Interview with Paul Martin, author of Original Faith, on the Spiritual Journey
Thanks for all your comments on my Women’s Energy Body post, they were very helpful to me. Sorry I have been MIA on the blogosphere the last couple of weeks, some visitors have kept me occupied – first family (fun) then flu (not so fun, but not so bad either, compared to some.) And truthfully, between the holidays and some contemplation and reading I would like to get done, I will probably be a bit erratic online for the rest of this year.
But first, I want to bring you this interview with a favorite fellow blogger of mine, Paul Martin of Original Faith. Paul guest-posted earlier this year, and I finally was able to read his book, also entitled Original Faith, this summer (and reviewed it on Amazon recently.) After doing so, I wanted to speak with Paul in person, and did so by phone for this interview a couple of weeks ago. I was glad we got to speak, because his grace-filled presence came through so strongly. He has truly walked the walk, spiritually speaking, and I felt such a centering power and peace emanating from him as we talked.
This is moving in anyone, but considering that Paul has suffered from a debilitating, progressive, and undiagnosed disease for the last sixteen years, and at this point has extremely limited mobility, I found it even more profound. In a spiritual culture that I sometimes feel accentuates positivity and ‘getting the life we want’ over insight and love, it was wonderful to sense such a true awakening in someone for whom physical life has certainly not gone as planned.
After chatting a bit about the nature of the publishing business (which Paul also spoke about in a recent interview for Writers Inspired), we dove into the book’s content. Because I am so interested in personal experience, I focused a lot in this interview on this aspect of Paul’s book – you can get a fuller sense of the book’s content and his background from his blog and the Amazon reviews.
Paul, your own conscious spiritual quest was triggered by a profound and spontaneous mystic (my word!) experience that you had in your twenties. Prior to it, you had entered into a pretty deep depression – can you talk a bit about that?
Yes, I had gotten myself into a deep hole. I think there are several different types of depression, and in my own case it was really driven by the relentless scientific reading and studying I was doing – that the earth would inevitably explode into hydrogen and the like – and my perception of their being so much evil in the world. I was just deeply struck by the meaninglessness of life in that context. I think if my personal life had been happier perhaps it would not have hit me so strongly, but the combination over time really took me to the point where I think I would have committed suicide by age 30. I had lost touch with any kind of hope or faith. I think you can get to this place beyond any kind of meaning, and that’s where I had gotten myself.
As I say in my book, I don’t think anyone needs to go through an experience of despair like this. I hope this is clear, because I don’t want to romanticize it. In my case, despair was both psychological and existential, brought on by my unhappiness in my life and my questioning and line of thinking. And really, my mystic experience, as you called it, really saved me.
Did the despair never return? Was it instantly gone from that moment forward? Did it not return, even in the midst of what you have gone through with your illness?
The despair, the sense of meaninglessness, did go away. My world shifted completely that day. I don’t know why or how and I still look back in awe of it. In a way I have never experienced anything like it again. But I also haven’t needed to.
When my disease first surfaced, I did go through a natural progression of emotions about it, and there was grief and frustration. I was misdiagnosed at first, and to make a long story short was told I needed to exercise more, and pursued that vigorously, only to find it didn’t help. Then on my own I had to gradually figure out that I didn’t have what I had been told, and go through many more series of tests, all to no avail. All the while the disease was, and is, relentlessly progressive. At this point I literally appear to have something no one else on the planet has ever had!
But no, that kind of despair never came back. There was always this ground, this faith, that never left me from that day.
When you look back at the experience now, why do you think it occurred? Do you think in terms of grace?
I honestly don’t know. As I said, the spiritual process doesn’t unfold this way for everyone. But it does seem that for some, a bottoming-out type experience is the turning point. I once read an explanation in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience that does seem relevant. Basically, he said that in some of us the conscious and unconscious are so separate that things ‘builds up’ in the unconscious to a tremendous degree, and then explode to the surface in an experience such as this. The barrier is bigger, so to speak, so the breakthrough feels bigger too.
In your book, you call it a ‘conversion’ experience, so I want to know, a conversion to what? What do you consider yourself – do you consider yourself Christian?
You know, that is my background as a child, and I don’t mind if people think of me as Christian. Some of the language of the book is Christian, and I do use some Biblical quotes. But the quotes aren’t meant to be interpreted in just a Christian context. I don’t think I really think of myself as anything. I think of spirituality as outside religion. And I am glad more people are starting to see it that way too. I see spirituality as being a human thing. And at the level of doctrine there really is no way for the different religions to be resolved. So I am glad more people are focusing on the experiential aspect. To me, spirituality is experiential, not doctrinal.
Although this is not really a traditional self-help or how-to book, you do talk about spiritual practice, and some techniques that you at one point found helpful. Do you still engage in formal practice of any kind?
Well, physically I can no longer do many of the practices I describe in the book. I cannot formally sit for meditation, and even breathing exercises can be difficult. But it is interesting, gradually as the disease has progressed – and really I noticed it before this too – I have felt less of a need for it. I have not felt disconnected, so I have not felt the need to practice to feel connected. It is like a part of me is always there in meditation, and I move away from that less and less. It’s not that I’m ‘there’ all the time, but I do know it is always there for me to connect to.
The need for a certain kind of practice fell away. Integration of your experience occurred in the 15 years while you were writing the book, after your initial experience.
Yes, and this was where I was going in the end of the book, in the ‘Owning the Greater Claim’ chapter, which was actually very hard for me to communicate – the movement I felt from practicing to living in a world-centered, rather than self-minded, way.
I’m glad you went there, because a lot of spiritual material doesn’t these days. As we’ve sometimes discussed on your blog, it seems too often to stop at personal happiness. For me, you went beyond where a lot of books stop.
Yes, I know what you mean. I can’t read a lot of books anymore, but based on the blogs and things that I have read, there is a strong focus on happiness, and ridding yourself of negativity. And I do think that is useful. Happiness is great, of course! But I think there is a bit of hype, of overstatement, going on sometimes. Just look at the world. Bad things happen. There is nothing that will guarantee you nothing bad will ever happen to you. This is the first noble truth in Buddhism, right? ‘There is suffering’. And it’s not meant to be a depressing observation. It’s meant to convey that there is something beyond just getting rid of negativity, of relentlessly pursuing happiness.
In this way, my disease has really underscored this for me. Many of the things that brought me happiness I can no longer do. I actually haven’t been on the phone, before talking to you, in 2 weeks. I can’t go out in nature or exercise or any of that any longer, and I really don’t know how much longer I can blog. But underlying everything is this…greater peace, or peacefulness. This can be found regardless of circumstance. Happiness is great, but there is more. And you have to look beyond happiness for that.
Thank you so much Paul. I was wondering if you have any final thoughts you would want to leave the readers with? Really, what do you think the essential thing is that you would like everyone to know/contemplate in terms of their own journey here?
That a sense of trust in life or existence is part of being human, regardless of whether you connect it to religious or spiritual beliefs. Faith is unconditional, and becoming aware of this helps you to act on your love with greater purpose, passion, and dedication.
Paul and I will both be checking for comments when we can, so please do share your own thoughts or questions.