At this time of year, we celebrate not only the apex of the Christian calendar, but the time of celebration for many others. As our global neighbourhood becomes more diverse, cultural traditions merge; some pieces of each are adopted by some others.
Yes, these religious traditions are different, and are contested to the point of war. But the commonalities – at least an the most general sense – outnumber the differences. Beginning with the ancient religions of the Egyptians, each of the major practices identify with the notion of a God, though his messengers and chain of command may differ. To the Romans, Zeus was on top, with a multitude of lesser 'gods;' to other cultures, the lesser 'gods' were replaced by a bureaucracy of angels, demons, saints or advocates (Mary.)
The notion of 'heaven' is different – for some, it's within; for some, it's above; for some, we're already treading on it – but the idea of a perfect, effortless state of 'flow' is the same for every major religion. Most agree that the esoteric would experience this state outside of the body, usually after physical death, but some view transcendence as the point of illumination achieved while the body remains earthbound and functional.
We're most familiar, in our culture, with the Christian faith, which is polarizing around us: some take the Word literally, and some take the Book as a parable, full of nuance and hidden meanings. That last sentence could be speaking the same of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other major religious culture. Each has its literalists, and its interpreters; each has its devout, its dogmatic, and its manipulators.
Many within our Northern Hemisphere deride the season, now, for being too 'commercial.' Critics point to the incongruities: the calendar doesn't seem to match any real date of religious significance, other than being close to the Solstice; the tree is an obvious concession to the arboreal traditions, instead of being rooted in a more heavenly religion; the notion of gifts has changed from respect for a King into a more narcissistic celebration of purchase power. The recipe for joy, it seems, is no longer peaceful introspection, but CH2=CHCl – the chemical description for plastic. This pessimistic view, though, misses a great window for the opportunity to understand one another – to practice Compassion.
This is the time of year when we can celebrate commonality. None of us can prove, definitively and beyond faith, that our spiritual pursuit is the 'right' one, or the 'wrong' one. Instead, we can choose to celebrate what we have in common; we can embrace the notion of 'god within,' recognizing that, at the very least, our neighbour was born at the top of the heap. His actions and capabilities would appear Godlike to his pets, his ancestors, and his children. We can recognize his basic humanity, which is the same as our own, and if not created in the image of God then at least created with the same molecules as you and I.
With that revelation, we can find the roots of compassion. In several of his more recent essays, the Dalai Lama (of Buddhist faith) suggests that, from his perspective, the differences between religions matter very little. Any action, he says, that alleviates suffering for yourself or others is worth pursuing. The ecstacies of the flesh, and the commercial short-term chemical reward system for greed, though, is not the way to alleviate suffering in the long-term, and is therefore not the route to God.
Buddhists, among other cultures, define Heaven not as a physical place, but as an ethereal state – we could call it 'flow' – that is achievable through rigorous practice, disengagement from the typical emotional pitfalls of our culture, and engagement in the practice of helping others. This is compassion, and it is one of the first few steps toward enlightenment in ANY spiritual tradition.
How do we practice compassion? It's not done by choosing a person you dislike, and attempting to become more patient with them. This typically builds MORE animosity, as you catalogue their shortcomings and count the number of times you've held your tongue. Rather, it's important to start small: to choose a person to whom you're emotionally neutral; to consider their positive strengths; to be kind, friendly, and loving to that person. Slowly, over the months, you may consider testing your compassion by thinking upon the strengths and positives of more people, and even some that you mildly dislike.
This not a fast process, and it requires the long buildup of strength. It may be hard to feel compassion when you're harbouring resentment. My favourite tool for dealing with things that challenge me is one which writers call, "Morning Pages." I use it daily as a journal; as a prayer; as a meditation; as a ramp for entering a state of 'flow.' Every morning, I write out all the things that come to mind – usually, something is bothering me; something else is making me joyful. When you write out the things that bother you, you're allowing them to rise to the surface like bubbles, and then dissipate. When you consider or meditate upon the things that you like, you become more calmly aware of them, and are able to hold them in your mind without building up excitement (and then crashing down later.) Compassion must be practiced, like a clean or deadlift, and progress made in both technique and strength comes more slowly as you progress toward proficiency. Be patient, and practice often with both heavy weights to challenge AND light weights to perform.
I appreciate that this post will likely raise more questions than answers. By now, the only question you may be asking is, "why am I even considering the advice of a gym owner when it comes to spirituality?"
I humbly submit three reasons:
1. Right or wrong, Creator or common consiousness, physical training is a part of nearly every major religion. Preparation of the body must precede preparation of the brain or spirit, because your mind is nested in a physical home – your brain. Chemistry, pain, distraction, weakness, depression – these all take us further from understanding, celebrating, and experiencing God or the simple, joyous state of 'flow.' Physical training can remove these obstacles.
2. In the words of Vance, a wise and spiritual man, our gym – to some – is as close as they'll get to a Church. The community here provides a support system; a closeness that is necessary for the foundation of self-fulfillment. If we can take care of the external, that helps with the internal, too.
3. I care. I want you to feel good while you're here. I want you to be fulfilled, and to share with others. I've shared the concept of 'Morning Pages' – a simple tool I mentioned earlier to achieve a temporary state of 'flow' – with a few of you over the last few months to help in times of stress or searching.
The link between prayer, meditation, flow and writing came from a blend of Buddhism, our own Ignite! research on the 'flow' state, and a few mass-market bestsellers that I won't name. It's not my idea, but my interpretation of knowledge demonstrated by others…just like the stuff I tell you about losing weight, jumping higher, and deadlifting. I'm a Coach; I share because I can't stop myself. As with fitness, you may take what you can use and discard the rest, but I'm fulfilled through the sharing of experience. Thanks for giving me that opportunity in 2011, in 1996, and again in 2012. Happy new year!