Upon this Dharma I Will Build My Church

In ways I have not felt since family church attendance and teenage religiosity, I’ve undertaken some changes to my life and habits of late. This surprised me, to be honest. After a solid 20 years as a set in my thinking go-it-alone atheist/agnostic*, I wasn’t planning for or seeking a change of pace to my habits and sense of community. I would have considered myself healthy, wealthy, and wise doing what I was doing. But here I am, keeping a daily meditation practice; attending weekly group sessions and talks; setting aside time for deeper all-day devotionals and longer retreats; and reading a number of books introducing me to facets of my new practice — that’s right, you get some embedded book reviews too!

(*I couldn’t scientifically disprove the existence of a higher power but I certainly didn’t live or share a worldview in which any such higher power had any vaguely interventionist or personal role in the modern world.*)

So what exactly am I talking about? I have been moved by Buddhist-inspired mindfulness and insight meditation practice — and related activities, words, and fellowship — as a new grounding to my life and thoughts. For much of the past 18 months as meditating and virtual sessions began to proliferate, I wouldn’t have necessarily considered this awakening spiritual or religious in nature. I’m not sure I do now completely either. But there are some key similarities that are worth acknowledging in regard to both the function of spirituality in one’s life and the role of religion too. Whether or not my rational mind is fully willing to admit it, it is indeed something that moves me deeply inside and affects my relationship with the fabric of reality around me in ways that are more than just business as normal. My worldview is changing, growing, and improving as a consequence.

Like all mention of religion and spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), what I write here will mean different things to each and everyone one of you reading. I’d love to receive any follow up if you feel so moved. There are lots of questions here. What is mindfulness? Is it Buddhism? If so, what kind? Isn’t meditation a practical practice that has nothing to do with religion and spirituality, so why reference Buddhism and include it here as such? You get the gist.

I can say that for me, so far, several things have emerged: 1) Meditation moved from a focused mental tool for breathing and structured time out period to the foundation of a bigger set of ideas and practices; 2) Buddhism is generally the platform upon which much of this is based, and indeed most dharma talks and related books quote from early Pali or Sanskrit Buddhist texts or later Buddhist practices of all schools; 3) Vipassanā insight meditation is the more specific practice I’m delving into at the moment, inspired by the Insight Meditation Society, the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, and practitioners like Sharon Salzberg, whose books (including how-to of meditation Real Happiness, rumination on trusting your own experience Faith, masterwork Lovingkindness, and recently published Real Change, which addresses what it means to be in this world) have been a guiding light this year, and Jonathan Foust, whose weekly guided meditations and dharma talks have meant so much and have us eagerly awaiting Monday nights “together”; 4) Making this practice part of my daily life has enriched my quality of life and sense of community.

As someone steeped in amateur comparative religion and science, I have also explored “secular” writers whom I trust who have experienced similar awakenings, namely Sam Harris, Robert Wright, and Stephen Batchelor. Reading some of their books this year, including Sam Harris’ Waking Up, Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True, and Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, have helped set the stage for my journey. There are so many more people, traditions, and books out there. Advances in evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, and neuroscience have brought us new ways of thinking and feeling about this. About the ways our brains work and why a 2,500 year old practice is bizarrely harmonious with 21st century science. It’s exciting. I look forward to a lifetime of exploration and deepening of what I know and practice, what I think I know and practice, what I don’t know and practice, and what it all means to me. The human mind is an enormously powerful, if uncontrolled, entity. And for better or worse, we’re each stuck with our own brain so we might as well learn to live with it. Mindfully.

I was blessed with a solid religious foundation thanks to a mother who made Sunday church attendance a fact of childhood existence. I was also thankful to have an extended family of Roman Catholics who helped me feel this part of my cultural heritage deeply and led me to attend the College of the Holy Cross despite not being a practicing Catholic myself. I also fervidly went through a wonderful period of evangelical christianity in my late high school years. Heck, I considered making a profession out of it at one point. (My first declared major at Holy Cross was religious studies.) Across the board, the individual Christians who populated my upbringing were fantastic, moral, genuine people. If it weren’t for a logical, educated personal realization that it makes little sense to live as if there is an active higher power in general or a Christian god in specific, I could have seen myself continuing along some version of that tried and true path. But for a solid 20 years, this is how I have lived — and very much still live.

But. (Insight) Meditation, which to me has become both an essential internal practice with my own mind and also external connection (or more to the Buddhist point, emptiness of actual connection) to everything else outside of me, has stepped into a role that I once associated with prayer. Guided group meditation and dharma talks have replaced church services, in terms of hearing from a learned spiritual leader and doing so alongside fellow practitioners (even virtually). Sangha groups — like-minded folks gathering regularly to discuss their practice — have stepped in to substitute the bible studies or fellowships I once partook in. Retreats, ranging from virtual one day sessions to longer, possibly even silent, weeklong versions, are now a part of my life or a part of what I hope to regularly participate in. This little essay itself was inspired by a powerful Saturday I spent this past weekend with Jonathan Foust that allowed me the space to really feel how this all came together for me — and what it means.

To save the best for last, I have been most inspired throughout this journey by my wife, Cheryl. Her years of prior meditation practice and mindfulness introspection informed the foundation that I now share thanks to her. Our journey together has meant the world to me. Our relationship has improved and continues to grow deeper as a direct consequence. And in fact, my first a-ha moment came thanks to her. Cheryl brought me to the Feathered Pipe Ranch in August 2019 for a seven-day yoga retreat. The meditation practices briefly touched on throughout that week by Judith Hanson Lasater and the spiritual energy that infuses that magical Montana place touched me deeply. The importance of that week and its shamanic location still resonates powerfully within me as a personal Rivendell. We hope to return this summer.

Mindfulness is as good a single word or concept as it gets to capture the essence of this all in a concise manner with some degree of mutual understanding. That is thanks to the burgeoning movement that has emerged over the past 50 years into a household and workplace norm. I am careful, however, at this point in my journey to specifically characterize how Buddhism intersects with all of this for me. It most certainly does inform much of this practice, and profoundly at that. I am also very aware that there is some version of cultural appropriation at play here in the United States, even if it is very much encouraged by Buddhist priests and scholars from the various schools and sects, as well as propagated by public practitioners at home in both the East and West. I look forward to learning and exploring more on this in particular. But even as a hybrid version of Buddhism/psychology barely understood by me, it already plays a role similar to that of the Christian practices and activities once important to me. And in that, this is as profound a church as I have yet experienced in this world. It feels amazing to come home to a community of like-minded, moral human beings.

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