Towards The Great Mystery

While it may not be plausible or wise to ‘de-secularise’ society, there is a clear need for an earthbound sense of the sacred and a more inclusive, mycelial infrastructure for congregation. In times as fragile and fractured as these, faith in The Great Mystery may well be one of the only sound ways forward. Thich Nhat Hanh said, ‘the next Buddha may be a Sangha (community)’. Perhaps, and I hope, the new God will take note.

This essay was originally published on the author's Substack, accessible here.

As a child, I remember walking through the iron gates of the playground at my first school towards the church that sat beside it. Some fifty metres of graveyard lay between catacombs and hopscotch as we walked in a quiet line through ivy-covered tombstones towards the towering oak doorway of St Mary’s. We clasped oranges wrapped in red ribbon, studded with fruit pastilles on cocktail sticks, with a lit candle wedged into its centre. I had no idea what this meant; all I wanted to do was eat the fruit pastilles.

We would shuffle into pews while a clanging organ filled the cold hall with its sombre melody. The vicar would then talk about Christ from the pulpit. I always wanted to climb the winding stairs and stand in that dark and ornate thing. Just like I always wanted to know where the vicar went when he disappeared behind the little locked door at the far corner of the chancel. It was out of bounds, so of course, I was more interested in that. He said the orange represented the world, while the ribbon was Christ’s blood, the candy was God’s creation, and the candle was Jesus, its holy light blanketing the sugary Sputnik world cupped in our tiny hands.

I never believed the story presented to me by Christianity, even at an impressionable age. The Earth felt too soily and full of wriggling worms for me to think about what existed ‘up there’ when there was already so much going on down here. I was more concerned with mud pies and the adder that was rumoured to live in the brook that babbled alongside the playground.

Despite being schooled in a Church of England school, my background was largely secular. In my niche of the working class, we believed in flatscreen TV’s and honest labour. Religion was for crackpots and haughty stories were for those who had time for them. The Christingle procession was simply a formality I had to partake in as a poor kid lucky enough to be raised in a rural village.

Fast-forward to my early twenties. I had become a fully-fledged atheist. I excelled in scepticism while prostrating myself to Our Lord Meritocracy. I still believed in something, apparently. I thought Christianity, and all religion for that matter was a thing of the past. I lived according to the ‘Myth of Progress’, whereby tradition was synonymous with backwardness. Having accumulated more worldly experience, I came to associate religion with oppression, abuse and dogma. I wanted nothing to do with it. Besides, they didn’t offer candy to adults.

Fast-forward once more to my mid-twenties. I found myself in the merciless grip of an existential crisis. The unforgiving onset of adulthood had left me clutching at the meaning that had grounded me in my younger years, namely that which had come from unbounded creativity and a healthy sense of possibility. I languished in the corporate grind. My excitement about the future had all but vanished as my colleagues, probably just as lost as I was, hankered after Rolex’s and OTE’s.

Cue: psychedelics. Given my background, it was unlikely I would come to the mystical via a yoga studio and a matcha latte. I came to it instead through drugs. Gateway mysticism. Meaning came flooding back in. I knew something else was going on with reality that my candlewax-covered orange couldn’t explain. Psychedelics incinerated the fourth wall and led me through its smoking ruins back into what I perceived to be the real world. No bearded men perched on white clouds required. This was pure, unadulterated, pre-conceptual aliveness. The modicum of hope I had left in the wake of economic servitude mushroomed. My consciousness was no longer inside me, ricocheting endlessly around my skull. I was inside consciousness. Unfortunately, I had to return to the world of bullshit jobs, consumerism, and meritocracy, so while being catapulted into God’s backyard [1] was briefly enlightening, it was not altogether useful. I did, however, return laden with metaphors, which I later used to communicate (to myself, mostly) tales from the beyond.

Fast-forward, finally, to my late twenties. My scepticism towards Christianity remained. This time, however, it’s because I’m a nature buff. I discover eros, materiality, animality… and recall what I perceived to be the anti-ecological, anti-human, and anti-life metaphors at the root of Christianity. Namely, the body, sex, and pleasure are sinful. Besides, bodies are mere vessels. Heaven loyally awaits, so don’t worry about demolishing the planet because we’ll be alright in the end (if you’re not sinful, that is). Now, at 30, I no longer perceive Christianity this way. I have finally understood, at least in part, why people might need to believe.

I have believed in something all my life, even if that belief was atheism. I am no longer an atheist, but I’m not a theist either. And I’m not necessarily agnostic. So what am I? The theist/atheist paradigm proposes an oppositional framework that no longer serves a world increasing in complexity.

It is no wonder spirituality, in all its amorphousness, has become so popular. I’m no theologian, but I imagine it goes like this: religions can be spiritual. Spirituality, however, is not necessarily religious. Religion fabricates a container for spirituality, while spirituality says, ‘I cannot be contained’ (this will become more confusing yet relevant as you read on). Spirituality is the fascia, the twitching muscle fibres and blood flow to the skeleton of religion. It is the explicit embodiment- and sensation of spirit, of aliveness. Or, it could be that spirituality arises only by virtue of the containers and prompts offered by religion. I really don’t know, though I doubt that is true. It is easy to make grandiose statements.

‘Spiritual but not religious’ is the newly acceptable stance for secular-adjacent people. I used to resonate with that statement, but the kind of New Age spirituality I was involved in became dogmatic, shallow, exploitative, confused and commodified. It became a crusty, political religion of its own. So I walked away from that, too.

I never worshipped science or technology, but I did find meaning in their discoveries. As my experience of being alive became more consciously ecological, I began to appreciate the mysticism under the microscope, while at the same time acknowledging the pitfalls of partitioning the world and dissecting its parts. It was easy to believe in what science offered because, most of the time, it could ‘practise what it preached’, as it were. Yet science, too, became dogmatic, religious almost. As a way of using the past to predict the future, science (and its analogous modes of thinking), expressed the innate human desire to control… things, people, the world… reality itself.

Believing in God became believing in the truth, which is different from believing in truth. Ideology became the reigning power. By this point, it seemed that belief in both science and religion stemmed from two predominant desires: the desire for power (controlling reality) and the desire for security (averting the unknown).

It is clear now that this is not necessarily what belief, in its non-ideological form (if there is such a thing), is about. At least not all of it. Belief also seems to be a form of resisting the onslaught of the machine, that which castrates the vitality of life, deracinates the human soul from its mystical root, and diminishes all possibility of communing across the breach with an eternally out-of-reach other. As mentioned, belief may be a way of communicating tales from the beyond. Nevertheless, belief, more often than not, turns out to be belief in belief itself.

It is possible that what I’m really leaning towards is faith. In The Wisdom of Insecurity, mystic-entertainer Alan Watts writes the following:

Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would ‘lief’ or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.

When people ask me what I believe in now, I then tell them I have faith in The Great Mystery. The capitalisation is intentional. Some might think the lowercase great mystery evades conceptual capture by language, but it doesn’t, and so I feel I might as well yield to it and play the game with gusto. Again, some may say, ‘this is how religions work, you just have to yield to the illusion for it to materialise’. I agree, but only partly. The whole affair is full of contradictions, double-binds and paradoxes.

Case in point: after spending most of my youth trying to escape being boxed in by belief, I realised I was simply jumping from box to box, so I might as well pick a box I liked. And I like the box with The Great Mystery written on it. Crucially, however, the box is open, its frayed edges shifting and flapping. This box cannot be closed, taped down, or put into storage. When I pick it up, another one appears beneath it. When I tear it apart, another box blooms like a flower in the place where it had sat. When I burn it, I turn my back and find tens of thousands of boxes piled up behind me. I have faith in these boxes, literally, but it keeps spilling out. That’s the point.

Now, substitute the box metaphor for any other container you fancy. It could be a particularly concave petal, a carrier bag (HT Ursula Le Guin), a spoon, a womb, a palm, the hollow of a tree…

To complicate the matter further, The Great Mystery also permeates the space between the boxes. It transcends its own containment. It is also a story. Like all good stories, it is a mirror that demarcates its contents while simultaneously articulating some form of boundlessness. Something that, much like breathing, regresses, progresses and expresses at the same time.

Despite the box metaphor and the Christingle orange, I’m not sure a symbol or origin story is required to explain The Great Mystery. The root of ‘explain’ means ‘to make level’ or ‘flatten out’. Our world is craggy, perpendicular, and undulating at every level of perception. There is simply no explanation worthy or capable of ‘levelling out’ this delightful magnitude of complexity.

A mystery is only a mystery so long as it remains a mystery. The sooner you explain a mystery the sooner it ceases to be. If it is to be explained, then it is implicit in our simply being alive. For me, the presence of ‘god’ is writ large in the natural world. I do not mean to situate humans and culture and cities and iPhones outside of this. Just that, there is a difference, and that’s ok. If that difference is not material, provable, or rational, so be it. I can feel that there is a difference deep in my bones. Is it a bias? Is it an ideology? I don’t think so. That difference does not disqualify its opposite. It does not stop humans ‘being’ nature. It is a point of view I have consciously chosen, knowing full well it’s just that: a point of view. As for blindspots, much like mystery, they only remain blindspots so long as they are blind. I know I have them, but I don’t know what they are. ‘Thinking outside of the box’ requires there to be a box to think outside of. I like to think outside of the box. I therefore collect boxes. It is possible you may not understand what I just said. I don’t either. Like most of us, I’m figuring it out as I go along.

If you want to know what The Great Mystery feels like to me, look at this guy. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s say he realises that escaping reality requires a reality to escape from. There is a sense, especially in my experience, through both psychedelics and immersion in nature, that there is a ‘realer than real’ layer of aliveness brimming just beneath the surface. Here, Chris McCandless dives in.

Faith in The Great Mystery allows us to wade through this layer with our heads above water. It is not always necessary to know what lies beyond, or beneath. Faith in The Great Mystery affords us the grace and humility to not know. There are no doctrines, scriptures or rites. No one is telling you what is from on high. If anything, your feet are telling you, loud and clear, from below.

The Great Mystery is beyond belief. When someone says something is ‘beyond belief’, they mean it is ‘too extraordinary to be believed’. Besides, do we need to believe in stories for them to work their magic on us? Can we not simply have faith in their intentions?

The secularisation of the West has resulted in the loss of something deeply significant. Society is now the most atomised it’s ever been. The Algorithm parts the people like the Red Sea as polarisation intensifies its chokehold, while tech ‘gurus’ and celebrities reach their apotheosis. We live in a plasticised world where belief is siphoned into abstractions, products, and individuals. The Market has become the messiah.

We never stopped believing, we just stopped believing in the things which made life, well, alive. While it may not be plausible or wise to ‘de-secularise’ society, there is a clear need for an earthbound sense of the sacred and a more inclusive, mycelial infrastructure for congregation. In times as fragile and fractured as these, faith in The Great Mystery may well be one of the only sound ways forward. Thich Nhat Hanh said, ‘the next Buddha may be a Sangha (community)’. Perhaps, and I hope, the new God will take note. [2]


1: Some spiritual traditions will slap me on the wrist for seemingly ignoring the fact that all of creation is God’s backyard, including the gnarly bits. I make this distinction because, while absolute reality surely exists at this very moment, I also exist in relative reality at the same time, and for many reasons, my relative experience is more demanding. As such, these musings primarily reflect my relative experience. I realised much later in life that ‘The Fourth Wall’ I refer to needs to remain intact in the same instance it is toppled in order to live a life that is both relatively functional and grounded, and deeply mystical and dream-bound. Therein lies the crux.

2: Starting Feb 13, I’m hosting a multi-teacher online course called Contemporary Spirituality: Meaning and Mysticism in the Modern Age, for the transformative learning platform, advaya. We’ll be discussing many of the themes raised here and more.

*Header image courtesy of the author via her documentary, Islandness


Hannah Close

Hannah is a writer, photographer, curator and researcher exploring philosophy, ecology, culture and being alive in a world of relations.

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