This simple question has been bouncing around in my brain for the past day or so after it was posed by a social media friend. The question begs an answer, and several friends came forward quickly and claimed their beliefs confidently. I, on the other hand, considered it less of an opportunity to proclaim my lack of doubt in a deity and more of something to chew on it for a bit.
What do I believe? In my history I have worn many labels. When I wanted to raise my children in the church, I took on the label of a Christian, even without fully knowing all that the label entailed. After a decade of wearing that label, I removed that one and took on another – Messianic Jew. Another set of rules, another group of people all wearing the label proudly, and another decade. And in that wearing of the label was buried my beliefs. The strange thing is that not all individuals who wear a particular label actually believe the same things. My fledgling beliefs and curiosity about religious dogma and practice were swallowed up by the expectations and doctrines of a religious label. Those expectations, dogma, and rules became what I called my beliefs, and I affirmed them right along with the others.
I have worn the label of conservative, charismatic, and choir member. I have also worn the labels of observant, kosher, and fundamentalist. But, I have also worn another label that I believe is a side effect of any religious affiliation – arrogant. Now, don’t take that the wrong way, I am not saying that all people who belong to a religion are arrogant; what I am saying is that all religions tell their followers that their doctrine and belief system is the way, the right way, and their follows accept this as truth. They believe that they are pleasing in the sight of God because they are following what they believe are God’s commands and desires by following a belief system. They are arrogant that they are “right” with their deity, and they believe that others can be right, also, if they believe likewise. Frankly, there is nothing wrong with that…except when they are told that they must go and share the ‘rightness’ of their doctrine and recruit new members.
So, the question remains – what do I believe? Do I believe in a deity? Do I believe in multiple deities? Do I believe they exist and can actually play an active role in the outcome of my life, or the lives of those I know? Can a supernatural being make choices for me, speak to me in that ‘still, small voice,’ or provide in times of need? What do I believe when I affirm I have had blessings and others are still crying out for relief? Am I better at pleasing my deity than those who I see hurting? Can I trumpet praises to God for working in my life while others are so obviously ‘unblessed.’ Do I have the answer for them? Can I expect a reward of living forever by pleasing this deity? So many unanswered questions. I have had so many unanswered questions in my religious journey. (Frankly, I have heard all the prepared and given answers, and I find them unsatisfactory because they rely on blind faith and/or mystical experience, which is always subjective.)
After leaving religious dogma, I claimed the abstract label of ‘None.’ As in, “none of that, please and thank you.” I no longer want to bear the judgment of any labels by those who are not wearing my particular religious label. I have studied enough to know that I choose not to participate in any religious organization ever again. That is not to say that everyone who studies religion comes away with the same answer, but that is my experience. And, I think I am closer to an answer to the nagging question, and I perceive it to be a work in progress. I don’t feel I have to prove anything to anyone, nor is anyone who is judging me or my spiritual endeavors authoritative, in my view. I am the driver of my own spiritual quest. (Now, how about that for arrogant!) I am my own clergy and congregation – a congregation of one.
What I do believe:
If this sounds familiar to you, you may have studied Far Eastern philosophy; this is my paraphrase of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. So, have I exchanged one religious label for another? Not really. Since eastern philosophy, or the practice of mindfulness (to coin the modern term) is not a religion. There is no deity to worship. There are no tithes to give. There are no purity laws to determine ‘who’s in and who is not.’ It is a practice - a simple, ongoing path to freedom from suffering.
Many have found this path, and many have written about it. Many who have left Christian labels behind have found it, and many Jews practice and help others find it, as well. For me, it is mindfulness and meditation, it is yoga and centering, and it is awareness and emptiness. It is unconditional, connected, and upholds social justice. It is everything some have feared – it gives complete control and responsibility of a spiritual journey to each individual and no one else.
I believe in the present moment, and I believe this very moment is all that is certain. As we have all heard many times: yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not guaranteed. I believe this, and we must become present in the very moment we are living now. Not lament and regret the past, nor wish for some promised pearly gates. No need to fear the flames of hell, for greed and judgment make hell right here and now. I believe anxiety and depression are rooted in suffering either by worrying about the future or struggling to accept the past. By embracing the present moment, one can train the mind and body to live fully – to be fully alive. But it takes determination, awareness, and honesty. Not to strive, but to be.
I believe I just want to be.
I believe I can be present, alive, and free from suffering in this very moment.
Yes, that is what I believe.
I will leave you with some thoughts from Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Master and spiritual leader, who explains freedom:
"The basic condition of happiness is freedom. If there is something on your mind that you keep thinking about, then you are caught and have no freedom. If you are caught in sorrow and regret about the past, or if you are anxious about what will happen to you in the future, then you are not really free to enjoy the many wonders of life that are available in here and now. The blue sky, the beautiful trees, the lovely faces of the children, the flowers, and the birds can nourish and heal us in the present moment.
Many people in our society are not happy, even though the conditions for their happiness already exist. Their 'habit energy' is always pushing them ahead, preventing them from being happy in the hear and now. But with a little bit of training, we can all learn to recognize this energy every time it comes up. Why wait to be happy? When you walk, it is possible to walk in such a way that every step becomes nourishing and healing. This is not difficult.
Whether you are a businessperson walking across the office, a congressperson walking up the Capitol steps, or a police officer out on the streets, it is always possible to practice mindful walking and enjoy every step you take. If you know the art of mindful walking, then you will be fully present in the hear and now. You can make yourself available to life and life becomes available to you.
Every one of us has the tendency to run. We have run all our lives, and we continue to run into the future where we think that some happiness may be waiting. We have received the habit of running from our parents and ancestors. When we learn to recognize our habit of running, we can use mindful breathing, and simply smile at this habit and say, "hello, my dear old friend, I know you are there." And then you are free from this habit energy. You don't have to fight it. There is no fighting in this practice. There is only recognition and awareness of what is going on. When the habit energy of running manifests itself, you just smile and come back to your mindful breathing. Then you are free from it, and you continue to breathe in, breathe out, and enjoy the present moment."