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.