How Dropping Beliefs Has Connected Me More
For many years, I was obsessed with spirituality, and for many years, I was a devoted Buddhist in a Mahayana tradition. This path taught and grew me tremendously, but it was also fully entangled with a belief I had that there was something fundamentally wrong with myself and the world. It was inextricably linked with my developmental trauma and my (anxious) attachment style. Shout out to Buddhism for being perhaps the least fundamentalist religion around, and to the axiom: “Buddhism is a system of methods, not truths.”
I concede that there may be a person or people who grew out of a modern American context and are able to hear the Dharma in a way that is “free from obscurations”, but I am not one of them. I challenged the doctrine of my tradition relentlessly for years (my teacher called my personal holy order a “ministry of doubt”), and over time it became clear to me that there were politics to attend to that required most of the attention and energy I was using to muster up the practices I was assigned. Energy is limited, and the restraint required to withstand chaotic energies that rumble against one’s spiritual practice is… a lot. The joke here is that those “chaotic energies” are essentially good, or at least may be aligned with in their most wholesome aspects (which, believe it or not, they all have [Buddha nature, you hear?]). For those of us who, à la Untamed, only recently figured out how deeply our inner desires and motivations have taken a back seat to harmful social conditioning and people-pleasing (for some, manifesting as spiritual rigor), there are new and exciting possibilities. Secular life is one of them.
To back up, I have always been a spiritual person, meaning, I was always terribly concerned with the spiritual health of my family and the culture around me as a child. When the people around you are stressed, less than fully happy, and you live in a post-religious subculture where wholesome stories rich with meaning and tradition are lacking, it makes sense to become a seeker, or to join another club.
I am in my thirties now, and have realized that the most important aspects of my personal growth thus far have been the healing work I’ve done in regards to my family and closest relationships, and meditation on the interdependence of all things. An obsession with the theory and mechanics of “how to become enlightened” is not on that list.
Theories of change are countless, cultural, and to the degree that they are fundamentalist… terribly stressful. Over the years I realized that my yearning for what is tangible, and here, was far deeper and more fundamental than my need for the intangible, and for concepts like Buddhahood, enlightenment, or God (or at least how I imagined those to be). I just wanted to belong to something, and something good.
In the healing model I study and practice, there is an emphasis on connection to the environment through the senses. The name for this is orientation, which refers in part to the physiological “orienting” response that happens during and after a threat or stimulus occurs, to “remap” one in the present moment (for instance after fight, flight, fawn or freeze have done their job). Orientation as a practice and an antidote is based on the recognition that we are so often, culturally and developmentally, stuck in chronic self-protective states like the “Four F’s” mentioned. These self-protective programs and the way they manifest in fractured social environments keep us from experiencing what else may be possible in the here and now, through our basic curiosity and attention to fresh sensory experience. Not unlike some descriptions of the goal of meditation, orientation is a quality of presence to “what is,” (externally) with as little input from our personal associations as possible. Our brains are always generating perceptions through associative networks, so “knowing” what is “out there” may not be possible in the truest sense, but depending on the safety of one’s environment, orientation can provide a great deal of relief from the constant churning of our often threat-focused internal state. Greater orientation can mean a greater sense of spaciousness… a sense that there is room for things. At the same time, orientation puts you in more immediate contact with vision, texture, gravity, sound, taste, and smell. With this greater degree of contact there is also an increase in stimulation, which can ping our associative networks further… (I see something, it evokes a memory, which makes me feel a sensation, then think a thought, and on and on, etc.) So orientation is part of a dance, or intermingling, between external and internal attention, with the internal aspect being the thoughts, feelings, images and sensations that arise out of our relationship to “the outside.” If our conditions are safe and resourced enough, the possibilities that orientation offers for integration, rest, and presence (as the post-colonial talking heads we are) is profound.
I’ve started walking every day and have become strongly identified with my neighborhood loop. As I walk, I’ve realized that simply being here, including the study of what “here” even is, is quite enough for now. The crispness of my vision when I actually see without imputing is a healing and a return. The movement of my body through space, when I am really there for it, is an ongoing brush with wildness. I feel fresh, and new. I track what I receive, and notice what it brings alive for me.
In contrast to the seeking of my former self, being with “what is” is more than enough to ground me in the creation of a meaningful life. I’ve slowly been able to dump my obsession with proving and disproving grand or ultimate “meanings” that explain suffering, death, the afterlife, etc. I’ve also been able to dump certain spiritual ideas (even ones that had been unconscious) that I was culturally beholden to. This has made space to feel into what might actually mean something to me, as it arises organically… in short, my people, my planet, my creative contribution to our lives together.
Letting go of the desire for a spiritual fundamentalism that won’t let me down has been the latest and greatest liberation of my life. The crispness and clarity I feel in the space this has created is a gift.