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 worry about people who change religions. How do they know they aren’t leaving the true faith for a false one?
I appreciate your concern, but I doubt that anyone can know for certain that her way is a true way, let alone the true way. If there were, faith would be irrelevant.
According to the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of Americans have changed religions at least once in their lives. People are looking for a religion they find comforting and meaningful and for a religious community that is both welcoming of them and supportive of their values. In other words, the “truth” they seek mirrors the opinions they already hold. While I support the right to change religions, I wish we saw the role of religion as discomfiting rather than comforting. Religion should challenge us to break barriers and cultivate compassion and justice for all beings. Too often, religion erects barriers and restricts compassion and justice to those on the “right” side of the barrier. If changing religions just means changing sides, nothing really changes at all.
How important is it to find a good spiritual teacher?
It’s very important. The key word, however, is “good.” I look for three things in a spiritual teacher. First, she always points you away from self — hers and yours. Second, she focuses on practices rather than doctrine, thus shifting the focus from what she says is true to what you can experience and verify for yourself. Third, that your encounters with the teacher are humbling, rather than humiliating; liberating, rather than enslaving; and honoring of differences, rather than demanding conformity. There are many good teachers but many more poor and even dangerous ones. Choose carefully, and don’t be afraid to leave a teacher if you suspect the teaching is more about the teacher than the truth.
I want to find one spiritual practice that can open me to God without tying me to any theology or ritual. Can you recommend something?
While I urge you not to limit yourself to a single practice but to find different practices geared to different dimensions of self — body, heart, mind, soul, and spirit — the simplest and most universal contemplative practice I know is to repeat a word or phrase over and over. In Hinduism this is called nama japa, and it is, so my swami friends tell me, the practice for our age. There are lots of names for God; Islam alone has ninety–nine! Do some reasearch and see what name or phrase speaks to you. When you find one, begin repeating it over and over in the back of your mind. Let it replace the background noise of “I, me, mine.” In time, you will find a growing sense of connection with and compassion for and from everyone and everything you encounter. I do this every day, all day, and I promise it can open your heart and change your life.
I am curious about the science of spiritiuality: studies of the brain during meditation and prayer. Do you think these studies are helpful, or do they reduce God to mere neurons?
There is nothing “mere” about neurons. Without them, we can’t experience anything at all. But knowing that I only experience my dog because I have brain capable of this experience doesn’t mean that my dog doesn’t exist. It just means that without my brain, I wouldn’t be able to encounter her. The same is true of God. Neurotheology helps me fine-tune my brain so that it more accurately attunes itself to the larger reality I call God. There is nothing reductionist about this at all.
I’ve recently left the Catholic Church because of its stance against homosexuals and its protection of pedophiles. My friends within the church are horrified. Can it be that to save my soul I have to submit to a church that has lost its own?
I understand your choice to leave the church and how difficult it is for your friends who stay. They may feel that your leaving somehow marks them co-conspirators in these horrible crimes against children. I would only ask that you not allow the church’s failings to overshadow its value. I have had many God-awakening experiences through Catholic liturgy, count Father Thomas Keating among my most trusted friends and teachers, and am deeply connected to an order of Catholic nuns called the Daughters of Wisdom. Wisdom is found in the quality of the teachers you meet and their ability to deepen your capacity for compassion. I never put my faith in institutions, but that doesn’t preclude me from working within them.
I consider myself a seeker. I read about lots of different religions and have tried lots of different spiritual practices. Several friends have called me a spiritual dilettante and claim that unless and until I devote myself to one way (preferably their way), I will never achieve any real awakening. Do I have to choose one way and abandon my more global search and sampling?
Yes and no. The more you study and experience, the more you will see the truths common to many, if not most, spiritual teachings. Yet the promise of spirituality isn’t knowledge but personal transformation, moving you beyond the separate self to realize the greater unity that embraces all diversity. This can’t be achieved through sampling. So, don’t stop studying or sampling, but do find a practice to which you can devote the bulk of your time and energy.
My parents and siblings are pretty religious, but they aren’t nicer or happier than I am, and I have no religion. Why should I bother with religion at all? Wouldn’t the world be better off without it?
I suspect you mean that the world would be better off without the violence religion engenders. I agree. You could say the same thing, however, about politics, ethnicity, race, economics, and even sports. The problem isn’t religion per se; the problem is the human propensity for violence. A world without religion would be no less violent than a world with religion. The problem is people. What we need is a religion that overcomes the human tendency for violence rather than feeds it. There are religions that seek to do this — Jainism and Quakerism, for example — but they don’t seem to catch on with the majority of people. We love violence too much. Until that changes, nothing else can.
I say “God damn you” all the time, but I don’t believe in God. Is this still blasphemy?
Do me a favor: starting tomorrow morning and lasting for seven days, catch yourself every time you are about to say “God damn you,” and ask yourself what is angering you. Notice how your anger defines you; how it robs you of joy and sours your relationships with others. Deal with your anger first, then we can talk about blasphemy.