Category Archives: Seeking the Spiritual

Seeking the Spiritual: The Century of Common People (Part 2)

Will we finally let go of our differences? (Source: scu.edu)

This is the second part of an earlier post, which you can find here. If you’re a bit lost, give my earlier post a read!

Sadly, we’re nowhere near as far toward this as we could be, or should be, and I must admit there’s a long way to go. But progress is being made, and in no small way! A great example of this is in the steady advancement of gay rights over the past years. Public opinion is moving toward favoring marriage equality, DADT has been repealed (nominally at least), 6 states allow gay marriage, and Maryland will soon join them. To add to this, the Department of Justice is no longer upholding DOMA, a strong step that shows that government is moving with the popular opinion. The long run for marriage equality is looking even brighter, as more than half of voters under the age of 30 (55%, to be exact) approve of same-sex marriage, and the media generally treats it as both normal and acceptable.

Of course, this is by no means the only place we’re moving forward! Huge strides are being made across religious, social, cultural, and linguistic barriers, as people all around the world are connecting in new and incredible ways. Even just in the short time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many new and amazing people, and talk with them about some of the most important things in life, and we’ve been able to do this across entire oceans!

This new century brings incredible new potentials with it, unlike anything in centuries past. Just as the 20th century brought about amazing new developments and turning points in our collective history, the 21st century is bringing a new kind of change, one that brings understanding and peace, instead of division and strife.

Maybe this is just the optimistic musing of a young mind, but as I mentioned above, this seems to me to be happening in a variety of very real and tangible ways! I’m finding more and more people who are willing to reach out and understand others, no matter what their differences are. People seem to be slowly becoming more willing to accommodate the different ideas of others, without feeling the need to be right. In schools, more children are being taught the value of acceptance and tolerance, instead of the value of winning an argument. There seems to be a greater and greater need and desire for interfaith dialogue, and prominent religious leaders (Feisal Abdul Rauf, Desmond Tutu, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and many others) are standing up to try and bring greater peace and unity between religious traditions, without sacrificing diversity.

As I said, there is still a lot of work to be done here, but a lot of progress is being made as well. Though we’re only a tenth of the way through it, I can see this century being a bright one, a time when people will slowly but surely realize that all of our differences, all of our outward appearances and supposed differences can be left at the wayside. This 21st century will be, I’m sure, one of Common People.

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Seeking the Spiritual: The Century of Common People (Part 1)

I watched a fantastic documentary tonight, for the third time. It’s called FLOW (standing for For Love of Water). The documentary discusses the privatization and pollution of the world’s water, and highlights the growing problem of water shortage, and what we must do to prevent it. I wrote a brief post about this a few months ago, and it’s certainly something I’ll explore more in the future.

But what really caught my attention this time around was a very short quote, from an elderly Indian Gandhian. The venerable man said, shortly and simply, “Twenty-first century is the century of common people.” Now, I apologize if this doesn’t strike you in the same way as it struck me, but this really made me start thinking.

A little interjection here: As far as I can tell, the phrase “century of the common people” is based on a speech given by Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s vice-president, in 1943 on the goal of the Allies in the Second World War. In the speech (which you can find here), Wallace says that the 20th century can and must be the century of the common man, not the century of America. I assume that this is what the Gandhian based his idea for the 21st century on.

I tend to think of the future in pretty optimistic terms, and I think that the world is generally getting better, albeit slowly. But a number of events over the past few years have really called my view into question. As I’ve grown up in the US, I’ve seen a terrible economic crash, horrific terrorist attacks, natural disasters compounded by human error, a plethora of wars, arguably one of the worst presidents this nation has ever had, and a whole host of other terrible things. So it’s been hard over the past few years to convince myself that things are getting better on the whole.

But! There are still many things that make me think positively about the future! And this is one of them.

Now, I can’t claim to know exactly what the gentleman in this film was referring to when he said “the century of common people.” But I can certainly tell you how I interpreted it! This phrase has helped give form to an idea I’ve been having for quite some time now, about the ways in which the world is improving, and that idea is this: Even though there is still great suffering and division in the world today, people are becoming much more willing and able to understand each other, help each other, and grow closer to each other, even with oceans of water, difference, or disagreement between them.

I see much greater understanding between people of different faiths, cultures, beliefs (political, philosophical, religious, or otherwise), and lifestyles looking past their differences in an effort to understand each other more, and this is what the Century of Common People looks like. We’re moving into a time when we can live with and even love the differences in other people, and regard them in a deep and loving way, no matter how dissimilar we may be.

I’ve decided to break up this post into multiple parts, as it’s already becoming fairly lengthy and will keep growing. Check back soon for the sequel!

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Seeking the Spiritual: Perception From Belief

A member of the English Defence League, a group whose harmful beliefs have definitely given rise to dangerous perceptions, in their case, of Islam. (Photo credit: Gavin Lynn. Source: Creative Commons)

One of my favorite overused cliches is “seeing the world through tinted lenses.” While this line is used far too often, it’s still a good one.

We all see the world in different ways, and I’ve come to realize more and more that these different views and visions about the world drastically alter the way we see our environments and everything (and every person) around us. In other words, our perceptions of things stem directly from our beliefs about those things.

While this is a very natural thing, it can also be a very harmful one. If we have harmful beliefs, we’ll begin to develop harmful perceptions to match those beliefs! For example, if I hold the false belief that all fruit is poisonous, I won’t eat any fruit, and that will take a toll on my health. I see this kind of progression from dangerous belief to dangerous perception (and ultimately to dangerous action) all the time, in the news and in the world around me.

A great example of this is the story of Terry Jones and his church in Florida. Last summer, Jones’ tiny, 60-member church made clear its intention to publicly burn a copy of the Qur’an. There was a huge uproar over this (and rightly so) from nearly all sectors, including the American military (who feared this had the potential to cause a spike in terrorist attacks), and eventually Jones gave up the notion. But this last March, Jones decided to go through with his initial book-burning plans, staging a mock trial of the Qur’an on his website on March 20th, on what he called “International Judge the Koran Day.” The “trial” ended with a burning of the holy book.

Naturally, this outraged Muslims, particularly in the Middle East, and violent protests have taken place in Afghanistan and elsewhere, leaving at least a dozen dead. This is a perfect example of a dangerous belief turning into a dangerous perception and then into a dangerous action. And, as we saw here, it was only one more step toward yet more dangerous and violent actions, all of this due to a crazy belief.

But it’s not as if we can (or should) carefully regulate all of the thoughts and beliefs of all people in a country, much less in the entire world. So what can we hope to do? We can watch our own beliefs, and be carefully aware of what kind of perceptions stem from those beliefs. I’m of course not saying that my readers are likely to start burning holy books of any religion! What I am saying is that it’s much easier to let our beliefs become our perceptions than most people want to acknowledge. And if we allow our negative thoughts and beliefs about other people affect us too deeply, then our negative perceptions of those people will grow stronger.

It can be very difficult to keep our beliefs from affecting our perceptions, because it’s only natural to do so! But what’s so important for us to remember is to keep our negative beliefs from giving us negative thoughts and attitudes toward others, especially when those attitudes become negative actions. We can only start getting rid of harmful beliefs when we don’t let them become harmful perceptions.

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Seeking the Spiritual: Dueling Monologues

Part of the interior of Hagia Sofia, a monolithic museum in Istanbul that has been both a church and a mosque in its past. The beautiful building has a stark and beautiful blend of Christian and Muslim art and symbolism. (Photo credit: Yours truly!)

I’d like to thank Musa Askari for helping me find inspiration for this post by sharing some of his father Hasan’s writings, and for broadening my perspectives on spirituality. I’d strongly recommend reading his blog to any of my readers out there. Thanks so much Musa!

Countless religions are represented in our modern world, spreading over the entire world, and affecting the lives of billions. Many consider religion and spirituality one of the most central parts of their life, and I would put myself in this camp.

But so often, this expression and belief leads to terrible conflict with those who may not hold the same views. Strong convictions born of powerful spiritual experiences or cultural forces lead many people, from all religions, to insist that only their religious beliefs are the best and only valid ones to have.

What this inevitably leads to is a dreadful and anger-ridden stalemate. When a person’s religious convictions become deeply rooted in the wrong way, they begin to lose the ability to listen to others, and only focus on how they can best spread their own beliefs.

And so the situation becomes one of dueling monologues, rather than a cooperative dialogue. For people of different religious backgrounds to truly get along and respect each others’ beliefs, those people need to abandon the notion that they are absolutely and fundamentally correct. A good image to help visualize this is that of two people shouting at one another in an argument. Both people are shouting their opinions very loudly, and being very vocal about what they think. But their voices are too loud for them to hear anything, let alone what the other person is shouting at them! The problem is, far too many religious people are so closed-minded and forthright about their beliefs that they can never manage to get along. Instead, people of different religions who fit this description waste their energy on trying to convince people of other faiths (people just as devout and rigid in their own, different beliefs), that they fail to accomplish anything.

There’s a great need to move away from this model of “monologue vs. monologue” and begin to engage in real dialogue with people of other faiths and beliefs, even if it’s a challenge to our own way of thinking. As long as people keep talking to each other as though only their own beliefs have any significance, and all other people need to believe the same, there will only be a greater distance between people of different faiths.

People of different faiths often have many goals in common, though of course they have different approaches. Religious faith can be an incredible way to satisfy our deepest needs, and often it can lead us to a greater understanding of spirituality and the world. If people of all different backgrounds and beliefs can realize that there is valid wisdom and strength to be found in other religions, then we can work together, rather than apart. This doesn’t even require total cooperation of beliefs! While different people may disagree on specific orthodoxy, or even how they think of God and spirituality, they can still set aside their differences and agree to try and learn from each other, working toward the same goals of unity, peace, and understanding. It’s time to give up our monologues, and finally learn the skill of dialogue.

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Seeking the Spiritual: From Self-Centeredness to a Centered Self

We must move from thinking of ourselves to knowing ourselves.

The word ego has become something of a negative term these days, and tends to conjure up images of self-obsession and arrogance. When I say that someone has a big ego, it usually translates to, “That person is full of themselves.”

But there’s more sophistication to this word than most people realize. In a more Freudian sense, the word refers to the center of the self, and a sense of self-awareness.

We’re often told, especially in religious circles, that to be too focused on yourself is to lose the ability to focus on others, and this is true in a certain context. When we’re spending too much time worrying about ourselves and our own needs and desires, it’s really difficult to have any genuine care for others, and this could be called self-centeredness.

But there’s a key difference between self-centeredness and what I’ll call a centered self. To be self-centered is to think only of one’s own personal needs and possible gains. To have a centered self is to have a deep understanding of those personal needs and the nature of who you are as a person. It’s an awareness of your identity as a human being, but not an obsession with that identity or that human being.

The problem is, most people can’t seem to think of the self at the center as a good thing, but only as a source of arrogance and egotism. The key here is to understand what having a centered self really is. Of course, as a college student, I realize I’m not really at all qualified to say I either understand this or have the authority to tell others how they should. So, I’m choosing to merely encourage others to begin exploring the concept of the “self;” how to replace self-centeredness with a centered self.

Let’s go into a little more detail about self-centeredness. I’m sure we all have some concept of this, and certainly some personal experience with it. Self-centeredness is thinking only of your own interests, and pursuing only the things that personally benefit you. To my mind, this self-centeredness is a distortion of the true vision of the self that we should have. Our self should be very important, indeed central, to us, but this should not take the form of pursuing our vain and vague desires, at whatever the cost.

A self at the center should instead take the form of self awareness. Most people place a fairly high value on themselves, and this is only to be expected. But we should not use this value as a way to justify thoughts of self-superiority or self-righteousness. We should use this value to realize our importance as members of the human race. And on a more spiritual level, we should realize that our self-value is a metaphysical thing as well! The self I’m talking about in this post isn’t our physical body; it’s our soul, or our essence, if you will. It’s a self that goes beyond anything we’ve done in this life or anyone we consider ourselves to be. In other words, the self is the soul, and it must be at the center of everything we do.

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Seeking the Spiritual: Languages of the Divine

What if we're all just speaking different languages to the same divine source?

I attend a book discussion group every Tuesday night at a Methodist church in my town, which I might add is one of the best churches I’ve ever been lucky enough to attend. This last Tuesday (the 8th, I think it was), we were discussing the book we’re currently reading, when the pastor mentioned a fascinating idea that he had heard: Religion as a language. This immediately resonated with me in a way that I didn’t really understand, and still can’t claim to completely comprehend. Truth be told, he mentioned this idea only in passing, but it has stuck with me strangely.

When I really think about this, it’s a very simple idea, but such a beautiful and profound one. Religion as a language. There are so many layers to this statement, so I’ll cover what I can in the time and space that I have!

First, language is the key method we use to communicate with those around us, so a “religious” language might be seen as the way we communicate with the spiritual aspect of our lives. But, as with language, there is no one unique way of communicating with the spiritual. Some may speak the language of literal or verbal prayer. Others speak the language of meditation, and still others speak the language of dance or song. Just as we use different languages to talk to each other, we each can use different spiritual languages to connect to the spiritual in our lives, in the way that best fits our personal needs.

Second, no one language needs to be dominant in any sense. While more people may speak a particular language, the fact that they speak it in no way takes away the validity or importance of another language. The fact that my first language is English doesn’t mean that every person must speak English. There is no “right” language that the entire world must know and understand, and no language can claim moral superiority over any other. A person may be raised with a language or choose to speak it, just as a person may be raised into a religion or choose one.

And while it may come most naturally for someone to know and speak only in their own spiritual language, and only to those who understand them, I really don’t think it’s necessary. Just as someone can become multilingual, someone can become multispiritual! The conflict that so often arises between religions can be expressed in terms of language as well. If I speak my native language at someone whose native language is completely different, and neither of us knows the other’s tongue even a little bit, we can’t possibly understand each other! It’s the same with religious dialogue. If we can’t take the time and energy to learn another person’s spiritual language, the way they see the world and the spiritual, then there is no way we’ll ever understand each other.

And this leads me to what I think is the most beautiful part of this analogy. If you think of religions as spiritual languages, then it becomes possible to envision a “multilingual” spiritual existence. In this way of thinking, a religion need not be elitist and dominating, but can be something that is understood by others who may speak a different language. If a friend speaks the language of Hinduism, I can grow to understand her way of seeing the world and the spiritual by learning some of her language. Perhaps, one day, I can even speak it myself!

If we continue to tell ourselves that there is only one true language, only one way of understanding life, then we will never be able to approach others and their spirituality in a loving way. In fact, we don’t necessarily need to even understand another’s language; we need only allow them to speak it. I don’t need to fully understand the ways in which other people approach the divine. We only need to sit back and appreciate the beauty of their language, and allow them to speak to the spiritual in whatever way they know and understand. Only then can we achieve true religious understanding.

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Seeking the Spiritual: Gender and Identity

A more fluid model of gender

Ever since the dawn of civilization, perception of gender has been an issue of utmost importance in nearly every aspect of life, from day-to-day activities and decisions made by individuals to the politics of entire nations. It plays a subtle yet inescapable role in our interactions with others, and colors many peoples’ most basic assumptions about the world and society.

But is this the way it should be? Since the end of the 19th century, when women started fighting for suffrage and for their equal rights, the traditional patriarchal model of society started to lose its edge. Until brave women began to challenge the cultural conception of their place in society, it was more or less universally assumed, in Western societies at least, that men were the dominant members of the household and of broader society in general.

It took a long time, a lot of argument and dissent, and even some bloodshed to grant women suffrage in America, Britain, and elsewhere. Now, it seems obvious to us now that women should have full and equal rights, especially for voting purposes. But the fact that this has been such a huge issue for such a long time raises a very important question for us as human beings: Why is it that a person’s sex has always been such an important way of judging their place in society? Moreover, why is it that a person’s behavior, or at least the way we expect them to behave, is so strongly judged by their gender?

To me, this is a question that demands a new look at the very core of our ideas of sexuality. Now, I realize that this is a huge question, and one that’s far too large for me to cover in one short little blog post. So, seeing as this is a Seeking the Spiritual article, I’m going to choose to focus on the spiritual and emotional aspect of gender and sexuality.

Throughout my teenage years (which I’m just getting to the end of), I tried to understand what it means to be male, or from the perspective of a woman, what it means to be female. In today’s society, there seem to be very stringent definitions of masculinity and femininity. Adolescent girls are told daily by fashion magazines, movies, and all kinds of other media that there is an ever-rising standard of beauty that they need to conform to if they want to be appealing to men. I know some people who struggle with this quite a bit. To add to this, men are told by these same influences that they should play sports, lift weights, and “go out with the guys” to really fit into society and its norms.

Okay, I have to admit at this point that I’m writing this from the undoubtably biased perspective of a young college student. I want to say, up front, that most of my observations apply to people around my age.

These powerful cultural influences create a stark dichotomy between young men and women, and between their actions and conduct. While there are some prominent people and groups that fight against these biases, the majority of the population, at least the population that are around my age, find it comes more easily and naturally to simply listen to what we’ve been told to be like. This helps to explain why so many gay, lesbian, or bisexual youth can have so much difficulty coming out: They’re told that there’s a certain way they should look and behave, and they’re told that if they don’t, they’re going to suffer emotionally and socially, perhaps even physically, in the future.

So maybe it’s time for a rethinking of the way we view gender and sexuality. Instead of expecting young men and women to conform to any exact pattern of “suitable behavior,” society, particularly mass media such as fashion magazines and movies, should work to broaden the public’s perspectives of a normal young adult. We’ve come a long way in the last 100 or so years in opening up new doors for successive generations in society to feel more comfortable being who they are. But, as with so many other things, there’s still a long way to go.

PS –  I apologize for posting this somewhat later than ‘Seeking the Spiritual’ posts usually come. I hope you enjoy, and any and all feedback is appreciated! Thanks!     -Connor

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