INFORMAL SPIRITUAL COMMUNITY

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Most ‘World Religions’ are centered on community. They build spaces and design rituals to encompass the group. Some Eastern religions take exception to this. Save for large holidays or festivals, daily practice is often left for individuals. These include practices such as meditation, prayer and offerings to the gods or ancestors. For religions with stronger roots to the West, though their emphasis is still on community, there has been a shift in the importance placed on the individual. Modern approaches to Christianity emphasize a personal relationship with God. Community becomes less of a route to the divine and instead a place to find support and ask questions.

This is the role community tends to play in New Age traditions. Seekers develop personal sets of beliefs and practices. Community rituals can be sought out, but groups more commonly gather informally to create a support group. There seekers discuss challenges and triumphs following their faith, discuss ideas introduced in various publications, and network to discover other groups, places, and events of interest. Utilizing community in this way has become easier to facilitate as technology has advanced. The internet allows individuals to communicate across vast distances or make arrangements to do so in person.

Some might attribute this shift to individual centered faith to the individual focused culture in the Western world. I have no doubt that this is a factor at play, but I believe we must also consider this shift to be a resurgence of mysticism. In our busy, mundane lives there is a growing desire to communicate, know, feel, and experience the divine personally. Community becomes no less necessary, but its importance shifts to its functionality as human support rather than divine connection.

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BRIDGING SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE THROUGH UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

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A universal religion is often regarded as a danger. I myself have wrote on this potential downside of globalization; suggesting that generalizations and white-washing will remove cultural richness and the complexity of human intellect leaving only a monotone and over-simplistic spirituality in its wake. These are real concerns to be kept in mind, but I wonder if we could approach the idea of universalism for the sake of deeper understanding, namely in the realm of communication.

Religious and faith traditions are often separated by language barriers due to their geographical roots and histories, but in another respect, they truly have a language all their own that is not easily overcome by simple translation. What if we had a way of speaking about spirituality so that all could understand? Here, I am not suggesting we literally come up with a universal language, but rather a way of speaking free of faith specific vernacular. Rather than concepts steeped in historical context we could communicate via the roots of all faiths: love, forgiveness, generosity, and peace. By using words that held meaning for all, we could share in experiences that are spiritually powerful for all despite our various faith backgrounds. With such shared experiences, how much respect for each other would we gain? How much humanity would we discover? While a universal religion is undesirable because of how it would limit the scope of spiritual experience and belief, a universal language could be instrumental in ending hate and opening our eyes to the big, strange, and wonderful world around us. Further it would work to acknowledge that humans do not simply have not a mired of different religions, but a colorful and complete spectrum of faith systems.

FIRST TIME YOGA JITTERS

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I have been teaching yoga to beginners almost exclusively as of late, and it continues to surprise me (though I suppose it shouldn’t) how nervous the first timers are. I suppose if you’ve never experienced anything like it, your first yoga class might seem daunting or weird. When you bring up yoga, the first thing that comes to most people’s mind is an incredibly advanced posture, in turn intimidating them. Other aspects of yoga rarely get the same attention. Remember the physical ‘asana’ practice is only one of the eight limbs of yoga! Furthermore, physical practice can and should be tailored to meet you where you’re at. If this is done, then anyone in almost any physical condition can ‘do’ yoga.

Another hurdle is that yoga has a language all its own that, for the beginner, can be difficult to decipher. The vernacular or imagery used to instruct a class can cause more confusion that clarity. And if the teacher utilizes Sanskrit without adequate English explanation, the language barrier can become all too real. Lastly, a yoga class is a group activity. The idea of sifting through all this with others potentially watching, can be unnerving. The reality is that no one is watching you. They’re too busy sorting out themselves.

First-time jitters are fine to have, but don’t let them keep you from your first class or from having an enjoyable experience. Namaste!

AN ADVENTURE OF FAITH

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New Agers often move through various faith traditions and spiritual groups as they feed and grow their own spirituality. But other may find themselves journeying from one tradition to the next in times of growth of disgruntlement. Whether the journey is your way of spiritual expression or only something temporary until you find a place to settle, here are a few things to consider:

The only way to know a tradition or philosophy ‘fits’ you, is to ‘try it on’. Be prepared to participate, get your feet wet. Put judgments and reservations aside (within reason, don’t harm yourself or others).

To be a spiritual seeker (temporary or permanent), one must be tolerant, respectful, and tactful. You will come across things you may not like or may not agree with, but nasty interactions will not further your journey.

Normal is relative. What may seem strange to you may make perfect sense to someone else. Try walking in someone else’s shoes. A bit of objectivity could be of help here.

Accept that the beliefs and practices of the groups and organizations you visit may not be your cup of tea. That’s okay! It takes all kinds for the world to go around, and you are just a different kind. Keep searching!

Have fun! Don’t take things too seriously. You will find yourself in awkward situations or flat out laughable ones. Roll with the punches. It’s all just part of the journey.

 

THE INTERFAITH AND NEW AGE MOVEMENTS

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Interfaith efforts and New Age practices utilize much of the same subject matter. Both exist to explore various religious traditions. New Agers do so largely to enrich their own spiritual life. Those involved in the interfaith movement explore faith traditions other than their own to make connections across religious boundaries, facilitate understanding, and promote peace. The main point where these philosophies differ is how strictly they maintain boundaries between different faith traditions. “[Interfaith organizations] recognize the distinctiveness of world religions and see in their variety an enrichment of the human spirit” (Braybrooke in Kirkwood, 221). But New Age followers often blend religious beliefs and practices to create an intricate spirituality that may be shared among followers or be completely unique to a single person.

There is nothing wrong with either way these movements address religious categories. New Age blending provides an immense amount of inspiration and allows for creativity. The danger being the formation of an over-simplistic homogenized spirituality. However, I am confident that the complex traditions New Age draws from will provide items to discuss and ponder for eons preventing blended spiritualities from becoming too simplistic. The fear of homogenization I think is misplaced. If you have ever been in a room of New Agers, you know none have the same views, beliefs, or practices. Without firm categories or labels, it may be difficult to tell who has different inclinations, but these varying inclinations will exist all the same.

Interfaith activities seek to explore religions while upholding firm categories and labels to differentiate the traditions. The effort to preserve religious traditions is noble, but we must not forget that no matter how hard one tries, they can never be preserved completely. After all, the world religions do not exist in a vacuum. The world religions are not ‘pure’. They are fluid and have changed greatly across time due to the influence of war, geography, politics, and popular culture. We cannot, nor should we aim to, suddenly freeze our religions now. As the interfaith movement explores religion with boundaries intact, the natural progression is to allow such exploration without the necessity of categories. Eventually the understanding and peace it sought to create will manifest into something entirely new.

 

Kirkwood, Peter. The Quiet Revolution: The emergence of interfaith consciousness. Sydney, NSW: ABC Books. 2007.

 

 

 

THE ROLE OF HATE IN RELIGION

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In recent weeks, America has been hearing a lot about hate. In this run, hate has been centered around race. Both the supremacists spewing hate and the protesters toting tolerance often use religious themes to support their cause. Religion certainly plays a role in hate and anti-hate rhetoric, but what role does hate have in religion?

Most religions and great schools of thought have some type of long distance goal or reward. Whether it be salvation, nirvana, or enlightenment there is reason to do ‘good’. Somehow it seems like we are closer to the reward when we tell ourselves we’re making more progress than others. Is it just human nature to one-up each other? Since I would like to think it is human nature to help one another, I will offer a different answer: our fixation with opposites and dichotomies. Us humans tend to use duality in our sense of logic: If we are going to get to the ‘good’ place, that means someone must fail or go to the ‘bad’ place. This very human notion has made its way into the great faith traditions and given the false notion of hate in religion.

While I think such dichotomies in our world and our intellect can teach us much about balance and duality, it is important to remember this is a human trait. The divine as a whole is limitless. As is the potential for love in our world. As long as we continue to believe some must suffer for others to succeed, hate will have a place in religion, business, economics, and every facet of life. Rather than dichotomies we must become well versed in unity. Then hate will appear as the choice that it is instead of a fact of life.

THE ROLE OF FEAR IN MAKING RELIGION

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Two people in my life have a significant fear of death and the possible lack of an afterlife. One of these people is not religious. She wishes she was religious and had faith in an afterlife, then death would not be so ‘scary’. The other person is looking for a religion that fits because he says he can’t face death without believing there is something more to come after. That would be just to ‘scary’. Their similar sentiments about fear of death and the comfort religion can provide in that area got me thinking about the functional role of religion and the role of fear in the creation of organized religion as we know it.

In ancient days, people experienced both death and mystical / spiritual experiences. They turned to the mystical for comfort and answers. There they found that the death they knew as a reality, may only be physical death. Fed by spiritual experiences they found hope that there may yet be an afterlife for the spiritual body. People of antiquity went on to create elaborate systems to explain how this could be so. In modern times, we talk about fear bullying followers within a faith organization. When this travesty occurs, we should be reminded that the first religions came into existence to dispel fear. Through history, cunning and power-hungry individuals took advantage of religion and the importance to its followers. Whenever one uses religion to feed fear rather than subdue it, something is wrong.

A criticism you often hear about the comforting function of religion, is that it exists for the weak to feel better about their circumstances. I don’t think finding comfort in the current and historical mystical experiences along with the system of meaning they are situated within is weak, but rather thoughtful and optimistic. Join the conversation: How do you view the role of fear in religion today and historically? How does fear serve to gain, keep, or drive away followers? Would you consider fear to be a key component in religion?