"The unique personality which is the real life in me, I can not gain unless I search for the real life, the spiritual quality, in others. I am myself spiritually dead unless I reach out to the fine quality dormant in others. For it is only with the god enthroned in the innermost shrine of the other, that the god hidden in me, will consent to appear."
These remarkable words were written in the late 19th century by Felix Adler. Adler was the founder of the Ethical Culture movement - a humanistic movement that asserted human beings can live whole and meaningful and ethical lives independent of theology.
More than a century later, Adler's words have become even more relevant and seem even more penetratingly wise about the human condition.
In this time of increasing individualism and commercialism, many imagine they will grow their hearts and their spirits alone. If they go to enough lectures and watch enough spiritual videos - if they do enough yoga and meditation, wear the right crystals and shamanistic symbols - then, they will discover the god hidden inside. But, as this founder of one of the most influential non-theistic movements insists, "it is only with the god enthroned in the innermost shrine of the other, that the god hidden in me, will consent to appear."
Connection to others is one of the most essential elements of our lives.
Connection makes life meaningful. It makes us happy. But connection is not all delight. In fact, our connections to one another are often fraught with worry and fear:
We may love and not be loved in return.
We may be loved, and not love in return.
We may seek approval and receive condemnation.
We may get a cold shoulder when we were hoping for a warm embrace.
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers these words:
"Without fear, we are able to see more clearly our connections to others. Without fear, we have more room for understanding and compassion. Without fear, we are truly free."
My guess is that not one of us is fully free in this sense. Most of us carry around anxieties and worries about relationship. Most of us have a core of fragility that we protect and defend - and in caring for that fragility, we prevent others from being with the God within us and from knowing the God within them.
For this last of our series on religion hacks, I want to explore the ways in which religions have developed technologies that facilitate connection - true and deep connection.
Ultimately, many if not most of us have a deep sense that we are just not good enough - that if we get too close to others they will see through our disguises and they will know how awful we really are. We will be crushed. We will be revealed to be as worthless as we fear we are.
Which, of course, we are not. We are all beautiful and amazing in our own ways, but the fear is there nonetheless. So, the challenge is how to get beyond and around that fear to allow true connection.
I'll talk about two religion hacks. You're going to like the first much more than the second!
The one you will like is acceptance.
The other one - brace yourself - is "sin."
No - you haven't ventured into the wrong congregation. This is still New Unity, but we are going to go into the value of some of the concepts and teachings from which our religious predecessors ran.
So let's begin with the more palatable notion of acceptance.
Here, I want to turn to Buddhism, a tradition that has very carefully developed its technologies through the millennia. Buddhism is, in fact, more focused on its technologies or practices than on its beliefs.
To vastly oversimplify Buddhism, one of the key teachings is "accept things as they are."
Meditation is very much a practice of watching - of observing - of seeing things as they truly are and welcoming them just that way.
A great Zen master taught this: "In your practice you should accept everything as it is, giving to each thing the same respect given to a Buddha. Then Buddha bows to Buddha, and you bow to yourself. This is the true bow."
That respect goes to what is best in you as it does to what you find embarrassing or shameful.
What is, is. Meditation is a technology for training ourselves to see and accept and let go of our attachment to "more" or "different."
We like Buddhism, don't we?
And now, sin. (That, by the way, is notice that we're moving to another topic, it is not an instruction.)
Are human beings intrinsically bad or intrinsically good?
Unitarians fled from the Christian notion that the answer is the former. Our predecessors were adamant that we are not born with the stain of original sin which must be washed away in the blood of the son of God, sacrificed for us.
I am not going to disagree with the Unitarian view. The notion of original sin has caused great psychological, emotional, and even physical damage since it was devised - not, by the way, by Jesus of Nazareth.
But - like most things - the concept of innate sinfulness is not all bad.
We have moved to a nearly opposite place now. We think perhaps that we are not only born good - we are born perfect. Or at least, we are supposed to be.
In fact - just as we might think a person with make-up has a flawless complexion - we experience the psychological masks that others wear to look perfect and we are taken in... we start to think that they are perfect and it's just me who's a mess.
If we are all sinners - yay! It says that imperfection and even badness is a part of the mix. We know that others have it just as we know and accept it in ourselves. In that sense, a little sin is a good thing.
I'm not suggesting you try to make yourself believe in original sin. You probably can't in any case, and if you could you would likely do more harm than good.
But, we need to get out of our heads the notion that we've all got original perfection - that anything short of that is our own doing, our own failing and indeed that it is a rarity - a disease we carry that puts us in a small minority.
Listen to this vignette from Tara Brach's wonderful book entitle Radical Acceptance:
“Most of the time Marilyn's mother remained unconscious, her breath labored and erratic. One morning before dawn, she suddenly opened her eyes and looked clearly and intently at her daughter. "You know," she whispered softly, "all my life I thought something was wrong with me." Shaking her head slightly, as if to say, "What a waste," she closed her eyes and drifted back into a coma.”
We need to learn to accept that we - we and everyone else - are flawed. We are born with the capacity for good and for bad actions, feelings, and thoughts.
One technology that Christians have used in this regard - and again, it has been misused - is confession.
Confession means admitting that you have done or thought something you consider to be bad.
The value is not in causing shame. The value is not in being forgiven. The value is in accepting that you are flawed and so is everyone else.
We will most assuredly not be setting up a confessional here. But we can each find a way to incorporate something of this in our own lives.
Confess to yourself. Confess to your guinea pig. Confess to your stuffed animal. Confess to the night sky.
One simple way of practicing confession is the very underrated spiritual practice of being wrong. It's as simple as "I was wrong about that."
Every time we do that, we remove one brick from the great internal wall we have each built to keep anyone from knowing we actually have flaws.
I was wrong.
The wall decreases.
I was very wrong and I'm sorry.
That's probably two bricks right there.
Accept and love who you are
Take down the wall
Let your life come in.