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Religion & Spirituality

Posted Feb 19 2009 6:08pm
This Holy Moment
It’s taken an entire life’s practice, much pain and causing of pain throughout. These are the experiences that have stripped me of my pretenses and my self-sabotages. I have gotten in greater touch with the real person who is myself behind the shaming voices of my parents, the culture, and my peers who I see are often as lost as I felt for many years. I would like to be here with you in this recorded moment of writing to honor that in yourself also. Choosing to be here at this precious moment is what is important for me now. At this point in my development, it’s still important for me to share my past as a tool to understand my present. I hope you will join me, here and now.

Scared of Religion
As a 2 year-old child, I was baptized Catholic, and we went often to a Southern Baptist Church; YES, they are as loud as they are reputed to be. When I was two years old- and I think this is my earliest memory- I got scared in a Southern Baptist Church by a man standing up and shouting at the top of his lungs- PRAISE JESUS!!

We lived in a house near a row of Churches in that part of town- maybe a mile or so away. They even had a Campus Life building there at one time, and a man-made pond we used to swim in. Me and my best friend Billy did everything together in that circular neighborhood. I learned to climb trees (and jump off the top of our house), throw a Frisbee, and ride a bicycle at this house. All the houses had a 10 foot grass border around them so you could go anywhere using that, as a kid.

What is amazing is that I still remember the address quite clearly, even though I lived there only the first 3-4 years of my life:
my first house

So, we were about a mile away from this house, and I got frightened by this man screaming, so I went home.

Unbeknownst to me, this left the entire congregation looking for me for some hours! According to my mom, they looked for me for quite a long time, and she finally went home to find me there petting the dog, much to her relief. I apparently had no time for her concern.

She says that I apparently looked up at her, serious as anything, and said “Never take me back there.”

It’s very interesting to me that I am so interested in spiritual life and religion as we all feel it was meant to be. I am greatly saddened by the power and control games played by those who are entrusted with our spiritual guidance. At this point in the history of man, it’s unclear which has caused more sadness in the world- religion or political dictators of various sorts.

True Religion is about freedom. This is the religion of Swami Sivananda- “I am a true Hindu, a true Sikh, a true Christian, a true Parsee....”

This freedom is won through a cessation of the modifications of the mind, not through repetitions of dogma nor beliefs of various kinds, even though I have them too ingrained in my mind from years in Western culture.

Understanding Ourselves Through Astronomy
It seems clear enough, from factual evidence that much of what we base our religions on is based in seasons, timekeeping, astronomy and eventually astrology. Various political movements, of which Christianity is most popular in the West at the moment, have co-opted the festivals of the pagan religions at the time, and this allowed the acceptance of Catholicism in the Mediterranean countries in power at the time.

Even the story of Jesus has been created from astronomical stories, which are almost universal in nature. In this, the evidence is overwhelming: the birthdate that falls during previously mentioned festivities (aka Winter Solstice), and ‘the three wise men’ (aka the belt of Orion)
and the ‘story’ of the cross (aka: The Northern Cross)

and other such evidence that finds this mythology (derived from astronomy and subsequently astrology) to be almost identical throughout specifically Northern Hemisphere cultures, regardless of origin or influence from outside cultures- Krishna, etc. all have similar birth stories, reincarnation, etc. For a lot of information about the cultural stories about this, just look on the internet. This information is everywhere, like here and here, for example, in far more detail than I could go into here. Many qualified people comment and, I think correctly, rationally examine these questions.

Many myth-busting websites and go into this, and some of the carry on with compelling conspiracy theories of various kinds, and certainly many large and bad things have happened for many, many years under the name of religion. I am not so sure we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and abandon the extraordinary aspects of mystical traditions that are founded on direct experience, rather than any external reflection of stars on our minds or what have you.

Contrarian Religion
However, this is not MY conception of religion, nor is it the context upon which anything on this site would comment. Those with triggers around religion- either for it or against it, will find in these words a decidedly contrarian version of religious life. Religion suffers in the popular conception- as does it’s collary aspects:
  • the value of monastic life
  • the quality of monastic devotees (both current and former)
  • the mentality of monastic devotees (both current and former)
  • the relevance of monastic devotees (their perspective is dated)

It is my perspective that any root level spiritual experience MUST be carried on the living backs of monks of every faith and creed, regardless of the factual basis of their beliefs- be it in Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, or Krishna- or less popular or widespread beliefs.

I believe this way because I believe in mystical traditions that put discipline into turning one’s energy INWARD. This is key. No star or planet can inform one’s mind about the freedom needed for real spiritual progress without turning one’s energy inward. In this discipline, we discover our own freedom. Religion serves us mainly to give us tools to understand the divine in others and therefore ourselves- in our own unique way and to help us turn inward.

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise men of old. Seek what they sought.” - Matsuo Munefusa (”Basho”)
"No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind."
— Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet)

Again and again we are cautioned in this regard, and yet we are lulled by religiosity and righteousness of those who would control us.

Spirituality and religion are meant to teach us one thing:
How To Control Ourselves.

The Four Paths
There are four fundamental paths to work within, one leading to the other:
  1. Karma (Action)- Selfless Service
  2. Bhakti- Devotion
  3. Raja- Meditation
  4. Jnana- Knowledge

Mystic traditions include (and often emphasize) the third and fourth, while often most Western traditions do not, with some minor populations inside the Jewish faith that embrace meditation and mysticism. Notice how we remove in Western culture anything but the pragmatic aspects of the third, however, and turn asanas into mere exercise.

The Unknown Third Level: Meditation
Notably, I have observed the common religious experience among Westerners to be mostly of the first and second aspects, and mostly the next stages are denied, or suppressed in their expression. These first two aspects are often coupled with a judgmental attitude toward someone who cannot embrace selfless service or the prioritization of God over one’s self.

These selfless and devoted attitudes are important, yet one must have tools to overcome the mind’s conditioned insistence on left-brained factual aspects to be able to get to it. Mental silence IS the right brain.

Meditation and it’s precedents- yoga asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), pratjahara (withdrawal of the senses), and dharana (concentration), can all give this feeling of connected-ness that is more vast than can be explained in words. It is in this unknown (by most) experience that we find out why true religion and it’s traditions points us to this direction.

This is often experienced as a deep pain and aversion toward ANYTHING religious or even too formal or rigid. Again the pervasiveness of media greatly contributes to this, as you can read in Neil Postman’s work: Teaching as a Conserving Activity.

Christianity in particular seems to place a huge emphasis on “I am nothing, Jesus is everything” and “not my will but thy will, My Lord...” attitudes in their devotees. This emphasis can lead to a system of control easily. If one just does actions in service, one’s service can be taken for granted or misused- like in the case of the military, where enormous discipline is applied to turn one into a tool for killing when ordered to do so.

Far from being subordinate attitudes, these second level attitudes are in fact, the easiest way to reach God-understanding in this age we live in. There is not a lot of thinking involved. Consider the case of Brother Lawrence, for example. Yet, over-emphasize it, or speak to a person without a devotional mindset and we have a recipe for someone to leave religion entirely because of the enormous psychic pressure applied.

Speaking for myself, I didn’t have an easy time (as you can tell from my example of my 2 year old mind’s response!) with the Devotion aspect. Those I teach spirituality to often have a similar problem embracing that type of experience. It take a real humility to accomplish, so one must serve selflessly first to begin to shrink the influence of the ego.

Once I found the third level- path of meditation- I knew it was much more appropriate for me, and it gave me enough tools to manage my emotional chaos so I could clearly see my way to serve and be devoted in a way I hadn’t grasped previously.

Of course, there are negative or dark aspects to all four paths, and one must be cautious not to ‘go to the dark side’ with them. Still, if one can train the body and the mind- in the third level- many other benefits that you may have skipped in a reluctance to embrace the first two can begin to reveal aspects of the mind previously hidden to you.

Since many of us by default and cultural misunderstanding find ourselves in the third level by doing physical asanas, it’s important to grasp what context this is in. Raja yoga is the royal road to liberation from the cycle of birth and death- I encourage you- do not bandy this kingly science about lightly or use these skills for trivial ends or selfish means. Religion is designed to provide a context, and a spiritual teacher’s main job is provide context.


The Misunderstood Fourth Level:

From the dictionary:
1. The state or fact of knowing.
2. Familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study.
3. The sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned.
4. Learning; erudition: teachers of great knowledge.
5. Specific information about something.

In Yoga, one is more specific about what one ‘knows’ than in a dictionary. It is expected that one deduces from one’s own experience answers to life’s questions. In yoga, however, knowledge also comes from the study of scriptures and applying what you learn to your life. ONLY then does the experience transform you, and only then can knowledge be truly transmitted. It’s the energy behind your decisions, thoughts, actions and words that is transmitted to people.

1. The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.
2. The circumstances in which an event occurs; a setting.

Many in modern life make a mistake to take merely the words of a person- and, thanks to pervasive media influence- often out of context. Anything taken out of context divides us from each other and from ourselves.

Contextualization is the very heart of knowing itself. Only the energy of putting things in context and perspective can transmit learning to someone else. Hardly ever do we talk about teaching and learning as a method of bracketing experience into a context. In this way, if things are taken out of context for a long time, then it becomes merely book knowledge. Often people with a great grasp of the context of things write books that do not impart this kind of knowing unto others, and as a result, their subject is dry and tasteless. Life is not like that- it’s moist and soft, difficult and agonizing. It’s emotional as well as technical where feelings and needs accompany factual information.

It’s often assumed that factual knowledge feeds needs, yet in our method of schooling and interacting these feelings and needs are stripped from what is said or communicated. This is another great reason why ‘knowledge’ is felt often to be so dry.

Looking into the dictionary definition further, I find context to be an amazing word to describe my point. Consider the first part of the definition: “The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.”

So, if we imagine the fact of modern life being really determined by it’s expression. Through it’s modes of expression we get how we think and feel about ourselves. These thoughts, feelings and needs then get expressed according to our competence at communicating them. If we have been schooled to constantly think of communicating dryly, as I believe we have, through rote memorization and factual regurgitation, we will come to value what has been valued about us- our ability at those things. Punishment and rewards around those dry factual communications will take over our mentality, as I believe it has, and then we will suffer from a lack of connection and a lack of meaning. We will feel separate from ourselves and thus begins a pattern I have talked about before.

Knowing in the context of yoga is far different. It explicitly singles out context and challenges you to find your own context as well. Compassionate Communication helps get us across the gulf between each other to express what is alive in us. What is alive in us is not factual. Any context that doesn’t address the context leaves out a large part of us, and in time we can experience a confusion with how we are being reinforced and how we are feeling and what are needs are.

Religion’s aim is to provide a context for living in connection with one’s True Self. All major religions have at their root an understanding of the human mind designed to relieve the three stresses of life: physical stress, mental stress and spiritual stress. Putting things in context allows one to grasp one’s own way home.
A Child’s Mind
I had no way of understanding this as a child- all I knew was that I was scared. I spent a majority of my life as an atheist. My father would caution me against atheism, saying “you have no way of knowing if there is a God, and therefore, cannot be an atheist.” I took his point to mean that I didn’t recognize a God- in myself or others- and therefore must call myself an agnostic. This was agreeable to me for a time, until I needed a perspective that wasn’t founded in a negative. With this, I began to spend time around people who had a connection to themselves and to others in a profoundly different way.

I had found spiritual life and religion, as I took time to find myself inward. Again, I am using religion in a positive way here. To be clear, ‘ Spirituality ’ is merely a politically correct term for non-judgemental religious belief. Religion is now clouded in feelings of judgement and ‘the hell that awaits’. Heaven is here and now, no where else. Hell is here and now or not at all. There is no future nor a past, there is only now.

Finding Now
There is a lovely story of a man studying the Hopi language:

Link to the full interview here. Again, in this interview, it’s context that matters.

When one finds now, one finds real religion, real spiritual life, and the source and experience of the mystical traditions stretching back to the beginning of time. What we need is not positive thinking, but right thinking. We need a shift in ourselves to re-contexualize our existence, and meaning automatically follows from it. Living inside meaning is a way I like to describe the feeling I have in my ongoing present.

While some looked outward, many others looked inward. To bridge the gap, many have labored to bring back and preserve much of what was said, observed and experienced by those who lived the calmness of life in true religion. I have gone there later in my life and I can now see clearly the path I took to get here. I enjoy talking about this more than anything else in life, yet I cannot give you my understanding of it. You must find your own.

Stick To It
Be cautious of the internal impulse that allows one to meld every possible spiritual tradition into one- and therefore in practical terms- none. I did this for some time, seeking, seeking, seeking for something that would grab me and allow me to evaluate it according to a list I developed in my logical head about what it “should” look like. This is typically a way to avoid the needed discipline employed by the ego.

Here is a good Q&A from Swami Sivananda about this tendency, couched in a discussion about mantras, but could also be easily applied to any other area of life:
“I know that one should not change one's Mantra, but I have been initiated into a Mantra and since then, I have developed more devotion to a different deity and I feel the vibration of its corresponding Mantra more powerfully. Should I switch anyway?
You are right. One should not switch Mantras. Many meditators share the experience described above. And yet it would be a major mistake to switch Mantras. It is a common mental pattern to get bored with something we have been doing over a long period of time. Everything else seems very new and refreshing in comparison. However, regularity is essential in order to go deeper and deeper in meditation. Switching Mantras every few years or months has been compared to the man who wanted to dig a well in his backyard and kept on digging a new hole, every time it became too hard. At the end the backyard was full of holes and none of the "wells" were deep enough to reach the water.”


This tendency also keeps one separate. I have seen many who do this and turn back at any hint of religious feeling, as the grip of fear is triggered. Look deeper. One must have substantial courage to engage in a religious or spiritual life. To put all one’s moments into a spiritual context is difficult, yet rewarding in ways I hadn’t imagined as a child.

To do so, one must risk being wrong and choose a tradition and stick with it. Develop discrimination about where your fears originate, rather than reflexively ascribing them to your teacher or your chosen tradition.

This is more important than I can express and it’s a first real symptom of one’s ability to control one’s mind. Once this success is with you, it powers many other smaller ones along with it.

There is a tension between controlling one’s Self and being controlled. To walk this fine line takes a keen mind and a patient heart, with a lot of love and support from teachers and people who value religious and spiritual life. Look for this support and you will find it, as I did.

Thanks for your kind attention.

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