I was introduced to religion and spirituality relatively early. My parents enrolled me in a Christian preschool and after that I attended Catholic school from kindergarten to seventh grade. I have a memory from back then which continues to amuse me to this day. I must have been about six years old. I just learned about the Ten Commandments, and what I took away from it was Rule Number One: “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not worship false idols.”
One week later on a fine Saturday morning, my mother announced that we were going on a little excursion. Having no idea what was in store for me, I merrily hopped into the car. Little did I know that my mom was taking me on my first trip ever to the local Buddhist temple.
After getting out of the car and walking into the building, the first thing I saw was a large open room with a number of people burning incense, making offerings, and kneeling in front of a gigantic gold Buddha. I distinctly remember thinking, “Holy shit, my mom is taking me to worship false idols.” I had just learned about the Ten Commandments last week, and here I was breaking the first rule. Things were not off to a good start.
My mom noticed my distress and asked me what was wrong. When I explained to her the source of my anxiety and panic she laughed. To her credit she took the opportunity to teach me an important lesson about acceptance which I have remembered well to this day. She told me “Yes, the First Commandment is very important and we believe in God. But my grandparents, our ancestors, practiced a different religion. We are not here to worship Buddha, we are here to pay respect to our ancestors. And to respect their memory, we should pay respect to the things that they believed in.” I don’t know if anyone could have offered a better explanation to a spiritually confused six year old. The relief I felt was immediate. After that, I became much more receptive to the situation and experience, especially when I learned that they would be serving lunch.
Similarly, I can also say that one of the things that I valued most about the Catholic education I received was the inclusion of religion classes in our curriculum. We were exposed to and learned about all different forms of religion–not just Catholicism. These world religions were all approached openly and without prejudice. As much as the First Commandment demanded devotion, I learned that there were many other verses in the Bible which spoke of the need for compassion and tolerance. Together these early experiences taught me an important lesson on respecting and appreciating other beliefs and perspectives.
During the research phase for this project, I examined various religious texts. I tried to look beyond the differences in traditions and protocols, and instead focused on the overlaps and convergences. The common thread I found running through all major religions was the emphasis on observing the peaceful path with profound regard for others; that we must live together in harmony–with kindness and consideration.
George R.R. Martin wrote, “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.” I’ve made this point before in previous posts about mental and emotional health; and I believe it applies to spiritual health as well. We must cooperate with each other if we are to craft a more nurturing world and a more fulfilling life. We need to build and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships in order to raise ourselves up. And at the same time, we need to attend to the needs of our pack in order for society as a whole to thrive. When we come together as one, we find combined value and strength in ourselves and others. We begin to learn from others. We share ideas and resources. We support one another. We work for the common good of all. This is the way to build a bigger and stronger pack. This is the way to become better individuals. I think these are some of the positive influences of organized religion and the common message contained therein to treat one another with love and respect.
Religion facilitates this process of unity, insofar as it harnesses the power of shared belief while also preaching the importance of acceptance. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishes religious freedom as a founding principle of the republic because it fosters strength in unity. It allows us to join together and reminds us to treat each other as neighbors and friends. Everyone wins, everyone grows. We draw confidence and security from being part of a cohesive community which supports and attends to the needs of its members. Even in the absence of religious customs and ceremonies, social connections help to make life richer and more enjoyable.
We may also receive the benefits of mutual support from our family, friends, or various interest groups–any party held together by shared ideals. In other words, no matter what kind of pack we belong to, religious or secular, we can still enjoy these constructive advantages and influences. As long as we surround ourselves with relationships forged around mutual amity and goodwill. Oxford defines spirituality as “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Therefore, religion can be seen as a pathway to spirituality, and at the same time it is possible to be spiritual without necessarily being religious.
The word that comes to mind when I think about spirituality is connection; as in the importance of connection to our fellow human beings as well as the connections between our various internal states. I have found that when I am physically unwell, emotionally upset, or mentally disturbed I have a hard time tuning in to my spirituality. Conversely, I seem to have my greatest spiritual insights when I am physically fit, emotionally still, and mentally clear. So it appears to me that physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health are all inextricably intertwined.
As we are better able to integrate these various dimensions of health within ourselves we can more readily recognize how they are interrelated. Faith helps people to bond with each other, while also helping to hold ourselves together individually. A strong sense of spirituality can be of great solace when we are faced with physical illness, emotional pain, or mental distress. In times of despair it can be the only thing needed to help guide us forward. Or as Glen Sherley wrote from the confines of Folsom State Prison, “it’s a flower of light in a field of darkness, and it’s given me the strength to carry on.”
By no means do I consider myself some spiritual guru or expert in religion. I can say, however, that my life has been significantly enriched by my study of religion and the exploration of my own spiritual beliefs, so I encourage others to do the same. It remains an ongoing process for me but I find the journey itself to be enjoyable and rewarding. In examining various religious texts I have taken comfort in seeing the recurring universal themes of respect, tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. These findings provide validation for my thesis that in the end we are more alike than we are different. And it confirms my belief that we can accomplish more together than we can separately.
“All major religious traditions carry basically the same message; that is love, compassion, and forgiveness. The important thing is that they should be part of our daily lives.” -Dalai Lama