The past decade has been a real spiritual journey for me. I moved through several Christian sects before finally moving beyond Christianity as most people know it. At the same time I began studying Buddhism. For a long time I was both: A Christian Buddhist. Not really impossible and many people (including prominent Christian clergymen and women) practice Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism is non-theistic and non-dogmatic. The Buddha is neither god nor final decider of the rules. He tells his followers to ignore what he says and find out for themselves.
After I moved out of Christianity (I don’t like to say I “left” or “turned away” or “renounced” because I really feel like Christianity was part of my path and that it was the thing that pointed me to my current place. I didn’t “Leave”; I followed where it led) I called myself a Buddhist and an atheist. I thought it was important to differentiate myself from people who believe in god, especially the christian “Father”-type god. I was still practicing Buddhism so that title seemed fit.
I still use Buddhism in many setting because it quickly gives an overview of some of my core values. But it isn’t really true. Buddhism isn’t a fit label for me and the concept of the labeling is itself damaging. This is the journey I’d like to describe for you.
Do you know this song?
I first heard this song in 2006. This was before kids. Before my worst bout of depression (2007). Before I moved out of Christianity but just shortly after I began actively studying Buddhism.
I LOVE this song. From the very first time I heard it there was something so compelling about it. I used to listen to it multiple times a day or even have it on a loop in the background while I worked. The words moved me. The music was both soothing and rousing. It never got old for me. I felt the same powerful emotion each time I heard it. No matter how many times I heard it.
I bought the rest of Matisyahu’s songs (and still do). He is really talented mixing beatbox with reggae beats and soaring, passionate lyrics. I shouldn’t really need a reason to like his music. But my friends considered it weird that I was so moved by the lyrics when it is so overtly Jewish. I tried to put it into words: When he says,
What’s this feeling?
My love will rip a hole in the ceiling
Givin’ myself to you from the essence of my being
You really BELIEVE he means it. If I put the passion of every Brittany Spears song together it wouldn’t equal the raw passion of his words.
The song moved me they way my religion moved me. Not all the time, of course, but when I wasn’t defending the faith to the world against those twisting it to sanction hate, I really felt my religion. The words Matisyahu spoke were how religion was supposed to feel,
You’re like water for my soul when it gets thirsty
Without you there’s no me
You’re the air that I breathe
Religion, when it felt right to me, was like air and water – everything I needed for perfect contentment. Peace.
When I look to the sky where my help come from
And I’ve seen it circling around from the mountain
You feel it in your chest
Yes! You feel it in your chest. A brief moment, in the words of the Christian bible, of a “peace that surpasses all understanding.”
That’s the Thing. The single anchor of desire that kept me searching. Seeking for answers to spiritual questions. Or, rather, THE spiritual question: Who Am I?
The answers Christianity gave me: I am a child of god, a sinner in need of a savior, on trial for my every behavior with punishment expected for behavior deemed bad were becoming incompatible with my inner “truth” meter.
If you’ve known me at all you know that, as a parent educator, I point out not only the benefits of non-punitive, gentle parenting but I also share what science is learning about the human design for non-punitive, gentle parenting. We are literally biologically-primed for freedom and choice and to resist coercion or control. Like a plant deprived light, humans deprived of freedom and choice wilt. Plants need water to thrive and humans need to be free.
In the public sphere of my life this looked like my talking about feminism (the right of women to thrive without the control of patriarchy), racism and colonialism (the right of brown people to thrive without the control of white colonists) and parenting (the right of children to thrive without the control of their parents).
What I had was cognitive dissonance – discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values (source:wikipedia). Everything I believed about secular life – freedom, choice, absence of violence was in direct opposition to everything I believed about my spiritual life – that I was constrained by rules, my choices could be judged “evil”, and a religion both founded on and perpetuated by indescribably horrific violence and genocide.
Cognitive dissonance must always be reconciled. It isn’t possible to live in your mind with two opposing views. You can read on wikipedia if you want to read some of the ways people resolve cognitive dissonance (trigger warning: their examples are fat phobic) but I believe this is what kept me searching. I knew where I was wasn’t comfortable. I had to keep looking.
Of course by this time I’m learning more about Buddhism and experiencing the amazing affect of meditation and particularly, metta meditation which is like body building for your compassion muscles. I had experienced that my mind wasn’t me and was, in fact, kind of a pain in my ass. Telling my brain to shut up became a new mantra. (Now I love my mind even when I tell it to shush. I say, “old friend, you aren’t trying to pull that again are you?”).
The Buddha said,
We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.
This began to coalesce with my studies of feminism in the context of cultural/social constructs. In my book, Gender Neutral Parenting, I spend some time explaining how to step outside our cultural constructs like “gender” by thinking of the compass. There is no objectively described “north” or “south”. We collectively decide to label these places with these words to helps us communicate about our environment. There is no north (or spoon, ha!).
In The Teaching of Buddha by the Japanese Buddhist organization, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, it says,
In the sky there is no distinction of east and west; people create the distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.
Here the beliefs of my secular life combined with the beliefs of my spiritual life. I will probably write much more about spirituality and feminism since this is an area that I’ve received much push back from other feminists. For now though I’m going to focus on my journey.
So one day, I’m listening to King Without a Crown again and I notice this line,
Strip away the layers and reveal your soul
Got to give yourself up and then you become whole
You’re a slave to yourself and you don’t even know
You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow
This captures the practice of Buddhism well: pick through all these thoughts. Quiet them and see who you are underneath all of your cultural constructs and conditioning.
Looking up to the sky and searchin’ beneath the ground
Like a King without his Crown
Yes, you keep fallin’ down
You really want to live but can’t get rid of your frown
Tried to reach unto the heights and wound bound down on the ground
And how hard it is. From the moment of our birth we begin to layer ourselves with words. Words aren’t all bad – they help us know each other, love each other – but without understanding that they aren’t you, words can be dangerous.
We say I’m Paige.
I’m a girl.
I’m an American.
And we forget who we really are without all the words.
For me, Buddhism is a great practice for removing the words. It isn’t religion. I don’t “believe” in Buddhism. I practice it. I find the suggestions that are credited to that ancient Hindu man name Siddhartha Gautama really work for me when I practice them each day. I do metta meditation and I see tangible results in myself. I see a grouchy bank teller and I feel love not annoyance.
I know there are people who have taken the words credited to the Jewish man named Jesus and interpreted them in a much different way than the mainstream Christians and they use them to practice what Jesus taught. The same is true for nearly every mainstream religion. It is a thread connecting all religions and it is spiritual not religious.
When the philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, broke away from the Theosophical society of white colonizers he said,
I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. You must climb towards the Truth. It cannot be ‘stepped down’ or organized for you.
This was even stronger than what the Buddha said. There is no way to go, no directions to find bliss. Which, let’s face it is the primary purpose of all religion. Buddha said to find out for yourself. Krishnamurti expounded that finding out for yourself is the only way. There is no path but the one you are on.
The problem is that we have all these ideas. Religion gives us ideas. Buddhism is an idea for how to find bliss. It has worked for me but it also tethers me. If Buddhism is a label I wear that creates an anchor to my thoughts then I’m not really free to move past the circle of my beliefs.
Like a dog on a chain is “free” only in the circle allowed by his chain (please don’t do this). When we label ourselves as Buddhist or Christian we drive a tether into the ground and cut ourselves off from understanding.
Matisyahu says this too,
You want God but you can’t deflate your ego
If you’re already there then there’s nowhere to go
If you’re cup’s already full then its bound to overflow
If you are identifying with a religion, or any label, then your are filling yourself (your cup) and it is no long open to receive new understanding. Krishnamurti again,
Psychologically I think it is true, because self-discipline implies a mind that is tethered to a particular thought or belief or ideal, a mind that is held by a condition; and as an animal that is tethered to a post can only wander within the distance of its rope, so does the mind which is tethered to a belief, which is perverted through self-discipline, wander only within the limitation of that condition. Therefore such a mind is not mind at all, it is incapable of thought. It may be capable of adjustment between the limitations of the post and the farthest point of its reach; but such a mind, such a heart cannot really think and feel.
If you can completely untether yourself from all thoughts and identifications (Buddha calls them distinctions), you will know the real you, which Buddhists call enlightenment. Although I think it is a horrible thing to focus on. Spirituality shouldn’t be goal oriented. That’s what religion does. It says do xyz and avoid jkl and you will receive bliss.
It isn’t about the answer or the goal. It isn’t about rules or a path. It is about questioning, seeking, and remaining open.
And see, I lift up [in] my eyes where my help come from
And I seen it circling around from the mountain
You feel it in your chest
You keep my mind at ease and my soul at rest