22 May Ditch the Dogma, Keep the Spirituality
As a teenager I spent a lot of time in the tunnels of Boston’s subway system. They were brightly tiled in red, blue, green, and orange, and there was a smell that I’ll never forget – not terrible, not pleasant – that poured forth in gusts as a train approached. I sat on benches with my head down, doing homework or reading the liner notes of albums, and generally nobody bothered me.
Except the evangelists, that is. I was often told that I needed to accept Jesus as my lord and savior – or else burn in hell. One guy had a sandwich board that listed all the reasons you could go to hell – rock ’n’ roll, masturbation, homosexuality, fornication, socialism, feminism, atheism, etc. – and he liked to give me the stink eye as I walked by. Sometimes I’d run into the Hare Krishnas, who told me that my whole way of life was wrong and tried to get me to come to their temple. And at home, we were visited weekly by Jehovah’s Witnesses who were determined to win us over despite being told repeatedly that we already had a religion.
Religion felt like a heavy inheritance, and these exchanges made me averse to being told what to believe – so averse that I threw the baby out with the spiritual bathwater and turned my back on it altogether. Eventually I was able to recognize that the spiritual connection – which religion aims to facilitate – doesn’t require a religious structure, and it certainly doesn’t require dogma. But even years later, having studied yoga, qi gong, reiki, acupuncture, Daoism, and other practices that offer a non-dogmatic approach to spiritual enrichment, I still found it difficult to speak openly to students and patients about spirituality because I didn’t want to come across like those evangelists – pushy, judgmental, and condescending.
However, I had seen firsthand the positive impact of a spiritual practice – and it’s supported by scientific research: people with a spiritual practice tend to have less stress, greater resilience during challenging times, more positive engagement with community, better health, and a longer life. So, little by little, I began delicately broaching the subject. I touched on it in some articles, and then Briana and I covered it a bit more explicitly in the book The Well Life.
Meanwhile, I observed more and more cases where the presence of a spiritual practice was instrumental in a patient’s recovery. It would be untrue to say that people can’t be happy or can’t overcome challenges without a spiritual practice, but for those who find it difficult to achieve lasting happiness or who seem beset by one challenge after another, a spiritual practice often makes the difference. The same is often the case for those who feel their achievements are somehow hollow, or who constantly feel that something is missing – that emptiness may be the absence of a spiritual dimension, a means by which one’s individual pursuits are connected to the whole.
Finally, a few years ago, we decided to stop beating around the bush. We wrote a book called Rituals for Transformation – a 108-day process for awakening this dimension of your life. Briana doesn’t really have any hang-ups around this topic, but I was a bit nervous about releasing it. Even though it’s not a religious book, I thought it might push some of those buttons. After all, religion has been not only a structure for spiritual connection, but also an instrument for political control, discrimination, and genocide – and these associations aren’t easily erased from our collective consciousness. But part of our aim with this book is to help people see that spirituality is the baby that many of us threw out because we didn’t resonate with the bathwater. Your spiritual life is yours to define, and spirituality is available to everyone – religious and nonreligious, theist and atheist.
When you have an experience of this dimension, whether through prayer or mindfulness or a spontaneous connection with nature that transcends everyday consciousness, it’s funny to consider that we talk about wanting to give a sliver of our lives to it, or that it’s “available” to us if we’d like some, like, “Sprinkles are available for your ice cream,” because the reality is that it’s always here, and it encompasses the whole of your life.
But a little is enough, so we were careful not to make Rituals for Transformation so ambitious as to be difficult to complete. I remember my first qi gong teacher explaining that although we were beginning with exercises that would only take 20 minutes of each day, the change in consciousness they’d produce would begin to spread into the rest of our lives. She was right – it wasn’t long before I started to be aware of my energy and below-the-surface interactions with the world, even when I was just walking down a street or eating or having a conversation.
I’d love to hear about your experience with religion and/or spirituality and how this practice has supported you – or, if you don’t have a spiritual practice, what has gotten in the way.