Tag Archives: religion

Free Will & Faith (Say Yes)

We, the descendants of the Age of Reason, have been nurtured to raise a suspicious eyebrow at suggestions like have faith, or, trust the universe, or worse, let go & let God, because it insults our conviction in the power of our own free will…our capacity to be self-determined, autonomous individuals…masters of our own destiny…captains of our ship.

Then, by means of direct experience with the tumultuous and liberating changes that occurred throughout the sixties, or else by dint of our good fortune in happening upon a teacher, some of us became “spiritual.”

Part of being spiritual is the realization of our inter-connection with the world, and by extension, our influence on it; through every action, every word, and even every thought, we affect everything in known and unknown ways. Coming out of a God-fearing era, in which one didn’t dare assert one’s power over the mysterious workings of the divine, this was huge. By reclaiming our power, we assumed our role as creator, or at least co-creator. And we liked it. We took to the idea of manifestation like a cat takes to a newly-emptied box. It pleased our sense of doing and gratified our need for control. After all, if we can simply choose our thoughts and direct our intention, then we can shape the world we want to live in.

We can’t stop our thoughts, the reasoning went, so we might as well learn to master them and so we willfully embraced our role as co-creator of our destiny. The idea of activating our ability to manifest tangible things, like cars and money, as well as the more elusive intangibles, like health and well-being, made us feel powerful.

I eagerly stepped onto the bandwagon.

But, then I asked, what if this, too, were but a stepping stone, a bridge, to a more exalted plateau, still? What if, all of life amounted to this one question:

Can you release even that—the need to make choices at all… can you release the need to co-create?

In other words, can you say yes to life on its own terms?

But, rather than seeing it as a denial of free will, why not look upon this gesture of renunciation, as “the ultimate act of free will?”…as the most courageous choice there is, which is to melt away, that you may move about, like two feathers on a bird, where no difference exists between your will and divine will.

Yogis have always been renunciates. And by Yogis, I mean all seekers, who have abandoned material comforts, mundane temptations and distractions in their passion to find God. So intrinsically a part of spiritual life, renunciation is considered to be the final stage of life in India’s religious traditions.

I propose that the truest gesture of renunciation is internal, rather than external, which is to say, unseen. It is implied in our courage to let go of even the pretense of control. And to the extent of our willingness and ability to do this—to truly surrender—we are Yogis without necessarily looking like Yogis…Yogis as householders…as ordinary people in ordinary surroundings, wearing ordinary clothes, doing ordinary things.

The only thing extraordinary (but doesn’t have to be extraordinary) is the degree of presence one brings to one’s life, since presence is proportional to the extent of surrender, as every wily attempt by the mind, to grasp at anything, is a step out of this moment.

I am reminded of an old Zen Koan about the man who encountered a tiger.

A man was traveling by foot, when all of a sudden, a tiger came running after him. When he reached a precipice, and could run no more, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, he looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. As if things couldn’t get worse, he then noticed two mice, gnawing away the vine; the only thing that sustained him. It was at that very moment, that the man noticed a luscious strawberry within reach, so he ate it. How sweet it tasted!

Can we laugh at the ultimate paradox of life? The exquisite beauty that exists within and alongside the ephemeral. The moment we try to possess it, it vanishes.

Like the man hanging off the cliff, we all have the ability to “transcend” our situations and dramas, but that transcendence is discovered through the relinquishment of our perceived identities in this life, especially our role as the “doer.” More profoundly, it is expressed through our willingness to offer up thanks and laugh with the beauty and apparent absurdity of it all. But really what we’re doing is giving the whole thing over to a higher power.

And, “giving it over” isn’t to “give up,” in the ordinary sense, it’s rather, to begin to relate to a larger field of creation. Giving up, in the ordinary sense is the ego’s way of saying, in a passive-aggressive voice, “I can’t have my own way,” so I’ll act like I never wanted it, anyway.” There’s a lurking resentment there. Whereas, in the truest form of surrender, it is of the soul, rather than the ego. It is not only to identify with a larger—so large so as to be infinite—perspective, but to come into a genuine state of allowing. It’s as if the you, that you thought you knew, disappears into this infinite self. So that you are nothing, but at the same time, everything.

And this expansion occurs to the point where, even your need to figure things out, e.g., the hows & the whys, begins to fade. You just trust. It’s not that you trust any being in particular…you just trust. It’s a state of being.

And this brings us back to the ultimate act of free will; it’s a choice to trust. To trust that everything is going to be OK…that everything is already OK…that everything is unfolding just as it should….that even this tempest you’re in the middle of right now, is part of it all…and it’s perfect. It’s to know that the workings of the divine, and your purpose within it all, is beyond what the mind can comprehend.

So, you just live. And, like the man on the precipice, rather than trying to figure it out or outsmart the process, or improve God’s timing, you surrender to this moment and eat the strawberry. And everything is delicious. And perfect…as it is.

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Misunderstanding Religion; What Is its Purpose?

One thing students realize when they begin their readings for my class, is the lack of anything resembling unified agreement, among academics, on what religion is.

Firstly, if you’re looking for agreement among academics, you’re looking in the wrong place.

But in a more analytical vein, every attempt at a common denominator is defeated by a counter example. Even the belief in God, which isn’t embraced in the context of Buddhism, is frustrated. In short, we are hard-pressed to find one feature common to all religions of the world. So, rather than one solitary feature, scholars have taken to describing a collection of characteristics – things like community, beliefs and stories –
that are inevitably found, in some combination or another, in the world’s many religions.

One student expressed concern over the problem of interpreting those stories that are part and parcel of the world’s religions. In a disdainful tone, he alluded to the violence that is easily justified by a relativistic interpretation of religious writings.

A common and seemingly justifiable concern, considering the state of the world today.

Nonetheless, I find it lamentable because it stems from a massive misunderstanding of what the whole point of religion is and has always been. Arguing about scripture reduces it to nothing but philosophy—a discipline which is deep, difficult and meaningless, all at the same time. Joking aside, it’s not exactly meaningless, if we understand that its value lies, not in finding answers, but in the very act of asking questions. That is, meaning emerges when we stop misunderstanding its purpose.

Likewise, in the domain of religion, we get hopelessly caught up in the supposed contradictory nature of certain passages, especially where violence is implied. This is common in the context of the Jewish and Christian bibles, and in that of the Koran. But what if we were to consider the very purpose of these holy books differently? What if we were to assume its purpose lay in encouraging us to look upon our own violent ways?

Thus, rather than assume a breach between our virtues and those in the holy stories, we might consider the purpose of those stories. And more pertinently, we might let go of the assumption that these stories contain explicit instructions. In that way, the bible may become purposeful.

But perhaps the most profound problem lies in a different kind of chasm. There is an immense difference between the spiritual state of the reader and the nature of the divine. A holy book is of a different nature than a science book or a philosophy book or a car manual. Dare I say bluntly that its arcane nature will be missed by an unenlightened mind? Its higher truths will not be revealed to eyes that don’t yet see, to a mind that is not ready.

Or even more to the point, to a mind that pushes an agenda.

Anyone can misuse anything when guided by greed, selfishness, lust for power, and vengeance. A person whose mind is clouded by odiousness has eyes that are blind. He will misinterpret, misconstrue and misuse. He’ll abuse the land, other people, scripture, and everything he touches. Put that person in a position of power and watch the world crumble.

Which brings me around to the closure of the circle and to my final point, that of looking to the academics for a definition of something that does not lend itself to definition.

Just as looking for answers misses the point of philosophy—which values itself on the questions it asks, looking for definitions misses the point of religion—which treasures only experience as a means to truth.

No matter the religion, its purpose is to bring the practitioner to an experience of his or her own wholeness. When this underlying essence and purpose goes missing, it quickly and inevitably dissolves into empty rituals. How could it be anything else in the absence of an awakened consciousness? Even the meaning of the word religion betrays its supreme spiritual purpose—to remember your spiritual identity. But without clarity all we have is confusion, without heartfelt practice all we have is mechanized ceremony and without open eyes all that is left is the blind leading the blind.