I’m skeptical about everything. So when it comes to religion my brain has a field day. The media aids and abets. Every abusive priest, every soldier who kills in the name of his God. Let’s put it this way. I’m old and I’ve seen too much. I know how easily God is twisted to the purposes of men. It is soma. It is control. It is a tool of dictators and power fools.
So when someone suggested I needed more personal faith, I laughed. I scoffed. I was, in a word, superior. The fact that it was a pretty girl who I was dating at the time made no difference. My religion was certain. It was of my own making. It included leaves and trees and the other obvious signs of Mother Nature. I got that the Earth was ours to ruin and we were doing a pretty good job. I believed that Native American drumming and other practices before white people polluted the land were probably pretty spiritual. I believed in signs — the croaking raven, etc. Looking back, my religion was basically a positive, media- driven, pollyana for a day and depression for a week, panoply of the senses that deserted me in crowded malls and during the evening news, and flourished during long hikes and days when my personal star rose. Kind of a patched together, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t sort of religion.
I had this health problem — nothing fatal — but something kind of scary and inexplicable that I was freaking out about. My girlfriend told me to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I told her I hated salmon-colored robes and finger cymbals and to leave me alone. She persisted. She made me get a pen and write the words down. When I got off the phone I tried it once. It was ridiculous. It was everything I hated in religion: a stupid mindless magic bullet that was supposed to make me feel like a happy gummy bear. I might just as well chant “Mary had a little lamb.”
So I did.
“Mary had a little lamb. Mary had a little lamb. Mary had a little lamb…” Ok. This wasn’t particularly revelatory. After two minutes of chanting, I didn’t give two shits about Mary, and I wished the worst for her pet (lamb chops and a sweater). So I tried my girlfriend’s chant. Equally ridiculous. What does it mean? It’s simply gobbledy gook some Asian person who can’t speak English came up with to make himself feel better about having a bad day. It probably translates as “Mary had a little lamb.” Enough of that.
Fast forward. Despite my misgivings about her religious counsel, I married my girlfriend and that’s when the real fun began. Sometimes I would come home from work and she’d be light as a feather and other days she’d be heavy as Hell itself. On the feather days I figured she’d gotten good news or something else that made her spirit light. But come to find the only actual difference between a feather and Hell was that she had chanted the feather days, and hadn’t gotten around to it on the Hell days. How could saying gobbledygook make that big a difference? This was problem that required study.
Moreover when I walked into the house and she was chanting, her body was posessed, or more truthfully just anchored at its deepest source. My wife is fun-loving, Italian, expressive, girlish at times, free-spirited, playful — her voice is sexy, sweet, and so honestly open that at first I fell in love with her voice in those early years as I talked with her on the phone from Boston. What it isn’t, is anchored, solemn, from the gut, resonant, bass, focussed. But when she chanted, her voice was all these things. It was like this beautiful girl was suddenly possessed with a priestly James Earl Jones.
Being a Buddhist she would have other Buddhists over to the house to chant or she would drag me to a meeting somewhere and I would experience the transformation of a bunch of knuckleheads into serious, resonant, instruments of God.
It was a feeling my brain couldn’t wrap around. But okay. I got it. There was more to this than met the eye. But really, I was too deep in my need to control my surroundings and my image to fall for it. I, my career, my life was just way more important than being the flying Buddhist nun. Sally Fields and the Dalai Lama could have it.
Besides, I’m a mind person. You have to appeal to my mind to get my respect. So my wife gave me a Buddhist book by Daisaku Ikeda called “My Dear Friends in America.”
It was good. A little Japanesy for my pioneer American mindset, but still I would agree with almost all the things he said. On top of that, he had some great metaphors and some great examples. He spent a little too much time telling people he didn’t know how great they were, but whatever. It was a good book. Since it appealed to my brain, unbeknownst to me and against my better judgment, my brain started a dialogue with my heart. I started to feel this chanting thing and it was hard to deny the results. Overall this was pretty good shit.
My natural shyness that can turn anything into a punchline held me back though. Take away a barrier and I’ll erect three more. At meetings at our house I would hover around the edges. Stall. Stand. Chant a little. Go do dishes. Use putting my children to bed as an excuse not to participate. Someone has to do it! I was a busy father for christ sake! Who has time for this!
But in those moments, days, weeks that we’ll call depression (doesn’t everyone count his toes while staring down from great heights and admiring just how far the drop really is?) it was my heart that spoke the loudest–trying to reason with my brain about actual tools that might keep me from this ledge a few less times. What did I have to lose, except my life, my depression, my superiority…except my life. Besides marriage was proving to be a hiccup and a half from my logical, ivy-league mind’s point-of-view. It followed no pattern I could follow from math class. Just when I thought that x equalled the square root of four, I’d have a fight about finger nail clippings in the sink. Holy shit. Really? It turned out there was no square route. You couldn’t get there from here. So I broke down. (I admit it fellow superior beings, so sue me already!) I chanted.
It makes no sense at all to a Vulcan, but damned if I didn’t start to feel better. Sometimes I’d look back three months and couldn’t remember the last time I’d counted toes from a high angle.
But it was my secret. No one must know. What if my friends in the Atheist’s Club found out? My membership card would be spirited out of my pocket and burnt at the stake.
But then, month by month, the atheists themselves began to fade from my life. Really, they were so stuck in their ways: demanding that life had no spiritual component whatsoever; that there is nothing outside of their little selves that mattered. No wonder so many also belonged to self-help groups and Hemlock societies. If I don’t act like myself, kill me. I’m in control damnit.
No you won’t, Atheistas! What you is, is beautiful, irreplaceable human beings who’ve lost the instruction manual. Look the Tin Woodsman in the eye and tell me you have no heart.
Today, I can’t even spell ‘skaptic’. Because a ‘skaptoc’ is someone who doubts, and doubt is the lack of faith, and I know enough, when my toes start itching for the ledge, to chant. It’s an everyday tool. It’s a practice. A mindless activity. Literally. My skeptical mind is along for the ride, but basically it’s just humming at the curb, waiting for instructions from my heart wisdom.
Mary was a beautiful soul who will never come again. When the lamb touched her life, together they became as white as snow.