GOD: Part 1. The Pretend Experiment

Whether you believe in ‘God’ or not, spending time thinking about him (I’m using the masculine because it works for me, not because I believe ‘God’ to be necessarily male) is good for you.  Official.   Funny that.

According to the latest academic studies of literally hundreds of neuroscientists worldwide and summarised in Dr Andrew Newberg’s latest book “How God Changes your Brain” you don’t need to believe in a Supreme Being, God, Jehovah, Allah, or some other divinity, for thinking about him to be beneficial.

Dr Newberg from the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues make a very strong case. Enjoy the read!  The truth seems to be that, neurologically, ‘God’ may be one of the most powerful words a person ever encounters, and that once the concept is in your head it won’t go away.

Personally, I’m delighted to be a ‘believer’. It works for me. I don’t put that into the same category as believing in Father Christmas – though in our house believing in FC is definitely beneficial on Christmas morning – or believing in Mother Nature, whoever she might be. It’s just that if I dig deep into my mind, heart, thinking, and soul, I can’t hand-on-heart, bring myself to say with any conviction that a single Supreme Being doesn’t exist. Reason? I think he does, and if he does, I want to be on his side and have him on mine. I hope you follow the logic.  However there are one or two conditions attached for such contemplations to be beneficial and not damaging.

The aforesaid God needs to be perceived as benevolent. No problem there, mine is.  Stick your head in Dr Newberg’s fMRI scanner and you’ll notice that contemplation of a God who is authoritarian, dictatorial, malevolent, vindictive, violent, critical, fearful, distant, angry or focuses on our wrongdoing (sin?) – any seriously negative thoughts in fact – will start to physically damage your actual brain within 20 seconds or so. I think the God I believe in would be very sad for me to do that to myself, wouldn’t he? So I like to avoid doing it; 19 seconds and no more. Only a benevolent God is good for you, not a fearsome one. That makes sense to me.

Another condition seem to be to believe that God is close. Many people perceive God as ‘out there’, separate and remote, an impersonal Force stirring up the stars.  But for us to properly benefit from contemplating this benevolent God we also need to perceive him as ‘in here’ – close, personal, even intimate. Today many people are perceiving God as a ‘living spirit in every human being’. Others may express their perceptions as a loving caring knowing Presence in and around them, wherever they are, whatever is happening to them.  From my teenage years, God has seemed close. Most of the time anyway!

So what happens if you honestly don’t believe God is real? Amazingly, you do not need to believe in the reality of a benevolent close God for God to be good for your brain. The evidence seems to indicate that just pretending (yes, pretending!) that this God – benevolent and ‘in here’ as well as ‘out there’ – is real, and living in that pretence on a daily basis for six or eight weeks, will change your brain structure in your favour. It seems you’ll be happier, more relaxed, think more clearly and your brain will become more integrated and function better … just pretending God is close and on your side each day! Who knows, you may want to continue the experiment if it turns out really good, or maybe refine it.

OK, so I don’t need to pretend because I am a believer. You might not be right now, and may need to pretend to get the benefits.

I know it’s very subjective and not very scientific, but do me a favour and let me know what happens. Newberg reckons you need to meditate, for twenty minutes a day for six to eight weeks, on this God who you imagine to be both benevolent and close.

Hmmm. Sounds like the Kind Stranger to me.

The Kind Stranger Chapter 5: Before the beginning

The English Channel, Sept 2010

Yes, I know.  “Before the beginning” doesn’t make sense, does it, but the truth seems to be that the Kind Stranger knew me long before the beginning of our friendship. When I met him on that first day, he was completely new to me. Yet I could somehow detect that I wasn’t new to him.  He knew more than he would let on. Now I’ve learned to trust him, I’ve got over my initial suspicions about it all and relaxed.  It took a little while though.

However far back I choose to remember, now I know him better I can detect the shadow of his presence almost wherever I look. Everywhere.  On the day I was born, as I think back, he was there, his shadow all but invisible to the inattentive, imperceptive eye.

Before the beginning. Now I know the Kind Stranger was there, I’m reassured.  That means that all through those early school years, through my teenage experiences, school changes and family up and downs, he was there. During those relationship traumas, the sweet and embarrassing coming-of-age moments, the learning about myself and the opposite sex, that time of discovery of my own emotions of early love, that first kiss, he was the tender observer. I suppose it could seem almost voyeuristic, but that would profoundly miss the point. This was no shallow invasion of personal teenage privacy. This was the Kind Stranger doing what he does best: utterly caring for me. He allowed me to discover life in my way and in my time, tenderly protecting from the worst, yet letting me feel the pain necessary for me to learn the more important lessons thoroughly. Then I didn’t realise he was watching.  Now I’m glad he was. Then I might have wondered why he let it happen that way. Now I don’t need to question. Of all the people in the world, he is the one person from whom I have no wish – nor need – to hide.

Before the beginning. Could it be that he knew me before anyone else – even before my own mother? Could it be that from the moment I was conceived I was somehow known to him?  Before then? How impossible! Ridiculous!

But what if it was true? Let me think about that for a moment.  I met him on the street. He had arranged that meeting. He had chosen to make that the moment in history when we consciously met in time and space. Knowing the Kind Stranger as I do now, I’m confident that it was no arbitrary moment. He planned it! I needed to NOT know him for those earlier years. He knew my life would be better if that first encounter was exactly then. Not a moment too soon. Not a moment too late.  Perfect.

Perfect. How can I argue with that – apart from somehow setting myself up to pretend I know better than him – and we both know I don’t. And remember it seems he is not limited by my expectation that he should be physically visible to me – or audibly heard. Or tangibly touched. No. He is the benign master here.  He is the one who invites me to trust him for that too, and I do. He knows the what, the how, the when and the where. So there is no need to ask such an unanswerable question as why. Thankfully. It will save me hours of wondering. I don’t need to ask why.

Before the beginning. it’s patently impossible for someone as human as me to comprehend that. Before the beginning is more than a lifetime away. It’s outside time where there are beginnings and, inevitably, endings. If it is true he was around before the beginning, it  may also reveal that there is an ‘after the ending’.

I’ll need to think about that.

My Drivetech Speed Awareness Course Horror

Yes, I got caught: 72 miles per hour on a deserted dual carriageway at a quarter to eight on a Sunday morning(!) in September with the sun pouring down and visibility perfection itself.  Deserted except for the mobile camera trap on the opposite carriageway. Unfortunately I was looking at the road ahead on my side of the dual carriageway. My error.

So it was a fair cop … ish.  I was exceeding the speed limit, and as I wasn’t exceeding it by much, Surrey Safety Camera Partnership (I won’t give you the web link to this. It uses such violent images and emotional blackmail that it borders on the obscene. I don’t want it associated with this blog)  in deep discussion with Surrey Police (they like to have the public on their side) decided that this errant non-conformist might benefit from a Driver Speed Awareness course run by Drivetech (UK) Ltd.  I attended it last week, and here is my report. It’s very long and doesn’t make easy reading.

Sad

I wandered into Guildford Spectrum Leisure Centre (the venue for the course) well before the allotted time to join a gathering throng of 19 naughty boys and girls aged 20 to 70.  It SO reminded me of naughty children in school lining up outside the head’s study, I couldn’t help but chuckle, till I realised how sad this actually was: they appeared appropriately cowed and penitent, standing against the walls on either side of the entrance, playing with their phones, looking down, hiding behind their hair, avoiding eye contact, alone. Not good, I thought. All they’ve done is get caught for a mild infringement (by the Partnership’s own admission) of the speeding laws in this compliance-obsessed country. That’s all. Unfortunately for me, as I was about to find out later, if I’d appeared a bit more cowed and penitent it might have gone better for me.

No, this is NOT a right hand bend warning apparently.

I cracked a joke in these straitened circumstances (it went down like a lead balloon) to try and lighten the atmosphere, and chatted to the man next to me. How long have you been driving?  47 years, he whispered. Ever injured anyone?  No. Ever had an accident? No. Then what on earth is he doing here, I wondered. We smiled at each other, curious as to what might lie ahead. We waited and waited, and eventually the Course Director and his ardent trainer arrived.  Late.

The first three minutes

I was the last one to enter the room and the only chair I would fit into in this too-small crowded room was on the far side of the room. All the other classroom seats were taken. I sat down, and with passport checked, (no, really!) signed myself off on the clipboard.  I was ready and waiting expectantly. What happened next shook me. The trainer walked across the room straight at me, shoved a marker pen within inches of my face and told me to write the speed I had been caught doing on the whiteboard at the front for all to see. I was shocked to say the least and gently explained that I wouldn’t be doing that. The Course Director strode across to ‘speak’ to me, demanding that I show him my papers where it says quite clearly that I must fully participate in order to pass the training. But there was no pass or fail, I’d been told. Ah, yes, but I would not be signed off as having successfully attended the course unless I participated fully. “Satisfactory completion of the course shall be determined at the absolute and sole discretion of the trainer.” It occurred to me that he had absolute power and knew it. I dared to question his power. Now if he decided he didn’t like me, I was dead.

We were less than 3 minutes into the four hour programme and I was already in trouble. I explained that I was here to learn… “Oh no you’re not, sir” he said.  “You’re here to avoid three points on your licence. You’re on the wrong course.  This course isn’t for you, this is for people who will participate fully and you’re not doing that. I think you need to leave.”  I was gob-smacked and felt intimidated.

“But I’ve only been here three minutes and I’ve come to learn all I can.”  “No you’re not.” It took me all my skills and about another five minutes to convince him. (Reason was in short supply.) By that time I had been accused of lying, maligned, embarrassed, verbally abused and bullied by the finest of them. I don’t know what everyone else in the room thought, but I was shaking and appalled. I had come to learn and was being bullied. I suddenly felt for all the school children in our country who don’t quite fit the system so experience every day what I was only experiencing for a few minutes.  It was awful. I knew there was no way I was not going to submit to such disgraceful unprofessional behaviour. However, he ‘let’ me stay (how kind) nodded conspiratorially to the trainer and left the room returning only to feed the trainer with pots of take-out Costa coffee.

Just a little pic to show you where I was the week before - an relaxing empty road across the sierras of northern Spain.

Corrective education

Not the best start, and in some ways I wished I hadn’t stayed. I may not have been in a state to be able to make a rational and objective assessment of the rest of the four hours, but all I can say is it damaged me, reinforcing all the stereotypes of ‘corrective education’ and made a mockery of the idea bandied about on the website promoting it.  I later thought how ironic that the Speed Awareness Scheme is abbreviated to SAS. It felt like an SAS political re-education programme.  After an unendurable amount of time of watching people being ridiculed, put down, and forced to participate in this correction-centre charade, I looked at my watch only to experience another minor shock.  We weren’t even half way through. It was going to be a long afternoon.

Let’s get this in perspective. I was the worst speeding offender in the group, exceeding the limit by 12 miles per hour, 72 in a 60 limit. These people did not deserve to be punished in this way. Some of them had been caught doing just 33 in a 30 limit, yet the threat of being “sent back to the Court” (quoted several times) was used to full effect by the power-mad trainer. He had an agenda, and a list of ‘right’ answers that even the brightest and best of us in the room were unable to fathom.  Let me illustrate.

Guess!

What do you think the sign in the picture above means?  “It’s indicates a right hand bend ahead,” said the first person.  “NO.” postured the trainer, waddling up and down like a cartoon character. Having that option out of the way he turned to the next person in line, obviously looking forward to catching them out and displaying how absolutely clever he was. “It’s a warning sign,” she said timidly. “NO.” he smugly replied again. Louder this time. Gotcha. That was her sorted. Now on to the next innocent victim…  What on earth am I going to come up with, I thought as I realised that the first two answers might have been the ones in the Highway Code, but they obviously weren’t on his list. I worked out there were 14 more wrong answers to go before he got to me. I started to create some entertaining possibilities for when it was my turn, but clearly I’d be regarded as non-cooperative and ‘returned to the Court” if I’d dared to voice them.  And that was just the right hand bend sign. Intrigued, I started to count open and closed questions, and how many times he said ‘No’ to a trying-to-be-helpful volunteer. It went on and on.

Unintended outcomes

I could go on too, but instead I’ve put the rest in my letter of complaint. I’ll let you know the result. Such behaviour cannot be ignored by reasonable citizens. We have to protest at this kind of outrageous treatment for minor infringements of ridiculous laws.  For me it convinced me that this speeding business isn’t about safety at all, but about power and money and conformity. I paid £73 and a day of my time to be bullied by two people who, regardless of their intentions, modelled how to be dogmatic, arrogant, rude, and abusive. And how to misuse power. (Copied from their masters?  I hope not.) All in the name of Surrey Police and the Surrey Safety Camera Partnership. I was so distracted and disturbed by what I experienced during that afternoon my driving was absolutely terrible on the way home and remained that way for the next few days. I had been shaken and traumatised, I was angry at the injustice and didn’t sleep more than two hours that night. The sad thing is, with a different underlying ethos to the programme it could have been so different, with those people keen to learn. Fortunately I’ve been able to coach myself through it to a safer (literally) place, but what about the people who don’t have that skill?

The truth is, I did learn a lot last Wednesday at the Spectrum in Guildford. Most of it I only wish I hadn’t.

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