The Loss of Spirit in Religion
Today Christmas is largely about the worship of materialism rather than anything spiritual. The spiritual themes get lost in the noise of the clang of cash registers ringing, and the stimulus of sales and wrapped presents under the Christmas tree. The key themes of birth, renewal, and the fostering of forgiveness and compassion are largely relegated to those who attend church, or who watch an old Hollywood rerun of one of the biblical epics that tend to run at this time of year.
Most people can relate to the theme of birth and renewal at Christmas even if they do not practice it themself. The more subtle but equally powerful themes of forgiveness and compassion are a more hidden theme of Christmas that are universal and both encompass and transcend all religions and atheist or agnostic groups in society.
The concept of forgiveness and compassion are powerful psychological states that create healing and growth in people. The ability to forgive is a significant indicator of emotional intelligence in a person, whilst the ability to have empathy and the resulting state of compassion is a necessary state of anyone who would claim to be truly spiritual and no longer living from self interest.
Increasingly we live in a world where “me” is worshipped at the expense and subordination of the “we”. This increasing Narcissistic tone in society is driving out the ideals of empathy and compassion and is leading to a more aggressive and isolated world for the people in it. We live as a result in a paradoxical world of both global connection via technology as well as global disconnection via a lack of heart. The various loneliness indexes used by researchers showing this increasing problem in our society.
The recent neuroscience work of Stephen Porges and Sue Carter have highlighted how we all have socially architecture brains which require regular social interactions with other humans to maintain mental, emotional and physical health. The currency of social exchange is both mental (language), emotional (emotions/feelings), and bodily(Oxytocin and Neurobiology). The outcome is either illness or wellness over time.
What is now being understood is that some people will substitute the social attachment process of the brain that creates the basis for relatedness, compassion and love with other people, by instead bonding to a “safer” substitute. A safer substitute to a human may be the internet from which we hide behind to create a false idealised image of self, create mock “friends” on Facebook, and basically withdraw from life.
Another substitute may be the attachment to materialistic objects such as cars, boats, wealth objects, more money, more houses, and opulent living. Still others attach themselves obsessively to a hobby like coins, or an interest like the gym junkie or tri-athelete.
We cannot prevent the social engagement process of the brain driving us unconsciously towards attachments, but how we attach, and with what we attach ourselves to, tells us much about our ability to naturally attach to other human beings in a meaningful way.
As a result of our social brains and the social engagement impulses in all of us we end up interacting with many people and in many ways. In some of those encounters we find the experience pleasurable and some others neutral or even unsatisfactory. Some encounters start out as one of these but change throughout the encounter, or perhaps over time to become another type of outcome. We may start out as enemies and end up as friends or the other way around.
One of the universal problems in us human beings is that many have an inability to forgive another person for perceived or real hurt and transgression against us. This problem has existed forever and has historically been the subject of explicit teachings and mention in traditional religions, as well as being part of the basis by which legal codes and laws were developed to provide remedies and processes for those with grievance against another.
There has been a rise in litigation over the last 10 years in civil courts by aggrieved parties attempting to get justification, compensation or revenge against another party or person. Lawyers note how more people than ever today are prepared to head off to the police or a lawyer and attempt to initiate action from a place of anger, slight and outrage.
The issue is partly due to our Narcissistic society and the messages and values such a society espouses. Today we find people determined to be right rather than be in truth with each other. It is increasingly common for people to seek advantage, to use, to lie, and to betray another in one’s own quest for happiness or the quest for power, success, image, self-gratification or wealth.
This creates a larger body of aggrieved people who then harbour strong negative feelings against those who transgressed against them. It is quite easy for those people to become victims to those who offended them. In some cases such as heinous crimes like murder, rape, assault and theft of major assets this is quite justified. The victim is truly a victim. Redress is often justified.
In other cases we find that the “victim” is more embarrassed, shamed, exposed as deceiving, wrong in fact, or morally weak. The slight is more to their ego than anything substantially manifest, or there is no real trauma other than to their image or reputation, or sense of being found right and correct in all things.
Some victims find themself angered and outraged and unable to let go of what may not be tangibly substantial but they turn the event internally into a perceived slight of major proportions. They may then find their sense of emotional and mental stability undermined as they react and erupt every time they think of that person or that event. They may in fact endure more suffering at their own minds over time than in fact what they suffered in the original event.
Such people often dwell incessantly on the issue and then start to harbour revenge fantasies, or might find themselves becoming obsessive about the issue and so losing a sense of balance and perspective about the issue, which then affects their present time health and well-being, as well as preventing them from “moving on” in their lives.
Some dramatic personalities such as the Narcissist are known to mark out their enemies and critics for revenge for life, and remain obsessive and negative without remission over time. Many more people are less dramatic but this overall tone can pervade people and keep them from being unable to come to completion with people and events from their past.
It is true that to the degree that you are stuck ruminating over events and people from your past, is the degree to which you are not consciously in present-moment time, and to the degree that you are unable to be happy in the present moment. If we are facing our past then we are not present to this moment and are not able to face our future in any real positive way.
Look at it this way. A perpetrator who offended you may have moved on with their violation of you nearly 20 years ago. If we have held onto that hurt for that 20 years then the hurt only still exists in our own mind and it is punishing only us, not them as they have moved on and forgotten the incident.
Hopefully this perpetrator learnt a lesson and wisdom and took that forward with them and became a more conscious and aware person as a result of whatever happened. Regardless the only person now still suffering is you and the only person still persecuting you is just you. Everyone else has moved on with their lives. Think of a past unresolved hurt and test this wisdom for yourself.
Neuroscience has shown how humans can only place their mind on one object of thought in any one moment of time. The Buddha told us this same truth over 2 thousand years ago and went on to explain how the obsession with the past creates the basis for mental suffering and ill-health.
Before psychology existed we had religion and myths as the primary vehicle to explain truths of our human existence. It is not surprising then that these each both teach forgiveness and compassion as the antidote to the suffering caused by holding on the past hurts and grievances caused by others.
We each need to learn forgiveness and compassion as part of our emotional intelligence in this life. These states of conscious mind are a wisdom mind that sees clearly the situation and can work to bring it to a true completion and leave one at peace with oneself, the aggressor, and the world at large.
Both the Eastern and Western great religions offer insights into the process of forgiveness and compassion but unfortunately some of these great traditions also have historically bodies of teaching and wisdom that can also appear to contradict itself, and also offer encouragement for the revengeful, the punisher, the righteous, and the judgemental.
The sad truth of many of the old traditions is that they then become justification for the lack of forgiveness in such matters, and may even embolden the person to become more vindictive and judgemental. Interpretation of such subjects as compassion versus punishment becomes harder when the overall body of text from the world’s great religions seem to offer both a justifications of punishment and forgiveness.
There certainly is a change in tone or spirit in both the Quran and the Bible where two phases or two different testaments are seen to exist. The lineage of Buddhist literature also traces itself down some key sects based on the spread of the teachings from disciple to master through the ages but they differ more in emphasis of practice than in key differences in such core themes and ideas.
The Bible has key differences in the emphasis of the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is easily seen to codify laws and follow such prophet led guidance as the 10 commandments and the laws of Abraham and Moses. The whole era of these teachings was a bloody period of wars, survival and unrest in the biblical lands and punishment, retribution and righteousness was a theme in these early books.
Biblical scholars always point to the bible as being the source of how to interpret the bible. One way the contrast or appearance of difference in the compassionate teachings of Christ are to be viewed against the early teachings of the old prophets is found in the New Testament. Few of us get taught how to recognise such contexts as laid out in the bible itself.
The key verses pointed at by scholars are those where the Old Testament is basically coined “The Law” as it describes and proscribes many laws and rules and rituals for the faithful to follow. Apparently Jesus stated several times and in several ways that he had come to fulfil “The Law”.
The advent of Christ and his teachings are coined as “The Light”. “The Law” pre-existed him and these laws were those that the faithful people needed to live by. This way of being was now at its logical end and the new way of being was to be that based on Jesus teachings. This is referred to in Romans 10:4 “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth”.
The problem we face in our modern age is that not everyone saw Christ in this way, and both some Christians and all Jewish followers by definition, still adhere either partially or fully to The Old Testament. This makes sense if you are Jewish but no so as a Christian. Such a basic split has created much of the religious persecutions, differences and confusions since that time.
If one believes what Christ had apparently said then it was followed up with a key verse of relevance today where we are instructed to keep the spirit of The Law, and not blindly and rigidly adhere to the letter of The Law. The key verse is “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”(Galatians 5:14). If the various Christians of the world all followed this one basic rule then I think the world would be a better place.
Basically Christian and Buddhist thought all meets at this place in terms of how we should treat and be with each other. We are being told to forgive, to be compassionate and to accept and love each other. If we love our neighbour we would then not kill them, steal from them, hate them, punish them, persecute them, ignore their suffering, or judge them.
All “The Law” is packed or rolled up into this one easy to follow and remember idea or “Law”. Its a pity this seems so overlooked by many “religious” people who go about justifying their own righteousness and judging others as bad, wrong, sinful or infidel.
Remember that Christ gave a warning that “The letter (of The Law) killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).What he means is that those who live by religious idealism, black and white laws, and righteousness, are killing their own spiritual life. Likewise if you live from your heart (“spirit”) then you will feel alive and be spiritually alive.
Unfortunately many religious people of the various faiths become bound by laws which then create the basis for judgement which I find to be the biggest ignorance to be found in religious communities. It is a psychological truth that a person with an insecure self or low self esteem may compensate by trying to be right and then find solace in that fact or opinion.
The world has witnessed the rise of judgemental and righteous people from among the key religions all through the Ages, and who then judged others, and then went on to wage wars, persecute, discriminate and subjugate non-believers and their cultures and beliefs. The rationale was always couched in some judgement or righteousness that demonised the opponent.
The Jewish faith has been the subject of continual persecution for its history. Many fundamentalist Christians and atheists wrongly refer to the Jewish as “God Killers” or “Christ killers”. Biblical history shows that the high priest Caiaphas plotted and organised the arrest of Christ in conjunction with his Roman compatriots, which included some of the jewish Pharisees working in appeasement to Herod, Roman Governor of Judea. It was a political intrigue of sorts.
Christ himself identified his killers, saying “”For he will be delivered to the Gentiles (Romans not Jews) and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge him and kill him”. (Luke:18:31-32). Jesus Christ was raised Jewish himself and constantly reaffirmed them as his chosen people, whom gentiles (non-jews) should love, embrace and get along with. Human history and evolution of some forms of theology has largely ignored this fundamental truth.
Likewise in current times the studies done on religious communities show that in fact many tend to evolve from good beginnings and then operate like cults over time. They organise and grow around the initially positive idea that followers should encourage each other in their faith and also mundane aspects of life. They tend to create leaders who often then promulgate the faith.
Each of the great religions can be found to have quite a number of precepts and rules for “right living”. The problem that researchers has found is that these communities become closed systems over time and all the members start to indulge in “group think” where the creed or faith dominates thinking, and which may replace adult critical thinking.
Adult critical thinking can become a liability in such communities as if you do not “have faith” and completely follow the dogma then you may be “at risk”, under the influence of Satan or some negative force, of need of further attention to overcome doubts, and at possible risk of ex-communication. Peer pressure often means that conformity is seen as true faith. This is how cults also operate.
Research has shown over time that “outsiders” are to be viewed with suspicion and friendships may even be discouraged. Outsiders may hold alternate views to the community view and so may be at risk of contaminating the faithful follower. A healthy system encourages debate and openness with the wider community as such contact and interaction also helps with adult critical thinking of important ideas.
Buddhism encourages people to explore everything and believe nothing. What they mean by this is to acquire wisdom by having experience and not just by reading and thinking about things conceptually. There is no blind defence of the dogma nor punishment or fear of another idea or belief. All should be investigated so one can make clear conclusions that will deepen as a result of that inquiry.
The world’s great religions have setup an inter-faith dialogue committee and programme of exchanging of ideas that are “common” to all faiths in the world. Unfortunately very few people know or hear about this process and the process does not lead to significant statements of tolerance and inclusion from its members.
In the closed system religious community there is typically a natural attitude that we are “saved”, “the chosen ones”, “right”, or “enlightened”. No one would follow a faith that did not profess to espouse “the truth”. Much conflict occurs as various groups argue over who is right and which religion is the valid one. Most great religions are not inclusive in this key point and sometimes compassion and understanding seem to disappear when arguments start around this defining topic.
Unfortunately for us humans when we have a conviction we are “right” our egos are likely to start to judge others as wrong over time, and from here create a narcissistic form of being special. Spiritual pride is judged by advanced spiritual masters as being a great fault and a great obstacle from authentically advancing down the spiritual path. It is said that such a mind fosters a self delusion of specialness that is hard to overcome once in place.
I can find no reference in the New Testament of The Bible where advice was given to judge others. In fact if we follow the words of Christ as reported by Paul then we find the opposite is true, ”Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by The Law; ye are fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Those of spiritual pride tend to have a blindspot to such words. Pride kills spirit.
Biblical scholars tell us that Christ told the communities of his day to be very wary of this great fault of spiritual pride, and of relying on The Law rather than spirit or the heart. Parables were simple stories with powerful meanings which the simple, uneducated and advanced folk could all understand at their particular level of consciousness. They are a bit like mythic stories in this sense.
The particular parable outlined Matthew Chapters 9 – 25, and Luke Chapters 11-12, is commonly known as the parable “of the ten virgins”, and employs the use of lamps with their light and the oil in the lamp which creates the light, to illustrate various key concepts about spiritual preparedness, but also the folly of following The Law rather than the spirit of the law (light from the lamp).
Ask someone today what this parable is about and most likely you will draw a blank stare. The key cautions against spiritual pride have been dropped or forgotten. It is far easier to find references to “an eye for an eye” and sinners “shall be cast into a great lake of fire”, but it is this more literal and condemning language that seems to catch the attention of many religious adherents.
Likewise in the Quran we find two key varying themes of instruction and wisdom. The Quranic scholars I have spoken to basically state that these two broadly different groupings of teachings reflect different circumstances and periods in the life of Muhammad.
The first section is broadly referred to as the teachings of the time in Mecca where a compassionate and inclusive face is shown and accommodation to non-believers is articulated. The second section is broadly referred to as the teachings of the time in Medina where a different and harsher and exclusive tone in the teachings is seen. Much of the modern day muslim terrorist problems stem from the place from where inspiration and guidance is drawn and interpreted within this framework
The resolution of two frameworks of teachings has been a problem for any religion where such differences appear over time in the core teachings of that faith. Apparently in Muslim faith in modern times there is a principle of “nasikh” which many followers use to assist in deciding which principle is the appropriate principle to follow in the situation at hand.
This appears to be a form of progressive revelation meaning that some of the older teachings may be superseded or at least defer to later teachings. The harsher teachers are the later and potentially more progressive ones under this framework.
As has been the case in history we are again faced with the onset of religious wars where one or more faiths wage war or jihad to secure the faith or to express its intent. Religious adherents find the justification they need to persecute and wage conflict against non-believers and so often do so from a righteous place.
What one may notice in such religiously righteous people is the lack of compassion and the lack of forgiveness in their makeup and their beliefs. Such people ignore the parts of their faith that dictate compassion, empathy, love of others, and a social responsibility to integrate into the wider community they are part of.
A religion that fosters a closed system of segregated community is not a system of psychological health. Monastic communities of seclusion are an exception to this observation as they isolate to deepen their spiritual development through isolatory practices and not from righteous judgement or exclusivity.
The spiritual ideals of compassion and forgiveness are intertwined and cannot exist in isolation. One cultivates and develops compassion and then the forgiveness attitude and practice flows as a result of that compassionate nature. Compassion creates the basis for forgiveness and tempers the impulse towards punishment, revenge and retribution.
In the recent press in Western Australia there has been a noticeable piece of commentary made by Margaret Court about the need to condemn gay marriage. Religion will always play the part of speaking out and attempting to influence the values and ideals within the communities they exist in. This is a part of healthy democracy.
Unfortunately we often see announcements and proclamations which focus on the negative and which are about condemning and shaming others from the value system held by the faith concerned.
Very few of the same people come out with strong messages of peace, love, compassion and inclusion.A Western societal trend has been the mass defection and cessation of many people in attending churches and following organised religions. A part of this trend has been the loss of the face of forgiveness and compassion in such churches and religions.
What inspires people is the positive ideals of love, compassion, forgiveness and inclusion. This aligns to basic social-engagements aspects of our brains and our humanness. Increasingly we find the churches no longer provide thought leadership on positive life affirming themes in life. They are mute and instead only speak out in reaction, often condemning of others based on some issue in society.
Religions have to make an effort to connect with their communities in a positive engaging way and not just from a place of caution, judgement and condemnation. A religion that supports the community will in itself find support from that same community. Any group in the community that seeks to place itself above the community and then judge the community will lose relevance and credibility in the eyes of those who it seeks to find fellowship.
Remember that Christ said not to forgive others 7 times, but 7 times 70 times, or basically forgive others until you die. Christ associated with prostitutes, lepers, rejected persons, and showed compassion, healing and saw their suffering. He was not like the Pharisees who hid behind rules, rituals and laws whereby others were judged and rejected. Why then are we not able to be as tolerant, compassionate, inclusive, and able to discern whatever fault we perceive about them without needing to discriminate, shame and judge them.
One of the main problems I have perceived as I have travelled my own spiritual path over the last 30 years has been the gap between what is proscribed as “what” we need to be and the lack of “how” to become that ideal or principle or live with a realised mind from that place.
Human beings need training and discipline to change from whatever base natures we come into this life with. Western religions promote some great positive and compassionate ways of being that accord to following their faiths. The problem as I see it is that apart from the primary teachings of such faiths there is often little available training in developing the emotional intelligence of followers.
One finds that many bible study groups produce outcomes where attendees achieve greater knowledge of scripture and the Bible wisdoms but yet they may not develop a shift in the way their emotional natures view life and others.
By this I mean that a person with rigid, black and white thinking who lives from their head and intellect, may absorb all the dogma excellently. The real problem becomes their minds now have a new set of rigid, black and white constructs from which to critically appraise life, but they have not been able to shift from that critical judgemental nature that accompanies perfectionism.
In some cases they become worse as now they have fervour from which to apply a new set of black and white constructs, rules, and the total sense of being perfect and right if they rigidly follow these new learnt constructs. Their heart which went missing in action possibly from childhood criticism and trauma is still absent from their religious conversion and training.
The history of the world is full of reformed alcoholics, abusers, and disturbed people who repented and converted and then went on to become religious tyrants. We see the same thing today. We find the double standards operating today. The same priests and church leaders who come and protest about gay people and promiscuity in general are often then found to have colluded, ignored or minimised instances of paedophilic or sexually abusive priests and leaders within their own communities.
The Church in Ireland is a case in point. The catholic and Anglican churches in Ireland have held immense power amongst the nation and its communities for centuries. Priests were often heard making fire and brimstone preachings and shaping government policy on illegality of abortion etc.
What has now been uncovered is possibly a century of systemic abuse within and across the same religious communities, and where systems of relocating offending priests, persecuting and denouncing victims took place, with cover-ups between police and the church state. The double standards speak loudly and the faith of the people in Ireland is now broken. Mention priests, religion and the church and hear the scorn and bitter humour that spills from the mouths of those raised under this system.
The real failings in all the great religions hinge around this essential fact that once the faith became a powerbroker within the community it lived in, and its holy founder died, power, rules, and head based spirituality gradually crept in. When humans control the masses of people whether through religion or politics, the power of this experience tends to corrupt those who wield that power.
There are numerous books that examine factually and historically how each of the world’s great religions have evolved and how this manner of churches and religions becoming the powerful equivalents of political operators came to be across the world. Organised religions all suffer this evolution principle to some extent.
Such institutions became very rigid, rule and ritual based, and indeed a succession of spiritual leaders and powerbrokers added new rituals, dogmas and “truths” to the original faith such that in present time we may all be practicing a form of religion based on historical political considerations that do not have true roots in the spiritual beginnings of the faith. The essence of faith or the “spirit” of the teachings are often lost or minimised in the reframing and evolutionary embellishments that took place over time.
Many people now claim that the great world religions have lost their way, lost their own spirituality and have morphed into self serving power centric organisations of great wealth as a result. The religion has become a business and is run along such principles. The public finds a certain dryness, a lack of spirit, a lack of community relevance or voice, and so find a disconnect or irrelevance with that faith in their individual lives.
At Christmas there is supposed to be a spirit of renewal and of compassion and forgiveness. These are all themes of heart energy that are not about the rigid, black and white head based energies. Christmas is of the heart and about these heart based themes. The concept of giving at Christmas is part of the focus moving away from the self and considering others, which is all part of compassion.
If you want to develop compassion and an open heart then one powerful way is to cultivate the practices used by Buddhists for thousands of years as a way of realising compassion and love at the core of their being. They have powerful methods to create what Western religions talk about but often fail to be able to help followers create within themself.
Adopting a Buddhist practice for the purpose of creating a Christian outcome aligned to Christian faith is not a hearsay despite the rigid and intolerant claims of some. Buddhism at many levels is a tool and system of psychological self-development and its many practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and visualisation is now commonly used in western psychology, medicine, business and other disciplines.
The actual practice is well outlined in the profound book entitled “Universal Compassion” by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Basically the practice involves thinking about ourselves in relation to others in a way that dissolves spiritual pride, negativity, judgements and anger.
The first practice may be summarised as the creation of the mindfulness where we think “may I take on defeat and give victory to others”. This simple but powerful practice is one where we start to dismantle within us the idea that we need to always right, and that we always have to win. In fact it promotes the concept of being humble and feeling OK about not winning, not having to prove you are right, and offering the other person the benefit of being right instead of yourself.
The second practice that supports the ability to do the first mentioned practice, is that called “equalising self with others”. In this mindfulness we recognise that in all the behavioural and other differences that we see in others, behind all that we are all the same.
The common ground of our humanity is that we are all trying to avoid suffering and we are all trying to find pleasure and happiness. When we can realise this we can see and treat others as our equals and look beyond whatever ways that person goes about trying to achieve these ends. We are in that sense all equal and all in the same boat in life.
The next related practice is that of contemplating why the excessive cherishing of ourself is not a basis for happiness, and will only lead to suffering. The logic in this contemplation helps to shift one away from self centeredness and ego over-inflation which many righteous people suffer from.
There is also a related practice of contemplating why it is healthy and positive for both and others that we learn to cherish them as much or even more than ourself. This practice builds the basis for empathy and compassion as it takes one out of the way and lets us include others in our view of life.
The next practice involves meditating and contemplating on the profound practice of exchanging self with others. Here one finds that one employs the developing empathy and compassion to emotionally develop a wish that you could help that other person with their suffering by exchanging your situation or self for theirs or them. Here you are actively interested in having the intention to help and notice others and you are now really starting to “love thy neighbour”.
An extension of this practice then becomes possible by building on exchanging self with others by also meditating and contemplating on the profound idea of taking on another’s suffering and giving them love and healing. In this practice we actively open our hearts as we try to give forth love which is the basis for the “spirit” of Christianity and of most other religious traditions.
In this last practice we bring it “alive” and make it dynamic by mounting it on our breath. This powerful method works by imagining that as we breathe in we draw in their sickness and suffering and burn it up as black smoke, and then as we breathe out we send them love and healing. This breathing linked dynamic then becomes a powerful living process that purifies both the self and clears the mind of selfish pride, self-obsession and narcissistic behaviours and ways of being.
Any of us can practice these goodwill processes and we do not need to be either Buddhist or religious to do so. Each practice is basic common empathic humanity that we each should practice as human beings. At Christmas time the best gift we can give ourselves and each other is our humanity and the love, caring and compassion that comes from that place.
A related practice is volunteering our time to others. A 2011 BankWest Happiness survey found that those who did volunteer work and actively gave to others as a dominant part of their lifestyle were one of the happiest groups to be found in Western Australia. The survey found that volunteers scored 79 per cent in the Subjective Happiness Index, compared with the W.A. average of 70 per cent.
The respondents who were volunteers felt safer, thought they had a better standard of living, a greater sense of achievement and purpose, and felt connected and related to their community. Volunteers found they had a passion for their work and were motivated from values rather than money.
I hope that each of you can strive to keep opening your hearts towards each other and not let the often rigid rule based practices of organised religions make you find more reasons to keep you separate from and judgemental of your fellow humans. Instead try to embrace each other as one in our humanity and the world can then start to live and move to a safer and more spiritual basis for all.