I was raised without religion in my life. My mother is Roman-Catholic and went to school at a Quebecois convent her entire childhood. She's plenty religious. My father, on the other hand, was a scientist and very fact-based. It makes sense that he was agnostic, although I never really thought about that at the time: He was just my dad. And somehow, between the both of them, they decided that they would let their children figure out religion for themselves. That's a pretty enlightened attitude to have towards unenlightened children, and there are many days that I silently thank them for that.
I really dislike things like "Bible School". I understand why they exist. I mean, if you really believe that there is a literal hell, then you must have a lot of worry centered around your child's ultimate fate. That makes sense. But let's call Bible School what it really is: Indoctrination Camp, where fantastical ideas are presented to children before they develop critical thinking skills. I've always felt that was bullshit, and rather than protecting children, it tended to fuck them up a bit (or a lot, depending on whether or not you happened to live in a place like
Jonestown). So I'm very appreciative of my parents' willingness to leave their children alone in this one area of life.
Understandably, I spent my childhood in a state of ignorant agnosticism. I knew there was some mystical instruction given to my friends and classmates, but that information seemed to be had by attending church on Sunday mornings, something that interfered with my desire to not be bored out of my skull, so I happily left them to their arcane texts while I stayed home and played Atari.
Not that I didn't have an interest in the underpinnings of the universe. I was extremely into science and physics, and eagerly devoured anything related to How Things Work. But religion seemed... iffy, at best, something to consider alongside fables and old wives' tales. That having been said, when I began attending college I decided that I needed to read up on religion, since everyone seemed to be killing each other over it. So I read the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, a tract on Shinto, and for the sake of completeness, a volume on Satanism (the real thing, not the ridiculous heavy-metal/animal-slaying kind of Satanism practiced solo by very damaged people). I walked away understanding a few new things:
- Religious wars are utterly moronic considering the fact that the religions at war with each other are always between two very similar religions. They are killing each other over the details.
- Shinto was baffling to me, although interesting. It seemed a lot like Latin: Something old, formerly useful, and long since discarded.
- The Book of Mormon was puzzling since it seemed that it took place recently enough that there should be some validation to be had. (As it turns out, there are many discussions to be found centered around explaining away failed validation.)
- I found the Satanist stuff funny: "Real" Satanism seems to be a religion invented for people who don't believe in religion, which made me think (then and now), "Are you bored on Sunday mornings or something?"
I did read a little about Buddhism, but I very clearly remember myself reading that Buddhism isn't really a religion. It's an ethical/moral framework for living and being happy. And since it isn't a religion, I moved along. Many years later, I would realize that I was right, but hadn't understood that people had adopted the framework as a religion, something that hadn't occurred to me at the time.
So for many years, my religion was rationality: The universe is understandable, and by understanding it in greater and greater detail, we improve our lives, help others, and control our destinies, which, if you think about it, is the function of religion. I went about my life not really feeling a need to "be religious". From what I had seen of religion up to that point, "being religious" was not something I aspired to. Religious people seemed to display many of the traits I hoped to avoid.
Then, as many people do, I found myself in a dark place without an obvious way out. After having gone through a divorce, I found myself in an extended custody battle with my ex-wife, which I lost because she flagrantly lied and manipulated events to support her case.
I'm not going to get into the divorce/legal proceedings in any depth because it's boring to others, boring to me, and doesn't really serve any purpose other than as a test of my patience. But, fully aware that everybody who loses in family court claims to have been robbed, I will say that the FBI had to get involved and not because of anything I had done.
My ex has some serious substance abuse and mental health issues, and everything else aside, I hope that she gets on top of those things and gets better.
But at the time, I was filled with hatred and rage, feelings not entirely new to me, but certainly new to me in such intense levels. I have always been a pretty laid back guy, and up to that point had dealt with disagreeable people by acknowledging that it's useless to judge others unless you really understand them at a deep level, and just steered clear of them in general while not taking anything personally.
But now I had to deal with someone I did understand at a deep level, and with whom I was court-ordered to communicate, and it was almost impossible not to take it personally. I had no way to deal with this, and I remember interrupting a particularly harsh "vengeance daydream" to think to myself, "I can't go on like this. If I do, I will be consumed with hatred and anger. It will take over my life. I will turn into her." And so I began to search.
Interestingly (to me, anyway), the first thing I turned to was Stoicism. Stoicism is an interesting philosophy, and there is a lot of it that I still believe in. Its attitude towards worry, for instance:
If something worries you and you can do something about it, do something about it! There is no need to worry. And if you can't do anything about it, then worrying won't do you any good. Worrying never makes sense.
But ultimately, I felt that the philosophy, while logical and admirably obvious at times, didn't go far enough in explaining the "why" of everything, and so I began to look further. Since Stoicism and Buddhism have so many ideas in common (and researchers have tried in vain to connect the two, but they apparently popped up independently of each other at roughly the same time), I looked at Buddhism next.
Buddhism blew me away with its obviousness, simple-yet-deeply-profound ideas, and beauty. I was really unprepared for how beautiful of an idea Buddhism is. At a fundamental level, Buddhism boils down to, "Love will set you free," along with a complete set of instructions, recommendations for finding an excellent teacher, and the (fulfilled) promise of making you a happier person almost immediately after being exposed to it. That's not hyperbole, I honestly believe those things and think that anyone who open-mindedly looked into Buddhism would agree with me.
(You'll note that to this point, I haven't said anything about a Creator or an after-life. That's because these are largely or totally unaddressed by Buddhism, further evidence that it is not a religion.)
I also loved what I call "Buddhism's Toolbox," or the methods by which we can grow and become better, happier people. Chief among these is meditation, something that I had been doing since I was 10, although it was called "self-hypnosis" at the time.
I began exploring this area because I thought it might be a magical gateway to some awesome super-powers (I was ten, after all), an idea that was not helpful after a post-meditation prediction that an imminent plane crash would kill some athletes was swiftly followed by an actual plane crash that wiped out the entire US Olympic Boxing team. So it took a little while before I had gotten rid of the idea that anyone who would shut their yap for a second became clairvoyant, but by then I had begun to appreciate meditation's ability to give and sustain pleasant feelings. A subtler super-power, perhaps, but one with the advantage of being real.
A very important feature of Buddhism (to me): It is down with science.
I remember the Pope once stating that investigating the Big Bang is ok (gee, thanks for permission, funny-hat guy!), but that scientists should not even attempt to investigate the cause of the Big Bang, for that was the province of God. My initial reaction was, "What do you have to hide?" which is a sentiment that echoes around my head whenever I hear some science-denying svengali blather on.
But Buddhism is not ok with that. The Dalai Lama was once asked what would happen if science proved Buddhism wrong. "Then Buddhism would have to change," he replied. As a matter of fact, there is a massive intersection of Buddhism and Quantum Mechanics that seems to imply that the universe's origins are mental, and not physical.
This is why there are conferences between particle physicists and Buddhist scholars. The idea seems to be this: "We've spent trillions of dollars in research over the years, trying to figure out the universe. We got an answer back that doesn't make sense. But Buddhists came to the same conclusions 2,600 years ago, without the benefit of advanced math, physics, a literate society, computers, etc. Maybe if we understood how they'd arrived at the same answers, we'd have a better understanding."
Science means a lot to me. It absolutely drives me nuts when science-deniers pop up. "Pffft! Scientists, what do they know?" Uh, they know enough to create the internet, which is what carries your ignorant denials around the world at the speed of light! There's that.
So for the last decade or so, I've identified as a Buddhist. I meditate daily (I used to keep track of it, I think I had a streak of 3 1/2 years when I didn't miss a day). I practice at home alone, sometimes with others, and even discuss some of the basic ideas with my kids, such as the idea that negative emotions cause us to suffer. "Hating someone," I'll tell them, "is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die." That quote has been attributed to the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and many, many other people from different religions. It seems to be a universal truth, at least for humans.
I do plan on writing extensively about my journey as a Buddhist, and so I will leave out the nuts and bolts for now. But I do think that it is important to document this stuff, and not for my kids to puzzle over one day, but rather to help keep things mentally in order. A lot of progress in Buddhism lies in neural pathway building, and so even repetitive review is of value.
Now I have an interesting challenge in front of me: How to effectively explain Buddhism, how do I illustrate how it has impacted me, and where in the world should I start?
Page statistics of no interest to anyone, including myself
- Favorite word to type: Quebecois
- Best sentence: "Gee, thanks for permission, funny-hat guy!"
- Number of people who died in the US Boxing Team plane crash: 14