“I am not the generator but the transmitter of energy. There are sources beyond my imagination that I can draw from – all I need do is to open myself. I am not alone, and life is not confined only to what I see. When I open my inner vision and ask forces I cannot see but that I can sense to guide, sustain and protect me, I experience serenity and a sense of well-being.” –Tian Dayton, “Daily Affirmations for Forgiving and Moving On
The above quote was today’s daily affirmation in one of the works that I reflect on each morning. I read it before my run and it planted itself like a seed in my mind. The sweat from my run acted like water and soil for the seed and soon it started to flower into ideas and reflections.
That particular book was recommended by my therapist and, to be honest, I was a little skeptical when I started reading it. I talked to her about my concerns and she gave me a homework assignment to further my reflections. I explained that the talk of “god” and “higher power” rubbed me the wrong way and had me rolling my eyes a bit. As is often the case, we dove a little deeper into why I felt that way.
The basic reason was simple. I have become more of a man of science than faith. While I recognize there are things we don’t understand (and may never understand), I shudder at the concept of god or supernatural forces. My conversation with her (and the subsequent assignment) made me realize that my understanding of these things was unnecessarily limited by my past. Basically, I put these words in a tiny box that was linked strictly to my Christian, conservative, public school upbringing.
One of the great ironies of my upbringing is that I was taught to believe in a “personal Jesus”, as long as that Jesus looked and acted exactly as I was told he should. The world I was raised in was one of absolutes. There is an objective right and wrong, truth and lies, us and them, etc. Everything was binary with no room for nuance or interpretation or subjectivity.
There was one right way to have a family. It was a married man and woman with children. Anything else was either wrong, at best, or perverse. If only others would wait until marriage for sex and then never divorce then all homes would be happy.
There was one right religious belief. Protestant Christian was it. The Catholics were wrong, so were the Mormons, and don’t even think about branching outside of Christianity. If only others believed what we believed they would be saved.
There was one right culture to have. “White” suburban American culture was right. Black urban “African-American” culture lead to crime, jail, and that hyphen caused them to only be partial Americans. If only others would act like us there would be peace.
Well, that’s not exactly true. There was room for nuance when it served the political needs of the community. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is generally translated as “Thou Shalt Not Murder”, which makes sense to me but Christians seem incredibly comfortable with the (what I would call) murder of innocent people during war, even when that war makes no Christian sense. As I’ve said before, Americans are “God and Country” people, but not necessarily in that order. The truth is, when presented with the choice between flag or cross, many firmly pick the flag.
Side note: Do you know which of the ten commandments is “thou shall not kill”?
The 5th! If you use St. Augustine’s system, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Samaritan Pentateuch, or Lutherans.
The 6th! If you use the Septuagint generally followed by Orthodox Christians, the Jewish Talmud, or Reformed Christians
The 7th! For Philo
I really only mention this because I was raised to believe that the Bible is infallible and true as written. That there is no fault in it and it is the literal truth of what happened. But, as my education has branched out I have learned that there are different Bibles with different books depending on the point in history, denomination, etc. So, either the absolute truth changes with time and place or there is some human fallibility that comes form interpretation and such… which means maybe we should err on the side of peace and “love thy neighbor”. Any book that has unicorns mentioned several times as a historical fact is possibly symbolic or has translation issues that naturally occur over 2,000 years across languages and continents. If word translated to English 400 years ago doesn’t match our image of an animal today then maybe potentially complex issues like sexual immorality may have some of the same translation issues.
Damn. I got off on a tangent. Back to my original point…
I was unnecessarily limiting my definitions of what spirituality, god, and higher power is. My therapist asked me to come up with my own definitions that I could use in my own life instead of relying on what I was told to believe in the past. I kind of hated this assignment but I am committed to improving my mental health and I trust my therapist, so I did it. Here is what I came up with.
Higher Powers: I made this plural because that made more sense to me. This is kind of the focal point of my beliefs and the other two exist in relation to this concept. Basically, I see higher powers as the forces in the universe that can have a significant impact on our lives but are outside of our power to completely escape.
This includes physical laws like gravity as well as things like good, evil, love, natural selection, evolutionary drives (sexual attraction, fight or flight, etc), sexual and relationship orientation, etc. Now, I’m not saying we are helpless in the face of these higher powers or that they necessarily have a universal positive or negative impact on our lives. Like all things, I think there is some variation and subjectivity to it, and we have some control.
We can certainly fight the higher powers, that fight can be difficult and damaging but in some cases it may be worth it (ie, evil, urges to murder, rape, steal, etc.). But life is easier when we work in sync with higher powers, and in an ideal world we find balance between fighting and working with, we learn to “row with the flow” of life and combine our own focus with the natural forces to guide our lives in the way that is best for us.
Often, higher powers combine and we create archetypes to make it easier to comprehend. The polytheist religions did this very explicitly with their pantheons but we do this outside of religion (as we currently define it). Marriage is often a combination of sexual attraction, romantic love, commitment, evolutionary drive to procreate, community norms, etc. Art is a combination of physical laws, creativity, rebellion against authority, etc.
God: This was the most difficult concept for me to really identify and separate from higher power. For me, God is simply all the higher powers combined. It is the universe, “Truth”, the way things work. I am God, you are God, the rain is God, reality is God, imagination is God, death is God, my computer is God… they are all the culmination of innumerable forces that are beyond understanding or control. God is all and all is God.
Spirituality: Once I nailed down my definition of higher power this was fairly simple for me to identify. I see spirituality as the explicit pursuit of one or more higher powers. That pursuit can take many forms. The pagan who performs a seasonal ceremony to welcome in winter is practicing a spirituality that combining a number of higher powers including death, physics, time, and others. The Christian that kneels in prayer is similarly practicing spirituality towards their combination of higher powers (in the form of Christ or “God”). The marathon runner is likewise being spiritual as they pursue their passion, the painter is spiritual while they hone their craft, and one or more people giving each other pleasure are also being spiritual. Spirituality is simply an attempt to live in sync with higher power(s).
I realize that this probably sounds batshit crazy to many people. It probably would have to me a few years ago but one of the major revelations I’ve had in the last decade or so is that it is okay for me to come up with my own views. Nearly everything in this world is open to a level of subjectivity. Relationship styles, love, health, success, and even spirituality should be tailored to each of our individual souls.
2,000 years ago it made some sense that life was arranged in a uniform way spiritually, politically, and socially. Very few people interacted with people who were different (unless they were killing them) and the ability to share and refine ideas wasn’t technologically available. We also lived in a very poor society where life was relatively solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. If I lived in a 14th Century village and I decided that I didn’t believe in the same God, wanted a polyamorous/bisexual relationship, and wanted to spend my days making music then I would become an outcast and/or starve to death. We live in a privileged time because we can ask these questions and find ourselves closer to truths.
In the past, there were self-evident truths because we knew so little. We wanted a solid foundation because without it the center could not hold. Simplicity and uniformity was necessary, but we don’t live in the same world as we did 10,000, 2,000, or even 200 years ago. The physical laws are the same but our technology, society, and culture are different. The forces that act most prominently on our lives have proven to be more wild, varied, and nuanced than our ancestors could have imagined. There are simply very few, if any, binaries in life.
So, what is one to do without that objective stability?
I say first, rejoice. The world is so much more beautiful with mystery and variety and the ability to be true to yourself. I would rather live now than any other time in history. Sure, even 50 years ago was simpler. As a white, hetero-passing, man in America my word was law and I could basically do whatever I wanted (as long as I didn’t harm other white, hetero-passing, males). What I simple, easy, powerful life.
I would feel like a god! But much like toddlers, I could feel like a god but really be stuck in infancy. The simple life is not a full life. None of us can reach our human potential if we stay stuck in the old ways of thinking or if we desire to return to our infancy. I cannot return to the crib any more than our society can return to the 50’s. And thank God for that.
I don’t know if we humans will survive our societal adolescence. I hope so, but I don’t know. Like many people when they enter their teenage years and move into adulthood, there is a longing for childhood. We idealize those days of freedom from responsibility, but it was really just a freedom from life itself. Instead, we need to look forward… look forward towards the day when we can make our lives our own, when we can struggle and grow and love and be adults.
You can’t find your passion and experience true love as a child. As a person we need to break the chains of childhood that our parents used to keep us safe (and trapped). We need to go out on our own and discover what our truth is. And, as a society we need to break the chains of childhood that those in power use to keep us safe (and trapped). We must ask the hard questions, make mistakes, try new things, and discover what life is for us.
Luckily, throughout the ages tools have been discovered. Much like a good parent preparing their children for adulthood, philosophies and religions across time have helped prepare us for societal adulthood. We just need to look outside of our upbringing and open up to the experiences of others. If we do that we will discover some universal principles of human existence.
People have started piecing together these universal principles as best they can. Just look at Aldous Huxley’s “Perennial Philosophy”, Carl Jung’s “Collective Unconscious”, or Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Reading the texts that have lasted for thousands of years show us a glimpse of human truths. The Buddha doesn’t sound that different than Jesus who sounds like an ancient Stoic. The Upanishads and the Bible and Meditations share similar proverbs and parables to guide the reader.
We will be stable if we recognize past “truths” for what they are, branches on a tree. Christianity is a spiritual branch attached to the Tree of God. Sure, if you take away that branch from people they will fall. Unless you help them recognize that it is a branch and not the tree itself. Guide them to the tree and they can find other branches or wrap themselves around the trunk for stability. That way, when one branch falls they still have stability. As political parties and religions and social institutions rot and fall away we will stay strong, as long as we recognize them for a part of the whole and not the only truth.
Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Questions: pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”