I grew up in a very stereotypical conservative Christian household, immersed in fundamentalist republican thought, where my all-or-nothing personality tendencies were fused with a narrow minded version of a right-wing agenda. I was told to view everything and everyone under one very specific scope. There was little room for change or acceptance of those different than me, my family, or our family’s like-minded social circle.
The internal conflict I was feeling from my upbringing versus how I felt about people however plagued me for years. My nature was to care about and love everyone equally, but my upbringing encouraged judgement and harsh criticism of people, places, other spiritual paths, and cultures I literally knew nothing about. It created in me a very distorted view of the world and of everyone around me. I lived most of my adult life that way, spewing countless unsubstantiated opinions about topics I really knew nothing about.
It wasn’t until 9/11 that I started to realize, “Oh, we are all in this together, you know…..the humans.” It was the catalyst for one of the biggest paradigm shifts in my life. Something started to change in me. I realized how little I knew about world history, conflict and other cultures. I almost felt like I had to start over in my approach to everything. Spiritually, I now needed a new set of answers, more reference, a more expansive set of information with different points of view attached to it. I needed a new outlook that focused less on humanitarian fractures created by people’s differences and more on the potential unity cultivated by our similarities as a species.
In Buddhism, I found just that.
The quest for peace
Fast forward to 2008, during my divorce, I got a hold of a book called “Storms Can’t Hurt The Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce.“ by Gabriel Cohen. As someone who brought only a history of the skewed version of Christianity to the table, I was skeptical about this book but I was in so much emotional pain at the time that I was grasping for any new answers that I hadn’t heard before, new ideas presented to me in a way that I could understand immediately. This was a very tall order given the thunderstorm of an emotional state I was in at the time.
I hesitated when first opening this book. I feared that my programmed instincts about right and wrong, everything I had been taught to believe, would be revealed to me as off the mark. I feared that my spiritual background was all just a smeared farce built on a foundation of personal insecurities and a prescribed path full of side effects, passed on to me by my loving, well-intentioned, yet incredibly insecure parental units (God bless them). I worried this book would reveal how clueless I actually was.
I opened up the book…..chapter 1, page 1, sentence 1….I was hooked.
I was blown away by how simple Buddhist principles and ideals were. I still believed in God, very much so, but there wasn’t anything in this book that I could find fault with. In fact, if you strip away all the rhetoric that humans have attached to modern day Christianity, leaving only the good stuff – peace, love, forgiveness and living a life of service to others – at the core, you’ll find Buddhism in the same sandbox.
I started reading other books and learned a couple meditation techniques (which I still struggle with). I felt grateful for the new ideas and refreshing approaches to dealing with the bad and appreciating the good. More importantly I was learning how to appreciate the bad for what it really is — a moment of life experience that could teach me a great deal. I also realized after starting down this path, how much work there was to be done on the inside so that I could be more effective for others on the outside moving forward. Now I had some new tools in my toolbox.
Buddhism is hard
I learned quickly that Buddhism is like Yoga…if you are unfamiliar with it, from the outside it might look like something anyone could do, but when you have to actually do it, the amount of focus, strength and endurance it takes can kick the crap out of you. Also like Yoga, the rewards are always 10 times better than you had anticipated and you always learn something new about yourself, making you much stronger and wiser the next time around.
Growing up I was always told, “pray and everything will be ok.” I learned that while that might be true in the space/time continuum sense (time heals all right?), many times I’d pray and it was NOT okay though! Sometimes it wouldn’t be ok for months. As a Christian trying hard to “be Christian,” where did that leave me? When praying didn’t yield a reasonably immediate result to fix a bad situation or ease the crappy feelings, what then? It felt like I had nowhere to go.
I still believe in the power of prayer. But now I also believe in the power of meditation for oneself. In my opinion, we aren’t all helpless, Godless heathens running around the planet like famished crack heads hoping to make St. Peter’s short list. As someone who loves and believes in Christ, I don’t subscribe to that. I believe those approaching God with that particular mindset are greatly minimizing the power of the same God they claim to praise.
Buddhism taught me that regardless of what religion you follow or faith you’ve chosen, simple principles that you can manage and work on yourself here on earth can empower you, making you a stronger soldier for whatever it is you believe, even if you are an atheist! It taught me that I don’t have to be helpless just because I’m struggling or that I need to deny certain emotions so I don’t offend or bother anyone. It taught me that I don’t need to maintain a certain lifestyle according to the social pressures of a local group of people so that I could justifiably show up on Sunday to meet them at their place of worship and consume their free coffee and donuts.
Most importantly, it taught me how to look at things like pain, loneliness, despair, stress and anxiety much more constructively without all the strings of guilt and shame attached to them….all the strings that I was unfortunately raised with as a Christian, not just by my parents but by Christian society.
The beauty of Buddhism for me, is that it didn’t have to replace my other beliefs, it only gave me an extra set of tools to strengthen them. There are many many flavors of Buddhism but for those considering checking it out for the first time, the book I mentioned above is honestly a great start for the newbie. After reading it, it was clear that this book was not just for people going through divorce, it was for anyone looking for thoughtful new insights and ideas on how to handle some of life’s biggest challenges.