August 1, 2011

Why can’t we just admit that we don’t know?

There ain’t no answer,
There ain’t going to be any answer
There never has been an answer
That’s the answer.
~Gertrude Stein

tornado hit my school when I was in third grade. Crouching down in the hallway during the storm in a stressed-out version of child’s pose, I thought, “I am going to die,” and I was not okay with that. Whatsoever.

I went to Mass the following Sunday and actually listened to the priest for the first time. The concept of eternal life perplexed and scared me. Then my grandpa told me that he didn’t believe in the afterlife. There’s no fluffy cloud heaven with angels? Life’s a bitch, then you die? And even after you die there’s no relief? Not what I wanted to hear.

For many years, I avoided thinking of death or the hereafter. I just didn’t let my mind dwell there. Of course, in my studies of yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity I’ve thought a lot about life and death. In the wake of shock and grief, whenever the reality of impermanence abruptly slaps us in the face, it’s clear why we humans cling to our beliefs. Heaven is a comforting thought. Rebirth is appealing. We like to think that our consciousness will live on.

My mom, bless-her-heart, is a devout Catholic. To my chagrin, over the past decade she has transformed into the breed of Christian so full of Jesus’ love that she takes every opportunity to tell my friends about the unshakability of her faith. In spending lots of time with together over the past month, we mostly avoided the topics of religion and spirituality, until one evening of evangelism. I listened, tried to be patient, tried not to react, lent her my copy of Siddhartha, nodded, breathed, stayed quiet.

Finally, after her fifteen-minute soliloquy, I told her what she didn’t want to hear: my beliefs, or lack thereof. Sometime over the past couple years, I’ve evolved into a comfortable agnostic. After having been through phases of doubtful believer, doubtless believer, clueless Buddhist and wannabe atheist for about twenty years, this is a welcome change.

I trust that I don’t know. I love that I don’t know. I know that I don’t know.

Nobody knows. We people want to think we understand things, we know what’s going to happen later tonight, later this year, and after this life.

But we don’t know. It’s okay. Pema Chodron writes, “By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.”

When I told my mother that I don’t believe or disbelieve in God, that I don’t think it’s an important issue because it can never be proven or disproven, and that I’d rather focus on being present and compassionate to myself and others, she said, and I quote, “Give me a break; that is such a cop-out!”

Well, living in questions is not a cop-out, in my opinion. Blind faith is.

To each their own? I guess… though I sometimes fantasize about a humanity without dogma, a society free from religious bigotry and war. (Imagine no religion…) I’m happy that my mom and other religious people find solace and have faith in Jesus, Mary, Krishna, Allah, the Torah, et cetera. I personally find solace and have faith in nature, in the constancy of the sun and moon, for “the springtime that always shows up after the winters,” in the constant breath. I strive to inhabit the present moment. Like all beings, I wish to be happy and free from suffering.

As my favorite aunt says, “Go where you’re fed.” If you’re spiritually fed at a Shiva temple, go there. If it’s at synagogue, or Bible study, or Mass, or a Zen center, or a yoga studio… get thee there, by all means! Just don’t think that you have a monopoly on The Truth. I have to laugh at myself when I look back upon my twenties and recall the times I thought I had it all figured out.

With eternal gratitude to my practice of Yoga and day-to-day experiences of the Dharma, I have reached a point where I can find strength and courage in the vulnerability of not knowing. I am moving toward accepting what I could not accept as a child. Death is a part of life: the ultimate detachment. We love, but we must ultimately let go. Of everything. But the unknown doesn’t have to be scary.

Not Knowing by Stephen Levine

I may not know my original face
but I know how to smile.
I may not know the recipe for the diameter
of a circle but I know how to cut a slice
for a friend. I may not be Mary or the Buddha
but I can be kind. I may not be a diamond
cutter but I still long for rays of light
that reach the heart.
I may not be standing on the hills of skulls
but I know love
when I see it.


p.s. See also my related article: Jesus Wouldn’t Do That

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