. I decided to see whether I could make God come and go by intentionally feeling his presence there, or not. It took a bit of practice, but I was able to do that by entering into and immersing myself in the state of mind that would believe and welcome his presence, then mentally stepping outside of that state of mind. This was the revelation: that I could intentionally, consciously move between radically different, apparently contradictory perceptual experiences. It may have helped that I was recently concussed. However, this new understanding of the capacity of my mind to intentionally direct conscious experience reinforced my atheist stance.
I didn’t start meditating until several years later. I hadn’t even heard about meditation as an available practice at the time. But I think that experience sparked my curiosity. My interest in cognition, perception and consciousness grew from there.