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.

 



Ernest Hemingway, Russell Brand and the Unfortunate Relationship Between Art and Addiction

I recently read The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway as part of my commitment to study notable authors and decipher how they do what they do. I was particularly attracted to Hemingway because I knew his writing style was understated and sparse, stripped of sentimentality, yet somehow enabling such indulgences to play out in the mind of the reader.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I want my writing to be like this, minimalist and understated but infused with emotion and urgency. I want to present simple words and sentences, stripped of flowery or obscure language, and simply describe characters and scenes that are relatable to readers, stories that invoke empathy and intrigue.

Good writing is telling the truth and once you actually find the truth in a story then it’s pretty simple to tell.

I enjoyed experiencing the Paris cafe/bar scene in the 20s, the baking, unspoilt world of the Spanish mountains and, most of all, the harrowing and brutal world of bull fighting. I enjoyed the character portraits and what they revealed about our best and worst qualities as humans.

And yes, I definitely appreciated his writing style. I aim to emulate it. Not in any kind of conscious way but I think if I commit to my method of using meditation to settle my mind, be completely present with whatever I’m writing and just tell the truth, I’ll be doing all I can.

What really struck me though was how much they drank in that book. I paid special attention to this because I knew Hemingway was an alcoholic who ultimately stuck a loaded shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He’s definitely not alone among writers and artists.

Jack Kerouac drank himself to death, dying at 47 from cirrhosis. Hunter S. Thompson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner, the list goes on an on. Alan Watts reportedly drank a fifth of vodka a day. Stephen King did so much cocaine he had to stuff cotton balls up his nose so blood wouldn’t drip on his typewriter.

And that’s just writers. As Bill Hicks famously reminded us, all “the musicians that made all that great music that’s enhanced your lives throughout the years were real fucking high on drugs.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Stephen King’s family staged an intervention and, with their love and support, he eventually sobered up.

“There were nine months [after quitting] when I was out of gas, depressed,” King said in an interview with the Guardian. “And despite what some people say depression is not conducive to good writing or to bad writing. But then it came back. When I gave up dope and alcohol, my immediate feeling was ‘I’ve saved my life, but there’ll be a price because I’ll have nothing that buzzes me any more. But I enjoyed my kids. My wife loved me and I loved her. And eventually the writing came back and I discovered that the writing was enough. Stupid thing is that probably it always had been.”

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, a book that inspired countless artists (including myself), peaked creatively after beating her alcohol and drug addiction and diving into spiritual practice instead.

Russell Brand used yoga and transcendental meditation to help kick his heroin habit and now listen to him speak.

Dude is connected and awakened and speaks the piece with astounding clarity and depth.  He uses words that sound beautiful when strung together and delivered in his irresistibly charming accent.

As a side note, I often read my writing to myself in an English accent. In fact, now that I think about it, it’s actually Russell Brand’s voice that I imagine. It really does make everything I write sound cooler. Try it. Start reading this post again with Russell Brand’s voice in your head and I guarantee it will sound more profound.

The point of all this meandering is simply to say:

1. Hemingway was a literary genius.

2. He died way too young like so many other artistic geniuses.

3. It’s impossible to create great art when you’re dead.

4. Love is the greatest and most sustainable source of inspiration and connection.

5. Russell Brand is a wise dude and his accent is awesome.



The Pitfalls of Social Media

The other day I was reading The Book by Alan Watts (written in 1966) while the kids were in swim class and the following passage jumped off the page:

“…increasing efficiency of communication…can, instead of liberating us into the air like birds, fix us to the ground like toadstools. All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body – even to distant reaches of space. But this will be a new kind of individual – an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity.

And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences

The trend of all this is towards the end of individual privacy, to an extent where it may even be possible to conceal one’s thoughts.

At the end of the line, no one is left with a mind of his own: there is just a vast and complex community-mind…” (emphasis added)

Then I came home and looked at Facebook and scrolled through all the photos of smiling faces, delicious food, faded pictures from college hashtagged with #tbt, duck face selfies and commentary about what Facebook told us was trending that day.  And it made me realize how prophetic Alan Watts was when he wrote these words almost fifty years ago.

800px-Social_Networking

The problem with the vast and complex community mind of social media is that it does not accurately reflect the true nature of the human condition. It creates the illusion that everyone is always happy, eating delicious food and doing interesting things. The proliferation of this illusion indirectly disparages the darkness as not worthy of sharing, something to be hidden away, something worthy of shame.

I am just as guilty as everyone else. I only share  my best photographs, the ones that paint me and my life in the most positive light possible, the natural smiles, the awe inspiring vistas and inspiring quotes. I’ve never written, “feeling pretty lonely today” or  “struggling to find my life’s purpose” for one of my status updates.

Happy moments are made ever more poignant and powerful, more worthy of sharing and celebrating by the existence of sad moments, the recognition of our vulnerability and humility.

We cannot have light without the dark.

The problem with a dualistic way of thinking is it promotes the idea that opposing things are separate and at odds with one another when they are actually unified and working together to create something greater.

“The word happiness would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” – Carl Jung

I am often depressed. I am also often happy. This is what it is to be authentically  human.

And this authenticity, this vulnerability is what we should share and celebrate together.