God, NLP, and The Big Questions…

Yesterday morning on BBC’s The Big Questions, one atheist guest, Jonny Scaramanga, spoke about his charismatic evangelical upbringing, and how as an adolescent he would feel euphoric during times of worship – transported in a way he ascribed at the time to the work of the Holy Spirit. Later on, he made the unsettling discovery that he could experience exactly the same emotions listening to secular music. So it had all been down to the music and not God at all, he reasoned, and, disillusioned, his faith swiftly unraveled.

I believe Christians everywhere who have dipped their toes into unfamiliar aspects of either secular culture or different faith/spiritual cultures will have had similar experiences. Those who read or watched the film of Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love’ will probably recall Elizabeth’s irritated struggle in an Ashram with a painful Hindu liturgy that seemed interminable and discordant – until the night she tried it once again, this time with a heartfelt focus on her young nephew’s sleeping/nightmare issues. It is as though she wrestles with God through the medium of the liturgy and then finally breaks through – when in apparent confirmation of the outcome of her spiritual battle, she learns that her nephew has had a breakthrough of his own with a peaceful, unbroken night’s sleep. So does Elizabeth’s experience validate Hinduism, invalidate Christianity, is this all a coincidence… or is something else going on?

Talking of Hinduism, I know one person who was very impacted by the ‘Toronto Blessing’, and like many others, would fall to the floor jerking wildly whenever he was prayed for. Wow, this had to be God. Then he learned from a Hindu colleague that worshippers experienced exactly the same manifestations within his own religion. Did that nullify my friend’s experience? He certainly thought so, and like Jonny, he too began to lose his faith from that point.

I remember being unnerved myself as I began to attend NLP-based (Neuro-Linguistic Programming – the study of the structure of human experience) conferences when I first trained as a coach. At times, these actually looked and felt uncannily like church, complete with encouragement to connect spiritually, times of corporate release of forgiveness (that were actually more radical than anything I had encountered in church), values that included the belief that identity is to be found in contribution to the world, and so on. One particular session resembled the aftermath of a Toronto church gathering, with groups of giggly shiny-eyed people hugging one another and generally engaging in a huge corporate love-fest. They had just spent a session re-connecting spiritually and by all accounts it had worked.

It was an unnerving period. I would experience times of being in church that were interpreted as the Holy Spirit showing up. Then I would find myself in an NLP group situation that felt very similar, yet which I knew had been engineered through language and other sensory anchors. I began to understand the incredible power of language, and the part this plays in creating our experience of reality. And I began to wonder…

I examined the church situation more closely and realized that those very anchors I had learned about were firmly in place there, too. So here was a dilemma. Did that mean that my experience of God had actually been about the use of language, music and other natural tools all along? It was one of the most challenging times of my life…

Finally, I realised that there was a third option. That God was far bigger than I had conceived him to be, and was actually being accessed and experienced by people everywhere. He was there, present, in the language, in music, in the hearts of those of different faiths and spiritualities (and none). The one thing I couldn’t hold on to any longer was the illusion that God was only to be found within the confines of the Christian church – let alone the narrower confines of the charismatic evangelical church.

On the final day of my NLP Practitioner course, students were asked to write and read aloud a passage using what is known as the ‘Milton Model’ – conscious use of language in order to produce a desired effect. I decided to write about – and recreate for the audience – the very similar experiences I had had in a church situation and in an NLP conference, mentioning the different labels that the speakers in these 2 situations had used to describe what had happened. I brought the piece in to land with a final Miltonian-crafted suggestion:

‘And it may be that as I relate these experiences to you that you find yourself wondering – was there anything transcendent at all about the first experience? Or did the second event show that in reality the Milton model has far more to do with changing your experience – that this is actually one of the incredible uses, joys and delights of his language approach. Or it could be that the extraordinary power of mere words to effect change, itself suggests that there are hidden depths to the universe – couldn’t it?’

Interestingly, numerous students and trainers approached me excitedly after this piece to confide that I exactly articulated their own experience, too. Using the Milton Model had given them a new awareness of a deeply spiritual dimension to the world, one that a number of them were now consciously pursuing.

‘Almost all religion’ explains Richard Rohr, ‘begins with a specific encounter with something that feels “holy” or transcendent: a place, an emotion, an image, music, a liturgy, an idea that suddenly gives you access to God’s Bigger World. The false leap of logic is that other places, images, liturgies, scriptures, or ideas can not give you access.’ And, by extension, that any other apparent means of access has by definition to be false – and also to cast aspersions on the validity of the original ‘holy’ encounter…

Personally, I finally gave up on drawing boundary lines for God and graciously permitted people to access him wherever she was to be found. After all, whether we listen to secular or Christian bands, go through times of spiritual wrestling in a variety of faith traditions, believe ourselves to be moved by the creative power of language or by the direct power of God himself, the bigger truth has to be that there is actually nowhere that God isn’t, ‘for in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17 v 28).

‘What has God ever done for us?’ A helpful tool…

Richard Rohr’s ‘Falling Upward’ is an enlightening, encouraging read for anyone going through a spiritual transition. Rohr explains the process as moving from first to second-half of life spirituality – the first half being the period in which we live with the illusion of certainty and control, and the second where issues such as tragedy, failure, hurt and other challenges nudge us towards a deeper, more complex, more authentic take on spiritual things.

Second-half of life spirituality is likely to mess with everything we thought we knew. Faced with the kind of complexities that never came up in our church teachings, we can find ourselves wandering the wilderness, uncertain if our faith is evolving or just unraveling.

At these times, it may even be tempting to ditch our beliefs wholesale rather than to calmly sort through what we actually have left. But the likelihood is that we’re on the journey because of our commitment to reality… and knee-jerk reactions can leave us in unreality still – just a different version.

So how to make sure during the tough times that you let go only of the things that need discarding, and stay true to yourself ? In my life-coaching work, I have noticed some NLP (or neuro-linguistic programming) strategies come into their own as spiritual transitioning tools; in particular, the NLP approach to cutting through negative ‘limiting beliefs’ to a more accurate picture of where you are really at, can be eye-opening.

Intentionally applying just 3 simple questions to a ‘limiting belief’, or knee-jerk reaction, quickly reveals any contrary evidence buried deep within our sub-conscious. To restore these to your conscious mind and enable you to come up with a more accurate belief statement, just take the time to reflect…

* What am I deleting in order to believe this?

* What am I distorting?

* How far am I generalizing?

I remember confronting my own deep disappointment that, despite all the promised ‘breakthroughs’ over the years, I had never seen any real evidence that God healed. So what was the point of prayer? Consciously stepping back to think through these questions opened the door to some surprising memories….

In fact, there were probably enough of them to fill a whole chapter – maybe even (passing over the disappointing bits) a bestseller: ‘God Still Heals Today!’ Starting from the time that my mum caught sight of my young son’s hands covered in warts, and prayerfully told them to take a running jump – or words to that effect. They began to shrivel from that moment, and in a few days Jay was completely wart-free. Later, my husband did the same with one of our girls, whose own crop of warts didn’t hang around to be told twice.

Fast-forwarding, there was my more recent overwhelming urge to tell a young girl that I sensed she had been praying for something she thought was too big even for God – but that he really was going to answer that prayer. She beamed. Brilliant. Then I discovered that her father had terminal pancreatic cancer – she had been praying desperately for his healing, but told me she now felt peaceful because she knew he would be ok!  The cancer spread and chemotherapy was stopped. Then a blood clot was found, and he was scanned following treatment to disperse it: no trace of the clot – and hang on, no trace of the cancer, either! Her father remains fit and well to this day. Just like the young mum I know whose breast cancer had returned, and who told me she felt something shift as she was prayed for. Her next scan confirmed that she was cancer-free…

I could go on. So many instances of people I know personally whose healing stories, great and small, I had completely erased from my conscious memory. True, there had been no shortage of disappointments, but I had distorted the overall picture by choosing to foreground them. I had generalized… ‘we never see any real healings’, rather than tested my statement with an incisive question along the lines of ‘never… not even one…?’

We long for certainty and control in our lives. And if God doesn’t always jump when we say, it may seem preferable to dispense with him altogether, settling instead for the relative sense of control that his non-existence gives us.

Because if God answers prayer here and there but can’t be relied upon to do that to order, then we’re left with paradox… having to hold the uncomfortable tension between our relationship with him and the humbling knowledge that, despite the claims of some TV evangelists, there still remain dark times and deep questions. Yet it’s exactly here, Rohr argues – allowing the pain of unresolved issues to deepen rather than threaten our relationship with God – that we begin to experience true second-half-of-life spirituality.

Over the last few years I’ve learned to make friends with paradox; in fact, I’ve experienced some absolute paradox humdingers.  My spiritual life has given up on order and predictability and is the messiest it has ever been. Happily for me though, it is also quite definitely the most real…