Thursday, May 6, 2010

Searching for Buddha in West Campus.

Never before have I admitted to such a public audience that my iPhone played a crucial role in my latest spritual endeavor. 

But it's true. It did. Although I'm a little embarrassed to admit it.  I even hesitate to tell my friends about the magical podcast I accidentally discovered on my iPhone one day, sometime last January, while going through a brief spell of personal discontent.  "So, you looked for answers on your iPhone?" I imagine them saying.  "Yes," I would reply back, and immediately I would know that Apple has won.  This is disconcerting.

Anyway, this podcast is called "Zencast," and if you're anything like me you think that sounds a little silly. Like when the name "Jesus" is used in inappropriately cute ways, such as Jesus TV, Jesus Radio, and a dubiously-named edible called "Jesus Snacks" (all for real examples).

But I had listened to some meditation podcasts just the week before, and they weren't bad, so why not give it a shot? Zen people liked to meditate. Maybe I would like to meditate. Maybe I would become zen!

So I downloaded a couple. And then, I downloaded several. For a few weeks this Winter, I became Apple's version of a Rush Limbaugh dittohead, listening to my new hip Eastern religion on headphones, in the car, in bed, making breakfast, at work - that is, pretending to work, while actually tuned into a calm-voiced Buddhist teacher explaining things like "attachments" and "loving kindness."  I even got a little zealous about it, telling random people (and just a few friends) about Zencast and how earth-shaking it was. "You guys, did you know there's a difference between REALITY and THE THOUGHT WORLD?" These are the kinds of things you say when you've been listening to too much Zencast. I knew it was too much, because people would meet my question with a look on their face somewhere between, "huh, that's interesting!" and " ... the fuck?"

This isn't the first time I've gotten all excited about a religion. In high school, there passed a short but very dedicated time when I loved The Lord. I was saved! "Are you saved?" This was a normal, non-ironic thing I would say to people. Then, I entered college, and my attitude toward Christianity did a complete 180. During my first year, the president of our school was trying to get the non-discrimination clause in our university constitution officially changed to include "sexuality" in its list of things with which it valiantly did not discriminate: race, creed, class, etc.

But this did not sit well with another president. The president of the school's Christian fraternity.

In fact, this audacious 19-year-old was so pissed, he called public town meetings on our teensy, tiny campus to discuss it. "This is a Methodist school," he argued. "And the Bible's position on homosexuality is clear." 

First of all, calling our college a Methodist school was similar to calling it a banana. Second, that single incident pretty much ended my already-fading honeymoon with Christianity.  I wasn't a GLBT activist.  I didn't even have any gay friends yet. But all of a sudden, the whole Christian enterprise seemed really hateful to me.

Coincidentally, George Bush happened to be running for his first presidential term that same year.  And I think that for the next eight years, Christianity - to a certain segment of the population - was just portrayed in a really bad, loony tunes kind of light.  As hateful as that Christian fraternity president was during that fateful town meeting, I am ashamed to admit how cruel and over-generalizing I was, about all Christians, during most of that time period. "Jesus" became my favorite punchline for anything (and it kind of still is).  "What would Jesus drink?" I would ask, standing before an array of shots at some party. "Who would Jesus do?" I would ask my roomate, giggling through episodes of The Bachelorette.

But now, I feel like I am just getting to the point where I can respect religion again. Including Christianity.

When I first started dating Ross six years ago, he lent me a copy of The Tao of Pooh, and I thought it was one of the most delightful things I had ever read. Later, he hauled out his old, beat-up copy of Hua Hu Ching: The Unknown Teachings of Lau Tzu, and it still occupies a very revered place in our bathroom. In fact, I read it this morning.

The ego is a monkey catapulting through the jungle:
Totally fascinated by the realm of the senses,
    it swings from one desire to the next, 
    one conflict to the next,
    one self-centered idea to the next.
If you threaten it, it actually fears for its life.

Let this monkey go.
Let the senses go.
Let desires go.
Let conflicts go.
Let ideas go.
Let the fiction of life and death go.
Just remain in the center, watching.

And then you forget you are there.

Isn't that amazing? The whole concept of forgetting "you" is just fascinating to me (and, as an only child, a near impossible feat). As my trusty little Zencasts have taught me, Buddhism is all about letting go of ideas, of thinking - which seems exotically anti-Western, as well as nuts. Not think? Isn't that what makes us human? Species-dominating? Awesome?

Then, when I began to listen to the thoughts that actually do play inside of my head, I began to see the wisdom of this advice. For example, here is a typical conversation I'll have with myself:

"Well Tolly, what did you think of Real Housewives of New York last night?"

"I think they're all bitches!"

Like that. Sometimes I think deeper things, but mostly it's petty stuff. I can afford to give it up.

This is a really, really long-winded way of saying that I went to the Austin Zen Center for the first time a few weekends ago, for an orientation and a little "practice" meditation. It just so happens to be less than a mile from my house, on the very edge of West Campus. I am going to a "Dharma Talk" again on Saturday morning. What will they talk about? What is Dharma? I have no idea.

But when I'm there, I'm going to try and "quiet the mind, open the heart" as Buddhist teachers say.

Do you have a weird relationship with religion, too? A Buddha/Jesus/Hare Krishna/ story?  Tell me your spiritual neuroses and/or discoveries! I've often wondered if more people, especially hip Austinites who might feel weird talking about it, grapple with this like I do.

(photo sources here and here).


Janee said...

This is best thing I've read in a long time. Funny, irreverent, innocent, authentic. And I can't help but wonder, who did Jesus do? I don't recall the Bible saying anything about His virginity. Hmmm

madelyn said...

First of all, I love the new header and the organizational tabs and everything about this blog :)

As far as this post goes, I find myself wondering if you live inside my brain. I completely identified with every sentence of this post and now feel completely entertained AND inspired.

Thanks for posting this :)

Texanthropology said...

Whoa, I feel like we are leading parallel lives. I, too, went around trying to "save" everyone in high school. But then in college I had a falling out with Christianity over exactly the same issue -- the church's venomous hatred for the gay community. I couldn't bear the hypocrisy (love your neighbor UNLESS they love someone of the same sex?), so then I turned smug and scoffing about the whole concept of religion, throwing out the baby with the holy/bathwater.

But for the last few years I've decided to explore what spirituality outside of dogma can be like. Turns out throwing out all the beliefs you were raised with and trying to figure out your own ideas on the meaning of life, etc. is sort of totally daunting.

I think I'm going to be figuring it all out for the rest of forever, but for now my "religion" is based off a scene from "I <3 Huckabees" -- all of us and everything in the universe is part of "the blanket," and everything we do affects everything else, so we should try to do good. Which I guess is kind of like Taoism.

Anyway, sorry for the superlong, kindacrazy comment, but thank you so much for writing what you did. It's inspiring and encouraging to know others out there are trying to figure this stuff out, too.

Lela said...

hmm...that's interesting. I never grew up with any kind of organized religion but with a kind of philosophy that governed how you could/should approach the world. A few years ago, that philosophy and my own beliefs clashed and I had a sort of quarter-life crisis in trying to figure it all out. To echo your Zencast, I had to "let go" of my preconceived notions of how life should be and take it for what it's worth. I guess you could say that I subsided into a hodge podge of my own beliefs tempered by the philosophical approaches of what I grew up with. I think it's a common and healthy and SMART thing to do to really examine a belief system closely from time to time.

Cody said...

Madelyn told me to come read this! I didn't know the blog address so I just googled "Tolly..." and before I could even get to your last name Google suggested it. How cool is that? Google just KNOWS who you are!

As far as this post goes... if you ever want to hear some really interesting stories on religion you'll have to spend some time with me and the misses.

We got some STORIES to tell! But, not something I want on the internets...

Good post!

Austin Eavesdropper said...

@Janee, thank you so much! What a kind compliment. I will try to bring back more reports on this's something I think about quite a bit.

@Madelyn, WOW! First of all, thanks for the props on the new blog "look," slowly but surely she is getting to be like a REAL WEBSITE. Secondly, I'm glad to hear you can relate to pieces of this, too. As I found out tonight actually, religion/belief systems/spirituality is such a difficult thing to open up about. I am just now getting brave enough to talk about it myself.

@Texanthropology, we DO have parallel lives, because I *just used the blanket example tonight* with the person I was discussing religion with. NO JOKE! In fact, I wonder if my buddy who I was chatting with will read this comment and remember our conversation!! Haha.

Anyway, Taoism. Has always made so much sense to me. The notion that a river doesn't try, it just is - if there's a stick in its way, it flows around it - is incredibly profound to me. You too, huh?

@Lela, really? I would be interested to hear more about that. That mid-life clash between the philosophy you had been raised with, and your own beliefs. Do you feel like you're at a good place now, or still trying to figure out the pieces you want to keep of the philosophy, and the parts you're ready to release?

@Cody - Oooh how you titillate, religious GOSSIP! Haha. Seriously though I'd love to hear you and M's stories. (And Madelyn, that is so sweet that you recommended this post to Cody. :) Thank you, I am so incredibly flattered by that).

Texanthropology said...

Ha! That is totally crazy! But, yes, I was also loaned a copy of "The Tao of Pooh" a few years ago and loooved it. What a peaceful, stress-free approach to life. And then weirdly, I married a guy whose stepmom is kind of an expert on modern spirituality. She wrote a book called "Broken Open" that I highly recommend, as well as a more in-depth study on finding your own spirituality called "The Seeker's Guide." I'm betting you'd enjoy them both.

bsimms8907 said...

I'm am at a point in my life where I honestly don't know where I am on the religious spectrum. College is supposed to be a period of my life where I truly figure out who I am as a person, but in all honesty I feel as lost today as I have ever been. Last semester I took a course called Religion and Sexuality, thinking it might help me figure out where I stand, but alas it only confused me more. The one thing I did take away from it was the idea that one could be spiritual, without being religious. I definitely believe in a higher power, whether that is necessarily God I'm still not sure. My parents never took me to church, they never pressured me to live a "good, wholesome Christian Life" but sometime I get angry at my parents for that. I feel like maybe if they had I wouldn't be so confused now. Maybe I would know for sure whether or not I believed in this institution of Christianity of not by now. But it doesn't help anyone to dwell on the "what ifs". I also tend to over-generalize most "Christians". In high school we had a christian based organization called Younglife, but I felt like it was such a sham since all the kids who went to it every week were the same kids partaking in casual sex and binge drinking and drug consumption on the weekend. I felt like everyone i knew who said they were "Christians" were big hypocrites and it led me to believe that Christianity itself was built on nothing but hypocrisy. While I don't necessarily believe that now I still feel think often times church is used more as a social means, than a spiritual means. The only thing I know for sure, for myself, is that I feel like you don't have to buy into the whole Religious rituals (Church every sunday, bible study, ect) to be a christian, and for those who look down on me for believing that can frankly kiss my ass. I don't need someone else (parents, grandparents, PTA moms, friends, or a preacher) telling me how God wants me to act in order to classify myself as Christian. I believe (and I wrote a long 10 page paper about this) if more people would think for themselves religiously rather than rely on what some "agent of God" tells them we wouldn't have institutions like the Westboro Baptist Church. I would bet $100 that most people, especially ones my age, who are "Christian" have never once read the bible in its entirety and tried to interpret the words for themselves. I'm rambling now... I'll cut this off because I could go on forever!

Austin Eavesdropper said...

@BSimms8907 - Brittney!

God. I so relate.

I can especially relate to what you are saying about "spiritual" vs. "religious."

As time goes by, I am identifying more and more with the former -- and I like it.

I'm not sure if I will ever be the latter again. But I mean, who knows? Maybe it's all in the attitude you have going into religion. One of my favorite people, a client of mine actually, is an interfaith teacher/speaker. He still identifies with the Christian church, but also, Buddhism. He doesn't think you need to "choose" one way or the other, and I really like that.

Because to him, cultivating a Buddha nature and living like Jesus are sort of the same thing. I think I agree with that. That at some level, it's semantics, and the basic idea is: LOVE. That's it.

Anyway! With your experience, Brittney...Christianity. It is so complicated. Especially in this country. I applaud you for applying such a thoughtful attitude towards it. It's not easy! And hey, just remember: The fact that you are questioning this stuff, rather than accepting any of it blindly, is MORE significant and cool I think than any answer. :)

Amy Strecker said...

Tolly! I love reading about your spiritual journey, particularly since we met while both in our "are you saved?" phase. (My year at Baylor convinced me I didn't want to be saved!)

I've just returned to church in the last few months after a five year experiment with heathenism. For me it's been really important to find a community that practices and respects traditions from other faith communities, as well as one that incorporates social teachings and welcomes questioning.

I don't think I'll ever be able to drink all the kool-aid of any tradition, but I do enjoy the practice of going to church, meditating and being part of a spiritual community, so I'm wading back into the waters carefully.

One thing that is such a struggle for me, is that my interpretation of all faith traditions calls us to respect and act lovingly towards those we disagree with -- ouch! So hard to do. When I encounter some of these die hard, gay-hating, right-wing conservatives, I was to scream profanities. How are you balancing this in your own quest?

Anastasia said...

I love th Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet. I love how it says that if your ego is threatened it actually fears for its life. It's so true! The Tao gets me every time.