How should things be? Who is to say? There you have it: The Religious Problem. We all have different ideas about how things should be. We all have different ideas about who is to say. Who will referee the debate? We have different ideas about that, as well.
We can’t agree about what constitutes a successful life. Ideas abound. We go to war over differences of opinion about the way life should be lived. It comes down to being alive. What are the conditions required to be alive? What does it take to be alive? What keeps us from being alive? What limits our living?How do we think life should be lived? Our answers to these questions puts us in a certain position relative to the answers of everyone else to these questions. The happy truth is that we will not agree. How do we find common ground with those who disagree with us, and each other, about how life should be lived? How do we create a space that is big enough for everybody?
I don’t know how we find common ground. There has to be common ground. You can't put George Bush in a room with Osama ben Laden and expect anything but war. How do we reach accord with those who are diametrically opposed to all we think, believe, and stand for? Irreconcilable differences. We can be too far apart to have anything to say to each other. We could talk, for instance, about gay rights and privileges until we are dead with those who disagree with us and nothing will change. We have to recognize our incompatibilities and let them stand. How different can we be and still get along? We have to figure ways around the stand-offs. Blowing each other, or shunning each other, up is stupid.
Here is what it comes down to: There is the way things are, and there is the way we feel about the way things are, and there is the way we think things should be. Now, we create a lot of trouble for ourselves between the way things are and the way we feel about the way things are and the way we think things should be. Life happens in that space. We should be aware of it. As it is, we are not aware of it.
Life consists of the struggle in the space between the way things are and the way we feel about the way things are and the way we think things should be. We struggle with the way things are, trying to make them into what we want them to be, so that we can feel better about them. This struggle is the whole scope of life as we know it. It constitutes the essence of bad religion, the heart of which is feeling better about the way things are and arranging things to suit ourselves. We have made a religion out of feeling better and getting what we want, but it is nothing more than happy advice giving about how to feel better and get what we want.
All the happy advice-givers hand out suggestions for feeling better about our lives. We can manifest our destiny or let be what is. Either way, the outcome is that we feel better about our lives. We can’t manifest our destiny or let be what is and still be miserable. The whole point is to feel good about whatever is going on.
If we feel good, we don’t have a problem. If we don’t have a problem, we have no reason to seek out and listen to the advice-givers. Why would we care what they think if things are going well, we feel good, and have no problems? What could they give us that we don’t already have? Who needs advisors, then? In order to have a place in our lives, advisors have to find a problem with our lives, point it out to us in ways that make us feel bad, and then tell us what to do about it in order to live better lives and feel better about the lives we are living, so they can feel better about their own lives.
What would become of all of the advisors with no one to advise? All those who would save us have to have someone to save. We are too stupid to figure it out for ourselves. They have to tell us what to do. Where would we be without them? They need us to buy their books, listen to their lectures, ask them questions so they can write their advice columns in the papers. Where would they be without us?
It has become quite the industry, advice-giving. The self-help section of bookstores is twice the size of the religious section, unless, of course, it is a religious bookstore. But, even in religious sections and bookstores, most of the books, including the Bible studies, have a get-fixed-up-and-feel-better-about-your-life theme. It’s big business, fixing people up and helping them feel better about their lives.
It’s always been that way. It is the religious problem. We have given people religion to help them feel better about their lives. And, if we came upon a people who were feeling pretty good about their lives, we gave them religion to help them feel bad about their lives (Hell and Satan and Eternal Damnation, you know) so that we could give them more religion to help them feel good about their lives (Forgiveness and Deliverance and Redemption and Salvation and Everlasting Joy and Happiness, you know).
It would appear that we are witnessing the demise of religion, but it is really the proliferation of religion, bad religion. You can’t say religion has demised. Religion has mushroomed. Religion has morphed and mutated and multiplied. Religion is everywhere, it’s all over the place, you can’t get away from it. It’s taken over. Bad religion, that is. Official, Orthodox, Doctrinal Christianity has demised, but the heart of bad religion, the core, is as vibrant and healthy and present as ever. That heart is this: “Something is wrong with you. You need to be fixed. Just do what I say and you will feel better about your life. And, to keep the sound advice coming, be sure to buy my books, and my tapes, and make regular, hefty, donations to Feel Good Ministries. Amen. Can I have an Amen? Amen!”
We cannot feel good about our lives and be awake. Bad religion puts us to sleep. It’s a mess out there. You cannot possibly live with awareness and compassion in the midst of absurdity and feel good about it. If you do, you are sick, and should feel really bad about feeling good. How good you feel about your life is a marker indicating just how deeply into denial you are. If you are going to feel good about anything, feel good about how bad you feel.” We have to realize that how things are is the result of our trying to feel better about how things are by making them more like we think they should be. To make things better, we have to stop trying to improve them. We don’t feel better by making things different. We feel better by, well, feeling what we are feeling.
It’s like this: One of the great truths of our existence is that feelings change. We can make them linger, sometimes for the entire length of our lives, by nursing them, and nurturing them, and getting stuck in them, but, if we don’t do that, they change. We get stuck in what we feel when we become so enamored with it that we can’t let it go. Feeling miserable, for example, becomes a way of life. And we rehash without end the Awful Event that marked us forever and made us this way. Feeling cheery also can become a way of life, and we all have known the Polly Annals with their rose colored glasses and their propensity to look on the bright side of things and find the silver lining and encase themselves in denial behind their happy face. So, feelings don’t have to change, but they will if we let them.
We let them change by treating them like kindergarten kids. Nothing changes with the speed of the moods of a room full of kindergarteners. You can’t manage any of it. You just keep them from hurting each other and watch how fast their feelings change. That’s the trick in dealing with your own moods. Don’t do anything stupid in the grip of a mood, and watch it change. When you are in the grip of a mood, go sit down with it and a cup of coffee and let it rant—TO you, not THROUGH you. Big difference. You are just sitting with the mood, being with the mood, listening to the mood. You are there to get to know it in depth, and hear it out. Just like you might with a kindergartener who can’t go swimming because it’s raining.
You have to be with the mood for as long as it takes for the mood to begin to shift. This will probably be longer than you want it to be, but it will never be as long as you are afraid it might be. You cannot hurry a mood along just because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable and you are ready for it to go. If you are miserable, for example, you have to be miserable for as long as it takes for your misery to subside, and to shift over into the next mood in line. When you are miserable, be miserable. When you are sad, be sad. When you are afraid, be afraid. When you are lonely, be lonely. When you are happy, be happy. When you are exuberant, be exuberant. When you are peaceful, serene, at ease, be peaceful, serene, at ease. Do you see the pattern here?
This is absolutely all there is to it. When you understand this, there is nothing left to understand. When you are hungry, be hungry. When you are tired, be tired. See? And, you thought it was hard. We make it hard by trying to NOT BE what we are, or by trying to ALWAYS BE what we are. We are always trying to push away or clutch something tightly to us. The key is to JUST BE with whatever is with us, to JUST BE what we are. And, to allow it to change as it changes. To let come what’s coming and to let go what’s going.
Where would the world be without the pathos of time’s passing? I think that is our primary gift to the world, certainly to the experience of life, noticing the coming and the going, opening ourselves to it, allowing it to come and go with awareness and understanding, patience and grace.
This is basic to the experience of life, essential to life. It is the essence of being alive as human beings. Noticing. Noting. Knowing. The going-ness of things. Even the coming is a going. Can we bear it? Can we bear the realization, the knowing, and the sadness, the pathos it engenders? Can we receive the moment in full recognition of what it is, gently, lovingly, as one might receive a new-born child, honoring the wonder of this that will not last? Can we be alive like that? Being alive like that is the common ground that makes life possible for us all.