My Problem with Religion

The following is a guest post from David Gonzales. David met his wife on a research trip to the Amazon and after getting a masters degree in ecology, he started a bank. He can be hard to nail down but delights in great food and conversation, building stuff, and teaching and learning from his 5! beautiful children. Check out his website and follow him on twitter.

I have a problem. Too many people in my life have not experienced immanence in any form. And so they are bitter towards all things religious, because they failed to deliver. Maybe there’s no helping it. Maybe they stalled somewhere on their faith journey. Or maybe they just needed a different context to practice faith. My observation is that it’s usually the latter.

knightprayer

photo by Charles Dyer

I’ve come to see religion as form of hacking human nature to promote civilization and I think religions are important.

I’m sure the anti-religious are mostly poo-pooing the classic organized religions like Christianity or Islam. They often talk about moving away from religion and trying hard to simply embrace spirituality or hold fast to reason. Both are fine perspectives. I’ve vacillated between intuition, induction, and pure deduction throughout my life.

But religion isn’t going away. It’s a natural and worthy outgrowth of the human experience. We are by nature creatures of habit. Our habitual practices, more often than not, are very quickly imbued with extra-rational meaning no matter whether they were habits learned by experience or taught.

These habits, at least my habits, are very prescriptive. And I’ve found that meditation in the morning with the intent of increasing my level of mindfulness is probably the single most useful thing I can do to get to and maintain a high level of energy in my work and in my interactions with others.

When I was a child this was called personal prayer.I grew up in a very orthodox Mormon home. No, not that kind of orthodox. My father only had one wife, as far as I can tell.

But we prayed morning and night and over every meal. We read from the Bible and Book of Mormon almost every day. We didn’t do very much on Sunday except go to our Mormon Church and occasionally during the fall Dad would also attend American Church hosted by the NFL.

All along the way I did my best to keep up and to try hard to understand why we were doing what we did. I was pretty well behaved but the older I got the less I restrained I became with my questioning of many of our regimented practices. I wanted to figure out why and to what end we engaged with so many habitual practices.

Not getting a satisfactory answer I spent a considerable amount of time in the vast sea of emergence and simplicity eschewing religion and spirituality. But eventually I came to understand the power and necessity of habits and the shortcut that prescribed habits can be. In my mind anyone who does not simply embrace 100% emergence believes in the power of “small r” religion even if they do not practice Religion.

They may bristle at calling it that. They may even say that they have outgrown religion. Nevertheless, nearly all my friends and acquaintances strive for a higher level of mindfulness the more ardently they hope to distance themselves from religion. Their goal is almost universally to be more “open” (the implication being their is something greater to be open too).

But from those that embrace religion, I find it almost amusing how sensitive they are to the use of words like mindfulness, being present, and meditation. Why? Well, reflection upon my childhood points to all of the rote habits. These habits were not taught to us or prescribed to us on the basis of some new-agey terms like mindfulness or being present. We were told it was a recipe for getting closer to God.

So in part the tension between these two camps is one of jargon. But it goes deeper than that and I think where things begin to go up, regardless of your religious persuasion, is when we begin to awaken to the possibility that nearly all regimented practice seems to hack our brain for the better.

Where things begin to nose-dive is where shame becomes the primary motive for adherence. And whether you call the immanence that my atheist friends, Hindu friends, Buddhist friends, Christian friends, etc. all describe as God, Allah, Big Mind or something else, friends from all walks of life seem to converge on one central tenet: There is otherness in the universe and it is kind.

What they don’t always cop to is just how important their regimented practices are to maintaining their “access” to this kindness in the universe. But when I meet them and they appear to be in a funk or when I find myself feeling low it is so often the case that we have flagged in our adherence to those regimented practices that found us nearer to God or “god.”

So what is religion? My more cynical self calls it a “Get Wise Quick Scheme.” But I believe that religion, in all its many forms, is actually trying diligently to protect those practices its practitioners believe and hope will:

  • Promote civilization (beneficial and cooperative human interactions)

  • Promote presence*

  • Encourage practitioners to experience immanence

Some religions do a better job than others. But by-and-large I think they all do a pretty decent job: Christianity, Academia, Secular Humanism, Islam, etc. And like most things you get out of it what you’re willing to put into it.

*Most of the classic religions tend to over-emphasize “the future” as an answer to suffering, experiencing and not letting go of pain, but I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they have just run aground on human nature. In reality, the goal is to be present, and letting “the future” be responsible for things like justice, fairness, etc. should allow us to more fully focus on the now.

 



Reflections on the Practice of Meditation

A little over three weeks into the Buddha Dad experiment, I am happy to report I have upheld my commitment to meditate, exercise and write five days a week. I am also happy to report that accessing the spring within me is becoming easier and more natural. Before it was like I had a cup that I had to always refill with something outside of me. Lately I’ve been tapping into the source.

mv_rez

 

The cool thing about the source is that it’s all around and it never goes away. I am a part of it. We all are. Meditation helps me wake up to it, tune into it and unleash myself from my mind.

Running

If I identify with the chatter of my mind while I am running, I become conscious of how steep the hill is, how hot the sun is and I get weaker and want to stop. But when I stop thinking so damn much and I just tune into the rhythm of my steps on the pavement, the rhythm of my breath, I get into this fluid zone where I am just gliding across the ground like butter and it feels so natural and good.

Sitting

When I am sitting and have reached that perfectly quiet and still moment when my mind isn’t doing much and even if it is doing something I am not embroiled in it but I am just watching it do what it does, when I am effortlessly riding the wave of my breath, when I feel myself falling at every moment onto the pillow, I feel stillness penetrating my core and I feel peace.

Writing

When I am in the zone writing, I am not even looking at the screen or the keyboard and everything goes blurry but my fingers keep moving and I just let whatever wants to flow out of me to flow. I keep my fingers moving because my mind is always eager to tell me that what I am writing is unoriginal and dumb and not worth anybody’s time. Then of course there is the the call for distraction, the pull to stop what I am doing and just absorb some other bullshit in an unconscious state of mind.

The cool thing about writing is that it takes the loud and obnoxious story teller in my mind who stands at its pulpit and won’t shut the fuck up about how shitty a person I am and it reduces that motherfucker to letters on a page. Tiny little thoughts and statements that demonstrate by their manifestation that they are not me. The person that is writing these things, observing these things is me. That me has no running commentary. It is just a blank slate of awareness.

My mind is always there. It will never go away. But I am reaching moments momentarily where it’s not so damn loud and it feels pretty good.

Sometimes meditation is torture, but it is only torture when I identify with my mind.

When the narrative of my ego is screaming the loudest and I am paying attention to it, everything is torture. But when I am in the moment and paying attention to sounds and rhythms and other sensory things that ground me to the reality that I am here, right now, then all is good.

Well, all is.

And I happen to think that is-ness is good.



 

The Power of Mantra

I was taught at an early age to say the Gayatri Mantra every night before going to bed. I had no idea what it meant, but I understood it as a declaration of gratitude for things like health and abundance and an expression of hope that such blessings continue.

Japa_mala_(prayer_beads)_of_Tulasi_wood_with_108_beads_-_20040101-02

 

I eventually read an English translation that I did not find particularly inspiring or moving* but I continued to say the mantra sporadically and mostly selfishly throughout my life when I wanted something from the universe like safety for my family when we traveled or success at trial or even a 49ers victory.

Now I am finding myself using this mantra to help tether my wandering mind to the present moment when I meditate.

The mind is pretty powerful and mine might be unusually neurotic. Sometimes focusing on my breath or the expansion and contraction of my diaphragm or the sound of the birds or the leaf blower across the street is not enough to contend with my mind’s incessant barking.

But forcing myself to sit in one spot, consciously breathe and repeat this mantra over and over again makes the daunting task of staying in the moment easier. It gives my mind something to do that is repetitive and rhythmic. It settles it down.

The purpose of meditation is to identify reality with the now, the sensations and feelings of presence and not the streaming ticker that constantly passes across the mind’s screen. Allowing the stream of mental chatter to take over, we get lost in the bullshit.

The bullshit becomes our mantra

The worries, laments, projections, should’ve/could’ve/would’ves, the daydreaming about what we want for our future, the regret of what we’ve done in the past, all of this endless chatter becomes our mantra and robs us of the experience of now (also known as life).

If we are going to occupy our consciousness with words, let them me words that reflect what we want manifested. The content of our consciousness is what determines the content of the reality we experience on a daily basis.

What we think we become

When we allow our mind to become untethered to the present, we are not deciding what we want to occupy our consciousness. We are allowing things that thrive in unconscious states like fear and ego to thrive. We should repeat only the refrains that we want to constitute our reality, mantras that reflect our true values and help to bring about the state of mind required to actually be here and bear witness to life.

*I read a translation of the Gayatri Mantra today that did inspire and move me and I think having some deeper connection to the meaning of the mantra will help even more. Read it here.



The Writer in the Woods

“I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts

I watched a documentary last week about J.D. Salinger, the reclusive genius behind The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger might be the most famous author in American history yet this was the only novel he ever published. It is is a book that has inspired millions around the world, one that gave voice to a sentiment felt by many but spoken by few, a cathartic experience for young people trying to find their way in the world and a sobering look in the mirror for those already entrenched in the grind of phoniness.

salinger's house

sign posted in front of Salinger's NH house | photo by Edmund Fountain/Valley News

 

I first read The Catcher in the Rye while I was an unemployed law school graduate looking for work anywhere I could find it because I had student loans and bar loans and there were way more lawyers than there were law jobs. I read it and I enjoyed it but then I poured everything I had into finding this elusive, magical job, securing my chain to the conveyer belt that was moving forward, progressing aggressively toward advancement and elevation so that maybe one day, if  I worked hard enough, I could actually enjoy my life for a few years before I died.

Having unclipped myself from this conveyer belt a couple years ago to raise my kids and write a book, I was inspired by Salinger’s ambition and persistence, two qualities essential to succeeding as a writer and really at anything. I was astounded by the number of rejections he received from The New Yorker before one of his short stories was finally accepted. I was impressed by his dedication to the craft of writing itself, the pursuit and creation of truthful characters and settings and stories that people can identify with and have empathy and compassion for.

I was intrigued by his rejection of fame.

As a new and unknown writer, I often daydream about fame and recognition and look forward to that day that I can enjoy that private fist bump, that “yes! I fucking did it!” feeling that accompanies some external recognition that what I am doing is in fact significant and worthwhile and valued. I imagine delivering the “I told you sos” to all the haters and doubters in spirited and colorful ways. I visualize accepting an award and looking in the camera with tears streaming down my face and saying “dreams really do come true.” I daydream about it and know I will find some ego-level satisfaction from success in the form of fame and fortune, but this is not why I write.

I write to speak truth.

Salinger holed himself up in his writing studio for decades meditating and churning out stories and novels and ruminations on Buddhism and Vedanta. When he finished a manuscript he just put it in his safe. He did not publish anything. He could have typed the word apple 90,000 times and it would have been a bestseller the next day. He wrote diligently and profusely and published nothing for forty-five years and then he died.

These works will be published according to his trust in a staggered fashion beginning in 2015 and for the next several decades. He was reportedly moved by the notion advanced in the Bhagavad-GitaThis is something I believe. In fact, I tweeted it over a year ago.

photo(2)

Salinger didn’t tweet it, he lived it. Unlike him, I have yet to write a world-changing, generation defining novel that can bankroll me for the rest of my life. Well maybe I have, but I’m working on it still. But seeing this legend, this icon, this superstar reach the pinnacle of writing success then abandon it and write only for the sake of writing, without attachment, knowing that it will only touch the souls of readers when he was removed from the situation as an ego, as an anointed and unwilling spokesperson for a generation, this was inspiring to me.

It was a powerful illustration of why we ought to create art.

Subscribe to Buddha Dad

* indicates required



The Beginning of the Rest of the Story

Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.” – Alan Watts

Welcome to the first post on this blog. I formed the serious intention a couple years ago to stop practicing law and focus my efforts during the time I was not taking care of my two small children on developing myself as a writer.

 writer2

photo by Thomas Nugent

I started a blog called Place{Thought}Story with my friend and we wrote and edited several well received pieces that did exactly what I wanted them to do in the world. I received more than enough affirmation from the universe that writing was in fact my true calling and that powerful, game-changing results stem from the radical act of speaking truth.

I realized during the course of writing articles and essays for P{t}S that they were part of a larger narrative of my personal coming of age, my spiritual maturation and that the best possible format for this type of story was a book.

So for the last year and a half I have not shared my writing with the world and have done my work quietly and privately, struggling and suffering alone at my desk or in my chair in the woods with the hopes that one one day when my message is crystallized to me, I can then share it with the world and thereby make it a better place. And by that I mean a world filled with more presence, more consciousness, more gratitude, more authenticity, more love, more creation, less consumption, less pretense, less ego, less attachment, less suffering.

I want all these things for myself and I want all these things for the world and so I intend to create it, to manifest it, to write it. I made the decision to write a coming of age story before I was even close to coming of age with the hopes that in writing the story that I want for my life, I would make it so. After all, our lives are our greatest creative act and our intention is what creates our reality.

I finally reached a point a few weeks ago where I was ready to share my book with a few colleagues and friends – artists and writers – to get an idea of how it affected people whose opinions I value, people who occupy themselves with some of the same sort of ideas and practices that I am trying to advance with my book. I also knew I needed some unfiltered, candid editorial feedback because this is my first book and really my first serious foray into creative writing. I never took creative writing in college and never even wrote a short story, let alone a novel/memoir.

So I reached out to a professional editor that was referred to me by my wife’s former co-worker. He’s been described as a legend in the publishing industry and has edited Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins and many other award-winning and best-selling authors. My intent was to simply get an idea as to what kind of money I would have to spend for the services of someone with this kind of track record.

I wrote him an e-mail and told him what my book was about. He wrote me back and said it sounded interesting. He told me to send him the entire manuscript that he would read free of charge then let me know if he thinks we’d be a good fit. So without thinking about it too much I sent over the same draft I had shared with my colleagues and then promptly lamented my haste when I discovered a spelling error on the second page.

He wrote me back a few days later telling me that he just finished reading my book with tears in his eyes. He said he was impressed with the ambitious intentions of the book, its struggle with profound spiritual and philosophical issues and the potential denouement for the characters I created. He said what I’ve done so far has resonated with him professionally and personally.

Reading those words was probably the greatest moment I’ve had thus far in this process and I’ve read them so many times I was able to just write them verbatim from memory.

But then of course he said that the book needs a complete rewrite. He said I need to reconsider where the reader enters the narrative arc and how said arc unfolds. He said the characters need more development, the voice needs tightening and refining and several scenes need to be added and others deleted entirely.

I met with him in Berkeley and the first thing he told me was that writing a good book is incredibly hard and that even the most seasoned best-selling authors sometimes take five or six years to write a book. My book, he said, was particularly complex and ambitious.

He said a writer needs two things to succeed.

1) conviction (in the importance of what you want to say) and

2) humility.

“Oh you’re just getting started,” he said when I told him I’ve been at it for a year and a half.

Hearing this broke my heart.

As much as I tell myself in affirmations to renounce attachment, I want to make writing my career and the thought that I may have years ahead of me before completing this book was a slap in the face from which I am still recovering.

But his feedback was golden. He left me with a structural blueprint to use moving forward in revision and I know exactly what needs to be done to maximize the potential impact and appeal of this book.

“Don’t rush it,” he said as I thanked him and shook his hand.

The last thing I want to do is rush it. I do not want to spend hours setting up a glorious fireworks show and have only half of the fireworks go off. I want to blow people’s minds. I want to fuck people up. When people finish reading my book, I want them sobbing in recognition of the raw beauty and frailty of our shared humanity, inspired to move forward in their lives in a more present, conscious, authentic and creative way. And that is just going to take some more time.

That doesn’t mean I have to wallow in solitary confinement in the meantime. I have suffered enough for my art and I know community will help me enjoy it more. Real and authentic community, online and in everyday life, anchored by humility, vulnerability and the heart-warming and empowering realization that we are not alone.

Subscribe to Buddha Dad

* indicates required