by Diane Linsley
Suffering is the universal experience of all human beings. There is
no escape from suffering. Religions came about as a way to give
meaning to suffering and help people cope with it.
Every person has the right to choose their own way to cope with
suffering. If your religion gives you hope and courage in the face of
suffering, then it has served its purpose. Much of religion is a good,
old-fashioned, motivational talk for dealing with life. We all love
motivational speakers because of the emotional reactions that we
have when we listen to them.
But sometimes religion itself causes suffering. The early stage of
religious fervor gives way to bitter disappointment when life goes
on hurting us, regardless of how faithful and obedient we are. Our
expectation of reward for our righteousness is dashed to pieces.
Church members may disappoint us when we find out that their
private lives sometimes contradict the values that they publicly espouse. In my own life, there were abusers who used religion as part of their public facade.
I clung to my religion for many years, in spite of experiencing all of these disappointments. Religion was a personal experience for me, not a social activity. I read my scriptures often, and I thought deeply about spiritual subjects.
Beyond Organized Religion
I became interested in personal growth after I started meditating with Holosync in 2007. In 2008, a friend sent me The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. This book opened my mind to spiritual teachings outside of my own religion. Over the next 10 years, I read over 300 self-help books. I read books on psychology, philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and New Age spirituality.
My mind expanded beyond the confines of my religion. I found truth and beauty in other religions and spirtual teachings, and I assimilated all of this into my map of reality - expanding my identity and my understanding of the world and what it means to be a human being.
I left organized religion when I got divorced and began living my life in the larger world. I'm very comfortable with not being attached to any particular religion. I love spirituality itself - not just the forms or symbols of spirituality that are found in organized religion.
What is Faith?
As a child, I was taught that faith meant believing in something outside of me (a religion) that was going to save me - as long as I believed.
Now I have a different understanding of what faith means. To me, faith is not a belief in any particular thing or in a future outcome. Faith no longer means that if I am a good girl who believes certain things, then I will be rewarded.
In A Sociable God, Ken Wilber describes the 4 stages of spiritual development: Belief, Faith, Experience, and Adaptation.
Most people confuse faith with belief. Faith is the willingness to experiment. It's an attitude that requires action. When you have faith, you are willing to do an experiment to prove whether or not your beliefs are true. The experiment results in an experience - the third stage of spiritual development.
It's like doing a science experiment. You start with a hypothesis (a belief). Then you create a theory based on the hypothesis. You set up an experiment to prove or disprove the theory. After having an experience, the beliefs that did not pass the test are discarded, and new beliefs are created to take their place. Then you do more experiments to test your new beliefs.
When I was young, I believed that if I was a good girl, God would spare me from unfair suffering. In Coping with Chronic Pain, I write about how I was cured of this incorrect belief after 15 years of unrelenting jaw pain.
Once I started thinking consciously about what I believed, many old beliefs came crashing down, and new beliefs were created to take their place. I call this "changing your map of reality." It's a long and arduous process that requires much thought and effort. In essence, this is what a faith transition is.
My Faith Transition
As I experimented with my beliefs and improved on them, I shifted from accepting what other people told me I should believe to taking responsibility for my own beliefs. Ultimately, I lost interest in fundamentalist religion.
"Fundamentalisms are really anxiety-management systems. That is to say, that in the face of ambiguity, which is troubling and disturbing to ego consciousness, I will grasp towards certainty. I find in fundamentalism a definition of clarity - what's right, what's wrong, who are the good people, who are the bad people. It removes from me the tremendous burden of having to make those decisions by myself on an individualized basis." ~James Hollis, "What is a Mature Spirituality?" - interview with Tami Simon.
James Hollis says that spiritual abuse is like forcing someone to like the same food that you like, and making it a crime to not like it. He asks us to consider what resonates with us. Resonance can't be faked. If it doesn't feel right, then it's not right for you. But that doesn't mean it's not right for someone else.
Why are there so many different religions (spiritual maps) in the world? It's because there are many different people on different levels of development with different core values.
The religion of my childhood worked for me when I was a child. It kept me safe in a world where thinking for myself was not allowed. If I had gone against it, I would have been punished. My religion included much that was good, true and beautiful. But it also had much that was not. As I matured in my spiritual development, I had to sort through all of that.
When I began finding goodness, truth and beauty in other places, I became curious. I wanted to learn more. Eventually, the egoic notion that there was one right religion (mine) was replaced by the joyful experience of continual expansion, which fed my soul. I've experienced all of Ken Wilber's stages of ego development - egocentric, ethnocentric, worldcentric, and finally, kosmocentric.
I no longer need to be right (egocentric). I no longer need to please my parents or fit in with my group (ethnocentric). I try to serve humanity in the world to the best of my ability (worldcentric). But my ultimate joy is in aligning with my own soul and my highest evolutionary purpose. My soul's purpose is aligned with the purpose of All That Is (kosmocentric).
Faith Transitions and Anxiety
It's essential to learn how to tolerate anxiety and ambivalence in order to let go of the past and our old maps of reality. This is where meditation helps. When I first started meditating, I just wanted to cure my depression. But meditation changed my life.
Fear had kept me trapped in a narrow religion that made me feel like I was suffocating. The religion stopped serving my higher purpose years before I became conscious that I needed to leave it behind and move forward. Meditation and other anxiety-reducing practices helped me to let go so I could be free to explore new ideas and discover what resonated with me.
"In that free-floating cloud called anxiety, there are always specific fears. What are those fears? Fears of loss, fears of encountering something larger than I can handle. For example, if a person says, 'If I move in this direction, this could cost me my job or cost me a relationship.' Well, those are high stakes, to be sure. The question is, are they as high as what it costs you to live this diminished life?....Sooner or later, I have to face my fears. Sooner or later, I have to move through what is limiting me. Sooner or later, I have to grow up and show up." ~James Hollis
A Near-Death Experience
The most profound spiritual experience I had was my near-death experience. It alleviated much of my fear, guilt and anxiety. I discovered that a great curiosity was at the root of my spiritual seeking. When I encountered the Light at the end of the tunnel, I had a rare and unusual experience. In Lessons from the Light, Kenneth Ring says that most people, when encountering the Light, project their religious beliefs onto it. They see Jesus Christ, the Buddha, or a deceased family member. I didn't see any of those things. I approached the Light with curiosity and an open mind (the result of years of meditation practice). Instead of seeing a person, I experienced the Light as a field of pure awareness, universal consciousness, and infinite intelligence.
I asked the Light who it was. I was still somewhat attached to Christian beliefs at the time, so I expected the Light to give me a profound Biblical answer. But that would have been too easy. Instead, I had a true spiritual experience that opened my mind.
A true spiritual experience doesn't confirm our ego and our limited map of reality. A true spiritual experience destroys our flimsy map and crushes our ego. It takes us beyond ourselves into the unknown. It shakes us to the core and challenges our pre-existing beliefs. It took me many years to reconstruct a new map of reality that could encompass what I learned in the tunnel.
Kenneth Ring says that none of the many near-deathers he interviewed was told by the Light to join a church. In fact, most of them lost interest in organized religion after their experience.
True Spiritual Seeking
My desire to understand my experience led to reading books about near-death experiences and OBE's. Eventually, I read the soul journey books by Michael Newton. These are great books, but I wonder how many people have read them and still don't understand. Ultimately, it's our own experience that changes us - not what other people say.
Nobody believed me when I told them about my near-death experience. Most people were offended that my experience with the Light didn't confirm their own beliefs and expectations. I told my bishop about the experience (in a last-ditch effort to find someone who might understand), and he told me I was wrong. Other people said I must have imagined the whole thing (implying that I was crazy).
Finally, I shut up. I realized that the vast majority of people don't want to hear anything that challenges their pre-existing beliefs. I was alone on the path of spiritual exploration. I could either agree with the people who thought I was crazy and give up seeking, or I could continue alone. All alone.
"If you have the courage to be alone, then only can you be free." ~Osho
I chose to believe in myself. The spiritual experiences kept on coming because I chose not to shut down or run away. As I learned to follow the spiritual guidance, I was eventually led out of my miserable marriage and the oppressive circumstances of the first 46 years of my life into a new life.
Faith Transitions and Values
I think I made this choice because of my values system. My top three values are Freedom, Integrity, and Personal Growth. Our values have consequences. They determine how we allocate our limited time and resources in this life. If you want to know what a person values, just look at their life, especially how they spend their time and money.
I recently coached a client who was trying to decide whether or not to leave the religion of her youth. I told her that it was none of my business what she chose to believe. I was more concerned about whether or not she was living in integrity with her own values. I asked her some powerful questions to help her see her dilemma from another perspective. And I advised her to take some time to clarify her values and write them down.
This client is a hard-working, highly productive person. Productivity is one of her highest values. So my question for her was, "How do you want to spend your productivity (time, energy and money)?" She was concerned that her productivity was being sapped by a church that she no longer believed in.
For others, freedom of expression is a higher value. When my bishop told me to keep my mouth shut and not tell anyone about my spiritual experiences, I decided that my religion no longer served me. I'd been told all my life by my parents, husband, and other people to shut up. But my spirit guides and my own soul were telling me that it was time for me to be a teacher. I had to make a choice.
James Hollis says, "There's nothing more personal than what I consider those values that are central to me....If we don't experience the divine within, we'll be looking for it in the outer world."
Beliefs and Cognitive Development
Our beliefs can change over the course of our lives. In fact, they should change (whether or not we change our religion). Change means growth. When we go to a new level of cognitive development, our beliefs have to be revised as we try to make sense of life from our new perspective.
Most people are so afraid of change that they remain basically the same throughout life - with only their physical bodies maturing. People who challenge themselves will continue to change and grow.
Growth is often painful, which is why most people avoid it. James Hollis says, "The people that we most admire in history are often people who led very troubled and miserable lives. But we admire them because in some way they embodied the summons of their own soul."
Are you following the summons of your soul, or are you stuck in fears of what you might lose if you change? Whose approval are you afraid of losing? Are you living your own life or someone else's?
"If the life I'm living is, in some way, trivializing the magnitude of my own soul, that's a spiritual crime. We all have an appointment with our own souls. The question is, do we show up for the appointment or not?" ~James Hollis
I enjoyed this TEDx talk by a woman who left a Christian cult. Her courage is inspirational.
Being alone on the spiritual path can feel very scary until we realize that there are many others in the same situation. This can give us courage. But the greatest courage comes from connecting with our own soul. Then it doesn't matter if we are alone. Aloneness is not lonely when we feel the unconditional love of our higher self and the infinite love of the Universe (call it God if you want).
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