Musings on Religion, Spirituality, Love and a Little Politics
Not long ago, in a pharmacy, a college-buddy-now-MD I hadn’t seen in years identified me behind my mask and face shield. Dr. RB called out my name and to my surprise, I, too, quickly recognized him despite his facial armor.
Twenty minutes into our catch-up, we discovered that we had both taken online courses during the (ongoing) pandemic. For professional enrichment, he took a class on public health whereas I, purely for fun, took one on religion.
“You’re Buddhist, right?” he asked.
“No, I’m still Roman Catholic,” I replied. “Did you think I was Buddhist because of my post a while back that I meditate?”
“Yeah, I thought you converted.” RB broke the pause abruptly: “It would have been fine if you did, though!” as if catching himself.
“Thanks,” I uttered with a chuckle, quick to assure him that I hadn’t sensed a judgmental tone on his part. “Actually, many Christians meditate, too…”
We continued chatting, and I felt good after eventually parting ways. RB always had a cheerful disposition, and he was very kind to me when we were students. And so the fact that he’d accept me even if I were Buddhist is probably no big deal, but it’s a nice example of placing a person over labels.
Later, what began to echo in my mind was one of the famous lines of the 13th-century poet Rumi, who was also a saint of Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam). One translation of the original Persian goes something like this:
“Out beyond all ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
Physically, RB and I met in a pharmacy. But I like to think that mentally — or you could even say spiritually — we met in this field.
The Peace Within, the Peace Without
How many of us ever dare to inhabit, or even just consider inhabiting, a space bereft of all judgment against others? Against those with different backgrounds, beliefs, preferences or politics? Or against even those who’ve hurt us?
That space is Rumi’s “field.” It’s a space where we see beyond people’s opinions, beyond their personalities, beyond their histories. That field is where we affirm everyone’s essential nature: pure love.
If enough of us did that, imagine: What would the world feel like?
I imagine it would feel like the one evinced by John Lennon’s classic, “Imagine.” Its message makes for a nice contemporary version of Rumi’s field:
Why is imagining so important? Because it’s the first step toward effecting any change. Before anything manifested in this world, it was manifested in someone’s mind first. For all thoughts, as both Western and Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions would agree, create form on some level.
So imagine what life would be like if nobody judged anyone else, but instead saw only the good inside?
And to be clear, “judgment” in this sense is more of a personal demonization — a condemnation of someone’s guilt in the eyes of God. That’s different from judgment in the eyes of the law, which is only a description of whether a transgression was made against it.
So I invite you to take just 10–20 seconds now to imagine being able to suspend all personal judgment against anyone. Or, maybe an easier way to think about it would be to cease all “attack thoughts” on anyone, including yourself. Or better yet, maybe it’s easier to imagine doing something rather than not doing something; so, imagine loving everyone instead.
First, invoke within you that love you feel toward your closest family and friends. The ones whom, if they made mistakes, even hurtful ones, you’d love regardless. Then imagine extending that very same feeling to literally everyone in the world, strangers and even enemies alike.
If you can’t imagine it, then try imagining that you could imagine it.
What does that feel like? Throughout the day, most of us enter into and out of that field, back and forth. The enlightened spiritual masters of the world inhabited it 24/7, and I think our job is to at least try emulating them.
Because if enough of us did, we’d live in a much more peaceful world. To create that world, though, we must first cultivate our own peace within.
What Our Hearts Know to Be True
But much like any good habit — like trying to eat right, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, meditate daily, or live with gratitude — creating peace requires effort. Resisting the temptation to judge ourselves and others is a deliberate practice. Affirming our own and others’ innate love and goodness, instead, is a deliberate practice.
And a challenging one at that. I’ve been consciously practicing it for about 1.5 years now, with greater success on some days than on others. It takes work, but it gets easier with practice.
Do we focus on the mistakes that our physical eyes see? Or, as my favorite author Marianne Williamson likes to say, do we extend our perception to what our hearts know to be true?
And what does the heart know? That the truth of all of us is someone wanting to give love and to receive love. And that underneath the hurt and the mistakes and the loveless behavior lie childhood wounds, and even adulthood wounds, that beckon to be healed.
Free Will, and the Will to Choose Another Way
Well, how do we hold the space that allows these wounds to surface to the light of day, that they might have the opportunity to heal?
By simply choosing to do so.
God’s gift of free will is that, at any given moment, we can choose how to think. How to think about a circumstance, or about another person, or about ourselves. So, at any given moment, we can choose again: choose to see beyond other people’s wounds, and choose not to act from our own.
It’s tempting to condemn and shame wounds back into repression. It takes strength of character — one honed by consistent meditation or prayer or any psychotherapeutic practice — to love even those wounds… quite literally to death.
Because in our non-judgmental, non-reactive, compassionate, loving presence, we allow others — and ourselves — to realize that there’s another way. In ACIM terms, we become “the presence of the alternative.”
It’s easy enough to see this in our own lives. If someone lashes out and you respond with calm, it’s no guarantee, but they’re more likely to stop their destructive behavior.
But if you react with violence in word, deed, or even thought — which they’ll subconsciously feel — they’ll either shut down or double-down. And in either case, the problem is no closer to its resolution. Because, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “You have very little morally persuasive power with people who can feel your underlying contempt.”
Conversely, if you’ve made a mistake, yet still feel safe, accepted, and loved in someone’s presence, you’re more likely to see that there’s another way, too.
And the same principle applies even when you’re beating yourself up for things you regret. It takes but a moment to decide to be good to yourself again. You, too, deserve compassion. And the more you cultivate that within yourself, it becomes easier to extend it to others.
When we choose another way, wounds dissolve — sometimes gradually over time, sometimes in an instant.
Spirit and Ego, Heaven and Hell
Oneness, wholeness, connection — these are a few terms we often associate with peace and harmony. And unlike in the physical world, where our senses perceive individual bodies, in the spiritual realm, we’re one.
When we see eye-to-eye — or, more accurately, spirit-to-spirit — we’re united and can relax in each other’s presence. For how much more comfortable could we get than to realize that, on a spiritual level, we’re one?
The antithesis of spirit is the ego, and it’s responsible for our loveless thoughts and loveless behavior. The Ancient Greeks defined ego in a broader way than how we use the term today. To them, it’s the opposite of oneness. Ego is a sense of separation: a sense of me-ness and other-ness.
These days, outside of Freudian psychology, we usually associate “ego” with words like arrogance, conceit, and boastfulness. Modern usage, however, doesn’t contradict the original meaning of the word. Thinking that you’re superior or inferior in any way, by definition, means that you believe you’re a separate entity: your own island as an individual, or even your own tribe as a collective.
From this “me versus the world” mentality, you’re in your own personal hell on earth — always tense, anxious, and stressed out. You’re vulnerable, and the odds are stacked against you! So you do everything you can to put up walls and manipulate others to meet your needs, even at their expense. Because it’s all about me me me and the world is a threatening place.
The thought system that dominates society today is this kind of “egoic thinking.” Fortunately, again we’re at choice. Do we subscribe to these fear-based thoughts, or do we choose to rise above them?
Heaven on earth is within reach because it lives within. As Jesus said, in the gospel of Luke, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” The esoteric interpretation of heaven is that it’s not a place, but rather an awareness of our oneness.
When we identify ourselves not as weak separate collections of flesh and bone but rather as spiritual beings at our core, we remember that we’re one, and we feel peace.
Religion as a Battlefield
It’s said that the ego is suspicious at best, vicious at worst, and it can infiltrate both personal and collective thinking. To the untrained mind, it’s all too easy to hold judgmental thoughts and not even realize it. That’s because the ego is also sly and insidious, and it sometimes cloaks itself even in a holy mantle — one of righteous indignation.
Framed in this context, religion is fertile ground for the ego. But it doesn’t have to be this way…
Last year, I read a book by the Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh: Living Buddha, Living Christ. I remember being moved that he, despite being Buddhist, considered Jesus to be his “spiritual ancestor.”
That phrase never left me. And I’ve adopted it, because I like to think that although my worldview is predominantly colored through a Christian lens, the great religious avatars of Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, and others who preached love — people I could consider my spiritual ancestors as well — cast their beautiful hues on that worldview, too.
But really, all those colors emerge from the same light.
For centuries upon centuries, every major teacher of every major religion taught love. And the question isn’t, “To which group is God talking?” but rather “Who is the one listening?”
As I mentioned to RB, I took an online course in religion, primarily for personal enrichment. It’s offered by Harvard via the EdX platform and is called “Religious Literacy.”
Analyzing religion from a “cultural studies” perspective, all lessons explored the notion that religions: (1) are internally diverse, (2) evolve and change over time, and (3) impact and are impacted by society. So, students are disabused of any ideas they might have had that religions are static and ahistorical.
It was definitely an enlightening course, and my favorite takeaway is this: In all our moral convictions, it behooves us to be “whole-hearted and half-sure.” We can feel our feelings deeply but should hold our thoughts loosely, that we might remain open to other points of view.
Because throughout the ages, claiming moral superiority — that “my God is better than yours” — has always led to direct violence, structural violence, and cultural violence. Always. Throughout the ages, wars have been perpetrated by those claiming belief in “the one true God.”
But belief is not enough. The experience of God — love — is everything.
So I’d be wary of any teaching that claims a monopoly on Truth. Wary of teachers who foment divisiveness or even just espouse division in any way: you vs. me, or our tribe vs. their tribe. That is the working of the ego or, as it’s also been called, the devil.
In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle offers an interesting interpretation of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. When they ate of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” they gained knowledge of good vs. bad. In other words, the capacity to judge entered their psyches. And the first judgment they made was against themselves, feeling ashamed to be seen naked. In this story, the serpent was the ego.
Holding On to the Truth
But doesn’t all organized religion, on some level, divide? And what about crimes committed in the name of religion?
Well, I think these are more a critique of particular peoples than of what they purported to stand for.
For example, I’ve had conversations with friends who’ve condemned or renounced Catholicism completely. Among their reasons were the “mindless lip service” some seem to pay when reciting prayers during the Holy Mass, and the many abuse charges levied against a number of Catholic priests.
I’d respond that mindlessness and scandal do not define Catholicism. Particular historical mistakes do not define any religion any more than our pasts define us as individuals.
So, instead of being disillusioned by what might have gone wrong, we can stand for what has been and is very right. We pray to and meditate on the ideals, the ones which we cherish in our hearts.
It’s always about the ideals.
Like when, in 2009 during Barack Obama’s inauguration, Arethra Franklin sang “America”:
Part of the song’s lyrics go like this:
Surely, after 250 years of slavery and 100 more of institutionalized violence against Blacks, the line that speaks of the “land where my fathers died” could be a stinging reminder for many Blacks. Yet hundreds of thousands of them, Barack included, listened intently or sang along. With reverence and awe, they clung to the ideals of what their country stood for and could be.
To take a more everyday example, it’s like when a family member hurts you, yet you love them anyway because you hold in your heart the essential being that they are: a child of God, an expression of love.
That’s the ideal, and it’s the truth of who they are.
Many Paths to Christ — Christ Consciousness, That Is
There’s only one Truth, but it’s spoken in many different ways. Still, they all point to the same ideals of forgiveness, compassion, and oneness. Everything that love stands for.
To be sure, my religious orientation takes the outward form of Christian language, practices, and rituals. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others have their own outward form. But inwardly, I think most of us are much more similar than we are different.
I believe that when Jesus said, “I am the way,” he was referring to the state of consciousness he inhabited during his earthly life. He always walked on the “field” that Rumi so artfully articulated.
Jesus’ resurrective consciousness can be called, in the Christian tradition, “salvation”; in the Buddhist tradition, “nirvana” or “enlightenment”; in the Hindu tradition, “moksha”; and in secular language, full “self-actualization.” Different traditions use different terms.
But for me, Jesus’ state of consciousness, not his corporal body per se, is “the way.”
And so, as I’ve mentioned to numerous friends, I’d be honored to listen to, receive the blessing of, and even pray with a pastor (of a different Christian denomination), a monk, an imam, a rabbi, a guru, or any serious adherent of any serious spiritual path of the heart.
“Wouldn’t you feel threatened?” someone might ask. Or, “Wouldn’t that be kind of sacrilegious to your own faith?” I recall one family member seemed to imply the same. But I hold no grudges; such beliefs are all symptoms of the world’s prevailing egoic mentality.
So no, I wouldn’t feel threatened. Alluding to the parable of the wise man in Matthew’s gospel, this house is founded on rock, not sand. And to reference ACIM, “The Christ within you cannot be crucified.”
Furthermore, I think that learning about different religious and spiritual traditions can only enrich the experience of my own.
During six weeks of travels late last year all across India, I remember being fascinated by something I frequently saw, whether as a small decal pasted on a vehicle or as a giant graphic emblazoned across a highway banner. It was an image displaying, side by side, some combination of the Christian cross, the Hindu elephant deity Ganesha, the Jewish Star of David, and the Muslim crescent.
I wish I had taken a picture, but this painting of Gandhi from a museum I visited will have to do:
Gandhi was Hindu, but he welcomed other religious doctrines freely.
And in Mumbai, a colleague, Anuja, and her family generously hosted my friend Chris and me for a spectacular dinner. At the end of the feast, before we departed, they prayed for us in the form of a beautiful Hindu song. I asked for a translation of the original Hindi:
The experience was the highlight of the day-long adventures, and I had no problem fixing my interior gaze upon that which blessed them all the same. I visited Rumi’s field.
In my heart of hearts, I believe everyone prays to the same God. The One we give thanks to at night for all the good in our lives. The One we humbly ask at night to take care of our beloved family and friends. The One we beg to at night to heal our own brokenness. The form of prayer and the names we use to invoke the divine may be different; but the essential substance is all the same.
About a week after my chance encounter with Dr. RB at the pharmacy, I posted on social media something about voting in the U.S. election because I thought change was in order. Soon thereafter, another friend, Joel, messaged me:
“Mark! It’s so good to see your name pop up. I thought you had forgotten all about the U.S. ever since you moved! How are you, my friend? It’s been so long!”
We chatted a bit, and it was a heart-warming conversation, to say the least. At some point, I asked whether he had already cast his ballot.
“Not yet, I’ll do that on Election Day,” he said. “And I actually like Trump. He’s done a lot for the Jewish community here.”
That took me by surprise. Fortunately, never once did I sense any kind of resentment on his part for my supporting the opposition. And I think it was because I was careful not to project onto him any resentment of my own.
The nice thing was, that was very easy, because I genuinely had none. Peace lies not in attaching ourselves tenaciously to labels or to outcomes, but rather in cleaving to the goodness inherent in us all.
Many of the world’s greatest religious and spiritual leaders, like Jesus, never asked that we agree with everyone, or even that we like everyone. But the greatest commandment, Jesus said, is that we love everyone.
I think this advice from ACIM is profound: In searching for the peace of God, do not be delayed by questions of theology, but rather go directly for the experience.
Doctrine and dogma have their place, and they’re to be honored. But again, the experience of God is paramount. And to experience God is to extend love.
Les Miserables has a line that encapsulates this beautifully: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Absolutely, Jesus loved. His way was radical love, for he blessed even the very people who crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
That’s the kind of love that will save the world. It starts with each and every one of us.
It’s not about you vs. me or us vs. them.
It’s about you and me, and it’s about all of us.