Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Radical Thought

I'm going to write about the most transformative and radical spiritual thought I've ever had. And I'm going to try to demonstrate that it can be applied whether or not you believe in God. It comes from the New Testament, Zen Buddhist writers, Sufi writers, and many others. It's an idea that has changed so much about the way I live.

"All things work together for good in them that love God." --Saint Paul

"Each portion of life has the whole of it." --Thich Nhat Hanh

"Now is the time to know that all you do is sacred." --Hafiz

The thought can be summed up like this: everything, absolutely EVERYTHING that happens to us in life is sacred. If we cherish each moment as a gift from the most loving of givers, the moments begin to change us. No matter, no matter, no matter what happens, it can work together for good in me if I cherish it.

Now the reason this is radical is because there's so much we detest in the world. People's minds most often go to the extreme--am I suggesting that poverty is sacred? Am I suggesting that world hunger is holy? Am I suggesting that cancer is a divine gift? Am I seriously suggesting that the deaths of people we love are to be cherished? And what about things that people do wrong--murder, rape, genocide. THESE ARE NOT HOLY THINGS, the mind shouts. Holiness is their opposite! 

What I am proposing is that evil dissipates in love's embrace. Suffering is dispelled by complete acceptance. Joy is born in praise!

Let's think for a moment about what it means for something to be sacred. A simple definition is that things connected to God are holy. In Mormonism, the temple is a holy place because it's God's home. The closer the connection to God, the more sacred something becomes.

This definition of the sacred is one premised on God's existence, and doesn't work very well for our athiest and agnostic friends (just to be clear, I don't identify as theist, atheist, OR agnostic. I identify as "deeply in love" :) ). And I believe that this insight of the holiness of all things is applicable to everyone, whether or not we believe in God. So there has to be another definition for sacredness.

Now the interesting thing to me about humans and things of divinity is not our ability to discover the divine, but our ability to create it. I think that theological and spiritual creativity are among the most precious gifts of humanity. Each civilization and religion has treated different things as holy, and many of the internal results are similar. I find that everyone tends to treat something as sacred. Most of my atheist friends treat skepticism as sacred. They cherish their ability to question and find truths through the scientific method. 

I posit that belief in God fulfills a psychological function. Many theists tend to stray away from this idea because it's easy to then conclude that belief in God is only an evolutionary necessity and has no basis in reality. This doesn't have to be the case. If there is a God, it would make sense that his spiritual interactions with us happen by physical means. Many theists would say that the "psychological function" is just the effects of God working on your mind and heart. I think there doesn't have to be a difference. What's important are the consequences--how does what you hold sacred and what you worship impact the way you think, feel, and experience life?

And so whether or not one believes in God, the question can be the same: how does one maximize the psychological God function? If God exists, then this is maximizing his presence. If God does not exist, it's merely tapping into a part of the psyche that makes you feel transcendent and joyful.

Joseph Campbell wrote that religion plays four functions: it evokes awe and wonder, gives an understanding of the ordering of the cosmos, provides basic rules for the functioning of society, and provides ritual methods for the individual to understand their journey through life: from childhood to adolescence into adulthood, and then on through the steady decline towards death. In modernity, the functions of understanding the cosmos and providing basic rules for society have largely been replaced by the scientific method and secular political processes. Where anti-religionists miss out, however, is by pushing out religious methods as metaphors for evoking awe and wonder as well as ritual methods for understanding life-processes. Religious people miss out, too, though. When they treat metaphor as fact it can stand in the way of embracing mysteries and not-knowing, which produce the very awe they seek.

The "radical thought" I'm getting at is mostly applicable to the first utility of religion in provoking awe and wonder. Utilizing the human capacity to treat things as sacred is one of the best ways to evoke these feelings, what we refer to in Mormonism as "the spirit." The first time I ever went into the temple, I experienced incredible feelings of awe precisely because I had treated the temple as sacred and holy my whole life. Things like prayer and testimony meetings similarly evoke feelings of awe. 

Non religious people similarly experience awe--just read the writings of Carl Sagan. He was completely filled with the awe and wonder of the universe (and his thoughts are really awe-inspiring. Go to this Wikipedia page about the "pale blue dot" photo taken of earth from the edge of the solar system and scroll down to "reflections by Sagan." It's beautiful.) 

Rumi wrote that "awe is the salve that will heal our eyes." Awe is so important because it is invoked by and further encourages big-picture thinking. Awe and wonder feel transcendent of the present moment and put small things like worries and stresses into perspective. They have a calming effect and "heal our eyes" in the sense that they allow us to see and think about life from a more broad perspective.

The important part is that awe changes us. 

Think about it. Reflect back to the moment when you've felt the most wonder and transcendence. Maybe it was sitting on a mountaintop. Maybe it was performing a religious ritual. Maybe it was when a math equation FINALLY made sense. Revisit those feelings for just a moment and ask yourself this:

Inside of that moment and that feeling, was there any compulsion to hurt yourself or others? What did those feelings do to your desires?

Now I'll answer the question for myself. In moments where I've felt most wonder-filled, my most immediate desires were towards compassion and loving-kindness. It always makes me want to relieve suffering and help people feel better.

I can't make any objective claims about the nature of reality as a whole for everyone, because I have only my own experience. By I do hypothesize that Rumi is correct, and that awe changes us.

So how can we utilize our ability to make things sacred to change the products of our living and bring more meaning into our lives?

This is where the "radical thought" comes in--what would happen if we treated all things as sacred? What if we treated all moments as precious gifts, no matter their content? 

Think back with me to the last time something awful happened to you. Maybe you were in a car accident. Maybe you failed a class. Maybe you were betrayed. Maybe something awful happened to a loved one. Now ask yourself this: what does treating this experience as a bad thing do to your mind? For me it produces feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and disconnection. It makes me want to throw my hands up in the air and give up. It leads me more towards attitudes that are harmful to myself and others.

What would change if you treated that experience as a sacred gift? It may feel difficult or radical, and it is. Letting go of suffering is always radical. We would have let go of it long ago if we weren't so attached!

But try for a moment. Try to imagine that this awful experience was a gift from a giver whose primary aim was your joy. 

When I do this, a question arises in my mind. Why would the giver think I needed this experience? Immediately, my mind reflects and searches for understanding. And usually, it comes. I realize that I was given the gift of patience. I was given the gift of understanding just how much I loved the person I lost. And those gifts are sacred to me. And these holy products are inseparable from the gift itself. Our pains produce our most precious virtues.

Let's take this even a step further. If you've ever been a devoutly religious person, think back to performing sacred rituals. What did it feel like? What did you do with your mind? As I blessed the sacrament or performed baptisms or other rituals, I would try my hardest to be there completely and wholly, trying not to let my mind wander. I would be aware of everything, including my breath.

Now what if we treated breath itself as a ritual? What if we made every moment sacred by blessing it with ritual awareness of our breath? And if every thought was a ceremony performed in obeisance to the moment? What if each meal was as holy as the sacrament or communion? What if EVERYTHING was a reason to shout praises? Think of how filled with awe and meaning your living would be if you stopped discriminating against moments and accepted each and every one as something divine.

Many people find this form of spiritual practice to be a type of quietism--if there is nothing wrong in the world, why work to change it? Ram Dass responds most perfectly to this question:

"The world is perfect as it is. Including my desire to change it."

Awe and wonder provoke feelings of compassion and loving kindess--and these feelings are themselves a mandate for change. And they are holy. But they cannot be evoked completely by judging moments and holding one as more sacred than the other. Perhaps the sacredness of a difficult moment lies precisely in its ability to evoke new forms of goodness within ourselves. Our desire to change the world and the way the world is cannot be disconnected. They are unified and whole: One and Holy.

And so maybe the difference between building a system that distinguishes one sacred thing from another and the system that treats everything as sacred is that the first advocates change. The second is the change.

As I've made clear from the beginning, none of this is necessarily true in the objective sense. Perhaps sacredness does not exist exterior to the human mind. But what I focus on is not the exterior of the human mind, but rather my ability to change its interior by thought experimentation.

To those who see truth as exterior to themselves and think that these thoughts are not in line with the nature of reality, I would say experiment. If you are a theist who believes that God is real and your feelings of holiness exist because of his presence, see if mindfulness and treating every moment as sacred don't bring him closer to you than you ever have been before!

In the Sermon on the Mount Christ proclaimed "blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Perhaps Christ's meaning was not that if you strive your hardest to make your heart pure God will appear to you, but rather that a clear, pure mind will see God everywhere. 

Perhaps a mind cleared through mindfulness practice sees the divine in even the mundane. 

Perhaps God is with is us in his Completeness and we are missing out because we ourselves are not present, but lost in a world of judgments, wishes, and dreams.


  1. Josh, have you ever considered a career in clergy? I'm somewhat serious. I always love your religious thoughts.

    Have you ever read William Blake? Strange fellow, but this reminds me a bit of the chorus from "A Song of Liberty":

    Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren, whom, tyrant, he calls free. Lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religions letchery call that virginity that wishes but acts not.
    For everything that lives is Holy.

    1. I love that poem! I'll have to look up more of William Blake's stuff. I think a career in clergy would be extremely fulfilling for me...the only problem is that I don't align with any institutions...

  2. Wow, I love this idea. To me, this puts to rest the idea that material equality in the world will create a better life. It's how we view what we have in life that creates a happier life.