Welcome to high school, and to my World Religions class! I’d really like to teach you something valuable this semester. Of course, you’ll learn a lot academically about Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam, but I’m hoping you actually come away with something far more important – something that can be applied to your life. So far I have made the point that religions envision the entire universe as being composed of two dimensions – a visible, every day existence that I’m calling “the horizontal,” and an invisible dimension of reality – “the vertical” – that might be called God, Ultimate Reality, the Sacred, Brahman, or the Kingdom of Heaven. Religions across the world teach that true happiness comes in living life at the intersections of these two dimensions.
The Two Selves
Just as there are two dimensions of the world out there, virtually all world religions also teach that there are two similar aspects of yourself in here. We could call the horizontal part of yourself the “small self,” and the vertical part of you the “Larger Self.” Your small self is all the parts of your personality – your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, your gifts and interests. So much of school is about developing your small self – whether it’s your academic subjects, your sports and clubs, or your social life. All those numbers that seem so important in high school – GPA, SAT, school rankings – are part of the small self. This is the self that you will put forward to college admissions. We at HKIS celebrate those who do really well in this system. This is obviously a very real and important aspect of who you are.
Religions say that honoring this part of yourself is well and good – as long as we realize its place in the scale of things; it’s just the small self. But there is a Larger Self that offers a truer happiness that is not dependent on the achievements of the small self. Religions call this by different names: atman, the Buddha Nature, the soul, the image of God. The source of this Self is in the vertical dimension.
The Purpose of Religion
The purpose of religion, which literally means to “re-connect,” is to help offer each person the opportunity to combine the small self and the Larger Self together into a whole person whose source of security is the unconditional Presence of God (or whatever you want to call this power) rather than your own vulnerable personality with all of its strengths and weaknesses.
The problem is that modern society wants us to think that nothing else exists besides the small self. We are afraid that if we don’t develop this small self into someone “important” or “valued” by society – in the form of making money, recognition of our talents, some respectable social status – then we will be considered a failure, someone who does not have value. If we fail to achieve as a student, we fear that we have amounted to nothing, a disappointment, and we’ll suffer from a low opinion from others and, even worse, our own self-rejection. Students tell me that most HKIS students feel quite insecure and are threatened by low self-esteem because they just can’t be “good enough” in the eyes of our culture that has such high expectations. This is what makes school so stressful!
Most of us think of ourselves as equal to our personalities.
Actually, the word “personality” is linked to “persona,” which in Latin originally referred to a mask used in theatrical productions. Your persona is the face you show to others, the role you play, which you act out in order to be successful or well-liked. But it’s likely that it’s not who you really are. And it is very conditional. If your persona changes, your social world may reject you.
The world’s religious traditions, by contrast, consider your persona, or your small self, to be an imposter because it claims to be the whole of your life. I hope you see that religion offers us a truly beautiful idea: your Larger Self, the true source of your identity, is a gift of unconditional love that lies secure in the vertical dimension. Your true security comes from something that can’t be won or lost. It’s a gift to be accepted by anyone and everyone rather than a prize only available to a talented few. You can’t try to earn it; you can only receive it. It simply is – and this Presence is always available within us.
So, in everyday life you still get to fully develop all of who you are – your classes, extracurriculars and social life all still matter – but at the same time you can rest secure that you are so much more than the sum total of your achievements and setbacks.
This semester, as we study about four different World Religions, I want to offer you the chance to explore this Larger Self. Is it actually possible that you could find some measure of true happiness inside yourself that lies outside of your school and life achievements? Most of you have probably never considered this possibility because our HKIS school culture, like modern culture in general, doesn’t teach you about the Larger Self.
Training Your Three Brains
How do you move from an exclusive focus on the small self to the possibility that a Larger Self exists? This is the most important question. World religions have an almost infinite variety of ways to help you let go of that small self and allow the Larger Self to be experienced. But most of us are never taught these things, so we have to start at the beginning.
Let’s start with a proposal that comes from the inner Wisdom traditions of religions in both Asia and the West about what it means to be an awakened human being. Humans are often thought to have three aspects – a body, a mind, and a heart. All three are what we might call “intelligences.” You could even say that you have three brains – one in your gut, one in your heart, and of course the one in your head. In order to sense Presence/Spirit, these three brains need to be sensitized and connected to each other.
The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of your time at school is focused on your mental intelligence. As a baby, your emotional life and physical body were quite balanced with the growth of your intellect, but over time your mental intelligence has become highly developed, while your other intelligences have been taken for granted. If I asked how many hours you have spent since birth training your brain, most of you would put the number above 10,000. This qualifies you to be an expert, according to Malcolm Gladwell, and our prestigious college acceptances will verify your efforts. But if I asked you how many hours you’ve spent training your bodily intelligence, or how much time you’ve put into conditioning your heart to be in resonance with the vertical dimension, many of you would probably even struggle to answer the question.
World religions say that if you are primarily rooted in one center – your mind – then you are technically asleep! And when I look at students in my classes who are seated for six hours a day trying to develop mostly their minds, many of you indeed look quite tired and bored rather than anticipating the “joy of learning.” Maybe we need a new approach to learning!
So, the key understanding is that moving from sleep to a state of wakefulness requires a whole new way of being, one in which you pay more attention to your body and to your heart. Bringing a new awareness to your body-mind-heart will not only make you a more balanced person, but will over time, say these traditions, allow you to slowly access this Presence, and give you the opportunity to integrate the small and Large Selves. This is the path to become a fulfilled human being.
How Do We Start?
So what’s the first step? The place to start is to interrupt your addictive preoccupation with things of the mind (think of your phone/computer!), and focus instead on the body or the heart. You need to train your mind to pay attention to your bodily and emotional intelligences.
Your homework, then, is to choose a practice from below to begin your self-exploration:
- Body scan: You may want to use Mark Williams’ online program to guide your practice.
- Yoga: Find a guide online/dvd or find a local teacher or gym to help you. You may find Kelly McGonigal’s online yoga sessions helpful.
- Food journal: Write down everything you eat, and put each food and drink into one of these three categories (healthy, passable, unhealthy). Take a look at some suggestions here and here. You decide what and how you want to track your eating habits.
- Conscious Walking: spend 10 minutes walking somewhere (preferably by yourself) in which you try to focus on (1) your feet, (2) what you see, and (3) what you hear. Try to avoid falling into thinking/imagining about anything outside of these three physical aspects of your experience. Here are 10 tips on conscious walking (see bottom of entry).
- Loving Kindness Meditation (metta): Use this description and modify for your own interests, or listen to this online guided meditation. This guided loving kindness meditation by Mark Williams may be helpful.
- HeartMath breathing technique: Read this description as introduction to their practice. Howard Martin of the HeartMath Institute describes the technique in this short podcast.You can learn more about their concept of energetic field coherence here.
- Emotional Journal I: write down at least three events/day in which you had a positive or negative emotional response to something. Note the event that caused the reaction, the reaction, and what you learned about yourself. The goal is to simply observe yourself; no need to try to change.
- Emotional Journal II: write down three times in a day in which your mind wondered away from the present into the past or future, what the emotional attraction/fear was, and what you learned about yourself. Note the event that caused the reaction, the reaction itself, and what you learned about yourself. The goal is to simply observe yourself; no need to try to change.
If you want to look at other possibilities done by HKIS students in the past, hit here and scroll down to where the projects begin.To learn more about the specific benefits of three different meditation techniques – breathing meditation, body scan, and loving kindness meditation – hit this link.
Don’t worry! Take this one step at a time. In fact, growth in the spiritual life generally comes when you are RELAXED. So, yes, class time will include a lot of academic learning, but in order for you to truly learn something useful to your life, I’m going to try to let you go of stress so that you can harmonize your body-mind-heart self. In my experience with students, the lowest level of impact will simply be that these practices will enable you to manage your stress better, which, given that this is the number one problem for HKIS students, is no small matter.
But understand that my ambitions for you this semester are actually far greater than simply these kinds of coping strategies, as important as they are. For most of you, this class is likely to be your most sustained study of world religions in your lifetime. All of us are trying to figure out what these different religions have spent millennia studying – how to lead a satisfying life, both in its horizontal and vertical dimensions. My hope for you is that by the end of the semester you will have gained some insight into the big questions that religions address, such as:
- How can I become a happier human being?
- Does a spiritual world exist?
- What is the purpose of my life?
- How does one grow in the spiritual life?
- Do these ancient religions have any wisdom to offer to modern people?
Of course, there are no guarantees that anything positive will happen, and your grade is never dependent on having certain kinds of “experiences” or coming to the same conclusions as what I present. Honesty and integrity are always the first priority. As the Buddha said, “Believe nothing. No matter where you read it, or who said it. Unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Skeptics welcome!
So with that said, however, I do want to share with you this semester the good news that is contained in all of these religious traditions. Yes, there is a great deal of suffering in living our lives – that is acknowledged by every religion – but these traditions have a multitude of ways to deal with these problems that leads to satisfaction. Suffering does not need to have the final word; the wise way of peace and fulfillment is possible for each of us. Welcome to World Religions and I hope you enjoy your exploration this semester.
To learn more about the Wisdom Tradition’s body-mind-heart framework, see this blog entry on my Service, Society, and the Sacred class.
To watch a presentation I gave to my World Religions class explaining the Wisdom Tradition, go to this link.
Quotes on the Larger Self:
“The single and true purpose of mature religion is to lead you to ever new experiences of your True Self. If religion does not do this, it is junk religion. Every Sacrament, every Bible story, every church service, every sermon, every hymn, every bit of priesthood, ministry, or liturgy is for one purpose: to allow you to experience your True Self—who you are in God and who God is in you—and to live a generous life from that Infinite Source.”
-Richard Rohr, July 31, 2016 commentary
Pure Presence by Richard Rohr
Thursday, November 23, 2017
(Thanksgiving in the United States)
Wisdom is not the gathering of more facts and information, as if that would eventually coalesce into truth. Wisdom is a way of seeing and knowing the same old ten thousand things but in a new way. As my colleague Cynthia Bourgeault often says, it’s not about knowing more, but knowing with more of you. I suggest that wise people are those who are free to be truly present to what is right in front of them. It has little to do with formal education. Presence is pretty much the same as wisdom!
Presence is the one thing necessary to attain wisdom, and in many ways, it is the hardest thing of all. Just try to keep your heart open and soft, your mind receptive without division or resistance, and your body aware of where it is and its deepest level of feeling. Presence is when all three centers are awake at the same time! Most religions decided it was easier to believe doctrines—and obey often arbitrary laws—than undertake the truly converting work of being present.
The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches this wisdom through the ceremony and meditation of tea (a Buddhist parallel to the Christian Eucharist):
You must be completely awake in the present to enjoy the tea.
Only in the awareness of the present, can your hands feel the pleasant warmth of the cup.
Only in the present, can you savor the aroma, taste the sweetness, appreciate the delicacy.
If you are ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future, you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of tea.
You will look down at the cup, and the tea will be gone.
Life is like that.
If you are not fully present, you will look around and it will be gone.
You will have missed the feel, the aroma, the delicacy and beauty of life.
It will seem to be speeding past you. The past is finished.
Learn from it and let it go.
The future is not even here yet. Plan for it, but do not waste your time worrying about it.
Worrying is worthless.
When you stop ruminating about what has already happened, when you stop worrying about what might never happen, then you will be in the present moment.
Then you will begin to experience joy in life. 
As you eat your next meal—perhaps with family gathered for Thanksgiving—enter into the experience mindfully. Savor the aroma. Taste the sweetness. Appreciate the delicacy. Experience the joy—right now—without needing anyone to notice. But they will!