You should know that you will meet many people who will purport to be your friend for precisely as long as it is to their advantage. The moment you do something they don’t like, they will disappear. They were never a friend. True friendship weathers disagreement.
I know this is asking a lot, but I wonder if we might have an honest discussion about religion. This project will require laying aside our sacred cows for just a moment and electing to suspend knee-jerk reactions for a bit. I know those things are difficult for just about everyone, but the potential reward is huge.
Both God and the universe are infinite. If you don’t believe in God, consider this discussion to be about the Universe. In truth, the two terms might be understood as interchangeable in many ways. We know that the universe is constantly expanding and traditional understandings of God have included the idea that God is infinite. The problem we run into is that the human mind has a hard time wrapping itself around either concept. We might know to answer “constantly expanding” and “infinite” when asked the right questions, but that is a far different thing than being able to conceptualize either idea. For example, when we consider that one-half of infinity is still infinity our minds really can’t conceive what that looks like even if we can recite the correct answer.
Traditionally, we have chosen a religion to attempt to understand God or find meaning in our lives. The problem is that religions are finite and so represent only one view of God. Religions are also more than a little territorial and almost all of them have asserted that they have the only correct view of God. This may have made some sense when the best humans could do in conceiving of God was to posit a very small God existing in a very small universe with only one inhabited planet. We now know that the universe is ever expanding, and so our little regional God with whom we all have a personal relationship, frequently inviting Jesus over for Cheerios (if I were Jesus, I would think bacon and eggs would be the least you could do) is an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating. In fact, if that’s your view then you, too, may be an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating.
We need to realize that if we are serious about developing a view of God that resembles the reality of God in any way, confining ourselves to one religious or spiritual perspective just won’t get the job done. I have heard people argue that we need to confine ourselves to one religion because the root meaning of the word religion is “to bind back.” We have been bound back by religion since religion was developed. Maybe what needs to happen is for humankind to develop a spirituality that will set us free! If you like to be bound, I can recommend a good dungeon in your neighborhood, but if you want to draw closer to transcendence you might need to consider ask your religious dominatrix to “let my people go,” Moses!
Imagine you had a doctor who decided the only perspective he was going to adopt is that of colds and flu. No matter what your symptoms were, your doctor would diagnose a cold or the flu and send you on your way. How long would you remain their patient? I hope not long! What if your grocery store decided only to sell canned sardines, pickled eggs, and creamed herring while insisting you shop exclusively at their store. Would you listen to them? Why does religion seem to be one of the few areas of life that couples a limited perspective with a demand of exclusivity and manage to stay in business?
The reason is that institutional religion has excelled in thought and behavior control served with a large dose of guilt. For most of history humanity bought into this distorted vision, but the mass exodus of people from houses of worship of all stripes tells us that sales are sharply down and not likely to recover anytime soon. In response, people trying to make sense of their lives have often randomly tried new perspectives, many of which are heavy on flashing lights but short on substance. If you want to believe that you can attract wealth by thinking the right thoughts, for example, you might want to first ask why everyone following those teachings isn’t a millionaire. You would be better off to reject any spiritual or religious system that is constructed to reward greed.
The truth is that if we want to develop a spiritual perspective that works for us, the important first step is to be determined to explore aspects of whatever systems of belief interest you and not allow anyone to try to restrict your exploration. Unless you are a mushroom, those who would keep you in the dark and feed you manure don’t have your best interest at heart. The next step is to allow yourself to make mistakes, change your mind, and change direction. Exploration of every sort involves all of those things. Perfection isn’t the goal, in fact it probably isn’t even possible. Be gentle with yourself and you will be amazed at what you learn! Be bold, you are in charge of your own spiritual life and need answer to no one.
I don’t want to alarm you, but Hollywood is divided over the friendship shared by Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush. I know, you too might well be as scandalized by this news as anybody else with nothing to worry about. You too might be thinking, “If Ellen is going to hang around the W., she can’t be a lesbian any more! We can’t have Ellen befriending a Bush…or at least not that Bush. We’re simply not going to watch her TV show any more, and we are going to have to find a new token favorite lesbian. We might even have to go back to Rosie O’Donnell! These are desperate times, indeed.
Here’s the problem: That attitude is everything that is wrong with America today.
Let’s just run down the top several problems:
- You don’t get to choose anyone else’s friends, period.
- It is good, even a desirable thing, to have friends of different political views.
- Some are saying George W. Bush is a war criminal. That’s irrelevant (see #1, above) and also simply not true. It’s your opinion. No court has convicted him, and even if it had, he still gets to have friends.
- Nobody has appointed any of us the friendship police.
- The LGBT community has been far too oppressed to go about oppressing itself, but as groups begin emerging from under oppression they almost always go about looking for others to oppress. Just stop, now.
- In America, we are free to believe what we will and to associate with whom we will. You don’t have to like it, but it is the way things are. You can’t choose freedom when it suits you and try to eliminate it when it makes you uncomfortable.
- We are more divided than ever before in our history. This kind of nonsense makes it worse, not better.
In other words, check yourselves and your behavior. You are being a huge collection of asses.
The truth is that the divisions we create between Spiritual and political perspectives are most often a way to pump up our own egos and little more. We imagine there is some qualitative difference between a Buddhist and a Christian and theologians on both sides make a very tidy living perpetuating that misperception, but mystics on both sides agree that our commonalities far outnumber our differences. The same could be easily said of republicans and democrats.
If we look closely we will see that underneath every assertion that I am right and you are wrong lies the unspoken belief that I am better than you. That [erroneous] belief is the product of an insecure mind driven by an out of control ego. In truth we are not better and worse, just diverse, and that is really quite lovely – hardly something we should be trying to eliminate!
If you are one of those people who patrol the Internet looking for things you don’t agree with in the Hope’s of finding someone doing something you don’t agree with so you can “correct” them, I have a suggestion. Just stop. Find a hobby, grab a good book, learn to knit, or buy some rechargeable batteries for your vibrator. Maybe do all of the above plus a few more. There is nothing about policing the choices other adults make that causes you to grow and become more fulfilled. Instead, those behaviors will isolate you from friends, family, and the people you happen to meet because you will develop a negative perspective that looks for what you believe is wrong with the world. A much healthier choice is to celebrate the things that are right with the world.
The perceived need to shut down dialogue on any topic is always a sign of a weak argument. If I feel like I can make a solid case for my point of view, then I’m not threatened by an honest discussion or a different point of view. On the other hand, if I know my position is on shaky ground, I’ll want to end discussion before it even starts. Watch and you will see I am right.
We are an extremely competitive society. We can turn anything into a competition – to our detriment, I am afraid. If you can measure it, we can fight over who does it best. If you can quantify it, I guarantee you mine is bigger – unless being smaller is better, but to be honest most males struggle with that concept. You might think that spirituality would be exempt from this nonsense, but you would be mistaken.
Imagine coming across a group of kids playing kickball and feeling compelled to ask them if any of them are going to play major league baseball or professional soccer. Then imagine none of the kids saying they are going to do either of those things. Would you tell them that they are wasting their time playing kickball and in fact being unfaithful to the higher meaning of playing with their balls? Of course you wouldn’t, but that is precisely what many of those who imagine they are quite far along the spiritual path do to others all the time.
Consider for a moment those who consider themselves contemplatives but then criticize popularized forms of mindfulness in corporate and other non-Buddhist settings as “McMindfulness” because it doesn’t contain the fullness of the Vipassana Buddhist tradition. How is that any different than calling kickball “McBaseball?” Just as some of those kids playing kickball will go on to play more complicated sports, some of the people whose entry into contemplative practice is a popular mindfulness application will go on to deeper spiritual practice. More importantly, those who don’t go on may still have perfectly wonderful experiences playing kickball or practicing mindfulness as a stress reduction technique. None of us has the right to tell anyone else what’s best for them!
Fundamentalism rears its ugly head in many different settings, even on the kickball diamond. What we can know about those people who are only to eager to insist that others “aren’t doing it right” is that they are plagued by insecurities about their own practice and struggling with some significant control issues – both of which are a lot less attractive than a kickball game.
Tennis player Naomi Osaka currently appears in a television commercial for Citizen watches in which she says, “I can control my future.”
No, Naomi, you can’t. None of us can, an we have a collection of lovely (and sometimes trite) pieces of folk wisdom and spiritual teachings to remind us that we can’t. Even wearing an expensive watch while playing tennis won’t let us control the future. If you really believe you can, I am afraid you have some rude awakenings in your future.
The only thing we can impact is the present moment. Living in the present moment is our best chance of happiness. Living for the future is our best chance of dying having never really loved. Take off the watch.