I’ve often heard it said in AA “Religion is for people afraid of going to Hell, but spirituality is for people who’ve been there.” Spirituality in this context refers to the practical elements of mental habit and practice that bring renewal, relief and a sense of connection with something greater than ourselves, as contrasted with ‘religion’ which in this instance would refer to a collection of beliefs, possibly including elements of scripture or dogma. “Religion” and “faith” are often used synonymously, and taken to mean “a set of beliefs in things that cannot be proven but have been handed down to us.”
Faith has another definition: “comfort in the presence of the unknowable,” or “acceptance.” This latter definition has great practical value, especially for the modern person who’s been exposed to modern science and has a tough time accepting religious dogma literally.
There’s been an increasing division in the world between progressives and fundamentalists because of this dichotomy of definition, with the fundamentalists rejecting modernity and science, and progressives rejecting religion because of perceived incompatibility with cherished beliefs. Fear of the unknown is a primal condition for humans. It’s uncomfortable, and people seek relief from it, and doing so in the manner of the first definition above has lead to most of the organized religions of the world, with people willingly following the teachings of one “great teacher” or another.
Finding ones’ own faith is a challenging lifelong task that most are unwilling to undertake. We are taught to listen to the wisdom of experts; when we’re sick we go to the doctor. We have an accountant do our taxes, we see a lawyer for legal help—and we leave our spiritual life in the hands of the clergy and do as they say…or, at least we used to until science came along and made that hard to do for many of us in the modern world. Unfortunately, if we don’t have our own practice for spiritual maintenance, we’ll get spiritually sick.
Some people are easygoing and seem to have good mental habits (maybe including a spiritual practice of some kind, intentional or not), but the vast majority of us do not have good habits. We need some kind of program or practice, possibly including some organized religion—or meditative practice.
For some, recreation or exercise is enough. Beliefs play a huge part in the course of human life. People tend to identify with their beliefs, forgetting that they have adopted these beliefs themselves voluntarily, or that they can change them. People are not born with beliefs—they have to be taught, or adopted. Humans identify so strongly with their beliefs that they are willing to die for them, and frequently would rather do so than change them. Beliefs are routing nodes of the mind, a prism through which reality is interpreted, forming the nature of experience. Changing a belief is fundamental mental work; it’s difficult, requires a lot of thought, letting go and processing, and can be very painful; consequently many people would rather die than do it. People can identify so strongly with their beliefs that they are willing to do battle, kill or die in the defense of them. For a person to “change” (which could mean “recover” or “get better”) means to change either beliefs or physical form (such as weight loss, muscle mass or tone, or posture).
Maybe a persons’ belief system includes an exclusivity provision; many religions do…there’s only one way, it’s this way, and if you do anything else, you’re going to hell. As common as this is, it’s not unusual for people to have unwillingness to explore a practice that seems to reside outside the bounds of their religious beliefs. Apostasy, idolatry, and paganism are big no-nos to many people, and consequently they are unwilling to investigate anything that has the appearance of a competing belief system.
When it comes to meditation, however, further investigation reveals that every major religion has contemplation, prayer or meditation somewhere in it. Or, maybe a person is so firmly agnostic or atheistic that adopting a practice that has any appearance of religiosity is equally anathema to them. These individuals will benefit the most from the second definition of “faith”: “comfort in the face of the unknowable.” It’s OK to have a daily practice to maintain psychological and physical well being, and meditation has proven effective for thousands of years—ever since the Buddha said “don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself!”
“Letting go” is the most effective weapon in the war on obsession, resentments, grief, and depression.
The preceding post is the final chapter of Jon’s new book “Letting Go: Practical Meditation for Everyday People.” Available now!
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