WHAT MATTERS MOST

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“Love people, not things; use things, not people.” – Spencer W. Kimball

This Valentine’s Day, think about what you love most. Well… what do you love? Make a list and begin to breakdown which items on your list are centered around people vs. things, and what financial cost is associated with these items. Try to look at your list objectively. As an extra exercise, try to rank your list from what means the most to what means the least.

Advertisers have sold products to the American public again and again with promises of love and happiness that will follow using the product. We have been trained to believe this, and in benefit of the capitalist system, many work for more and more income to spend on more and more things only to find out this doesn’t bring more and more happiness.

I think most of our lists will be made up of people centered items. Or at least, the people centered items will rank highest on our lists. There is nothing wrong with enjoying material things, but when we put our pursuit and enjoyment of those material things before our fellow man, something has gone amiss. In any case, spend Valentine’s Day looking over your list and hold close what matters most.

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IN OR OUT OF THE CLOSET?

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If your faith is different from others living in your area or from those in your close circle of friends and family, you may decide to keep your spiritual beliefs and practices under wraps. The reasons for this are numerous, general shyness, fear of being labeled as ‘different’, the desire to belong, to avoid conflict, and protect oneself from discrimination. Furthermore, it can be difficult to follow your faith if it is being criticized or undermined, so keeping your alternative spirituality in the closet may just be a way to keep it out of the line of fire.

Research on the relationship between secularism and religiosity would suggest that keeping faith closeted would reduce followers. The number of members of religious organizations and those who identify with a faith has fallen since religion was largely sequestered to the private sphere. But occult and mystic belief systems have not only survived, but are experiencing some what of a resurgence in recent years under the rise of ‘New Age’.

In my experience, it seems a large portion of ‘New Age’ followers that keep their beliefs quiet if not altogether closeted. I’ve met very few who are completely ‘out’. This makes sense considering the socially conservative area I live in, but it is surprising that alternative spiritualities continue to thrive just beneath the current of mainstream culture.

If you have any stories to share (good or bad) about your choice to keep your beliefs private or public, please share. How did you arrive at your decision regarding your beliefs and would you make the same decision in hindsight?

INSTITUTIONALIZING FEAR

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For years, endless scholars have discussed the relationship between secularization and falling rates of religiosity. Here, institutionalizing the privatization religious and spiritual matters has not only freed up the public sphere of these items but crept into private lives as well. The intention for secularization was to allow people to freely practice their faith. But the effects have been far more widespread in ways we are still working to understand.

Imagine for a moment that we institutionalize fear of the other. If we create measures to separate, alienate, and ostracize those different from us, what the fallout look like? We may only intend to protect ourselves from a perceived threat, but the actual effects will no doubt go further with that. Will our protection outweigh those effects? If we move forward despite those effects, will there be anything left to protect? This is what we must ask ourselves in the face of difficult decisions.

 

ORGANIZED RELIGION & MILESTONES

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In Western society as a whole, it is becoming more and more common to not attend religious services with any kind of regularity. Special holidays may provoke attendance and participation, but almost any schedule conflict is accepted as a valid reason not to attend. In my experience, Americans will often identify as a member of a religious group even if they do not regularly practice their faith. While frequency of practice has little effect on religious identity, we may look to how an individual chooses to mark milestone moments in their life as a better indication of this. If an individual chooses to share a milestone with their religious organization of choice, this solidifies the individual’s identity with that faith. However, if a milestone is kept outside the religious organization, the individual is more likely to absolve the religion from their spiritual identity.

Why would milestone events hold a closer relationship with identity than more common, everyday actions? One reason is the pressure of family and friends. Loved ones can hold large amounts of influence, and they are often highly involved in planning large events. This combination often encourages individuals to share their milestone in a religious context. If an individual has the will power to defy loved ones in the marking of a milestone, then their will power is strong enough to alter their spiritual identity in a lasting way. Another reason is the magnitude of milestones: births, marriages, coming of age ceremonies. These events don’t come around often, the decisions made surrounding them are lasting. Seldom do people get a ‘re-do’ to mark these milestones. Unlike worship services where people can re-affirm allegiances or distance themselves from religious roots, milestones are often one-time opportunities. This makes the decisions surrounding them weighty, forcing one to think hard on beliefs and belonging, and making it a crossroads for change.

NEW AGE: WHERE A SPIRITUALLY DIVERSE WORLD MEETS

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At various ‘New Age’ groups, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the diverse beliefs of those in attendance and their ability to share meaningful discussion and experiences with the upmost respect. This impression was reinforced at a meditation workshop I taught last weekend. In speaking with the students, it was clear that they were attending the workshop for a variety of reasons and that there were as many different spiritual inclinations as attendees. Despite their diversity, everyone enjoyed themselves and found something to appreciate from the afternoon together. This happy outcome seems all to rare amongst openly diverse groups. So, what makes it work in the ‘New Age’ crowd?

Such success may be attributed to followers’ shared demeanors. In general, New Agers are curious, tolerant people.  But common personality traits between a large group of people seems unlikely. Looking for an underlying cause, we can examine the loose structure of the ‘New Age’ milieu. The overall loose structure would allow seekers to mingle and cohabitate with people of diverse faiths. There are few hard and fast rules to police and enforce. If anything, unwritten rules of etiquette are enforced more than any structural boundaries.

While other realms have more rules and structure, I would like to see them adopt standards of etiquette similar to that employed in the ‘New Age’ groups. This extension would involve not only other faith traditions, but public policy as well. We need to allow diverse beliefs and opinions to surface so they can be discussed and acted upon. The fact that this is already a reality in some groups is encouraging, but we have a long way to go.

THE LONE JOURNEY

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Religion is a community activity. Even personal spiritual traditions benefit from branching out to a wider community periodically. Surrounding ourselves with people that we share beliefs or history with can make us feel safe. When we decide to explore or experience a new faith, we may be tempted to bring others with us on the journey. To keep that sense of belonging, we try to bring community with us.

It is a good idea in theory, to explore and journey with a small group of confidants. Your island of comfort in a sea of unknown. But to know if a new spiritual practice or community is a good fit, a lone experience might be best. There will be no encouragement from trusted sources to over or under commit. Your only obligation is to yourself. Your decision to engage further or continue on will be less affect by outside opinions.

While it may be more intimidating to venture alone, it may be more fruitful. So long as you feel safe (don’t put yourself in any dangerous situations), be brave and go on your own. Be smart about it of course, meet in public places and let someone know where you’ll be and for how long. But with those precautions in place, throw yourself into the experience entirely.

 

Have you been on spiritual explorations alone or with companions? Please share any pros and cons about the company you kept (or not).

CHANGING STORIES

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What we believe and how those beliefs lead us to interact with the world as we know it is complex to say the least. Humans, in their complexity and creativity, create stories to illustrate these nuances. These stories include myths, sacred scripture, secular narratives, and fables. They simultaneously capture the climate of a specific time and place, and focus on timeless themes.

As many of these stories date back to antiquity and have oral origins, the reason for their popularity and longevity is often cited to be lack of available entertainment and low literacy rates. But time has proven a deeper attraction to story telling. One reason perhaps is the versatility. When a story no longer speaks to the day’s audiences, a new story can be crafted to explore the same concept. We can return to the same timeless themes again and again with a story that is current and relevant.

Consider how the stories we tell have changed along with human culture. Over the years, the importance of our stories’ divine origins has ebbed and stories with secular roots have taken root in our culture. I think that whether a story is thought to be passed down from God or man, the most important factor is the content of the story. Can we craft tales that inspire us to persevere, strive, show compassion, be brave, and clever?

What modern day stories do you think fit this mold? Do you think the same story will be told generations from now?