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.

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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.

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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.



 

Let it go

Non attachment is a concept that rises to the top of my consciousness every time I sit down to write one of these posts. I suppose that is appropriate because attachment is the root of all suffering and I am interested in the prospects of ending suffering. I have found in my experience that the reason for my suffering very rarely has anything to do with what is actually happening at any given moment in life.

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When I was a trial attorney, I suffered a great deal imagining situations that never transpired, projecting my fears of being unprepared or  public speaking or failure onto myriad moments that, objectively speaking, were actually quite peaceful.

Moments of potential stillness, where awareness of details like my breath or the awesome radiance of the human eyes around me, the sound of laughter, the feeling of vulnerability and humility, the simple awareness that I am alive, that I am here, conscious that I am having this experience rooted in mystery and wonder, with this capacity to create beauty with love, always has the potential to bring me peace and completion.

Instead I too often allow the loud and persistent story-teller in my head to scream so loudly and stomp so heavily that I’m literally hypnotized by it, rendered inert, unable to snap out of its suffocating grasp, forgetting to breathe and listen and see and feel.

I do the same thing as a writer. Every moment is alive and buzzing with infinite potential, the world is literally a ball of clay that molds according to my intention. But nothing happens if I’m rendered inert by my captive attention to the screen of the mind, the inner hater and doubter.

That ball of clay will just sit there always buzzing with infinite potential and I will sit by its side looking off into nothingness and not breathing and then I will die.

I think it was Picasso who said “The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.”

Creation without attachment

Like the Japanese monks who write haiku, place them in a bottle then toss them to the sea, the Tibetan monks who labor meticulously creating complex images and patterns out of multicolored sand then just sweep it all up and pour it into the river.

I create because when I create that loud and obnoxious voice with the megaphone is locked out of the room and I am here now operating according to my design in the same way water flows across rock and trees reach for the sun.

Being attuned to the truth of the moment and attempting to capture it with words, I am tuned into the only thing that is real. The only thing that is permanent and infinite is now.

The only a-hole that benefits from praise, accolades or riches is the a-hole I locked out of the room because he’s holding me back.

Well he can’t hold me back anymore.

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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.

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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.