Saturday, April 9, 2011

spiritual discomforts

Reading an internet comment about the difficulties of being a Buddhist linked by marriage to a Mormon family, it occurred to me....

It really is very pleasant to be among friends who share spiritual beliefs or interests. And one of the most relaxing aspects is that you don't have to talk about what you already agree can just kick back, open a beer and talk about baseball or a fashion trend or the relative merits of pine and mahogany or the implacable mobility of kudzu. Of course, among friends, spiritual life is not out of bounds as a topic of conversation, but you don't have to nag and natter and be constantly on guard or selling ice to Eskimos.

But when someone is odd-man-out, when all around are of a different and sometimes heated persuasion, then teenagers wonder is they should tell their parents, potential relationships can seem perilous and ... well, it isn't relaxing at all. And it isn't easy. Everyone would like to explore their own lives in their own way. Sometimes it's a fuck-you move and sometimes it is just a quiet yearning that really hasn't made up its mind yet.

How nice it would be to have friends who would say, "By all means! Snoop. Investigate. Find out for yourself what makes you happy. I wish you all the best." Of course they would be welcome to say, "Boy, that sounds off the wall to me!" but it would be nice to be among those who wished you well, whatever the direction... who, to use some feel-good words, were tolerant and loving simultaneously.

But of course some of our friends and acquaintances are not so accommodating. And, come to think of it, we ourselves have lacked a similar encouraging demeanor in the past. But our own missteps are not the immediate concern. Just now, we may wish that others could be gentler with our seeking and experimentation. The frictions of what feels like intolerance are the immediate concern.

Getting down to spiritual brass tacks, Buddhism makes an effort to accept and even encourage others in their spiritual adventures. Christianity and Islam, being the teenagers on the religious block, are often tasked with convincing and converting those who do not see things from a Christian or Muslim perspective. They can nag and natter and have a quite hardened view -- my way or the highway; if you don't do it this way, I see a fiery future in your tea leaves. Sometimes they are so locked in that they simply cannot imagine any other way.

(As a quick aside, Ramakrishna, a 19th century Vedanta Hindu, once said, "Always speak to everyone of God." On the face of it, this sounds almost Christian or Muslim, but Hinduism, which matured before Christianity or Islam were a twinkle in their daddy's eye, encourages its patrons to know who, precisely, God is ... which is a lot different from merely believing in (and selling) God.)

So what's a poor Buddhist to do? Spill the beans and suffer the hundreds of ways in which others can suggest -- nicely and not so nicely -- "you are wrong?" Keep their interests to themselves and yet yearn for an environment in which friends and acquaintances might encourage and honor their adventures?  Run away to the Himalayas and live in a dank, purified cave? Or search out some cozy monastery? It's exhausting, after a while, being surrounded by those who do not agree. It's sometimes enough to bring tears to the eyes. And it can be a pain in the ass, making room for those who make no room for you.

I have no cookie-cutter solution to such difficulties. Buddhists are encouraged to see things through tolerant eyes, to embrace a world of diverse possibility, to examine the eyes through which they see. Others are not trained in this way. And, to top things off, lord knows it would be a pretty boring world -- what a damnation! -- if everyone agreed with me.

But one of the interesting things about spiritual differences is this: Look at how beliefs -- whatever their nourishing aspects -- twist and mangle what Lincoln once called "the better angels of our nature." Look at the ways in which what I believe is not so very different from the hotly-assured teenagers who insist an my fiery future. And whereas there is little or nothing I can do about someone else's approach -- teenagers will be teenagers -- you can't just ask them to "grow up!" -- there is something I can learn from their fervent beliefs. These are beliefs I would not recognize if there were not a similar capacity within myself to be a pimply-faced firebrand. What are my beliefs? How strongly do I believe them? At the same time that they nourish me, to what extent to they trip me up and hog-tie my life? Do I need them? Why? What would life be like without them? Skip the knee-jerk, sounds-good answers to such questions. Set aside "tolerance," "love," "compassion," "enlightenment" etc. Take a look and see what's true ... and then look some more.

From this point of view, the discomfort we can feel among those who decline to encourage or love us can be a pretty good teacher. True, it does not provide the comfort we might long for among those whose company we seek, but if it cannot yet be loving, at least it can be instructive. If all around me seem to be willfully filled with blind spots, well, doesn't that tell me something about the nature of blind spots ... more specifically, my own blind spots? Beliefs deserve our loving and investigative attention. This is our adventure ... and those who disagree are giving form to the very investigation we need to make. I wouldn't say that we always like making such an investigation -- sometimes it sucks... big time -- but the fruits it bears are considerably sweeter than simply feeling ill-at-ease or constrained or sorry for ourselves.

I'm not sure if any of this makes much sense. It's a sunny day here and I look forward to standing on the peace picket line. Everyone gets warm in the sunshine.

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