Like most teenagers, I went through a rebellious phase. I became a fervent atheist, amongst other things. In retrospect, this was a strange development. I wasn’t raised as a theist. I grew up in the Unitarian Universalist church. My experience of that church was that they were less focused on indoctrination of particular beliefs and more focused on growing particular virtues, like kindness and acceptance.
In any case, as a rebellious teenager, I was offended by the idea of religion, and was confused that anyone would be so stupid as to believe in God. I thought that religion was a vast conspiracy designed to manipulate people in mass, politically, socially, and economically.
This past version of me would find it strange that I would begin to walk a spiritual path, or find meditation to be important, or join a monastery, or even consider believing in God.
When I went to college, I decided to go to St. John’s College. I loved it there. St. John’s is a Great Books School, where everyone does the same program of study: reading classics in literature, philosophy, history, theology, math, and science, and so on. I had always loved reading, so St. John’s was a wonderful place for me.
I knew that the sophomore year involved reading the Old and New Testaments as well as a number of theological texts. As an atheist I wasn’t looking forward to this, even if it was in a secular context.
I knew that reading those books would be triggering for me, and that I had some growing up to do before I could charitably read and discuss these books. So I hit upon the strategy of spending part of my summer reading religious and spiritual texts that felt more approachable, especially Eastern books—a kind of exposure therapy.
That summer, I read the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao te Ching and a handful of Western books about Eastern religions, like the Razor’s Edge and The Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness and Bhante Henepola Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English. I also gave meditation a try.
When I came back to St. John’s in the Fall, my perspective on reading the Bible had inverted completely. It wasn’t malicious, ignorant nonsense. Instead, it seemed that all the books were saying much the same thing, even though they were talking about it in different ways, at different times, and from different cultures. The basic message I heard was something like this:
It is possible for humans to directly experience and understand the source and purpose of existence, life, and meaning. This is an important experience. You should seek it. Find it as soon as possible, before you die.
The tone was trustworthy and straightforward. It was like I had an old friend, who I’d known for a long time and who had similar taste in movies as I did, and they called me up to recommend a movie that they thought I would like: “You should really go see it.”
Given the context of our friendship, I would simply take their word for it, and go see the movie.
This perspective, I learned, has a name: mysticism. Mysticism has several meanings, including one pejorative connotation. Here are the three meanings of the word mysticism:
- the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality
- the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience.
- vague speculation: a belief without sound basis. (pejorative)
I became a mystic, in the first two senses – I held the belief that it was possible to directly experience a deep understanding of myself and the world, and I hoped to one day have that experience. As I read more, I found I was in good company: the Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Jesus, Plato, Plotinus, St. Augustine, and more.
Every religion I encountered in books seemed to have a mystical core. They also had associated contemplative practices, which could help you get from here to there. Meditation seemed like a method that could work, and one that I was willing to do. I didn’t have to believe anything or worship anyone or buy something to meditate.
Over the years, Buddhism and Buddhist meditation have formed the basis of my spiritual practice. But I don’t see myself exclusively as a Buddhist. Fundamentally, I see myself as a mystic, drawing from different traditions and practices as seems relevant and helpful.
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