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Is Life an Illusion? Can a Child Have Two Faiths? Apocalypse Now?

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“To these perennial questions, I offer some answers—not to close a conversation but to broaden one. I do not claim to know anything you don’t know, but if I can help you remember what you already do know, I am blessed.”

To these perennial questions, I offer some answers—not to close a conversation but to broaden one. I do not claim to know anything you don’t know, but if I can help you remember what you already do know, I am blessed.

I have a Hindu friend who says that life is maya—illusion—but if life is maya, then nothing matters. Am I misunderstanding him?

A Hindu swami explained maya to me this way: Imagine that you wake up in the middle of the night to find a deadly snake coiled next to you on your bed. Filled with terror at the thought of being bitten, you spend the night frozen in fear. But as sunlight floods your room the next morning, you discover that the “snake” is really a belt you forgot to put away the night before. Maya is mistaking the belt for a snake and living in fear of your own illusion. Does the snake matter? No. Does the belt? Yes. It is your perception of life, not life itself, that is illusory.

But there is more: As the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi taught: “The world is an illusion. Only Brahman (God) is real. The world is Brahman.” The fully awake person does not divide the world into real and unreal; he or she sees both as God. When you see the world in this way, maya becomes lila—divine play. Now you can enjoy the snake at night and tighten your pants in the morning. That’s enlightenment.

How do I know if God is happy with me? And what do I do if He isn't?

I make a distinction between God and godliness. God, for me, is reality: all that was, is, and will be. Godliness is engaging reality in a way that cultivates creativity, love, kindness, and peace. When I act godly, I feel happy. When I act ungodly, I feel fearful. So for me, the question isn’t “Is God happy with me?” but ‘Am I living in accordance with the godly?” If you are, then you are basically happy. If you’re not, then you’re prob­ ably not happy. If you aren’t happy, ask yourself, “Where and how can I make my life more creative, just, loving, kind, and peaceful?” Work toward this and you won’t ever have to doubt your relation­ ship with God.

What does it mean to be enlightened? How do I know if I am enlightened?

Let me tell you what I believe enlightenment is not: Enlightenment is not egolessness, selflessness, or emotional detachment. It is not about the super­ natural, the irrational, or the magical. I believe enlightenment is about deep passion and even deeper compassion; about childlike curiosity and fearless creativity; about boundary crossing and loving self, stranger, and neighbor as the faces of God, the singular source and substance of all reality. Enlightenment doesn’t reduce everything to the One; rather, it sees everything as the One. If you think about enlightenment at all, you can be pretty sure you aren’t enlightened.

I’m Catholic and my husband is Jewish. We are going to have a baby soon. Is it possible to raise our child in both religions?

Possible? Yes. Wise? I think not. As organized religions, Judaism and Catholicism are mutually exclusive: If one of them is true, the other is false. O f course, you can teach your child both religions and let her decide for herself, but this often leads to a subtle (or not so subtle) competition between spouses and among in-laws.

I would suggest something different: Why not raise your child with the truth as you and your husband understand it? I suspect you share a common set of values and that your positions on God, love, justice, compassion, and humility are
not so far apart. Articulate the faith you share and then draw from your respective traditions to make that faith real in your family life. Don’t wait for your child to be born before you do this; in fact, don’t do it for your child at all. Do it for yourselves and your marriage.

I’m always hearing about the coming Apocalypse and how God is going to destroy all life as we know it. Are you worried about this?

Apocalypse comes from the Greek word apocalypsis, to unveil. I believe we are in the early stages of a global unveiling, a global tearing away of the false notions of self and separateness that breed fear, greed, violence, and exploitation of person and planet. This tearing away will be fierce, and many of us will suffer and cause others to suffer as we cling to the veil we insist is truth. If we survive it, nothing will be the same. Religions will no longer sanction hatred, misogyny, and xenophobia; nations will no longer pro­ mote jingoism and war; economies will no longer run on scarcity and greed, and people will no longer be driven by anger and fear. But we may not survive it. That doesn’t worry me, but it does sadden me.

The world would be better off without religion. Without it, what would we fight over?
We’d fight over race, politics, and economic systems. And if we eliminated those, we’d fight over height and weight. And if we eliminated those, we’d fight over right- and left-handedness. People don’t need religion to fight; they just need someone to fear—we need to eliminate not religion but fear. True religion, as I see it, is about cultivating fearless compassion. We need more of that, not less.

I'm afraid of dying before I have banished my doubts about God and Jesus. I'm afraid that if I die still questioning, I will go to heil. Can you help me with this?

I can’t tell you what to believe, but I can share what I believe. I believe that God loves questions more than creeds, doubt more than dogma, and faith more than belief. I believe that God wants you to investigate reality as best you can and learn to live with the fundamental uncertainty that such investigation brings. And I believe that the only hell is the one in which you live when you imagine a God who fears honest questioning. Don’t try to get rid of your questions; try to ask ever more challenging ones.

At the age of 611find myself questioning the existence of God. I did not think one way or the other about this until I went through a bout with breast cancer. Can you help me?

The more you question, the more you read, the more you explore, the more open you become not to some idea about God, but to the experience of God.

I believe God is the source and sub­ stance of all reality. You are to God as a wave is to the ocean. You were created that God might come to know God through/as you. Sometimes it takes coming face to face with death for us to wake up to our true nature.

Let me recommend The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who Ton Are by Alan Watts. This might be a good place to start your studies.

And let me recommend as well that you begin a meditation practice. If you are a Christian, try Centering Prayer. You can find the basic instructions online. If you would prefer something more Eastern, try Mindfulness Meditation, also easily available online. Read widely. Let your questions keep you free from fixed answers. And commit to a daily meditation practice.