From time to time I ruminate on the varieties of religious hatred and intolerance in the world — and at our very doorsteps. It can be tough going.
However, every once in a while a story comes along that helps me to see that chaos isn’t the only reality.
As I was going through some of my old files, I happened to come across this article written by William Bloom, a well-known British educator and author in the field of holistic development.
It’s called Community of the Heart: an Inter-Faith Story. Here it is:
My friend, Andrew, never knew what to say to the orthodox Rabbi and the bearded Mullah. As a businessman working with his local community and chamber of commerce, he met these two clerics regularly. The conversation was always difficult. His nightmare was that he might have to sit next to one of them through a whole meal.
He eventually became a student of holistic spirituality, learning many different methods and styles for exploring spirituality, as well as certain core skills, such as stilling, presence and energy work, that help to deepen their experience.
There are many gateways to spiritual experience: being in nature, conscious movement, caring for others, lovemaking, angels, arts, prayer, worship, ceremony, meditation, reading, and so on. There are also many different personal styles, such as ecstatic, devotional, ascetic, meditative, earnest, wild, careful, adventurous, poetic, reclusive, communal and so on.
Carefully noticing our sensations and altered states helps to bring us into a more conscious, regular and deeper spiritual practice. It makes our spiritual experience more real, less up in our heads. Also, as we allow the connection to enter our bodies more fully, we embed powerful feelings of wellbeing. This is good for our health. It is also good for those around us as we become more benevolent and healing.
It is helpful to recognise that there are so many gateways and styles, because it makes us more welcoming of differences. It also helps us to explore and decide what approach might next be best for our own development.
At the heart of this is the understanding that whichever gateway or style we use, it will take us into the same core experience. We connect with spirit, with mystery, with God, with Tao, with the wonder and beauty of existence.
THE REAL CONVERSATION BEGINS
But back to Andrew, the Rabbi and the Mullah. Over several months, Andrew explored this holistic approach to spirituality. His focus now was on the spiritual experience we all share regardless of our beliefs, gateways and personality styles. For him, meditation was an especially good path, helping him to sense and absorb his spiritual connection.
“When there is peace among religions,
there will be peace in the world.”
HH the Dalai Lama
Then one day he came bubbling into a tutorial session.
“I’ve had a fantastic experience with both the Rabbi and the Mullah!’ he told me. ‘I spent time with both of them, and this time I knew how to have a meaningful conversation. I chatted with the Rabbi about local politics for a while, and then I enquired whether I could ask a question about his religious practice. The Rabbi was hesitant, but he agreed.
I asked him which part of his religious practice took him closest to God, and what it felt like for him. The Rabbi lit up at those questions, and we began a friendly and meaningful conversation.
Later I spent time with the Mullah; and after some small talk, I asked him the same questions. He too was happy to talk meaningfully with me about his spirituality.”
HOPE IN A DIVIDED WORLD
This is very hopeful news in a world where religion is increasingly perceived as a destructive social dynamic.
Researchers asked 3,500 people what they considered to be the worst blights on modern society, updating a list drawn up 104 years ago by the Quaker, Joseph Rowntree. The dominant contemporary opinion is that religion is a ‘social evil.’
One interviewee said, ‘Faith in supernatural phenomena inspires hatred and prejudice throughout the world, and is commonly used as justification for the persecution of women, gays and people who do not have faith.’
This is precisely where understanding the difference between religion and spirituality is so crucial. On the one side, religion is defined as a set of beliefs held by an organised section of society. On the other side, spirituality is about personal spiritual experience and the instinct to explore and understand it.
These two entities – religion and spirituality – can often seem to be in conflict. Week by week, religious leaders complain about the decadence of self-centred spirituality. Week by week, the spiritually ‘enlightened’ complain about the backwardness and violence of traditional religion.
Where religion and spirituality can truly meet, as shown by Andrew’s meetings with the Rabbi and the Mullah, is in humane and meaningful conversations about the actual spiritual experience.
In these conversations, people can share about their own raptures and changes of mood. They can begin to feel safe about their shared humanity and feel less anxious about different beliefs and cultures. They can enjoy enlightening and encouraging dialogues around our personal relationship with the mystery, harmony and awe of existence.
These wonderful conversations require at least four helpful dynamics:
First, we need to create rapport. For each of us, how we create rapport and safety will depend upon the situation and our own personality.
Second, we need patience.
Third, we also need a sense of lovingly and energetically ‘holding’ the situation in a spirit of openness.
Fourth, we need the generosity of spirit and courage to initiate the conversation. We have to cut through the usual social tensions and alienation, and take a risk in order to make a new friend.
All my love,
William Bloom Ph.D., founder and co-director of The Foundation for Holistic Spirituality, is one of Britain’s leading authors and educators in modern spirituality and a holistic approach to individual and community wellbeing.
Funny that this is a common conversation in my little town. My Episcopalian neighbor wants me to join her church and explains it’s not about doctrine, but about community service (as it is for her) and if I were to join any church here, it would be hers because of who SHE is. I have several fundamentalist friends — with whom I refused to attend church — and they are relieved and happy when I use scripture because it opens a conversation between us. A young formerly Amish girl and I had a deep conversation the other day about why shunning cannot possibly be what God wants people to do. It was (naturally) a conversation became heavily supported by Bible verses. I find this is all great and wonderful, but what allows it is that I know the language. They all know I don’t consider myself a Christian. It probably works because I don’t have a doctrine at all so I’m never attempting to convince anyone. If anything, I’m a panantheist and so I don’t think there’s anything to say; we can strive for a useful metaphor, but otherwise? I just believe that God finds everyone and some reach for light and some (a few) cannot. Evil does exist. That whole thing was beautifully explained for me in C. S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce.
So I would add to Bloom’s wonderful idea that an aspect of rapport is mutual knowledge of, and corresponding respect for, each others dogmas, belief systems, whatever they might be, so we can speak together in each others terms. That’s where the open mind comes in, I guess. I don’t have an open mind. For example so called “spirituality” often comes across to be as inauthentic superstition and bothers me very much even though I know I could be completely wrong about it. I don’t think any of us are “clean” if that makes any sense; people we’ve known, negative experiences, all affect our ability to have an open mind. It’s so hard not to be biased.
You’re right; it IS hard not to be biased, and evil does exist. We all carry the potential for evil. Just like that little story of the native grandfather who tells his grandson that good and evil are like two wolves that live inside each of us, each fighting for dominance. The kid asks who will win the fight, and Grandpa replies, “The one you feed.” I think self-awareness and self-inquiry are the only defenses against the wolf of ignorance, or bias, or misogyny, or racism…the list goes on. It’s pretty hard to “unsee” what we’ve seen about ourselves, and we can’t work with what we don’t know is there.
Although I’m not fond of the word “religion,” I happen to like the word “spirituality” (a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves, typically involving a search for meaning in life) and I think I like it BECAUSE it can be loosely applied. It’s interesting to look at the things that appear to fall under the umbrella of someone’s spirituality, because I don’t believe any human being or group has the whole picture. I think it’s more like a mosaic, and each of us has a little piece of it. Some of us may be holding pieces that don’t appear to fit, but as long as they’re not hurting anyone, I’m okay with that, the bottom line being “Who knows?”
If you’ll permit me to use a Christian quote (Paul, of all people, to the Corinthians) and yet another analogy: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face….” I like that in this article, Bloom opens the vision of spirituality to encompass many experiences that perhaps – for a moment or a lifetime – clear a tiny patch of the glass so that we can catch a glimpse of The Big Picture. And in the end, perhaps there IS no Big Picture. But personally, I’m betting on the opposite.
Thanks for your always thought-provoking comments, Martha.
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I definitely believe there’s a big picture. Your definition of “spirituality” is right on. I think all my years in California where “spirituality” was a kind of commodity and it really was “spirituality” vs. “religion” left me jaded about the whole thing — and since moving here the “spiritual” people I’ve met have been mean-spirited and contentious, trading one set of superficial iconography for another and pushing it as arbitrarily as any other religion. Anyway, we’re all always going to see through that glass darkly; I think knowing that is very important. Then we’re likely to take Bloom’s advice and try to have an open mind.
Yes, I’ve met my share of mean-spirited, contentious folks too. Unfortunately, I suppose they’re all part of the warp and weft of life, as my English professor used to say. I just remove myself from their vicinity; not my gig. 🙂
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It’s a huge subject Susannah. Every person, including every religious person and every spiritual person is different. Some of the very worst evil has been committed by way of religion ( the first to mind are the religious fanatics who flew the aeroplanes into the twin towers), and how many wars, going right back to the crusades!! Protestants fighting Catholics in Ireland! They’re all quite mad. I know there has been a lot of good done in the name of religion too. Personally I lean towards Buddhism, and would like to try and be kind to all souls, whatever creed or colour. Nothing else makes any sense to me. Spiritual to me kind of means connecting to all things, people, nature, everything. Spiritual is good! 🙂 Namaste
Absolutely, Jude. What I like about Buddhism is that it doesn’t just say “love your neighbour,” it tells you how to go about doing just that. One word: meditation. (Well, two words, really: mindfulness meditation.) It’s made a huge difference in my life. I also love that the Buddha said (in my words), “Don’t take what I’ve told you on faith alone. Go check it out for yourselves.” He was one very cool dude, that guy.
Because the Theravada and Mahayana threads of the Buddha’s teachings follow that do-it-yourself kind of approach (as opposed to Shin or Amida Buddhism, which tends to value faith over practice), they strongly appealed to me because I’m a do-it-yourself kind of gal. Furthermore, I’ve always experienced a sense of something beyond what my eyes can see, so I’d have to say that I believe in God / Spirit / Yahweh / Creator / Universal Consciousness / Allah …. or whatever name is used in the world to describe something infinitely greater than my little personal self. So I guess I’m a person of faith too, because I just can’t accept the alternative: that this amazing, over-the-top, pain-filled, joy-filled, blow-your-mind existence just dribbles away into nothing in the end.
I’ve never actually studied Buddhism, only taken away certain lessons that made so much sense to me. I also try to remember mindfulness every day. I like ‘do it yourself’ too! Exploring is exciting! And then there’s that saying: ‘I’d rather my mind was opened by wonder than closed by belief!’ 🙆
Thanks for your note, Jude! I’ve been a “do it yourself” Buddhist for sixteen years now. I don’t meditate as often as I used to, but I still find that although mindfulness meditation is a practice that looks–and often is–boring, it can (and has been for me) life-changing. And anyway, judging something boring or whatever is really only another resistance to be worked through. I love that saying too. I’d rather err on the side of having an open mind and heart.
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