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Driving together Tuesday night, I casually asked my younger daughter, “So, what do you think is the biggest, most fundamental question that all religions are trying to answer?” It is a testament to her character that she did not roll her eyes at me at all!
“There are so many, Mom! How can I pick just one?”
“Oh, just pick one out of, say, your top five?”
“Hmmm… well, why are we here? Like, what’s the purpose?”
I laughed proudly and said, “Babe, I think you pretty much nailed it! Wow, and you are only twelve! Some people have to sit on mountaintops for years to even venture a guess!”
“What’s the purpose?” Instead of , more commonly these days, “What’s the point?” This is not just a good kid talking, although she is a very good kid. This is the human heart talking, before the “so many” questions of this world that can overwhelm us so easily, if we assume that arriving at one answer is the point. I believe the point is to forever keep asking many questions, curiously and lovingly. And together, which of course makes anything much less overwhelming.
Sure, everyone seeks, and arrives at, conclusions in their lives and in their hearts. Still, considering our “answers” to be eternal works in progress sure looks to be the path of those whose hearts progress the most on this earth. The words of many saints, mystics, and really cool people from Gandhi to thoughtful twelve-year-olds often illustrate this point. Such a mind-set (or, let’s call it a heart-set) is groundless ground indeed. Many people seek solid ground instead. That seems to be a common first impetus toward religion. But, that impetus is often fear-based, rather than love-based. It’s seems a beginning, but not an end in itself. I recall the words of a man I met far away and many years ago, in Nepal.
“Man has three steps on his path to religion. The first is Fear. Like a child who obeys his parents because he fears punishment because he is small because the world is large, he attempts to propitiate the world, so as to guard himself, but not to enlarge himself.
The second is Doubt, where such things do not seem as answers, where as humans we question, we draw away from what we fear, we do not we no longer submit to it.
The final step is Comprehension is Understanding is the Processional of Enlightenment, when we accept in ourselves our capacity for enlargement for acceptance of what we have always known always feared but now we no longer turn our face away but behold and in the letting go of fear we grasp the truth.”
I’m more of a “more truth” mama than a “the truth” one. I’d love to substitute the word “love” for “the truth.” Nevertheless, I’ve never heard what we all face, then don’t really want to face, then hopefully really do face, better described. So, just a couple of questions later in a car on 5th Street in Austin, Texas, and we are a couple of more steps along the Processional of Enlightenment.
“You believe what, Mom?” We were talking about native religions and animistic traditions. I had just pointed out that while such beliefs are often referred to as ancient or, more disparagingly, as primitive, many people today still hold such beliefs and incorporate them into “modern” spirituality. And, I had just glanced out our window at one of the many gorgeous oaks that blessedly shade our home and said, “Like, I believe that these trees around here are protecting us.”
I admit, I felt the immediate need to backpedal a bit, and said, “Well, what I mean is, the way all of them are growing with us and around us, the way they hold tight to the earth underneath us, it just feels like a good energy all around.” They gave me a gentle Whatever look and proceeded to pictures of a Native American Buffalo Dance and of Zeus in a very bad mood.
They asked smart questions. They stayed engaged. Then, we were done and they ran off. I looked out the window again. I stared at that 200 year old oak tree, here long before Austin was. I thought of all of the voices that have passed by and under and around and through that tree. I thought of all of the shelter taken here on this beautiful high ground, most recently by us. I thought of that big snowstorm a few years ago, and that strange wonderful feeling of being reminded, in our modern world, that nature is still, and ever will be, overwhelming and very uncontrollable. I remembered, most of all, one long gorgeous limb on that tree, 15 feet high and reaching out at least 50 feet. The snow, piling ever heavier everywhere, bent and bent that branch. I so feared it snapping. But, I watched as slowly, slowly, it gracefully bent all the way to the ground. For three days it waited, heavy laden but strong. Then, I watched it slowly return, high and happy.
That moment, at a difficult time in my life, gave me strange strength and assurance. I began a strange habit of hugging trees, literally. Kissing them, too… along with other habits I was initiating, like a meditation practice and more. And, difficult times got better. Much better.
Right then I realized that if I am to do this right with my girls this year, backpedaling shall not be an option. They often ask me what I believe. I must honor their questions will full answers, even answers that provoke the dreaded “Mom!!! You are embarrassing me!” response. And, I must provide for them the means to get full answers from many others besides myself. We should also watch Disney’s Pocahontas again soon. That Grandmother Tree really rocked!
Think. Think Think. That’s what Winnie The Pooh would do when pondering important things at his Thoughtful Spot (though I believe he spelled it “Thotful”). As toddlers, my two daughters were so enamored of that philosophical bear that we anointed one of the couches in our living room, a simple daybed smushed against a large picture window, as our own pondering spot. However, we adapted the concept to our own inclinations. It wasn’t a place to be alone. We made that small perch a place to come together, a place for one to turn to another and talk about any concern, ask for any help, seek any comfort. That spot was a great comfort to us all for many years.
It didn’t fade. We didn’t stop coming together. But, life and children and sometimes couches and even time itself keep changing, getting bigger, growing and evolving. So, we sublimated our sacred spot into a more generalized, but no less sacred, attentiveness. Where we come together has become more fluid in our typically modern, often busy and increasingly independent lives, but we stay committed to coming together in whatever ways we all need. You could say that we are religious about it.
We are a family that does not adhere to one religious tradition. There are apparently a lot of families like us now. According to a 2009 Newsweek poll, 30% of Americans now identify as “spiritual but not religious,” and other polls targeting those between the ages of 19 and 28 find over 70% declaring the same. Individual spiritual beliefs are morphing at an astonishing rate. In America and beyond, all sorts of souls are creating their own spiritual identities outside of established religions, blending aspects of different faiths with other transcendent practices. A teacher refers to himself as a Catholic Daoist. A filmmaker calls herself a HinJew. An esteemed Hispanic writer declares herself a Buddhalupist, infusing her newfound Eastern spirituality with her continued devotion to the Virgin Of Guadalupe. I freely declare that I personally love this unfolding spiritual foment. While I call myself a Buddhist, I probably should more properly declare myself a mildly neo-Pagan one. Taking a winding spiritual path has led me to a deeper, and sustaining, sense of the divine. As a parent, I don’t want to make my kids walk my path. Nevertheless, I do want to encourage path-iness in them.
So, my now teen and tween girls and I are coming together in a new way this year. To support them (and nudge them a bit) in their own spiritual unfolding, I am offering to them a year of exploring all the religious traditions on this earth. Nothing too academic, and with the only true intention being to identify what fundamental questions most resonate with them, rather than identify any particular answers. To ponder things, together. To encourage them to think. Think Think. And, more than anything, to help them understand that all of the feelings they feel, and fears they fear, and thoughts they think, and loves they love, have been and will be felt and feared and thought and loved by every other being in this universe. That all of these feelings and fears and thoughts and loves are the wellspring of all religious impulse. And, that to flower fully, they will need to both understand and nurture their own wellspring in their own hearts. Inquiring about how lots of other souls do this seems a thotful place to start.