Thursday, 24 November 2011

New Age religion or Old Testament? The minefield of knowing where to turn

The spiritual pull might be calling, but then what?  Beginning the journey, trying to tease out what works for you and what doesn’t can feel pretty tricky.  In one corner the stern and often seemingly unforgiving religions, and they seem extra suspect these days.  You’ve got Old Testament flames and anger and and all that eye-for-an-eye stuff and the slippery perils of how Not To Fall into Hell.  Then in another corner, there’s the New Age movement, in which everyone seems to flutter about like hundreds of floaty Mary Poppins’, all breezy and happy, but it’s as though they’re living on another plane, because they seem keen to erase all that is dark and difficult in life.  And sometimes it can feel a bit weird.  Sometimes it can all feel a bit clannish, with the uniforms of the New Age, the earth-coloured clothes, mandatory dreadlocks, talk of permaculture and recycling and strict vegetarianism or veganism, and it can feel a bit like unless you adhere strictly to their ideas, you’re still on the outside a bit.

Good old Humanism is a solid and scientific, option.  It’s a way of being good towards your fellow man without needing to be self-aggrandising, without resorting to a rulebook allegedly written by a God some millennia ago.  It rejects blind faith, and that is definitely a good thing!  This is a good fall-back, option.  But what if you’re hovering around agnosticism, or want to explore notions of God?

It is my view that all religions lead to the same thing – for that reason I’m fairly closely affiliated towards the Bahai faith.  I remember one friend of mine, a Christian, who was one day the focus of a Muslim in a street in southeast London.  “Hey man,” said the Muslim, “we’re all the same, right?”  My friend could have replied in a myriad of different ways.  His response was to shrug and ignore, coming home and brimming with indignation, because:  “the Koran has changed a lot of the key Biblical stories around.” 

What he perhaps hadn't realised was, that just for a second, the Muslim had been able to zoom out of the minutae of it all, realise the lesson of love for everyone which is inherent in every religion.  Realise that love, compassion, understanding, gratitude, these are the messages we need to take on board.  And that they cover all people, all life, no-one excluded because they happen to have joined a different ‘club’.
Not that I blame my friend; he’s the product of his religious upbringing, after all, which tells him firmly there can be only one religion.  He cannot think otherwise, that all religions lead to the same place, because well, who is God if not a Christian God?  His framework of belief, so carefully constructed over the years is reliant upon his faith being the Only One.  To allow in even a fraction of something different might cause his world to implode, as it might for many others. I can empathise with that.  It's the biggest concept we're talking about -- God, and if people find their beliefs shaken, it must feel as though the world is crumbling under their feet.

But this is the way it is for many religions.  People get so caught up in intellectualising the stories, parables.  They have to be truths and there can be only one set of truths!  Jesus said, “love your neighbour” he didn’t say, “only love your Christian neighbour”, or “only love that person who lives at no. 23 because they happen to believe in me”.  It was simply, to love and embrace, everyone.  Religion can often be worn, heavily, like a comfort blanket by people, who get lost in dogma or snippets from the Bible, who think that going to church and mingling with likeminded folk is enough.  We all have work to do, on recognising our own faults, and wearing a cloak of religious virtue doesn’t exclude anyone from this.

I don’t think it’s our duty on this planet to absorb ourselves 100% in material things, I think the soul needs replenishment through periods of contemplation, of silence.  Of noticing the tiny things.  Feeling gratitude for merely being alive, because that’s a pretty big deal. In Buddhism, we begin loving kindness meditation by choosing a neutral person to feel warm towards, then someone you find more difficult.  Because just plunging in and attempting to feel love for everyone is hard work!  Starting with smaller aims then working your way up is a good idea. 

If you are struggling on your own path, if you are experiencing a dark night of the soul, perhaps, not quite sure where to turn, then I would say the beginning is probably with an increase in awareness through meditation, through paying attention, increased gratitude and acts of kindness.  Allowing love – not eros love, but agape love – to permeate every corner of your life where possible.  I don’t think you necessarily need to follow a religion.  But I do think it important to follow your intuition.  If your intuition says you need a religion, then read about religions until you find one that fits.  I think finding out what is missing is as vital as breathing.  And I don’t feel we need only call ourselves one thing – if you want to worship God in a church, dance in a field and worship Gaia I think that must be fine, too!

Often a well-meaning New Ager may say ‘there is nothing you have to do’ or ‘you can wake up others just by finding your own enlightenment, you don’t have to do anything or heal anyone else, just be you’.  But I believe this is misleading.  The path we each have will unfold for us all in its own time.  It may be we cannot see the wood for the trees, that we are so embroiled in our crises that we don’t think we’re making any progress at all.  It’s not until you then zoom out a bit and look at your life from a different perspective that you are able to see the progress you’ve made.  It may be there is nothing specific you have to do, or it may be, without a doubt, that you feel a path unfurl before you.  And this is what is often difficult because it may fly in the face of the materialistic culture in which we operate.  I also believe the universe wakes us all up when it’s time to awaken.  You might be immersed fully in your life and resent the intrusion!  But I do believe once we step into a more spiritual path, that in itself will bring its own reward, as anyone who has had deep, joyful, awakening experiences will testify.  It isn’t all easy by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe it’s worth it; it’s the soul’s expression of longing to find its way back home.

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